Marnie’s Nickleby Diary: Background on the RSC’s Nicholas Nickleby

by Marnie

Friends, here are some tips for viewing the RSC’s adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby which we’re discussing in our Group Watch. Here are some quick links to the various subjects I cover:

  1. Viewing the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Nicholas Nickleby Adaptation
  2. Background for The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby Play (1980-1981)
  3. Awards and Nominations Received
  4. Additional Information

Viewing the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Nicholas Nickleby adaptation

There are two ways to view the play.  The best way by far is the DVD set of four discs.  Amazon still has a new set for $150 and there are used sets starting about $50.  I have two used sets and they are an excellent quality.  For me, the cost is absolutely worth it and I may invest in another set in the future since it’s becoming so scarce.  It’s possible that they may be obtained elsewhere for less.  It’s also available on Amazon Prime for $1.99 per each of the nine parts.

The play can be viewed free on YouTube.  However, from what I see on my own computer, it is not the best viewing experience.  For the DVD on my television, the scenes are brightly lit, with the whole stage visible – not just the main, central stage area but the scaffolding above and in the back and the sidelines.  This is important because wonderful things can be seen there that enhances the pleasure of watching the scene itself that plays in the center of the screen.  The peripheral areas are visible, for the most part, on the YouTube versions; it’s just that they’re a little clearer and more visible, especially further back in the background, in the DVD version.  My recommendation is that if you’ve never seen the play, at least watch it free on YouTube and get the basic experience of it.  The play is certainly wonderful in itself with its superb actors, presenting and speaking Dickens as no one else.  If you find that you like it, and can afford it, I would strongly encourage an investment in the DVD set for the best experience of the adaptation.  

When I search out the play on YouTube, the RSC version that usually comes up is the individual 9-part version.  For filming, the play was cut or edited in a couple of different ways.  The 9-part version corresponds to the nine parts on the DVD, a little less than an hour apiece.  On YouTube, all nine parts have to be accessed individually which isn’t hard to do; if you bring up the #1 part, the other parts will usually show up on the side bar.  However, I found that some, if not most, of the parts were visually fuzzy so I would recommend another version.

A little harder to find, but the one I prefer, is the four-act version that Galen Fott posted a while back.  Fott calls his version the most “complete” one.  It certainly contains a couple of small snippets that aren’t seen anywhere else, but most people wouldn’t notice the difference from the 9-Part.  Only hardcore fans are likely to notice those few precious snippets.  He has a detailed summary online which goes into a history of the filmed version which is great information for those who love the play.  Also his version is clear and sharp to view from beginning to end.

The link for Galen Fott’s article which contains a link to his YouTube version:

The direct link for Galen’s YouTube version, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, COMPLETE version:

Galen Fott’s YouTube page – with all 4 parts, about two hours each – should look like this:

On the left side of the screen, you can watch the play from the beginning.

On the right side of the screen are the 4 individual two-hour sections; for instance, on the top is “The Life….” , Act I (1/4) – that is the first part of 4 parts.  The next clip below is (2/4), then (3/4) and (4/4).  All 4 parts begin with the whole cast gathered together for a scene, so the 4 parts may look the same but they are different scenes.

If you are unfamiliar with YouTube, you can maximize the picture so it fills your entire computer (or TV) screen, using the icons below for “Theater mode”, and “Full Screen”; “Play on TV” might be accessible for a Smart TV but you have to have an account and be signed in to the account.

Background for The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby play (1980-1981)

Leon Rubin’s The Making of ‘Nicholas Nickleby traces the development of the play from its origin in late 1979 primarily through its first run in 1980.  The Royal Shakespeare Company was in financial straits in 1979 and its visionary director, Trevor Nunn, decided on a gamble by putting on a huge epic play that would involve a lot of the company.  He decided on a Dickens novel for the project and finally settled on Nicholas Nickleby and hired playwright David Edgar to adapt it.

In November 1979 in Stratford, Trevor Nunn and his co-director, John Caird, gathered the whole acting company and offered them the chance to work on the project.  Of the initial 60 who had showed up, 46 signed on to work on Nicholas Nickleby.  The company did intense research on Dickens, the times and every aspect of the book, as well as engaging in acting exercises.  At the same time the writer, David Edgar, watched and took notes and came up with a few scenes that the actors could start working on, though no one had been cast in a role yet.  They worked for five weeks from mid-November to Christmas, broke for the Christmas holiday and came back to work on the play for an additional two weeks.  

Finally, the directors had to make their casting choices.  Trevor Nunn had become ill so co-director John Caird had the difficult task of announcing the cast assignments, which seems to have taken place on January 16, 1980.  The British television channel ITV had begun filming some parts of the rehearsals for a South Bank documentary on the Nickleby project.  Four short, precious fragments of the documentary have survived and can be seen on YouTube, including the beginning of the cast announcement. The actors are sitting in a circle, waiting in agonizing suspense, as John Caird prepares to read the list.  The YouTube link:

Caird read out each character and the name of the actor who was assigned to play it.  The documentary shows Caird reading out the first 15 or so characters, including the major ones: Ralph, Nicholas, Smike, Kate, Mrs. Nickleby, Newman Noggs, Squeers and Mrs. Squeers – although the camera doesn’t show us the individual actors reacting to the announcement of their names; and then it shows a bit of the aftermath as the cast looks shell-shocked and some are clearly disappointed, especially Timothy Spall who is bent over in his chair with another member of the company (it seems to be Rose Hill who would play Miss La Creevy) seeming to try to comfort him – he was assigned to Young Wackford but subsequently also negotiated to play Mr. Folair.  We also get Lila Kaye (Mrs. Squeers/Mrs. Crummles) in front of the posted cast assignments, encouraging some of the other cast members to “smile”.  There’s also a quick shot of John McEnery (Mr. Mantalini) with a bearded David Threlfall (Smike) sitting to the left of him.  Roger Rees is easily identified, even with a moustache, but many of the men were bearded which makes it difficult to identify them.  There were a couple of actors who knew ahead of time, but almost all did not.  Jane Downs had been asked earlier in the day to play Mrs. Nickleby and she was delighted to accept.  Roger Rees claimed in a later interview that he didn’t know ahead of time.  However, the whole company apparently, directors and actors alike, seemed to feel that Roger Rees was the only one who could play the Nicholas role.  The directors had settled on him and also David Threlfall as Smike earlier but Threlfall did not know beforehand.  The directors also wanted Emily Richard for Kate but she had to inform them privately that she could not continue with the company because she was pregnant.  She had been living with Edward Petherbridge, cast as Newman Noggs.  She lost the baby around June/July 1980, after which she came back to Nickleby as Kate for its second run in the fall 1980 and remained as Kate throughout the rest of its runs.  She married Petherbridge and they would have two children and are still together today.  The clip shows part of an early read-through of a scene which includes Susan Littler, Kate for the first run who left and was replaced in the second run by Emily Richard.

After a holiday break, the company made their annual move to the northern city of Newcastle.  Rehearsals for Nickleby seemed to have started around mid to late February and through March at Newcastle.  It was here at Newcastle that, on a day off, Rees and Threlfall traveled to Greta Bridge and visited the area of the original model for Dotheboys, Shaw Academy.  Meanwhile, Threlfall and the group of actors who were to play the Dotheboys boys used their research on medical conditions that would have afflicted the boys at the time to develop their characters.

Around April 1, the company moved to London and continued work on the play.  In April and May, many members of the company worked on Nickleby in the morning and afternoon, and then acted in other plays in the evening.  A grueling schedule.

Finally, there was Nickleby’s first run at the Aldwych Theatre in London – the First Play (which closes with the Romeo & Juliet satire) opened 6 June 1980, and the Second Play opened 11 June 1980.  For at least run one: Part One was performed on Mondays and Thursdays, Part Two on Tuesdays and Fridays; the whole play was performed on Wednesdays and Saturdays with Part One as a matinee and Part Two as an early evening performance, with a break between the two.  Part One finally came in at approximated four hours with one 15-minute intermission; Part Two ran about four and a half hours with two 12-minute intermissions.

The audience was sparse for the first half of the run – probably because audiences were intimidated by the play’s 8 ½ hour length.  The audience that did show up loved it and showered it with praise in subsequent letters to the company.  Finally, a rave review by a prominent critic brought people in and the rest of the run sold out.  Enthusiasm and anticipation for the play sold out its second run at the Aldwych quickly in the fall (November-December) 1980. And then it sold out quickly for its third run there for April-June 1981.

There was a strong bond among the actors themselves because of their great belief in the work they were doing, and then a strong bond developed between the company and their audiences.  Unfortunately, this aspect of the play is lost for those of us who can only watch the filmed version, especially since little of it was filmed in front of a live audience.  So those of us who enjoy the filmed version can only wish we could have seen it live and can only imagine what that company-audience synergy must have felt like to make it such a legendary theatrical experience.

The play was filmed during the summer of 1981.  When they started filming it, they filmed the entire play as it was performed two times in front of an audience.  So any scenes you watch with an audience was filmed at that time.  Then they worked on individual scenes without an audience through the summer.  Edward Petherbridge has said that they finished filming on a Friday, packed Saturday, rehearsed with the new actors on Sunday and flew to New York City for the Broadway run on Monday.  Since the first preview was on September 23, 1981, perhaps the company flew over in early September.

The stage play came to Broadway for its final run, 23 September 1981 – 3 January 1982, where it also received an enthusiastic reception.  On 3 January 1982, the exhausted company gave the play’s last performance.  The filmed version was released in 1982, even though it had been filmed in 1981.  It was first shown at Cannes in May 1982, then on TV in UK and the rest of the world (except for the US) in November 1982, and finally in the US in February 1983.

There were cast changes along the way.  Thelma Whiteley was brought in specifically to play Madame Mantalini; she joined just before the first run.  Ben Kingsley as Squeers, left after the first run, having gotten a call to do the movie “Gandhi”.  Fulton MacKay was Squeers in the second run and then Alun Armstrong took over as Squeers for the third run, the film and the Broadway run.  Graham Crowden was Mr. Crummles for the first run before Christopher Benjamin took over the role for the rest of the runs.  Timothy Spall, young Wackford Squeers for the first two runs, left and was replaced by Ian McNeice.  Two different actresses played Madeline for the first two runs before Lucy Gutteridge took over the role from the third run on.  And of course, other more minor changes.  There were at least two major cast changes for the Broadway run.  Jane Downs who played Mrs. Nickleby and Griffith Jones who played Tim Linkinwater did not make the trip to America and Rose Hill who played Miss La Creevy seems to have been missing for at least part of the Broadway run. 

I’ve read a memory from someone who had seen the play during one of its runs – during a break or before the play started, Roger Rees was at the front of the stage talking with an audience member; the music began for the play starting but he continued talking for awhile until he finally casually got up and walked right into the beginning of the scene and started talking as Nicholas.  So these skilled RSC actors could literally walk from scene to scene with amazing ease and fluidity.

David Edgar writes in the introduction to his script for The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby: “Each revival and transfer saw cast changes, the production developed, and the script was rewritten and (I hope) improved…. The script published here is thus a collective possession, in a very real sense; it was created over nearly two years by the best part of a hundred people”.  Unfortunately, there was no script published for the play at its very beginning, in the first run, only as it ended, for the Broadway run.  So, we can’t get an idea of what changes were made as it progressed from June 1980 to December 1981.  The filmed version we have now on DVD or YouTube, then, is a late version of the play.  

John Wyver’s Screening the Royal Shakespeare Company has this information for the filmed version: “A production framework that involved an 8-week shoot with multiple electronic cameras on and around a stage, although in this case not the RSC’s own but rather that of the fortuitously vacant Old Vic….For three days the whole show was recorded with four cameras in an auditorium packed, with an audience of paid extras.” [p.125]  Then they worked on individual scenes throughout the summer without an audience.

Wyver: “Since they were recorded without an audience, they carry no sense of a theatre’s collective response, most especially the generous laughter prompted by the production’s comedy…. A sequence from The South Bank Show, filmed during the second run of Aldwych performances, illustrates how complex it would have been to add laughter.  Fanny Squeers (Suzanne Bertish) has invited Nicholas (Roger Rees) to tea, fantasizing to herself and her friend Tilda Price (Cathryn Harrison) that despite having only encountered her casually on a couple of occasions, the young schoolteacher is in love with her.  A bemused Nicholas endeavors to be polite, especially to Tilda, before the party is joined by Tilda’s fiancé, the kindly but uncouth Yorkshireman John Browdie (Bob Peck).  In The South Bank Show the scene is shot with two film cameras, using only stage lighting so that the setting fades away into black.  Long and mid-shots keep the viewer at a distance, observing rather than becoming involved.  But the attuned levels of laughter of the unseen audience productively enhance the comic effect.  In the Primetime/Channel 4 adaptation, the scene is recorded frontally, as much of the drama is, as a three-camera electronic ix, in what is essentially the visual language of a sitcom.  The relationship of the characters is clearer than in the documentary, as is the subtle intelligence of the performances, Roger Rees’s especially.  Without the laughter of an audience, however, the scene feels more poignant than comic.” [p.127]

This other South Bank YouTube link:

Among the stumbling blocks to enjoying this version over more conventional screen adaptations have been its old-fashioned look and music, and its spare, primitive stage.  Some viewers prefer the more lavish, modern productions.  However, I personally don’t find it dated; it feels timeless to me – like I’ve stepped out of 2022 and stepped into some bubble of another time that never changes or grows old. 

Awards and nominations received

The Laurence Olivier Awards (London), 1980:

Play of the Year – The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens adapted by David Edgarn matinée and evening
Director of the Year – Trevor Nunn and John Caird
Actor of the Year in a New Play – Roger Rees for the role of Nicholas Nickleby
Actor of the Year in a Supporting Role – David Threlfall for the role of Smike
Actor of the Year in a Supporting Role – Nomination only for Edward Petherbridge for the role of Newman Noggs 
Actress of the Year in a Supporting Role – Suzanne Bertish for the roles of Fanny Squeers, Miss Snevellicci and Peg Sliderskew.

1982 Tony Awards for the Broadway run of the play

Best Play, Best Director: Trevor Nunn/John Caird

Best Performance by a Lead Actor in a Play: Roger Rees

Nomination only for Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play:

Both David Threlfall and Edward Petherbridge were nominated.

1983 Emmy Awards for the filmed version, directed by Jim Goddard

Nomination only for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Special: Roger Rees

Nomination only for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series of Special; David Threlfall

Additional Information

See Galen Fott’s summary of the difference between the TV version and DVD version.

There are some snippets of footage that are not in the DVD version but are in one or both of the YouTube versions:

  1. At the end of Part 4, there is the actual first half curtain call.  Galen Fott’s YouTube version is the only version where we are able to see this precious first half curtain call after the Romeo and Juliet finale.  Other versions repeat the final curtain call several times but never the first half curtain call after the Patriotic Song.
  2. There is an Act 4 recap which appears in the DVD in the middle of Part 7, but for both YouTube versions, it is located at the beginning of Part 7.  This recap ends in the DVD with Smike coming through the actors standing in the middle of the center stage – between Hilary Townley and Andrew Hawkins. And the recap is cut off there. But in Galen Fott’s , as well as the 9-Part, YouTube version – there is a continuation of this Recap scene, though it only lasts a few seconds longer.  As Smike continues to the front of the stage, young Wackford tackles him, yells “father, father” and Squeers comes up, hits him once on the head and picks him up “What a go. What a most delicious go”.  Smike: My home.   Squeers raises his free arm as if to strike him again but the recap scene just stops there, there is no dragging him off into the audience.
  3. At the end of Part 7 is the “I Won’t Go” scene where Ralph, Squeers and Snawley come to take Smike from Nicholas.  Towards the end, Smike goes out with Miss La Creevy.  The DVD version skips to the very end section where John and Tilda leave, Tim speaks with Miss La Creevy and Frank speaks with Kate, and there’s a shot of the depressed Smike alone.  Both YouTube versions, the 9-Part and Galen Fott’s, contain the missing scene after Smike goes out, where the Gentleman Next Door comes up through the trapdoor and switches his allegiance from Mrs. Nickleby to Miss La Creevy.
  4. There is also an end title credits scene of the audience clapping which appear at the end of some of the parts of both YouTube versions (Fott and the 9-Part); for the Galen Fott version, two end credits sequences of the audience clapping contain a couple of closeups of the audience that the 9-Part doesn’t show.

1 Comment

  1. Marnie, this information and these resources–with all of your wise insights and distinctions–are MARVELOUS!

    I am working through the material, including the links, and will share more of my thoughts anon.

    Blessings, with much gratitude!


    Liked by 1 person

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