Bleak House (2005 TV serial)

Last updated

Bleak House
Bleak House 2005 title card.jpg
Genre Serial drama
Created by Charles Dickens
Written byBased upon the novel by
Charles Dickens
Screenplay by
Andrew Davies
Directed by Justin Chadwick
Susanna White
Country of originUnited Kingdom
Original languageEnglish
No. of series1
No. of episodes15
Executive producersSally Haynes
Laura Mackie
Producer Nigel Stafford-Clark
Running time30 minutes
60 minutes (episode 1)
Production company BBC Television
Original network BBC One
Picture format 1080i (16:9)
Audio format Stereo
Original release27 October (2005-10-27) 
16 December 2005 (2005-12-16)
Preceded by Bleak House (1985)
External links

Bleak House is a fifteen-part BBC television drama serial adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel of the same name, which was originally published in 1852–53 as itself a print serialisation over 20 months. Produced with an all-star cast, the serial was shown on BBC One from 27 October to 16 December 2005, and drew much critical and popular praise. It has been reported that the total cost of the production was in the region of £8 million. [1]


Written by Andrew Davies, the serial was produced by Nigel Stafford-Clark and directed by Justin Chadwick and Susanna White.


The longstanding estate battle of Jarndyce v Jarndyce hangs over the heads of many conflicting heirs, confused by multiple wills. Possible beneficiary John Jarndyce of Bleak House welcomes orphaned cousins Ada Clare and Richard Carstone—also potential heirs—as his wards, and has hired Esther Summerson as a housekeeper and companion for Ada. Honoria, Lady Dedlock, the wife of the imperious baronet Sir Leicester, is also a possible beneficiary of the estate. The Dedlocks' lawyer, Tulkinghorn, sniffs out a connection between Lady Dedlock and a newly deceased man called Nemo; as he tries to discover Nemo's true identity, Lady Dedlock secretly seeks information about the dead man herself. Meanwhile, Richard and Ada are falling in love. Richard keeps changing his mind on which career to pursue—first a physician, then a lawyer and then a soldier—but the prospect of his inheritance from the ongoing litigation begins to consume him, despite warnings from John, now his formal guardian. Esther and the young doctor Allan Woodcourt are attracted to each other, but Esther feels unworthy and Allan accepts a commission as a navy physician.

The law clerk Mr. Guppy, enamoured of Esther, hopes to win her affection by helping her discover the identity of her parents. He finds connections to both Lady Dedlock and the deceased Nemo, who has been identified as Captain James Hawdon, and is eventually alerted to the existence of letters left behind by Hawdon but kept by his drunken landlord, Krook. Realizing that Esther is her daughter whom she was told had died—fathered by Hawdon before her current marriage—Lady Dedlock confesses to Esther but swears her to secrecy. Esther is stricken by smallpox and nearly dies; she recovers but is terribly scarred. John proposes marriage to Esther, but though she accepts, he convinces her to keep it secret until she is sure it is what she wants. While amassing other enemies, Tulkinghorn deduces Lady Dedlock's secret and tries to use it to keep her in line.

Tulkinghorn is murdered, with no shortage of suspects. Lady Dedlock is implicated, but Inspector Bucket reveals that her former maid Hortense is the murderess and had tried to frame Lady Dedlock. Richard and Ada are secretly married, but he is obsessed with the lawsuit, encouraged by John's unscrupulous friend Harold Skimpole and the conniving lawyer Vholes. As a result, Richard is penniless and his health is failing. Hawdon's letters—written by a young Lady Dedlock and revealing her secret–find their way back into the hands of the moneylender Smallweed, who sells them to Sir Leicester. Guilty over her deception and not wanting to bring ruin to her husband, Lady Dedlock flees into a storm before Sir Leicester is able to tell her he does not care about her past. He has a stroke but sends Bucket after her. Bucket eventually realizes where she must be—the graveyard where Hawdon is buried—but Esther arrives to find her mother dead from exposure. A final Jarndyce will is found that closes the case in favour of Richard and Ada, but the estate has been consumed by years of legal fees. Richard collapses, overcome by tuberculosis, and soon dies. Allan professes his love for Esther, who rebuffs him out of obligation to John, and a pregnant Ada returns to Bleak House. John releases Esther from their engagement, knowing that she really loves Allan. Esther and Allan marry, with all in attendance.


The adaptation is eight hours in length and covers most of the characters and storylines in the novel. Characters from the book who are not present include the wife of Snagsby, the law stationer; the wife and grandson of the moneylender Smallweed; the law clerk Tony Jobling; the bankrupt Jellyby; Sir Leicester Dedlock's several cousins; and the Bagnet family, friends of the ex-soldier Sergeant George. The character of Clamb, clerk to the lawyer Tulkinghorn, was created by the screenwriter as a device for showing Tulkinghorn's motives and deeds without recourse to a narrator. [2] [3]

Most of the storylines are portrayed substantially as they are in the novel, but somewhat abbreviated. The exceptions to this are in large part consequent to the aforementioned cull of minor characters. The plot mechanics around the possession of Lady Dedlock's letters, which involve Tony Jobling and Smallweed Junior in the novel, are considerably altered, as are the mechanics of the reconciliation between George and his mother, which is brought about by Mrs. Bagnet in the book. The storyline concerning Mrs. Snagsby's paranoid jealousy of her husband is omitted altogether.

Production overview

The serial was produced in-house by the BBC with some co-production funding from United States PBS broadcaster WGBH. It was shown on BBC One, on Thursdays at 20:00 and Fridays at 20:30, following the BBC's most popular programme— EastEnders —in an attempt to attract more viewers, particularly younger ones. The series started with an hour long on Thursday 27 October 2005, with subsequent episodes being 30 minutes, shown twice weekly. The serial was designed to air in the format of a soap opera, somewhat experimental for the television drama genre, but in keeping with Dickens' original serialisation. BBC One showed omnibus editions of each week's episodes on the Sunday following first broadcast.

Though some critics have argued against the series being shown in this format, programme makers and commentators defended their decision by saying that Dickens's writings were long, complex, very popular stories told over a series of small instalments, just like a soap-opera and claiming that if he had been alive in 2005 he would have been writing for big signature dramas.[ citation needed ]Bleak House was indeed originally published in monthly instalments, with cliffhangers used to maintain the continuing interest of the readership.

In the United States, the eight hours were broadcast on PBS on Masterpiece Theatre , where they were compressed and slightly edited into six instalments. The opening and closing episodes were two hours in length, and the middle four episodes were each a single hour. Most PBS stations showed the first-run for the new week's instalment at 21:00 on Sundays from 22 January to 26 February 2006. Bleak House was rebroadcast on Masterpiece Theatre in 2007. Four instalments, two hours each, were shown on most PBS stations from 22 April to 13 May.

Some other overseas broadcasters, such as Australia's ABC, purchased the series in an eight-part, one-hour-episode format.

The programme is also notable for being one of the first British drama series to be shot and produced in the High Definition Television format, which required the make-up and set design to be much more detailed than previous productions.

It was filmed on location in Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, and Kent from February 2005 through to July 2005. The exterior of the Dedlock's country house Chesney Wold, was represented by Cobham Hall in Kent, as was the exterior of Mr Tulkinghorn's Office. [4] Cobham Hall was also used for some interiors of Chesney Wold such as the hallway and the staircase. [4] The exterior of Bleak House was represented by Ingatestone Hall in Essex. Other houses used for interior shots and garden locations include Balls Park in Hertfordshire, Bromham Hall in Bromham, Bedfordshire, and Luton Hoo in Bedfordshire.



Previewing the first episode of the serial in the BBC's Radio Times listings magazine in its week of broadcast, critic David Butcher wrote that: "Watching this extraordinary version of Dickens's novel feels less like watching a TV drama and more like sampling a strange other world... it's Gillian Anderson who, despite having only a handful of lines, is at the heart of the drama. It's a magnetic performance (one of many) in a tremendous piece of television." [5]

In the same issue, the magazine—which also devoted its front cover to the programme, a fold-out photograph of the cast posing in modern glamorous dress in the style of a Dynasty-style soap opera cast—contained a preview feature by Christopher Middleton which went behind the scenes of the production. Middleton was equally positive about the adaptation. "The word 'big' doesn't really do it justice," he wrote. [6]

The Radio Times kept up its positive reaction to the series throughout the programme's run. Of episode eight, Butcher again wrote a positive preview. "We're halfway through this mesmerising serial and it shows no sign of letting up," he wrote. "As ever, each frame is composed to perfection, each face lit like an oil painting, and the acting is out of this world. You might want to take the phone off the hook." [7]

For the week of the final episode, the magazine's television editor, Alison Graham, joined in the praise, picking out individual cast members for particular attention. "Anna Maxwell Martin as Esther was a superb heroine, but in years to come it's [Gillian] Anderson's portrayal of a secretly tormented aristocrat that we'll treasure." [8] And of Charles Dance, "As the scheming attorney-at-law, Dance was wolfishly lethal, his hooded eyes and sonorous voice loaded with evil. It's almost enough to make you take against lawyers." [8]

The praise for the serial was not, however, universal. Writing for The Guardian newspaper, Philip Hensher criticised the programme sight unseen. [9] Hensher's comments led Andrew Davies to write an open letter to The Guardian in response to Hensher's piece, which appeared in the paper two days after the original article. "I think you know that a film can do a lot more than action and dialogue..." [10]

In terms of viewing figures, Bleak House began with an overnight average audience of 6.6 million for the one-hour opening episode, peaking at 7.2 million and averaging 29% of the total available viewing audience, winning its timeslot. [11] Ratings continued to average around the five to six million mark, with the serial sometimes winning its timeslot but on occasions being beaten into second place by programming on ITV. Bleak House's highest ratings came for the sixth episode on 11 November, which attracted an average of 6.91 million viewers and a 29.5% share of the audience. [12]

The penultimate episode, broadcast on Thursday 15 December, gained an audience of 5.2 million, losing out to The Bill on ITV which gained 6.3 million viewers. [13]

On 7 May 2006, Bleak House won the Best Drama Serial category at the British Academy Television Awards, one of the most prestigious industry awards in the UK, with Anna Maxwell Martin taking the Best Actress award ahead of fellow nominee Gillian Anderson.

In July 2006, the adaptation was nominated for 10 Primetime Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Miniseries, Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie (Charles Dance), Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Movie (Gillian Anderson), and Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Movie (Denis Lawson). It won two Emmys, for Makeup and Cinematography.

Previous versions

The BBC had previously adapted the novel twice, in 1959 (eleven episodes) and 1985 (eight episodes). In the silent film era it was filmed in 1920 and 1922; the later version starred Sybil Thorndike as Lady Dedlock. The BBC also adapted the book for radio.

See also

Related Research Articles

<i>Oliver Twist</i> Monthly serial; second novel by Charles Dickens; published 1837–1839

Oliver Twist; or, the Parish Boy's Progress is Charles Dickens's second novel, and was published as a serial from 1837 to 1839 and released as a three-volume book in 1838, before the serialisation ended. The story centres on orphan Oliver Twist, born in a workhouse and sold into apprenticeship with an undertaker. After escaping, Oliver travels to London, where he meets the "Artful Dodger", a member of a gang of juvenile pickpockets led by the elderly criminal Fagin.

<i>Bleak House</i> Novel by Charles Dickens; published 1852–1853

Bleak House is a novel by Charles Dickens, first published as a 20-episode serial between March 1852 and September 1853. The novel has many characters and several sub-plots, and is told partly by the novel's heroine, Esther Summerson, and partly by an omniscient narrator. At the centre of Bleak House is a long-running legal case in the Court of Chancery, Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which comes about because a testator has written several conflicting wills. In a preface to the 1853 first edition, Dickens claimed there were many actual precedents for his fictional case. One such was probably the Thellusson v Woodford case in which a will read in 1797 was contested and not determined until 1859. Though many in the legal profession criticised Dickens's satire as exaggerated, this novel helped support a judicial reform movement which culminated in the enactment of legal reform in the 1870s.

<i>The Mystery of Edwin Drood</i> Monthly serial; final and unfinished novel by Charles Dickens; published 1870

The Mystery of Edwin Drood is the final novel by Charles Dickens, originally published in 1870.

Jarndyce and Jarndyce is a fictional court case in Bleak House (1852–53) by Charles Dickens, progressing in the English Court of Chancery. The case is a central plot device in the novel and has become a byword for seemingly interminable legal proceedings.

<i>The Old Curiosity Shop</i>

The Old Curiosity Shop is one of two novels which Charles Dickens published along with short stories in his weekly serial Master Humphrey's Clock, from 1840 to 1841. It was so popular that New York readers stormed the wharf when the ship bearing the final instalment arrived in 1841. The Old Curiosity Shop was printed in book form in 1841.

<i>Upstairs, Downstairs</i> (1971 TV series) UK television series from 1971–1975

Upstairs, Downstairs is a British television drama series produced by London Weekend Television (LWT) for ITV. It ran for 68 episodes divided into five series on ITV from 1971 to 1975.

Roberta Alexandra Mary Taylor is an English actress and author. She is known for her roles of Irene Raymond in EastEnders (1997–2000), and Inspector Gina Gold in The Bill (2002–2008).

Denis Lawson Scottish actor and director

Denis Stamper Lawson is a Scottish actor and director. He is known for his roles as John Jarndyce in the BBC's adaptation of Bleak House, as Gordon Urquhart in the film Local Hero, as Retired DI Steve McAndrew in BBC One's New Tricks, and as Wedge Antilles in the original Star Wars trilogy. He is an uncle of actor Ewan McGregor.

<i>Bleak House</i> (1985 TV serial)

Bleak House is a BBC television drama first broadcast in 1985. The serial was adapted by Arthur Hopcraft from the Charles Dickens novel Bleak House (1853).

Anna Maxwell Martin, sometimes credited as Anna Maxwell-Martin, is an English actress.

Patrick Kennedy is an English actor and director.

Natalie Press

Natalie Press Is an English actress. She is known for her award-winning performance in the 2004 film My Summer of Love and a number of short and feature-length independent films, including Wasp (2003), which won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film. In 2008, her performance in Fifty Dead Men Walking earned her a nomination for the Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Female. In 2010, she was nominated for the BAFTA TV Award for Best Actress for her work in the three-hour BBC miniseries Five Daughters.

Emma Williams is an English actress of stage, screen, TV and radio. She has been nominated four times for an Olivier Award.

<i>Little Dorrit</i> (TV series)

Little Dorrit is a 2008 British miniseries based on Charles Dickens's serial novel of the same title, originally published between 1855 and 1857. The screenplay is by Andrew Davies and the episodes were directed by Adam Smith, Dearbhla Walsh, and Diarmuid Lawrence.

Bleak House (1959) is the first BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens' 1853 novel of the same name. It was adapted by Constance Cox as an eleven-part series of half-hour episodes first transmitted from 16 October 1959. The series was released to DVD in 2017 by Simply Media.

Esther Summerson

Esther Summerson is a character in Bleak House, an 1853 novel by Charles Dickens. She also serves as one of the novel's two narrators; half the book is written from her perspective. It is the only example of a double narrative in Dickens and the first person female voice may have been influenced by the example of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, published in 1847.

The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff is a four-part comedy series produced by BBC, which premiered on BBC Two on 19 December 2011. It is a parody of the works of Charles Dickens, drawing its title from Bleak House and The Old Curiosity Shop. It is a television successor to Bleak Expectations, a radio parody of Dickens which began in 2007, and with which it shares the writer Mark Evans, producer Gareth Edwards and actor Richard Johnson; while not a direct adaptation it shares the same style, atmosphere and sense of humour. It is directed by Ben Gosling Fuller, who also directed the show That Mitchell and Webb Look.

Bleak House is a 1920 British silent drama film directed by Maurice Elvey and starring Constance Collier, Berta Gellardi, and Helen Haye. It is an adaptation of Charles Dickens' 1853 novel Bleak House. It was one of many silent film versions of Dickens' stories.

<i>Dickensian</i> (TV series) British drama television series

Dickensian is a British drama television series that premiered on BBC One from 26 December 2015 to 21 February 2016. The 20-part series, created and co-written by Tony Jordan, brings characters from many Charles Dickens novels together in one Victorian London neighbourhood, as Inspector Bucket investigates the murder of Ebenezer Scrooge's partner Jacob Marley.


  1. Gordon, Bryony (11 October 2005). "I'm too old for romantic leads". The Daily Telegraph .
  2. Marre, Oliver (27 October 2005). "Some bleak news for the Beeb's new Dickens drama". The Independent . Archived from the original on 18 July 2008. Retrieved 10 February 2015.
  3. Wylie, Ian (18 October 2005). "BleakEnders". Manchester Evening News . Archived from the original on 6 July 2008. Retrieved 10 February 2015.
  4. 1 2 Kent Film Office. "Kent Film Office Bleak House Film Focus".
  5. Butcher, David. "Today's Choices: Thursday 27 October. Bleak House." Radio Times . Volume 327, number 4256, issue dated 22–28 October 2005, page 108.
  6. Middleton, Christopher. Ibid, page 10.
  7. Butcher, David. "Today's Choices: Thursday 24 November. Bleak House." Radio Times . Volume 327, number 4206, issue dated 19–25 November 2005, page 114.
  8. 1 2 Graham, Alison. "Television: The Bleakies." Radio Times . Volume 327, number 4263, issue dated 10–16 December 2005, page 61.
  9. Hensher, Philip. "You'll never catch me watching it". The Guardian . Monday 7 November 2005.
  10. Davies, Andrew. "Open letter to Philip Hensher". The Guardian. Wednesday 9 November 2005.
  11. Day, Julie. "6.6m flock to Bleak House" (subscription link). Friday 28 October 2005.
  12. Wilkes, Neil. "Bleak House rises to 7 million" Archived 25 November 2005 at the Wayback Machine . Monday 14 November 2005.
  13. Tryhorn, Chris. "Trevor says goodbye to 3 million" (subscription link). Friday 16 December 2005.

Further reading