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Our Mutual Friend (BBC Drama, Lesley Dunlop, John McEnery)

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Our Mutual Friend 1976 BBC

Our Mutual Friend was a seven part period drama serial based on the novel by Charles Dickens.

In Victorian times, Lizzie Hexam (whose father is suspected of murder after dragging a body out of the River Thames, where he works as a Longshoreman,) has two men competing for her affections – a situation which leads to tradegy. Meanwhile Bella Wilfer is also trying to make her way in the world.

An earlier version of the serial had appeared on the BBC in 1958 with Rachel Roberts and Zena Walker. There was also a big budget version in 1998 with Keeley Hawes and Anna Friel.

There was a short preview in the Aberdeen Evening Express of Saturday 28 February 1976: Our Mutual Friend (BBC2. 9 0), a seven-part dramatisation of the novel by Charles Dickens begins tonight. First published in 1864, this last novel by Dickens is dominated by a new element in his work — for the first time he explored the psychological tensions in the relationships between characters in a way which went beyond the range of characterisation usually referred to as “Dickensian.”

Ken Burgess talked about the serial, the day after the broadcast of the first episode, in the Coventry Evening Telegraph of Tuesday 2 March 1976: Television just cannot go wrong with Dickens. As a scriptwriter he is out on his own. His plots, descriptions and characters are all the briefing that a production team could require. All that is needed is a little imagination to put him on screen and the audience are hooked. But. if the audience were expecting Cheerful Charlie Dickens of Pickwick and Christmas Carol glow, then they would have been disappointed in Our Mutual Friend (BBC2). This is Dickens at the end of his life, feeling strongly about the bitter contrast between the squalid poor, scavenging like rats on the Thames, and the gilded bored middle classes. These are epitomised by the two young lawyers who can barely muster a case between them over several years but manage to live well enough without work. The gloom – decadent wealth and decaying poor – is unrelieved in the first episode. Not once did the director, Peter Hammond, permit the full light of day or even brilliant candlelight at a dinner party. But the world of the prattling, idle dinner guests was bright indeed compared with the Thameside slums where the recovery of a corpse from the river is an everyday occurrence. One corpse, however. prompts the not-so-common offer of a £10,000 reward and talk of an unclaimed fortune. The plot is thickening. as it always does with Dickens, and there is a long way to go yet. There is no more we can do than sit patiently and savour the atmosphere already created.

Terry Grimley also looked at the first episode in the Birmingham Daily Post of Wednesday 3 March 1976: At one time. the BBC’s serials based on Dickens novels used to be Sunday teatime treats for children, with a mildly educational atmosphere. Possibly the switch to Monday night indicates a changing attitude to Dickens. although it may Just be that Our Mutual Friend (BBC2) is rather too bleak to blend easily with cress sandwiches and trifle. The opening episode was certainly sinister enough, with its macabre doings on and about the Thames, from which so far two bodies have been recovered. A distinct touch of expressionism in Peter Hammond’s direction was brought out by Carl Davis’s music, and with most of the main characters yet to take the stage, I can see this serial becoming compulsive viewing over the next six weeks.

Hazel Holt gave an extensive review in The Stage (Thursday 25 March 1976): BBC-2’s Our Mutual Friend, the finest flowering of Dickens’ maturity, is a complex, massive work (872 pages in my edition). To compress all this richness into seven 50-minute episodes must have been daunting indeed. This adaptation by Julia Jones and Donald Churchill (Mondays. 9.00 pm) is a reduction in the culinary sense – what they have given us is the essence of the book, concentrated in flavour and distinctly itself. The grisly and evocative opening episode, helped enormously by Carl Davis’s haunting theme music, on the fog-shrouded river, set the atmosphere of unease and ambivalence which the adaptors have nurtured, each mystery of the story echoing from episode to episode. What has been lost is the broader satirical canvas. Alfie Bass has been imaginatively cast as that devious rascal Silas Wegg and Kathleen Harrison, with her cheerful eccentricity of voice, makes an admirable Mrs Boffin. Jane Seymour is excellent as Bella Wilfer, pert and self-willed, one of the liveliest and most human of Dickens’s heroines; John McEnery gives the mysterious John Rokesmith a nice air of apartness. The crippled Jenny Wren is no longer a child, but she is played with such wry compassion by Polly James that we cannot lament the change, especially since this portrayal neatly removes the latent sentimentality of those episodes in which she appears. Finally we have Lesley Dunlop’s Lizzie Hexham a sensitive portrayal, most appealing in appearance, catching the warmth and honesty of the character, though without the sheer force of personality that Rachel Roberts brought to the part many years ago. I am not sure what a viewer who had not read the book would make of this production. The plot is so complicated and allusive, the characters in their simplified form not always consistent.

Keith Baker in the Belfast Telegraph of Saturday 6 March 1976 noted the first episode: Our Mutual Friend has begun on BBC-2 full of promise. Episode One was dank and gloomy melancholy with sharp contrasts at the rich man’s table. I see Haggar* is in it. No sooner has Z-Cars ended than he turns up on the other channel. We are doomed to be haunted by Haggar on Monday nights.
*John Collin played Detective Sergeant Haggar on Z-Cars for much of the 1970’s.

Prior to broadcast the Sunday Mirror of 18 January 1976 had an interesting article about a filming incident involving Spiders. The article by Jeff Samuels was titled Spiders Take £40 spin in BBC taxi: The cabbie could hardly believe his ears. Drive 120 miles to collect ten spiders for a BBC television play. And if the creepy crawlies didn’t give Beeb officials t h e shudders then the bill should have done. It amounted to a staggering £39.65. That was only the fare. The spiders — the common or garden long, legged variety — cost £10. The BBC wanted the insects while filming a cellar scene for the new series based on Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend so they commissioned taxi boss Eddie Russell of Bexleyheath, Kent to pick up the spiders from a firm at nearby Welling. Eddie found that the company had moved more than forty miles away to Hawkhurst, on the Kent and Sussex border. “I phoned the BBC to tell them. They said they were desperate and I should go anyway,” said 36-year-old Eddie. “A fare is a fare so I got their spiders.” His ten passengers – travelling in test tubes – were duly delivered to the BBC and filming began. A BBC spokesman said: “It sounds a bit extravagant but we were really desperate. They were vital to the production of one scene and you know how costly a hold up can be. We thought the insect firm was near Mr. Russell’s office, but when we learned they had moved we decided it best to have them collected anyway. Said Eddie: “I’ve had my share of odd fares but this one beats the lot.”

Reader Mrs Dorothy Gibbons, Church Road, Horfield wrote in the the Daily Mirror of Monday 8 March 1976 making the interesting point that “the word boffin as applied to a scientist or back-room boy comes from Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, wherein Mr Boffin spent long hours in his little back room in the pursuit of knowledge.

Cast: John McEnery (John Rokesmith), Lesley Dunlop (Lizzie), John Collin (Rogue Riderhood), Andrew Ray (Mortimer Lightwood), Richard Stilgoe (Mr Boots), Nicholas Jones (Eugene Wrayburn), Jack Wild (Charley Hexam), Brian Wilde (Inspector), Leo McKern (Mr Boffin), Alfie Bass (Silas Wegg), Kathleen Harrison (Mrs Boffin), Jane Seymour (Bella), Ray Mort (Mr Wilfer), Polly James (Jenny Wren), Harold Goldblatt (Riah), Warren Clarke (Bradley Headstone), Ronald Lacey (Mr Venus), David Troughton (Sloppy), Edmond Bennett (Mr Dolls),

Writers: Julia Jones, Donald Churchill / Novel: Charles Dickens / Script Editor: Betty Willingale / Music: Carl Davis / Producer: Martin Lisemore / Director: Peter Hammond

UK / BBC Two / 7×50 minutes / Broadcast 1 March – 12 April 1976