Curiosities of TV's Old Curiosity Shop

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Among my countless obsessions, I discover I'm fascinated by Charles Dickens' Old Curiosity Shop. Among its aspects is that it's one of the several works of fiction that have had a vital plot point become a matter of common knowledge. Who today can read Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde without knowing in advance the solution to the mystery? And virtually the only thing most people today know about Old Curiosity Shop is [OK, spoiler warning, but do you actually care enough to stop reading? If so, great; stop reading this posting and read the novel; it's even available complete online, and it's my favorite Dickens novel.] is that Little Nell dies. Oscar Wilde famously wrote, "One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears ... of laughter."

Thing is: Wilde got it wrong. Nell doesn't have a death scene in the novel. In any case, while the book was probably among the first novels to deal with gambling as an addiction, Nell and her gambling grandfather do not interest me. My fascination lies with the subplot of Richard Swiveller and the Marchioness: a fascination that began with the 1980 nine-part BBC dramatization [white background image] that aired in America on Once upon a Classic. With Granville Saxton as Swiveller and Annabelle Lanyon as the Marchioness, the production (scripted by William Trevor) focused on that portion of the plot with enough fidelity to drive me to read the novel in the middle of the weekly broadcasts to find out what happened next.

As a result, I've kept an eye on adaptations of the novel ever since to see how that subplot is handled -- if, indeed, it's handled at all. Last night, I settled down with another DVD from the BBC [brown background image]: a 2007 non-serialized version scripted by Martyn Hesford. And, yes, the subplot was there, with Geoff Breton as Swiveller and Charlene McKenna as the Marchioness. The weird thing is that somebody, somewhere didn't grasp what was so clear in 1980: The Marchioness is a foil for Little Nell. They're roughly the same age -- which is to say 13. Little Nell is deeply loved by those who fail to help her. The Marchioness is starved, beaten, and too poor to have a name but she not only saves herself, she saves others.

It's true that Trevor had a break, with the total running time of 4 hours, 25 minutes -- as opposed to Hesford's 1 hour, 33 minutes. But Hesford included characters and scenes that could have been omitted to focus on what G.K. Chesterton termed one of the two true love stories in all of Dickens. On the shoestring that seemed to be the budget for the 1980 version, the focus was on characterization, with only Nell (played by 20-year-old Natalie Ogle) looking wrong for the part. (It's still amazing to me that Lanyon, also 20, is absolutely convincing as a 13-year-old.)

And, oh, the changes in the 2007 version! Not only does Nell's grandfather (Derek Jacobi in an otherwise excellent performance) settle himself sullenly to wait for money he's bullied her into begging for in a pouring rain (for all his faults, not something Dickens' character did), not only does Nell get a full-on deathbed scene in which she forgives everyone in person, and not only does the Brasses' lodger turn out to be -- Who? Wow, not who is in the novel! But the Marchioness is no longer the counterpoint to Nell: While Kit and Nell are played by 15-year-olds, the Marchioness is 22 and looks it.

Not to say that the 2007 version is badly acted or poorly shot or poorly directed. It's just that -- for all its merits -- the filmed-on-a-shoestring version of nearly 30 years ago is still the best, even with a Nell in her 20s. I'll bet you can find a copy via your local library.


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