Hulu has come up with an unexpectedly clever sequel to the Dickens tale of the Artful Dodger, the boy pick-pocket whose fate is only hinted at in Oliver Twist. Dodge, it was said, had been shipped off to Australia as a convict after finally being caught stealing silver.
Starting with that premise Hulu has made a wonderfully entertaining, well-written series. Thomas Brodie-Sangster (the adorable boy who lost his mum in Love Actually) is quick and charming as Dodge, known as Dr Jack Hawkins in polite company, who has left his thieving ways behind him in England and has now forged a career as a celebrated surgeon.
His deft hands can sew up a severed artery in under thirty seconds. Dodge loves it—the adrenaline, the risk of failure—he stands like a star actor in his surgical theatre, chopping off a rotting limb while a horde of paying audience members watches and cheers. The show doesn’t shy away from the blood and grime of 1850s Australia, but it never feels gratuitous. It’s just part of life. Cats eat severed appendages off the floor of the surgery, and that’s that.
But Dodge has a soft heart and takes his position as a surgeon seriously. One must never play God as a surgeon, he tells a young aspiring doctor—the role is simply to save someone’s life, not treat them like an experiment. His caution is balanced nicely against the sometimes reckless ambitions of Lady Belle, the governor’s daughter who’d rather be elbow-deep in human intestines than courted by a suitor.
She’s a medical scholar, studying ancient practises in Greek and Latin, and an avid reader of the Lancet —‘You don’t read it?’ she asks Dodge in outrage. Perhaps he’s too busy saving lives to read the Lancet, but Belle has a point about the need to update medical practices as new ones emerge.
She has an obsession with the deadly substance ether, which could work as an anaesthetic and allow surgeons to perform more complicated tasks while the patient is comatose. Dodge thinks she’s mad but they try it and it works—sort of. Belle bullies her way onto the hospital staff and quickly becomes indispensable. She insists that Dodge teach her the art of surgery but he’s too busy running from a crook who wants to chop his hand off.
Faced with an impossible debt which he’s acquired through gambling (he should have won, the other guy cheated) Dodge is forced to revert to his old career as a thief. Fortuitously an old friend turns up just in time—Fagin, the master pick-pocket who taught Dodge everything he knows, has arrived in Australia in a chain gang.
David Thewlis plays the famous Fagin and he is a joy to watch, despite his mottled and filthy scalp and sweat-stained undershirt. Thewlis was born to play this role. Sharp-eyed and charming despite his relentless habit of abandoning friends at the last minute, Fagin has a plan to help Dodge pay his debt. Well, he has several plans that keep falling through—Fagin isn’t used to sunny Australia, and here he can’t disappear into the fog like in dear old London. There’s no money in old-fashioned jewel-stealing because everyone knows everyone else’s jewellery.
It’s a small town. So Fagin comes up with an ingenious plan, concocted as he sits in a pub listening to a Catholic priest and a professor chatting. ‘The real money is with the Protestants,’ complains the priest. ‘I’ve often thought of converting.’
‘And you can marry,’ says the professor with enthusiasm.
‘Ah, yes,’ says the priest, ‘there’s a downside to everything.’
Fagin listens in earnest. He decides to answer God’s call and become a Catholic priest because only the Catholics would be duped by his next trick. It involves a real human coccyx nabbed from the bin at the hospital posing as the relic of an anointed saint. Fagin has a genius for deception and it is a pleasure to watch him at work. Like Dickens’s novels, the ambition of The Artful Dodger is to entertain and tell a heartfelt story at the same time. Will
Dodge falls in love with the imperious but warm-hearted Lady Belle. Will he suffer Fagin’s treachery again? Will Fagin finally find his heart and do right by the boy he abandoned fifteen years ago? The characters, place and setting are all vivid and serve the storyline well.
Australia presents opportunities for the pick-pockets from London’s East End, if they can work the new turf, and its lawlessness gives Dodge and Belle the chance to test new, possibly lethal surgical experiments. This stuff wouldn’t fly at the Royal Society. Danger and adventure, romance and treachery— The Artful Dodger plays them all with a light touch and a script every major studio should aspire to.