Hard Times (1977)

“There is a law, but not for the likes of you.”

During the 1970s, British television produced many fine film versions of great classic novels–Jude the Obscure Cousin Bette and Hard Times for example. Some of these films have just made their way to DVD, and if you’re a fan of British television costume drama, then chances are you will enjoy these film versions of classic novels.

Hard Times based on the novel by Charles Dickens is set in the grimy, grim Northern working class town of Coketown. The story opens with one of the main characters, retired merchant Thomas Gradgrind (Patrick Allen), lecturing a classroom full of bedraggled, filthy children. Gradgrind’s lecture seems geared more towards the schoolmaster than to the children, and Gradgrind waxes on, delivering his personal theory of education. In essence, Gradgrind believes that children should be taught “nothing but Facts.” According to Gradgrind, imagination, love and feeling are things that have no place in a child’s education, and they also have no place in life. Gradgrind’s own children, Louise (Jacqueline Tong) and Tom (Richard Wren) are the objects of this sort of bleak upbringing, and it’s an upbringing that will have disastrous results.

Hard Times–4 episodes on a 2 disc set–is anchored by its two main male characters–Gradgrind and his friend, the ridiculous, mean-spirited mill-owner Josiah Bounderby (Timothy West). Both men are heartless, but whereas Gradgrind is disciplined and dour, Bounderby is fleshy, self-indulgent, possesses a cruel streak, and relishes embellishing the stories of his childhood hardships. These exaggerations somehow give Bounderby license to be merciless towards his workers. If his workers dare beg for an improvement in working conditions, Bounderby immediately categorizes their pleas as demanding “Turtle soup” and thus dismisses the demands as nonsensical. Gradgrind isn’t a deliberately mean-spirited character, and at least he practices what he preaches–whereas Bounderby is cruel and hypocritical.

Hard Times explores some of Dickens’ favourite themes–working class life, the effects of poverty, and the moral dissonance between working class and merchant and upper class “rights.” The latter is demonstrated through the miscarriage of justice against Stephen Blackpool–one of Bounderby’s employees–a man who pays the price for Bounderby’s selfish greed, and Tom Gradgrind’s weakness and lack of character. “Hard Times” challenges the Industrial Revolution’s treatment of the working class as machines for production. Man as an emotionless machine of production is exemplified by Gradgrind’s theories of education–theories that fail abysmally. The theory that the working classes are to be viewed as solely a means of production (how can we get them to produce more for less) is put into practice by Bounderby and is his cherished desire–a desire he feeds with his own mythic childhood deprivation. Both Gradgrind’s theories, and Bounderby’s practices are seen as social evils. With the exception of one over-the-top scene involving Stephen Blackpool, the bitter, hard personalities of Gradgrind and Bounderby manage to hold this story firm against the more sentimental aspects of Dickens. Wonderful casting and superior acting in Hard Times will appeal to those of us who love the quality of British television.

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