Little Dorrit: Life and debt

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Little Dorrit: Life and debt

Message  Matthieu le Mer 24 Déc 2008 - 15:56

The Telegraph, 17 octobre 2008.
The BBC's star-studded adaptation of Dickens's Little Dorrit is the perfect period drama for credit-crunch Britain. Serena Davies reports.
"Little Dorrit is all about money," says Matthew Macfadyen. "Money and status. It's got banks at the brink of a world recession lending money that they don't have to people who can't afford to pay it back." Macfadyen takes one of the lead roles in what the BBC hopes will be this autumn's blockbuster, a star-studded 14-part adaptation of Dickens's great prison novel Little Dorrit.

If the first requirement of a costume drama is contemporary relevance, this story has it in spades: the global financial crisis has already made the novel seem like a very canny choice on the part of Andrew Davies, the writer also responsible for the BBC's excellent Bleak House adaptation in 2005.

Macfadyen, back in frilly shirts after playing Mr Darcy in Joe Wright's 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice, is Little Dorrit's unglamorous middle-aged hero, Arthur Clennam. For George Bernard Shaw, the tale of this character's journey into financial crisis and revelatory love was Dickens's "masterpiece among many masterpieces", but Little Dorrit has nevertheless failed to achieve the fame of the writer's greatest hits. When it was first published in 1857, shortly after Bleak House and before Great Expectations, it failed to wow the critics. There has been only one other attempt in the past seven decades to adapt the book for the screen, a fine but largely forgotten 1988 film starring Derek Jacobi and Alec Guinness.

Still, Davies, an avuncular presence as he watches proceedings on the BBC set at Pinewood Studios, is adamant that the 800-page novel deserves the extended, starry treatment it is now getting. "Little Dorrit is equal in stature to Bleak House," he says, "and it has got one of Dickens's great scenarios, which is obviously dear to his own heart: that of the middle-aged man who doesn't realise he loves this very young girl." The 45-year-old Dickens completed the tale the same year that he began an affair with the 17-year-old actress Nelly Ternan.

Arthur Clennam's growing affection for Amy Dorrit - a small, shy young woman engaged by his nasty mother as a seamstress - drives the main narrative thread in Dickens's novel. Dorrit (played by 22-year-old newcomer Claire Foy) has lived all her life in the Marshalsea debtors' jail, where her father, William, has been incarcerated since before her birth. If and how Dorrit senior will ever get out, and why he ended up there in the first place, are the book's central mysteries: mysteries eventually explained by a plot so elaborate that attempts at summary are futile.

All this gives the Beeb's latest costume drama a rare selling point. As Foy puts it, while rushing about the set in Ugg boots and Victorian hairdo, "The book isn't known at all well. It's one that will make everybody go, 'Oh, this is new!'" The production will also introduce one of Dickens's most fascinating characters: the selfish, slippery William Dorrit. This self-styled "father of the Marshalsea" has delusions of himself as a "gentleman" and expects visitors to his prison cell to bring him cash. He also treats his devoted daughter Amy like a servant. Yet somehow he comes across as a truly tragic figure.

"Creating the part of William Dorrit is like digging up and polishing a great classic role," says Davies. "It's like the great Shakespearean roles that actors would die to have a go at." In this case, the part is played by Davies's old university friend Tom Courtenay who, judging by the series's first two episodes, serves up a performance that, like Eileen Atkins's magnificent turn in Cranford last year, may prove the show's high point. Courtenay, who compares the character to King Lear, says he has made no attempt to make the ageing debtor sympathetic.

"You've just got to tell the story," he says, "and the story is that he's a selfish old git. Dickens doesn't spare us his awfulness. But then on the other hand he does say that 'No space in the life of a man could make up for a quarter of a century of prison rot.'" Perhaps his sympathy came from a second biographical resonance: the writer's own father was sent to the Marshalsea. He may have spent only four months there, but his son was ashamed and scarred by it for life.

The supporting characters in Little Dorrit are an intoxicating, typically Dickensian array of what Foy calls "such completely bonkers people". Not least among them is Flintwinch (Alun Armstrong), Mrs Clennam's scheming servant, who wanders around with his head lolling permanently to one side as if he's just been hanged. Another is the sinister Miss Wade (Maxine Peak), a character whom Andrew Davies has turned into a lesbian. "Dickens didn't write her as a lesbian - but she just is," he says. "There are all sorts of things Dickens didn't realise about his characters." Then there's the corpulent Flora Finching, Clennam's childhood sweetheart, who has put on a few pounds since they last met.

"She never really had the chance to fulfil her potential as the passionate person she is," explains Gavin and Stacey's Ruth Jones, who plays Finching on screen. "Perhaps that is why she spends her time helping other people and eating a lot of jelly." Macfadyen, whose role required him to film scenes with all four of the series's directors, admits a little jealousy towards these colleagues cast in the smaller, more exuberant roles.

"I sometimes feel envious of the actors who come in and swing from the chandeliers and then disappear again," he says.

On the day I visit, Macfadyen is required to go to extremes of sorrow and joy. In one scene, Clennam finds himself incarcerated in the Marshalsea; in the next, he and Amy discover their love for one another. Macfadyen makes both moments deeply moving.

Clennam is a thoroughly appealing character, without eccentricity. "He's a good man without being a goody two shoes," says Macfadyen. "He's getting old. He's lonely. He's had this terrible childhood with an awful disciplinarian religious mother and he's a bit lost." As with John Jarndyce in Bleak House and the eponymous young hero of David Copperfield, the modern viewer/reader needs such realistic personalities to give Dickens's tales plausibility. Little Dorrit's larger themes of financial corruption and reversals of fortune may be as pertinent today as they were in the middle of the 19th century, but without the likes of Arthur Clennam we wouldn't believe a word of the story in which they're raised.

Costume dramas, and literary adaptations in particular, are a tried-and-tested formula for television commissioners. They regularly achieve impressive ratings, and reel in casts of a calibre that most contemporary drama-makers can only drool over in envy. These are stories that have weathered the years for a good reason: they're gripping.

The best defence against those people raising eyebrows over the fact that the BBC has spent a considerable chunk of the licence fee on yet another literary adaptation is provided by the strength of Dickens's original narrative. "It's a potboiler, and a love story, and a thriller - and it's also very funny," says Macfadyen. "I just hope we do it justice."

Little Dorrit starts on BBC1 at 8pm on Sun Oct 26
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Matthieu
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Date d'inscription : 17/12/2008

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