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Bleak House (2005)
Bleak House 2005 title card.jpg
Format TV serial
Created by Charles Dickens
Written by Based upon the novel by
Charles Dickens
Screenplay by
Andrew Davies
Starring Denis Lawson
Anna Maxwell Martin
Patrick Kennedy
Carey Mulligan
Gillian Anderson
Charles Dance
Alun Armstrong
Timothy West
Burn Gorman
Harry Eden
Country of origin  United Kingdom
No. of series 1
No. of episodes 15
Producer(s) BBC Television
Running time 30 minutes
60 minutes (1 episode)
Original channel BBC One
Picture format 1080i (16:9)
Original run 27 October – 16 December 2005
Preceded by Bleak House (1985)

Bleak House is a fifteen-part BBC television drama serial adaptation of Charles Dickens' novel Bleak House, which was originally published in 1852–53. Produced with an all-star cast, the serial was shown on BBC One from October to 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] It should not be confused with the 1985 TV adaptation.



The adaptation is quite lengthy at eight hours, and it covers most of the characters and storylines in the novel. Characters from the book who are not present include the wife of Mr Snagsby the law stationer; the wife and grandson of the moneylender Smallweed; the law clerk Tony Jobling; the bankrupt Mr Jellyby; the Sir Leicester Dedlock's several cousins; and the Bagnet family, friends of the ex-soldier Mr 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 Mr 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 8.00 p.m. and Fridays at 8.30 p.m., following the BBC's most popular programme — EastEnders — in an attempt to attract more viewers, particularly those of a young age. An hour-long episode started the series on Thursday 27 October 2005. Afterwards, episodes were shown twice weekly — aside from there being no episode broadcast on Friday November 18 due to the annual Children in Need charity telethon — and were thirty minutes in length. The serial was designed to air in the format of a soap opera; this was somewhat experimental for the television drama genre, where conventionally they would be an hour long. 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 installments, just like a soap-opera and claiming that if he had been alive in 2005 he would have been writing for big signature dramas. Bleak House was indeed originally published in monthly installments, 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 installments. 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 installment at 9:00 p.m. on Sundays from January 22 to February 26, 2006. Bleak House was rebroadcast on Masterpiece Theatre in 2007. Four installments, two hours each, were shown on most PBS stations from April 22 to May 13.

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, which is a girls' boarding school, and is occasionally open to the public. 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.

Cast and crew






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."[4]

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.[5]

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."[6]

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."[7] 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."[7]

The praise for the serial was not, however, universal. Writing for The Guardian newspaper, Philip Hensher criticised the program sight unseen [8]. 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..."[9]

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.[10] 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 ITV1. Bleak House's highest ratings came for the sixth episode on November 11, which attracted an average of 6.91 million viewers and a 29.5% share of the audience.[11]

The penultimate episode, broadcast on Thursday December 15, gained an audience of 5.2 million, losing out to The Bill on ITV1 which gained 6.3 million viewers.[12]

On May 7, 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 Emmy Awards including Outstanding Miniseries, Lead Actor In A Miniseries Or A Movie (Charles Dance), Lead Actress In A Miniseries Or A Movie (Gillian Anderson) and Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Movie (Denis Lawson). It won two Emmys, for Makeup and Cinematography in a Miniseries.

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

  • The Passion, a BBC drama by the same producer that uses the same soap-opera format.


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

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