The Mystery of Edwin Drood

I wasn’t going to watch The Mystery of Edwin Drood (BBC2) and I certainly wasn’t going to blog about it, but then you can’t always predict what’s going to happen in life.

So this was an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ last, and unfinished, novel, finished by Gwyneth Hughes. It had all the usual Dickens themes and tropes: orphans, lawyers, wills, urchins, graveyards, insipid romances; but was also a bit different. It was kind of a murder mystery and a bit gothic. And with two main characters from then Ceylon (Sri Lanka), this is a novel/adaptation that directly deals with imperialism and racism, and doesn’t just need interpretations of a few lines like Edward Said did of Mansfield Park. I’m sure most Dickens and Victorian literature scholars knew about this book, and there are probably loads of PhD theses already on it, but if not I can just see a spate of them emerging now about the contrapuntal readings of C19th century attitudes to empire that can be gleaned from the book (/end pretentious postcolonialist knowledge).

Back to the programme. It incensed and intrigued me all at the same time. As I said, I had no intention of watching it, but was with my mother on Tuesday night and so had little choice. I always liked Kevin Walker (Matthew Rhys) the best on Brothers and Sisters – back when I used to watch it – so was intrigued to see what he would be like in such a dark role. He mainly had to look vaguely menacing all the time, baring his teeth a bit as he fell in and out of an opium-induced hallucinatory dream about strangling his nephew, the titular Edwin Drood. The number of times we saw the same dream/vision got tedious very quickly. Rhys played John (Jack) Jasper, a choirmaster who was in love with Edwin’s fiancée, Rosa Bud. She was a typically insipid Dickens heroine who wasn’t sure what “true love” felt like and soon broke off her engagement with Edwin. Feminists should seriously have more concerns about the portrayal of women in this adaptation than worry about that of Irene Adler.

The pace of the story is quickened by the arrival of two orphans from Ceylon who have come to study with the local vicar (Rory Kinnear). They are twins, born of an English father and a Sri Lankan mother, called Helena and Neville Landless. Helena Landless was an annoying, prim, proper (and seemed a bit old) woman who gets engaged at the end to the vicar, although at one point it did seem she was going to have a secret relationship with Rosa Bud, but that wouldn’t be Dickens. Neville was a much more interesting character, not least because of the ‘racist’ ideas that can be seen in the ways in which Dickens (I’m giving Hughes the benefit of the doubt) described his character and the ways in which various racist ideas were projected upon him by the other characters, not least the Mayor (last seen as Winston Churchill in Doctor Who). Anyway as soon as they arrived and started asking questions about Edwin Drood Sr, I knew that they were his children and hence siblings to the young Edwin Drood (played by Freddie Fox/the rent-boy in The Shadow Line). And all the main characters were orphans – Edwin, the Landless twins, Rosa Bud and Jasper. And there was a little annoying urchin boy who hung around the church graveyard.

I think I kept watching because at the end of episode 1 there was the “murder” of Edwin Drood, just after his engagement with Rosa Bud was called off and after he found out that Jasper had been pursuing Rosa, and the episode had been generally quick-paced despite the repeated hallucinations of Jasper strangling Edwin. Episode 2 was generally quick-paced too. They even introduced a new character, whom I quite liked – Mr Bazzard, the assistant of Mr Grewgious (Rosa Bud’s benefactor) – who complained about not being allowed to leave the office and then was eventually sent on a mission that ultimately uncovered the truth about the Droods. So young Edwin Drood’s body had disappeared after the end of episode 1. Jasper secretly believed and dreamt that he had strangled him, but didn’t know what he had done with the body, and openly accused Neville Landless who by this time had revealed that Edwin Drood was his father. Bazzard found out that there was no death certificate for Edwin Drood Sr who was believed to have died in a mining accident in Egypt (PS he had been in the army hence his time in Ceylon to father the Landless twins). The main characters soon converged on the crypts as Jasper started remembering putting the body in a crypt and Bazzard had deduced the same.

But it wasn’t all as straightforward as that. Jasper hadn’t killed young Edwin because he suddenly turned up. He hadn’t died at all. He had just decided to go to Egypt early without telling anyone after the engagement had been broken off. And Jasper is not his uncle (everyone said he was Edwin’s mother’s brother) but actually his half-brother. A fact that he and Jasper had always known, but as he was born out of wedlock, Edwin’s mother had agreed to pretend he was her little brother. But there was a body in the crypt and it was of Edwin Drood Sr. Who had come back one year ago looking for Edwin and in a fit of rage killed by his unloved son, Jasper. The hallucinations that Jasper had been having since were not of a murder he wished to commit, but of one he had already committed. But still, all a bit drugged up, on seeing young Edwin, Jasper thinks he is seeing a ghost – the ghost of his dear brother that he thinks he has killed, and so jumps off a high level in the church and kills himself.

It was an odd programme. Rhys kept on dipping in and out of his Welsh accent. Julia Mackenzie/Miss Marple had a small, largely inconsequential, role as the Reverend’s mother. None of the characters were particularly likeable. In fact, I probably felt most sympathy for Jasper and wanted Rosa Bud to just suck it up and marry him. I kind of feel annoyed with myself for even watching it, but also still intrigued about it and interested in finding out which parts were Dickens and which parts were Hughes.

In other news:

I keep on seeing the ‘Dave’ adverts for the US legal programme Suits on the tube.And I just want to know what Joe Thomas/Simon from The Inbetweeners and the friend of Eddie from Public Enemies are doing on this show?

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2 Responses to The Mystery of Edwin Drood

  1. Sam Flowers says:

    Not having read the Dickens book I was wondering which parts were his and which Hughes and for that alone want to read the book.

    As you say it was usual Dickens fair (though the drugs/doors of perception angle was at least surprising to me) and I watched it to its conclusion as much out of dry academic interest rather than as I would hope from a mystery out of wanting my suspense to be resolved. I just did not find it that mysterious.

    Perhaps a film by Tim Burton or David Lynch would make better of this tale…

  2. classicrants says:

    Bazzard is my absolute favorite. Was there anything specific about Helena that annoyed you?

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