9 May 2009 | galensaysyes
More comic than tragic, but Dickensian to the hilt
There are four adaptations of The Old Curiosity Shop out on video (not counting the cartoon), but this is the only one to see. Alone of them, it has the true Dickens style and atmosphere. Its tone is not quite that of this particular novel, however, since in the absence of the narrative hand-wringing over Little Nell's plight - despite Natalie Ogle's compelling Little Nell - the comic, ebullient side predominates, and makes the overall effect closer to that of The Pickwick Papers.
The serial is word-heavy, as usual in BBC adaptations of the period. But as often with Dickens, that's a good thing. The script retains the full color and spirit of his dialogue, and the actors have a field day with it. Unlike later versions, it tells the story almost in its entirety. And it plays the melodrama out to the fullest.
The opening scene is especially neat: a pantomime-like introduction to the central situation, described mainly through the movements of the characters. It's as close as can be to a silent melodrama of the 1920s - as is perfectly appropriate. This impression is reinforced by the evocative theme, which calls to mind equally a theater organ and a calliope.
Again, with the pathos reduced, the story becomes more of a comic melodrama than it was in the book. But perhaps that was inevitable anyhow, given that the most vigorous characters are the comic villains. Note that I said "most" vigorous: _every_one in this rendition, even Little Nell's declining grandfather, seems to pursue life with twice as much energy as normal people ever could: part of what engenders the true Dickens feeling.
This production is the only one to present Quilp as something close to the diabolical monster he was - always railing, seething, chortling over the wrongs he does others. Trevor Peacock gives a good, strong reading of the character that almost encompasses the breadth of his excesses, the depth of his depravities. Later versions try to make him a more realistic character, which he isn't and can never be. Also, in a misplaced bow to political correctness, they minimize or eliminate his deformities. The serial shows them - as best it can, lacking an actual dwarf. Peacock gives him a crookback and crooked legs so that he only stands half as tall as everyone else (making doubly funny the reference to him as "a _species_ of dwarf"); the contrast is quite effective.
Unfortunately, in another respect Peacock is hampered visually. He doesn't have the face of a Quilp (unlike e.g. Andy Serkis, who played the similarly fiendish Blandois in the more recent production of Little Dorrit), he's more a Bill Sikes type, and the make-up people have been unable to make up the difference. The hairdressers, on the other hand, have gone too far, and given him a tease that doesn't look like the product of either natural growth or conscious affectation. In close-ups particularly, one has to exert effort to ignore it.
(Both Peacock and Serkis got some notices accusing them of overplaying their parts - but how can you overplay Punch? The difficulty is to keep the character large _enough_ - if the actor doesn't happen to be a puppet.)
In this serialization, unexpectedly, the star part - really the hero, in a sense - is the profligate but kind-natured Dick Swiveller. He's embodied in a charmingly balmy performance by Granville Saxton, a tall, moon-faced, dancerish type who might have stepped out of a Maxfield Parrish illustration to Mother Goose. The serial would be worth seeing for him alone.
But it's worth seeing front to back - a spirited, old-fashioned treat.