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Koch Vision presents

Dickens of London (1976)

"I invented him. He invented me. And now we plague each other."- Dickens (Roy Dotrice)

Stars: Simon Bell, Roy Dotrice,
Other Stars: Diana Coupland, Gene Foad
Director: Michael Ferguson, Marc Miller

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 12h:22m:00s
Release Date: 2007-08-14
Genre: historical

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Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
B B+BB A

 

DVD Review

I suspect that Dickens of London is another one of those products that you're either sold on instantly, or not at all. If the latter, bear with me. If, instead, you're thinking: "A thirteen episode BBC television miniseries from the mid-1970s about the life of Charles Dickens? Oh, boy!", then have I a treat for you. The film is decidedly of its time and genre, but its one of the really great efforts of its kind. The subject is fascinating, and the script is quirky and smart. Most importantly, the thirteen hours are held together by a great lead performance covering the breadth of the life of the writer.

Dickens is (mostly) played by the extraordinary character actor Roy Dotrice. He's probably best known in the states for his role in the Linda Hamilton/Ron Perlman Beauty and the Beast series, but if you've never seen that show you're still likely to recognize him from his many television appearances in England and the U.S. He plays a fully grown Dickens, as well as the writer's father, and the writer as a dying and bedridden man in the film's framing sequences. I've always been partial to Dotrice, with his proper English bearing offset by a mischievous quality that makes him perfect here, particularly in the early bits where he plays the warm-hearted John Dickens, whose good-natured deceptions are only able to keep the family from financial ruin for a brief time. Unlike some of the other performers here, who are alternately overly staid or lapse into melodrama, Dotrice is always just right.

The subtle conceit is also rather brilliantly obvious: the twists and turns of Dickens' own life are as dramatic as those of any of his novels. While watching episode one, it's tempting to say that his own father is a "character straight out of Dickens," though of course that's the whole point. By mixing in quotes from the writer's novels throughout, the production makes the clear case that Dickens creations, particularly his wonderful characters, didn't spring whole-cloth from his head, but instead were perfect distillations of the people and events that shaped his relatively few years. As chronicled in the first few episodes of the series, he is born into a wealthy family, only to see everything in ruins when his charming, caring, and deeply likeable father John is sent to debtors' prison. His attempts to maintain proper Victorian appearances, combined with a singular lack of talent for managing money leave the family in rags and young Charles supporting his family through meager factory work. Even a passing familiarity with his work (or the many movies that have been made of them) brings to mind David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, and many other stories that eloquently speak to the plight of the poor. The production feels like a new Dickens novel, with great twists, romance, and fascinatingly quirky characters. The only difference being that it's all true (well, maybe not all of it, but I doubt that Dickens would've minded a few creative liberties here and there). His early difficulties and disappointments provide him ample fuel for the literary machine that he became.

The mid-70s/BBC production values are a bit jarring at the outset. In fact, they scream at you. The then common use of using film for exterior shots and video for interiors creates sometimes jarring contrasts in image quality, and it doesn't seem as though the actors always knew where their microphones were. In spite of plenty of fine location work, it's essentially a very long play, but it's engrossing enough if you're able to set aside the technical limitations and enjoy it on its own terms.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B+

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: It is what it is, and that's not perfect. There aren't any real transfer issues, but the source material is lacking due to age and budget. You're not going to grab this expecting stunning picture quality, and you won't get it, but the image is perfectly acceptable on its own terms, and probably better than you might expect.

Image Transfer Grade: B
 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes


Audio Transfer Review: Nothing to write home about, but the issues are primarily related to the source material. As a 30+ year television production from Britain, there are problems with the source audio for which there are no remedies. Levels change, there are occasional drop-outs, etc. It's probably about as good as it was when it aired the first time. No subtitles are provided.

Audio Transfer Grade:

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Packaging: Book Gatefold
Picture Disc
5 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. An Audience with Charles Dickens Feature
Extras Review: The only extra is actually quite impressive, even if it hasn't much to do with the feature production itself. It's An Audience with Charles Dickens from 1996. Dickens spent a huge part of his later years (as documented in the later episodes of the series) travelling and giving readings of his work. Here, actor Simon Callow, with full period garb and flavor, reads A Christmas Carol, recreating one of Dickens readings. The whole audience is dressed for the occasion, and it's a nifty experience at right around 60 minutes.

Extras Grade: A
 

Final Comments

There's no doubt that this extended miniseries about the life of Charles Dickens won't be for everyone. Once past the trappings of thirty-year-old British television, though, it's actually quite effective. The script is sharp and witty, and Roy Dotrice gives a phenomenal perfromance as Dickens.

Ross Johnson 2008-02-22