The BBC are currently moving away from the so-called ‘bonnet drama’ of classic British authors like Jane Austin and Anthony Trollope.

The loss is nobody’s gain since these costume dramas based on classic novels  represent the Beeb at its best and also offer the chance to marvel at the wealth of acting talent in the UK.

This short-sighted policy means that audiences will be denied towering works like Bleak House, adapted by Andrew Davies, which was produced before the policy change. I missed this when it came out in 2005 but have just consumed in three nights on dvd.

Ironically though, in this case it is an American actress , Gillian (‘X-Files’) Anderson, as Lady Dedlock who all but steals the show as the proud and ambitious wife of Sir Leicester Delock whose shady past comes back to haunt her. Her marvellous performance is a study of elegant poise as her world slowly crumbles.

Phil Davis as Smallweed ("Shake me up, Judy!")

But she is just one of a quite exceptional cast  including Charles Dance (as the sinister Mr Tulkinghorn), Alun Armstrong (as the indefatigable Inspector Bucket), Denis Lawson (as the good-natured John Jarndyce), Burn Gorman (as the gormless Guppy), Johnny Vegas (as the squalid Krook) , Anna Maxwell-Martin (as the prudent and self-denying Ester Sommerson ) and, my favourite, Phil Davis (as the grotesque Smallweed).

It is just about the best adaptation of a Charles Dickens novel I have ever seen. It even tops David Lean’s brilliant movies of  Great Expectations and Oliver Twist mainly because, with a running time of 8 hours, the BBC production is able to do justice to the rich tapestry of the novel.  Being divided into half hour episodes also allows it to recreate the cliffhanger endings that were a feature of the novel’s first publication in monthly instalments.

Bring back the bonnets, I say!

Related links:
The Secrets and Lies behind Phil Davis (Sunday Times)
BBC drama is going down-market, says Andrew Davies (The Guardian)

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