BBCHD - 26th October 2008 - 8.00pm
I had high expectations of this. The BBC adaptation of Bleak House, presenting the story in user friendly 30 minute episodes, was an absolute triumph on all levels - writing, directing, acting, lighting, costuming, design etc - and this Andrew Davies version of Little Dorrit has been given the same treatment. And importantly it's in HD. Bleak House was one of first television programmes I ever saw in HD and I've been a advocate since then.
...he was in for murder, though you wouldn't know it from Andy Serkis' very thick, very hammy, comedy French accentThe first installment, an hour long scene setting exercise, certainly promises a series that'll be 'appointment to view' over the next dozen autumn nights. So, to being with we get various plot strands being developed, the threads of which will obviously be drawn together as this progresses; the first episode takes us from the return of the prodigal son Arthur Clennam to his mother's house carrying a dark secret; Amy Dorrit and her family stuck in the debtors prison; to the release of the French prisoner Rigaud (apparently he was in for murder, though you wouldn't know it from Andy Serkis' very thick, very hammy, comedy French accent) and the return from Marseilles of the Meagles family.
These plot points more or less orbit each other and certainly the Clennam and Dorrit family sagas merge in the first episode when Amy Dorrit goes to work for the utterly frightening Mrs. Clennam and Arthur traces her back to the debtors prison and meets her father. The other two plot strands are a bit out on a limb at the moment. The aforementioned Rigaud broods and haw-he-haws his way through what little time is given to him. Looks a nasty bit of work though and I'm loving Andy Serkis' false nose and deep baritone. The Meagles story is much more interesting. On their trip from Marseilles they've encountered the horribly cold Miss Wade, played to icy perfection by the superb Maxine Peake. She's enough to put the wind up you too. She establishes a relationship with Tattycoram, a young servant girl attached to Pet Meagles, the rather spoilt daughter in the family and by the look on Miss Wade's face it's going to be a disastrous alliance. Touches of Sappho too when Miss Wade bumps into Tattycoram later in the episode.
It's very apt that a drama about money, status and patient love is being transmitted on the cusp of a recession...With me so far? It'll get more complex as it goes on because they haven't introduced half of the characters yet so I suggest you take the phone off the hook, pour a very large glass of wine, plump up the cushions on the sofa and tune your tellyboxes to BBC1 for the duration. Essentially it's a story of rags to riches to rags again, unrequited love and dark secrets. It's very apt that a drama about money, status and patient love is being transmitted on the cusp of a recession and I'm sure this adapatation will touch a few contemporary nerves as we try to fathom why William Dorrit ended up in the Marshalsea prison.
Clearly, the focus here was on the Clennam storyline. And it doesn't disappoint. Like a venomous spider, Mrs. Clennam squats in her dark, delapidated home, disowns her son and sets up the Flintwych twins to manage her business affairs. Judy Parfitt is fantastic as Mrs. Clennam, raging and fuming at all and sundry but allowing a softer touch in her dealings with Amy Dorrit. Why she's being so nice to Amy is obviously something bound up within the terrible family secret that son Arthur unearths and with which he confronts Mrs. Clennam. However, she too knows something about Amy and is playing her cards close to her chest. Twisting and turning camerawork suggests the equally twisted nature of the house and the woman who dominates it. Lots of big close ups of eyes and mouths too, edited into the medium and long shots. Flintwych is played to oily perfection by that bastion of British character actors, Alun Armstrong and he groans and grumbles his way into the Clennam estate. The fabulous twist at the end that reveals he has a twin will leave you as shaken as his wife, Affery.
Give me crumbling houses, swathes of fog, gaslight, street urchins, shop windows full of oranges any day! That's what I want from my Dickens.
I also love the bit where Amy walks to and from the prison across London. Some great contrast of her with the cityscapes and those half-profile shots of her with the streets behind her, looking back over her shoulder, were rather striking too. The production design is minimal for the interiors, a kind of gloomy, stripped down drabness for the interior of the Clennam house and a bareness for the Dorrits' room in the Marshalsea debtors' prison. One reviewer has already complained online that the sets aren't realistic enough and are prone to wobble. Eh? Was I watching a different serial? I didn't see any wobble, all I saw was fantastic detail in high definition. Granted, they are not going to aim for realism. These adaptations are usually decked out in a hyper-Dickens where the set-dressers and designers can really let rip so don't expect total, historical accuracy. Give me crumbling houses, swathes of fog, gaslight, street urchins, shop windows full of oranges any day! That's what I want from my Dickens. And that's what you get.
As well as the stand-out central turn from Parfitt, you've got a cast to die for. The aforementioned Maxine Peake, a wonderful, emotional little turn from Freema Agyeman as Tattycoram (I was willing her to be good just to stick one to those who've been knocking her abilities as an actress and she was, as I expected, excellent), sick of the casual racism of her benefactors the Meagles by the look of things, and a full blooded, effulgent Tom Courtenay as Mr. Dorrit. Add in Sue Johnstone, Janine Duvitski, Bill Paterson and a gorgeous, understated lead in Matthew McFadyean as Arthur. And many more yet to come as the story enfolds. Miss it at your peril.
Cathode Ray Tube Little Dorrit Episode 1