Creator Rhys Thomas on how his 80’s kids TV addiction inspired a reworking of Oliver Twist 

I had the idea to make a prequel to Oliver Twist when I was about 12. I was in a production of Oliver! at school playing the very dull part of Mr Brownlow and thought how fun it would be to make a series about the adventures of the Artful Dodger and the gang pre-Oliver Twist.

Dodger BTS - Minnie, Rhys _ Fagin

At the time in the late 80’s / early 90’s, I was glued to the after school children’s BBC slot. I loved shows like Maid Marian and Her Merry Men, Grange Hill, Moondial and Tom’s Midnight Garden. My dream was to make a children’s programme that could be fun, entertaining – even educational. Something that my children could enjoy.

Thirty years later, thanks to Mark Freeland (executive producer at Universal International Studios), Lucy Montgomery (co-writer) and our commissioner, Amy Buscombe at BBC Children’s, we finally got there.

Dodger was originally intended to be a knockabout, 30 min comedy taking some characters from Oliver Twist and adding new ones. Very much in the spirit of Dickens, as well as John Sullivan and at times even Reeves and Mortimer. We wrote 10 scripts, then began the huge task of casting. What’s exciting about taking a well-known story is being able to surprise the audience.


We had an opportunity to put a fresh spin on existing characters whilst throwing new, fun ones into the mix. Fagin, Bill and Nancy were all ripe for reimagining. We wanted to look at Fagin’s history and what had led him here, to this place, with this raggle-taggle group of children. We decided he had a family and lost them, and the gang are his attempt at a replacement. Particularly Dodger, who reminds him of his long-lost son.

Our interpretation of Fagin is witty and mercurial; part-East End gangster, part-tea drinking, sewing addict, and Christopher Eccleston really brings a warmth and complexity to the part. We can also boast the very first northern Nancy, now reimagined as a thief and schemer… with real agency.

Due to production being postponed for almost a year, we had a chance to develop the scripts even further. Every episode takes our gang to a new place, whether it’s an Egyptian Mummy unrolling, a haunted theatre or Buckingham Palace. Then the decision came to make 45-min episodes. This wasn’t as easy as adding 15 mins to the script. Each one had to be re-written, sometimes from scratch.

Production company: Universal International Studios, a division of Universal Studio Group
Commissioner: Amy Buscombe
TX: Sunday 6 February, CBBC & BBC IPlayer
Creator, writer, director, executive producer: Rhys Thomas
Executive producer: Mark Freeland
Distribution: NBCUniversal Global Distribution

Lucy and I started out as comedy writers and performers. So, coming from a comedy background, we approached Dodger like a sitcom or sketch show. We knew we wanted the show to have a pace and a lightness of touch and the scripts had to reflect that.

Many members of the team came from that world too; Mark Freeland has produced thousands of great comedies shows and used to be head of BBC Comedy, and our DoP, Pete Rowe and production designer, David Ferris have worked on some of the best comedy shows of the last 20 years.


Producer, Francis Gilson and editor, Christopher Bird had also worked with me on Brian Pern, The Kemps and lots of other comedies, which meant we were used to working fast, on the fly, with low budgets.

That was the hardest part for me on Dodger - making something with a big crew. Apart from the few of us who had worked on sketch comedy shows before, the crew in Manchester where we filmed the series were used to working on other children’s dramas. So, when we showed up, improvising or re-writing scenes and adding jokes on the day – as is the custom in comedy – took them by surprise.

Dodger - PC Duff _ PC Blathers

Working with child actors was a joy. They were so hard working and so much fun. Rob Kelly, our casting director had the mammoth job of finding our child actors. But we had an incredible group. Some of them had never acted before and the roles were very demanding.

My aim was to make them feel as natural and relaxed as possible. Usually when you’re casting, you’ll meet the actors at their auditions. That wasn’t possible due to COVID. So apart from a Zoom chemistry casting with Billy Jenkins (Dodger) and Aabay Ali (Charley), the gang all met for the very first time on day one of rehearsals. For some, it was their first ever day of professional acting. But they felt like a gang right from the start.

My tricks of the trade: Rhys Thomas

  • Rhys Thomas Headshot

    Surround yourself with the most trusted and likeminded partners… in my case, my wife.
  • Liberate talent from the script and allow plenty of time for rehearsal… you’ll make magic on set that way
  • Make the most of your surroundings… in filming up in Manchester and across the North, the opportunities were almost endless. We discovered so many gems and National Trust sites to reimagine as Victorian London
  • Always remember: it doesn’t matter if you fail, as long as you’re doing it for the right reasons or trying your best

In making Dodger, my ambition was to make a programme that younger viewers - when they’re grown up with kids of their own - will look back on and say, ‘that was my favourite show from my childhood.’ This is the perfect show for co-viewing as a family, with universal appeal and something in it for everyone. I feel very lucky that I got to make a show my 12-year-old self would be proud of.

Mark Freeland, executive producer

Mark Freeland Headshot

Delving back into my past I remember Andy Hamilton telling me about how he and Guy Jenkin were going to shoot Outnumbered – improvising with children. I nodded vigorously. Inside my head I heard an unattractive nasal snigger and a ‘good luck with that!’.

Of course, it was a genius idea and I had a (thank goodness private) full English on my face. So large was the egg that I can still see a moment – a single shot from 2007 - when fairy-winged Karen is surprised by Ben with a vacuum cleaner tube. The gold dust of a genuine, ‘bottle that’ reaction.

Could we aspire to that with Dodger - shoot a scene and then go back for unwritten moments - with the prospect of ten commercial hour episodes and a large cast of adults, children and a dog? It asks a lot of everyone – cameras, sound, script supervisor – the whole set. Most of all it’s a contract of trust with young performers. It’s confusing.

‘Please learn, say and act these words on the page lots of times. Oh, and now say your own words or these different words a bit like the first words’. I couldn’t do that now, let alone when I was eight years old. You need amazing young talent, working at pace who are in a safe space, so they can be themselves living the reality of their parts. It’s more possible with a showrunner system. Where the vision, directing and writing sits largely in one place.


With Dodger it meant that creator, co-writer, and director Rhys Thomas was on set for every second of the six-month shoot – alongside was co-writer, Lucy Montgomery. If something wasn’t there we could pivot, refine, polish without losing any overall sense. Push for something real and uniquely one-off – all in the hands of our young cast. It meant the writers could blame the writers on set without the writers storming off.

I hope we’ve got Outnumbered moments. If we have, I thank our young Dodger family. In other news, I’ve just realised my full English is now not private.