Shiny Shelf

Oliver Twist

By Jim Smith on 19 December 2007

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

The BBC’s new adaptation of ‘Oliver Twist’ offers high production values and a cast stuffed with ‘names’. It’s also in what will inevitably become known as ‘the Bleak House format’ of an hour long premiere followed by half hour installments thereafter.

Those ‘names’ all acquit themselves admirably, especially those such as Rob Brydon, John Sessions and Sarah Lancashire, who turn up for brief cameos. Even Tom Hardy, an actor I personally don’t care for at all, delivers an utterly menacing, glowering performance as Bill Sykes, rendering the character as despicable as is required in the process. Sophie Okonodo is a spirited, sad, kindly, attractive Nancy (and her casting more reflects evolving thought about the make up of nineteenth century London rather than a stab at stage style ‘colour blind casting’ on the small screen, as I’m sure someone must have suggested by now) while Edward Fox is simply exactly right as Mr Brownlow.

It’s Timothy Spall, though, who is the real star of the series, but then Fagin can be justifiably seen as a gift of a part. That said, it’s a brave actor who steps up to a part previously essayed by both Alec Guinness and Ron Moody and then defiantly does it his own way. Spall is also possibly the first actor to play the part with the ‘matted red hair’ that Dickens describes and his portrayal echoes recent academic suggestions that Fagin – based on the real life fence Ikey Solomons – should be considered, textually and historically, to be more likely of Ashkenazic extraction, rather than the (arguably anti-Semitic) cliché version of someone of Hasidic, Eastern European, heritage portrayed in George Cruikshank’s illustrations for the earliest publication of Dickens’ book. This seems to be a conscious decision on the part of a thought-intensive production team, given how closely many other characters and locations onscreen attend to the spirit, letter and details of Cruikshank’s work.

This is a production in which one is easily immersed, with a strong, almost impressionistically created sense of place created by careful use of iconography and suggestions of the aforementioned Cruikshank, and a score that at times approaches a ‘wall of sound’. I rather like the music myself, but I don’t mind intrusive scores generally and some will, very reasonably, hate this aspect of the series.

Finally, I’m very, very pleased to see a version of ‘Oliver Twist’ with the character of Monks retained, especially as he’s played by the brilliant Julian Rhind-Tutt, an actor who really should be a massive star. It is, more generally, nice to see the bits of the novel that don’t normally get adapted onscreen, even if their inclusion may throw some who are only familiar with the Lean film or Bart musical versions of the story. To remove the mind-boggling coincidences from Dickens’ novel is to forget that its author was rescued from indentured labour as a child by an inheritance provided by a previously unknown Aunt, and which just covered those debts of his Father’s which had caused the family to be sent to debtors’ prison in the first place.

Coincidence was an important part of Dickens life and fiction and to remove it from his work misses much of the point of it.

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