In the first two minutes of the new Dodger story, our main character in a top hat is faced with a duel against the president of the United States. This presents a challenge because Dodger (played by Billy Jenkins) is armed with a stick instead of a gun. His mentor, Fagin (played by Christopher Eccleston), comes up with a clever escape using nettles. The fast-paced prequel to Dickens’ story continues as Fagin is not quite quick enough to avoid getting shot in the backside by the angry president.
Dodger, which follows the Artful Dodger, Fagin and a gang of young thieves in the years before the events of Oliver Twist, is the creation of Rhys Thomas, who was once a part of the Fast Show’s cast – he was the car showroom employee who had to listen to Swiss Toni’s “making love to a beautiful woman” comparisons – and who went on to help Simon Day create spoof prog-rocker Brian Pern. His most underrated work is A Year in the Life of a Year, a mangled New Year roundup that showcased his talent for the lightly silly and the purely funny, skills that make him the ideal author of a comedy for older kids and childish adults.
In this special installment, titled “Coronation,” the President of the United States is making a visit to the soon-to-be officially declared Victorian London. The upcoming crowning of the new queen is the main focus for Dodger and his gang, as they plan to steal the crown. Amidst their clever maneuvers and schemes, the show once again showcases its knack for delivering old jokes with a fresh spin. There are comical voices, a scene in which someone utters “starting…now!” with a lengthy pause before the “now,” amusing antics involving two cups of tea – one of which is spiked with laudanum – and a moment where an inept police constable, portrayed by Thomas himself, exclaims “I hate you!” and exits the frame, leaving viewers in stitches due to Thomas’ impeccable comedic timing.
He’s also got all the right contacts. Dodger already has Eccleston enjoying himself shamelessly as Fagin, a mercurial toe-rag with an outrageous cockney accent, and Lenny Rush of Am I Being Unreasonable? fame as Morgan, an all-knowing shoeshine boy a la Johnny from Police Squad!. But when the call goes out for Christmas guest stars, suddenly there is luxury casting everywhere you look.
We begin our scene inside Buckingham Palace, after the chaotic opening outside. The queen is being briefed by the crown jeweller and the archbishop of Canterbury about an upcoming ritual. The jeweller, Alex Macqueen, is putting on a pretentiously fussy act as he describes the crown, adorned with “eleven heralds and five rubies.” Simon Callow portrays the archbishop with a tremulous demeanor, emphasizing the word “globe” with three syllables. The role of the queen is played by Nicola Coughlan from Derry Girls and Bridgerton, who flawlessly embodies a young Victoria as a constantly bored and easily influenced future tyrant, reminiscent of gen Z character Violet Beauregarde.
Vic is visibly enthusiastic about the appearance of President Martin Van Buren, also known as Toby Stephens. He has already received a hearty laugh with his difficult pronunciation of the word “duel” and continues to energetically act in a cowboy-like manner throughout every scene he appears in. He grabs people by their clothing, clears his throat at just the right moments when it seems like he may have a romantic interest in the queen, and attempts a nasal southern accent where every vowel is pronounced like a “U”.
Additionally, there is more to enjoy! Tony Way delivers a comedic performance as Jon the News, a newspaper seller who hilariously maintains a loud volume even during casual conversations – a classic joke, but executed brilliantly. Notably, Thomas’s former colleague Paul Whitehouse makes a delightful appearance as a portly guard responsible for protecting the crown jewels, but may not be sturdy enough for the job.
Dodger, Fagin, and their group of friends, including Lucy Montgomery who co-wrote the story with Thomas, and Minnie Bilge, Fagin’s landlady, set off on a plan to steal the replica crown from Madame Tussauds that sits on top of the wax figure of the queen, played by Nicola Coughlan. They then plan to switch it with the real crown during the coronation rehearsal. Before carrying out the heist, there is a funny recurring moment where Queen Victoria impatiently tells the archbishop of Canterbury to skip through his script, making it sound like he is fast-forwarding through a boring podcast.
Every minute in Dodger, there is a moment of laughter. But more importantly, there is a sense of receiving an unconditional gift. It feels like an early Christmas present.