Part of the #beyondthecover Blogathon 2016
Let us take a moment to bask in the glory of this adaptation. I am probably (definitely) biased, by the fact that Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend is my favourite novel of all time, and by the fact that this TV adaptation was my first introduction to that magnificent novel – but I genuinely think it’s a beautiful, elegant, well-written mini-series, one that most lovers of costume drama will enjoy. It’s six hours of Dickensian glory.
The novel Our Mutual Friend follows the fate of a fortune. After the dead of Old Mr Harmon – a man who made his money through collecting and sifting through piles of rubbish and dust from the streets of London – his fortune is all set to go to his son. Until this very son goes missing on his journey back to London, only for his body to be pulled out of the Thames a few days later. The book follows the lives of the people affected by the Harmon will and the Harmon murder, from the girl betrothed to young Mr Harmon, to the family of the man who found the body, from the servants who inherit the fortune to the lawyers investigating the case.
Words cannot describe how much I love the book, and for the sake of all our sanity and time, I’ll get onto the adaptation without any further ado. However, if you would like to see me rant, rave and grin about Our Mutual Friend for twenty minutes, you can watch the video about it on my Booktube channel.
There are so many things I love about the 1998 TV adaptation of Our Mutual Friend. I love that the writer Sandy Welch lifts so much dialogue straight from the book. I love the subtly and beauty with which the love stories are put across. I love the way the adaptation signifies movements from wealthy to deprived areas of London with the light and shade of the cinematography. I love the soundtrack. I love the costumes. I love that I’ve walked around the bits of Greenwich where certain scenes are filmed.
And I love the actors – Paul McGann is a perfect Eugene Wrayburn; Anna Friel has cemented my love for her forever with her portrayal of Bella Wilfer; Steven Mackintosh makes a brilliant Rokesmith, and Keeley Hawes, the queen of so many 1990s costume dramas (and therefore the queen of my teenage years), makes a wonderful Lizzie Hexam. Even in the more minor parts, we have the brilliant David Bradley as Riderhood; Peter Vaughan and Pam Ferris as Mr and Mrs Boffin are truly excellent; and Timothy Spall is so perfect as Mr Venus that watching the BBC’s Dickensian now, in 2016, I find myself jarred – I just can’t get used to seeing anyone but Timonthy Spall as Mr Venus. He is Mr Venus to me. David Morrisey’s Bradley Headstone cemented him as one of my favourite actors of all time and probably helped push Bradley Headstone to be one of my favourite literary characters ever, for all that I wouldn’t want to meet him on a dark and stormy night.
But most of all I love how the 1998 TV adaptation captures the essence of the book. It not only gets so many of the characters so well, but it finds that perfect balance so important to Dickens. Many television adaptations of Dickens novels focus in on the dark themes of his narratives and cut out all the humour and happiness, something which always upsets me, because humour is so central to Dickens’s novels. This adaptation doesn’t. It captures that mix of dark themes and romance, of subtle humour and menacing threat. We can laugh at the Lammles, at Mr Venus and Mr Wegg, at the strangeness of Bella Wilfer’s little sister Lavinia, and underneath this we have the threat of Bradley Headstone and the darkness of the river.
It is by no means a perfect adaptation. Like all screen adaptations it has to miss things out, and it saddens me that the gentle and kind Mr Riah, Dickens’s apology for his anti-Semitic presentation of Fagin years before, is basically cut, as is the hilarious Fascination Flegby and the sweet and curious Georgiana Podsnap. And I still have no idea why they decided to make Jenny Wren a woman in her thirties rather than a teenage girl, therefore very much altering one of my all-time favourite Dickensian characters.
Yet despite this, the adaptation hangs together, and to me it really does capture the book. My love of this adaptation is so thoroughly tied up with my love of the novel, and so tied up with my discovery of nineteenth century literature, that I can’t help but burst into smiles every time I seen even a clip of it. I’ve seen it well over ten times (nearly as many times as I’ve read the novel), and each time I notice more things, more clever details, more intricacies in the portrayal of each and every character. It’s superbly acted, superbly adapted, and altogether a joy to watch. I defy you not to shout and grin at the television as you watch.
Greatest strength: The strength of the acting and script, and the tenderness with which the love stories are portrayed.
Greatest weakness: As I’ve said, there are one of two artistic decisions I don’t understand – especially changing the age of Jenny Wren.
Next week: something a little more book-shaped…