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Dickensian vision

12 September 2014


WOULD Charles Dickens have written for EastEnders? The case for was argued by the veteran EastEnders scriptwriter Tony Jordan, in the first of his new series, ludicrously entitled The Secret Life of Books (BBC4, Tuesday of last week).

The points of overlap are plain enough: an essentially dramatic view of life; exaggerated characters; bathetic comedy; populism; sentimentality; and, above all, an episodic format, so each section has to end with a cliffhanger.

Jordan brought his insights to bear on what he considers to be Dickens's masterpiece (and I agree with him), Great Expectations. His particular focus was the notorious revised ending: the original draft concludes with Pip's meeting Estella by chance, many years later, to discover that she has remarried; and they part, never to meet again.

Dickens was persuaded to change this to a conventionally happy ending: they walk away into the sunset, arm in arm. Jordan applauded the revision; I think it was a cop-out. The novel is a moral work, in which Pip's snobbery and fantasy are painfully stripped away, finally achieving a chastened simplicity. Jordan's preference for the crowd-pleasing climax shows that Dickens might well have written TV soap operas, but, if he could have followed his best artistic instincts, they would be far superior to anything broadcast at the moment.

A. N. Wilson reintroduced us to that rarest of creatures, a popular poet with mass-market appeal, in Return to Betjemanland (BBC4, Monday of last week). Wilson is engaged, personal, amused by, and moved by his subject; it was a deeply felt film in which we appreciated the points of contact between biographer and theme.

There was, of course, a great deal about churches, and about faith - and illuminating comment on the distinction between them, as far as Betjeman was concerned. Behind the laughter, behind the anger at the destruction of so much beauty, behind the technical craftsmanship of the verse, there remained a little boy who never really escaped from the terror of hellfire inculcated in him by his Calvinist nanny.

This was a rounded picture. Wilson did not withhold the difficult aspects of the poet's life: his snobbery, despite all the enthusiasm for the seaside pleasures of the many; and his adultery, refusing to choose between his wife and his mistress over many decades. Wilson managed to turn this moral failure into something positive - Betjeman's faults offer us a kind of fellow-feeling; his achievement does not require an impossible perfection from his readers.

Since I know little about animals, and care less, BBC1's new drama Our Zoo (Wednesdays), based on the founding of Chester Zoo, was always going to have to work hard to win my interest. I am afraid that the first episode neither converted nor persuaded me.

The characters and plot scenarios are all from period-drama stock, and we heard nothing that would fire up anyone's zeal for George Mottershead's vision about a new kind of zoo, in which the animals could roam free rather than be cooped up in cages. I am sure it will be a runaway success.

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