Oliver Twist (2007) Review
"Consider yourself...a friend!" Blame Lionel Bart but rather than take Oliver Twist as a piece of work that calls the public's attentions to various social evils, the happy-go-lucky adventures of a gang of pre-teen pickpockets has more of a sense of fun about it than it really ought to. A fitting place for the likes of Davy Jones (The Monkees) and Phil Collins to don their first pair of theatrical trousers with, singing Food, Glorious Food with a grin that would stretch from Shadwell to East India Docks. Why it's even cluttering up the BBC's Saturday night schedules as Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber takes to this throne to preside over the choosing of an Oliver and a Nancy for his and Cameron Mackintosh's revival of the show in 2009.
No matter that it's Lionel Bart's musical that is the most beloved film, television or stage telling of the story of Oliver Twist, the BBC dusted off its Bleak House-inspired model of television production for this version of the story, which was first shown over Christmas 2007. It's a very fitting drama for the Christmas period, done up like a selection box of the best (and best-known) bits of the story and characters and looking so rich in colour and performance as to belie its setting in the slums of London. The title sequence, in particular, gifts the principal cast a moment in the centre of the television stage with Timothy Spall as Fagin making the very most of it. The music is a touch too pop to be authentically Dickens while too folky to be strictly rock but the implication is clear, this is an Oliver Twist for a very modern audience, who won't be very upset to see Rob Brydon playing the judge who sentences Fagin to death but who will also understand the significance of Dodger fighting his way through the gallows-side crowd with Bill Sikes' dog by his side.
Like Bleak House and the more recent The Passion, Oliver Twist opens with an hour-long first installment, which is then followed by four half-hour episodes. This didn't suit The Passion particularly well - the two final episodes of which, on Good Friday and Easter Sunday, seemed rushed - but does so here with each episode ending on something like a cliffhanger. Oliver Twist is presented in the same fashion on DVD with the first episode offers us the backstory, the workhouse and, "Please, sir, can I have some more?" Later episodes take us to London, to Fagin's gang, to the house of Mr Brownlow (Edward Fox) and to the slum in which Bill Sikes (Tom Hardy) and Nancy (Sophie Okonedo) hide between crimes. Eventually, Oliver Twist takes us on a haunted walk through the countryside, to a chase through the sewers to the courthouse and, eventually, to the gallows.
The cast generally acquit themselves well, particularly Timothy Spall, Tom Hardy and Adam Arnold as The Artful Dodger. Unfortunately, there is often the sense that characters exist less to serve the story than to give actors a part in a television serial. Rob Brydon, John Sessions, Gregor Fisher and Sarah Lancashire all have a part in the drama but, for the most part, one doesn't really find fault with this. Fisher suits the bumbling Bumble well and while he adds more comedy to the part than did Dickens, he complements the show. Spall is the pick of the actors. His joy at the start turns to misery and, finally, to defiance as he refuses to save his life by turning to Christianity in the dock. However, the serial does rather gloss over the fact that he's running a little criminal empire and that it was by his training that the violent Bill Sikes became the man he was. The two refugees from Channel 4's Green Room are as awful as was that comedy. Michelle Gomez screams about hats while Julian Rhind-Tutt is only slightly less useless here than he was in the Sally Lockhart drama, The Shadow In The North but still terrible, less suited to the part of Monks than would all the original members of Doctor And The Medics, complete with a guesting Roy Wood.
Most of all, though, it's simply an enjoyable family drama. You, I or a scholar of the works of Dickens might turn up our noses at the changes made to the story in order to fit the shape of the serial but it's a telling of the story that children will do well with. They'll never being so stretched as to keep up with the characters, will be upset by the scenes in the workhouse and will shiver with fear on seeing Sikes but will, in the end, be comforted by the happy ending. It may be a simplified telling of the story but so too was Oliver! and as it readies itself for yet another outing on the stage, that hasn't hindered it any.
Like a good many of 2 Entertain's releases of current BBC shows, this anamorphic 1.78:1 presentation looks fine, slightly sharper than it was on it's showing on television but more as a result of the extra bandwidth made available by DVD than anything 2 Entertain have done as regards the content. But while the sets and locations have a look of the second-hand about them - they often look familiar from Bleak House though not quite to the extent of seeing Johnny Vegas' charred remains in the background - but everything is suitably grimy when it needs to be and, in the home of Mr Brownlow, clean and brushed but rather nondescript.
The DD2.0 audio track is a surprise given that one would have expected a DD5.1 surround track to accompany this series. However, it sounds good, with the dialogue always clear and standing out against the audio effects. The music can be somewhat overpowering at times but with some use of the rear channels via a Pro Logic decoder, there is at least some space between such effects and the dialogue. Finally, there are, like all 2 Entertain releases, English subtitles but, unlike others, an English Audio Description track has also been included.
The only extra on this DVD set is a short making-of, A New Twist On Oliver Twist (29m43s), which interviews the main cast and crew as regards taking this version of the story to the screen. Unfortunately, it doesn't actually add very much to the viewing experience. The story is a familiar one but there's little explanation of how this is different from other versions of the tale, such as the 1985 BBC adaptation, ITV's Oliver Twist from 1999 and Roman Polanski's take on the story from 2005. Or even Disney's Oliver & Company.