Dodger: the Oliver Twist prequel that’s scary, starry and totally irresistible TV

This Dickens spin-off claps along like The Goonies and is so ace it’s been promoted from CBBC to BBC One. No wonder Christopher Eccleston and Julian Barratt were lining up to star

Of all the upsides that come with the BBC having two dedicated children’s channels, there is one small loss. Unless you have children or grandchildren, you are unlikely to accidentally discover a brilliant new kids’ show like, say, hungover students discovered Teletubbies in the 1990s. The only way that might happen now is if someone makes a children’s show so fantastic that it gets passed all the way up to the main channels.

Dodger is that show. Created by Rhys Thomas (best known for creating the BBC mockumentary Brian Pern) and written with his wife, the actor Lucy Montgomery, Dodger is technically a prequel to Oliver. But it’s more than an origin story for the Artful Dodger. The show is loaded with acting talent – Christopher Eccleston plays Fagin, David Threlfall is the chief of police, with Julian Barratt, Alexei Sayle and Frances Barber popping up along the way. The whole thing clatters along breathlessly like an episodic version of The Goonies. Hence its promotion from CBBC to BBC One.

“That was a lovely surprise,” says Montgomery via Zoom, from a location she describes as a hut in Norfolk. “Thanks BBC.”

“iPlayer is where it’s all at really, in terms of the future,” adds Thomas, from the comfort of their home in London. “But it’s been nice because BBC One has a tradition of Sunday night family things.”

“And you can watch it with your gran,” Montgomery chimes in. “We’ve tried to make it in the way you can watch The Simpsons, so there’ll be things that adults will get that kids won’t get. It being on BBC One means, hopefully, we’ll have adults of all ages enjoying it as well.”

You only have to spend a couple of seconds with Thomas and Montgomery to see where Dodger gets its breakneck pace. They gabber and froth as if they are running out of time, hopping in to finish each other’s sentences and at times talk over each other. Their enthusiasm for Dodger is contagious.

“Lucy was only going to write a couple of episodes at the start,” says Thomas. “But we work so well together, we basically said let’s do all of them together.”

“We’ve written on our own a lot, and we’ve also written with other people where they maybe don’t pull their weight, or you can’t be honest,” says Montgomery. “But obviously we know each other so well that it works. And we can also bore our kids by constantly talking about Dodger storylines, to the point where our daughter wrote Fuck Dodger on the whiteboard.”

As well as writing the show, Thomas and Montgomery both have small parts. Additionally, Thomas directed all the episodes. That has to be a challenge in itself, I say, to simultaneously direct children who have never acted before and also some of the best actors in the world.

“It was interesting because this was the first time Christopher Eccleston had to work with children on that level too,” replies Thomas. “It’s a big comedy part and he’s playing the centre point because Fagin is both mother and father to these kids, so he was going through a process doing all this for the first time.”

“But he’s got young kids and he’s proud that they love this, and he wants to do it for them as well,” adds Montgomery. “He was really great with the children. Sometimes he’d be like, ‘Feel the camera, feel where the camera is.’ For some of them, this was their first acting job and here they are with Christopher Eccleston giving them an acting masterclass.”

The children clearly also benefited from Thomas’s patient direction. Even if he does refer to how stressful it was to attempt a project like this: “I can’t believe I’m still alive, really.”

“Rhys has got so much energy that he could drive the whole thing,” says Montgomery. “We have worked with some directors who just sit there next to the monitor eating sandwiches. But Rhys was right in there. He was like Spielberg on ET with Thingy Thomas.”

“Thanks, Lucy,” replies Rhys, who looks touched for a moment before correcting her. “Henry Thomas. He was also Norman Bates in Psycho 4, the TV movie.”

Dodger features some phenomenal performances from the younger cast members. Billy Jenkins who plays the Artful Dodger is especially fantastic, more Del Boy than Dickens. Ellie-May Sheridan, who plays Fagin’s pre-Dodger favourite, Polly Crackitt, got a recurring role on Call the Midwife and Connor Curren, who plays gang member Tom Chitling, is doing a National Theatre tour of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It is telling that both Thomas and Montgomery glow with pride when they talk about all the big roles these actors have since picked up.

What makes Dodger’s success all the more miraculous is that the target audience is difficult to define. Whereas CBeebies, in a sense, is a benevolent dictator, serving high-quality shows to viewers too young to have a say in what they watch, by the time they graduate to CBBC, they are deluged with options. Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, streaming, games and whatever horrors happen to be on YouTube on any given day. But Dodger, silly and mildly scary and irresistible, manages to hit the sweet spot. Along with Silverpoint, a wonderful sci-fi show that is half The Returned and half The Tripods, it feels like we’re living through a CBBC renaissance.

“This is why we did it for the BBC,” says Thomas. “We didn’t go anywhere else with it. First, I’m one of those old-fashioned people who really believes in the BBC. It does have a duty to educate and entertain, and that’s what we tried to do. There are a lot of facts in Dodger, and you can learn from it. Everything in there is factually correct, and we did a BBC Teach tie-in with the show, so you can actually watch it and have a history lesson.”

“The only criticism we’ve had has been from a few people saying they won’t watch because we’ve got a multiracial cast,” adds Thomas. “There’s that brigade who say, ‘Zero stars because there weren’t black people in England in 19 …’”

“London has always been a melting pot,” sighs Montgomery. “And they don’t like that there are girls in the gang.”

“It’s so stupid. I hate those people,” says Thomas.

Although a second series hasn’t been confirmed, the mosaic of multicoloured Post-its on the wall behind Thomas suggests that the couple are putting ideas together. What is the future of Dodger? Will their rambunctious iteration finally catch up with Dickens and introduce Oliver Twist?

“No, we don’t want to do that, it’s boring,” says Thomas. “The idea is, we would never get to that point. I mean, if we were really scraping the bottom of the barrel we might go ‘OK, let’s do the Oliver Twist story.’ I really want Dodger to be this age for a long time.”

That won’t happen, of course. The problem with making a show about kids on the cusp of puberty is that, very soon, they will be in puberty. “Rhys had a pickup day [extra day of shooting] on the mud flats, and we noticed that Billy looked older. And you suddenly go, ‘Oh my God, he’s a proper 14-year-old’.”

Perhaps this is what makes Dodger such fun. It bulges at the seams with ideas, because it’s made by people who don’t know if they will have another shot at making something that means so much to them. Still, on the basis of Dodger’s reception so far, that won’t be a problem.

• Watch Dodger on BBC iplayer