Considering most of Charles Dickens's novels were essentially grand-scale soap operas, it seems either inspired or incredibly lazy to extract all his best characters from their respective stories and throw them together into the same simmering pot. Yet this is the idea behind Dickensian, the BBC's new 20-part prime-time series, which launches on Boxing Day and looks likely to run and run. After all, there are 989 named characters to play with in the author’s bulging body of work (and the books are long out of copyright too).
EastEnders veteran Tony Jordan, who runs the new show and has written the first episodes, starts us off with around 30 familiar faces, all living within spitting distance of each other. The geography is about as murky as the pea-souper fog that licks the windows of the Old Curiosity Shop and its neighbour the Three Cripples Inn. We’re probably going to need a new map of this mish-mashed London, not to mention some seriously intricate timelines too. Here, Miss Havisham is a young hottie still full of hope, while Fagin and Scrooge are drinking buddies.
The characters in the first episode have been pulled from six novels, so they could have called it Our Mutual Christmas House With A Twist Of Chuzzlewit, but then maybe Dickensian does the job well enough. Tying all these figures together is a Jack The Ripper style murder (we won’t say who) and sniffing his way through the fragrant-looking suspects is the world’s first ever literary sleuth: Inspector Bucket. He’s played by Stephen Rea, one of only a handful of famous actors in the show, the BBC perhaps thinking there was enough to get your head round already without starry stunt casting (you may also spot Caroline Quentin and Omid Djalili, but the rest are newbies or character actors who look like they may have been passed over for other parts because they look a bit too, well, Victorian).
It’s a very disciplined start, the show strategically holding back the face-offs between the big characters for future episodes. We're looking forward to, hopefully, a wrestling match between Magwitch and Sydney Carton, or the coming-of-age gay storyline starring Pip and David Copperfield. It looks like a proper page turner.
Dickensian starts on BBC One on Boxing Day with two half-hour episodes at 7pm then 8.30pm.