The BBC's Bleak House and Rome have drawn huge audiences. But, like most attempts to put the classics on television, they don't work. Television is best at the newby David Herman / December 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
The BBC is ending 2005 on a roll: Bleak House, Rome and four plays which “rediscover Shakespeare through modern interpretations.” This is what they call “event television.”
These three projects are hugely ambitious. On paper, they are exactly what the BBC should be for. It is impossible to imagine ITV or Channel 4 mounting anything comparable. The BBC has a new spring in its step, a new appetite for thinking big. Having ditched Lorraine Hennessey, Greg Dyke and Jane Root, it looks smarter and more interesting. It has also seen off its terrestrial rivals. According to Barb’s viewing figures for October, BBC1 was ahead of ITV; and BBC2, since the end of the Ashes, ahead of Channel 4 again.
Both Bleak House and Rome opened with 6.6m viewers, an almost 30 per cent audience share. It looked like an impressive way to end a year that also included Jerry Springer: The Opera, the successful return of Doctor Who, the showing of Heimat and Martin Scorsese’s Bob Dylan documentary, No Direction Home.
Dickens, Julius Caesar and Shakespeare look like 24-carat public service broadcasting. The problem, of course, is that they’re not, for two reasons. First, they verge from the gimmicky (updated Shakespeare and Dickens as soap opera) to pornographic trash (Rome). The second problem is more interesting. Dickens, Rome and Shakespeare, despite the good intentions, hardly ever work on television. What you tend to get are worthy, stagey programmes. Broccoli television—it’s supposed to be good for you. So you watch it, and it turns out to have been steamed for ten hours and to have no flavour at all. The BBC has produced countless adaptations of Dickens novels, many for the old Sunday teatime classics slot. But they were never as good as the films—Lean’s Great Expectations or Oliver Twist. There have been exceptions: Arthur Hopcraft’s Hard Times (Granada, 1977), the BBC’s Our Mutual Friend (1976) and the RSC’s acclaimed Nicholas Nickleby (Channel 4, 1982). I, Claudius was the only time the BBC succeeded with a Roman drama, and that was almost 30 years ago and now looks desperately dated, despite the outstanding cast. There are two ways that Shakespeare has worked on television. The most reliable has been to film an acclaimed stage production: the RSC’s As You Like It with Vanessa Redgrave (BBC, 1963); the RSC’s The Wars of the Roses (BBC, 1965); Ian McKellen’s Richard II at…