BBC Radio 4, 6-10 February 2012
Based on Dickens' essays, these five short plays examined the relationship
between Dickens and the city he loved. Together they comprised a master-narrative, telling the story of the author's life
from his humble origins to his untimely death at the age of fifty-eight, by which time he was a national celebrity, giving
readings of his own work to packed houses.
The first play "A Not-Particularly-Taken-Care-Of Boy" set the tone for the remaining
four episodes. We were introduced to the young Dickens (Hugo Docking) walking alone in London in search of his uncle's abode
in Limehouse. He encountered a Young Gentleman (Samuel Barnett), and together they roamed the streets, eventually visiting
a clothes shop, where they tried on different outfits and created a lifestory of a fictional character ('David') growing up
in poverty and eventually being transported to Australia. Eventually it transpired that the Young Gentleman did not exist,
but was a figment of Dickens' imagination.
Director Jeremy Mortimer underlined the imaginative aspects of this episode through
music (by Neil Brand): the combination of strings and synthesizer suggested that we were being transported into a different
world, at once familiar yet completely different from the London where Dickens lived. The City provided the stimulus
for his astonishingly creative output.
The subsequent four episodes traced Dickens' life, from his beginnings as a writer
in 1834 (when he assumed the pen-name 'Boz'), to achieving his dreams as a writer in 1851, the break-up of his marriage (1858)
and his death in 1870. Three actors - Barnett, Alex Jennings and Antony Sher - played him as a young, middle-aged
and an old man. This casting strategy showed how Dickens' voice and attitude changed as he grew older, while at
the same time showing how he was tormented by his past. In the final episode ("The Inimitable") Old Dickens (Sher) encountered
Young Dickens (Barnett), who congratulated him on his achievement as "a weaver of ideas," while reminding him that poverty
in London still existed. The author had achieved much, but he could never escape the stigma of his origins.
This aspect of Dickens' life was further emphasized in the fourth episode ("The Uncommercial
Traveller"), where the middle-aged Dickens (Jennings) had an encounter with Steerforth (Stuart McLoughlin). Steerforth represented
the self that Dickens perpetually tried to suppress - the person taking advantage of the moment and exploiting it for his
own ends. That "secret place" as Steerforth called it, was the product of Dickens' childhood, as he scavenged for food in
Bearing this aspect of his life in mind, we could identify Dickens' desire to perform
in front of audiences as part of this technique of suppression. Rather than confront his past, he reconstructed himself as
an "Uncommercial Traveller" working for "the great house of human interest" by telling stories and reading them. This strategy
was undoubtedly successful financially, but left Dickens in a perpetual state of torment. The final episode saw Old Dickens
walking alone, with the sound of Brand's music in the background, asking himself "what's home?" - emphasizing the fact that
he was a lost soul at heart.
Dickens in London demonstrated the unique power of radio to indicate the
complexities of the author's life. Through the use of overlapping voices, director Mortimer showed how Dickens could never
come to terms with his past, in spite of his creative talent. Brand's music indicated how Dickens' view of London
was never a documentary view - i.e. just describing what he saw around him - but was shaped by his imagination: what
we read in his novels is a re-presentation of nineteenth century squalor.
All five plays were brilliantly constructed - the music and aural effects complementing
Eaton's tautly written scripts. I loved them.