Bleak House brings some fiscal cheer to the BBC

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The Independent Online

The tangled web of characters and sub-plots surrounding the long-running Jarndyce and Jarndyce court case has gripped many British viewers since the BBC began screening Bleak House in October.

Now viewers in up to 20 countries will be able to watch the 15-part dramatisation of Charles Dickens' novel, which reached its conclusion last night.

The BBC predicts the series, which converted costume drama into a soap opera format, will prove a success overseas, not least because the X Files actress Gillian Anderson is cast in one of the main roles.

Bleak House has already resulted in a surge in demand for Dickens's work. Sales of Dickens' novels have increased, while Penguin Books has just made the classic novel A Christmas Carol, read by the actor Geoffrey Palmer, available on a five-instalment podcast.

In the first week, the show attracted an audience of 10 million and has averaged 6.5 million per episode, above the average of six million for the BBC1 Thursday and Friday evening slots.

BBC Worldwide has reported a "huge amount of interest from broadcasters across the world". It said that more than 20 countries across Europe, Asia and the Middle East had expressed an interest in showing the story in its unique format.

A spokesperson for BBC Worldwide, the commercial, consumer arm of the BBC, said: "We've had a huge amount of interest from broadcasters around the world. As it's still on air we haven't confirmed any deals, but the people who take our period dramas are saying it's the best that they have seen from the BBC."

Bleak House was the first major British drama to be filmed in high definition (HD), a format predicted to be the next big technological revolution in television.

The television screenwriter Andrew Davies was given the task of reinventing the costume drama as soap opera for BBC1, starring Anderson, Charles Dance, Alistair McGowan, Pauline Collins and Johnny Vegas.

Dr Philip Bolton, a trustee of the Dickens House Museum in London, said: "There is still a lot of interest in Dickens in modern America. But American children don't read Dickens because they don't have the patience for the long passages. The BBC dramatisation will reach a much larger audience."

The BBC has yet to decide whether the soap opera format - in 30-minute episodes instead of the more conventional one-hour slot for costume dramas - will be repeated, perhaps because of mixed reactions.

Robert Hanks, The Independent's television critic, said he thought the innovative use of the soap format had been overhyped by the BBC. He added: "I feel like a bit of a lone voice about the series because it has been well-received and popular, but I remain sceptical.

"I still have vivid memories of the BBC's 1985 version with Diana Rigg and Denholm Elliot. The acting was fantastic, and it was very innovative, for example in the way the lighting was used to recreate the Victorian gloom.

"Gillian Anderson is excellent but I'm not sure about Tim West, who doesn't fit his character. Casting Gillian Anderson was a masterstroke - and I'm sure it was partly done in mind for getting the US market.

"I also thought there was a perverse lack of fog. There are plenty of things in the book that are difficult to recreate but not that - it's just dry ice."

BBC bosses will be hoping Bleak House can match the overseas sales success of Pride and Prejudice, which was screened in the UK in 1995 and has since been sold to 80 broadcasters. Other BBC money-spinners include police investigation series such as Silent Witness, and Doctor Who.