"Nicholas Nickleby" floods the imagination, wallops the heart and bolsters the spirit. It is a celebration of life, theater and make-believe, and though Charles Dickens wrote it 145 years ago, it bursts forth in timeless tumult on television this week, just as it did a little over a year ago when it was the biggest rage on Broadway. Theatergoers paid $100 apiece for tickets to this marathon production by the Royal Shakespeare Company and now the Mobil Showcase Network is making it accessible to home viewers on free TV--though to look on this as merely a matter of economy is to underestimate gravely the wonders of the show and risk emulating its villains. As one of his prefatory remarks to the mini-series, which starts tomorrow night at 8 on Channel 5, host Peter Ustinov says "Nicholas" is "a book about money," but in fact it is a book about the battle between the spiritual and the material that has raged in the world since the invention of legal tender.

For all its joy and terror, "The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby" will not be everyone's cup of tea. Actually, at nine hours, it will not be everyone's tub of tea. But what is? "Nicholas" will be presented over four consecutive nights on 61 TV stations, of which 24 are network affiliates (9 ABC, 5 CBS, 10 NBC) and 14 public TV; they momentarily constitute the Mobil Showcase Network. Mobil bought "Nickleby" for $1.1 million and is spending another $3 million to distribute it. According to a Mobil Showcase spokesman, commercial stations in Hawaii and Idaho asked for, and got, permission to run "Nicholas" free of charge.

All three commercial networks turned "Nicholas Nickleby" down. CBS subsequently pressured its Flint, Mich., affiliate, which had been the 62nd station in Mobil's ad hoc network, not to carry it, and so the station reluctantly bowed out.

Mobil promises to limit commercial time to 21 minutes for the entire nine hours (the first three nights are two hours each, the last is three) and to run, according to a spokesman, "no hard-sell or advocacy advertising this time." Occasionally there'll be an intermission--a break, but no commercial message--to give viewers a breather.

"Nicholas Nickleby" deserves all this deference because what was a theatrical miracle is now a teeming television dream. Like "Brideshead Revisited," it is possessed of a seductive alchemy that defies analysis, even description; indeed, describing the production may make it sound off-putting. Shot on tape (but using film editing techniques) at London's Old Vic Theater, "Nickleby" has sets that are scant and barren, a color scheme claustrophobically brown and gray, and a story dwelling heavily on misery and poverty. It really shouldn't work on TV, but work it does, boisterously and like gangbusters.

Anything works if it is done magnificently well. "Nicholas Nickleby" proves how great stories can endure, how they can be made to live again when entrusted to the proper care and sense of invention. Characters in the novel like to exclaim, when confronted with the unexpected, "Well, there's a thing!" It's the least of the superlatives you want to heap on this spellbinder once it has concluded.

The story, 65 chapters long as Dickens wrote it over a two-year period starting in 1838, is one of haves and have-nots, of hads and had-nots, of wants, want-nots and Dickens' assorted what-nots, a colorful menagerie even for him, although the hero, Nicholas, is a bland fellow whom Dickens himself called "a young man of an impetuous temper and little or no experience." Nicholas can be agonizingly slow at asserting himself, but he has a good spine--the right stuff--and an active dander where injustice is concerned. Dickens throws Nicholas, his fanatically virtuous sister Kate, and his recently widowed and dithery mother into ruthless Victorian London and the mercies of the family's coldly mercenary uncle Ralph, a man ahead of his time when it comes to reducing life to terms purely digital.

A great, great deal happens to Nicholas, who goes through innumerable tearful farewells with family and friends, works briefly at a squalid boarding school, takes up for a time with a hurly-burly theatrical touring company and returns to London in an attempt to rescue his sister from, among other fates, the one once considered worse than death. Nicholas is gamely, engagingly played with stalwart consistency by Roger Rees; his deformed companion Smike by David Thresfall (in an impressively, though perhaps too elaborately, physical performance); his sister Kate by the serenely pretty Emily Richard; his mother as a forgivably oblivious chatterbox by Jane Downs; his sinister yet pitiable uncle Ralph with elegantly sustained intensity by John Woodvine.

It's a shame Mobil didn't add an appendix to the production identifying the actors and the characters they play, especially since Rees is the only actor to play only one character. It's amazing to learn from press material, after seeing all nine hours of "Nicholas," that Edward Petherbridge, who plays Ralph Nickleby's fussbudgety, Stan Laurelesque clerk Newman Noggs, also appears as Handshaw, a decent-minded friend of the nasty lecher Hawk, and that Bob Peck, who plays Hawk, also appears as John Browdie, a rowdy and gregarious chum acquired by Nicholas. Lila Kaye is admirably despicable as the wife of Wackford Squeers, the depraved proprietor of the boarding house, but is amusingly fluttery and grandiloquent as daft Mrs. Crummles, pixilated diva of the acting troupe.

The 39 actors in 150 roles play not only people but also props and scenery; they become a coach plowing through fog and, at another point, play the entire city of London. Truly, it is one of the most herculean ensemble accomplishments in the acting history of television or anything else.

"Nicholas" was ingeniously adapted from Dickens by David Edgar, heroically directed by Jim Goddard and handsomely produced by Colin Callender. Dickens would be pleased at the fidelity of the adaptation, although certain liberties were ill-advised. The character of Smike, a child whom Nicholas rescues from the cruelties of Wackford Squeers and his home for wayward boys, was described as a "wretched creature" by Dickens, but here is transformed into a super-wretched and largely unintelligible creature, a cross between the Elephant Man and Tiny Tim. Perhaps the pathos of Smike as envisioned here is faithful in spirit to Dickens. As mawkish as Dickens could be, one death scene in the play, wrung for every last drop of melodrama, is actually more moving, and less corny, as Dickens wrote it:

"He fell into a slight slumber, and waking, smiled as before; then spoke of beautiful gardens, which he said stretched out before him, and were filled with figures of men, women, and many children, all with light upon their faces; then whispered that it was Eden--and so died."

Straying from the letter of the book is not typical of the production. Some of its richest and ripest dialogue is taken directly from Dickens, or changed only slightly. A slavishly devoted husband says to his twittering wife, the allegedly feeble Mrs. Wititterly, "Your soul is too big for your body; your intellect wears you out." When, early in part one, it is alleged that Nicholas reciprocates the amorous emotions of the predatory Tilda Price, his long speech of denial begins, "This is the grossest and wildest delusion, the completest and most signal mistake, that ever human being laboured under or committed."

One protracted embellishment of the original text proves wise and hilarious. Having left mother and sister in London and taken up with the Crummles' makeshift and plagiaristic theater company, Nicholas finds himself cast in the troupe's merrily distorted version of "Romeo and Juliet," with Shakespeare's bloody finale extensively revised so as not to unduly upset the local audience. Dead bodies pop obligingly back to life, and fatal potions turn out to have been mere cocktails.

That performance, and part two of "Nicholas," ends with a rousing nationalistic anthem.

When "Nickleby" was staged in London and New York, actors ran about through the theater, engulfing spectators in extravaganza. This, of course, cannot happen on TV. To compensate, suitable and astute allowances have been made. There is the occasional riveting close-up, none more memorable than Uncle Ralph's soliloquy in the concluding hour. When it snows, cameras show actors pouring fake flakes down from the rafters, and when it thunders, there's a chap rattling a sheet of metal in plain view. Actors speak narration directly to the camera; often the actor playing a character describes rather than portrays what that character did next.

What is perhaps most surprising is how well the theatrical effects work on television. The aura of artifice becomes an advantage, not a detriment. The only real obstacle is the fact that occasionally, action is staged that requires the Old Vic audience to be seen. In fact, no audience was present when most of the play was taped; we see them filing in at the beginning, and applauding at conclusions of acts, but most of the time they appear to have passed away en masse; they don't laugh at the funny parts.

Cinemax, the pay TV service operated as a companion to Home Box Office, did its viewers the service of programming a 1951 British version of "Nicholas Nickleby" in December. The film, directed by Alberto Cavalcanti (and with Cedric Hardwicke playing the malevolent Ralph Nickleby in melodious dark tones), told the whole story in just under two hours. Subplots were jettisoned and characters consolidated with brisk British efficiency. At two hours it was not too short; at nine hours, the new version is not too long. The two versions are merely alternate approaches to near-perfection.

Ustinov's introductions to each night's chapter are not intrusive; they are serviceable. But in remarks at the conclusion of the play, he seems to be mocking the way Dickens punished the wicked and rewarded the good in his very Dickensian denouement. Much is made at this point of Dickens' keen social conscience and the novel's harsh, reprimanding relevance in its own day. Yet what one has seen venerated and glorified for the previous nine hours is not Dickens the social critic but Dickens the storyteller, perhaps the greatest talespinner in the English language since Shakespeare. Incredibly enough, he wrote "Nickleby," or rather it poured out of him, when he was 26.

The great reward of this production--and it is a reward so great as to call for all the bravos that can be mustered--is the sense of shared accomplishment one takes from it. We and the actors become partners in an uncommonly gratifying collaborative enterprise. "Nicholas Nickleby" is a plum pudding, full of delights, but it has also been turned into something stunningly profound and real, something that springs from the heart of whatever makes us the thinking and caring creatures that we fancy ourselves to be, and that, as a second industrial revolution overtakes The Civilized World, we must struggle ever harder to remain.

Well, there's a thing--a thing indeed.