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James Cutler, The Cultural Afterlives of Our Mutual Friend: ‘Adapting Our Mutual Friend for TV and Radio’ Panel Report

2015 October 23

James John Cutler, Royal Holloway

James Cutler is a PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London, having previously studied at Aberystwyth, Liverpool and Cambridge. His thesis examines how and why certain places dominate the cultural memory of the most enduringly popular Victorian novelists. It investigates the crucial link between Victorian literary longevity and a cultural heritage characterised by strong associations with particular places. In addition to doctoral work, James volunteers at the Charles Dickens Museum and plays cricket for Twickenham. For ‘tweets’ about the Victorians, education, Hereford FC and jazz, follow James here: @JJ_Cutler .

On Thursday 4 June 2015, Birkbeck Nineteenth-Century Studies Forum hosted ‘Adapting Our Mutual Friend for TV and Radio’, a panel featuring screenwriter, Sandy Welch, radio producer, Jeremy Mortimer, and radio dramatist, Mike Walker. Organised by PhD candidate Emma Curry, the event supplemented the Our Mutual Friend Reading Project, which, in various ways, is studying and celebrating Dickens’s final completed novel during its 150th anniversary. The panel members had spent substantial periods of their media careers immersed deeply in both the novel and Dickens: Welch wrote the screenplay for the 1998 BBC television adaptation (among numerous others); Mortimer and Walker adapted the novel for BBC Radio 4 in 2009 (one of their countless Dickens adaptations for radio). Expectations were thus high for an evening of unique insights into the cultural afterlife of Our Mutual Friend through the varying television and radio interpretations of the novel, as well as the resulting implications (for the novel, author and literary adaptations generally).

Welch opened by revealing her indebtedness to BBC Sunday teatime “classic serial” literary adaptations. She praised their almost comprehensive coverage and unhurried unfolding of the text, without concessions, screen “stars” and contrived attempts to grab the viewer. She also spoke highly and unflinchingly of their enhancing impact on her relationship with the original literary text as a young reader. They encouraged her to read the novel that had been adapted; they made her more familiar with it so that when she was faced with its hundreds of pages, she felt less daunted.

Next, Welch disclosed how she is frequently asked about the reasons for adapting a certain text at a particular time, and for the number and length of episodes over which a text is adapted. Relating these questions to the conception of Our Mutual Friend (1998), she divulged that initially she was writing the screenplay for a different BBC literary adaptation, of which there were three forthcoming competitors. Eager to broadcast their version first, the BBC pressurised Welch to finish, making screenwriting something of a race. Eventually, Welch halted work on the project before completion, and was asked by the BBC which text she wanted to adapt instead. Welch proposed her favourite Dickens novel, Our Mutual Friend, which the then Controller of BBC2, Mark Thompson, endorsed, but only after visiting Foyles to purchase and read it for the first time. Thompson’s unfamiliarity with the novel was characteristic across the production and acting teams. During casting in Charing Cross, it emerged that those auditioning were stopping at Foyles en-route to flick through the text, being subsequently shocked at its sheer volume. The general lack of acquaintance made adapting Our Mutual Friend more compelling, Welch admitted. The project seemed fresher, without any cultural baggage and anxiety of influence that often encompasses innumerably adapted texts.

Generally, Welsh found Our Mutual Friend “exciting […] to work on”, even “a privilege”. She attributed this to the “fantastic cast” and the construction of the Limehouse riverfront from scratch in Cardiff docks and dust heaps in Trefil Quarry, South Wales, despite the great expense of doing so. Unsurprisingly Welch joked that these key signifiers of 1860s Dickensian London were given deliberate prominence on screen so that the adaptation got its money’s worth! Working on a novel that Welch cared “so much about” did, though, heighten certain problems commonly arising when adapting a text. Covering the novel in just four ninety-minute slots meant important decisions to contract it, ensuring the adaptation was “prime”, whilst still preserving the text’s “essence”. 90 minute episodes did allow for a deeper, richer interpretation of “character and atmosphere” than the traditional 30 or 60 minute episodes.

Welch supplemented her talk with clips, providing a unique, privileged commentary on them. We viewed Eugene Wrayburn and Mortimer Lightwood’s coach journey from the Veneerings’ into the wilderness of Limehouse as they searched for information about the John Harmon case. Welch emphasized the self-consciousness of the journey’s extensiveness (approximately three-and-a-half minutes). Despite producers deeming the scene too long, Welch fought hard to keep it. She considered it crucial for heightening the “abyss” between ‘Society’ and Limehouse, conveying London as a “hunting ground […] where people try their luck”; hang about “on the edges, waiting for their pickings”.

Mortimer and Walker’s talk began by considering radio literary adaptation more generally. Mortimer started especially energetically, waving a copy of Our Mutual Friend and celebrating its “satisfying sound for radio”. He explained that radio allowed adaptors to “cheat”: actors simply gathered in a room and “made noise”. To simulate a drowning, for instance – especially pertinent in Our Mutual Friend – an actor would be recorded plunging their head into a basin of water! “We are very cheap in radio,” Walker added in one of many humorous interludes. Walker also pointed out insightfully that radio privileged the aural over the visual; the past did not have to be shown, thus drawing the audience closer to the action, rather than separating or distracting them by a visual “pastness”, as on television.

Mortimer and Walker also discussed using “ghosts” on radio more readily and subtly than on television. Their radio Our Mutual Friend (2009) utilized Dickens as a framing, character-narrator: it opened with Dickens articulating his thoughts, whilst walking through London after a dramatic reading performance; these contemplations blurred seamlessly into the text’s narrative. As Mortimer suggested, it is important not to “hang about” with radio adaptations, but to instead “dive in”. Dickens as narrator provided an effective means of traversing space and time: something also assisted by strategic music at transitional moments.

Thereafter, Mortimer explored a timeline outlining the process of adapting Our Mutual Friend for radio. This stretched across almost two years. It began with the idea’s conception in summer 2007, when, after completing Dombey and Son for Radio 4, Mortimer keenly “pushed” for Our Mutual Friend, considering it “the big one” of the few Dickens novels he had not yet adapted. And it concluded with nine gruelling days of recording during May 2009 in a typically “windowless” BBC room, as Walker joked, and in sweltering heat, with a scene performed every twenty minutes due to time constraints.

The duo concluded by disclosing their lack of concern with textual fidelity when producing radio adaptations. Being a dramatist allows Walker to almost submerge himself within the literary text, affording him a unique perspective on Dickens as a “craftsperson”. He is able to identify “huge knots” and “huge holes” in Dickens’s novels – from writing to meet serial publication demands – that require unravelling or filling. Mortimer also regarded Dickens’s style as impressionistic rather than that of a Victorian novelist; as resembling Joyce more than Henry James. This, Mortimer believed, was key to Dickens being “so full of life”, but made rigid fidelity often impossible. Dickens was not writing “classics”, Mortimer also stressed: he was writing about the current moment, to meet audience expectations, which twenty-first-century radio also strives to achieve. Strict fidelity was not conducive to making Dickens relate to contemporary audiences, Mortimer suggested.

The evening concluded with a period of spirited audience questions and discussion. One especially fruitful point focused on the contemporary appetite for Dickens (a particularly interesting point for those who attended Birkbeck’s November ‘Migrating Texts’ colloquia, where screenwriter, Gwyneth Hughes, contended that Dickens was currently “dead” on television). Welch believed that the television vogue for particular novelists was cyclical, depending heavily on controllers’ and producers’ tastes, and actors available. She indicated the eagerness of commissioners to be “first” when adapting an author or text – almost impossible with the most frequently adapted ones. Mortimer concurred, highlighting the constant questions he receives from BBC controllers about how to “reinvent” Dickens. Another interesting audience point centred on the manipulating of memories of text and author by adaptations attempting to reflect their social and cultural contexts. Mortimer asserted that before attempting to convey a particular reading of a text he felt a strong “duty to be true to what you think Dickens wanted”. Whilst the financial crisis of 2008-9 and contemporary ecological concerns were in mind when he adapted Our Mutual Friend, Mortimer evinced that there were no attempts to force these issues on the audience, just the hope they would be aware.

The evening concluded with Mortimer’s declaration that he hoped to adapt Oliver Twist in the future, despite the potential problems of interpreting Fagin; Welch expressed a desire for A Tale of Two Cities. One audience suggestion was a television Barnaby Rudge similar to Andrew Davies’s BBC Bleak House (2005) in aesthetic and formalistic terms. Dickensians will certainly be keeping a close eye on subsequent adaptations by Welch, Mortimer and Walker. In the meantime, screen versions of A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield are allegedly in the pipeline, and there is Tony Jordan’s intriguing-sounding television series, Dickensian, to look forward to.

Very many thanks to Emma Curry and Birkbeck for organising such a stimulating event.

 

 

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