November 8th, 2005


The BBC is running a series of Shakespeare retreads. The first was a version of Much Ado set in a TV news-room- with Beatrice and Benedick as news-readers and Hero as a weather-girl. I'd have been interested if it was only the setting that had been modernised, but none of these new versions keep Shakespeare's language- and without the language you haven't got Shakespeare. His plots- most of them borrowed from history books or the pulp fiction of his day- are the least thing about him. So what's the point?

I feel something similar about the current dramatization of Bleak House. The gimmick is that it's being done as if it were soap opera- in speedy half hour chunks. I watched an episode to get the flavour- and can report that Gillian Anderson is looking lovely. There's an honourable tradition of doing Dickens on TV- I remember a 1950s Oliver Twist so violent that my dad went and stood in front of the screen to shield my infant eyes from corruption- but the publicity and reviews for this particular version have narked me. We're being told that Dickens himself would have been writing soaps if he were alive today- even that this version improves on the original; Well, "cobblers" to both those suppositions. This version is fun (I suppose) but- as with the Shakespeare- all it really gives us is Dickens's plot- and no-one reads Dickens for his plots.

Shakespeare and Dickens are writers- the two greatest writers in English. What matters about them is the words. The choice of words, the way they're put together. The poetry, the jokes. That's where the magic is. Consider the opening of Bleak House (the fog thing)- that great kedgeree of brilliant descriptive writing, surreal wit and angry satire- and try getting the same effect in a TV studio with dry ice and yellow spot-lights. Can't be done. The new "Shakespeare" plays and the new "Dickens" dramatization may (lets give them the benefit of the doubt) be fine bits of work in their own right, but anyone who supposes they're getting the full Shakespeare and Dickens experience from them is being short changed.