Patrick Malahide played Mr. Alfred Jingle, a prominent character in the BBC’s “The Pickwick Papers” (1985), based on Charles Dickens’ 1836 novel by the same name. He’s a charmer, a con artist, an opportunist, and perhaps worst of all, an AHC-tor, and he is cheerfully unashamed of any of these appellations.
A Scoundrel in Dark Green
When we first meet Jingle, he’s unceremoniously shoving an urchin out of his way (I just love the offhand way he does this; he doesn’t even look at the kid) on his way to helping Mr. Samuel Pickwick (Nigel Stock) and the rest of the members of the Pickwick Club out of a jam with an irate coachman. Jingle is tall and thin, and looks taller due to his battered and dented top hat. His threadworn dark green suit has obviously seen
many better days; he’s wearing a too-small coat, waistcoat, and cravat without a shirt (he actually does have a shirt – it’s just bundled up in a parcel to spare it from non-essential wear, or so we assume) and well-worn shoes. His appearance pretty much shouts “disreputable” but the Pickwickians, despite being grown men, are complete innocents when it comes to the outside world. They’ve never been anywhere or dealt with much unpleasantness in their lives, and they don’t recognize “disreputable” when they see it (and misguidedly buy it a drink). Jingle settles the situation with the coachman before things turn too ugly and is invited for drinks by Mr. Pickwick in gratitude. This is where we get our first hint of Jingle’s enormous powers of opportunism – or just plain old mooching. He seems to have an innate sense of where and when free food or drink might be in the offing. Even before the Pickwickians have all seated themselves, he’s already ordered refreshments for the entire party (not on his shilling, of course) and has completely taken charge of the situation.
Jingle is a creature unlike anything the Pickwickians have encountered before. He seems to have been everywhere and done everything, and has left a long string of broken-hearted ladies behind him in many countries (at least, according to him). He’s utterly charming and a great talker, though he does have an odd, epigrammatic style of speech; he tends to make every sentence a portentous two- or three-word declaration. The Pickwickians find him and his stories (especially the ones about ladies) completely fascinating (who wouldn’t??) and invite him along to their next destination. Sensing more free food and drink in the offing, or perhaps just some inexperienced pigeons to be plucked, Jingle goes along for the ride.
A Knack for Avoiding Trouble
What ensues is a mix of slapstick, mistaken identities, outraged ladies (with Jingle trading up each time), angry gentlemen, and a series of huffy denouncements by Mr. Pickwick of a completely unashamed Jingle before he can close a con on his next victim. Jingle uses the Pickwickians’ naïveté to his best advantage, getting them embroiled in everything from duels to elopements, with a mysterious eel-like ability to avoid trouble himself. He’s usually heard before he’s spotted, and is not above employing an alias (for example, “Charles Fitz-Marshall”, a military man) to achieve his ends. There are a few hints of ruthlessness – he does toy rather callously with Miss Rachel Wardle’s (Freda Dowie) feelings in order to get a pay-off to leave her alone – but through it all, his roguish appeal remains intact.
Villain or Not?
It’s hard to say whether Dickens really intended Jingle to be a villain or not. Some reviewers find him to be a horrible, reprehensible, manipulative man, but I confess I never felt too badly for his victims and was cheering for him to escape whatever traps were laid for him. He knows what he is and absolutely does not care. He’s a fox among fat, complacent chickens and he takes great joy in running them around. He even acquires a devoted, if somewhat grimy-looking, manservant, Job Trotter (who is absolutely Baldrick-like in appearance and function) along the way. We even get a set of parallel rivalries between Pickwick and Jingle, and Sam Weller (Phil Daniels) and Job Trotter (Pip Donaghy), their respective manservants. It would seem that Jingle is destined to slip free of any comeuppance that might be headed his way.
Punishment and Prison
However, it appears that Dickens felt compelled to punish his fascinating charlatan in some way, in order to satisfy a sense of justice. Due to a convoluted set of circumstances I won’t go into here, Mr. Pickwick ends up jailed in the Fleet prison and is reunited with Jingle there. Jingle has at last been brought low: he’s jailed for debt, has had to hock most of his clothes (Job’s hocked his clothes too, in support, but how much they could possibly be worth after being worn by him is questionable), and is sick and starving, with the clear knowledge that he likely won’t survive and will die a pauper’s death. He freely admits it’s his own doing and says it’s perhaps what he deserves, showing genuine remorse and tearful regret. Pickwick is moved to pity by Jingle’s situation and sets aside past bad feelings to become his benefactor by employing Job (and by extension, Jingle) as an outside errand-runner. The influx of cash (as meagre as it is) gets Jingle’s clothes out of hock and helps him to begin convalescing.
Redemption and Reformation
We next get another of Dickens’ favourite themes: redemption through suffering. One of Pickwick’s first acts upon getting out of the Fleet is to redeem Jingle’s debts and arrange for his release. He further arranges for Jingle and Trotter to start new lives working on a plantation in the West Indies, though it’s emphasized that they face a hard life there as well. Jingle is as likely to die from a tropical disease there as anything else, and his prospects for survival are slim. It’s a greatly changed Jingle we see released from the Fleet: he’s subdued and chastened, all of his insouciance and naughtiness gone, no longer a charming raconteur. He’s tearfully grateful and determined to repay his debt to Mr. Pickwick, no matter what it takes, and has become (by Victorian standards, anyway) a better man. It’s almost disappointing to see him so changed, in a way; but still, I assume it’s required in order to keep some sort of divine sense of balance intact. Villains, even charming ones, are meant to suffer for their villainy and can only be redeemed by proper remorse and rehabilitation. However, Jingle’s final fate is left a question mark.
Played to Perfection
Patrick Malahide plays this lovely con man to perfection, from his odd, staccato delivery and overwrought actor’s mannerisms to his charm, engaging nature, and sheer humour. There is also a great deal of physicality and energy to his portrayal. You have to keep your eyes on him in every scene; he’s always doing something worth watching. Malahide plays Jingle as one of the most cheerfully self-satisfied, unashamed scoundrels one will ever encounter, and he even seems to relish the cat-and-mouse chase (it’s up for debate who the cat is) with Mr. Pickwick. We realize we’re supposed to condemn him for his actions, but we just can’t help but find him appealing – or at least, I can’t. Yet later, Malahide breaks our hearts when we see Jingle in prison. He’s in dire circumstances with little to no hope and he knows it; Malahide transforms Jingle’s old mannerisms to emphasize his vulnerability and wring our feelings for pity and sympathy. His physical transformation is startling, too. I actually did not recognize him the first time I saw the prison scene. And we see him transform yet again as the subdued, tearfully grateful Jingle upon release. Through his performance, we get a character who comes full circle in this story, and a character whose fate we care about even after the conclusion. What ever did become of Jingle (and Trotter) in the West Indies?