BBC Radio 7, 2-10 November 2009
This was the kind of classic serial that the BBC don't seem to make any
more - a leisurely paced seven-part adaptation, incorporating large swathes of Dickensian dialogue and allowing plenty of
opportunity for character development/
The plot is straightforward enough: set against the background of the French Revolution,
it involves several characters in a tale of corruption and morality, culminating in the famous finale when Sidney Carton (Charles
Dance) faces death by guillotine claiming that "it's a far far better thing that I do now than I have ever done before."
Perhaps wisely, director Ian Cotterell shied away from retelling the story as a heroic
tale of bravery (pace Jack Conway's famous 1935 film with Ronald Colman in the title role). Rather Cotterell took
his inspiration from the novel's opening sentence ("It was the best of times, it was the worst of times"). In this version
London and Paris were set against one another - London was a stable city where people knew their place, while Paris was riven
by social upheaval; some of itz citizens, notably Madame Defarge (Margaret Robertson) took a sadistic pleasure in witnessing
execution after execution.
However this distinction was only skin-deep - basically London was equally as corrupt
as Paris, peopled by grasping lawyers, bent judges and abject poverty. It was a world dominated by rogues like Jerry Cruncher
(John Duttine), who ran errands for people in return for substantial financial rewards. In Cotterell's production there was
no escape from evil, either in Paris or London, which made Carton's final sacrifice seem like a flight into a better (heavenly)
One interesting aspect of this production was the use of multiple narrators - Darnay
(Tom Wilkinson), Manette (Maurice Denham) and Carton. This not only established an atmosphere of teeming activity, but decentered
the narrative: we could no longer trust what anyone said. This might be considered inappropriate for a novelist whose voice
can be heard throughout his substantial oeuvre, but seemed eminently suitable for a production so preoccupied with corruiption.
In this environment no one could be considered reliable.
On the other hand Dickens does offer considerable opportunities for actors to show
off, as he creates a gallery of grotesques of both sexes. Cotterell's production demonstrated this to good effect through
an all-star cast including Dance, Wilkinson, Denham and the husband and wife team of Richard Pasco and Barbara Leigh-Hunt.
The only cavil I have is that the cast was not announced at the end of each episode (as is customary with Radio 4 classic
serials, repeated on Radio 7), so I could not attach some of the actors to the parts they played.
Nonetheless this Tale of Two Cities proved once again how well Dickens can
be translated to other media, giving listeners plenty of opportunity to create a mental picture of late eighteenth century
Europe for themselves - filtered through a mid-nineteenth century consciousness, of course.