Radio Review: Dickens in London

“It seems that I would be an uncommercial traveler”

The bi-centenary of Charles Dickens’ birth has been marked in several different ways across a variety of media and Dickens in London, this collection of five short radio plays by Michael Eaton was one which entertained me nicely. Adapted from some of Dickens’ journalistic essays, the plays deal with his changing impressions of London as he grew up, was stimulated by and then grew tired of the great city that inspired so much of his writing.

We start with A Not-Overly-Particularly-Taken-Care-Of Boy where the boy Charles gets lost on his very first visit with his uncle, then move to Boz, where a young man has secured himself employment as a Parliamentary Reporter for the Morning Chronicle but dreams of writing his own stories. Samuel Barnett is particularly good in these two first stories, his voice is particularly well suited to radio, so full of character and crackled emotion.

The Sparkler of Albion is the third story which sees Alex Jennings assuming the role of the writer who is now at the height of his popularity and success. He spends the evening with Elliot Levey’s Inspector Field to soak up the underbelly of London’s life but by the time ten years have passed, the allure has pretty much disappeared along with his ability to sleep. The Uncommercial Traveller sees him still walking the streets at night, his marriage crumbling away, and his love for London slipping away. The series ends with The Inimitable, where Dickens is near the end of his life and aware that he is coming close to the last of his public readings. Played by Antony Sher in this final play, with Barnett returning as a presence to help Dickens work his way through, it makes a fitting and surprisingly touching end to the set.

Jeremy Mortimer’s productions all cleverly incorporate sounds of the hustle and bustle of metropolitan life but also use sound and effects to add texture and interest to many of the scenes, especially in creating a palpable sense of atmosphere. Neil Brand’s music also adds another layer here to create a fascinating soundscape which really lifts the whole thing. I still find it a little odd that people digest these bitesize bits of radio in 15 minute chunks, I’ve always listened to the Women’s Hour omnibus, or created my own by listening to them back to back as I prefer the sustained impact of it all in one go, but then I’m still a newbie to radio drama and only ever listen to it online so have the choice.

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