Please sir, can I have some more Dickens?

The latest TV adaptation of Oliver Twist is a traditional take on a great story, and far superior to that modern view of Cockney life: EastEnders.

Patrick West

Patrick West

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The reaction to the BBC’s new adaptation of Oliver Twist was, on the surface, obvious. The right-wing press tends to hate just about anything the BBC does, especially when it comes to fiddling with history, which is why its reaction to it was decidedly frosty. Meanwhile the left-wing press – the kind of people who would like to work for the BBC, who believe in state-funded television and portraying the Victorian era as one of unrelenting cruelty and exploitation – tended to like it.

Thus, in The Times, Kevin Maher’s judgement was that Oliver Twist was ‘a strangely juvenile assemblage of familiar Now That’s What I Call Twist moments that never once cohered as an original or particularly inventive narrative experience’, while in the Daily Telegraph, James Walton was even more excoriating: ‘the London dialogue here is the verbal equivalent of a Pearly King having a knees-up around the old Joanna. A lot of the acting is equally crude… costume dramas work best when the makers have faith in the original novel, and the whole costume-drama form. Here, there’s a distinct sense of a BBC committee somewhere having nervously decided that both are a bit old hat.’

Yet, the Guardian’s Sam Wollaston couldn’t have disagreed more: ‘You could argue that we don’t need yet another adaptation, the 723rd by my reckoning. But this, by EastEnders writer Sarah Phelps, is an excellent one. There’s no misguided breaking into song for a start, so inappropriate for Dickens, wrong in almost everything, actually. It manages to feel modern, yet also faithful – somewhere between melodrama and gritty realism, but funny, too, in a dark and sarky way.’

I can imagine that any sniff of influence from EastEnders would have conservatives immediately prejudiced. This soap opera, after all, has been the televisual wing of Hackney Council for over 20 years now, a show that does not portray reality, but a version of the world as the BBC believes and wants it to be: where the villains are always white (and probably racist), in which Christians like Dot Cotton are judgmental and very annoying, northerners are warm and hearty, single-mothers unfairly have a hard time of it, and so on.

But I suspect that the connection with EastEnders has warped commentators from both sides of the political spectrum. Sure, this latest incarnation of Oliver Twist does put undue emphasis on the fact that Oliver was the child of an unmarried mother, and Nancy is black in this version (‘political correctness gone mad’), but otherwise it was a rather conservative and faithful rendition of the novel.

Yes, it showed how orphanages were all run by bastards in the nineteenth century, but this is an accurate reflection of the plot, and it also reflects an historical reality. Likewise, there were many black people in London during this era (as Gretchen Gerzina’s 1995 book Black England has documented). So why shouldn’t Nancy be black? Right-wing reviewers may suspect that hand of EastEnders, and left-wing writers applaud this programme’s ‘progressive’ tone, but both have got it wrong. This is actually quite a traditional programme by the BBC.

First, there was Fagin, as portrayed by Timothy Spall. Now, I had expected this character’s Jewishness to have become completely downplayed, what with the flak Alec Guinness got when he played Fagin in 1948, in which the future Obi-Wan Kenobi might as well have exclaimed ‘Oi Vey’ before offering Oliver some chicken soup. But, strangely, Spall wasn’t de-Semitised. He spoke with a Yiddish accent and explicitly refused to eat sausages. And I was glad, not because I am anti-Semitic (very much the opposite), but I disagree with the principle of taking artistic licence for contemporary motives, or for fear of ‘offending’ people. (But then again, anti-Semitism has become something of a recurring theme among the liberal-left these days, so I could be wrong).

Secondly, rather than portraying Cockneys as people who throw chairs around all the time, go red in the face, and shout ‘What’s goin’ on?’ or ‘You’re out of order!’ or ‘Nonce!’ – as the BBC is prone to do in EastEnders – the BBC’s Oliver Twist made them out to be quite genial and sincere fellows. Especially the Artful Dodger, as played by Adam Arnold. Sure, he’s a master pickpocket, but he at least takes a homeless, hopeless Oliver under his wing – but yes, his Cockneyisms were almost as irritating as being subjected to Danny Dyer with his speech impediment talking complete bollocks about ‘proper naughty tear-ups’ or ‘right old muggy gaffs’ on The Real Football Factories. These pickpockets were just the entrepreneurs of their time, prototype Thatcherites, raising themselves up from their humble origins.

In all seriousness, though, the left and the right should not use Charles Dickens as a vehicle through which to vent their political beliefs. No cinematic or televisual reproduction of Dickens has really been particularly right-wing or left-wing, because Dickens’ values – and the powerful way he in which he transmitted them in print – transcend politics. Dickens’ writings embody universal human values that everyone can relate to: abandonment, loss, trial, cruelty, redemption. He is akin to Shakespeare: he is read throughout the world because all cultures and people of all political persuasions comprehend him.

And I’d rather read Dickens, or watch adaptations of him, than be subjected to EastEnders, anytime.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV reviewer. Visit his blog here.

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