Who the Dickens is Nick Nickleby?
Emma Curry (Birkbeck College, University of London)
You could be forgiven for being a little tired of hearing Dickens’s name in this bicentenary year. Since the BBC’s new adaptation of Great Expectations last Christmas, there has been a veritable explosion of Dickens-related events jostling for attention throughout the year, including new biographies, documentaries, radio programmes, tours, walks, lectures, conferences, exhibitions, read-a-thons and much, much more. As a Dickens researcher (and particularly one who has received an almost daily phone call from her mother of ‘Have you seen that new Dickens ______?’), it has been almost impossible to keep up. However, one of the real advantages of this sheer wealth of coverage has been its inspiration of a host of creative new approaches to Dickens’s work.
In this light, the BBC’s daytime adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby, retitled Nick Nickleby and moved to a modern setting, has been fascinating to watch, raising some really interesting questions about how we imagine Dickens on screen. How faithful to the text should the new writer be? What kind of audience is expected? And should he really be ‘updated’ at all?
At a recent London Screenwriting Seminar on Andrew Davies’s Bleak House, the discussion often returned to why so many film and TV versions of Shakespeare are reimagined in new settings, whilst Dickens (with the exception of Alfonso Cuaran’s Great Expectations) is almost invariably trapped in his own period. When so many of his social concerns remain relevant today, it seems strange that so few screen adaptations have attempted this shift. One of the real strengths of Nick Nickleby was, I feel, that it proved it’s not only possible to relocate Dickens in a contemporary setting; the need to ‘update’ actually seems to inspire an even greater sensitivity to the nuances of the text.
Whilst this version isn’t as slick or as subtle as Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s recent Sherlock, there is some excellent creativity in the ‘modern’ revisions. Wackford Squeers’s nightmarish Yorkshire school ‘Dotheboys Hall’ becomes ‘Dotheolds’, an abusive care home, whilst Smike is now Mrs Smike, an ill-treated resident. The Crummles family travel by campervan, and the ‘Infant Phenomenon’ is Mariah, a shy girl who is pushed by her mother into performing in various low-budget X-Factor-style talent shows. Madeline Bray becomes a single mum trapped in an arranged marriage; Ralph Nickleby a shady businessman working in the City, and, perhaps most amusingly, Sir Mulberry Hawk is Hawkovsky, a Russian oligarch with a suitably hammy accent and disturbing penchant for underage girls.
Despite the changes in setting, the characters retain their Dickensian essence: Nick is just as headstrong and impetuous as in the novel, and Mrs Nickleby still blithely chatty and short-sighted (although I was pleased to see that Kate is now the much feistier Kat). Portions of the text occasionally make an appearance too: the screenwriter was obviously inspired by Ralph Nickleby’s famous ‘grinning skull’ comment, as in this version it becomes almost his catchphrase; whilst Dickens’s oppositions of good against evil and countryside against city are present throughout. There’s even a jokey reference to Dickens’s occasionally ludicrous plot coincidences (Nick comments to Maddy, ‘What are the chances of us meeting again in a city this size?’).
The only real problems with this drama come from its scheduling. Whilst Dickens’s comedy and caricature sit well in the daytime slot, the darker aspects of the story (particularly the abuse in ‘Dotheolds’ and Ralph’s willingness to prostitute his niece) seem constrained. By moving to a modern setting, I found the sinister elements of Dickens’s social critique more striking and more urgent, and in real need of a later timeslot, or perhaps a greater number of episodes, to be more fully explored. The need to finish the story within a week meant that the plot resolution felt rather rushed.
Nevertheless, as a basis and inspiration for future reworkings of Dickens, I think Nick Nickleby does a great job, and I’d urge you to have a look at it whilst it’s still on BBC iPlayer. It’s by no means perfect, but for its novel and creative approach to the text I think it deserves to be celebrated. It’s also very well-acted despite the obviously low budget: Andrew Simpson makes a brilliantly hot-headed Nick, and Linda Bassett almost steals the show as a crime-fighting, karaoke-singing version of Smike. Here’s hoping such fresh approaches to Dickens will continue!