Dickens with a fresh twist

Victorian London has been recreated in Prague. Craig McLean shadowed the director Roman Polanksi on the set of his new adaptation of the classic novel
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On Pentonville Road you can taste the smell of dung. The offending horse stands patiently on the cobbles, tethered to a carriage. The foul-looking driver sits in his seat, swaddled in coarse clothing, waiting for business.

On Pentonville Road you can taste the smell of dung. The offending horse stands patiently on the cobbles, tethered to a carriage. The foul-looking driver sits in his seat, swaddled in coarse clothing, waiting for business.

The shops in nearby King's Street are similarly idle. All of a sudden, there is a commotion on Mill Street. From out of nowhere the narrow, muddy lane fills with brawling urchins, scabby peasants, booze-sodden beggars and harried women clutching scraggy-looking babies.Two small boys push their way through the middle of the throng. One, aged around 12, drags along the smaller, who looks about 10. As they push their way past the Three Cripples Pub, the Artful Dodger and his new-found friend Oliver Twist are swallowed up in the urban mêlée.

It's a sunny autumn afternoon on a scrubby, rubble-strewn hillside four miles outside Prague. At the behest of a small, remarkably well-preserved, curiously-accented 71-year-old filmmaker with leonine hair and a bulky red quilted jacket, the dark, dank London of 1837 is bustling to life. It is day 51 on the 16-week shoot of Roman Polanski's film of Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist. It's a big production. Some 800 rag-clad extras are scattered across 40 acres of soundstage and backlot at Barrandov Studios, the pre-eminent facility in the booming Czech film industry. The budget is an estimated £31m.

That kind of money buys you a huge set created with meticulous attention. A healthy budget also buys you the talents of the Oscar-winning Sir Ben Kingsley, who plays Fagin. Powerful support comes from Jamie Foreman (Bill Sikes), a character actor with a host of strong roles to his credit, including the Earl of Sussex in Elizabeth and one opposite Martin Kemp in the TV gangster drama Family Business; and Mark Strong (as Sikes's criminal associate Toby Crackit), who was acclaimed for his gritty performances in the TV dramas Our Friends In The North and The Long Firm.

Playing the part of Oliver is Barney Clark, an 11-year-old from Hackney in London. A pupil of the Anna Scher school, Clark has the hit indie film The Lawless Heart and some TV work on his CV. The Artful Dodger, meanwhile, is played by Harry Eden, 14, from Epping ( Pure, Peter Pan, The Lazarus Child). He's perfect for the role: not only is his accent sheer Essex - a contemporary Dodger would surely be a brash geezer from just beyond the M25 - but also Dickens is the reason he's here. "The Artful Dodger in Oliver!, that's what made me want to do acting," says Harry.

This is most definitely a kids' film. Polanski's Fagin may be being played with scheming aplomb by an elaborately made-up Kingsley, but it's a long way from the sinister Fagin essayed by Alex Guinness in David Lean's 1948 dramatisation.

This Oliver Twist is a radically different proposition from the director of Knife In The Water, Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown and The Pianist. Polanski wanted to move into different terrain from the 2002 Holocaust award-winner. His wife suggested Oliver Twist. "Above all it is a tale for a young audience," says Polanski of his take on the classic story. "My ambition is to make the film for my children. I read stories to them every night and I know what enchants them and how they identify with the characters. In Oliver Twist it is important that I don't disappoint them."

Having enlisted Ronald Harwood to write a screenplay, Polanski has embarked on a version of the film in which "we are not going to strive for realism, quite the opposite. The characters in this story are larger than life, with the emphasis on their glorious humour and eccentricities. This is a Dickensian tale in the truest sense, which means it is exuberant and intriguing and timeless and full of incident."

Around six o'clock, as the sun heads towards the Prague skyline and the temperature plummets, Sir Ben Kingsley arrives on set with hours of night-shooting ahead of him. Prior to entering the clutches of the film's make-up artist, and of his own personal make-up "specialist", he sits down for a chat in one of the many rooms strung along Barrandov's institution-like corridors. Sir Ben was more than happy to reunite with Polanski, with whom he had worked 10 years ago on Death And The Maiden, because he believes he is one of few directors up to the job of adapting Dickens.

"It is no good having a pedestrian director directing Shakespeare when he couldn't actually spend five minutes in a pub with Shakespeare - he'd be totally crushed and intellectually intimidated by Will. You have to have a director who still has this intellectual vigour, confidence, instincts and curiosity.

"'For all the best motives in the world, I want my children to enjoy great literature': that was his letter at the head of the script. It's Roman's gift to the next generation," enthuses Sir Ben, "who are starved of any kind of historical depth and historical density. And context - as to how we got from Dickens's London, which was appalling, to our London, which in parts is equally appalling."

More assiduous research is revealed by a tour of the work-in-progress interiors housed in one of Barrandov's cavernous soundstages. The Three Cripples pub feels authentically smoky and dangerous. Bill Sikes's attic hideout feels like the kind of desperado's cell seen in images from Iraq. The abandoned candle factory where Toby Crackit lives is full of period tools.

"Everything is practical, everything is working - I have not compromised," says the production designer Allan Starski, the Oscar-winning set-designer on Schindler's List and a collaborator with Polanski on The Pianist. "Also, this is Roman," he says with a middle-European shrug, referring to his compatriot's legendary attention to detail.

Back on set, it's approaching midnight and freezing cold. Harry Eden's Artful Dodger is eating some Dairylea Dippers, cradling handwarmers and lounging louchely in a set chair - he looks perfectly rascally. Barney Clark's Oliver is having his hair smoothed down, ready for action. Banned by Polanski from eating ice-cream, the better to maintain his pauper's skinniness, his cherub-faced leanness makes him look even younger, more cutesy. Polanski casts a crinkly, paternal eye over his young charges.

Meanwhile, a curious creature with straggly hair, a prominent hunch, a serious nose and a battered coat has scuttled down Pentonville Road's cobbles (hand-laid by local craftsmen). He creeps up behind Roman Polanski. "Oh, look at that," he croaks, espying a free chair. According to Barney Clark, Sir Ben never comes out of character when he is in full Fagin kit.

Polanski, focused on how Oliver is to run down a flight of stairs, is disturbed by some conversation. "If someone is bored here they can go fucking home!", he shouts in an accent that is half-French, half-Polish.

The final scene of the night involves Fagin, Dodger and another of the "beggar King's" boys chasing Oliver down a treacherously muddy Mill Lane. The boys go skidding by, time after time, pursued by a panting Fagin. Allan Starski adjusts the flames coming from a brazier. One of his team wets handbills stuck to walls advertising a "Balloon Ascent" and a "Bal Masque". The street is hosed down to make it more muddy. The first assistant director, at Polanksi's prompting, moves clumps of extras this way and that. Polanski and Starski gather round illustrations by Gustave Doré from London, A Pilgrimage, a period travel book. Polanski checks his watch. The boys must have 15 minutes off every hour, and can only work nine hours from leaving their city-centre hotel to returning to the hotel. Time is running out. But Barney Clark has fallen in the alley. He's mildly hurt his leg and his trousers are muddy.

"Change the trousers, run it in, as soon as possible do it again," barks Polanski. And everyone jumps to it.

Except Sir Ben Kingsley. Fagin's a doddery old soul but remarkably nimble, and the actor is worried about running too fast and slipping himself. After all, he's not dressed for it. "They didn't have Nikes in those days," cackles the old criminal crone as he hobbles away, adjusting his string-belted coat, "they didn't have 'em!"