A Dickens of a Christmas

Charles Dickens, a former resident of Lant Street.
Charles Dickens, a former resident of Lant Street. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is Christmas without a little Dickens? British TV has a great tradition of showing Dickens adaptations over the festive period, and this week was no exception. I sat down to eat my lunch and turned on the telly to watch the news, but instead was more than pleased to find that one channel was showing Oliver Twist.

This was David Lean’s classic 1948 film, which I had never seen. Now, I have seen Roman Polanski’s 2005 film and a BBC adaptation that was shown a couple of years ago. I am also very, very familiar with the 1968 musical Oliver! as I spent a whole summer watching this film over and over again with my cousin. We drove my mum mad! I find it interesting that children and teenagers become obsessed with watching or reading the same things repeatedly. The standard convention seems to be this is how kids learn; that repetition helps to reinforce their learning. I think there is more to it than this. I think that as youngsters we often find the world we live in, a world run by adults, confusing and frightening. Watching the same film or TV series over and over again until we can recite it parrot fashion is comforting to us. Its familiarity makes us feel secure, and gives us a sense of calm.

It is nearly thirty years since my summer of Oliver! and the film is still as vivid to me as it was then. I still know all the words to the songs, and can quote some of the actors’ lines. If I close my eyes, I can still see the characters, costumes and sets in their full glory and brilliance. It’s many years since I saw the film, but I still love it. It is still a fantastic way to while away an hour or two. Oddly enough, I have never read the book, which is strange seeing I love Oliver! so much, and I also love Dickens. Great Expectations is one of my favourite books.

I pressed the information button on my Sky+ remote to find out more about the film, and it described it as Lean’s take on the classic Dickens tale. Well, this whetted my appetite and I was completely intrigued. To hell with the washing-up, vacuuming, and dishes I had more important things to do! I settled down to watch the film and was shocked to discover that it was practically the same as the 1968 musical. More accurately, the 1968 film is practically the same as the Lean version. And when I say practically the same, I mean practically the same. The only real difference is that this was in black and white and there was no singing or dancing. The depiction of the characters and the costumes was uncanny. Ron Moody was Alec Guinness. Oliver Reed was Robert Newton. This drew me into the film even more. It was like I was experiencing deja vu. I felt a rush of affection, and love for a film I had never seen before. Watching it was like wrapping myself in a blanket of treasured childhood memories. It was comforting and nostalgic, and filled me with a sense of happiness and warmth.

However, as uncanny as the actors were to each other, it was not this that amazed me the most. That was reserved for the sets. If you’ve never seen both films, I suggest you do. The similarity will blow you away. Fagan’s lair, the courthouse, the street scene at the end when they are chasing Bill Sykes; all are nigh on identical.  It was then I realised that the television channel or whoever writes the blurb for their programmes must have made a mistake. This couldn’t be Lean’s take on Oliver Twist, it must be Dickens’ Twist. Because surely when Lionel Bart wrote the stage musical (which Oliver! is based on) he drew inspiration from the classic tale, not Lean’s film.

I thought I could easily solve this mystery. After all this is the twenty-first century and all I have to do is pose the question in any internet search engine. However, I didn’t want to do this. I thought the question deserved more respect than that. I wanted to find out the answer the old fashioned way, the one we used before the internet. I wanted to read the book and find out myself. Besides, I had neglected and overlooked this story for too long, and I was mindful I needed to put this right. And surely the mark of a good adaptation (whether it is for the small or big screen) is that it urges you to pick up the novel. So this will be my present to myself this Christmas. I am going to self-indulgently immerse myself in a great book. What more could anybody ask for?

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