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My favourite Dickens book is Our Mutual Friend. I love the 1998 BBC TV version, but recently had a chance to watch the 1958 BBC TV version. It was on sale at the BBC Store selling digital versions of programmes. That has in the last few days announced its closure. Luckily I bought this programme before they stopped more sales, and I’ve been able to watch it before my account is finally closed and I lose access to my programmes (yeah, great business model that one!). Like other customers of the BBC Store I have been offered a full refund of my purchases. And this 1958 version is also coming out soon on DVD, from Simply Media.

The 1958 version is 12 half hour episodes. Black and white obviously, limited in location work, though they do some interesting things with water that had me wondering quite how they filmed it back then! Our Mutual Friend is set largely on and around the River Thames, and concerns boatmen and their families.

In many ways this version is very authentic to the original novel. The biggest change they made is to reveal the big mystery right at the start, whereas the original novel, and also the 1998 TV version, take half the book to do this. I prefer the latter approach, but the former does work too, albeit to a lesser extent. Another change is that the 1958 version – unlike the 1998 version – seems to lose a lot of Dickens’ more nuanced dialogue in certain scenes. Since both TV versions are the same total length (1998 = 4 x 90 minute episodes) I don’t think this was necessary, and it is a shame, especially in key scenes.

The acting is variable in the 1958 version, unlike 1998 where it is uniformly of a very high quality. The four leads in 1958 are strong though: Paul Daneman, Zena Walker, David McCallum and Rachel Roberts. Indeed I would pick out the performances of the first and last of these as particular highlights. Also notable in acting terms are Helena Hughes as Jenny Wren, Fay Compton as Betty Higden, and a young Melvyn Hayes as Charley Hexam. However against those strong characters acting-wise are a number of very weak performances, for me anyway, particularly the actors playing Rogue Riderhood and Mrs Wilfer. I’m also far from convinced by Alex Scott in the key role of Bradley Headstone, a huge difference from the impression that David Morrissey makes in the 1998 version.

Despite these quibbles I found it a compelling programme to watch, although no doubt due in part to my love of the original Dickens source material. I rattled through all 12 episodes and 6 hours of viewing in just a few days. It definitely lent itself to binge viewing for me.

I would recommend this version to fans of Dickens and TV versions of classic novels. But I do think that the 1998 version is stronger. It has a much better sense of place with wonderful location filming, sets and design, is more true to the original novel in structure and dialogue, and has a higher quality of acting throughout. But the 1958 version, if you get a chance, is worth watching too.

Of course now I need to see the 1976 BBC version for further comparisons. DVD ordered …

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