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Friday, 10 May, 2002, 19:11 GMT 20:11 UK
Uncovering the real Dickens
Anton Lesser is "tremendous'" in the title role
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William Gallagher
BBC News Online

Barely a month after Simon Callow and Peter Ackroyd's biography of Dickens on BBC Four, Ackroyd is back with a new twist on the tale.

That BBC Four programme, The Mystery of Charles Dickens was a straightforward film of Simon Callow's stage performance in the role.

This is a much more lavish, expensive production made for television that sets out to blur the lines between Dickens' fiction, his actual life and also between drama and biography.

The greater part of the tale is a series of interviews with Dickens, his parents, friends and colleagues.


Reportedly, the interviews are all or very nearly all verbatim versions of written, contemporary letters and interviews.

It makes this feel informed, makes you feel close to the primary sources and by dramatising them it adds a peculiarly appealing docu-soap feel to the programme.

It is as if the people are speaking now, that Dickens is alive and vivid right this minute.

However, this single best feature of the documentary is also at times a key weakness because not all actors can make all of the speeches sound real, even given that they are in period phrases.

It is just that the written word cannot always be spoken convincingly.

One of the poorest performances comes from the exceptional Miriam Margolyes whose usual skill with complex texts such as Shakespeare's is sometimes defeated here.

Similarly, Ackroyd is certainly a noted Dickens authority, which makes him a refreshing choice for a presenter, but his inexperience in front of the camera does show.

Occasionally he sounds like he has been watching too much of A History of Britain by Simon Schama or perhaps the historical features on Blue Peter.


Yet there are also moments where Ackroyd is slipped into the drama and they can work extremely, but extremely well.

For instance, a river scene from BBC's version of Our Mutual Friend here cuts to Ackroyd on the same river, in the same moody lighting and the effect is quite startlingly good.

What makes the profile shine above previous ones, even Simon Callow's good stage performance, is in the calibre of the actors in the main parts.

Anton Lesser is tremendous as Dickens himself, making you understand why his public readings were so popular.

Lesser makes it sound as if Dickens is talking to you, whether in the reconstructed interviews or reading from his books.

The mix of fiction and fact pays off in his speeches and in moments of the drama and that makes this an absorbing, even engrossing biography.

Dickens is on BBC Two on Saturday 11 May at 2100 BST.

BBCi DickensFrom BBCi
Click here to visit the programme's website
See also:

09 Jul 01 | Arts
Dickens letter fetches 5,000
11 May 01 | Arts
Smooth Dickens fetches 40,000
07 Feb 01 | Entertainment
Papers show Dickens' hard times
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