Episode Eight – Christmas at Dingley Dell
When last seen, the Pickwickians were on their way to spend Christmas at Dingley Dell with the Wardles, after exposing Mr. Jingle’s masquerade as “Charles Fitz-Marshall”, military hero, and discovering that Mr. Pickwick (Nigel Stock) was being sued by ex-landlady Mrs. Bardell (Jo Kendall) for breach of promise on a supposed offer of marriage. But they put it all out of their minds for a while and arrive at Dingley Dell for the holidays, remarkably without experiencing any horse or carriage mishaps, hunting accidents, attempted duels, or other unfortunate occurrences.
While there, the Pickwickians have a very Dickensian idyllic Christmas – everyone’s happy, no one fusses or fights, everything comes off without a hitch – and there’s lots of food, drink, singing, dancing, and eligible young ladies. Actually, it’s rather a shame Jingle isn’t there, as we know how much he appreciates all of those things, but even he would probably realize it would be bad form to crash this party. However, the presence of eligible young ladies seems to inspire Mr. Winkle (Jeremy Nicholas) to become suddenly and completely smitten with Arabella Allen (Sarah Finch) despite having shown no previous interest in her. Could it be that the self-styled sportsman is thinking of settling down? Just to make things symmetrical, Mr. Snodgrass (Alan Parnaby) also seems to be becoming sweet on Emily Wardle (Valerie Whittington); he even writes her a poem! Only poor Tuppy (Clive Swift) is left bereft, as Miss Rachel (Freda Dowie) is still away somewhere recovering from her Jingle Experience™. But there’s a snag in Mr. Winkle’s romance, as Arabella’s medical student brother Benjamin (David Beckett) is her sole guardian, and he has plans for her to marry his best friend, the somewhat uncouth Bob Sawyer (Stephen Finlay), also a medical student (we can tell they’re uncouth because they both enjoy talking shop over breakfast). Unfortunately for Winkle, Arabella feels she cannot ignore her duty to obey her brother’s wishes.
The party breaks up with nothing settled amongst the lovebirds, although there are a lot of yearning gazes going on. The Pickwickians return to Mr. Pickwick’s new lodgings at the George and Vulture Inn, only for all of them and manservant Sam Weller (Phil Daniels) to be served with subpoenas for Mr. Pickwick’s upcoming trial. Pickwick meets with his lawyer, Mr. Perker (Milton Johns), emphasizes that he fully intends not to pay any damages if he loses the case because he isn’t guilty, and also meets with his advocates, the exotically named Sergeant Snubbin (John Woodnutt) and Mr. Phunkey (Michael Ripper).
Episode Nine – Mr. Pickwick on Trial
The day of the trial arrives, and Dickens’ distaste for legal proceedings once again rears its head. Mrs. Bardell brings an entourage to court and puts on a very theatrical (and loud) display of sobbing and wailing; Mr. Perker even admires it as part of opposing lawyers Dodson and Fogg’s strategy. The defense attempts to make much of a pair of notes Mr. Pickwick wrote to Mrs. Bardell – one requesting “chops and tomato sauce”, which apparently sounds fraught with innuendo when you say it the right way – and various other innocent remarks. Nonetheless, things seem to be going relatively well until… Mr. Winkle (un)helpfully volunteers the information that Pickwick’s character towards women is unimpeachable except for that one little time he was caught in a lady’s bedroom at an Ipswich inn (Episode Six), resulting in the lady’s engagement being broken off, a near challenge to a duel, and being called before a magistrate. Clearly Mr. Pickwick leads a much more lively life than he lets on! Realizing that he’s ruined Pickwick’s chances, a mortified Winkle runs from the courtroom and Snodgrass and Tupman are forced to confirm his testimony when they’re called to the stand. The witness who comes off the best is, unsurprisingly, Sam Weller, who at least manages to squeeze in edgewise the tidbit that Dodson and Fogg have taken Mrs. Bardell’s case “on spec”, not charging any fees in the hopes of being paid out of the damages.
It’s all downhill from there as witness after witness confirms that Mr. Pickwick’s seemingly innocent exterior conceals a “destroyer of a domestic oasis”, and (spoiler alert!) the jury finds for £750 in damages for the plaintiff (she was asking £1,500). Pickwick holds to his vow and refuses to pay anything whatsoever, declaring he’ll go into the Fleet Prison as a debtor instead.
Episode Ten – Mr. Pickwick in the Fleet
Mr. Pickwick turns himself in at the Fleet, refusing Mr. Perker’s final offer to pay the damages in order to avoid imprisonment. Dickens’ previous workhouse experiences make themselves keenly felt and the show takes on a distinct change in tone from humourous slapstick to serious commentary as the naïve Pickwick gets a short, sharp education in the nasty underbelly of his society. The Fleet is filthy and nasty, noisy and overcrowded with coughing, rag-wearing inhabitants (including entire families), and everything comes at a price, from decent food to a decent bed.
Upon admission, Mr. Pickwick “sits for his portrait” (that is, has his face memorized by the prison’s “artists”) and is forced to be roomies with other unsavoury Fleet denizens. Sam stays protectively close, recognizing that Pickwick is very much a babe in the woods in this situation, until he has to leave for the night. The next day, Pickwick makes arrangements to rent a private room with the turnkey, Mr. Roker (Dallas Cavell) and also asks if anyone’s available who can run errands outside the prison for him when Sam isn’t there. Roker tells him there’s “an unfortunate devil who has a friend on the poor side” who isn’t a prisoner and can run errands, and takes Pickwick over for a meeting.
Meeting an Old Acquaintance
As it turns out, “the poor side” is filled with prisoners who have no money whatsoever, and the “unfortunate devil” in question is none other than Job Trotter (Pip Donaghy), who voluntarily went into the Fleet in order to stay with… his best friend, Alfred Jingle, who’s fallen into horribly dire circumstances. Actually, I think it’d be incredibly interesting to hear just how Jingle was caught and by whom (my theory is an irate father and/or jealous fiancé, though really, it’s conveniently deus ex machina of Dickens to have it all happen off-camera), since he’s so terribly clever and resourceful it’d take something (or someone) truly extraordinary to catch him, much less throw him in prison. Anyway, Jingle it is, looking nigh unrecognizable (though nearly exactly replicating the original illustration by “Phiz“). His green coat is gone; his torn shirt, so carefully preserved before, is now ripped into attractive tatters (is it wrong of me to notice this?) and stained as are the rest of his clothes, and he’s ghostly pale, scruffily bearded, dirty, and uncharacteristically subdued. Job’s also filthy and in tatters, but on him it looks rather less unusual.
It’s a shocking meeting for all concerned, and I’m not even mentioning the weird “Hip, hip, hip!” guy. “Queer place. Strange thing. Serves me right, very,” says Jingle upon recognizing Pickwick, with only slight surprise at seeing him there – the change in his manner is just a wee bit disappointing, because his insouciance is completely gone and he’s a contrite, hollow-eyed shadow of his former ebullient self. Granted, it’d be rather difficult to stay insouciant in the Fleet. Pickwick asks Jingle if he can step “outside” for a private word – Jingle’s obviously ill and needs to be helped up by Job – and points out that Jingle has “forgotten” his coat. Jingle replies that he’s had to pawn most of his clothes: “Last coat. Can’t help it. Must eat, you know”, adding in quieter, more serious tones, “Job’s, too.” (though I have to question how much Job’s clothes would really be worth after Job’s been in them for any length of time), before making a wry attempt at dark humour: “Never mind. Saves washing.”
Kindness from an Unexpected Source
Jingle bluntly goes on to describe his eventual fate, his familiar epigrammatic style marked by increasing emotion: “Nothing soon. Lie in bed. Starve, die. Inquest – natural death. Coroner’s order – workhouse funeral. Serve him right. All over. Drop the curtain.” He’s weak, feverish, and slowly starving, but even now (in a Dickensian requirement for karmic suffering and retribution and villain atonement) he takes tearful responsibility for his past actions: “Deserved it all, but suffered much. Very.” Pickwick, as one of his author’s incredibly virtuous protagonists, is touched by all of this and takes pity on Jingle, offering to “see what can be done”. He calls Job over (Job gives him a wonderfully suspicious look in return) and hands him a coin (a sovereign? we’re not sure, but it’s more money than they’ve seen for a while). Job shows the coin to Jingle after Pickwick leaves, and Jingle is moved to tears again by Pickwick’s generosity – obviously the first bit of kindness he’s received in a very long time, desperately needed, and from a completely unexpected source. It’s an incredibly heart-rending scene. I just wanted to get Jingle out of there and take him somewhere for a bath and a hot meal!
Pickwick and Sam Have a Spat
Pickwick’s next action is to release Sam from any obligation to him because he doesn’t want Sam stuck in the Fleet, though he affirms he’ll continue to pay Sam’s salary even while he’s jailed and that Sam can have his old job back the instant Pickwick is released. Recognizing his master’s limitations and need for support better than he does, Sam tries to say they shouldn’t speak of it further, but Pickwick says he’s resolved. Sam replies that he is, too, and leaves under a head of steam, with Pickwick plaintively calling after him.
I’ve written elsewhere at length about Jingle’s fascinating character, but this episode is where he really takes a turn and we see how Patrick Malahide can take him from one extreme to the other. Our formerly delightful and irreverent con man is subdued, remorseful, and sunk in the depths of despair – never mind also being nearly unrecognizable under tatters, scruff, and dirt. We’re seeing him under dire circumstances he knows he has no hope of escaping, and he’s well aware of his likely fate. Even his only friend – Job – is powerless to do much more than to share his situation (though really, Job is an amazingly loyal friend to do all of that when he doesn’t have to, and hock his clothes too). All of his vulnerabilities are exposed, and he just tears at your heartstrings. It’s a masterful portrayal by Malahide.
But what happens next?? Is everyone doomed to be stuck in the Fleet? Will Jingle or Pickwick ever be released (and Job, too, I suppose)? Will Pickwick and Sam make up? Are Winkle’s and Snodgrass’ budding romances doomed? Will Tuppy ever meet anyone new? Stay tuned for the next episode! 😉