London by Dickens: This Revolution Was Televised — in 1958!

by Fred Guida on April 15, 2012

Alan BatesIn the wake of last fall’s long-awaited news that The Stingiest Man in Town would finally be coming out on home video (see An Introduction & An Announcement from October 13, 2011), I am delighted and honored to announce that more Dickensian good news in on the way.   And what better time than now — the Dickens bicentenary!

And while any new Dickens adaptation is automatically important and interesting simply because it involves Dickens, some, whether a brand new production or a rediscovered blast from the past, are more important and more interesting than others.   This is because every now and then a film or television production breaks away from the pack and touches on material that is rarely (if ever) dealt with.

The Formal Couple Dickens

Sketches of Young Couples

That is definitely the case with this latest item.   It is not another Carol or Oliver or Great Expectations.   And for that let us be truly thankful!   It is a fascinating production entitled London by Dickens, running about twenty-five minutes, that deals with Dickens’s shorter and lesser known material!   The primary focus, as one might expect, is on Sketches by Boz.   This is, in fact, one of a literal handful of combined film and television productions over the past 100+ years that has drawn upon Sketches by Boz.

However, this one doesn’t stop there.   It also touches on The Uncommercial TravellerSketches of Young Couples, The Mudfog Papers and The Pic-Nic Papers.   How’s that for a badly needed breath of Dickensian fresh air!

Otherwise Engaged Alan Bates

Donald Spoto's recent biography of Sir Alan Bates

But it gets better.   The delicious icing on this already tasty cake is that it stars a very young Alan Bates – who as always is excellent – as the on screen personification of Dickens’s delightful narratorial voice.   In essence, Alan Bates is Charles Dickens!

To the best of my knowledge, this was his first professional encounter with Dickens.   He would later appear as Josiah Bounderby in the 1994 BBC adaptation of Hard Times.

What is remarkable about this production is that it does not present its Dickensian vignettes in an orderly or precisely chronological fashion.   Instead, while Sketches by Boz may be said to be its base or anchor, other works weave their way in and out of the proceedings with a delightfully spontaneous kind of energy and drive.   The result is a highly impressionistic sketch of London life — which is precisely what Dickens himself set out to do!

A Small Star in the East by Charles Dickens

A Small Star in the East

It is fascinating, fun and, at times, very funny.   Just like The Inimitable Boz himself.   But it is well worth noting that it does not overlook the other side of Dickens.   In an inspired touch, it descends into “a wilderness of rags, dirt and hunger” that includes an electrifying dramatization of the discussion of lead poisoning from A Small Star in the East.  Written by a prematurely old man shortly before his death, it rivals any of the powerful social criticism produced decades earlier.

And on a purely aesthetic or artistic level, it is a very impressive production.   Made at the height of television’s fabled “Golden Age,” it exhibits all of the qualities associated with television drama from that period:   The look is stark black-and-white, the feel is undeniably theatrical and yet intensely realistic, and the words, as one would expect from Charles Dickens, are sharp, literate and intelligent.   And it is proof positive of just how good television can be — even with limited budget and resources — when creative people are given free reign to work without commercial constraints or considerations.

London by Dickens was broadcast live on June 1, 1958, in a Sunday morning time slot, on the legendary arts oriented Camera Three program.   Camera Three started out as a locally produced program on New York’s WCBS in May of 1953.   And national broadcasts began in January of 1956.  However, it is unclear as to how many cities, other than New York, may have seen this particular episode.   One 16mm kinescope is known to survive.

Look Back In Anger 1956

Alan Bates and Mary Ure in the 1956 London production of Look Back In Anger

Alan Bates was available to take part in the broadcast  of London by Dickens because he was appearing as Cliff Lewis on Broadway in John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger, a reprise of the role that made him a star in 1956 in his native England.   It is one of his first television appearances and predates his 1960 film debut in The Entertainer.

A DVD release of London by Dickens is in the works and will be available early this summer from Connecticut based Creative Arts Television which boasts a fascinating catalogue of unique performing arts titles.   Check them out at and please support this exciting new DVD when it comes out!

A series of public screenings, as part of a package of Dickensian rarities, is also in the works.   So far Boston on July 21 and New Haven this fall (date TBA) are confirmed.   New York, Los Angeles and other cities are under discussion.   Watch this web site for details.

Alan Bates as Boz

Boz by Bates

London by Dickens may have been made in 1958.   But it is the freshest approach to Dickens to hit screens both big and small in a very long time.   And a small, specialized, quality-minded distributor like Creative Arts Television deserves the thanks and support of Dickensians everywhere!

And to wrap this up on a personal note, I am thrilled to be helping restore this little gem to its rightful place on Alan Bates’s already impressive list of credits.

Like all great actors, he appeared in a few films that were not so great.   However, compared to many others, he had a real knack for choosing interesting and intelligent projects.   And the bottom line is that he himself was always great and frequently brilliant.

I have been a major fan for about forty years.  As an art house type — how I miss New Haven’s Lincoln Theatre — I had seen some of his earlier films; but it was The Go-Between that hooked me.

And it was while watching The Go-Between one night, alone in the dark in a largely empty theatre, that I remember having a kind of momentary subliminal epiphany.   Unprovoked; and yet there it was.

This was at the beginning of of a lengthy period in which I was convinced that I was the only guy on the planet who didn’t have a girlfriend.  (And on this particular occasion, it didn’t help that images of a stunningly beautiful Julie Christie were dancing before my eyes!)   But everything would surely change if only I had Alan Bates’s incredible good looks and obvious charm.   And great hair.   And accent.   And talent…


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Gene Schmidt May 4, 2012 at 7:33 am

This is really something to look forward to. I have always thought that a mulit-part BBC series based on Sketches would be a fine idea, and a nice alternative to the umpteenth version of Great Expectations. Maybe some day we’ll get one.

I first saw Alan Bates in Whistle Down the Wind when I was a boy, but of course I was in love with Hayley Mills in those days so I didn’t have much time for the rest of the cast. He seems like a great choice to play Dickens.


Fred Guida May 4, 2012 at 1:54 pm

Now wait a minute. I assure you that in those days I was in love with Hayley Mills! And Susannah York. And Julie Christie. And a little bit later Helen Mirren and Jenny Agutter. So there!

A great point re a multi-part BBC series on the Sketches!!! Please see my earlier article “An Open Letter to Hollywood and the BBC.” Why do they insist on recycling the same stuff over and over and over again??!!

I think you’ll enjoy the DVD when it comes out. It will actually contain two titles. The second is not Dickens related. But wait till you see what it is and who it stars!!!


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