Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The RSC's Nicholas Nickleby, from stage to screen

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1980 production of “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” was a landmark theatrical event. Presented in two parts, the entire production lasted eight and a half hours, with audiences either seeing the two parts on consecutive evenings or viewing the entire production within the span of a day. Part One of the play was broken into two acts, and Part Two into three.

Happily, the production was adapted for television broadcast. In England, Channel 4 broadcast "NN" in four weekly installments, starting on November 7, 1982. Mobil Oil presented it on US television over four consecutive nights, starting January 10, 1983. On that date, the New York Times reported: "David Edgar, the adapter for the stage, submitted a revised script, attuned to the requirements of the television breaks."

Indeed, when compared against the published playscript, the piece was radically revised.  The most striking change was in redividing the five-act theatrical structure into four acts for video. Acts 1 and 2 of the video correspond to the first two acts of the play. The third video act contains all of the play’s Act 3, plus some of the play’s Act 4. The fourth video act contains all the rest. Of course, this made it necessary for Edgar to find a new “act break” to end the third video act, which occurs after Squeers captures Smike.

But Edgar had to plan for still more breaks. As explained in the "official full colour magazine" produced by Channel 4: "Because of transmission requirements Nickleby was taped so that it could be transmitted in the UK and USA over a four-night span, three of two hours and one of three hours: and for the rest of the world in nine one-hour segments." In the US at least, the three two-hour evenings were each broken with an intermission, and the final three-hour evening had two intermissions. Thus the nine-part division was utilized even in the four-night broadcast. (Each of these nine segments was actually 53 minutes long; the remaining time in the US broadcast was filled with an animated opening, and wraparound segments by Peter Ustinov.)

But Edgar’s video adaptation saw changes in content as well. In the theatre, there was a recap at the beginning of Part Two (or the third of the play’s five acts), speedily explaining and re-enacting key moments of Part One for new audience members. For the video version, similar recaps were written and staged for Acts 2 and 4 as well.

The last two scenes that resolve the Mantalini storyline, which occur in the first part of the script, were moved into Act 3 of the video. There are a few scenes and exchanges of dialog in the video that are not found in the script, and many more instances where the reverse is true. In fact, it’s tempting to suspect the script was trimmed for video, but 477 minutes (53x9) is just about the perfect running time for what's referred to as "an eight-and-a-half hour play", if you factor in an additional 35 minutes or so of intermissions.

In 1983, CBS Home Video released "NN" on four VHS tapes, one intermissionless act per tape. Probably due to tape length limits, there were changes from the broadcast version to the home video. Around 25 minutes were cut from the beginning of Act 4 (after the recap), and placed at the end of Act 3. These 25 minutes included John Browdie’s release of Smike, and so the end of the Act 4 recap was edited to remove the reenactment of Squeers’ capture of Smike. This change made Act 3 end at a much weaker point, dramatically speaking.

Act 4 also saw the complete removal of the scene where the loony, cucumber-bearing "Man Next Door" visits the Nicklebys, a loss of about two and a half minutes. But the home video version actually included a lengthened conversation about the French language between Nicholas and Mr. Lillyvick, which added around 80 seconds to Act 2.

Interestingly, the home video version reveals that for the broadcast, an effort had been made to render John Browdie’s thick Yorkshire accent and archaic speech a bit more intelligible. Several of Browdie’s lines in the broadcast are looped; as one example, “Where’s this glass of summat, then?” in the home version is “Where’s this glass of something, then?” in the broadcast. It’s possible these changes were made for the US broadcast only, and thus not included in other versions.

Some changes from broadcast to home video were decidedly for the worse. There are clumsy and distracting attempts to dub in audience reaction sounds during Nicholas’ thrashing of Squeers, during the schoolboys’ rebellion against Mrs. Squeers, and (most damagingly) during the play’s final moment of Nicholas picking up the “other Smike”. There are also over 20 musical cues completely missing from the home video version, whether due to artistic decision or mere editorial fatigue we cannot know. (I suspect the latter.)

One notable difference comes at the end of Ralph Nickleby’s unraveling at Ned and Charles Cheeryble’s, after Ralph whispers the name “Smike”. In broadcast, there’s a very lengthy closeup of Ralph’s face, during which only somber string music is heard. In the home video version, the music is gone, but two lines are instead added from the script, spoken by the Cheerybles offscreen. Ned says (referring to Ralph’s accuser, Brooker) “Unhappy man. Unhappy man.” and Charles then adds “But doubly, trebly, ten times more unhappy must you be, Ralph Nickleby.”

Years later, A&E re-released "NN" on VHS, in a nine-tape set. There are opening and closing credits on each installment, but otherwise the contents of this version are exactly the same as the CBS version. The breaks follow David Edgar’s original nine-segment plan for broadcast, with each tape ending precisely where its corresponding broadcast segment ends. Within the seventh segment, the 25 minutes that should rightly come after the Act 4 recap instead come before it.

The only thing A&E "cut" from the CBS version is the proper Act 2 bows, with the company bowing in Romeo and Juliet attire as the video credits roll. A&E used the final (Act 4) bows under the end credits for all nine segments.

A&E later released their nine-part version on DVD, with the nine segments spread out over four DVDs. This release has drawn a great deal of ire in the comments section on, with viewers bemoaning A&E’s “butchering” of the masterpiece into nine parts, and holding the CBS Home Video release as a “gold standard” which they suppose is an entirely faithful record of what happened onstage. As I’ve shown here, this is all very far from the truth. There are perfectly good reasons to dislike the home video version of "NN", but A&E is not responsible for most of them.

So then, what is the “gold standard” for viewing “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby”? I humbly offer my version, which I make available on YouTube until told not to by The Powers That Be. (Hopefully this will be because TPTB have taken the time to restore and release it properly.) My four-act version draws almost entirely from the A&E DVD media, with occasional pieces of the CBS version, the original music soundtrack, and the broadcast version (from 30-year-old VHS tapes) as well. My goal was to create the most complete "NN" possible, so I’ve included all available scenes and music cues, painstakingly editing and restoring everything myself.

I hope this makes it easier for interested parties (including me) to enjoy this masterpiece. I’ve cherished it since the original broadcast, and even acted in a version in Memphis in 1985. My wife (then-girlfriend) and I binge-watched it straight through one night, just weeks after we met. Roger Rees, David Threlfall, Edward Petherbridge, and Alun Armstrong give unforgettable performances. Lines and moments from the show come into my head with great frequency. It’s a part of me. As Bernard Levin wrote of the original production in the London Times:

“There is only one way to behave at the Aldwych; to surrender completely to the truth, which is that not for many years has London's theatre seen anything so richly joyous, so immoderately rife with pleasure, drama, colour and entertainment, so life-enhancing, yea-saying and fecund, so — in the one word which embraces all these and more — so Dickensian. This production of “Nicholas Nickleby” is ceaselessly entertaining, dramatic, funny, touching, beautiful and right; it is a tribute to England’s greatest writer of prose and of the teeming world he conjured up; it is an evocation of England herself; but it is something more than all of these. It is a celebration of love and justice that is true to the spirit of Dickens' belief that those are the fulcrums on which the universe is moved, and the consequence is that we come out not merely delighted but strengthened, not just entertained but uplifted, not only affected but changed.”

Watch it here.


  1. God bless you. Holy crud, this is glorious. Thank you.

  2. I too know it by heart but never tire of it. Perfection.

  3. Thanks so much for this: great to have such a complete version. Do you by any chance have the South Bank Show special that followed the production from its inception to the opening night? That's something I'd love to see again.

    1. Hi Bert — Unfortunately I have nothing more than the fragments that were posted on YouTube by Michael Maxwell Steer.

  4. You are a saint. Thank you. History tends to fragment long form masterpieces like this. Your work is much appreciated.

  5. I watched Nicholas Nickleby as a young teenager with my (now departed) parents when it was broadcast in the US in 1983. It had a great impact on me and I have often thought of it over the years. To be able to see it again, as it was meant to be seen, means a lot. I have just glanced at a few quick excerpts and the memories flood back in. I look forward to savoring it properly in the coming few days and sharing it with loved ones.

    What can I say but thank you so much for doing this. You've done a great service in helping keep this tremendous work of art alive.