Dickensian Nostalgia

Nostalgia haunts us. It is in the air we breathe, the paths we walk, the people we see. It is not history, but living in the past. Swooning for a long, lost existence, there is no detachment. Nostalgia has an emotional hold. Once it strikes a victim, life is not the same. Things can never be the same. Nostalgia’s sepia tinged filter washes away the present. The future means nothing. Memories reign.

Nostalgia comes down the chimney at Christmas. Childhood. Past memories are exhumed from damp, soot-stained stockings. The fire – that fire – the one we all sit around in the collective memory, like a 1950s firestorm fetish. Maybe, there was no fire. But the family wrap around the hearth, snuggled warm and cosy, snoozing and saintly. Stuffed. Only, that is no fireplace. The family collects around the television.

It is to the television that we return. Again and again and again and again. A seasonal calendar. Advent for the atheist. What’s on next? An answer to our prayers…The Radio Times lies on the altar of the kitchen table. Studied and forgotten. Another night spent channel flicking ourselves to eternity. Lost. A television abyss to drag sown the soul. Yes, that is Christmas Eve. Find a film. No, it has already started. Plus one? No, it started sixty six minutes ago. We can miss the credits. No. We flick until we get back to the start. Then we go again, like a relay race in search of hidden treasure. But though the baton changes hands, the race never ends. The result is the same.

Ok, how about something else? Well, the Celebrations are out of the box. But the box remains on. Let’s take it slow. Super slow. Like a Southampton goal freeze framed into the rippling net of the bottom left corner. What a catch! Let’s see it six times, each time slower than the last. Slow roast? Not even close: Slow TV. Ambient viewing. The TV equivalent of polite conversation. All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride takes things to a new level. Going postal on arctic tundra, it is the Scandinavian version of Big Brother. The antidote to the fast and furious fast food of blockbusters. Yes, you could watch Bond or Bourne. But the simple sight of the Northern Lights is a beautiful bounty on BBC.

A green, hazy vortex of a nebulous, crepuscular sky. But a blue light shines. A black hole that sucks the life joy out of forced fun. Scrooge, we need Ebenezer. Humbug! Board games. Background TV, what to choose…? Keep the kids entertained, turn to Puss in Boots or The Croods. Shrek is christmassy apparently, so too almost anything else. Downton, Gogglesprogs… If it is popular, it needs to be on. Quality time. Quality Street. Coronation Street? No, Eastenders for me, certainly. Soaps are cathartic. If atrocity accelerates atonement.

BBC One rules the kaleidoscope of confusion. Take Boxing Day. Shaun the Sheep gets a llama farmer makeover, while Eastenders’ Odyssean endlessness draws us close to the edge. Then novelty almost raises its claws of controversy with Dickensian. Oh, then Still Open All Hours strikes. David Jason back on the box. Like putting a b-side of Slade on the turntable, his presence reminds us of Fools and Horses past. Father, put Christmassy Ted on More4, Gavin and Stacey on BBC Three, take me there to the show stoppers of a bygone age. Christmas is not the time for originality. It is a time for cultural reinforcement, what we made when we were funny or cool. Like in the 1970s or 80s, 90s or ‘noughties’. Just any time apart from today. We can never be as funny as those good old days. This article would be better had it been written yesterday, such is the force of nostalgia.

But…Something new, an ‘original series’ comes in the shape of Dickensian (and) And Then There Were None. Dickensian is essence de nostalgie. It is a bizarrely contrived concept that seeks to present us with a mash-up of popular characters from Dickens’ creations. It is the Discworld for Dickens. The Marvel Universe for Victorian London. It strikes a crossover of soap opera and serious costume drama. Call it Cranford, it is fan fiction gone wrong. Considering that most viewers will have a decent handling of the main characters, drawn from Oliver Twist (Nancy, Fagin, Sykes); A Christmas Carol (Gavin and Stacey’s Jason as Bob Cratchit, Scrooge) and Great Expectations (Havishams), the rest remains a head scratching exercise for those less well versed in the blockbuster novels.

Nonetheless, it is nostalgia. For the books, yes. But predominantly for BBC’s adaptations past. As all these characters are introduced to our obedient audience, we can’t help but anticipate actors past. Stephen Rea is bound to be an excellent Bucket. Alun Armstrong is our Inspector. It is ten years since Bleak House bounced onto BBC screens with a serialisation in thirty minute bitesize instalments. But its legacy reverberates in the popular consciousness. The pebble in the pond that surges a tsunami over Dickensian. It is not riffing off of its predecessor, it is merely ripping it off. Forget the Old Curiosity Shop, Dickensian is the 99p store slotted next to Bleak Hous
e’s Poundland.

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Was Bleak House that good? Or has nostalgia taken hold, filtering our memory? Well…we remember it was superb. And so too most of BBC’s Dickens dramatisations. An avid fan will sit patiently,
half-expecting Gillian Anderson to waltz in as Lady Delock (or Miss Havisham); perhaps the mighty Eddie Marsan as Pancks or Ray Winstone as a snarling betting ad, sorry, Magwitch. Surveying the collected talent amassed over the years in the service of a Victorian novelist it is quite some cast. Now the characters must live a life beyond. They must be malleable, moulded into a new form. But the nostalgia for the previous versions is strong and often overbearing.

Fortunately, for those colliding past perception with present performance, tune into And Then There Were None. The latest version of Agatha Christie’s mysterious maelstrom meanders slightly, but discomfortingly tuneless strings dash across the soundtrack now and again. A reminder that this is an intense drama. Something will happen, soon…probably. But with Anna Maxwell Martin and Charles Dance, it is a reprise of 2005’s Bleak House – Esther and Tulkinghorn respectively – that will delight the Dickensian doubters. Add in Great Expectation’s Pip in the guise of Douglas Booth (plus Rochester from BBC’s Jane Eyre in Toby Stephens) and there is a veritable family of familiar faces. Sprouting a cloud of festive comfort to digest.

So there we have it. Nostalgia is the defining force of today. It exists all around. It puts bands to the top of bills, books to the front of stores, films back onto our screens. The force awakens…But if Christmas is the season of nostalgia, then our New Year’s resolution should be to fight it. The ‘Christmas mood’ leads to irony in knitwear, inches on the waistline and resolutions on January 6th. Nostalgia is a societal deadly sin. Oppressive, it smothers originality, knocks novelty and locks us in past contemplation. Relive, rewind, r-…retaliate. Fight nostalgia before it sends you to the cultural graveyard first.

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