Yes, it's nine hours long. Yes, it's Charles Dickens, he of the 900-page novels you had to read in high school. And, yes, it's a film of a play. But the Royal Shakespeare Company's Tony Award-winning 1981 production of The... more » Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby at London's Old Vic Theatre was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and those of us who missed its Emmy-winning PBS broadcast can be thankful for A&E's superb video boxed set. Dickens's story of greed, poverty, and cruelty in Victorian England is handled deftly by director Jim Goddard and set designer John Napier, who never deny their film's staginess but instead seek to exploit it, unafraid to show the viewer the skeletal nature of the theater and, in one instance, boldly using actors as props. The RSC makes excellent use of this mise en scène, bringing to life Dickens's characters with intensity, verve, and just the right notes of melodrama--this being a Dickens story, after all. Roger Rees plays the young, earnest Nicholas, whose father's death prompts him; his sister, Kate (Emily Richard); and their mother (Jane Downs) to make their way to London to seek out the financial assistance of Nicholas's cold, calculating uncle, Ralph Nickleby (played to scowly perfection by John Woodvine). Ralph grudgingly provides his nephew with employment at a Yorkshire school for abandoned boys under the cartoonishly vile Wackford Squeers (Alun Armstrong), but Nicholas can't stomach the physical abuse Squeers heaps on his students. After lashing out at the sadistic schoolmaster during a particularly savage beating of a child, Nicholas escapes the school, taking with him the most wretched of the young creatures, a limping, crooked-backed boy named Smike (played heart-wrenchingly by David Threlfall). The story unfolds from there, with the now-itinerant Nicholas forced to make his way in the world while adhering to his principles and protecting Kate and their mother from his scheming uncle, who is eventually forced to come to terms with his emotions in the story's shocking conclusion. Typically Dickensian, the characters are neatly divided between good and evil, with little ambiguity. Still, each of the 39 actors in the ensemble does a wonderful job, making it a production that figures to linger in the memory long after you're done clapping. --Steve Landau« less
"One of the finest theatrical productions of all time, no question. Beautifully staged and brilliantly performed; 39 of the world's best actors play more than 150 roles.The DVD set should be better than this. (The play gets 5 stars; the DVD gets 1.)It is improperly cut and sloppily transferred. A&E has released it (after much anticipation) not in its original four 2-hour acts but in the nine 1-hour episodes that they cut for broadcast on television, with intros and credits every hour. All they've done is transfer their 9-cassette VHS release, with intros, opening and closing credits and a "previously seen" commentary (meant for the TV audience watching it over a period of nine days) onto four DVDs, frustratingly marring the flow of the production. Not only does the play get interrupted every hour, but at one point you have to change discs mid-scene. In addition (and inexplicably) this DVD version is missing a scene that's on the VHS.If A&E gets their act together, they'll rerelease this set and return this incredible play back to its original structure, without the cuts and interruptions. Isn't that the point of DVD? Bear in mind also that many of the glowing reviews on this site refer to the VHS set (and the play itself) and don't address the inept job of transferring the VHS onto DVD. (Amazon's reviewer even credits Jim Goddard as the director, when all he did was arrange cameras and make adjustments for taping; the actual directors of the play, Trevor Nunn and John Napier, go unmentioned.)As you may have read in other reviews, the original stage production was four 2-hour acts in two parts (the running time of the play is actually 8 hours without the intermissions, not 9, as is stated in Amazon's review), and Parts I and II could be seen all in one day or over two consecutive nights. The designers of this set could have devoted one disc per part, without interruption, with one more disc for any extras (there aren't many). A four-disc set is excessive and inappropriate; it allows them to up their price while it weakens the experience of the play. (Peter Brook's 9-hour stage production of "The Mahabharata" is on two DVDs, in fine quality and half the price.)I saw the play on Broadway in 1981 and, like most in that theater, fell in love with it. I've had the VHS version all this time and hoped that eventually it would be on DVD, carefully restored.I would avoid buying this set and wait until they release one that's complete, uncut and faithful to the play. It's one of the greatest stage productions of all time. It features the Royal Shakespeare Company in its prime. It deserves better than this. The movies "Pearl Harbor" and "Dogma" got better DVD treatments. That's pretty sad."
Brilliant Program - Inexcusable transfer
Tim Engle | Hollywood, CA | 09/17/2003
(3 out of 5 stars)
"This DVD presents one of the finest stage productions ever preserved on film. Other reviews have very ably pointed out the transcendant writing and performances. HOWEVER...these disc are truly the most careless tranfer I have ever seen outside of the public domain. The broadway production was offered in 2 parts, each part contained 2 acts. If you really wanted the full immersive experience you saw part one on a Saturday or Sunday Matinee, broke for dinner and returned that same night to complete the epic. Some of the power of the piece comes in the cumulative effect of losing yourself in Dicken's world. The original broadcast was similarly aired with no commercial interuptions (Thanks, I believe, to Exxon) over four nights. WHY then has A&E broken its 4 discs into hour long segments, each containing the begining and ending credits? (You can't skip these segments, only fast forward over them.) The transfer, even on my 24" TV looks like a VHS copy recorded on the economical speed, grainy and washed out. Don't even try to play it on a large screen TV. (I just read a review of their transfer of the Miss Marple series which makes similar complaints.) It feels like A&E literally had some authoring house get a VHS copy of a copy of a copy from the store and record it as is. I am very glad I bought this box set for 2 reasons. 1... I've long wanted to revisit the brilliant production unvailable for so many years. 2... I learned to NEVER buy another A&E disc until they start respecting the shows they transfer."
Edited, inept DVD of a masterwork.
Tim Engle | 10/21/2002
(1 out of 5 stars)
"I'm not hard to please when it comes to DVD's. All I really expect is the complete film, in its proper format, with decent audio/video quality. I love the extras when they're there, but I don't feel that I'm owed them; just the film, that's really all I ask. It is with considerable anger that I report that this pricey, elaborate DVD set of the finest Dickens dramatization ever done fails utterly to provide even that.Several earlier reviewers have gone into considerable detail about the mess that A&E Video has released in place of a decent version of this epic production, and there's no point in my repeating what they've written. I direct you to their reviews for the specifics. Let me emphasize three things;1: The program is edited, cut, shortened from its original form, and to have released it on DVD like this is a disgrace. The cuts are (relatively) minor, but the length and complexity is much of the point of this long production, and it ought to be complete, not whittled down like a TV episode. 2:The hacking of the original four parts into an arbitrary, artificial nine(!) parts completely demolishes the momentum and flow of an extremely plot-intensive story.3: It seems to have been released in this fashion out of sheer sloppiness; even cheap exploitation B-movies get more respect and attention from the studios that release them than A&E has shown this classic. As it so happens, I own the original VHS four-tape set that CBS Home Video released back in the mid-1980's; the video quality is pretty bad, the color washed out and the audio mediocre, and it's still preferable to this botch. NICHOLAS NICKELBY was one of the most anticipated DVD releases on my list. Disappointment doesn't begin to convey my feeling about the debased version that's actually been released. For crying out loud A&E, stop production on this set and DO IT RIGHT!"
RSC Landmark Theatrical Event presented by A&E as a Sitcom
Tim Engle | 10/09/2002
(1 out of 5 stars)
"First of all, no, it's not really nine hours. I worked at the show 21 years ago in New York. It played onstage as eight and a half hours, which included two intermissions. You could either see it all in one day (Wed, Sat or Sun: Part One beginning at 1PM, with a 15 minute intermission after two hours - then a one hour dinner break - Part Two beginning at 6PM, with a 15 minute intermission after two hours. It ended at 10:30 PM.) or Part One on Thursday Eve and Part Two on Friday Eve. Part Two began with "The Story So Far" - a wonderfully terse and witty plot recap performed by the entire cast to bring the audience back into the story. The last act ran a bit longer than two hours. It cost an unprecidented $$$ a ticket for every seat back then, and was by far best value and the shortest 8 1/2 hours one could ever spend in the theatre - a thrilling, fun, enchanting experience of a lifetime.When originally released on video (back in the late 80s in a leatherbound case) this production was presented on four tapes, preserving the Original RSC theatrical presentation of the story in two 2-act parts. Having been workshopped and performed hundreds of times in this form, it flows perfectly this way. When this production debuted on US television, PBS ran it logically in four parts over four nights. "The Story So Far" introduction which originally began Part Two, was augmented
with similar new intros recorded by the cast for second and fourth acts. This is partly how 8 1/2 hours onstage can stretch into nine on video. The rest is from repeating opening closing credits for each of the four acts.A&E, America's Arts and Entertainment Network, has decided, for some reason, that we Americans cannot sit still for longer than 60 minutes at a time. The original four part presentation was inexplicably re-edited by A&E into NINE parts, padded in length by repeating both opening and closing credits on EACH of the nine parts. Nine tapes made a bigger box set that A&E originally priced at $$$ several years ago. The episodic editing made it annoyingly difficult to follow and the audio and video quality was awful. I had to turn the color and sound on my set way up, but could still never get through it all on those nine cheap tapes.Certainly anyone who appreciates fine theatre enough to buy this title on VHS or DVD will happily sit still for two hours at a time without wanting to ruin the continuity by having to sit through the extra added title sequences or stop to change tapes or discs. I had very high hopes for getting this great production presented properly in its original four two-hour acts on DVD. Not only was this not done, the nine "episodes" are not even distributed logically among the four DVDs, which would at least allow one to view the four acts without changing discs in the middle of each act. Thoughtfully placed chapter stops could have allowed the original four acts to be viewed, without as much break in continuity, by providing the ability to skip over the added credit sequences. No such luck here. The first disc holds the first act and the first half of the second act, requiring you to change discs in the middle of the enchanting Crummles Traveling Theatre Company section (my favorite part). Disc two holds the other half of the 2nd Act and the first half of Act 3. Disc 3 holds the second half of Act 3 and the first part of Act four. (in other words, the end of Part One and the Beginning of Part Two) Disc 4 holds the remainder of Act 4 plus supplements. Each disc has the capacity to hold the each of the four full acts in its entirety with room for supplements at the beginning, so it was entirely possible to do it right, but they didn't. Skimpy chapter stops do not allow the opportunity to skip over the extra title sequences without missing the next scene.Somewhere amid all this mess is somewhat improved video and only slightly improved audio. I don't believe this was remastered from the RSC's actual original elements, (most likely shot in the superior PAL format) it is merely remastered from A&E's tacky reedited episodic version. The RSC did shoot some interesting onstage interviews with several key cast members that was included in the original PBS broadcast. These would have made nice supplements, but they are not included here. Instead we get a dry-as-dust A&E Biography episode about Dickens and some text frames. I would not reward A&E's clumsy thoughtlesness by recommending anyone buy this mess. Hold onto your money until they get it right."
An Amazing Theatrical Experience
Cowboy Buddha | Essex UK | 08/26/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Neither the 2000 television version nor the 2002 film could ever hope to match the magic, passion, dramatic heights and emotional involvement of this nine hour Royal Shakespeare Company production. All the characters and subplots of Dickens' novel are presented in a whirlwind of drama, comedy, tragedy and romance. It was a wise decision, when putting the production on film, to retain as much of its theatrical flavor as possible. Because it is that theatricality that produces as much of an impact and lasting impression as the characters and plot.
Originally staged by the RSC in the early 80's at the Aldwych Theatre, this version was taped at the Old Vic before the company took the show to New York. At times, an audience is visible (and audible) especially when various characters leave the stage to wander or race through the aisles or along the front of the balcony. It must have been a wonderful experience. But the DVD compensates us for not actually being there by providing that which you cannot get in a theatre - close-ups of the actors. Only once is this overdone - when Ralph Nickleby is finally denounced, the camera lingers much too long on an extreme close-up as the other characters are only heard revealing the sins of his past. But other times, such as during the silences between lines or the looks between characters, the close-ups are quite wonderful.
A cast of 30-some actors portray about 150 characters between them. Of course, doubling or even tripling is an ancient theatrical convention. But never have I seen it used as effectively as here. Only Roger Rees, as Nicholas, plays a single part. This is real acting we are witnessing.
The nine hours are divided into four acts spread over three discs. Each act is divided into two or three parts, each with the same opening and closing credits. This makes it possible to watch in installments although one at a time never seems enough. My wife insisted that we watch the entire 167 minute final disc in one sitting. The time flies by.
The story is typical Dickens, full of noble poor people and disreputable rich ones, with complex plotlines that would be the envy of any modern soap, complete with Dickens' famous penchant for incredible coincidences. But this is more than mere melodrama and everything about the production combines to make it all fresh and exciting and involving. These are characters you genuinely care about (or, in a few instances, love to hate). And there will not be a dry eye in the house during Smike's final scene.
As I said, all the actors are brillian but most memorable are Roger Rees (who seemed born to play the part), David Threlfall as Smike (an astonishing performance), John Woodvine as the evil Ralph Nickleby (cool underplaying with bursts of temper), Alun Armstrong as Squeers, the villain from hell, Edward Petherbridge as Newman Noggs, Suzanne Bertish in several roles, a pre-Edge Of Darkness Bob Peck as two wildly different characters, and Emily Richard in the thankless role of goody-goody Kate Nickleby.
One word to anyone who has never seen this production. Act One is decidedly grim and occasionally brutal. When this was first shown on television, I knew several people who never got beyond that part. But don't give up. Once Nicholas rebels against Squeers and leaves the school, everything lightens up considerably. And no one should miss the marvellous finale to Act Two when Nicholas and Smike and a travelling theatre company perform the final scene from Romeo And Juliet, complete with exaggerated Victorian acting and a happy ending ("I wasn't dead - I was stunned")!
I'm absolutely delighted that Nicholas NIckleby has become available on DVD. I recommend it to anyone who loves theatre, great acting or just a rollicking good old-fashioned story."