This past weekend I re-visited two BBC miniseries from the Golden Age of adaptation: the mid-1990s
The first, Martin Chuzzlewit, was in honour of Dickens’ bi-centenary. The second, Middlemarch, was a borne of an impulse to revisit the complicated whir of industrial events spinning the cogs in the lives of Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate.
Martin Chuzzlewit has never been a favourite Dickens novel of mine. I do appreciate its thesis on avarice, selfishness and the slow, tormented descent into sheer villainess; but its peripheral characters far outshine the main characters and the love story of the younger Martin Chuzzlewit and the almost possibly good Mary Graham pale when I compare them to, say, Lucie and Sydney Carton or Amy Dorrit and Arthur Clennam. Nevertheless, the secondary characters are divinely, colourfully Dickensian: including the stalwart Tom Pinch, the greedy and horrifyingly abusive and murderous Jonas Chuzzlewit and the dastardly Pecksniff.
Montague Tig and Mrs. Gamp as well as the refined old gent Chuffey help round out a myriad of some of Dickens’ most eccentric oddities. Merry and Cherry Pecksniff are deliciously silly and frivolous and the adorable Mark Tapley revives some of the dragging scenes with his fresh zest and optimism.
Martin Chuzzlewit is known for painting a primitively dirty America to instill a sense of new world dread in its English readers. Certainly the scenes in the series which find Mark and Martin in supposed Eden (rather a malaria-ridden swamp) are as well-painted here as in the novel. The moments where the lovely and good-hearted and golden Tom Pinch looks up from the organ where he practices at the cathedral to feast on the angelic countenance of Mary Graham captures you with the same sense of devotedly unrequited romance as bespeaks Tom’s journey in between the pages of the novel.
The casting of the series is excellent. Paul Scofield provides a WONDERFUL Martin Chuzzlewit, Tom Wilkinson and Keith Allen (Sheriff of Nottingham in ROBIN HOOD!!!) are both equally horrifying villains as Pecksniff and Jonas Chuzzlewit respectively, Pete Postlethwaite is inspired as Montague Tigue …and John Mills makes a sweet Chuffey. I cannot recommend the casting highly enough. The character depth and realization is multi-dimensional here and no one is static: each revolves, evolves and changes due to circumstance and plot developments and it really is a wonderful to behold how they have transferred something so intuitively Dickens and painted it on screen.
Middlemarch remains one of my all-time favourite BBC series because it does well at capturing the essence of a remarkably complicated and twirling novel. Whenever I have talked to readers intimidated by beginning what has been called the definitive and finest Victorian novel, I tell them just to think of it as three different strands braided together: Dorothea Brooke and her untimely and loveless marriage to the wretchedly possessive scholar Edward Casaubon and later love of the romantic artist Will Ladislaw. Idealistic doctor Tertius Lydgate and his passion for research and reform: squelched by the vanity and social-assumption and spoiled nature of his beautiful wife, Rosamund Vincy.The good-hearted; but unlucky and wayward Fred Vincy and his pursuit for Mary Garth. Inasmuch as these three stories propel the themes of social reform, industrial change and growth in a small, middling community, all action revolves around/or is witnessed by these three sets.
Andrew Davies (one of the finest screenwriters and adaptors of all time) does well in focusing his attention to great detail when it comes to painting the definition of each of these three threaded storylines. Equal weight is given and enough backstory and character development ensues. Viewing Middlemarch is, at base, an enriching experience: the frosting is the eccentric population supporting these three sects: the wonderfully noble yet prone to gambling chaplain Mr. Farebrother, the tediously loquacious Arthur Brooke, the conniving Mr. Bulstrode who cannot leave his past behind him…. Plate this against the Great Reform Bill and the expansion of the railroad, and you have a wonderfully historical portrayal of life in a provincial community.
Like Les Miserables by Hugo and Hard Times by Dickens ( well, a lot of Dickens, at that); Middlemarch was written under the grain of social activism and the detailing of Brooke’s life in politics, Will Ladislaw’s dappling in the newspaper and Dorothea’s passion for her cottages and benevolently providing a better way of life for her land tenants give us a superb snapshot of the issues of the day. The casting is, as always, perfect and Dorothea is the perfect angel imprisoned by her ill-fated marriage, Tertius Lydgate is heart-wrenching as the doctor doomed to a life of remonstrance at the ill-advised expenditures of his clueless wife.
If you are a fan of BBC period pieces and you have not seen either of these, I heartily recommend them. Moreover, seek out their source material and bask in the multi-layered, heavily caricatured tapestry of Victorian Literature’s greatest.