Everyone knows that what the BBC does best is its period dramas. After last year’s phenomenally successful 'Bleak House' it has just broadcast a new version of 'Little Dorrit' broken up into half hourly episodes. There is an older version starring Alec Guinness which I found unwatchable, but this one is the real goods. It will be broadcast on PBS Masterpiece in the New Year - don't miss it!
The elderly Dorrit, Father of Marshalsea, is played by Tom Courtenay and his daughter Amy (Little Dorrit) by Claire Foy. Matthew Macfadyen plays Arthur Clennam wonderfully well, even if he is too young for the part. The grotesques are glorious. Judy Parfitt as Mrs Clennam, Alun Armstrong as Jeremiah Flintwinch, Sue Johnson as Affery, Amanda Redman as Mrs Merdle, Ruth Jones as Flora Finching, and especially Andy Serkis as Rigaud.
It is well known that Dickens’s own father was committed to a debtor’s prison and he is the model for the elderly Dorrit, just as he was for Mr Micawber in David Copperfield. Despite his fame as a popular novelist and his ability to construct memorable characters, Dickens was principally a satirist and his target in this novel was mainly the debtor’s prison – long since disappeared. Do not think that the satire ends there, there are secondary targets. Government bureaucracy in the form of the Circumlocution Office is wonderfully portrayed. You need to stand in a line waiting to receive a form that you must fill in to ask permission to fill in a second form requesting permission to make a request of the office. It is run by Tite Barnacle (brilliantly portrayed by 82-year old Robert Hardy) and his family, whose aim in life is to do nothing and whose time is spent discussing matters of no consequence so as to avoid doing any work – and all for a fat salary and gold plated pension. Twenty years ago ‘Yes Minister’ demonstrated that the Civil Service had not changed and news items this week see it similarly set in stone. Civil Servants are looking for ways to prevent having to put into action a ministerial decree that criminals doing ‘community service’ should wear fluorescent jackets identifying them as such.
Even more relevant was the avaricious affluent society as a target. Mr Merdle, the ‘man of the moment’ into whose bank all Society wished to invest could well have been Bernie Madoff – he was running a similar ‘Ponzi scheme’. Mrs Merdle is referred to in the novel as ‘the bosom’ on which Mr Merdle displayed his jewels. Amanda Redman plays ‘the bosom’ very well indeed. The bankruptcy of Mr Merdle may be seen as just a plot device to bring a reversal of fortune to Arthur Clennam, but Dickens makes it a comment on both his and our society. Here’s what he wrote, “Numbers of men in every profession and trade would be blighted by his insolvency; old people who had been in easy circumstances all their lives would have no place for their repentance for their trust in him but the workhouse; legions of women and children would have their whole future desolated by this mighty scoundrel.”
As we see the fallout of the Madoff swindle we see how perceptive was Dickens. Already one naïve investor has killed himself. In the book it is Merdle himself who commits suicide (typically with a borrowed penknife in a hot bath). But the Dickensian description elevates this tawdry act to something more: "a new constellation to be followed by the wise men bringing gifts until it stopped over a certain carrion at the bottom of a bath and disappeared".
These greedy men who make the acquisition of money their end are the Antichrist, he says.