PBS presents Dickens of a documentary

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Had the contemporary notion of celebrity existed in the 19th century, Charles Dickens would certainly have topped the list. Like Mark Twain, Victor Hugo and Leo Tolstoy, Dickens blazed the trail of literary celebrity by becoming more famous than his best-selling books. The superior three-hour profile "Dickens" (7 p.m., PBS, check local listings) combines documentary narration, dramatic re-enactment, and clips from "Masterpiece Theatre" presentations of Dickens' many novels to offer a surprising psychobiography of the novelist most closely associated with the vast and often cruel changes of the Victorian era. It also emphasizes the biographical roots of his most beloved characters, including David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Tiny Tim and many more.

Host Peter Ackroyd pops up in period costume and settings to move the narrative along. Anton Lesser does a credible job as Dickens himself, frequently seen giving dramatic readings of his works before enraptured audiences. These readings helped cement Dickens as the greatest novelist and entertainer of his age. Prunella Scales and Timothy West play the author's parents, who appear in many interviews expressing a dim appreciation of their negative role in their son's upbringing and their inspiration for some of his most pathetic and emotionally icy characters. These interviews, and the many references to Dickens' secret lovers and other mysteries, add a touch of "True Hollywood Story" to this literary profile. And that's both perfectly appropriate and vastly entertaining, given Dickens' status as a celebrity before his time.

Tonight's other highlights

Late night

Neve Campbell and Wellwater Conspiracy appear on "Late Show with David Letterman" (10:35 p.m., CBS) ... Jay Leno welcomes Charles Barkley, Norm MacDonald and Enrique Iglesias on "The Tonight Show" (10:35 p.m., NBC).