Home > Reviews > DICKENSIAN – Debbie Wiseman

DICKENSIAN – Debbie Wiseman

dickensianOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Dickensian is a fascinating British drama series from the BBC, which re-imagines many of the numerous characters from Charles Dickens’s most famous works – A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend – and places them into a shared single setting in Victorian London. The plot of the series concerns Scotland Yard police inspector Bucket (Stephen Rea), and his investigation into the apparent murder of a prominent businessman, Jacob Marley, on Christmas Eve, an event which gradually draws many local figures into the plot. The series, which has an ensemble cast that includes Peter Firth, Tuppence Middleton, Pauline Collins, Caroline Quentin, and many others, was a critical success when it aired during the early months of 2016, and looks likely to be renewed for a second season in 2017.

The score for Dickensian is by the great British composer Debbie Wiseman, who has been riding the crest of a wave off the back of the success of the TV series Wolf Hall, and who continues to be lauded for her tremendous film and TV work, stretching back to the 1990s with scores like Haunted, Wilde, Arsène Lupin, and Lesbian Vampire Killers, among others. It’s clear that the producers of Dickensian were big fans of Wolf Hall, because quite a lot of Dickensian could easily be described as ‘Wolf Hall Lite’, albeit crossed with Hans Zimmer’s score for Sherlock Holmes. It’s interesting how Victorian London has become associated with a certain musical style in recent years, most notably the spiky violin passages that typify Zimmer’s score, as well as things like David Arnold’s score for the Sherlock TV series, parts of Abel Korzeniowski’s Penny Dreadful, and even Austin Wintory’s video game score for the last installment of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, Syndicate.

Dickensian is certainly at the more successful end of these depictions of Victorian London. Conducting the Locrian Ensemble, as she often does, Wiseman imbues her score with a sense of mischief, but also a sense of time and place, effortlessly conjuring up vivid imagery of rain-slicked cobbled streets, horses and carriages, gentlemen and ladies in their upper class finery sweeping past scruffy urchins and pickpockets in the gutters at their feet. The opening piece, “Dickensian,” is a suite of sorts, covering the score’s main musical concepts. It opens with a bouncy piece built around a dominant rhythmic idea for strings and cimbalom, rolling on merrily, while gentle woodwinds and the higher-register parts of the string section add a layer of thematic presence on top. A secondary idea, slightly more sinister, comes in at the 2:00 mark and pits a 2-note cello phrase against the main instrumental colors, while a third idea – a more lyrical violin part – adds a touch of elegance and hesitant romance.

These core ideas form the basis of pretty much the entire score, which then circulates through them at regular intervals as the music progresses. Virtually all the cues feature both the central rhythmic idea and the tinkling cimbalom, allowing the score to clearly develop an identity of its own. What’s clever about Dickensian is the way Wiseman is able to take this relatively small ensemble of musicians, and the limited orchestrations, and convey such a broad array of emotions by doing little more than changing the tempo of a piece, or the combination of the instruments used. Capturing these musical nuances is no small feat, and it’s testament to Wiseman’s combined skill as an arranger and a dramatist that she can accurately depict all these shades so compellingly.

Cues of note include the more formal-sounding “The Order of Things,” which revisits some of the rhythmic ideas Wiseman explored in her depictions of the period and the setting in Wilde back in 1997, and sets them against the main theme. “Scrooge and Marley” uses more prominent xylophones to capture the dusty old bones of the two miserly money lenders at the center of A Christmas Carol and – in Marley’s case – Dickensian’s murder mystery, while the competing violins and violas give a sense of the symbiotic duality of the pair.

Meanwhile, “Over Blessed with Fortune” counterpoints light, flighty English horns against more understated, reflective piano motifs; “A Game of Dares” and “A Woman in a Man’s World” are gently oppressive; and “Bucket of the Detective” somehow takes on a warmer, inquisitive quality through its increased use of oboes, and by switching the 2-note ‘sinister’ motif from cello to piano. Later, “A Long Road Without a Turn” presents an increasingly insistent setting of the 2-note motif, mirroring the tone of the performance in the suite, creating a sense of motion and impending drama.

“The Old Curiosity Shop” has a sense of faded beauty through the light metallic ideas, glockenspiels combining with harps and cellos, while “A Poor Choice of Friends,” “I Am Arthur Havisham,” “Ideas Are Dangerous,” “Provisions for Mr. Wegg,” and “Market Street” are led by beautifully morose, wistful piano solos which often segue into cello performances of the main theme that have a palpable sorrowful quality. “A Small Reward for a Small Favour” is one of the few times the music adopts any kind of rhythmic urgency, an almost Carter Burwell-esque tension sequence for more prominent percussion and unusually-keyed woodwind phrases. The curiously-named “Cheese and Smoking Shop” pits the cimbalom and strings against the more woodsy, earthy tones of a marimba, giving it a sort of shadowy, hidden quality, but this is quickly overtaken by more rhapsodic piano lines and warm clarinet tones in the cue’s second half.

Interestingly, what I see as being a definite positive to the score could easily be seen by others as its biggest weakness. Wiseman’s small ensemble, and her subtly-changing instrumental combinations, does tend to give the score a slight sense of ‘sameyness,’ whereupon one cue runs into the next, and the next, and the next, without any obvious delineation. With the exception of the opening suite, it makes picking out real highlights difficult, and the mostly consistent tone could quickly turn the score into an insomnia cure for listeners not tuned into her distinct brand of English classicism.

In terms of the greater body of her output, Dickensian falls short of the majority of Debbie Wiseman’s best works, including all those I mentioned in the second paragraph, plus things like Tom’s Midnight Garden, or He Knew He Was Right. Having said that, Wiseman’s standards are so ridiculously high, and her output is of such enormous quality, that a slight disappointment from her still comes in sounding and feeling better than the majority of scores being written today, and as such I enjoyed it a great deal. It may not have the flashy standout cues of some of her other scores, but as a spry, sly, musically literate, elegant depiction of that era, Dickensian still succeeds.

Buy the Dickensian soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Dickensian (4:36)
  • The Order of Things (2:46)
  • Scrooge and Marley (4:58)
  • Over Blessed With Fortune (2:23)
  • A Game of Dares (3:06)
  • Bucket of the Detective (2:40)
  • The Old Curiosity Shop (3:41)
  • A Poor Choice of Friends (3:42)
  • What the Eye Doesn’t See (3:23)
  • I Am Arthur Havisham (2:46)
  • Cross to Bear (2:50)
  • A Woman in a Man’s World (2:20)
  • Ideas Are Dangerous (3:30)
  • A Small Reward for a Small Favour (3:48)
  • Provisions for Mr. Wegg (3:24)
  • The Work of Providence (2:31)
  • A Long Road Without a Turn (2:45)
  • No Murderer (3:01)
  • Cheese and Smoking Shop (5:06)
  • Market Street (3:51)
  • A Cratchit Christmas (4:08)

Running Time: 71 minutes 16 seconds

Silva Screen SILCD-1508 (2016)

Music composed and conducted by Debbie Wiseman. Orchestrations by Debbie Wiseman. Recorded and mixed by Steve Price. Album produced by Debbie Wiseman.

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