I’ve got Charles Dickens coming out of my ears right now. And when I say ‘my’ I mean ‘the BBC’s’. And when I say ‘ears’ I mean ‘its rightly celebrated drama department’. 2012 marks the 200th birthday of the Victorian superstar author’s birth, and boy, are the Beeb intent on making sure we’re aware of it.
In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they forced everyone competing in this year’s Olympics to wear a frock coat, drainpipe hat and muttonchop whiskers. Especially the synchronised swimmers.
These are glory days for period drama, and recent serials like the stellar Great Expectations (starring a crusty-lipped Gillian Anderson) and The Mystery of Edwin Drood are adept at marrying zeitgeist-snuggling artiness to powerful stories and lovely frocks.
Like the ethereal Great Expectations, Drood begins with a sci-fi landscape and an incomprehensible dream-like sequence where the IT Crowd’s Chris O’Dowd seems to be murdering Peep Show star Robert Webb in a cathedral with a scarf. Except this time it actually is a dream: that of an opium addict called John Jasper. We’re brought down to earth with a thump as some Dickensian rent-a-crone burbles something about “‘avin’ anuvver pipe”.
We gradually learn that John Jasper is a damned fine choirmaster as well as being an hirsute, out-of-control junkie sex-pest, although other than that he has little in common with Russell Brand. Crucially, we also discover his nephew/ward is coming to visit. The same nephew he was murdering in his dream. OR IS IT? Yes, yes it is. Although that’s all we can really be sure of in this drug-addled, twist filled yarn.
Edwin ‘Robert Webb’ Drood arrives with a massive great silver ladle blocking his airways. He’s handsome in that blonde way that’s so out of fashion nowadays, not to mention confident and- most importantly- he’s popular with the babes. Ladies love Cool Edwin. He’s the Justin Bieber of his day.
But all is not well. Orphan Edwin is betrothed to yet another orphan, the diaphanously 17-year-old Miss Rosa Bud. But she’s really not keen. Awkward. Doubly so as her Uncle-in-law to be is passionately in love with her, much to her fear and disgust. Edwin and Rosa politely decide to break it off, but Jasper sees them talking and somehow manages to assume they’ve become even more engaged than they were before. Like you do.
The solution? Jasper finally brings his recurring dream to life, strangling Edwin in the cathedral. I’m not up on my Victorian etiquette, but this seems a bit off- like incorrectly passing the port. It also hardly adds to the eponymous mystery: given the perp is tripping his whiskers off on laudanum, is there more to this ghastliness than meets the eye?
Of course there is. The reason Edwin Drood offered such rich interpretational opportunities to the BBC is because Dickens carelessly failed to finish it due to becoming dead, allowing a modern writer (versed in the occasionally agonising twists we all seem to find so essential these days) to turn the whole thing on its head.
Gwyneth Hughes (Five Days, Miss Austen Regrets) rises to the occasion, neatly tying up the ends. She manages to pair off the Reverend Crisparkle- played by Rory Kinnear, last seen shafting a pig on Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror and three-time winner of Britain’s Least Threatening Face- with mysterious Ceylonese orphan Helena, while revealing that the dead Drood is, in fact (SPOILERS, YEAH? YEAH) E. Drood Sr: a cad, philanderer and father to about half the cast. In true ‘Take A Break’ tabloid style, he faked his own death only to be murdered by Jasper on his return to Cloisterham the year before.
Got that? Phew! The join between Dickens’ story and Hughes’ is apparent to those of us who watch a lot of modern detective drama, but subtle enough to not spoil the effect or corrupt the wonderful 1830s-ness in which we’ve become happily immersed. And, luckily, it’s clever enough to honour Dickens’ tone, if not necessarily his intent.
The casting was strong throughout . Young Edwin played his one note marvellously and people I can no longer imagine in anything but Dickens – Alun Armstrong, Julia Mackenzie, and Ron Wood as the magnificently drunk, third-person Durdles – did everything you’d expect of them.
Rory ‘Pig botherer’ Kinnear aced his nice guy schtick. But Matthew Rhys as Jasper was a cut above: a ball of frustration, menace and charisma, a sexual bogeyman of the utmost respectability whose eventual (MO’ SPOILERS) suicide felt true and proper and flooded the finale with real pathos.
It’s almost a pity there aren’t more unfinished masterpieces out there to receive the same treatment as Drood. It must be an awesome experience for a writer to get such a huge leg-up from a giant of literature, but with enough space and unanswered questions left to authentically make it their own. Thinking about it, there’s a Jane Austen that fits the bill.
Most Tempting Offer Award: “What could be more fun than our alternate musical Wednesday?” with a goody-two-shoes churchman and his dear old ma out of Fresh Fields. What indeed.
Double Facial World Record Holder Award: that’ll be Mr Sapsea, mayor, buffoon, crypt-holder, Vogon poet and proud owner of the biggest chin topped by the fluffiest moustache. It was like watching a hippo drink a cappuccino.
Dodgy Even By Dickens’ Standards Nominative Determinism of the Week: why, Rosa Bud, of course. Charlie “Chuckles” Dickens, Serving up your plucking and deflowering jokes since 1834.
If you missed it, you can catch up on iPlayer here. For a week, anyway.