"The word "big" doesn't really do it justice. Fifteen episodes, eight hours of television, 85 characters, 40 of them major speaking roles. No-one could accuse 'Bleak House' of being an unambitious project." - Radio Times 22nd October 2005.
Bleak House came about due to the BBC's desire to find a way of refreshing the period drama format. This was the remit given to producer Nigel Stafford-Clark sometime in late 2003 or early 2004. He, in turn, came up with a twice-a-week format similar to that of many popular soap operas at the time. It was a format that he argued would sit well with Dickens: "Given that Dickens wrote the book in 19 episodes (published once a month with the last a double issue), it wasn't all that great a leap to film it in 15 episodes."
The plot concerns a long-running legal case (Jarndyce and Jarndyce) which has far- reaching consequences for all involved in a dispute over a convoluted will. "This is full-on Dickens" said Stafford-Clark "taking on the whole of society: the legal system, the gap between rich and poor and the destructive power of scandal." The scandal begins with the introduction of Lady Honoria Dedlock (Gillian Anderson) who is married to a devoted husband twenty years her senior, Sir Leicester Dedlock (Timothy West). Unknown to Sir Leicester, Lady Dedlock was involved with a lover, Captain Hawdon (John Lynch), many years before her marriage with Sir Leicester - the fruit of that liaison was an illegitimate child, Esther Summerson (Anna Maxwell Martin), whom Lady Dedlock believed to be dead.
Esther had been raised by Miss Barbary (Lady Dedlock's spartan sister) who instilled a sense of worthlessness into the child. When Miss Barbary died, John Jarndyce (Denis Lawson) became Esther's guardian and it is at the point when she goes to live with him at Bleak House, along with his other two wards: Richard Carstone (Patrick Kennedy) and Ada Clare (Carey Mulligan), that we pick the drama up. Esther soon befriends both wards who are prospective beneficiaries in the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Richard and Ada fall in love with each other and Mr. John Jarndyce gives his blessing to marriage on the condition that Richard chooses a profession in order to support her. But Richard is unable to hold down a job and becomes obsessive with the legal case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Eventually, he and Ada marry in secret, but Richards mental and physical health begin to deteriorate.
Meanwhile, Lady Dedlock, while listening to her solicitor, the nefarious Tulkinghorn (Charles Dance), recognizes the handwriting on a copied affidavit as that of her long lost lover, Capt. Hawdon. She alerts the ever-watchful Tulkinghorn to her interest in it by asking if he knows the hand. Tulkinghorn admits that he does not, but he then pursues the matter in London and discovers that the copier is a pauper called "Nemo" and that he has recently died. Lady Dedlock takes it upon herself to carry out her own clandestine investigations unaware that her every move is being followed by Tulkinghorn who enlists the aid of Lady Dedlock's maid, Hortense (Lilo Baur). Tulkinghorn discovers the truth about Lady Dedlock's past and dismisses Hortense's help. Tulkinghorn tries to control Lady Dedlock in order to preserve the reputation and good name of Sir Leicester. Feeling ill used by both Lady Dedlock and Tulkinghorn, Hortense shoots and kills Tulkinghorn thereby framing Lady Dedlock for his murder. Horrified that her past will be revealed by the ensuing investigation, give a motive for her killing Tulkinghorn and bring shame and scandal upon her husband, Lady Dedlock, in deep remorse, leaves the house and wanders for several hours in the inclement weather. Even as her name is being cleared by the police Esther finds Lady Dedlock dead outside the cemetery where Hawdon (Esther's father) is buried.
In the meantime, John Jarndyce has fallen in love with Esther and proposes marriage, which she accepts, even though she is in love with Dr. Allan Woodcourt (Richard Harrington). The case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce is at last concluded, however, the fees for the case use up any money that might have been left to Richard and Ada. Richard, after hearing this, soon dies, leaving Ada alone with their child. Dr Woodcourt returns from a long foreign excursion. John Jarndyce, realising that Esther is truly in love with Woodcourt releases her from the commitment she made to him and gives her a house in Yorkshire.
The adaptation of Dicken's story for television required a number of character changes. Those not present from the original include the wife of Mr Snagsby the law stationer; the wife and grandson of the moneylender Smallweed; the law clerk Tony Jobling; the bankrupt Mr Jellyby; the Sir Leicester Dedlock's several cousins; and the Bagnet family, friends of the ex- soldier Mr George. The character of Clamb, clerk to the lawyer Tulkinghorn, was created by the screenwriter as a device for showing Tulkinghorn's motives and deeds without recourse to a narrator. Tolkinghorn, played with admirable menace by Charles Dance is not the stooping old figure portrayed in the original book illustrations.
Missing characters aside, each episode seemed to introduce another new and equally colourful character. "The wonderful thing about Dickens," said serial writer Andrew Davies, "and the difficult thing if you are doing a dramatisation, is that he invests even the smallest characters with this detailed, internal life of their own, and often describes it in great length." This did, however, cause Davies some amount of frustration. "Initially, I was infuriated by the book, because it seemed to me that Dickens continually kept striking off on new plot strands. You think you're just about to get on with the action, you turn the page - and, blow me, he introduces another set of characters."
There was also one additional scene that was not in the book. It involves the revelation of a secret between eccentric rag and bottle merchant Mr Krook (Johnny Vegas), Captain Hawdon's landlord, and legal clerk Guppy (Burn Gorman) who is in the employ of Kenge and Carboys. "Because Dickens published the books in monthly episodes he knew his audience wouldn't necessarily remember exactly what happened two or three episodes back" explained Nigel Stafford-Clark. "But audiences pick up on these things, and we found ourselves reaching a point in the story where Guppy had to reveal a vital piece of information, which as far as our viewers are concerned, he couldn't possibly know." But by and large, writing additional scenes was not the problem. The problem was in the decision of what to leave out.
The series was shot on location at Luton Hoo in Bedfordshire. The house, an old stately home, was in the process of being sold at the time, but location manager Nick Marshall discovered a disused mill yard and stable block adjoining the property. It had been built around 1800 and was not part of the sale. The BBC immediately began negotiations to hire it. Balls Park, a huge 17th-century property in Hertfordshire, was used for indoor sets. 60 of the required 92 sets were built within its walls. The series was estimated to have cost £8m to bring to the screen.
Some of Britain's best known character actors bought Dickens' characters to life, and they were joined by international stars, comedians, a gameshow host and an impressionist. They included Phil Davis, Alun Armstrong, Pauline Collins, Hugo Speer, Anne Reid, Charlie Brooks, Nathaniel Parker, Catherine Tate, Matthew Kelly, Tom Georgeson, Liza Tarbuck, Ian Richardson, Richard Griffiths, Warren Clarke, Sheila Hancock and Alistair McGowan. And during the course of the series other new stars were discovered. On May 7th, 2006, Bleak House won the Best Drama Serial category at the British Academy Television Awards, with Anna Maxwell Martin taking the Best Actress award ahead of fellow nominee Gillian Anderson. In July the adaptation was nominated for 10 Emmy Awards including Outstanding Miniseries, Lead Actor In A Miniseries Or A Movie (Charles Dance), Lead Actress In A Miniseries Or A Movie (Gillian Anderson) and Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Movie (Denis Lawson). It won two Emmys, for Makeup and Cinematography in a Miniseries.
Bleak House was a perfect example of the BBC at its period costume drama best. An epic feast of characters and storylines the series broke new ground in classic storytelling. "TV Guide" described it as "Grandly entertaining . . . the only bleak aspect to this miniseries is that it doesn't last forever." In 2008 the BBC brought to our screens another adaptation of a Dickens story, Little Dorrit, in the same twice-weekly format.
Published on November 30th, 2018. Review: Marc Saul (15 November 2008).