So, the BBC have decided to remake and modernise another classic piece of literature and this time they have landed upon Charles Dickens’ family favourite: Nicholas (now Nick) Nickleby.
In the original Victorian tale, Nicholas is left to defend his mother and sister after his father dies and leaves them buried in debt. In order to do this, Nicholas appeals to the better side of his wealthy uncle, Ralph Nickleby, originally an unidentified “businessman” who has shares in boarding schools, and in this remake, the same unidentified “businessman” but with shares in care homes for the elderly.
This particular switch between the original and this adaptation is perhaps the cleverest and the most seamless. Here, instead of befriending Smike, the young crippled boy, Nick befriends Mrs Smike, the “loony” old woman with a troubled past. The character change fits perfectly, there even could be arguments made for whether or not this is in fact a better role for Smike.
Both Andrew Simpson (Notes On A Scandal) and Linda Bassett (Larkrise To Candleford, Calendar Girls), Nick and Mrs Smike respectively, perform well together in the first episode, making it easy for the audience to warm to the characters both singularly and as a duo, something that will become an integral part of the series’ intended success as it progresses. Unfortunately, Smike into Mrs Smike, and their relationship are the first episode’s only saving graces.
As for the other characters, they are almost farcical in their malignity, making what seems plausible in the Victorian era appear as if it were taken directly from a Punch and Judy sketch in this modern adaptation.
Perhaps the best example of this is Wackford Squeers, played by relatively unknown actor, Mark McDonnell, who is the manager of the care home that Nick has been sent to work for.
His outrageous treatment of the elderly residents, including stealing their money, feeding them Oliver Twist style porridge for every meal and even injecting them with an unknown mysterious relaxant, is completely at odds with the 21st century setting and forces the audience to laugh in disbelief at something that should be distressing.
With a bizarre 2.15pm time slot on a Monday afternoon, the BBC seem to be trying to market this as a family drama which further adds to the awkward disbelief of the audience. The series severely lacks the grime and grittiness of Dicken’s picture of Victorian life and while some parts shine, most of this adaptation has destroyed a classic loved story; rather than a fresh take on the original, Nick Nickelby feels more like a Doctors care home special.
The BBC may have gone one step too far in their era of modernisation and re-imaginings – maybe they should stick to making new series’ of the ones that have worked. If you missed the mini-series which finished 9 October, count yourself lucky.