Adapting Bleak House couldn't have been a doddle, even for Andrew Davies, the veteran maestro who gave us the great Colin Firth version of Pride and Prejudice. Bleak House, the novel, is perhaps THE definitive Dickens saga, a vast panorama of Victorian London teeming with cunning lawyers, icy aristocrats, hapless youths, dastardly wheeler-dealers and crusading detectives. With all these fantastic characters in one tale, it's fitting that this TV version bagged some of the best actors around.
It goes without saying that the likes of Gillian Anderson, Charles Dance and Denis Lawson all put in powerful performances, but keep your eyes peeled for a scene-stealing turn from Johnny Vegas as a gin-sozzled rag-and-bone man, not to mention a young Carey Mulligan as a girl swept up in a court case beyond anyone's understanding. This is stirring, meaty, epic storytelling in every sense: if War and Peace was about 19th Century England, with the military conflict replaced by legal battles, it would be Bleak House.
The innocent little boy holding up a bowl. The wily antics of the Artful Dodger. The gang of street urchins led by the grizzled old thief Fagin. Everyone knows the basics of Oliver Twist, but this fresh and vibrant take on the tale manages to sidestep all the clichés to give us a version that may change how you think of a well-worn classic. It was written by Sarah Phelps, a top EastEnders writer whose script is gutsy, exciting and no-nonsense.
The feel of the whole thing is so evocative that you can almost smell the muck and grime of Victorian London, while special mention has to go to Timothy Spall for completely reinventing Fagin. Far from a cackling caricature, this Fagin is, in Spall's own words, "more sensual, more exotic", a spiritual and shabbily grand "beggar king" who is a sort of exile from the Jewish communities of Europe. Then there's Tom Hardy in a career-making role as Bill Sikes - probably the most frightening version of this thug that you'll ever see. It's certainly all a far, far cry from the frivolous musical version, and one that will have you asking for more.
As well as giving us her unique take on Oliver Twist, screenwriter Sarah Phelps was also behind this adaptation of Great Expectations. Now, we're talking about one of the most repeatedly re-adapted of all Dickens story, so making it seem fresh again must have been a huge challenge. Phelps surpassed expectations (no pun intended) with this engrossing odyssey of a young man finding his way through life.
While his ethereal good looks make Douglas Booth perhaps the most beautiful Pip ever to wander the screen, and while Ray Winstone makes a suitably brutish impression as the enigmatic convict Magwitch, the true star of the show has to be Gillian Anderson as the jilted bride Miss Havisham. Resembling a kind of white witch, she's a haunting vision of faded beauty and thwarted dreams, hopelessly trapped in time. It's a standout performance even on a CV as impressive as Anderson's
THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF NICK NICKLEBY
A Dickens adaptation like no other, Nick Nickleby transplants the action to the 21st Century. A pretty bold move, but one which pays off thanks to some fearless and clever tweaks to the original tale. Yes, this is still the story of a plucky young lad who has to take on the real world after the death of his bankrupt father, but there are some fascinating changes.
One character, a boy called Smike in the original novel, is here re-imagined as a confused older lady called Mrs Smike, while a murky boarding school is here turned into a care home run by a wicked overseer. It could so easily not have worked, but thanks to clever scripting and passionate performances, we get a Nicholas Nickleby for modern times, a story that's part adventure, part social commentary, and a reminder that everyday injustice and class warfare have persisted well beyond Dickens's day.
THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD
Rather appropriately, The Mystery of Edwin Drood is the most mysterious Dickens story of all. That's because the great man died midway through writing it, leaving the plot tantalizingly unresolved. One stage version even had audiences voting on how it should end, but we have such issues with this atmospheric adaptation, which has its own rather delicious conclusion.
Matthew Rhys, who played Mr Darcy in Death Comes to Pemberley, is all intense stares and inner torment as an opium-addled choirmaster who nurses a hellish lust for his nephew's fiancée. If this doesn't sound like standard Dickens territory to you, you'd be right. This is a surprisingly dark psychological thriller about unrequited desires and brutal murder, complete with nightmarish hallucinatory sequences. But the names are still delightfully Dickensian - listen out for the likes of Septimus Crisparkle, Hiram Grewgious, Princess Puffer and Miss Twinkleton.