What the Dickens! BBC rebuilds 'Bleak House' for the 'Hollyoaks' generation

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One is set in a Dickensian world of orphans and opium addicts, the other chronicles the lives of modern Cheshire teenagers with fake tans and long blonde tresses.

At first glance, Bleak House and Hollyoaks have little in common.

But Andrew Davies, right, the acclaimed television scriptwriter behind the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, starring Colin Firth, and the racy lesbian drama Tipping the Velvet, believes his new serialisation of Charles Dickens' novel has a similar appeal to the teen soap opera.

He hopes his contemporary rendering of the tale of youthful protagonists falling in love for the first time against a backdrop of dark family secrets will appeal to children as young as 11 and encourage them to read Dickens for themselves.

The BBC commissioned Davies to give the Victorian novel a "soap opera" treatment and, unlike traditional costume drama which is played out over an hour or more, Bleak House will be shown over 16 half-hour episodes in prime time on BBC 1, starting later this month.

As well as reflecting Dickens' original, published in monthly magazine instalments between March 1852 and September 1853, the BBC hopes this unconventional approach will appeal to a new audience.

The adaptation boasts a stellar cast list, including The X-Files star Gillian Anderson, Charles Dance, Denis Lawson, Johnny Vegas and Alistair McGowan.

Bleak House tells the story of two teenage wards of court in the never ending lawsuit of Jarndyce v Jarndyce, Ada Clair and Richard Carstone, and of their young female companion Esther Summerson, a paragon of female virtue although she was born out of wedlock.

Davies said: "I like the idea that all the main characters are very young, the age that kids of 11 can relate to, like Hollyoaks.

"If you think of what kids are like nowadays, the characters are all very innocent, they're virgins. I was hoping we could get kids to watch this. This central trio are all trying to find their way in life. Esther is wondering who her mum and dad are, Ada and Richard are orphans and surrounding it you've got all these dark mysteries.

"It's very appealing stuff to a young audience. If watching this can get them into it, the language is not that different. It would be good to have schoolchildren reading Dickens again."

BBC head of drama Jane Tranter said: "Andrew's storytelling is always contemporary no matter what. We wanted a particular kind of contemporary storytelling and bizarrely we started talking about Spooks and Lost."

She added: "We wanted the story to unfold with some of the sense of anticipation of Dickens's original novel instead of going through the compression most adaptations go through - a sense of energy given by the cliffhanger endings and a narrative of real velocity. The result is something that feels absolutely authentic to the way that Dickens tackled Bleak House, i.e monthly instalments."

Although Davies is no stranger to period drama - his previous adaptations include George Eliot's Middlemarch, William Thackeray's Vanity Fair and Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now and he is planning a new serialisation of Austen's Sense and Sensibility - this is the first time he has attempted Dickens.

One of the main problems he encountered was bringing order to a chaotic narrative. He said: "I initially found [Dickens] him very irritating. He seems to launch into novels without knowing where he's going. It's very different to Jane Austen."

Davies's next project is a BBC adaptation of The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst's sexually explicit Booker Prize-winning novel set in the Thatcher era.