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Christine Geraghty, Bleak House.

Christine Geraghty, Bleak House. BFI TV Classics, BFI/Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. ISBN 978-1-84457-417-9

Christine Geraghty is renowned for her scholarship on soap operas, adaptation and quality television. This little book, a study of the hugely successful BBC serial Bleak House, (1) interweaves beautifully these three key themes of Geraghty's work, to offer an interrogative, balanced, appreciative and appropriately personal reading of the programme.

At first glance, the book's key foci appear somewhat eclectic: the serial's production, reception and distinctiveness; its generic status as 'classic serial' and its audience; serialisation and soap; 'the problem of Esther'; narrative organisation, characterisation and performance; setting; and visual organisation and critical reception (pp. 5-6). However, this structure actually functions perfectly: it arises from and responds to key facets of the programme, and ultimately situates Bleak House within its specific adaptive, televisual, cultural and critical contexts.

In the introduction and chapter one, Geraghty situates Bleak House as a classic television series, developing Grahame Smith's important work on Charles Dickens and moving images (2) to draw out convincing parallels, continuities and correspondences between Dickens, the BBC, television fiction in the early 2000s, and their respective audiences. Depicting Dickens as a 'professional author' who cannily exploited different formats and markets, Geraghty offers a refreshing reminder that nothing is so new in concept or degree (only in particular form). Moving to consider the serial within its broader televisual context, she critically engages with current debates on quality TV, changing technologies and contemporary televisual styles.

In chapter two Geraghty takes an even-handed and clear-headed approach to two claims: the oft-cited characterisation of the BBC Bleak House 'as soap opera', and the commonplace speculation that if Dickens were alive today, he would be writing TV soaps. Geraghty persuasively pursues connections between serial practices employed in novel and adaptation, but as her attention turns specifically to the particular, 'never-ending' serial form found in soaps, the correspondences begin to feel more tenuous. Prudently, some way into her analysis, as she navigates temporality, spatiality and style, Geraghty cautions that the soap opera connection may not be as helpful as first thought (p. 28). Nevertheless, the chapter concludes with a concise and nuanced exploration of melodrama in soap (pp. 29-31), later interestingly problematised in relation to Bleak House.

Chapter three launches a fascinating exploration of 'the problem of Esther', the contentious protagonist of Bleak House, who suffered 'intense hostility' (p. 36) from Dickens' contemporary readers and critics, and who was profoundly disliked by adapter Andrew Davies (one suspects that the charismatic Lady Dedlock, played by Gillian Anderson, is more his cup of tea).

Chapters four and five employ formalist-structuralist analytical techniques to offer an adept exploration of Bleak House's complex 'double story'--its narratives of contiguity and of deduction (following Todorov, p. 43)--and its 'Dickensian' characterisation. Geraghty avoids the pitfalls of this narratological approach, offering alongside her analyses of characters' narrative functions a more expressive appreciation of their importance--pinpointing, for instance, one of the key pleasures of this serial: the electric relationship between the powerful and enigmatic Tulkinghorn (Charles Dance) and the troubled Lady Dedlock.

Chapter six explores the serial's settings and period details, but eschews the narrow terms of the now rather jaded heritage debate (which never really applied straightforwardly to television adaptations anyway). Chapter seven examines the visual organisation of the serial, moving nicely beyond the dubious, if understandable, 'word' versus 'image' dichotomy which several adaptation scholars have tried to lay to rest (p. 99), (3) even if Dickens' illustrations and 'cinematic' style are rather over-stretched as counter-examples.

Chapter seven constitutes above all a superb piece of metacriticism. Geraghty observes that the serial's visual organisation was treated very differently by critics/viewers and academics. The former were unconvinced by the programme's trendy style (p. 107), dismissing it as 'pasted on' and dispensable: 'style to be looked at' rather than through (p. 103). Geraghty gives space to these criticisms, assessing coolly the use of HD, tempering the modish mania for the new, and summarising, 'It could be argued that the BBC succeeded in linking visual style to innovation and a modern approach but failed to establish that as integral to the project' (p. 108).

She proffers the alternative view, too: academics generally embraced the programme's stylistic choices, successfully establishing links with character and narrative, sometimes overenthusiastically teasing out connections with Dickens' source novel. In the end Geraghty seems to favour somewhat the academic view: that the style 'holds together' in an 'intricate relationship' all elements--narrative, setting, performance--and 'jolts the viewer' (p. 117). This is after all crucial to her claims for the programme's achievements, its worthiness as an object of close analysis, and its status as a 'classic'.

Is the BBC Bleak House a classic? Geraghty sensibly notes that it is too early to say (p. 114), especially as the programme is very much of its time. This reader agrees: some of the claims made in Geraghty's book for its uniqueness are oversold, mostly by exaggerating the comparative conservatism and conformity of other TV adaptations. (4) However, she argues convincingly for Bleak Houses 'style, confidence and ambition' (p. 116).

Concluding, Geraghty notes that she found it hard sometimes to disentangle the programme from its hype--a refreshingly down-to-earth perspective as adaptation studies marches onwards via inter- and transmediality to intertexts, metatexts and beyond, and in the process, appears to lose sight of the fact that different texts can be closely related, and explored in light of one another, and yet also disambiguated--different from one another in intention, meaning, significance and ontology. This matter-of-fact pragmatism is apparent throughout the book: a refusal to allow one's scholarly attention to be driven by others' agendas (producers and distributors; fans and critics; academic fads and fashions).

This book is indeed a 'personal response', (5) and perhaps inevitably, sometimes Geraghty's criticism appears unfairly subjective, such as when she suggests that Davies could have made better use of literary criticism in his development of Esther (p. 40). Better is her sensitive criticism of the use of 'wasted spaces' (p. 93), which suggests what more might have been achieved in terms of the serial's own aims. But Geraghty's voice is finally the book's central strength. This book achieves extraordinary coverage in a small space. Its questions are thoughtfully chosen, its style accessible and its answers balanced, thoughtful and original. It is the literary equivalent of a lively, intelligent conversation about a favourite TV drama.

Sarah Cardwell

University of Kent


(1) Bleak House (BBC/WGBH Boston/Deep Indigo/BBC, 2005)

(2) See Grahame Smith, Charles Dickens: A Literary Life, Macmillan, 1996; Dickens the Dream of Cinema, Manchester University Press, 2003.

(3) See, Sarah Cardwell, Adaptation Revisited: Television and the Classic Novel, Manchester University Press, 2002, especially pp. 36-8; Kamilla Elliott, Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate, Cambridge University Press, 2003, especially pp. 11-6.

(4) There was in particular a 'golden age' of innovation in the genre in the 1990s; for a contemporary analysis see Cardwell, Adaptation Revisited.

(5) From series blurb, BFI TV Classics.
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Author:Cardwell, Sarah
Publication:Critical Studies in Television
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2014
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