BBC Radio 7, 14-23 December 2009
This version of the Pickwick Papers is the kind of thing BBC
Radio does not seem to do any more; a leisurely eight-part adaptation focusing on character-development rather than plot,
and thereby allowing the actors to develop their roles.
Pickwick Papers proved ideal for this kind of adaptation. Like many Dickens
novels, its narrative sprawls in all directions, as it follows the adventures of Mr. Pickwick (Freddie Jones) and his fellow-members
of the Pickwick Club, Messrs. Tupman (Michael Graham Cox), Winkle (Philip Bond) and Snodgrass (Stephen Thorne). Unlike the
later Dickens works, it remains essentially good-hearted: although Mr. Pickwick ends up in jail, he is not subject to the
same kind of deprivations as Dorrit in the Marshalsea. Nonetheless both characters reveal a determination not to be cowed
by their experiences: in Pickwick Papers, for instance, Pickwick will not allow himself to be released until his
debt has been paid and Mrs. Bardell (whose evidence put him in jail in the first place) has been forgiven.
Jane Morgan's production emphasized the novel's light-hearted spirit. As personified
by the late Simon Cadell, Charles Dickens - who narrated the adaptation - came across as a benevolent person who, although chiding
his characters for making the wrong decisions, nonetheless remained fond of them. More importantly, he remained in control
throughout the narrative; there was none of the kind of speculation on what might happen next, which characterized more recent
Dickens adaptations (such as the 2009 Our Mutual Friend).
In keeping with the production's tone, most of the performances emphasized the comic
aspects of Dickens' characters. Sam Weller (Douglas Livingstone) came across as a crafty Cockney type, fond of songs and good
cheer, who simultaneously displayed a childlike devotion to his master. Mrs. Bardell (Elizabeth Spriggs) appeared as someone
more sinned against than sinning; it seemed as if life had got too much for her, which provoked her into doing things she
later regretted, such as putting Pickwick in jail. Freddie Jones was an actor, whose dulcet tones lent themselves to all types
of role, whether comic or tragic. As Mr. Pickwick, he came across as a fundamentally decent man, enjoying the good things
of life - like food, drink and good company - yet also possessed of an indomitable spirit. No one - least of all the prison
guards - could suppress him for long. In this production he became the focus of moral stability; the symbol of decency against
which all the other characters could be measured.
Sometimes this production had its longueurs - I occasionally wished for less good
cheer and more plot-development, but perhaps this fault is more to do with the novel than the adaptation. Nonetheless it proved
to be a diverting, light-hearted entertainment, with performances to match.