It struck me, entering Hour Seven of Dickensian, and staring down the double-barrel of another of Mrs Bumble’s excruciating entendres (her Figgy Dowdy is ‘Extra moist’ this week), that this is a series which is a full four hours longer than BBC One’s War and Peace, and yet feels like it has half as much content.
Of course it’s unfair to directly compare the two, but it’s interesting to see how both unpack a story. As I suspected back around Episodes 10 & 11, Dickensian is far too long for what it is – BBC One’s promos now seem more like prodding reminders that it exists, rather than ads – and I’m not certain that the soap-y, serialised structure that I praised it for at the start has been the right format for what is still a very good idea.
But to be honest, I’m not certain of anything anymore. Dickensian feels like it’s being going on so long, I can’t remember life before it. I have a vague memory of sunlight.
As it’s ground on, one of the show’s key strengths has become one of its greatest weaknesses. Dickensian is EastEnders with mutton chops, but for every good ‘Who killed Lucy?’, there are two other storylines that are more on the interest level of ‘Has Billy Mitchell run out of Cillit Bang?’
What was initially colourful world-building now feels like it’s getting in the way of engaging storylines with the kind of obsessive ‘origin everything’ detail that sinks prequels.
Surely not even the most whimsical Dickens fan wants to see the origin story of Tiny Tim’s crutch? Well here it is anyway. Want to see Mr Bumble move to the next round of interviews (Judges’ Workhouses, I believe) for a job he’s obviously going to get? You don’t? LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-Dickensian can’t hear you!
It’s getting in the way of time spent on better things. And there are good things in Dickensian, it just makes you search for them.
Bucket arresting, but balking at the prospect of hanging, 12 year-old Dodger adds another shade to the definition of the show’s best character, while Bill & Nancy’s outrageously organised plan to rescue Dodger from the police station – a scheme which has Tony Jordan’s slick Hustle fingerprints all over it – means Bucket squirms out of any final moral quandary.
(Oddly, for a show focused on picking at the juiciest chunks of Dickens nuggets, the best one this week goes unmentioned: the priest who helps break Dodger out of holding is the fabulously-monicker’d Rev. Septimus Crisparkle from The Mystery of Edwin Drood).
Best of all this week, fervent Frances Barbary gets her comeuppance, as her plottings come asunder like a Primark corset. Honoria’s bae/babydaddy, Captain Hawdon, finds out Frances scuppered the one thing his character talks about, his promotion.
Soon after, Honoria discovers that her sister Frances has been catfishing Sir Leicester Dedlock. She’s been writing smoochy-smoochy letters to him under the guise of Honoria. It’s a discovery so shocking it sends Honoria into labour, far too soon.
Sorry, this review has suddenly turned into the transcription of a bus stop gossip, hasn’t it? But on screen it’s good, both in its execution and seeing glacial Frances put under some heat. Dickensian is at its best when it’s taking things seriously.
Actually Frances is so cool and clerical and morally upright that I’m starting to think she might have murdered Marley. I’ve literally no evidence, but that puts me on exactly the same level as the newly dismissed Inspector Bucket.
C’mon, Bucket. Five episodes left. We’ll get through this, you and I. Someone has to.
Aired at 8pm on Thursday 4 February 2016 and at 8.30pm on Friday 5 February 2016 on BBC One.
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