Wednesday, January 09, 2008

What the Dickens! x2

Ah yes, a bad pun to ring in the new year. Much like the old year, I suppose.

A brief rant to start with, then. Charles Dickens creates the most fantastic characters and gives them the most dramatic scenarios to play - the dark intricacies of Bleak House, the cruelties of Dombey and Son, even the small mysteries of Great Expectations.

Still, I find it impossible to love Dickens because of his language. Pick any book and any chapter from Dickens at the Free Library and see if it is wadeable. I realise that the style of the time demanded a certain loquaciousness and that he had to fill an instalment regardless of what he actually wanted to say. Even if the story that Dickens was paid by the word is apocryphal (which the Dickens Project at UC Santa Cruz asserts), I am still stuck.

This is why Dickens works so well as on the television - his words are reduced to the dialogue, and this too is mercilessly cut, but we are left with his drama, which I think is his strength. But don't listen to me - I love this next show...

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Bleak Expectations (currently on repeat on Radio 4) is a screamingly funny parody of Dickens. I enjoyed it so much on its first broadcast last summer - it almost caused me to drive off the road - that I'm listening to it again now.

Framed as the dictation of the memoirs of a Dickens-like figure, Sir Philip Bin (known as Pip, for obvious reasons) curmudgeonly delivers the story of his life to Anthony Head's incompetent journalist. He starts with his childhood, plunged into poverty by his father's mysterious death at his Caribbean monkey hotel. It is not long before he is sent off to borstal St. Bastard's by his cruel guardian, Mr Gently Benevolent (also Anthony Head, doing his smoothest, most villainous voice), and adventures by land and sea ensue.

Bleak Expectations combines the arch literary parodies of cruel schoolmasters, gibbering women and evil guardians with quick wordplay, surreal incidents and grossly stupid-yet-hilarious jokes. It takes all that is best of Dickens and adds the laughs he so sorely lacks. It's must-listen radio.

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