Okay, so I'm not a big t.v. guy. (Not a big movie guy either for that matter.) But back in 2005 there was one of those mini-series on PBS that the British seem to do so well. It was called "Bleak House," an adaptation of a novel by Charles Dickens. I confess that I've never read any Dickens - neither the requisite "Oliver Twist" nor the famous "A Christmas Story." I guess I'm not a big book guy either.
Nor am I usually a fan of those boring BBC "Masterpiece Theatre" dramas. Puh-leeeze! I'm more the "South Park" type. But my friend Gene had recommended the PBS show to me, and I tuned in. It was broadcast in six installments. And there was...something about it...something so compelling that I had to keep watching each week. I was drawn in and fascinated in a way that I have not been with something on t.v. in a long, long time.
It's a long story, yet it moves surprisingly quickly. The production is choppy and fast and modern (and might not appeal to the traditional PBS viewer). But more than that, the characters are all...characters! Dickens obviously had a great sense of humour. And although many of the settings are depressingly dismal and grimy and there are threads of almost unbearable sadness running through the story, he counters them with a lightheartedness that is jarring and unexpected. Characters have unusual names like Skimpole, Dedlock, Turveydrop and Boythorn...Smallweed, Guppy, Flite and Jellyby. Some of them are portrayed quite cartoonishly, as is the Dr. Bayham Badger (and his wife). And yet others, like the lawyer Tulkinghorn are so evil they make your skin crawl.
Dickens wrote "Bleak House" as a series, published in 20 monthly installments in 1852 - a soap opera of its day. The story is complex and convoluted, with intricate character relationships that on the t.v. version are not always clear. It would be easier if you had the book in which you could refer back and forth (or a "pause" button). And like any good soap opera, it is jam-packed with enough subplots of murder and malice to keep Days Of Our Lives going on for decades. So it's a little hard to follow if you have such a microscopically short attention-span as I.
Gillian Anderson is excellent, but the rest of the actors are terrific too. You can plainly see that some of them are having the time of their lives portraying these delicious Dickensian characters - it is not a documentary after all. As the series concluded I found myself not wanting it to end. (I was reminded of the t.v. series "The Fugitive" back in the 1960's. I didn't want David Janssen to be caught! Can't Dr. Kimble keep running?)
David Butcher, a reviewer for the BBC's Radio Times wrote:
"Watching this extraordinary version of Dickens's novel feels less like watching a TV drama and more like sampling a strange other world... it's Gillian Anderson who, despite having only a handful of lines, is at the heart of the drama. It's a magnetic performance (one of many) in a tremendous piece of television."
"We're halfway through this mesmerising serial and it shows no sign of letting up," he wrote. "As ever, each frame is composed to perfection, each face lit like an oil painting, and the acting is out of this world. You might want to take the phone off the hook."
Which is funny because that is just what I ended up doing (although I had not read Butcher's review). And by the way, the American press loved "Bleak House" too. The Philadelphia Inquirer called it "...The perfect marriage of television and literature." There are more, but you could google them if you were curious.
So when Gene asked me what I wanted for Christmas (isn't it easier that way?) and I said "The 'Bleak House' DVD, of course!" And that, bless his heart, is what he gave me.
I don't know why I like this BBC version "Bleak House" so much (there have been two others). But I do. Everything about it is simply excellent and great fun to watch. Fun to watch? Yeah. Heh, maybe that is why I like it so much after all.
If you take your t.v. viewing recommendations from a helicopter pilot whose tastes run more to slapstick comedy than highbrow drama, I can and do suggest "Bleak House."