Pemberley (Lyme Park, Cheshire)

Pemberley (Lyme Park, Cheshire)
Oh, to be in England...

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Little Dorrit - Brilliant miniseries...occasionally hard to follow

Little Dorrit 14 part BBC miniseries

If you only read one sentence of this review, read this: Watch this wonderful miniseries and if you get a bit lost, come back here for help.
O.K. now that I got that out of the way, we can talk.  I knew nothing of this book before I saw this miniseries on television. The 2008 miniseries of Little Dorrit seemed wonderful, but because I hadn't read the book (apparently a bit of a tough read anyway) and because I was seeing half episodes here and there on PBS and I had missed the very beginning, I wasn't really gripped by this at first.
After I had it recommended to me by some other period drama fans as one of the best programs out there, I thought I had better give it a fair shake. Now I can say that on DVD, this is amazing!!!!

Little Dorrit - The Marshalsea Prison Crowd
This is one which you really need to watch without distractions, and preferably with someone who won't mind if you occasionally pause the DVD to either rewind a bit or ask "Did you just catch that?", or "Who is that character again?"

The moneyed crowd of Little Dorrit
You will absolutely fall in love with this one, but you have to treat it as a Victorian soap opera, which is how it was marketed to the British public, much in the same way that Bleak House was. Again, I have to say that this series lends itself to DVD, as it is packaged in lovely little half hour episodes, so you can take it in small chunks if you want, or if you really get into the story, you can watch a few hours at a time.  I have a hard time with delayed gratification, so often I watch until I am too exhausted to enjoy it anymore. Between the genius of Dickens' writing and Andrew Davies' adaptation, the episodes are satisfying and yet with the inevitable cliffhanger ending, always leave you yearning for more.

Here is the BBC's summary of the plot:

This timeless rags to riches story concerns the vacillating fortunes of the Dorrit family. The kind-hearted Amy (Claire Foy), the Little Dorrit of the title, looks after her proud father, William (Tom Courtenay - The Golden Compass) who is a long-term inmate of Marshalsea debtors' prison in London.
But their fate is transformed by the unexpected arrival from overseas of the benevolent Arthur Clennam (Matthew Macfadyen - Spooks), who is determined to solve the mystery of his father's dying words, "Put it right, Arthur." He is sure this phrase is in some way connected to the Dorrits' plight and sets about rectifying the situation - discovering they are sitting on a huge fortune, a fact which thrusts the family into the upper echelons of society.
As the Dorrits meet a variety of characters from rich to poor, a deep bond grows between Arthur and Amy, and a dark villain Rigaud (Andy Serkis) threatens to spill a long-held family secret.
Andrew Davies (Bleak House, Pride and Prejudice) was delighted to be given the chance to get his hands on this perhaps neglected Charles Dickens epic and turn it into a compelling 14-part serial for the BBC. "It's a beautifully constructed novel," Davies enthuses. "There is a huge reversal in the middle where the story is turned on its head in a really convincing way. It's about reversals of fortune and how characters cope with poverty and wealth."
Kate Harwood, Head of Series and Serials, said, "BBC Drama Production is thrilled to be bringing Little Dorrit, Dickens' great tale of imprisonment and yearning to the screen. We hope that Andrew Davies' superb serialisation will grip the nation fast with its story of mystery, betrayal and intrigue."

And now for a little help with the 29 main characters:

Amy-Little Dorrit
Amy, otherwise known as Little Dorrit, lives in the Marshalsea Prison with her father, William, who is the prison's longest serving inmate. Although born and bred in the prison, Amy is far from being downtrodden and has grown up to be a gentle and kind-hearted yet enterprising and spirited young woman.

Edward (Tip) Dorrit
Amy and Fanny's brother, Tip, is both rakish and dissolute. He has no sense of responsibility whatsoever and is always running up large gambling debts. He can be pompous and cruel but ultimately he's just a young man with a taste for the high life who wants to have fun. He's not clever like his sisters, and there's the sense that he will be very lucky indeed if he manages to land on his feet.

Fanny Dorrit
Fanny, Amy's older sister, is a dancer in a down at heel theatre. She is both worldly and extremely determined. She has Edmund Sparkler, heir to the largest fortune in England, eating out of the palm of her hand and his mother, Mrs Merdle, bending over backwards to give her what she wants in order to get rid of her. Fanny will stop at nothing to win the game of social snakes and ladders.

Frederick Dorrit
Frederick is William's brother. He plays the clarinet in the orchestra of a down at heel theatre. He is a gentle, well-meaning and unaffected fellow. William is always telling him off for his shameful, shabby appearance and general unworldliness. Frederick, understanding his brother's fragile sense of self-worth, is happy to endure William's bullying, only occasionally letting his feelings be known in small slips of the tongue.

William Dorrit
William Dorrit is the longest serving inmate of the Marshalsea Prison for Debt and is extremely proud of his title, 'Father of the Marshalsea', which is proof of how much respect he commands. In his deepest heart he knows that he's made an utter mess of his and his beloved children's lives, but he would never openly admit to this failure. For his sake, the family all keep up the pretence of respectability.

Maggy is one of the Marshalsea regulars - her late mother was a nurse there, and Maggy continues to live round the corner from the prison. Maggy fell gravely ill when she was ten years old and suffered brain-damage as a result. Now twenty-eight, she still has the mental age of a ten year old. Maggy has adopted Amy as her 'Little Mother', but she supports herself entirely by running errands.

Arthur Clennam
Kind, generous Arthur possesses a strong sense of loyalty and filial duty and has devoted his life so far to working for his parents' business in China. However, he now wants to find his own happiness and to start his life anew back in England. He also intends to uncover the truth about the Clennam family's past and to make reparations for any wrongdoing, despite facing fierce opposition from his domineering mother, Mrs Clennam.

Mrs. Clennam

Cold, stern and formidable Mrs Clennam has been paralysed and confined to her room for a dozen years. She has an extreme and fearsome religiosity, and is determined to spend her life in suffering and atonement for previous sins. She is unbending even towards her only child, Arthur. However, she displays an uncharacteristic generosity and warmth towards her young seamstress, Amy Dorrit, thus arousing Arthur's suspicions.

Jeremiah Flintwinch
Flintwinch is the sole male servant in the House of Clennam. He's worked there for years and knows all the family secrets. He therefore has much more sway over affairs than Mrs Clennam would like him to. He's the only person who dares to stand up to her, and theirs is a tempestuous relationship. He takes out his frustration and aggression on his poor, timid wife, Affery.

Affery Flintwinch
Affery is the only female servant in the House of Clennam and has worked there for many years. She is married to Jeremiah Flintwinch, who frequently beats her. Privately, Affery refers to Mrs Clennam and Flintwinch as 'the clever ones', as they're always scheming together. She is terrified of both of them. The only friend and ally she has is Arthur, and she is very fond of him and likes to spoil him.

Mr. Meagles
Meagles is a jovial, convivial man who puts his family above all else. A self-made businessman, he likes to think of himself as practical. However, in reality he gets worked up about things and this clouds his judgement, making him not very practical at all. Meagles is particularly discomforted by the idea of Pet marrying Henry Gowan and also by the idea of the stranger, Miss Wade, holding influence over his vulnerable servant girl, Tattycoram.

Mrs. Meagles
Mrs Meagles is a simple, good-hearted soul who enjoys being a doting wife and mother. Like her husband and daughter, she is well-meaning but not always as sensitive as she might be - in particular, not always stopping to consider how it might feel for the family's young servant girl, Tattycoram, to be bossed around quite as much as she is. However, she considers Tatty to be one of the family and would be devastated if anything happened to her.

Pet Meagles
Pet is the ridiculously pretty and thoroughly spoilt daughter of self-made Mr Meagles. Not deliberately cruel, she can nevertheless be thoughtless in the way that only spoilt people can be - particularly in the way she treats her young servant, Tattycoram. Pet is giddy with the excitement of having two suitors, Henry Gowan and Arthur Clennam but, in choosing between them, she is faced with the first life-changing decision of her life.

Tattycoram is a young servant girl who's been brought up as a companion to the beautiful and well-meaning but utterly spoilt Pet Meagles. Tattycoram is understandably resentful of her servile status and often struggles to control her anger. Whenever she flies into a rage, her employer, Mr Meagles, tries telling her to count to five and twenty, but it doesn't work. Young and impressionable, Tatty attracts the attention of the mysterious loner, Miss Wade.

Daniel Doyce
Doyce is an engineer and an inventor. He is a man contented with life - his work and his loyal friends (namely the Meagleses) offer him all that he needs. He may be a bachelor but he's sensitive to affairs of the heart - he is a support to Arthur over the conundrum with Pet. He is a wise, kind and solid man and a good judge of character.

Mr. Merdle
Mr Merdle is the Man of the Age, the richest man in London. However, far from enjoying his hard-earned status, he seems to find it a terrible burden. He shuffles around with his head held low, preoccupied with work-related worries and intimidated by all the pomp and splendour that surrounds him. He also complains of feeling unwell, but his doctor is unable to put his finger on what is wrong with him.
Bernie Maddoff is his modern day equivalent.

Mrs. Merdle
Mrs Merdle is a striking and magnificent woman, married to the great Mr Merdle (who is her second husband). She is much admired as Society's best dressed and most glamorous hostess. She is a terrible snob, and cares greatly for what Society thinks. She is a strong woman and is most definitely the one wearing the trousers in her marriage.

Edmund Sparkler
Sparkler is Mrs Merdle's son from her first marriage and heir to the enormous Merdle fortune. He is a thoroughly well-meaning young man, but he's not got much between the ears. He is more or less happy to be told what to do by his interfering mother. He's got an eye for the ladies but, to his mother's horror, he particularly adores the entirely unsuitable young dancer, Fanny Dorrit.

Mr. Chivery
Mr Chivery has been Head Turnkey at the Marshalsea Prison for many years. He and his son, John, are an extremely tight family unit and are everything to each other. Mr Chivery is understandably protective of his son, doing everything he can to ensure John's happiness and wary of anyone who might threaten that happiness. Despite his occasional grumpiness, Chivery is a kind, soft-hearted soul who's unable to bear a grudge for very long.

John Chivery
John is Assistant Turnkey of the Marshalsea Prison, where his father, Mr Chivery, has been Head Turnkey for many years. John takes everything extremely seriously, but especially his passionate and undying love for his childhood friend, Amy Dorrit. His moods change wildly from day to day depending on whether he's had an encouraging or discouraging sign from Amy. However, despite being somewhat angst-ridden, he's a truly kind and magnanimous soul who always looks out for others.

Mr. Plornish (and family)
Mr Plornish is a resident of Bleeding Heart Yard, which is home to some of the poorest people in London. He is a plasterer by trade but, like many, he struggles to find employment. Despite this, he is a cup-half-full, jovial kind of man. He and his wife have a large brood of children and he enjoys family life. Plornish met and befriended the Dorrits during a short stretch in the Marshalsea Prison.

Mrs. Plornish
Mrs Plornish lives in Bleeding Heart Yard with her husband, Mr Plornish, and their large brood of children. In spite of living in poverty and hardship, she is a cheerful and generous character. For example, she takes Cavalletto under her wing when he first arrives in London, and is extremely proud of her innate ability to talk to him in fluent Italian.

Mrs. General
Mrs General is a triumph of genteel respectability. A widow, she has set herself up as a 'companion to ladies'. She hates to be thought of as a working woman and when Mr Dorrit employs her to 'finish' his daughters, she adopts the pretence that she is a friend of the family, rather than a governess. She is extremely strict about decorum, putting Amy and Fanny through a gruelling training regime.

Self-confessed cold-blooded murderer, Rigaud, is the villain of our story. He is by turns extremely charming and darkly menacing, whichever the situation demands. He is an opportunist who roams about Europe looking for innocent and unsuspecting victims to sink his teeth into - whether to rob, blackmail or cheat. He is completely undiscriminating in his choice of who to prey on.

 Cavalletto is a cheerful and chirpy Italian - the kind of person everyone takes a shine to. He is a petty crook but not a dedicated criminal - given half the chance, he would much rather earn his money honestly. At the start of the story, he finds himself the unfortunate cellmate of the terrifying Rigaud and, upon his release from prison, he continues to live in fear of ever encountering Rigaud again.

Henry Gowan
Henry Gowan will do whatever he can to ensure himself an easy life. He's distantly related to the distinguished, aristocratic Barnacle family, but he's a poor relation and therefore, much to his irritation, he has to earn his own living. He calls himself an Artist but shows little dedication to the profession. He set his sights on the pretty Pet Meagles but finds a rival for her affections in Arthur Clennam.

Miss Wade
Miss Wade is an aloof and mysterious woman of independent means. Although a loner, she nevertheless takes a great interest in the young servant girl, Tattycoram, setting out to prise her away from her employers, the Meagleses, so that she can come and live with her. Although she professes to be concerned for Tattycoram's welfare, her steely determination to woo the servant girl also betrays a self-interested and ruthless nature.

Mr. Pancks
On the surface, rent-collector Pancks seems like a pretty heartless individual - indifferent to the plight of the poverty-stricken residents of Bleeding Heart Yard. Behind the scenes however, he is being driven by his rapacious employer, Mr Casby, to squeeze the residents for all they are worth. In his private time, Pancks is also a private detective of sorts. He is brilliant at moling out information and piecing together evidence.

Flora Finching
Unlike her rapacious father, Mr Casby, Flora is a kind and generous, if occasionally overbearing, soul. She and Arthur Clennam were once childhood sweethearts but, due to circumstances beyond her control, she ended up marrying and is now the widow of a Mr Finching. Flora is still in love with Arthur and spends her time concocting ways to win him back, seemingly in denial about the fact that he no longer has feelings for her.

My favourite character is Pancks with his snorting and his funny walk. Mrs. Plornish's attempts at Italian are pretty funny too.  In fact all the actors are absolutely without equal in this.  I fear they will never be able to do another Little Dorrit to compare with this one.  I will post a link (with spoiler alert) later this week to explain what happens at the end as I fear that it is not just my husband and I who got to the end and went "Huh? What just happened????"  I'll make sure that it isn't on this page so as not to spoil it for those who haven't seen this gem yet.

Don't be turned off by the number of characters. Just come back here to look them up if you need a little help. That's what the pause button on the DVD player is for!


  1. Dear Jenny:

    What a public service you've provided for all of the period drama fans out there who have yet to tackle Little Dorritt (like me!). A drama with 29 major characters is definitely a challenge! I look forward to borrowing your copy (now that you and the Squire have viewed it) and watching it myself ... I believe that I will be back to visit this blog entry quite often as I make my way through the maze of characters.
    Big Sister

  2. Hey Big Sis,

    I hope I haven't put anyone off by listing a mere 29 major characters (there are minor ones not listed too!) but it is one of the most enjoyable films I have ever seen. We have been watching it again this week. Just finished episode 12 for the second time in a month and only 2 more episodes to go. If that doesn't say something about my fondness for this one, I don't know what will. You'll have to let me know if the guide above helps you with it as you watch it.
    I'll send this one your way soon!

  3. Hi Jenny:
    I too found the ending confusing and had to check out the plot on Wikipedia. But it was still well worth it. I loved this mini-series. And, I'm soon to read the book.

  4. Hi Olga,

    I think the book would be much easier to read after seeing the Andrew Davies version. I'd love to read it now too. I think I'd have many lines in my head in the actors voices like "She's a doosed fine gal with no biggod nonsense about her". Love Edmund Sparkler! And as you said, Mrs. Plornish is absolute comic gold. This film became an instant fave with me.

  5. Hi Jenny,

    Wow, your post is extremely helpful. Thanks for writing this! Being a fan of Dickens and (OK, I admit it) Matthew Macfadyen :D, it didn't take me long to grab this DVD the moment it caught my eyes. Well, it was long and sometimes confusing, but the characters were so enjoyable and the story is gripping to the end that I never got bored. However, I probably might not read the book.

    Now where is that link that explains the ending? I need to read it, I'm still confused about the connection between Amy and Arthur..

    My warmest regards from Indonesia (that's where I came from) for you :)

    1. Hi Melisa. I'm so glad you are enjoying my blog all the way in Indonesia! I'll post the summary of the book ending here for you (spoiler alert for others!) as it is very similar to the film:

      The fraudulent dealings (similar to a Ponzi scheme) of Mr Merdle who is Edmund Sparkler's stepfather leads to the collapse of Merdle's bank after his suicide, taking with it the savings of both the Dorrits and Arthur Clennam, who is now himself imprisoned in the Marshalsea. While there, he is taken ill and is nursed back to health by Amy.

      The French villain Rigaud, now in London, discovers that Mrs Clennam has been hiding the fact that Arthur is not her real son, and Rigaud attempts to blackmail her. Arthur's biological mother was a beautiful young singer with whom his father had gone through a ceremony of sorts before being pressured by his wealthy uncle to marry the present Mrs Clennam. Mrs Clennam had agreed to bring up the child on condition that his mother never see him. Arthur's real mother died of grief at being separated from Arthur and Mr Clennam, but the wealthy uncle, stung by remorse, had left a bequest to Arthur's biological mother and to "the youngest daughter of her patron", a kindly musician who had taught and befriended her—and who happened to be Amy Dorrit's paternal uncle, Frederick. As Frederick Dorrit had no daughter, the legacy goes to the youngest daughter of Frederick's brother, who is William Dorrit, Amy's father.

      Mrs Clennam has been suppressing her knowledge that Amy is the heiress to an enormous fortune and estate. Overcome by passion, Mrs Clennam rises from her chair and totters out of her house to reveal the secret to Amy and to beg her forgiveness, which the kind-hearted girl freely grants. Mrs Clennam then falls down in the street—never to recover the use of her speech or limbs—as the house of Clennam literally collapses before her eyes, killing Rigaud. Rather than hurt Arthur, Amy chooses not to reveal what she has learned, though this means that she misses her legacy.

      When Arthur's business partner Daniel Doyce returns from Russia a wealthy man, Arthur is released with his fortunes revived, and Arthur and Amy are married.

      The plot was changed very slightly by Andrew Davies, but I think it helps to know what Dickens intended. Hope it helps!

    2. This summary of Little Dorrit and comments are a few years old now, but we just finished watching it again (about twice a year). After our first watching I ordered the Oxford Illustrated Edition on Amazon. I have several of Dickens but didn't have that one. It was wonderful, and more so because I could picture the characters. The series is very true to the book except the ending in the book is drawn out a bit too much. But, this is a production I will never tire of. As they say in Britain, absolutely fabulous!




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