By Will Barber Taylor
Our Mutual Friend is the original and earliest BBC adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic satirical novel of love, loss and greed, and has been largely unseen since its original television transmission nearly 60 years ago. Originally broadcast in twelve 30-minute episodes in 1958–59, this landmark literary adaptation is now available on DVD for the first time. Starring Paul Daneman (Zulu) and Zena Walker (The Dresser), and features Golden Globe nominee David McCallum (The Man from U.N.C.L.E) and Oscar nominee Rachel Roberts (Picnic at Hanging Rock).
When a waterman and his daughter Lizzie (Rachel Roberts) fish a battered corpse from the Thames in 1860s London, it is identified as that of John Harmon. Had Harmon lived, his father’s will required him to marry pretty Bella Wilfer (Zena Walker). However, now the substantial estate passes on to Mr and Mrs Boffin (Richard Pearson and Marda Vanne), a kind-hearted couple who adopt Bella. The mysterious John Rokesmith (Paul Daneman) becomes their trusted secretary, and they engage one-legged schemer Silas Wegg (Esmond Knight) to entertain them with nightly readings. Lizzie is pursued by two suitors in the shape of work shy barrister Eugene Wrayburn (David McCallum) and wily Bradley Headstone (Alex Scott), and a bitter rivalry ensues.
When the BBC began, its aim was to educate and entertain the public. One of its early hopes was to broadcast adaptations of great literature. Following the Second World War, the move towards television began. One of the first adaptations of Dickens’ classic novel, Our Mutual Friend, is a testament to the desire to bring the best literature to everyone in Britain. Whilst it may seem somewhat archaic to modern audiences, this adaptation was cutting edge for its time and combined an increased use of scenery with an imaginative use of camera angles to produce a dramatic and energetic effect.
The acting in this adaptation is excellent, though at times somewhat wooden. Paul Daneman’s performance as John Rokesmith is excellent and he plays himself off the Boffin’s and Bella well. He portrays Rokesmith’s own inner turmoil brilliantly and ensures that the viewer is kept guessing to his true origin to the very end. Esmond Knight’s somewhat comical turn as Silas Wegg is amusing through perhaps lacks the gravitas of later adaptations. Zena Walker’s depictions of Bella is also noticeable; her relationship with Rokesmith is one of the highlights of the series and certainly energies any scene featuring them.
In conclusion, Our Mutual Friend is not without its flaws but it is still an admirable and highly watchable adaptations of Dickens’ last complete novel. It is worth purchasing not only for the sake of enjoyment but also to see how television has advanced in the past fifty-nine years.