Dickens In America, BBC4

by | Jan 1, 2005 | All, Reviews

What to say if you liked it

Miriam Margoyles sets off for an intriguing voyage across America in the footsteps of the nation’s greatest novelist and discovers as many fascinating facts about contemporary politics and morals as she does about those cherished in 1842.

What to say if you didn’t like it

Miriam Margoyles hosts a condescending eulogy that claws at the dead ground of one of Britain’s most unreadable writers, exhuming the corpse of his arrogance made flesh in his observations in American Notes and then dragging it around the Eastern Seaboard in a hangman’s noose.

What was good about it?

• Miriam’s breathless passion for Dickens carries her journey through the dullest moments and when she wept, as she always does, when reading the end of Little Dorrit it was genuinely touching.

• The way in which Miriam’s voyage across the Atlantic is punctuated with apposite excerpts from Dickens’ novels such as the acerbic paragraph from Martin Chuzzlewit where the narrator muses how best to capture the American character in a portrait of the American eagle. (“I should paint it as a peacock for its vanity.”)

• The great sympathy we felt for Dickens’ wife, who during their 17 years of marriage was apparently only not pregnant during her husband’s American sojourn. (Although we do find this hard to believe.)

• The shooting fish in a barrel sequence of Dickens’ solemn prediction about America (“I do believe the heaviest blow to the world will be dealt by this nation”) which was played over footage of George W Bush’s re-election.

• Miriam’s astonishment at the vast volume of the QM2. “It’s like a village,” she exclaimed.

What was bad about it?

• Miriam rather cheekily followed Dickens’ crossing of the Atlantic in the most luxurious cruise liner of the early-Victorian era – the Britannia – in the most ludicrously ostentatious cruise liner of the modern age – the QM2 – which is so lavish many dead people are choosing to spend eternity there rather than in the paradise of heaven.

• The clinking glasses, the clash of knife and fork on regal porcelain and the banal chatter – where can you possibly be? Of course, it’s a dinner party, and even Miriam’s jovial presence at a jamboree of Dickens enthusiasts in London cannot shatter the belief the primary, and perhaps only, benefit of living under a military junta would be the abolition of these gatherings of nauseous conceit.

• Miriam’s scorn for the statues aboard the QM2. “They’re fibreglass. They look bronze, but they’re actually fibreglass. Which is disappointing.” Wrong.

• The most disappointing aspect is why an intelligent woman like Miriam echoes the mindless platitudes of “celebrity” commentators who vilify some for wearing fake diamond necklaces while lauding those who spend thousands on what are essentially trivial ornaments adorning the necks of fleeting non-entities.

• Miriam’s crossing on the QM2 was padded out with too many atmospheric shots of sunsets, boats meeting the vessel as it sailed into dock and passengers either pointing at some undetermined landmark on the horizon or shambling about the decks like zombies.

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles

01/01/2005

Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!

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