Christopher Eccleston on Dickens, directing and 'Dodger' — the Oliver Twist spin-off
Christopher Eccleston talks Dickens, ‘Dodger’ and directing in an exclusive interview.
Christopher Eccleston interview
Twists on classics can be risky but Dodger, CBBC’s new action-packed prequel to Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, expertly hits the bullseye.
Created by talented husband and wife team Rhys Thomas and Lucy Montgomery — who also star in the 10-part family-friendly series — Dodger is superbly realized and perfectly cast. Christopher Eccleston (Shallow Grave, Cracker, The A Word) merges pathos and comedy as Fagin while Billy Jenkins (The Crown, Humans, Four Kids and It) is spot-on as the irrepressible Dodger.
Imagining a backstory to Fagin’s gang of orphan pickpockets, Dodger opens in 1837 and introduces a wealth of characters.
Some will be known to fans of the story — Bill Sikes and Bullseye are present from episode one, with Nancy appearing in episode seven. Some are reimagined. Dickens’ Charley Bates (Dodger’s chirpy best pal) is now a cautious female character with a mysterious past. And some are real historical figures — David Threlfall stars as Inspector Charles Rowan, Tanya Reynolds plays Queen Victoria, and Samantha Spiro guests as Madame Tussaud.
We caught up with Christopher Eccleston to find out more…
Christopher Ecclestone interview: what makes this Dickens adaptation special?
Christopher Eccleston: "This is about the beginning of Dodger’s life in London with Fagin and the gang. It predates the events in Oliver Twist. We never meet Oliver. Creators Rhys Thomas and Lucy Montgomery have taken the characters and gone off on a huge imaginative leap, creating new stories and adventures for them."
It sounds like a lively set!
CE: "It made me feel very old. I was always relieved when David Threlfall - he plays our villain, Inspector Rowan - was on set because we’d joke about the old days! For some of the gang, it was maybe their first or second job. They’re amazing in it. Rhys and Lucy’s word is ‘fun’. It was very democratic, inclusive and joyous."
Did you enjoy working with Billy?
CE: "Billy’s exceptional. He’s a very gifted actor — he’s just got it. He worked very hard and we got on really well. I think you can see that on screen. I learned a huge amount from Billy’s playfulness and openness to the camera. He is Dodger."
What does playing this iconic character mean to you?
CE: "When Rhys said 'Would you be interested in playing Fagin?' I don't think he got to the 'G' in Fagin and I said 'Yes!'
"I’m so proud of this. It’s a little gem. I feel we’ve made something special with a huge amount of love. I made this for my children Albert, 10, and Esme, 8. They helped me with my accent and learning lines. I will watch it with them.
[Laughing] "They’ll be pretty critical!"
Have you read Oliver Twist or have a favorite film version?
CE: "Ron Moody’s Fagin in Oliver! — nobody can get near it for my money. It was definitive.
"I read Oliver Twist when I was about 14. As a child, my heart was with Fagin, Dodger, Nancy and the gang. I wasn’t really interested in Oliver. I wanted more of the gang. That's what we’re giving audiences here."
What other Dickens characters would you like to play?
CE: "Ebenezer Scrooge is my favourite of all time. It’s the role I want to play one day. Alistair Sim is far and away the greatest Scrooge ever put on film."
Tell us about your costume and those teeth!
CE: "I’ve never ever had a costume as good as Fagin’s. Everybody loved his coat and tried to steal it. The teeth were a fantastic decision too. There’s a mixture of comedy and reality embodied in those teeth. I don’t think I've seen a Dickens drama where they got the teeth right — now everybody’s going to have to do it!"
You’ve made wonderful choices during your career…
CE: "I've made some terrible choices as well! At the beginning of my career, I made some great choices. I was very fortunate. I was very clear that I wanted to work with the best writers because you're only as good as your writer. It’s simple — writers and scripts are the most important thing."
What have been your favourite roles?
CE: "Matt Jamison in The Leftovers because of the brilliance of the writing by Damon Lindelof and the democracy and warmth among the actors and the crew during the making of the three seasons. We traveled all over — Austin, Texas, New York, and Melbourne, Australia. It is a genuine ensemble piece. We all had times when we were in just one or two scenes, and then we all had times when we led it, and we all supported each other. It was a really beautiful experience.
"Hillsborough for Jimmy McGovern playing Trevor Hicks, and then playing an autobiographical version of Jimmy McGovern in a show for Channel 4 called Hearts and Minds, which I still think is my best piece of work.
"A drama I did, called Flesh and Blood, written by Pete Bowker.
"The feature film Jude was hugely important to me too."
Have you ever fancied going on the other side of the camera and writing or directing?
CE: "I read all the time about the writing process. But I don't have the discipline to sit and write, sadly. But I would love to direct. I think I could do it. I've learned a lot from the directors, crews and actors I've worked with. I'd love to be given an opportunity to direct."
What's next for you? A second series of 'Dodger' maybe?
CE: "The next piece of work I've got coming is a small role in a beautiful BBC script called My Name is Leon. I play an Irishman in that.
"And we’d all love to do more Dodger!
Dodger debuts on CBBC on Sunday, Feb. 6 2022 at 5.30 pm.
The first five episodes will be on BBC iPlayer from Sunday, Feb. 6. The remaining episodes will air from Mar. 13.
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With twenty years of experience as an entertainment journalist, Elaine writes for What’s on TV, TV Times, TV & Satellite Week and www.whattowatch.com covering a variety of programs from gardening and wildlife to documentaries and drama.
As well as active involvement in the WTW family’s social media accounts, she has been known to get chatty on the red carpet and wander into the odd podcast.
After a day of previewing TV, writing about TV and interviewing TV stars, Elaine likes nothing than to relax… by watching TV.
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