A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, dramatized by Mike Walker

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BBC Radio 4, 26-30 December 2011
In Mike Walker's dramatization of A Tale of Two Cities the pivotal figure was Charles Dickens himself (Robert Lindsay). At the beginning of all five episodes he summarized the story so far, so that even if we had missed the previous episode, we would know precisely what was going on. In Lindsay's performance Dickens came across as a soft-voiced, friendly kind of person who not only interpreted the events taking place, but acted as a Chorus-figure, reminiscent of Greek drama, throughout the sprawling narrative.
Dickens was shocked by the sheer violence of events in revolutionary France. In the first episode he described in ghoulish detail the operation of the guillotine, and how those citizens witnessing the executions took a sadistic pleasure in the aristocrats' suffering. In the third episode he recounted the progress of the French Revolution, where the citizens were tearing the country apart with "their ... own ... bare ... hands." Lindsay's Dickens took short pauses between each word in the phrase, to emphasize the primitiveness of the struggle. As Dr. Manette (Karl Johnson) stood up in the revolutionary court to plead for Charles Darnay's (Andrew Scott's) release, Dickens reminded us of how both men were searching in vain for "a friend" to support them. The word "friend" was repeated softly, almost elegiacally, to emphasize the fact that concepts such as friendship and trust no longer existed in revolutionary France.
In the final episode, however, Dickens' tone altered slightly, as he witnessed the fight between Miss Pross (Alison Steadman) and Therese Defarge (Tracy Wiles), and Sydney Carton's (Paul Ready's) decision to go to the guillotine instead of Charles Darnay. He admired Pross' and Carton's decisions to take on the revolutionaries, and thereby ensure that Defarge and his wife Lucie (Lydia Wilson) would be restored to one another. Such selfless actions were the only way to sustain one's integrity in a fundamentally brutal world.
Walker's script began by establishing an imaginative distinction between the two cities of the book's title: Paris was a police state, London respected the rule of law; Paris had descended into anarchy, while London apparently respected the rule of law. Lindsay's vocal delivery reflected Dickens' views of both cities - while describing the London scenes, his voice seemed polite, almost formal; but when the action switched to France, he became more conspiratorial, setting the scene for the various schemes by which people such as Dr. Manette could be successfully sprited back to safety in London.
By the third episode, however, this distinction had collapsed, as Dickens reflected on how the activities of the spy Barsad (Gerard McDermott) had subverted the rule of law in both cities. Information which had hitherto been regarded as confidential was now part of a flourishing "import-export business": Dickens' euphemism for Barsad's profession. Jarvis Lorry's (Jonathan Coy's) observation about France ("Good God, Charles [Darnay], what has this place become?") could equally well apply to London. The only way to survive in this fundamentally brutal world was to trust as far as possible in one's integrity.
Lucie Manette (and to a lesser extent, Charles) understood this, as they retained their love for one another in spite of the adverse circumstances. As they spoke, the sound of a soothing melody (by Lennert Busch) could be heard in the background. Although cultivating an indifferent exterior, with a fondness for the bottle (the sound of liquor being consumed was a feature of this dramatization), Sydney Carton likewise preserved his integrity. In the fourth episode he set out into the Paris streets to discover the public mood; as he set out, a single flute played a jaunty melody, as if to admire him for his bravery, in spite of the risks involved.
In the end Carton made the ultimate sacrifice by going to the guillotine instead of Darnay. This famous sequence - immortalized in the 1935 film with Ronald Colman, who accepts his fate with the famous line "'Tis a far, far better thing that I do now than I have ever done before" - was staged very differently here. Carton admitted quietly that he was going to a "far better rest"; this was followed by the sound of the cheering crowd around the guillotine, and the thud-thud of Carton's steps as he ascended the scaffold. There was a short pause; the blade fell; and then there was silence. Dickens subsequently spoke, his voice quavering as he struggled to keep his emotions under control as he described the scene being "frozen in time and space ... for ever." In this version, Carton understood why he had to make the sacrifice; it was something that had to be done, not only for Lucie's sake, but to preserve Carton's integrity.
Co-directed by Jeremy Mortimer and Jessica Dromgoole, with the action moving swiftly from incident to incident, this version of A Tale of Two Cities was quite simply brilliant; one of the best dramatizations of a classic novel I have heard this year.