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