A new twist in Fagin's life as Bleasdale fleshes out Dickens

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The Independent Online
THE DRAMATIST Alan Bleasdale is updating Charles Dickens' Fagin character in an ITV version of Oliver Twist that will dump Ron Moody's "singing Shylock" in favour of a more rounded, less stereotypical Jew.

The new seven-hour drama is Bleasdale's first work since leaving Channel 4, where he made his name. It will form the centrepiece of the commercial channel's first autumn season without News at Ten.

The so-called "Bleasdale players" - Robert Lindsay, Julie Walters and Lindsay Duncan - will take leading roles in the production. Robert Lindsay will play Fagin as a more complex character with a background and history developed by Bleasdale. This new Fagin will have a past as a magician and a family life in Prague.

David Liddiment, ITV's director of programmes, said most people's image of the Svengali controlling a gang of thieving street urchins came from films rather than from Dickens so the adaptation was legitimate. "The popular version of Fagin is Ron Moody's from the musical Oliver," said Mr Liddiment, "which, to be fair, is Lionel Bart's version of Fagin. Our Fagin is less of a caricature. He is not simply the Shylock stereotype we have known in the past. He is still Jewish, but you cannot represent Jewishness like that for a Nineties audience.

"The clues for this more complex Fagin are all in the original novel," added Mr Liddiment. "There he has an Eastern European background and has a natural ability that he has used as a conjuror. Alan, who is Britain's greatest television dramatist, has simply brought his own imagination to bear."

Bleasdale said he had been waiting 25 years for a Dickens adaptation and that Oliver Twist would allow him to portray characters from all strata of British society.

Bleasdale made his name as a television dramatist with Boys from the Blackstuff in 1982. All three of the stars of Oliver Twist appeared in Bleasdale's GBH and Jake's Progress on Channel 4. But no commissions have come his way from that channel since Michael Grade was succeeded as chief executive by Michael Jackson in 1997.

Julie Walters plays Mrs Mann, the workhouse manager, in Oliver Twist, and Lindsay Duncan plays the evil Elizabeth Leeford.

Oliver Twist is costing ITV more than pounds 5m. Less expensive is yet another "camcorder clips" series modelled on the genre that continues to dominate American television schedules.

Totally Out of Control will show clips of crashes, violent acts and scenes of wild weather in a style copied from Rupert Murdoch's Fox Television in America. Fox has been vilified for the sensationalism of the genre and beset by accusations that some scenes in the programmes are faked.

However Mr Liddiment said ITV had to provide a mixed schedule of popular programmes with more challenging fare and that there was a place for shows appealing to the "innate fascination" we have for watching things go wrong in real life.

Other highlights of the autumn season include Sean Bean in a fugitive thriller, Extremely Dangerous, and Michelle Collins in Daylight Robbery - about a group of Essex housewives who turn to robbery. The US chat show host Jerry Springer will be presenting a new British-made show.

Media, Review, page 10

Isaac Solomons, Old Bailey, 1835: Dickens' Fagin was based on the notorious "Ikey" Solomons, an escaped fence who was recaptured in Tasmania and returned to face trial.

Alec Guinness, `Oliver Twist', 1948: Guinness plays Fagin as a darker, more terrifying character than the Lionel Bart creation 20 years later. This blends with David Lean's direction and interpretation of the book, concentrating on darker episodes, say, the murder of Nancy. The film was seen as anti-Semitic in America and scenes had to be cut, including profile shots of Guinness' huge prosthetic nose.

Jonathan Pryce, `Oliver!' London Palladium 1994: Critics said his performance was infected by political correctness, playing Fagin like an "indecisive Jewish Hamlet".

Ron Moody, `Oliver!' 1968: The actor hit his career high with his Fagin seared into most people's consciousness. He played the role in the West End in the Sixties and had an Academy Award nomination for the film. His portrayal was Petticoat Lane mischief rather than evil and thanks to Bart's interpretation his fence is a high-stepping, lovable villain belting out: "You've got to pick a pocket or two."