BBC Radio 4, 9 November - 3 December 2009
Broadcast in twenty parts over four weeks in the Woman's Hour Drama
slot, this version of Dickens' classic reminded us of the novel's origins as a weekly serial. He did not write seven-part
adaptations for television, but rather wrote in multiple installments designed to capture his reading public's interest
and sustain it over several weeks. This is precisely what Jessica Dromgoole and Jeremy Mortimer's adaptation did, drawing
listeners into the maelstrom of mid-nineteenth century London - a world dominated by self-interest, exploitation
and money. Each episode involved one, two, or perhaps three sets of characters, and it was left to listeners to draw their
own conclusions as to how each episode related to one another.
The story begins as a detective-story, as we try to discover why John Harman the
younger was murdered, and his body thrown into the Thames, as he arrived newly endowed with his family's riches from
South Africa to marry Bella Wilfer (Lizzie Hapgood). However this only serves as a premise for a tale that sprawls in all
directions, involving different sets of characters leading totally separate lives who are inexorably drawn together by an
impersonal Fate (symbolized by the waters of the River Thames). Mortimer and Dromgoole emphasized the significance of the
river by having the sound of water plashing in the background as the characters spoke. In spite of their dreams of wealth
and power, they remained mutable; their lives could be cut short in a trice while the river kept flowing. Sometimes the story
proved difficult to follow, particularly in the early episodes, when the characters introduced themselves to us; but as the
adaptation unfolded I understood how Dickens was not really so concerned with the plot and more interested in depicting a
Dromgoold and Mortimer also made some interesting points about the role of the narrator.
Dickens appeared as a character (Alex Jennings) who sometimes assumed the role of commentator, while at the same time telling
us what to expect from the next episode. On such occasions he appeared omniscient, and in control of his material. On other
occasioms, however, he exchanged dialogue with his characters, and used this experience to make predictions about their future.
Sometimes his observations were uncannily correct; but on others he made completely the wrong assumptions. This prompted
us to reflect on the narrator's role within the story; although he assumed a privileged position, we should be wary of trusting
too much in what he says. He possesses just the same amount of understanding of human behaviour as the characters
he tries to comment on. Radio is an ideal medium for encouraging this kind of reflection, as each character's voice vies
for our attention. Sometimes we tend to favour those voices we think the most reliable - calm, reassuring tones,
for instance - even though they are not really reliable at all.
Perhaps more so than any other recent Dickens adaptation (and quite a few of them
have appeared in late 2009), this production depicted the author as an expert in the serial form.