BBC Radio 7, 7-11 December 2009
This five-part adaptation of Dickens' novel offered a fascinating contrast
of perspectives. On the one hand it made much of the Marshalsea Prison as the symbol of mid-nineteenth century social corruption;
a place where debtors spent their lives rotting away, unable either to meet their financial obligations or pursue a respectable
existence. All they could do was to apply to the Circumlocution Office, which employed many people but achieved nothing. Director
Janet Whittaker used telling sound-effects to suggest its status; in the background we could hear people talking indistinctly
to one another but not saying anything comprehensible. To do so would mean they would have to act upon what they said, which
was anathema to the Circumlocution Office.
And yet Whittaker suggested that there was a way in which people could secure permanent
release both from the Marshalsea and the malign influence of the Circumlocution Office. First, they could place their trust
in Dickens himself, who in Ian McKellen's performance cut a benign presence. Although concerned to describe what he saw in
London in precise detail, he felt sympathetic towards his characters, especially if they were fundamentally good-hearted like
Arthur Clennam (Julian Wadham) and Dorrit herself (Jasmine Hyde). We felt that he would lead them out of their predicament,
and let them marry as free people - which is precisely what happened in the final episode.
Clennam and Dorrit were also redeemed on account of their religious convictions;
their naive trust in a controlling presence (personified, in this adaptation, by Dickens the omniscient narrator)
who understood the difference between good and evil, and ultimately rewarded those who pursued a blameless existence. By contrast
evil characters such as Merdle - note the name (Kenneth Cranham) met a sticky end, as they committed suicide in a desperate
attempt to avoid retribution.
This reading of Little Dorrit might have seemed somewhat romantic,
reminiscent of early works such as Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist, but it certainly made for entertaining
listening, leaving us with a distinct feeling of benevolence at the end of five hours.