Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Misery of Edwin Drood: Bad Typography in the Movies

by Alastair Johnston

Once at the Monotype Conference in Cambridge I happened to sit at dinner next to the man whose job was to fabricate period typography at the BBC, and I told him how I envied his job. But I also needled him by guessing that he relied heavily on John Lewis’ book Printed Ephemera (W. S. Cowell, 1962) since I frequently saw the same posters on London streets in TV adaptations. He admitted that Lewis’ book was a good source for posters which he could photostat and then print out large and age suitably.

People tend to think of all British drama as originating at the Beeb, but there are also several independent production companies who have brought us the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes (Granada), the Catherine Cookson melodramas (Tyne Tees Television) and many others. In general it can be said of them that their attention to detail is superb -- perfect costumes, hairstyles and locations; when they are outdoors they do tend to gravitate to one or two places such as the Royal Crescent at Bath (The Wrong Box; The Duchess with Keira Knightley; Persuasion), but they manage to remove telephone wires and cover the road with dirt so you don’t see the painted “no parking” lines etc. Then they dress the set by adding structures to hide things they can’t remove, and decorate the walls with antique signs and old posters.

My dinner acquaintance must have retired because the new BBC adaptation of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, excellent as it is dramatically, is seriously flawed in its application of typography.

 This year marks the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens, England’s most popular novelist. His serialized works (starting with Pickwick Papers in 1836) were eagerly anticipated all over the world. Dickens, in fact, pioneered a new style of writing with the serial, and nine of his novels appeared this way (in twenty self-contained parts which appeared monthly, each 32 pages long with an illustrated wrapper, sold at 1 shilling; by the end, you’d spent a quid without noticing it, and been involved in the ups and downs of some colorful characters for the better part of two years.) When The Old Curiosity Shop was in full flight fans became so agitated with anticipation that they lined the piers in New York awaiting the boat bringing the latest installment and, before the ship had docked, were yelling to the crew “Did Little Nell die?”

Two centuries later television serials have replaced novels in parts. In 2005, when Bleak House was dramatized for television by the BBC in a striking new version starring Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, American viewers couldn’t wait for the next installment to be shown on PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre. Andrew Davies’ adaptation highlighted the cliff-hanging nature of the original, while the direction and editing added post-modern touches to appeal to viewers who were used to fast cuts. Dickens was 58 and at the height of his fame in 1870 when he died of a stroke while working on The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which he had half completed. Like Jane Austen’s Sanditon (with which many writers dabbled, though not Margaret Drabble), the half-finished work has tempted later writers to try to complete it. (Curiously both works have a mulatta heroine in them.)

The manuscript is now at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and can be read on line if you can decipher the great man’s scrawl.

For the bicentenary, Gwyneth Hughes completed Edwin Drood as a screenplay, and it was broadcast this year featuring all the brilliant British character actors we have come to know and love (Alun Armstrong who was Inspector Bucket in Bleak House, Ian McNeice from Oliver Twist, Ron Cook from Little Dorrit) as well as an over-the-top Bollywood ending. Come to think of it Bollywood is the perfect manifestation of the Dickensian plot. Perhaps life in India is closer to the Victorian era with its caste system and splendor amid abject poverty.

Famously Dickens showed the seamy underbelly of English society at a time when Britain ruled half the world through military might and its powerful navy that reached from the Caribbean to Africa to India. And the vast English-speaking world responded with adoration of his rich descriptions and wild character studies. Reportedly Dickens would give a guinea to anyone who gave him a good name for a character, surprising one host who offered him a glass of gin and asked “Olive, or twist?”

However, there is a fly in the martini, as I will explain.

The titles are in Copperplate Gothic (designed in 1901 by Fred Goudy). OK, we will let that slide as “allusive” use, but we will not silently sit by when the OMNIBUS rolls into town and on its side are foot-high gold letters in ghastly Goudy Oldstyle (created in 1915).


The ludicrous memorial plaque to Mrs Sapsea, "admired" by the young clerk Datchery in the crypt, appears to be in Bookman which, technically speaking, could have been seen in Dickens’ time. But it is clearly machine-set and bears no resemblance to a hand-chiseled inscription. The histories of text typefaces and inscriptional lettering do not run in parallel.

The Drood family vault sign is routered in Copperplate Gothic and dated 1744. This is evidently wrong. While sans serif was initially reintroduced as an antiquarian style, it was not until the end of the eighteenth century. (Yes, I know Copperplate has tiny serifs but they are too small and silly to be taken seriously.)

Mr Grewgious’ signboard is in Times Roman (1931), which even lay people could spot as anachronistic at ten paces. This is appalling. Furthermore such boards would have been hand-painted & any self-respecting sign-painter would have used an ffi ligature in "Offices."

Captain Drood’s own memorial plaque is in a weird hybrid Garamond with what appear to be Bastard Baskerville figures. What the Dickens?

Mark Simonson, a graphic artist & type designer, has a segment of his website devoted to anachronistic typography in films. He writes, “it’s just sad to see such sloppy props. At least they weren’t in Arial and Comic Sans. It would be so cool if for once someone did a little bit of research and made props that looked authentic.”

Spotting typographic anachronisms is fun or irritating, depending on your mood. If those who tried to “out” George W. Bush as delinquent in his duty with fake documents from the Air National Guard had consulted an expert they might have proved their point a little more convincingly.

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