One of Martyn Edward Hesford's primary goals in tackling a four-hour adaptation of Charles Dickens' "The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby" for television was to make it palatable for mass audiences while not dumbing down the novel.
"What you have to remember with Dickens is that he's been dressed up over the years," says the screenwriter, a former actor who never read a Dickens novel until his 20s. "But he was a commercial writer. He was a contemporary writer, writing about things that were happening in the day. He appealed to everybody because of his sense of humor, which is absolutely malicious. The comedy comes from the characters. The comedy reveals things about those characters--their pretensions and their truths. It is satire, to some extent."
A co-production of Bravo, where the miniseries will be broadcast in two parts this week, and the ITV channel in England, where it was seen last Easter, "Nicholas Nickleby" revolves around a penniless, good-hearted hero (James D'Arcy) whom Dickens describes as a "young man of impetuous temper and little or no experience."
In financial straits, Nicholas, his mother and beloved sister must seek help from their vile, miserly Uncle Ralph (Charles Dance). Uncle Ralph procures Nicholas a job as a teacher at a Yorkshire school where the headmaster, Mr. Squeers (Gregor Fisher), mistreats the children. Within weeks, Nicholas flees the school with one of the students--the slow, deformed, angelic Smike (Lee Ingleby).
Despite incredible obstacles and the machinations of his uncle, Nicholas manages to make a home for his family, falls in love and even saves his sister (Sophia Myles) from the clutches of the loathsome Sir Mulberry Hawk (Dominic West).
"Nicholas Nickleby" hasn't been adapted for film or TV as often as such Dickens works as "David Copperfield," "Great Expectations" and "A Christmas Carol." The first film version was released in 1912. Thirty-five years later, the great Alberto Cavalcanti ("Dead of Night") directed a British production starring Derek Bond as Nickleby. Twenty years ago, a filmed version of the landmark Royal Shakespeare Company's stage production, starring Roger Rees, played in syndication.
Before writing "Nicholas Nickleby," which like all of his novels were serialized in newspapers and magazines, Dickens and his illustrator, Hablot Browne (a.k.a. Phiz), traveled the Yorkshire countryside incognito in early 1838 to see firsthand the cheap boarding schools for boys. They stopped at the Bowes Academy, where several boys had died or had become blind due to neglect and mistreatment. Bowes Academy became the model for the novel's Dotheboys Hall.
Though the novel is more than 160 years old, Hesford says that its underlying themes remain very relevant today. "I think a lot of the things it deals with have not really changed today, which is the business world and the worship of money and the abuse of children. Today we worship fame and things. People feel they need to be famous. In 'Nicholas Nickleby,' you are nothing without a position. That is what I got from the novel. It is my interpretation of it. I am not an intellectual."
Bravo stepped in as a co-producer after reading Hesford's adaptation. "The script read extremely well," says Frances Berwick, senior vice president of programming and production for the cable channel.
It felt like it had "something for everybody," she says. "The interesting thing about Dickens is that he has sort of come full circle. He was the soap opera writer of his times, serialized in the papers, and then he seems to have taken on this image of 'heavy' reading. This adaptation, I think, will introduce viewers to a fantastic classic that not that many people are familiar with."
Part 1 of "The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby" can be seen Tuesday at 5 and 7 p.m. on Bravo, and Part 2 on Wednesday at 5 and 7 p.m. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be inappropriate for young children). The miniseries is available on video and DVD from Acorn Media.