Our Mutual Friend (1958-59)

Director: Eric Tayler

As well as the BBC Shakespeare, I’ve got a stack of Charles Dickens adaptations from the BBC to make my way through from the 50s to the 90s. No, I can’t believe the ones from the 50s still exist either; let’s face it , if the BBC made it before they ended their wiping policy in 1978 and it still exists, it probably does so by accident. Somehow, though, the 1958/59 production of Our Mutual Friend has come down through the ages and landed on DVD via Simply Home Entertainment (along with five other b/w BBC productions I’ll get to in due course), and that was my most recent viewing.

Now I did say before I watched pretty much bugger all last year, but I actually did watch a bit of this, the first three episodes to be precise, and I found myself not quite engaging with it. Not really in the mood for it then. Anyway, I resolved that I would make another attempt on it, and at least start by rewatching those three episodes. So I did, and having done so proceeded to the next three. Brief pause to do a bit of other business and wonder if I should leave it at that and come back for the second half later. Then I decided fuck it, let’s watch the whole thing. So I did, and finally went to bed that night a bit before 4am… which is late even by my fucking terrible standards, but clearly I was in the mood for it at last. Great stuff.

This was live TV back in the day, too, and I’m fascinated by the BBC’s live work, more so than I am by commercial TV where they could pause for breath in the ad break; the BBC didn’t have that luxury—all they really had was the occasional prefilmed bit that couldn’t be done in studio—so I’m fascinated to see how they arranged material to make it possible. Interesting to see how relatively few prefilmed segments Eric Tayler used here (unless I missed some), though that may have been a good thing given the filmed bits seemed to be most post-synchronised and quite poorly at that… yikes.

The other thing you look for, of course, is fluffs, and I spotted only a handful of those… only one that was egregious enough to actually be called a line fluff, and even that could’ve been written off as the character misreading a letter they’d been given. Otherwise, the cast manages with aplomb, and the more grating issues are technical ones, particularly the use of photographic flats for background scenery. They’re kind of screamingly obvious, particularly in Mrs Higden’s death scene where the point where the “rural” scenery and the studio floor meet and the join is quite badly covered up… yikes again.

Wasn’t familiar with most of the cast, our hero being played by Paul Daneman who was Richard III in Age of Kings (should rewatch that for review), the heroine by Rachel Roberts (later a Hollywood tragedy), and the other “hero” by David McCallum, who had yet to become known as, well, anything, never mind Ilya Kuryakin (let alone Ducky from NCIS). Credited as “courtesy of the Rank Organisation”, though, who evidently thought he was important enough to demand that notice.

Not familiar with the book either (the only Dickens I’ve actually read is the Xmas books), which was his last finished novel (Edwin Drood’s tale having ended ahead of schedule, as it were) and which seems to have puzzled critics and readers in its time who seem to have thought there was too much going on even for Dickens… and this, it must be said, is certainly a feeling I got from this TV version; there’s a LOT going on and you could probably safely ditch the subplot with the Lammles at least (I was never a hundred percent sure what was going on with them). I imagine the original audience of the show had some work to do keeping track of things, cos the show is noticeably light on recapping what happened in previous episodes. I also gather the book handles its plot somewhat differently, in that the revelation that John Rokesmith is actually the putative murder victim and dispossessed heir John Harmon is only made very late in the book. This was a point the TV version couldn’t overcome, so it frankly doesn’t try. Wonder if it’s as obvious in the book as it necessarily is on the show.

Anyway, some reservations aside, I liked this a lot. As I said, I was clearly the mood for six hours of vintage live BBC classic adaptation last night… So that leaves us with the rest of the Simply HE releases, those being Bleak House from 1959, Barnaby Rudge from 1960, Oliver Twist from 1962, Great Expectations from 1967 and Dombey and Son from 1969. And then there’s the rest of the Dickens stuff I’ve got from following decades! Lots more viewing ahead, eh…

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