The Mystery of Edwin Drood

The Mystery of Edwin Drood is an adaptation that forms part of the BBC’s celebrations of Dickens during his bicentenary. It was always going to be an ambitious project, because Dickens died while the novel was only half-finished. There’s been quite a few attempts to write conclusions to the novel over the years, and one of the most intriguing aspects of the BBC adaptation if you’re a Dickens fan is how writer Gwyneth Hughes tackled the ending. Of course, if you’ve never heard of, or read, the novel you simply want a high-quality BBC costume drama, so the show has to succeed on two levels.

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As is often the case for a well put-together adaptation, the casting and acting are of high quality. One of the more gothic Dickensian novels, The Mystery of Edwin Drood had moments of pure dread and menace, intermixed with comedic moments. While the story ostensibly revolves around Edwin Drood (Freddie Fox), it’s really the characters he interacts with and his relationships with them that make the show interesting. Edwin is engaged, through his father’s will, to the beautiful and orphaned Rosa Bud (Tamzin Merchant). Rosa, who loves Edwin as a brother, is the unknowing object of choirmaster John Jasper’s (Matthew Rhys) obsession. This is all made more complex by John Jasper’s love of his nephew, Edwin, a love which turns into murderous envy as Jasper slips in and out of opium visions. In fact, the tale, as we have it, is far more focussed on the mental and moral decline of John Jasper than on the day to day life of Edwin Drood.

The tale is complicated further by the fact Drood’s dead father was also called Edwin, leaving the title with a certain element of ambivalence. And then there’s the arrival of the mysterious siblings from Ceylon, Helena and Neville Landless (Sacha Dhawan and Amber Rose Revah) who intersperse themselves in the love triangle enough so that Neville is accused of Edwin’s murder and Helena helps Rosa to realise her feelings for Edwin and also the feelings John Jasper holds for her. In addition, there’s many other characters that form part of the social drama Dickens is most known for.

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The Mystery of Edwin Drood is itself a mix of dark and light, and the choice to split it across two nights worked well. The first episode established the main characters and motivations and ended with both the breaking off of Rosa’s engagement and the disappearance of Mr Edwin Drood, presumed dead. The second half dealt entirely with consequences and detective work and wound up the story well, if a little too neatly for my liking. And the second episode is where Gwyneth Hughes had to inject her own ending, opting to make the mystery more about Edwin Drood Sr. and to ensure happy endings for Rosa, Edwin and the Landless siblings, while giving us a different insight into why John Jasper’s feelings could have so quickly turned into resentment and hate once he became addicted to opium.

For a two-parter, shown over two nights, I found it highly enjoyable. It had a different mood to many of the costume dramas I’ve watched before, quite aside from my love of Dickensian literature. I liked the characters too. Edwin wasn’t a fool, Rosa wasn’t simpering, Helena and Neville didn’t just serve a purpose of being foreigners in a small town, they had brains and empathy. John Jasper was just brooding enough without being a total caricature, and his addictions were played well. The supporting cast added both levity and useful social interactions without distracting from the main storyline with too many offshoots, as can be the case with protracted series. While I’m not sure I believe the ending delivered is one Dickens was aiming for, I think it worked in context and didn’t feel stilted or strange while keeping a certain level of coincidence that Victorian dramas often had as a matter of course.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood is due to be re-broadcast on BBC2 on 17th and 18th January at 1:25am and 1:55am. It can also be seen on the BBC’s iPlayer here. You can read more about the characters and watch clips here and there's also a BBC blog post from the show's director.

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