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
Advertisements

The Sandbaggers – Always Glad To Help

always

The M.O.D. are concerned about a Russian merchant vessel called the Karaganda.  They believe it may be a spy ship and want Burnside’s help to investigate it.  He considers that the Royal Marines and the S.B.S. (Special Boat Service) would be the best people for the job and refuses.  The Director General of Intelligence at the M.O.D. (Gerald James) threatens to go over his head, but Burnside, as usual, isn’t intimidated.

Back at HQ, we see Peele visit Burnside in his office.  It’s interesting to see how Caine and Burnside react.  Caine immediately stands up when Peele enters the room but Burnside doesn’t.  Since Peele outranks Burnside he should have stood up too, but he’s clearly got no time for such formalities.  He’s even less time for Peele’s request that they need to reduce the special section’s travel costs by 10%.  “If they go first class they arrive fit, if they go economy they arrive tired.  The difference could be their lives.”

Once again, Burnside ridicules Peele’s lack of operational experience.  Although Peele was the one-time head of the Hong Kong station, Burnside retorts that “the only thing you put at risk was your liver.”  This initial spat is merely the prelude for the main part of the episode, as we see Peele and Burnside once more cross swords.

Hamad (Peter Miles) is the Crown Prince of a small Middle Eastern nation.  He’s approached Wellingham and asked for his help in engineering a coup and thereby removing his father (a pro-Russian supporter) from power.  Wellingham is keen to assist, for various reasons.  “We help him get rid of his father, he turns the Sheikdom pro-West.  Buys British weapons, gets a British firm to build the new refinery.”

There’s no two ways about it – Peter Miles isn’t of Middle Eastern descent.  Sixties and Seventies television were full of British actors playing various nationalities (of varying believability) and The Sandbaggers was to be no differerent.  It’s difficult to take Peter Miles (especially when he’s slightly browned-up)  that seriously, which is a slight problem.  Also noticeable is the scene in Wellingham’s club, just after we’ve seen Hamad for the first time.  Roy Marsden’s face seems to be caked in orange make-up.  It’s very odd and doesn’t re-occur elsewhere during the story.

Anyway, back to the story.  Wellingham is keen to press ahead as quickly as possible, but Burnside is cautious.  He made his position clear in First Principles – a mission can only succeed when there’s clear and solid information.  At present, too much is unknown.  Most importantly, is it known for sure that Hamad would be sympathetic to the British government?  To overthrow a dictator and then put somebody worse in their place is far from desirable.

Burnside outlines some of the essential information he requires to Peele.  “How much support does Hamad have in the country, how well organised is it and how quickly can it be rallied?”  Burnside isn’t impressed by Peele’s statement that they should move ahead simply because Wellingham wants it to happen.  “To hell with Wellingham, he’s feathering his own nest as usual.”

In order to try and answer the question as to where Hamad’s sympathies lie, Burnside elects to find out by using Laura’s undeniable feminine charms.  But before this, they have a typically stormy meeting – Laura tells him she wants to leave the Sandbaggers at the earliest possible opportunity (mainly because he’s their boss).  Burnside responds by calling her a bitch once she’s exited the office.  Caine cheerfully tells Burnside that they’re clearly both in love with each other – they just don’t know it yet.

Laura makes an immediate impression on Hamad by rolling over her car in front of his.  They quickly begin a relationship and he seems besotted with her.  Peter Miles’ staccato delivery is oddly unnerving and the casual clothes that Hamad wears when they go bowling are interesting, shall we say.  Diane Keen does her best and it’s a memorable part of the story, but possibly not for the right reasons.

Much better is a scene between Burnside and Laura at his flat.  The fact she’s there at all is noteworthy – as you get the impression that not many people are invited around.  There’s some nice playing from both Marsden and Keen here.  Maybe Willie was right and there is a spark of attraction, but who will make the first move?

Burnside goes to make coffee and opens up a little.  “All of us have aspects of our lives with which it’s difficult to cope. In the office, I’ve learnt to survive. At home, I’m unprotected – from visitations, faces, eyes, voices.  Two more in the last few weeks.”

As the preparations for the proposed coup go ahead, Peele is dismayed to find the M.O.D. dragging their feet.  When he’s told it’s because Burnside refused to help them over the Karaganda, he promises to get it sorted, which he does – much to Burnside’s disgust.

Burnside’s slow and methodical information gathering regarding Hamad is proved to be the prudent course – eventually it’s proved that had the British intervened it would have been disastrous.  The Karaganda was discovered to have an underwater hatch as an outlet for divers, so according to Peele it’s shared honours.  “You were right about Hamad, I was right about the Karaganda.”  Burnside’s reply is cutting and it looks as if his frosty relationship with Peele isn’t going to thaw any time soon.

Always Glad To Help has some nice character touches for Burnside and an impressive car stunt (when Laura overturns her Mini in front of Hamad).  As I’ve said, Peter Miles is a bit of a weak link, but that’s more down to his miscasting then anything else.  Otherwise it’s typical Sandbaggers – the majority of the battles we see in the series aren’t fought overseas, but rather closer to home – and with words, not guns.