Shiny Shelf

Bleak House

By Eddie Robson on 04 November 2005

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

Much has been made of the ‘soap-style’ approach of this new version of ‘Bleak House’: twice-weekly, in half-hour episodes, with cliffhangers. And just about everybody has pointed out that this is how the novel was originally experienced. It has become the banal fact du jour.

However, the format selected for this version doesn’t really resemble the original episodic format of Dickens’ ‘Bleak House’ much more than the more traditional hour-long, weekly costume dramas do. Both formats break a novel down into segments which are experienced at regular intervals: the only difference is in the frequency and length of the segments. It’s not as though ‘Bleak House’ has been adapted with each published chapter contained in a single episode or anything: Andrew Davies has merrily played around with events.

And the programme doesn’t look anything like a modern British soap (it’s being broadcast directly after ‘EastEnders’ for easy comparison). It has much better actors and is far more imaginatively directed, with a pacey, fast-cutting style that’s a million miles away from the pedestrian point-camera-at-action, go-for-tea-break system that appears to rule ‘EastEnders’.

But I don’t begrudge the BBC for using this gimmick to sell ‘Bleak House’, because what this programme is doing is very worthwhile: reclaiming prime-time, half-hour drama from the soaps. For years on British TV, the hours between 7pm and 9pm have been bereft of drama except for the soaps, and the half-hour format barely considered an option for drama. There is no good reason for this and ‘Bleak House’ is a welcome attempt by the BBC to freshen its thinking about drama – particularly in the area of costume drama, which has nearly always gets automatically shoved onto Sunday nights.

By putting this on after ‘EastEnders’, the BBC is trying to grab a new audience for its latest costume drama and is to be applauded for doing so. The programme itself is of excellent quality, so if this doesn’t pull them in then nothing will. At a time when specialist channels are splitting audiences off into niches, reducing the likelihood of stumbling across something we might not otherwise have watched, it is worth remembering that this is one of the things that makes telly such a great medium in the first place.

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By Eddie Robson

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