An Interview with Producer Catherine Wearing
Lavishing a true fanatic's care on the production of Dickens' last completed novel is Catherine Wearing of the BBC, who started out in 1990 as a script editor trainee. She won accolades in that job by pruning into shape such Masterpiece Theatre classics as The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton and Persuasion by Jane Austen. Her first credit as producer came with A Mug's Game, nominated for Best Drama Series by BAFTA Scotland in 1997. She followed that with the second series of Common as Muck, written by William Ivory and nominated for Best Comedy Drama by the British Comedy Awards.
With Our Mutual Friend, she returns to the classics of her salad days, but this time as the big cheese.
Dickens is going for broke in this novel. This is his Greek tragedy.
Could you give a brief synopsis?
Good lord! What I would say is it's a powerful portrait of life in London in the last century. It uses flashbacks and dislocations of time that make it perfect for filming, and it has extraordinary landscapes like the River Thames and the Dust Mound, which are central symbols of commerce and corruption. All of this comes into play in two very extraordinary love stories.
In one of them, John Harmon, in disguise, discovers that his inheritance is conditional upon his marrying someone he's never met--a young woman that his father has chosen for him. Penniless and under an assumed identity, he then falls in love with her. But she, Bella Wilfer, is determined to marry money. So there develops a love story about her growing understanding of whether to follow her head or her heart.
In the other love story, the upper-class, charismatic lawyer, Eugene Wrayburn, and the working-class, very earnest schoolmaster, Bradley Headstone, both fall in love with a young river worker called Lizzie Hexam, who has a passing connection to the John Harmon plot. A three-way love affair develops, which leads to murder and self-destruction in the end.
Surrounding these five, central lovers are a population of unforgettable characters, including people like the Boffins, the wonderful comedy duo of Silas Wegg and Mr. Venus, and society characters like Lady Tippins and Mortimer Lightwood.
He serialized his novels, so he wouldn't have had a definite plan when he began. I actually think he started out believing it would be primarily about Bella and John, with the Boffins involved, which obviously is a story about money and marriage. It's a very contemporary story, too. Bella constantly reminds me of Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
I think it gradually dawned on him that he'd hit on an extraordinary story with the battle of souls between Eugene and Bradley. He became increasingly obsessed with that story, and he ended up tying up Bella and John so that he could dwell on Bradley, Eugene, and Lizzie.
Did his surreptitious love affair with the actress, Ellen Ternan, play a role in his portrayal of Bella and Lizzie?
Yes, although neither of them is literally modeled on Ellen Ternan. It is interesting that Bella and Lizzie are by far the most satisfying of Dickens's heroines, and that he had left his family by the time he wrote the book and was engaged in an extremely covert relationship with Ellen. You have to remember that actresses at that time were considered only a step away from prostitutes, so this was an extreme position for him to be in. She was a great artist, and I think that's what he loved in her. He used to call her "The Wonder." Isn't that lovely?
How did you approach choosing the cast?
We deliberately set out to find interesting actors and interesting faces who we felt were not the obvious candidates. We wanted actors who would be brave enough to strip away the easy caricature and discover the emotional heart of the role. For instance, Kenneth Cranham could easily have played Silas Wegg in the old music hall style that has always been used to portray Dickens's rogues. But instead he turns him into a minor tragic hero without damaging the humor. He makes him into a human being, and therefore the comedy is even more powerful. We were looking for that sort of depth. But really, we were spoiled because actors love Dickens. He gives them so much to go on. Every single character exudes three-dimensional dramatic life.
Absolutely! They existed all over London. It was an extremely profitable business. In fact one of them was near where I live in King's Cross. Basically what a character like Mr. Boffin would do is go around and buy rubbish off people. Some of it was iron. Some of it was clothing. Some of it was old leather. Some of it was household refuse. Much of it he would burn and then sell as cinders. The cinders were used to make soap, brick, and china. It was quite a revolutionary recycling process. There's one story that the British government sold a whole dust mountain to Russia because they were rebuilding St. Petersburg and had nothing to build the foundations on.
How about the business of fishing corpses from the Thames?
It still happens today. People get knocked off. There's a whole arm of the Thames police that goes up and down the river fishing out the bodies. Murder victims. Fight victims. Drunks. Suicides. It's the same now as then.
It sounds like virtually everything Dickens wrote about actually happened.
Definitely. Don't forget, the man was an observer, above all else he was a fanatical documentary maker of his times. He walked miles every day around London just looking at people, recording what they said, finding out how they survived and what their trades were. It's why his characters leap off the page.
What accounts for the surreal feeling that one gets from reading much of his work?
His imagination, I think.
He heightens reality?
No, I think he sees the force of life as it is actually lived, rather than life as it is presented in most art. Our Mutual Friend is a case in point. He doesn't give us what we want, but what is. For instance, Eugene does not behave like we want a hero to behave. He would have seduced Lizzie if he could have. If Headstone hadn't clonked him on the head, he would have met Lizzie the next day and seduced her. And she would have gotten pregnant and ended up in the workhouse dead. Dickens makes no bones about that. He refuses to apologize for Eugene's seductive ambiguity. I think that is what is so wonderful about him as an author, he doesn't knock the edges off anybody.
Some say Our Mutual Friend is his greatest novel and that he's the greatest novelist. Would you agree?
I do think I have had the pleasure of working on the greatest novel by the greatest novelist. You can probably tell I think the man's a genius.
What would compare today with the popularity he enjoyed in his own time?
Pop stars. Thousands of people came to hear him read. I think of him as the equivalent of Madonna. I'm not saying I think she's as talented as he is, but that's the kind of popularity he had.
Are there any modern authors you'd compare him with?
I haven't read a modern writer who has this epic landscape and this ability to portray a world from top to bottom.
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