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Whew, after all that, tired like the Dickens

TELEVISION CRITIC

As admirable and ambitious as the folks at PBS Masterpiece are -- four tales of Charles Dickens in three months! -- it seemed inevitable they would run out of steam. (Eight hours of “Little Dorrit” is a lot of “Little Dorrit,” even when it’s good,0,1364897.story.) And they have, ending the series with a 90-minute version of “The Old Curiosity Shop” that streamlines plot, character and tone to the point that you have to wonder why they bothered.

It’s not that “The Old Curiosity Shop” is bad television -- with Derek Jacobi, Toby Jones and Zoe Wanamaker involved, they could have shot it for YouTube and it would have been worth watching. It’s just not very good Dickens.

Oh, most of the major plot points still occur. Little Nell (Sophie Vavasseur) lives with her kindly if irresponsible grandfather (Jacobi), who manages to gamble away his money and wind up in debt to the evil dwarf Quilp (Jones). Nell and her grandfather still leave the shop, now in Quilp’s hands, fleeing to the country, where they encounter (very abridged) adventures. Kit (George MacKay) is still Nell’s faithful friend, who, at the prompting of a mysterious stranger, does everything he can to find the two runaways before Quilp and the increasingly ambivalent Dick Swiveller (Geoff Breton) do.

And the climactic moment of the novel, you know, the one that had the very first American Dickens fans clamoring for spoilers as the British boats pulled in, still happens, just not the way Dickens wrote it. At all.

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“The Old Curiosity Shop” is probably the most stickily sentimental of Dickens’ work, known as much for the great Oscar Wilde quip -- “One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears . . . of laughter” -- as for its actual story. Nell is one of those life-brightening tykes that litter period fiction, such as “Heidi” and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and the grandfather is overwrought even for a Dickens character, given to lines like “Ah, how little you know the truth. Little Nelly, little Nelly!”

So you can understand why screenwriter Martyn Hesford and director Brian Percival would want to tone things down a bit. But why force Vavasseur to embody Dickensian tween gloom? Why ask Jacobi, an actor of exquisite nuance, to play the grandfather so solid and straight? Only Jones is allowed to snarl and hiss, wear squashed hats and go without shaving. When he tells his wife (another character mysteriously stripped of all personality) that if she disobeys him, he will bite her, you absolutely believe him.

Because of the time limitations, the journey of Nell and her grandfather is much truncated and bereft of many fine characters. Wanamaker gives us a delightful Mrs. Jarley, but gone are Codlin’ and Short. For those not familiar with the book, I suppose, this is no sin, and we do have Adam Dodley and Gina McKee as Quilp’s nefarious lawyer and his sister. Less forgivable are major changes to story and characters made, it seems, in the hopes of adding pathos. Which is as good as an example of bringing coals to Newcastle as there may be in this world.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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‘Masterpiece Classic: The Old Curiosity Shop’

Where: KCET

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)


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