Tony Jordan

Set within the fictional realms of Charles Dickens’s classic novels, the drama Dickensian brings together some of the most iconic characters in literary history. The 20-part series, produced by Red Planet Pictures for BBC One and sold by BBC Worldwide, follows as these characters’ lives intertwine against the backdrop of 19th-century London. Tony Jordan, the founder of Red Planet who spent many years as the lead writer and series consultant for EastEnders, is behind the period piece. He tells World Screen about how he went about reimagining the world of Dickens and the characters that inhabit it.Tony-Jordan

WS: What was the genesis of Dickensian?
JORDAN: I had read about another [Charles] Dickens adaptation and thought, I’ve seen that about 11 times! Does Dickens have any new material that I could adapt? [Laughs] His characters are amazing, and I thought it would be really fun to mix them all up, to do a Dickens mash-up. But I thought, obviously someone has done that already because it’s so brilliant. I forgot about it for a few days, and then I mentioned it to someone, who said they hadn’t heard of anything like it being done before. We researched it, and nobody had done it! Nobody had ever taken those quite brilliant, iconic characters and put them together. Even Dickens himself never wrote a scene between Scrooge and Fagin, and I did that.

WS: How closely did you draw from Dickens’s works?
JORDAN: I’m not using any of his books in any way. Nothing about Dickensian is an adaptation. You don’t need to have watched any other adaptations or read any of his books; you can come in as a Dickens virgin.

[The series features] all new stories, but some are prequels to Dickens’s stories. For example, everybody has an image of Miss Havisham [from Great Expectations], the woman who was jilted on her wedding day and all these years later is still wearing the veil, sitting at a table brokenhearted. We’ve seen different versions of that [character], played by Helena Bonham Carter, Gillian Anderson. But nobody has ever asked, How did she get to be that woman? With Dickensian, we wanted to tell that story. We have Tuppence Middleton, who is amazing in this, as our young Miss Havisham, and we see what happens to her—how she comes to be a crazy woman, or whether she gets married and lives happily ever after! That’s the thing with Dickensian: there are no rules.

WS: How did you decide which characters were going to be part of the series?
JORDAN: You pick your favorites, don’t you? One of my favorite Dickens adaptations is The Muppet Christmas Carol. Kermit as Bob Cratchit, it’s amazing! So I wanted to use Scrooge, and we have Robert Wilfort, who’s a fantastic actor, as our Bob Cratchit. We wanted to do that story because it’s a frame of reference that everybody understands. People the world over, who may not know anything about Dickens, have probably heard of Ebenezer Scrooge. That character was first on my list.

Most people also know [the characters of] Oliver Twist, Fagin, Bill Sikes and Nancy [from the novel Oliver Twist], but I also found some more obscure characters that people may not know, like Mrs. Gamp from Martin Chuzzlewit. I wanted to mix all of these characters up, and one story has an effect on another, characters cross over, and in the end it becomes a celebration of Dickens’s work rather than a retelling of stories that are already known.

I wanted it to be accessible to everybody. Some people think of Charles Dickens and [find his work to be] a bit stuffy and not for them. All of my shows are made for big, popular audiences. This show is about the joy of being able to see those characters in a different setting and you don’t need to know anything about Charles Dickens to enjoy it.

WS: Did you also aim to please Dickens devotees?
JORDAN: We did the whole series with a real irreverence but were still respectful to the characters. I’ve made sure that the characters we’ve lifted out of the novels are faithful to the originals. I haven’t made Scrooge gay! We’ve stayed true to the characters. For the purists, they will get to see a side of those characters they’ve never seen before.

This is the most exciting project I have ever done as a writer, without question. The subject matter is amazing, and we tell universal stories, about love, betrayal, murder.

WS: What were some of the challenges in re-creating Victorian London?
JORDAN: Dickens used elements like night, snow, mist, fog and all of that stuff to create an atmosphere. That’s tough to shoot! Just shooting at night is tough! So we created a world of Dickens’s imagination on this amazing backlot set, which had 27 two-story buildings, a church, stately homes, law buildings, cobbled streets. We can make it snow, make it rain, have it be night or day whenever we’d like. We’ve created a Victorian London that is probably closer to [the actual time and setting] than anything seen before. The shops you see on our street are real; you could actually go in and they are stocked. It feels like a real place. The set itself is a work of genius. Internationally, people love the idea of Victorian London and that old London town, and you’ve got that in spades with Dickensian.