Dickens of a good selection

5th March 1999 at 00:00
BLEAK HOUSE BY CHARLES DICKENS. BBC Radio Collection audio cassettes pound;12.99. Age range: 14 plus. Tel: 0181 576 2236

There is a lot of Dickens in the BBC Radio Collection. Now Bleak House has been added to Martin Chuzzlewit, The Old Curiosity Shop, Oliver Twist, Our Mutual Friend and The Pickwick Papers.

The newest addition comes on four audio cassettes with a running time of five hours, which allows the complex book time to come to life. Bleak House is one of Dickens's "mature" novels of the 1850s, more finely controlled and less melodramatic and sentimental than earlier books and also offers penetrating social criticism, in this case of the law.

The adapter, John Dryden, who also directed this version, is careful to state that this is not a reproduction so much as an interpretation of Bleak House. Some characters have been dropped and there has been a little restructuring of the plot. But its central narrative mode - the illegitimate orphan Esther Summerson's first person account of events - is faithfully rendered, and from the start her search for the truth about her origins grips the listener.

The novel is a courtroom saga in which the case of Jarndyce v Jarndyce drags its way through the Court of Chancery. It is "like being ground to bits by a slow mill, like being stung to death by single bees," says one character.

The story is also a whodunnit, with a Dickensian prototype for the modern detective, one Inspector Bucket (Berwick Kaler).

But mostly it is a dark tale of confusion and uncertainty, where the moral fog is as profound as the pea-soupers which shroud and even penetrate Chancery. Michael Kitchen plays the good John Jarndyce with nice, unsentimental judgement, Claire Price manages the vocal equivalent of wide-eyed innocence very well, and Honeysuckle Weeks makes a delightfully vivacious Ada Clare.

Bleak House, Jarndyce's pleasant Hertfordshire mansion which belies its name, is well represented by the sounds of footsteps on floorboards, of squeaking doors and the rasps and click of keys in locks.

I knew I was hooked early on when in a delightful scene in the growlery, the only room in Bleak House where grumbles can be aired, Esther enigmatically rejects Jarndyce's kindly offer to answer questions about her origins.

Good listening.

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