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Books & Arts

Count to five and twenty

24 June 2010

TV | Little Dorrit, a vivid tale for the times, works backwards from impact to cause, writes Ellie Rennie

Right:

Above: Claire Foy as Little Dorrit

Above: Claire Foy as Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit

Directed by Adam Smith, Dearbhla Walsh, and Diarmuid Lawrence
Teleplay by Andrew Davies
ABC 1, Sundays at 8.30pm from 27 June


DESPITE what the experts said at the time, the global financial crisis was not something that happened to Wall Street – a perfect storm – but a situation that Wall Street knowingly created. In recent months, American public radio’s This American Life and Planet Money and journalists from Pro Publica have been digging into the crisis, sorting through mountains of paper, cornering hedge funds, constructing timelines and buying toxic assets to watch how they die. “Really?” asks the compellingly neurotic host Ira Glass, “Nobody suspected that this would come crashing down?”

So the excruciating work of figuring out how the GFC occurred is under way and the culprits are beginning to be held to account in the media and the courts. The story of the human impact, however, is still to be fully narrated. And this is what makes the BBC’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit (produced in 2008, screening on ABC this Sunday) especially timely. This is the BBC at its best: a detailed recreation of a bygone era and a story that resonates with our own.

The genius of this tale of financial woe is that it works its way backwards, from the human effect to the societal cause. Dickens starts small, with young Amy Dorrit, nicknamed Little Dorrit, played with heart by Claire Foy. Little Dorrit’s family had lost everything long before the story commences. She has grown up in a debtor’s prison, the Marshalsea, from which she and her siblings may come and go before dusk, but where her father is indefinitely incarcerated.

William Dorrit – the “Father of the Marshalsea,” as he is known – wears his aristocracy like a foil crown, clinging to authority within a controlled social microcosm. His shattered ego means that he can’t distinguish between genuine love and deference, or between generosity and social obligation. The performance by Tom Courtenay goes well beyond caricature, showing the psychological strain and emotional wreckage that can befall the bankrupt. His wise young daughter props him up with her unending love and care, as does his brother, Frederick (James Fleet), who knows that the outside world is not all it’s cracked up to be anyhow. When asked if she finds her circumstances difficult, Little Dorrit replies, “It is a hard life but not as hard as some find it.”

Amy’s sister, Fanny (Emma Pierson), is a dancer and her brother Edward (Arthur Darvill) is a reckless lad, both of them selfish and yet survivors in their own ways. At the start of the series the family is going about their lives, with no explanation or real comprehension of how they came to be living in a prison. In order to buy food for her Father, Little Dorrit goes to work as a seamstress to a gruff old lady, Mrs Clennam (Judy Parfitt). Her son, Arthur (the wonderful Matthew Macfadyen), suspects there is more to his mother’s unaccustomed benevolence. Like a heroic public radio journalist, he hires the local debt collector, Mr Pancks (Eddie Marsan), to do some detective work. The two of them follow paper trails, conduct interviews and sit through excruciating dinners to find out the cause of Mr Dorrit’s crash and uncover the link with Arthur’s family. And so the story unfolds.

The puzzle contains a myriad of characters from all walks of life, too many to list. Naturally, at the centre of the financial crisis is a bad bank, built by a “man of the time,” Mr Merdle (Anton Lesser). The bureaucracy is not much better, a place where people with jobs for life “watch the country go to wrack and ruin in the meantime.” The entrepreneurs and innovators are held back by the bureaucrats; those seeking justice get nowhere. A landlord (Mr Casby, played by John Alderton) poses as benefactor while “smashing people apart and paying someone else to do his dirty work.” The least interesting character is the murderer/hitman, Rigaud (Andy Serkis), who acts as a reminder that no matter what you do, a sinister force may still cut you down. And of course there is Tattycoram (Freema Agyeman), the lady’s companion bursting with resentment and injustice who is told to “count to five and twenty” when it all gets too much. Where Tattycoram walks out of servitude into a shadowy Dickensian version of freedom, others, such as Affery Flintwinch (Sue Johnston), get by through holding their tongue and bearing the frustration of the powerless.

The pathos in Little Dorrit could easily have been overdone, but isn’t, and the superfine acting brings depth to otherwise two-dimensional minor roles. Together the subplots make up the social and economic spectrum behind one family’s downfall. The series portrays a tightly wound system, based on self-interest, where good people don’t stand much of a chance. Although there is some happiness in the end, the structural problems remain intact with a new cycle of creditors, new tenants at the Marshalsea and others slipping out the back gate while they still can.

Episode 405 of This American Life (“Insider Job”) revealed that, in 2007, executives took home hundreds of millions in personal income by betting against assets they helped create and which they knew would come crashing down. The “man of the times” in Little Dorrit is perhaps less sinister than that, but his motives are the same. In our times, the burden continues to be carried by ordinary people across the globe. Some, like Amy Dorrit, maintain compassion, others get crushed, while the vast majority will continue to wait it out, counting to five and twenty. •

Ellie Rennie is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Social Research, Swinburne University of Technology.

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