Dickens curiously good on ITV

The Old Curiosity Shop. ITV 

Too busy to post with school Christmas concerts to attend, a house to de-fluff before guests descend and, well, just the two presents to wrap this year. But they will look nice in their brown paper and string.

Just enough time to observe that ITV did a fine job with its repeat of Charles Dickens’ Old Curiousity Shop on Sunday, despite the adaptation coming hot on the heels of BBC 1’s disappointing Little Dorrit. Why are broadcasters so deeply conservative? Christmas = costume drama = Dickens on TV. “The other side is doing something so we’d better do it too.” I could have done with a more contemporary drama that wasn’t Kenneth Branagh’s no-lips Wallander, but at least Dickens was in his place at 9pm last night. Viewers didn’t agree, with twice as many watching Wallander as the Curiosity Shop.

My partner in life and crime actually watched this with me, which is unusual, especially in our house. He observed, and I reckon he’s got a point, that 1840s London is about the only setting where modern broadcasters can get away with casting such satisfying pantomime villains, complete with squints and spittle. (Apart, perhaps, from Nationwide ads.) Toby Jones as Quilp didn’t disappoint.

I watched the whole thing wondering what, if anything, is the difference between a BBC and an ITV costume drama. And I’ve got the answer. It’s the hair. Derek Jacoby as the inveterate gambler Trent still managed a feathered crop. Little Nell was positively bouffant. So different from Amy Dorrit’s bangs greased to her head over on BBC 1 these last few weeks. Trust commercial TV to make even Victorian poverty play well on the screen.

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Final verdict on Little Dorrit

Johnny Vegas as Krook in Bleak House. BBC

I stuck with the BBC’s Little Dorrit in a standard ‘I must appreciate Dickens on TV’ way. But I was robbed of some of the subtleties of the story which must lurk in the original novel. OK, the plot was all explained in the last episode but if the scheduling and overall production had been better, my engagement with this adaptation would have been better too.

For the record, a friend who usually likes these sorts of things but usually expects them to be on at 9pm on Sundays also missed it. Somehow the 30-minute episodes worked for Bleak House but didn’t here. I’ve checked and Bleak House was scheduled in exactly the same way as Little Dorrit – in twice weekly half-hours. Why didn’t it work this time? Tess, on the other hand, on Sunday nights at 9pm worked.

The ratings for Little Dorrit suggest I’m right (2.5m and 10% of the audience on Wednesday 3 December, which is terrible for BBC 1 in primetime and was immeasurably improved by being replaced on Thursday 4 Dec by the Panorama special on Shannon Matthews which got 5.6m viewers).

Eddie Marsan was brilliant with his prosthetic hair lip and nasal snorting tick. I never quite got Clare Foy (Amy Dorrit) as the unacknowledged beauty (that fringe!) and her head was far too small to be next to Matthew MacFadyen’s (spelt correctly) in the closing scenes. That shouldn’t be a criticism, but it is. Casting is half the battle in costume drama.

Effects, scenery, costume and make-up constitute the rest of the battle and here again Little Dorrit was inferior to the multi craft award-winning Bleak House. The disintegrating house of Clennam shop always looked like a bit of bad panto scenery and its eventual collapse appeared to involve more explosives than death-watch beetles. Whereas Johnny Vegas’ bottle shop in Bleak House (above) was all gin-soaked atmos and his spontaneous combustion as Krook was a joy to watch.

Perhaps Bleak House was just too good for imitation a mere three years on.

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Update on life and some TV stuff

BBC 1's Little Dorrit

Conscious as I am of wanting to update my pet blog, I am constantly being sucked into the time vortex that is eBay. Christ, it’s time-consuming. All I’m trying to do is sell a few children’s coats and some (admittedly over-priced) china (which is complicated – there’s emotional baggage to get rid of too, but I can’t find an eBay category for that).

So I take the briefest of breaks from obsessively answering badly typed questions from potential buyers in Germany and Sweden (no, I do not want to post things to Europe) to let you know that I am finally ‘into’ Little Dorrit, although I feel I’ve missed an episode and am still not sure what the French guy is doing. Perhaps that’s the point.

I like Matthew MacFaddyen (I really should look up the spelling) in this; he’s all minutely quirky facial gestures and nervous smiles, which he sort of was in Spooks but it suits the part here. I haven’t really got any empathy with Amy Dorrit which is probably not good, given she’s supposed to be the heroine of the piece.

I can’t help but feel the scheduling of this drama has done for my engagement with it. I missed the first hour-long episode when it was first on, so had to catch up on iPlayer, and haven’t got into the two half-hour updates each week so am constantly running to the iPlayer which I note now inconveniently switches between allowing you to download a programme and only allowing you to watch it streamed from the website. I want the option to do either.

Two half-hours a week is neither appointment to view nor habit. If memory serves, Bleak House was on every night for half an hour, or at least more than twice a week. Perhaps I’m mis-remembering. Either way, Bleak House was by far a glitzier, more star-studded and overall impressive production than Little Dorrit. Wonder if I’m going against the critical consensus here? Perhaps I’ll never know.

Later, if time, I will appraise you of my feelings – and they are emotional – about I’m A Celebrity, Get Met Out of Here and Strictly Come Dancing (with or without John Sargeant).

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Ranty ranty rant rant rant

Just because I can and to get it off my chest and because it’s Friday and because I can’t follow Little Dorritt well enough to give you a critique (who’s the strangely French man biting fruit and prostitutes in equal measure?)

Why oh why do I stumble across the threshold of my humble abode every day to stamp on not one but THREE gorgeous catalogues delivered to seduce me into spending money I don’t have?

Then I log onto my email to get not one but FIVE invitations to spend yet more money. Amazon, Letterbox, Tesco, Blooming Marvellous (I’m not pregnant any more, haven’t been for four years and won’t EVER be again), Mac Cosmetics, Cath Kidston, Boden, Mini Boden et al. I KNOW I spent money with you in the past but that was when I had a REGULAR income. Now I don’t and we’re heading into a recession and I’m just off to the bank to juggle a few pounds from one overdraft into another. Doh! And we wonder how we all got so consumerist. Can we stop being bombarded with information about stuff we can’t have??!!

I should just unsubscribe, but that would be throwing the White Company towel in, wouldn’t it?

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