I’ve just finished watching the BBC’s epic new adaptation of the Dickens classic Little Dorrit, his great novel centred on London’s Marshalsea prison, so here are a few rambling thoughts about it. After being impressed by the double feature film adaptation directed by Christine Edzard in 1988, I did wonder if a TV version could possibly live up to my memory of that film. It did – although I think the visuals of the earlier movie version were more striking and got the feeling of the prison better. It is years since I’ve seen it, but I vividly remember the flies gathering on the jail windows in that version and the way the oppressive heat almost shimmered from the screen.
This version, with three different directors in charge of different episodes, didn’t have that same haunting visual power – just as the recent BBC version of Bleak House waisn’t shrouded in fog and shadows like the adaptation made 20 years earlier. Both the more recent adaptations of Dickens novels scripted by Davies instead tended to focus in on the faces of the characters, in the way that soap opera does. Having said that, I don’t think the new Little Dorrit series felt like soap at all - it’s laced with so much Dickensian black comedy and satire, though at times I did miss the voice of the narrator in the book.
With 14 episodes and dozens of actors, some of them only briefly glimpsed for a few key scenes, this was a breathtakingly ambitious production. As a lifelong Dickens fan, I’ve read the novel several times but, even so, found it hard at times to follow the twists of the plot or remember who all the characters were. The opening episodes must have been confusing for anyone who didn’t know the story already – and I do wonder if it might have been better to be less “faithful” to the book and lose a character or two, sad as I’d be to see them go!
I also definitely think it would have been better to go for hour-long episodes rather than twice weekly half-hour snippets. I did watch an hour at a time, thanks to Sunday teatime omnibus repeats, and felt the film flowed better like this. The viewing figures fell off quite badly after the hour-long opener, and I do wonder if the messing around with the scheduling by the BBC was the reason for this – and the sheer difficulty of following the main poverty to riches storyline through so many short and bitty episodes.
Claire Foy was wonderful as the heroine, Amy, who is born in a prison and has had to mother her own father all her life. She played the character with a quiet intensity and self-containment which seems just right – and Matthew Macfadyen brought the same sort of quality to Arthur Clennam, together with a feeling of melancholy and loneliness. I know some critics have said that Macfadyen looks a bit young to play Clennam, which at 34 he is, if not massively so. (In the novel Clennam is about 40.) There was only 10 years between these two actors, rather than 20 as in the novel – but Macfadyen did give the feeling of seeing himself as older and world-weary, even if his apparent youth and beauty contradicted his own opinion of himself at every turn. Similarly, although Claire Foy is not plain or mousy, she managed to give the feeling that is how Amy views herself – and the contrast between her pale face and her sister, Fanny’s (Emma Pierson) heavy use of make-up accentuated this.
As for Sir Tom Courtenay’s performance as William Dorrit, Amy’s querulous father, and the self-styled ‘Father of the Marshalsea’ – he was just astonishing and should surely be in line for some award. I think the climax of the book comes at the moment when Mr Dorrit loses sight of the present and suddenly thinks he is back in prison, welcoming everyone to the Marshalsea. This was also the most powerful moment in this adaptation (as it was in the Edzard film and in the less well-known BBC radio version of a few years back where John Wood played Mr Dorrit.) It’s a haunting visual image as Amy clings to her father in front of the bewildered crowd in the grand Italian room, many of them looking up at them from a lower floor. They all now know the past he has been so desperate to hide. I’ve read that Courtenay mentioned King Lear when preparing for the role, and to me there is a feeling of Lear about Mr Dorrit at times, both in the book and in this film.
A lot of the publicity material about Little Dorrit in the British press has focused on the similarities between the financial bubble and collapse in the novel and the current turbulence in world markets with the arrival of the credit crunch. I can’t think of much to add to all that has been said, but, yes, the similarities are there. After seeing Davies’ adaptation of Trollope’s The Way We Live Now a few years ago, which featured a towering performance by David Suchet as Melmotte, I think I’d slightly got the business tycoons Melmotte and Merdle mixed up in my mind (they may both have been based on the same real-life bankers) and was expecting more of the same in this drama. However, Anton Lesser’s understated performance was worlds away from the flamboyant Melmotte – and true to Merdle in Dickens’ book, as an apparently quiet, unassuming man who nevertheless gets his hands on everybody’s money.
Freema Agyeman was moving as the orphaned maid/companion Tattycoram – there’s been some criticism of the casting of a black actress, but personally I don’t see any reason why this character shouldn’t be black. It would be good to see more historical dramas with major roles for black actors. Channel 4′s City of Vice, set in 18th-century London, did feature several black characters, and if TV companies commission more new dramas set in the past, as opposed to just adapting the same few novels every few years, then I would think there should be more scope for this. Getting back to Little Dorrit, for me the problem was that the story of Tattycoram and Miss Wade, the woman who takes her under her wing, seemed just to fizzle out without any ending – however, there were so many storylines to be tied up by the end that very probably I just blinked and missed it!
I don’t want just to list all the actors and the characters they play, but among those who particularly struck me were Eddie Marsan as Pancks, giving off an air of feverish energy, and an almost unrecognisable Sue Johnston as the permanently terrified Affery. Russell Tovey was both poignant and funny as John Chivery, the young lock-keeper hopelessly in love with Amy – and I loved the fact that the script included his musings from the book about exactly how the epitaph on his tomb should be worded when he has died of his unrequited love! I also liked Ruth Jones as Flora Finching – Miriam Margolyes in the Edzard version must have been a hard act to follow, but Jones, who also played Tess’s mother in the recent BBC Tess of the d’Urbervilles, made the part her own with a delicate portrayal of faded prettiness and simpering, and managed to make Flora likeable as well as silly.
I wasn’t sure at first what to think of Emma Pierson’s performance as Fanny Dorrit. It seemed odd that she wore such heavy make-up in the wealthy sections, when she was supposed to be a lady under the icy eye of Mrs General (Pam Ferris), and also that she kept her slight Cockney accent in the wealthy scenes. But after a while that didn’t really matter. I liked the fact that, while still very spikey and sarcastic, she was a rather warmer character than I remember her being in the book, and seemed to get versions of some of the satirical lines which would go to the narrator if there was one. As a result of this greater warmth, her relationship with husband Edmund Sparkler (Sebastian Armesto) seemed rather more affectionate than it is on paper, even though he was just as gloriously idiotic as he should be.
The one big flaw for me really was the French scenes, which at times seemed all too reminiscent of the TV comedy ‘Allo, ‘Allo, as characters spoke to each other in English with very heavy French accents. In particular, Andy Serkis was wildly over the top as the dastardly Rigaud – I know this character is over the top in the novel, but even so. My feelings are mixed, because there was something strangely magnificent about his performance at times, as it was so larger than life and did give a feeling of Dickensian caricatures and the illustrations to the novels – but he didn’t seem to belong in the same world as everybody else.
I was really surprised to read that the Venetian scenes had all been shot in England – to me they were convincing and I was wondering just how big the budget had been. I’ve never been to Venice, though, and probably somebody who has would notice the substitution of English waters more.
I’m now tempted to reread the novel as soon as I get a chance – and also to rewatch the Edzard version and see how it compares.