With its perfunctory romance & unlovable eccentrics, Charles Dickens' ‘other’ historical novel, the one that’s not A TALE OF TWO CITIES, has always been a tough sell. But behind the principal relationships, it holds uncommon interest. Centered on the NewGate Prison Riots of 1780, it features some of Dickens’ most terrifying depictions of violence & stupidity, especially in the scenes of London under attack by lawless mobs who literally make the streets run with blood. And for Stateside readers, the anti-Catholic demagoguery of the despicable Lord George Gordon holds striking similarities to the actions of Senator Joe McCarthy & the Communist Witch Hunts in the ‘40s & ‘50s. Inadequate as it is, this tight-budgeted antique from the dusty vaults of the BBC (in 13 half-hour chunks with the visual appeal of a Golden Age tv kinescope) is the only modern picturization. And it's not without value. As Barnaby, the sweet-natured simpleton who plays follow-the-leader into a host of troubles, young John Wood is remarkably successful, even with a canned voice in the role of Grip, his pet raven. About half of the other roles come off reasonably well, though the usually wonderful Joan Hickson, of Miss Marple fame, isn’t one of them. But only Woods truly manages the Dickensian trick of being both larger-than-life and fully human.* Worse, the sweep of the public scenes can barely be suggested under the circumstances. But then . . . Dickens being Dickens, halfway in, the integration of public & private dramatic arcs take off, and you’re swept away on a giant’s imagination. But we really do need something better than this.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *Dickens has certainly been outstandingly lucky on film adaptations. (Or is it the foolproof stories?) But no one has bettered the old Selznick/Cukor version of DAVID COPPERFIELD/’35 at ‘managing the trick’ of being fully human & larger-than-life at one & the same time. Just watch W.C. Fields’ swift & funny entrance or listen to Edna May Oliver shouting ‘Donkeys! Donkeys!!’ And a hundred other felicities.
READ ALL ABOUT IT: Next time you're in a bookstore (or just at the library), try one of the ‘lesser’ Dickens. It doesn’t have to be BARNABY RUDGE; maybe HARD TIMES, fierce as they come, and so compact, you’ll think you’ve bought an abridgement.