BBC Radio 7, 10-15 March 2010
I have to admit that Hard Times is one of my favourite Dickens
novels - not so much because it is one of the shortest, but because it evokes memories of a never-to-be-forgotten adaptation
by Granada Television in the 1970s by Arthur Hopcraft, which vividly transmitted Dickens' satire of industrialism and its
consequences. The production had a clutch of memorable performances: Patrick Allen's statuesque Gradgrind contrasting with
Timothy West's bumptious Bounderby; Jacqueline Tong emerging fresh-faced from a stint in Upstairs Downstairs to portray
a despairing Louisa Gradgrind; Alan Dobie as a stoical yet patient Stephen Blackpool and Barbara Ewing as his ever-faithful
companion Rachel (a performance she later spoofed in the comedy series Brass).
Janet Whittaker's radio production used some ingenious techniques to throw new light
on the novel. Unlike other radio Dickens adaptations, which use a narrator (often Dickens himself) to link
the episodes, she shared the narrative amongst the novel's characters; first Gradgrind (Kenneth Cranham) took up the story,
followed by Bounderby (Philip Jackson), Louisa (Helen Longworth) and Stephen Blackpool (Alyn Williams). This technique of
decentering the narrative (continuing throughout the four-part adaptation) suggested that there was no controlling presence
to guide the listeners' responses; we had to judge the characters for ourselves. Of course, Dickens does load the dice in
Louisa's favour, but at the same time we should not blame Gradgrind for bringing her up in such a repressive manner.
As portrayed by Cranham, he truly believed that this was the best way to educate a child for the industrial period.
The consequences of this outlook were ominously signalled through the incessant
clang-clang of the Coketown machines, which could be heard in the background as the characters spoke. Human beings were
no longer capable of emotions, but rather transformed into automata, their reactions determined according to a pre-set programme.
This is why Louisa marries Bounderby; through the alliance, the two most powerful figures in Coketown were inextricably
linked, and therefore it had to be advantageous. It was left to poor misunderstood Blackpool to speak up against this mentality
at the end of the second episode, as he called for understanding rather than maltreatment from his employers. Sadly this fell
on deaf ears: Bounderby was far more interested in imposing his will on his workers, while living off the fat of the land
(emphasized throughout the adaptation as we heard him noisily consuming his food).
Coketown proved ripe fodder for shameless manipulators such as
James Harthouse (Guy Henry), who inveigled his way into Bounderby's affections, while conducting a clandestine affair with
his wife. Although ultimately exposed as a fraud, Harthouse admitted that he was "not a moral sort of fellow." He left Coketown
on Sissy Jupe's (Lydia Tuckey's) suggestion, but we were left in no doubt that he had no real understanding of the distinctions
between good and evil. Why should he? In a machine-dominated world, such questions are not important - the product of emotional
thinking which (in Gradgrind's view at least) inhibits progress.
The adaptation contrived a sort of happy ending, with Bounderby exposed as an ever
bigger fraud than Harthouse, Gradgrind admitting his mistakes and allowing Louisa a divorce, and Sleary (Derek Waring) proving
"a man of his word" and enabling Tom (Richard Firth) to escape punishment for murdering Blackpool by emigrating to the colonies.
However director Whittaker had the final episode ending with a series of decentred narratives: each character commented
on another. Thus Bounderby passed judgment on Gradgrind, Tom on Louisa, Sleary on Louisa, Louisa on Tom, and
so on. We understood quite tangibly that everyone determines their future for themselves; in life, there is no controlling
narrative presence to tell us what to do and what not to do.