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Twist of Fate: Timothy Spall Talks "Oliver Twist," "Harry Potter," and Charles Dickens

Timothy Spall is known for many things: his roles in many of Mike Leigh's films, his turn as Peter Pettigrew in several of the Harry Potter film adaptations, and as a consummate lover of Dickens.

Spall had the chance to portray the iconic character of Fagin in the latest adaptation of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, which aired in 2007 as five half-hour installments on BBC and which is set to launch this Sunday as part of PBS' Masterpiece Classics' Dickens season.

Speaking at last month's Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour, Spall had quite a lot to say about playing Fagin, why the novels of Dickens have endured more than 150 years later, and, yes, about those Harry Potter films.

Spall's portrayal of Oliver Twist's Fagin, the ringleader of a band of children thieves, is particularly creepy and vastly different than how previous actors performed the role.

"I was going for glamour," joked Spall. "He is a creep, he is a weirdo, and he's a child abuser and a sort of reprehensible character of the time. But reality is that Dickens wanted you to understand all of that about him, I think. But there's something inherently sympathetic about him because he is a victim of his own circumstances. There's been many brilliant performances of [Fagin], and I wasn't an obvious choice for the character, but somebody at [the BBC] was willing enough to tolerate me having a go at it. I realized that you can't reproduce or copy [but] on the other aspect, you don't want to try and be clever by being so adverse to what anybody else has done."

"I started to think about where he was from, why he was like he was," he continued. "And I kept having an image of him being an outcast somehow possibly thrown out of a nation and Yiddish culture and cut loose as a child and then had to take care of himself internationally. So he gathered many different attributes of a life of possessions and jewels and just basically trying to keep himself together. And actors always try and work out what makes a character tick. I was very mindful of why this pariah would end up being in London and hopefully try to make him creepy, exotic, slightly vulnerable as well."

Still Spall says that there wasn't a particular attempt on his part to distance himself from the way Fagin had been played in previous adaptations.

"I said to Sophie Okonedo, 'We are doing something unusual here, black Nancy, fat Fagin.'" joked Spall. "So we were doing something a little bit different, but no. Anybody who adapts... knows that you are allowed to take liberties, and you are allowed to specify and condense the brilliance of what Dickens has done and then try and shape it to be as relevant as it possibly can."

"Everybody who adapts any great classic should be allowed to make it relevant and to make it palatable for anybody who is going to watch it," he continued. "When ours went out [in the UK], it went out after a soap opera, EastEnders, which is a huge audience-puller. It pulls in about 10 million viewers a night. And they decided to pin that on straight after in half-hour episodes. And it picked up, quite deliberately, an audience that would not usually have invited that kind of thing by choice. So it was interesting. Subsequently, it was actually treated by the critics as a bit of a populist thing, and it got some funny reviews. But it got massive audience, which was great. And I think, if you are going to play tricks on people, that's a good way of doing it."

Some commentators have said that Charles Dickens would have been right at home writing for television.

"I think the fact that he was a social commentator, an immense imagination, creative spirit, somebody after would say, oh, he would be writing soap operas, wouldn't he?" muses Spall. "Of course he wouldn't. The only thing he has in common with soap operas is he wrote episodically. He's not a purveyor of tautological trash. He's actually a genius. As I understand, would he come up with television, he would have been quite sensational I would imagine."

What does Spall look for in a script, given that he often plays some pretty out-there characters?

"Well, they are sort of all repulsive," said Spall of his characters. "They are somewhat divine, and they are repulsive. Looking at what I do and standing the way I stand and acting the way I do, I've always thought it's part of my job to give people who are undesirable a really good crack at the game. And then I laugh at trying to turn the tables on characters that are perceived as being pariahs or outcasts or repulsive or repugnant in some way and make you realize that even the most reprehensible and undesirables of characters are human beings. If I get a chance, I try to give it a go and make you feel bad about hating them as well."

Spall said that he nailed the part of Fagin on the first audition and was offered the part. "I wanted to go in three times, but they offered me the part before," he joked. I wanted a break for it, but they wouldn't allow it. Yeah, just the once. And I met them, and I thought they were delightful. I have a personal love for Dickens, and I'm a bit of a snob about certain aspects of it. And so I went to meet them, and I was so fantastic. And they encouraged me to be a bit outrageous in it, which is probably not a good idea, but I bit their arms off up to the elbow at the chance to do it, and that's it."

Despite the wide array of characters on his resume, Spall is still most often recognized for his role as Peter "Wormtail" Pettigrew in the Harry Potter films. So what has the Harry Potter franchise done for his career?

"Destroyed it," joked Spall. "No. Actually, it's very unusual because without sounding like some kind of braggart, it's one of the smallest parts I've ever played in my life, and wherever I go in the world, it's one of the most that gets the biggest recognition. I don't mind. I mean, I think that Harry Potter is kind of a phenomenon, isn't it? It's sort of universally loved. There are a few people in the universe who despise it. But it's actually one of those places where I'll go in a lift somewhere in Middle America, and somebody will go, 'Hey, are you the rat dude?' And that will be somebody in their fifties, you know. But no. It's a phenomenon, and the great thing about it is it makes people realize that you can read a book, actually. It's not stupid, and it's not weird if you are a kid. And I think, you know, one of the most beneficial things of Harry Potter is it's got a whole generation of kids who would never have read, reading, and I think that's going to be great."

(Hell, maybe one day they'll even read Dickens, one can't help but hope.)

So why then does Dickens' popularity as a writer endure the way it does so many years later?

"Dickens' main themes are themes of a lot of 19th Century writers," said Spall. "But the main theme is the power of money and its abuses and its destructiveness, and occasionally, it's power when you have philanthropists. But more often than not, it's the destructive power of money and its ability to abuse the most needy of society. Dickens, that's one of his main thrusts. But the other thing is that he gives the best shots to the least likely people. He is completely untrammeled by any snobbery. Some of his most intelligent characters are the least educated. Some of his most noble characters are the most down-trodden. Its universe will never stop because when we go from bursts of wealth, everybody forgets about the needy. But now, in this [current economic] situation, it becomes more and more relevant because he is a person who really, before there was a kind of conscience about social welfare, welfare state,[took] the look that society needs to take care of people rather than let them rot in their own ineptitude. That's why it will always be relevant, always, because he plugs mainly and massively into the human condition from birth to death."

Oliver Twist, part of Masterpiece Classic's 2009 season, will air Part One on Sunday, February 15th on PBS. Check your local listings.


Anonymous said…
That's so cool that Timothy Spall is playing Fagin. I'm a big fan of his (and an even bigger fan of Dickens) and look forward to seeing this version of Oliver Twist.

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