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This is anything but escapism

A timely adaptation of Dickens is a metaphor for the credit card age

<strong>Little Dorrit</stron

To all his other talents, the TV screenwriter extraordinaire Andrew Davies should now add: a Nostradamus-like ability to read the future. How else to explain his decision to follow up his peerless 2005 adaptation of Dickens's Bleak House with one of Little Dorrit (Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8pm)?

Of all the Dickens fans I've met in my life - more than a few, including my father, who named my sister after Florence Dombey, a fact that tells you quite a lot about the level of his devotion - I've never heard anyone pick out Little Dorrit as a favourite (George Bernard Shaw loved the book, but then, he always was a show-off). It is an earnest novel, much less funny and alive than its author's earlier work, and the plot is both labyrinthian and burdened by reversals of fortune that are incredible even by the standards of Dickens. And yet, four blissful episodes into this version, I cannot get over the way it chimes - like some horrible funeral bell - with our own collective consciousness. Unfathomable chains of debt, double-speaking government departments, the robbing of Peter to pay Paul: all the themes of this dark autumn are here. Escapism it is not - even if Andy Serkis, who plays the villainous Rigaud, is sporting the worst prosthetic nose since the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Davies's Little Dorrit is not as exciting as his Bleak House, but what it lacks in pace, it makes up in terms of pathos. An affecting moment seems to come round almost as often as Pancks the rent collector. The cast is enormous and dazzling, but I will pick out for special praise today Russell Tovey's turn as John Chivery, assistant turnkey. His proposal to Amy Dorrit (Claire Foy), and her rejection of it, would have had me blubbing into my pease pudding and ale had I had the wit to organise a specially themed Dickens/credit crunch TV dinner (as it happens, I blubbed into my River Cafe Simple spicy sausage pasta instead, though if anything this only added to the poignancy; as a nation, our River Cafe days are surely over). And then, of course, there is Tom Courtenay as Mr Dorrit, a beautiful performance. Courtenay plays the father of Amy and the Marshalsea prison's longest standing inmate as a man-child: wilfully deluded but occasionally forced to bear painful flashes of insight, which cross his face like clouds flitting across an evening sky.

In his way, Mr Dorrit is as stunted as Amy's friend, Maggy (Eve Myles), who caught a fever at ten years old, and thereafter grew in body but never in mind. He is also a walking, talking metaphor for the credit card age: easily soothed until made to reflect on the full list of his creditors. We no longer send debtors to prison. Then again, we don't have to, because lately Britain has started to feel like one enormous Marshalsea.

Like Amy, born inside but not an inmate herself, we are allowed out to work - and then we, too, scurry back to our families at night, weighed down by the knowledge that whatever hours we have put in will have made little or no dent in the gargantuan heft of our bills and overdrafts. Pick your own turnkey from the long list of names that begins with Alastair Darling.

But enough with the parallels. They don't stop Little Dorrit from being the most entertaining thing on television right now. Davies is a dream match for Dickens because he doesn't fear the sentimental and the melodramatic, but embraces them, unironically. He combines this instinct, however, with a savvy media eye that looks at Dickens's crowds of secondary characters - Little Dorrit is especially replete on this count - and sees only Little Britain-style catch phrases and tics. The way the Meagle family say the name of the orphan they've taken into their home - "Tattycorum! Tattycorum!" they cry, like vultures who are trying to pass as larks - tells you more about their natures than a whole page of dialogue.

Finally, he never ends on anything other than a cliffhanger. It's the oddest feeling: knowing what is about to happen, and yet hardly being able to wait to find out. A trick only the greatest writers can pull off.

Pick of the week

WWII: Behind Closed Doors
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Laurence Rees's series explores the pact between Stalin and the Nazis.

Natural World
11 November, 8pm, BBC2
Catch up with Titus, the original gorilla in the mist.

Lead Balloon
13 November, 10pm, BBC2
Jack Dee's variable sitcom about a failing stand-up is back.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 10 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Change has come