Last Night's TV: Sickly come dancing is too sweet for me

Ballet Shoes, BBC1; The Old Curiosity Shop, ITV1
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The Independent Culture

I really wasn't very keen to try Ballet Shoes. All my children have read it and loved it and my wife goes misty- eyed when Noel Streatfield's book is mentioned, but I'd always contrived to steer clear of the story until now, largely because of the assumption that it would be entirely concerned with little girls flittering about in pink tutus. As a result, I settled in for Heidi Thomas's Boxing Day headliner with the premonitory queasiness of someone about to be force-fed a dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts. And then they opened the box and I found I was going to get a quite different confection. "This is surprisingly moreish," I thought, as the first five minutes whisked the three orphans into place in Gum's grand Edwardian mansion. It was the baby in the carpet bag that did it, I think, and the engaging notion that a family might be accumulated almost absent-mindedly, through the exercise of a collector's instinct.

The next five minutes didn't disappoint either, even when it became clear that money was tight and Nana and Garnie were going to have to adapt to make ends meet. I liked Dr Smith and Dr Jakes very much (played here by Gemma Jones and Harriet Walter at her most huskily Sapphic), who reframed the children's disadvantages as an opportunity: "We vow to put our names in the history books because it is uniquely ours and ours alone and no one can say it's because of our grandfathers," swear the three girls, a credo of robust (and feminist) self-determination that struck you as just the sort of thing that impressionable minds should be exposed to.

It was only after that, that I began to think that there might, after all, be a sugary core to the drama that could easily cloy. True, times were hard and the household had to scrimp, but this was awfully genteel poverty, not the vulgar kind endured by the children at the school down the endof the road, which was not to be countenanced for the girl's education because they might have come home with lice. And it was true, too, that the way the achievement of one person's dream can weigh rather painfully on the person standing next to them was not entirely ignored. Ambition, at least in this version of Streatfield's story, was not an uncomplicated virtue, since it could easily harden to a cutting edge. But even so, the granting of wishes was so magically unimpeded that you found yourself wondering whether something so easily acquired could really be worth celebrating. Heidi Thomas clearly felt that the original could take even more in the way of flagrant wish-fulfilment, contriving to have Mr Simpson arrive conveniently widowed, so that Garnie, after a teasing deferment, could get her wish too, and be rescued from a life of spinsterhood. I was beginning to want a different kind of flavour by the time Pauline was offered a Hollywood contract and the prospect was presented as a painful dilemma, because she really wanted to carry on starring in the West End too. Still, you really couldn't fault the ingredients or the quality of the baking.

You couldn't say the same of The Old Curiosity Shop, ITV1's single- episode adaptation of a Charles Dickens novel, notable mostly for its sickly finish. I hadn't read this book either, and it was intriguing to find that it contained not just one but two really outstanding villains. Quilp was the obvious one, effectively played by Toby Jones, though with more of that open-mouthed eating with which actors convey moral degradation than was strictly necessary. But as the grandfather, Derek Jacobi was the true monster, his sentimental attachment to his granddaughter never once checking his gambling addiction. "You'll live forever in my heart," he murmured over Nell's cooling corpse, which seemed a decidedly thin consolation, given that his criminal self-indulgence was the main reason she was dead.

The real problem here, though, was thatthe adaptation embedded Dickens in costume once again, as concertedly indifferent to the immediacy of the themes as a Quality Street tin. As Deborah Orr pointed out in her review of Oliver Twist last Wednesday, the real challenge now is to rescue him from his own period clutter. There must be a generation who've never read the books and assume that he wrote historical novels, rather than works of confrontational modernity. And if Shakespeare can be played in modern dress, why not Dickens? Particularly since our world is as Dickensian as his was, if you consider that adjective as describing not a flummery of stovepipe hats and snow-dusted cobbles, but the predation of man on man. There would be just as much work for British character actors, but with less risk that they would ham it up as if they were doing a heritage turn.

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