Koch Vision has released the magnificent 1976 Yorkshire Television miniseries, Dickens of London, starring the incomparable Roy Dotrice in a tour de force performance as the celebrated English novelist. This five-disc box set includes all 13 episodes of the mini, along with a bonus disc, An Audience with Charles Dickens, from 1996, where actor Simon Callow, as Dickens, performs a reading of A Christmas Carol in the Ambassadors Theatre in London.
As much as Hollywood in its golden age liked to fictionalize biopics of famous authors, I was always surprised that no one had ever attempted a feature film on the life of Charles Dickens (I may have missed it, but I believe there has still never been a big-screen treatment of his life). His early life of hardship, initially happy until his father was thrown into debtors' prison, would prove to be the catalyst that would spur on his reform-minded prose work, which brought him worldwide success (as well as the opportunity to enjoy a varied romantic life) - seemingly excellent fodder for a biopic.
And while Dickens of London does add and subtract from the actual biography of his life (perhaps most notable is the absence of his mistress Ellen Ternan, as well as the supposition that Dickens stole as a child, thereby inspiring such works as Oliver Twist)), so much of what is covered in Dickens of London is finely wrought, with an impressively dense screenplay by Wolf Mankowitz, and a simply astounding turn by Roy Dotrice playing Dickens, as well as Dickens' father. Dickens of London is definitely of its time; if you grew up on PBS airings of British TV series during the early 1970s (usually historical and period pieces based on literary works), you'll immediately recognized Dickens of London production style. The occasional location sequence pops up (shot on 16mm film), but the majority of the work is shot on video tape, on interior sets, with dialogue and not action taking precedence.
Fortunately, Dickens of London's considerable exposition is handled by veteran screenwriter Wolf Mankowitz (The Day the Earth Caught Fire, Casino Royale). What I found most ingenious about Mankowitz's treatment was his inclusion of passages from Dickens' own works, woven into the dialogue of the series' characters. Presented with the task of telling the story of Dickens' life, Mankowitz supplements his own words with the actual words from Dickens' novels, creating not only recognizable signposts for readers of Dickens' work, but also lending verisimilitude to the flavor of the piece (I loved it when Dickens' father, overcome with manic (and misguided) anticipation of better fortunes ahead, cries, "Perfect! Perfect!" just like Micawber in David Copperfield). Mankowitz's framework, starting off with Dickens on his deathbed remembering back through the miasmas of his personal and literary life, may be a conventional trick, but it works well for the episodic nature of the long miniseries, and provides opportunities for the talented Dotrice to pop up in various guises and time periods.
Dotrice, probably best known to most U.S. viewers (to his great shame, I might add) as "Father" in the ridiculous 1990s television series, Beauty and the Beast, gives a most astonishing performance here as Dickens and his father. Playing Dickens from early middle age up to his death at 58, Dotrice scores a remarkable hat trick of not only essaying Dickens, but also Dickens' father through various stages of his life. In the early passages, Dickens as a young boy is portrayed (quite nicely) by Simon Bell, and later by Gene Foad (not quite as successful) as Dickens' matures into manhood. Particularly affecting are the early sequences with Dotrice (as Dickens' father) and Bell, as Dotrice paints a moving, intensely sad portrait of a loving, yet fatally flawed father whose exceeding charm and erudition were perhaps the very talents that hastened his downfall into debtors' prison (watching Bell, you can see the young boy is obviously taken with Dotrice, and responds quite honestly and naturally to Dotrice's demonstrative performance). It's one of the best performances I've seen from 1970s television.
Not all is perfect with Dickens of London. Although I admire the makers' deliberate use of melodramatic flourishes (certainly in keeping with Dickens' own intention with his work), there are times when it can get a bit thick, particularly when the music cues overwhelm the dialogue and dramatics. Some of the transitions can be shaky, as well, with readers familiar with Dickens and his life perhaps at an advantage when it comes to recognizing key points in his life that aren't distinctly spelled out in the film. And due to the technical limitations of British TV production at that time (fairly primitive in comparison to contemporary efforts in America at that time), the miking can be spotty, with dialogue going in and out at times (not aided by the absence of close-captioning or subtitles here).
Still, Dickens of London works as both a biography of the great crusading author, and as a period drama in its own right, with a layered storyline that captures some of the feeling of an actual Dickens' novel. Certainly the inclusion of Dickens' own wording helps, but it's the acting that puts Dickens of London over, and veteran Roy Dotrice deserves the lion's share of the credit for bringing Dickens engagingly to life on the small screen.
While the full screen transfer is adequate for the job (I did notice on occasion, one or two instances where compression issues did pop up), there's no getting around the fact that this looks exactly like what it is: a 30-plus-year-old TV show, shot mostly on video. Frequently, the colors are muddy and faded, and grain is apparent in most of the 16mm footage. If you're used to this look from British TV shows from that time period, then you won't mind. And if you're not, you'll soon get used to it. After all, with a film like Dickens of London, the visual aspects of the production come third next to the acting and the dialogue.
The Dolby Digital English mono track accurately reflects the original broadcast presentation, but considering the dropout that occurs from the iffy miking during the filming, close-captions or subtitles would have helped enormously.
As a terrific extra, Koch Vision has included An Audience with Charles Dickens, performed in 1996 at the historic Ambassadors Theatre in London. Actor Simon Callow (A Room With a View, Maurice) essays Dickens giving a public reading of his immortal classic, A Christmas Carol, before a full audience, dressed in correct period costumes. Running a little less than an hour, An Audience with Charles Dickens is a sensational bonus for this box set, allowing the viewer to experience (in my opinion) Dickens' greatest work in a manner they've probably never experienced before, after seeing his life story in Dickens of London. Callow is mesmerizing in the role, and the gas-lit atmosphere of the Ambassadors, with the audience in full Victorian regalia, is quite a sight to see.
Dickens of London is a much-needed biographical look at one of English literature's genuine geniuses. While some of the facts may not align squarely with the history books, the sheer weight of the miniseries, anchored by screenwriter Wolf Mankowitz's clever structuring and lead actor Roy Dotrice's tour de force performance as Dickens (and Dickens' father), leaves a lasting impression on the viewer. Fans of Charles Dickens and vintage British TV will find Dickens of London must viewing. I highly recommend Dickens of London.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.