"Any Friend of Nicholas Nickleby Is a Friend of Mine" has nothing to do with the recent triumph of the Royal Shakespeare Company on Broadway. It doesn't really have all that much to do with Charles Dickens, either -- just a man who pretends to be Charles Dickens and spends his time writing novels that have been written nearly 100 years earlier.
But this hour-long adaptation of Ray Bradbury's short story and play, to be aired tonight at 9 on channels 26 and 32, is a charmer, a gentle plea for the crackpot fantasies that make the world a friendlier place to dream in. As the man who calls himself Charles Dickens, Fred Gwynne gives a kindly and gallant performance. When he quietly observes that the world is swarming with people who are drowning, "each one swimming a different stroke for the far shore," you realize that he's not just talking about others.
The story takes place one leafy summer in the 1940s in Green Town, Ill., the kind of Victorian small town with gingerbread trim and white picket fences "that isn't lived in any more." Ralph Spaulding, a 12-year-old tyke, has been passing the days helping out Mr. Wyneski, "the greatest barber in the world." But when the mysterious bearded writer comes to town and moves into the boardinghouse run by his grandparents, Ralph lands new employment, transcribing the stranger's latest novel. "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times," dictates the writer, as if inspiration had just hit him on the noggin. The tyke's pen takes flight, along with his imagination.
Even in near-perfect Green Town, however, there are those hard-nosed pragmatists who want to spoil other people's illusions, harmless as they may be. Exposed as a fraud, the would-be Dickens admits he's really just another failed writer who has put down more than 5 million words without ever once "stumbling onto excellence." Fortunately, a little boy's faith can work wonders, and Bradbury, clearly on the side of the wool gatherers, finds a way to pump new life into the stranger's fiction.
The performances are grand, Gwynne's florid elegance contrasting splendidly with the dryness of the town's residents. Flaxen-haired Brian Svrusis, as the admiring tot, is fortunately as unself-conscious as he is cute. And the shots of the sleepy main street and the spacious front porches of Green Town -- all bathed in the haze of nostaliga -- are nothing short of idyllic.
"Any Friend of Nicholas Nickleby" whiles away the hour most engagingly, at the same time it may just advance the cause of tolerance an inch or two. As Ralph's grandfather wisely declares, "I believe what a man tells me, until he tells me otherwise. Then, I believe that."