Oliver Twist (BBC, 1962) – Production Stills

A series of production stills from Olivier Twist.

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Oliver Twist (BBC, 1962) – Simply Media DVD Review

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Following the death of his mother in childbirth, the young Oliver Twist (Bruce Prochnik) is placed in the indifferent care of the state.  His childhood is a miserable one and eventually he runs away to London to seek his fortune.  There he encounters the devious Fagin (Max Adrian) who has no compunction in manipulating the trusting and naïve Oliver to serve his own ends ….

Published between February 1837 and April 1839, Oliver Twist was Charles Dickens’ second novel and remains one of his evergreen tales, evidenced by the numerous film, television and stage adaptations it has inspired.  David Lean’s 1948 film and the stage/film musical by Lionel Bart (Oliver!) are possibly the most memorable, although there have also been multiple television adaptations as well.

This one, broadcast between January and April 1962, was the first BBC version and as might be expected remained very faithful to the original novel.  Constance Cox had already adapted Bleak House and would go on to tackle several other classic Dickens novels during the 1960’s (The Old Curiosity Shop, Martin Chuzzlewitt, A Tale of Two Cities) although sadly out of those three only a few episodes from A Tale of Two Cities currently exist.

Bruce Prochnik, playing the eponymous Olivier, had a pretty short television career (1961 – 1965) with Olivier Twist by far his most substantial role (he had a handful of later credits in series such as Taxi! and Emergency Ward-10).  It’s interesting to note that post-Olivier he popped up a couple of times on Juke Box Jury.  Clearly this serial had been successful enough to turn him into a household name for a short time.

An early signature moment occurs when Olivier, by this point a starving inmate of the workhouse, timorously asks for another bowl of gruel. There’s a grimy hopelessness about these early episodes. Workhouse life is shown to be hard and unrelenting (with a piece of bread, once a week on Sundays, about the only thing the boys have to look forward to).

Bruce Prochnik

Mr Bumble (Willoughby Goddard), the Parish Beadle, is shocked by Oliver’s behaviour. It’s hard to imagine anybody could have been better cast as Bumble than the corpulant Goddard, who’s always a pleasure to watch.

Olivier’s insurrectionist behaviour makes him an embarrasment to the workhouse board, so they decide to remove the problem. He’s apprenticed to the undertaker Sowerberry (Donald Eccles), although it’s debatable whether he’s better off here than he was in the workhouse. Mrs Sowerberry (Barbara Hicks) certainly has little time for the boy (Oliver’s first meal are the cold scraps which had been left out for the dog). Hicks, who had gone way over the top in Barnaby Rudge, is thankfully more restrained in her brief appearance here.

Once this section of the story is completed, the action moves to London where the innocent Olivier falls in with the worst crowd impossible.  Two very familiar actors (Melvyn Hayes and Alan Rothwell) appear as the Artful Dodger and his wise-cracking sidekick Charley Bates. Both Hayes and Rothwell make for appealing rogues, although their roles in the story are fairly slight.

It’s the grotesque Fagin (Max Adrian) and the intimidating Bill Sikes (Peter Vaughan) who will come to dominate the narrative.  Adrian was a noted classical stage actor who also managed to carve out an impressive film and television career. Across the decades Peter Vaughan would rack up some memorable appearances in Charles Dickens serials and his portrayal of Bill Sikes is a typically impressive one – from the moment we first meet him there’s an air of menace and simmering violence in the air.

The corruption of the green Oliver (Prochnik continues to radiate a sense of wide-eyed innocence) by Fagin, Dodger and Charley is another horrifying and distubing scene. Far removed from the chirpy cockney sing-alongs of Oliver!, this adaptation accurately reflects the bleakness of Dickens’ original novel.

Max Adrian & Bruce Prochnik

As the serial progreases, the plot-threads deepen. Why does a gentleman like Monks (John Carson) consort with the likes of Fagin and why is Monks so insistent that Fagin keeps a tight grip on Oliver? Carson, later to take the lead in Dombey & Son, was one of those actors who enhanced any production he appeared in (his tortured, conflicted Monks is no exception to this rule).

Everybody we’ve met so far has either mistreated Oliver or desired to use him for their own ends, so it’s therefore jolting when he finally runs into somebody who treats him with kindness. Mr Brownlow (George Curzon) initially accused the blameless Oliver of picking his pocket (Dodger and Charley were responsible). The contrite Brownlow takes him home and nurses the emaciated boy back to health.

Now that Oliver has a benevolent benefactor, his luck finally seems to have changed. But Fagin and Sikes, convinced that Oliver intends to inform on them, are determined to snatch him back ….

Bill Sikes’ relationship with the prostitute Nancy (Carmel McSharry) runs through the middle part of the serial with Nancy’s most famous scene – her murder at the hands of a vicious Sikes – proving to be a shocking moment. Although it’s not graphically violent, Vaughan and McSharry manage to give the scene considerable resonance by their performances alone.  Sikes’ clubbing to death of the unfortunate Nancy was deemed to be so disturbing that it was later edited down before the serial was offered for sale (the prints we have here were recovered from overseas, hence the reason why they’re slightly edited at this point).

Poor Olivier is again ensnared in Fagin’s web of crime although it’s not too long before he finds himself free once more.  It slightly stretches credibility that Olivier would stumble across another well-to-do family who elect to take him in, although this sort of plotting (and remarkable coincidences regarding Olivier’s parentage) are par for the course with early Dickens.

The production – as with the other Dickens serials recently released by Simply – is very studio-based. Photographic blow-ups of buildings are used to give a sense of depth (these work pretty well, although there’s no doubt that on the lower-definition television sets of the 1960’s the illusion would have been even more convincing). Sound-effects are utilized to generate a sense of hustle and bustle whilst Ron Grainer’s incidental music is used sparingly at key moments.

If Bruce Prochnik begins to irritate after a while (his Olivier is rather squeaky and a little too clean-cut) then there’s substantial acting compensations to be found elsewhere. Apart from those already mentioned, Peggy Thorpe-Bates and the always entertaining William Mervyn help to enliven proceedings.

The telerecordings were restored by Peter Crocker at SVS (Crocker, well known in archive television circles for his work on the Doctor Who DVDs, is the very definition of a safe pair of hands). VidFIRE seemed to be out of the question (presumably because the telerecordings weren’t of a sufficent standard) but the restoration helps to make the serial a more pleasant viewing experience than it would have been before.

Whilst there’s numerous adaptations of Olivier Twist to choose from, this one – thanks to the fidelity it displays to Dickens’ original novel and the performances (especially Peter Vaughan’s rampaging Bill Sikes) – is certainly worth checking out.  Recommended.

Olivier Twist is available now from Simply Media, RRP £19.99.  It can be ordered directly from Simply here.

Melvyn Hayes, Carmel McSharry & Peter Vaughan

Barnaby Rudge (BBC, 1960) – Simply Media DVD Review

Barnaby Rudge was the first of Charles Dickens’ two historical novels (the other being The Tale of Two Cities).  Set during the late eighteenth century, it climaxed at the Gordon Riots of 1780.  Largely forgotten today, the Gordon Riots were an anti-Catholic protest which quickly spiralled out of control.  A group of between 40,000 and 60,000 protestors nursing various grievances – including the increasing Catholic influence sweeping the country, high taxes, overcrowded cities and repressive laws – ran amok on the streets of London.  The riots raged on for several days until the army were eventually able to brutally restore order.  But by this point some 285 people had been shot dead with several hundred more wounded.

If the Gordon Riots are forgotten today, then a similar fate has befallen Barnaby Rudge.  Easily Dickens’ most obscure novel, this is evidenced by the fact that this 1960 serial remains the only television adaptation.   Published between February and November 1841, it came quite early in his career – which explains why it feels a little episodic and unfocused at times.

Barnaby Rudge himself (played by John Wood) is a simple-minded chap, buffeted along by events rather than directly influencing them.  It’s a difficult part to play – there’s no malice in Barnaby – but Wood is generally pretty effective as the easily-manipulated innocent. But whilst he may be the title character he’s not the central one – Barnaby drifts in and out of the narrative, appearing and disappearing as required.

John Wood & Isabel Dean

Episode one opens with a stranger (played by Nigel Arkwright) asking the local innkeeper about the nearby grand house owned by Geoffrey Haredale (Peter Williams). It’s a dark and stormy night outside – achieved via sound effects and camera trickery (simple but effective).

Arthur Brough, later best known as Mr Grainger in Are You Being Served?, here plays John Willet, the innkeeper. Puffing on a long pipe he helps to tease out a strange story which much will later become significant. The mysterious murders twenty two years ago of Geoffrey’s brother, Reuben, and Reuben’s loyal servant Rudge (Barnaby’s father) are mysteries which are still debated by the locals to this day.

Arkwright doesn’t offer a subtle performance, but it’s a menacing one as he brings out the simmering violence which powers his character. Joan Hickson, as Mrs Varden, also isn’t holding back, but this broad playing suits the shrewish character she plays.

The remainder of the Varden household are also deftly sketched out. Head of the household, Gabriel (Newton Blick), is an affable sort who’s often to be found allied with his attractive young daughter Dolly (Jennifer Daniel) against their wife and mother.

Rellgious dogma will later become the central theme of the story, although to begin with it’s teased out in a casual manner – Mrs Varden’s constant quoting from the bible or the way that John Chester (Raymond Huntley) regards Emma Haredale (Eira Heath) as an unsuitable wife for his son due to her religion – but as the serial progresses the conflict between Catholics and Protestants will become more marked. Huntley, playing to type as the austere and flinty Chester, offers a standout performance. Some others may essay broad, comic performances during the serial, but Huntley is agreeably more naturalistic.

Gabriel Varden, a locksmith by trade, has an apprentice, Simon Tappertit (Timothy Bateson), who has set his cap at Dolly (although she regards him with casual indifference). As in Bleak House, Bateson delivers a lovely comic performance, although there’s a harder edge to this character. Like many others, he possesses a simmering discontent (although with him it’s not relgious concerns, instead his ire is directed towards those he regards as his wealthy oppressors).

As the first half of the serial progresses, various plotlines are developed. Simon’s links with a group of dissident apprentices who meet in secret and dream of violent disobedience against their oppressive masters, the curious link between Barnaby’s mother and the mysterious stranger, Joe Willit’s (Alan Haywood) longing for the flitish Dolly and the forbidden love between Edward Chester (Bernard Brown) and Emma Haredale are all teased out.

Eira Heath & Jennifer Daniel

Mid way through the serial, several major new characters – such as anti-Catholic agitator Lord George Gordon (Anthony Sharp) – are introduced as we proceed on the path to the Gordon Riots. Gordon is a fanatic, whose cry of “No Popery” quickly becomes a popular sentiment amongst the masses.

Geoffrey Haredale, a staunch Catholic, spells out what precisely what these two simple words could mean. “I have, tonight, seen an ignorant and unhappy people roused. They know nothing of what the repeal of the act means, but ‘No Popery’ is the cry that is going to right all their wrongs. ‘No Popery’ is the cry that is going to give them food, shelter, clothes, work and drink”.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it …..

The production design is very sound. Real horses (never easy to control in a studio) occasionally appear and the outside of Geoffrey Haredale’s house is depicted via a painted backdrop. This is a very theatrical way of generating a sense of depth and scale, but it works. More backdrops are in evidence when the action moves to the streets of London, whilst the later episodes are also opened out thanks to a judicious use of filmed inserts. Unsurprisingly, the scale of the riots was far beyond the means of the production, but director Morris Barry marshalled his resources well. Even with the limited number of extras at his disposal, Barry was effectively able to show the ugliness of mob violence.

It’s fair to say that some parts of the story work better than others. Edward and Emma’s romance never really sparks into life – not really the fault of the actors though, it’s simply that the two characters are never sharply defined. Barbara Hicks, as the Varden’s maid Miggs, gives a performance that can best be described as “broad”. It’s a typically comic Dickens character, but Hicks’ shrieking does become wearying after a while.

But on the credit side there are many fine performances, most notably that of Raymond Huntley. His timing is spot-on (plus his brief interactions with Timothy Bateson and Joan Hickson are rather delightful).

The introduction of Lord George Gordon is the point at which the story rapidly changes direction. This is a little jarring, but the influx of new characters does help to give the serial a fresh impetus. One notable new arrival is Esmond Knight (previously he had memorably played Silas Wegg in Our Mutual Friend) .  Here he appears as Dennis the Hangman, one of a number of individuals who encapsulate the baser end of society.

Like other surviving drama of this era, the source materials are telerecordings taken from the original 405 line broadcasts. The recordings may exhibit the occasional spot of damage or dirt, but overall the picture quality is more than watchable (although the concluding episode is notably poorer than the others).

Although a handful of performances are less than effective and the story feels somewhat disjointed (it’s essentially two seperate tales bolted together) Barnaby Rudge is still a serial of considerable interest. The theme of the later episodes feels eerily topical, offering a sharp change of pace from the countryside intrigues of the first half.  It’s another well-crafted Classic Serial which, despite its length, never outstays its welcome. Well worth adding to your collection.

Barnaby Rudge is available now from Simply Media, RRP £19.99.  It can be ordered directly from Simply here.

Bleak House (BBC, 1959) – Simply Media DVD Review

Richard Carstone and Ada Clare (Colin Jeavons and Elizabeth Shepherd) are two young wards of court, enmeshed in a seemingly unending court case – that of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.  John Jarndyce (Andrew Cruickshank) also has an interest in it and despite being on the opposing side to Richard and Ada is happy to take custody of them both.

So Richard and Ada, along with Ada’s companion Esther Summerson (Diana Fairfax), take up their residence at Jarndyce’s country home, Bleak House.  Others, such as the nearby Lady Dedlock (Iris Russell), are also connected to Jarndyce and Jarndyce, but that isn’t the reason why the arrival of Richard, Ada and Esther impacts so dramatically on her hitherto quiet life ….

Originally published between March 1852 and September 1853, Bleak House is a typically sprawling work by Dickens, notable for the way it switches between first and third person narration.

It has been tackled three times for television, with two further adaptations (in 1985 and 2005) following this one.  Both of the later adaptations are, in their different ways, of interest.  The 1985 Bleak House was one of the earliest BBC Dickens productions to be made entirely on film – this glossy production style would quickly become a standard production model, signalling the death knell for the old-style videotaped Classic Serial productions which until then had been a staple of the schedules for decades.

When Bleak House next hit the screens, via Andrew Davies’ adaptation in 2005, it was hailed as innovative – due to its half-hour twice-weekly scheduling which, according to the critics, gave it a soap-like feel as well as simulating the partwork feel of Dickens’ originals.  Presumably these critics must have been unaware that the running time for the Classic Serials, broadcast between the 1950’s and the 1980’s, also tended to be half an hour …

Elizabeth Shepherd, Diana Fairfax and Colin Jeavons

It’s unfortunate that, despite a lengthy career, Elizabeth Shepherd seems fated to be remembered for the part that got away – that of Emma Peel in The Avengers.  Despite having already filmed some material for her first episode, for whatever reason it was quickly decided to dispense with her services and Diana Rigg was hastily drafted in.  Although Ada is the least developed of the main roles, Shepherd still acquits herself well. Ada’s a sweet, uncomplicated girl, with none of the subconscious dark secrets that trouble Esther.

At this point in his career, aged thirty, Colin Jeavons was no stranger to either television or Charles Dickens.  He’d played Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations (also 1959) and the same year had also appeared as Henry V in The Life and Death of Sir John Falstaff.  Jeavons made a career out of playing slightly off-key characters and although Richard seems at first to be quite level-headed, there’s still a faint air of instability about him – something which Jeavons is well able to tease out as the serial progresses.  Richard is a young man with a bright future, but it’s precisely what that future will be which proves to be the problem.

Diana Fairfax was also no stranger to classic serials.  Prior to Bleak House she’d appeared in The Diary of Samuel Pepys whilst the next year, 1960, would see her perform in both Emma and Kipps.  Esther is the moral centre of the story, although it takes some time for her importance to become obvious (to begin with, she appears to be little more than Ada’s loyal companion).

Andrew Cruickshank might have been a few years away from his defining role – that of the curmudgeonly, but kindly Dr Cameron in Dr Finlay’s Casebook – but he’d been a familiar face on both the big and small screen since the late 1930’s.  Cruickshank is excellent as John Jarndyce – a lonely man who delights that his house has been brought back to life by the influx of three young people.

Andrew Cruickshank

As is usual, Dickens created a rogues gallery of supporting players – all of whom are gifts for any decent actor.  Timothy Bateson appeals as Mr Guppy, a young solicitor with an unrequited love for Esther. This is obvious from their first meeting when he appreciates her fresh-faced country look (“no offence”). Bateson’s comic timing is given full reign here.

It’s always a pleasure to see Michael Aldridge (playing Mr George) whilst another very dependable character actor, Jerome Willis, also enlivens proceedings as Allan Woodcourt. Nora Nicholson offers us a vivid portrait as Miss Flyte – an elderly woman now more than a little deranged from her own endless court case (if Richard and Ada pursue the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, will they end up like her?)

He may not be on screen for too long, but Wilfred Brambell sketches an appealing cameo as the grasping Krook.  Brambell had also made a memorable appearance in the previous BBC Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, and wasn’t the only actor to have appeared in both serials.  Richard Pearson and William Mervyn also have that honour, with Pearson – here playing the dogged Inspector Bucket – also catching the eye.

Tulkinghorn, the oppressive lawyer who digs into Lady Deadlock’s long-buried secret is another key character. John Phillips doesn’t have Peter Vaughan’s menacing screen presence (Vaughan played Tulkinghorn in the 1985 adaptation) instead he essays a sense of remorseless blankness, which works just as well.

As might be expected, the serial is pretty much studio bound with the occasional brief film insert. The telerecordings are slightly muddy, but no worse than other examples from the same period. And while the prints may exhibit occasional damage there’s nothing too dramatic – meaning that the serial is more than watchable.

Lacking the visual sweep of the later adaptations, this version of Bleak House has to stand or fall on the quality of its actors. Luckily, there’s very little to complain about here. There are some fine central performances – Fairfax, Cruickshank and Jeavons especially – whilst, as touched upon earlier, there’s strength in depth from the supporting players with Timothy Bateson standing out.

Another strong early BBC Dickens serial, Bleak House comes warmly recommended.

Bleak House is released by Simply Media today. RRP £19.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here.

Colin Jeavons, Elizabeth Shepherd & Diana Fairfax