I forgot to read it 30 years ago, when I read all the others. The movie and TV industry forgot to dramatise it. As a collector of Dickens on screen, I am spoilt for choice when it comes to Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, Nicholas Nickleby and David Copperfield and there are at least two versions of all the other novels, but this 1960 BBC serial is the only Barnaby Rudge to have appeared since the early silent era.
Because it was originally a series of live broadcasts I assumed that it had immediately disappeared into the ether and Barnaby Rudge would continue to be hole in my collection. I was wrong.
The broadcasts were filmed off monitors and so escaped the mass wiping of the BBC's videotape archive. These recordings survived and have surfaced on DVD, so I finally have a complete set of Dickens dramas.
The recordings are in good shape and the picture quality is much better than I expected. Of course, the 405 line image is quite low definition, but the scan lines don't really show until the final episode when, for some reason, they suddenly become highly visible.
This 13 part serial was an ambitious project and is a more lavish production than I was expecting. It is a very faithful and very comprehensive adaptation of the book, with a large cast, scores of extras (although not enough) and dozens of sets.
Being live, it is inevitable that there are a few fluffed lines but the cast seem well rehearsed and handle the elaborate Dickensian dialogue with remarkable assurance. It is actually a very slick production but it does pose a problem for a modern audience.
In 1960, the BBC still saw television drama in terms of Theatre, not cinema. Despite the best efforts of the director and some of the cast, Barnaby Rudge is best viewed as a play rather than a TV movie.
Many of the performances come straight off the stage: Joan Hickson, Barbara Hicks and Timothy Bateson are all acting for people sitting fifty feet away in the stalls, not ten feet away from their TV screens. However, other actors (e.g. Raymond Huntley and Peter Williams) do scale their performances down for the small screen.
Irrespective of style, the acting is variable and it is unfortunate that some of the worst performances are of key characters.
Barbara Hicks's Miggs shrieks relentlessly throughout and soon tried my patience, while Timothy Bateson's Simon Tappertit is a primping, mugging, deluded buffoon, who never convinces as a leader or as a key figure in the riots.
Even more unfortunate is John Wood's Barnaby. He is a good-hearted simpleton: strong and brave, but gullible and easily led. I think it is probably a difficult part to get right and I don't pretend to know how it should be played, but this is not it. Wood looks bemused rather than simple-minded and there is a hint of Kenneth Williams his line reading, so his Barnaby sounds more gay than fey.
However, the major problem is the book itself. It has been ignored by television for a reason.
The story is too big for the tight budgets of most BBC dramas. Its centrepiece is a meticulously-researched, hour-by-hour, recreation of the Gordon Riots of 1780, when for a few days London was in the control of a mob. Understandably, the scenes of the storming of Parliament and the burning of Newgate prison, shot live in a studio, are under-populated and unconvincing. They really needed to be pre-filmed, but in the days before co-production filming on this scale would have been too expensive for the BBC.
More importantly, the book is poorly structured. The first 300 pages introduce a wide range of characters and set up a number of intertwining sub-plots: a murder mystery; a threatening stranger; two bitter enemies; two troubled love affairs; a clash between father and son; a rebellious youth; a treacherous gypsy and so on. It is noticeable that Barnaby is only a very minor figure in all this. Nonetheless, the pot is simmering nicely when Dickens suddenly announces: "and so five years passed, about which this narrative is silent."
This is a real slap in the face for the reader, because the story then resumes with a new set of characters and veers off in a completely different direction. All those intriguing plot lines are put on hold for hundreds of pages. Many of the original characters do pop up from time to time, and Barnaby becomes a much more important figure, but some disappear entirely and only re-emerge near the end of the book. It is as if Dickens suddenly remembers that there are mysteries still to be uncovered and love affairs still to be resolved and he only has a hundred pages in which to do it. He does manage to tie up all the loose ends but only in a slightly hurried and perfunctory way.
This production minimises the impact of that gaping hole in the story by burying it in the middle of an episode and only making minimal reference to the five years that have passed. Even so, there is no way to disguise the fact that the second six or seven episodes have very little to do with the first six.
I would still love to see Barnaby Rudge shot on a budget and a scale appropriate to its subject matter, but because of this weakness in the book I think this is unlikely to happen. It looks as if I will have to settle for this version.
However, I can live with that. This Barnaby Rudge may be somewhat archaic and is clearly under-funded, but it is quite accomplished in its own way and is certainly good enough to keep me satisfied until something better comes along.
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