RADIO: A DICKENS OF A GOOD LISTEN

RADIOEYE

It's a melancholy fact that Charles Dickens has become unavoidably associated with Christmas - so much so that in recent years, as the reputation of contemporaries such as George Eliot and Trollope has grown, Dickens seems to have retreated to his Yuletide stronghold. Certainly the Dickens adaptations which were once a staple of Sunday tea-time television have fallen away; for many children today, Dickens is known only as the author of The Muppet Christmas Carol.

Presumably, some sense of Dickens's seasonal associations lies behind Radio 4's decision to broadcast The Old Curiosity Shop this Christmas. Sue Wilson, the producer, says that this dark, sentimental tragedy, with its bludgeoning contrasts of good and evil, wouldn't work in the summertime: "It isn't a particularly Christmassy story, unlike say, The Pickwick Papers, but it is a journey undertaken in the dark night." But her real reason for wanting to put it out over Christmas is that you can do it on six consecutive weekday mornings and, hopefully, achieve some of the sense of anticipation and excitement that Dickens's readers felt when it was first published in serial form between 1840 and 1841.

There are two things that almost everybody knows about The Old Curiosity Shop today: one is that on that first appearance, people crowded the quayside at New York waiting for news of the saintly and beautiful child-heroine, Little Nell; the second is Oscar Wilde's comment on the death of Little Nell - that a man must have a heart of stone to read it without laughing.

Wilson, however, reckons that the case against Little Nell's death has been overstated - it's not as if the novel actually subjects the reader to the moment of death (though you might argue that it's the coyness with which Dickens skirts round the fact of death that makes the book particularly sickening). At any rate, Wilson sees the real motor of the narrative in Quilp, the malignant, dwarfish money-lender who persecutes Nell and her doting, irresponsible grandfather. It's Quilp who drives them out of their home and out of London, and pursues them across England to the rural haven where Nell finds her final resting place, and it's his demonic energy that propels most of what passes for a plot (though there are a couple of sub-plots involving the redemption of the reprobate youth Dick Swiveller and the wrongful imprisonment of the honest, open-hearted Kit Nubbles).

What drew Wilson to produce the book in the first place was, she says, the idea of getting Tom Courtenay to play Quilp: "We've seen him so often playing the good guy, but looking back to the early days, he's got some thoroughly slippery characters... As Quilp there's a sort of manic, vicious, sadistic quality to him, but there's a blend of humour in him as well." Certainly Courtenay's unholy glee is the highlight of the radio version, though this doesn't come as much of a surprise. Courtenay only made his radio debut a few years ago, in the monologue "Moscow Stations" (a performance he later took to the West End), but in the few parts he's done since then - including the violently abusive father in Shelagh Stephenson's extraordinary play Five Kinds of Silence - he's established himself as the outstanding actor in radio today.

With his performance at its centre, this Old Curiosity Shop should help dispel the air of hearty sentimentality that clings to Dickens and Christmas. It should remind us that for every Tiny Tim, with his chirpy "God bless us every one", there's Scrooge snarling "Bah, humbug."

`The Old Curiosity Shop', Christmas Day - Fri 27 Dec, Mon 30 Dec-New Year's Day, 11.30am R4

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
The first film introduced Daniel Radcliffe to our screens, pictured here as he prepares to board the train to Hogwarts for the first time.
booksHow reading Harry Potter helps children grow up to be gay-friendly
Sport
Frank Lampard will pass Billy Wright and equal Bobby Charton’s caps tally of 106 caps against
sportFormer Chelsea midfielder in Etihad stopgap before New York contract
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Aladdin is performed at the Tony Awards in New York in June
theatreBrit producer Lythgoe makes kids' musical comedy a Los Angeles hit
Sport
Usain Bolt of Jamaica smiles and shakes hands with a competitor after Jamaica won their first heat in the men's 4x100m relay
sport
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Life and Style
ebookAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
Chancellor George Osborne, along with the Prime Minister, have been 'complacently claiming the economy is now fixed', according to shadow Chancellor Ed Balls
i100... which is awkward, because he is their boss, after all
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
filmBlue Is The Warmest Colour, Bojack Horseman and Hobbit on the way
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleBenidorm actor was just 68
Arts and Entertainment
Preparations begin for Edinburgh Festival 2014
Edinburgh festivalAll the best shows to see at Edinburgh this year
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    (Senior) IT Support Engineer - 1st-3rd Line Support

    £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful IT service provider that has bee...

    Wind Farm Civil Design Engineer

    £55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

    Principal Marine Mechanical Engineer

    £60000 - £70000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

    Principle Geotechnical Engineer

    £55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

    Day In a Page

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices