Sean Coughlan went to meet, David Lodge, the novelist and screenwriter charged with the unenviable task of reinventing Dickens for a contemporary television audience.
Next week the BBC launches its biggest drama serial of the autumn, Martin Chuzzlewit, giving Charles Dickens's comic masterpiece the Middlemarch treatment. Adapting this shelf-busting novel for television has taken five drafts and six months out of the life of novelist and academic David Lodge, whose screenwriting credits already include an award-winning adaptation of his own novel, Nice Work.
As both an academic literary critic and a writer familiar with the demands of mainstream television, David Lodge has been responsible for producing a script which will satisfy Dickens buffs as well as being accessible viewing for millions of viewers. With expectations raised by the success of Middlemarch, the pressure is on him to produce another rich slice of classic drama to warm the long winter nights.
So how do you go about turning half a million of Charles Dickens's words into five-and-a-half hours and six episodes of prime-time television?
"It's a pragmatic business," David Lodge says. "Not only a question of deciding what will work dramatically, but also how much of the original text you can afford to reflect in the time that's given to you."
The knowledge that television viewers will flick off at the first twinge of boredom puts particular demands on the screenwriter. "You have to be extremely disciplined and demanding on yourself. Every image and every line must have maximum impact and have a reason for being there, otherwise the audience's attention will be distracted. You can't hope that viewers will tolerate half-an-hour's boredom because there's a terrific pay-off afterwards. They won't."
While scenes, characters and dialogue had to be filleted for a streamlined television script, David Lodge was keen to preserve the novel's chief strength its comic assault on hypocrisy and selfishness. "Martin Chuzzlewit has an awful lot of sheer, glorious comedy, based on timeless forms of human folly, deceit and affectation." Although the novel's plot might meander into a spaghetti of sub-plots, the momentum is sustained by a cast of comic monsters, such as Mr Pecksniff and Mrs Gamp, which David Lodge believes are among Dickens's funniest characters. These acutely-observed figures of fun, and a whole line-up of greedy relatives, hover around the wealthy and ailing Martin Chuzzlewit, as his nearest and dearest tussle to get a favourable mention in his will.
If the self-admiring targets of the novel's satire remain current, then the language has moved on, setting the adapter the task of writing dialogue that preserves the flavour of Dickens's language while making it readily comprehensible to a modern audience.
"As far as possible I would use Dickens's lines," he says. "The comic dialogue can hardly be improved upon. But the more serious scenes tend to be written in a more declamatory or melodramatic style, which wouldn't work in the naturalistic conventions of television." For these scenes he "dramatically simplified and condensed" Dickens's language, relying on the actors' expressions rather than the more verbose declarations of emotions found in the original book.
As well as re-writing speeches from the book, David Lodge also had to write his own imitation Dickensian dialogue, a skill developed, he says, from his teaching experience as a professor of English literature at the University of Birmingham. It was of particular satisfaction to him that one of the biggest laughs in the first episode, a perfectly formed Dickensian gag, was written by David Lodge, although the viewers are unlikely to notice the joins.
The BBC's adaptation of Martin Chuzzlewit is the latest example of the longstanding romance between television and the 19th-century novel. As Victorian poets and painters dipped into classical myth for their subject matter, so "classic" drama in television terms is likely to be drawn from writers such as Jane Austen, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy or Charles Dickens.
This relationship, which this year put Middlemarch at the top of the bestseller list, reflects the strong parallels between the 19th-century popular authors and contemporary writers for television, particularly, David Lodge believes, "in the relationship between an author and a huge popular audience".
Published in a serialised form, over a year or more, a novel like Martin Chuzzlewit "would have been received very much as a soap opera is today, " he says. Like a soap writer, Dickens published the first chapters of Martin Chuzzlewit before any ending had been decided upon, and when sales dipped, Dickens changed the direction of the novel to boost the public's interest, writing in a visit to America and giving more space to the popular characters.
"This is all very different from a modern literary novelist who can re-write the beginning to be consistent with the end, before anybody sees it," he says.
But how much of the novel is lost in its translation into television? And how much is the television version a new creature, to be viewed without cross-references to the text?
There are gains and losses in the process, David Lodge says. "In Martin Chuzzlewit the good characters are much more affecting in performance than when you read about them, because they're imbued with a human presence by the actors. Music and expression can convey an authenticity of emotion that Dickens sometimes didn't manage to capture in words."
If performing a scene can add physical credibility to the more overblown and improbable aspects of Dickensian characters, then on the debit side, television's inclination to naturalism can rule out the fantastic and imaginary elements of the storytelling. "What is lost is the extraordinary grotesque evocation of environment. It's a kind of dream landscape, where the animate becomes inanimate and the inanimate becomes animate. That is impossible to do."
As an example, he cites Dickens's celebrated description of a London boarding house, which in the novel is hidden at the centre of labyrinthine streets like "a monstrous fungus, growing in all directions". But such hallucinatory moments have to be jettisoned in the television drama.
One of the dangers of adapting such a period piece is the risk of turning a serious literary work into a costume drama, where the dialogue is drowned by the swish of expensive dresses and the crunch of carriage wheels on gravel drives.
On the set of Martin Chuzzlewit, David Lodge says, this was known as the "heritage" look, and all of those involved in the production worked to avoid it. Rather than dressing characters in new clothes, the designers put them in costumes intended to look lived-in, and the houses featured were planned to look realistically grimy. "But in spite of that," Lodge says, "colour television tends to glamorise everything, and the art director still thinks that the interiors of the houses look too attractive. When we filmed they looked authentically drab and grimy, but you only have to put in a candle and, beneath the cameras, the room begins to glow."
Anticipating the critics' reaction, he says that the response to the first episode will be crucial. "The first episode is always a worry, particularly with a classic serial, when there are so many characters to introduce and plot strands to lay down. It's like a spring being wound up."
But with a cast full of big names, including Paul Scofield, John Mills and Joan Sims, and the up-market quality stamp of the BBC's drama department, it seems set to join the ranks of television's great and the good.
Larger than life, and almost as long, the novel version of Martin Chuzzlewit seems set to reach a whole new audience through the BBC's television serial, breathing new life into characters comfortably past their 150th birthdays.
The first episode of "Martin Chuzzlewit" is on BBC2, Monday, November 7, 9.00-10.30pm. David Lodge is speaking at a one-day conference, "Dramatisation", being presented by the BBC and British Film Institute on Friday, November 18, at the Broadway Media Centre, Nottingham. Details from Paul Robinson, BBC Education, Room 2308, BBC White City, 201 Wood Lane, London W12 7TF.