“The Artful Dodger is a rollercoaster, it has this huge heart, a proper love story, but it’s rollicking. They’ve been adventurous with the text, they’ve taken license in a really fantastic way, a really brave and bold and slightly rock and roll way.
“The central premise is a pickpocket that’s grown up to be a surgeon, but his pickpocketing past comes back to haunt him. I mean, who’s not going to watch that?”
Australian writer, comedian and musician Tim Minchin is no stranger to reimagining existing IP. Perhaps one of his biggest projects to date has been Matilda the Musical, a stage musical adaptation of the beloved 1988 Roald Dahl novel, which he wrote the music and lyrics for and has since been adapted again into film.
While working with existing IP can be a minefield, Minchin believes The Artful Dodger exists in the perfect place. Dodger isn’t a ‘sacred’ character he says, you’re not playing with Star Wars, but it’s a story many of us will know in some way or another, and it’s a story that lends itself to expansion.
“I love the premise. There’s so much ridiculous story in the world, we’re so used to people saying ‘what if there’s a guy with the head of a sheep and he can do magic’ and whatever. But this Dickensian character, who we know is very dextrous, he’s nimble with his fingers, to look at where he would end up.
“Taking the leap from pickpocket to surgeon might seem a bit convenient, a bit Disney, but Dickens told us he was transported, right? He gets transported to Australia, ends up being seconded to the military as an assistant to a surgeon and they find out how good his hands are. It makes sense.”
If anyone is in the right position to adapt a classic character, it’s showrunner James McNamara, a former Perth drama student like Minchin. With a PhD from Oxford, he brings a different level of interest in the story, in historical accuracy and in the reimagination of art.
“Then there’s explosions and heists and this incredible love story,” Minchin adds.
“You always hope the love story will feel authentic, you hope there’s going to be chemistry and that it doesn’t feel too convenient or twee. It’s so easy to get wrong. But the love story is amazing. Even though I loved my role, the joy I got was mostly from watching the machinations and seeing how well it all worked out.”
Minchin plays Darius, a ‘baddie’ as he says, who catches our hero Dodger in a very tricky situation. Playing him gave Minchin the chance to fully disappear into a larger than life Dickensian villain, something he greatly enjoyed, but that isn’t always possible for an actor who is often recognised as himself.
“I have both the privilege and disadvantage of being someone who’s very recognised as me, as opposed to someone like Damon Herriman [who plays Captain Gaines] who is perhaps one of Australia’s greatest character actors and yet people still don’t know him as Damon Herriman. Thewlis [David Thewlis plays Fagin] is the same, they get to disappear.
“For me to disappear, I have to really work on it. I’m proud firstly that the production took a risk on me, but secondly that I think I succeeded. I think if my name wasn’t in the credits it might take people a moment. There’s always hope as an actor that you disappear.”
Minchin’s Darius, Herriman’s Gaines and Thewlis’ Fagin are just some of the big characters in The Artful Dodger. From the first episode, audiences are captured into a fully immersive world. It takes a lot of work, and a lot of luck, for everything to line up perfectly and create that, says Minchin. From the set design, to the makeup department, the camerawork to the lighting, the writers, the directors, the actors, it all crashes together in harmony for a ‘good vibe’.
“I had so much fun because I often have a lot of responsibility, my acting career has mostly meant I’ve had to write myself roles because no one else will give them to me, so it’s amazing to get on to the set of a show where you’re playing a small role in a big, rollicking, heartful adventure.
“I’ve learned as a producer, as a writer, that you can’t control it. But from my perspective it just all fell into place, and then you have Thomas [Brodie-Sangster who plays Dodger] and Maia [Mitchell who plays Lady Belle Fox] and David [Thewlis] as your stars which makes a difference. When your stars are kind and generous and open, the whole vibe is good.
“And then I got to play a baddie and do an accent and have fake teeth. That’s your dream of being an actor when you’re little.”
Another part of the production that Minchin enjoyed was the huge role music had in creating The Artful Dodger world. Of course, music is something incredibly close to Minchin’s heart, and he loves the way the show highlights Australian rock.
Antony Partos is the composer behind the show, which weaves Spiderbait and Wolfmother among a more traditional period score. The music reflects the feel of the show, says Minchin. It’s not your typical classic story, it’s rock and roll, it’s punk, it’s a romp. Minchin is incredibly passionate about using Australian music in his own work and to be able to work on a project of this scale that does the same is a dream.
Big budgets help when it comes to getting a top tier soundtrack. Minchin is vocal about the quality of the Australian film and TV industry, and he hopes seeing productions like The Artful Dodger, which was filmed here and uses plenty of Australian cast and crew, will encourage more local production spending.
“Having worked all around, in Hollywood and in London, it’s not like I need to be reminded, but again it’s proven that Australian filmmaking is world class. The only difference between Australian and American shows is money, right? It’s not skills, it’s investment. As we get more big global SVODs [Subscription video on demand providers] like Disney+ investing in us; if they give us the money we’ll make something world class.
“All the best people in Hollywood are Australian anyway!”
One thing Minchin really hopes from audiences is that when they come to The Artful Dodger, they come with an open mind. In a world of never ending cultural analysis, ongoing comparison and juggernauts of media coming from one existing property, Minchin says he likes to watch as a blank canvas.
“When I go to watch a theatre show, or a music act, or film, I don’t know if this is conscious or not or if it’s because I make stuff, but I just go and say ‘what have you got’. ‘What’s this going to be’? It leaves you open.
“The Artful Dodger takes fantastic leaps and it takes license in a really good way. I want people to be open to the joy of it. They’re going to fall in love with Maia and Thomas, who have both blown the ceiling off what people might expect of them, and then you’ve got some of the best actors on the planet in Herriman and Suzie Porter. You’ve got Thewlis who is impeccable, just flitting about being incredibly amoral.
“It’s about escapism as well. There is commentary on class, but it’s not battering you over the head with it, it’s a love story and an action adventure, it’s a big budget Aussie rollercoaster ride. It is joy and it’s escape.”
The Artful Dodger is an Australian Star Original Series now streaming only on Disney+.