Dickens of a Debacle

Little Dorrit's uncanny similarities to today's financial crisis makes it more suitable for adaptation than much of modern literature

Nick Cohen

Another costume drama and it’s another wail from the critics. Not the same old Sunday-night formula. Not more Merchant-Ivory daintiness. How many former stars from the 20th century can the BBC turn into that most shabby-genteel of theatrical stereotypes “the character actor”? The producers think their attentions to period detail are somehow admirable, when they are nothing but the symptoms of a lifeless conservatism. Devoid of new ideas, ignorant of modern literature and life, the BBC slouches on as if the world never changes. They even drag out Andrew Davies again to write the script, for goodness sake. It’s Groundhog Day in frock coats and bonnets.

AA Gill spoke for many when he declared in the Sunday Times, “I feel embarrassed that this gaudy, National Trust, music-hall, dressing-up box of alternately torrid and turgid, exhausted plots is still held up to the world as one of the bits of culture the British do better than anyone else. Of course we do them better than anyone else – who else would conceivably want to do them?”

We can all get that way sometimes, and I wouldn’t object if the BBC had not adapted Little Dorrit. However, the least read of Dickens’s great novels is worth reaching for now because it oozes money from every page: the love of money, the need for money, the demented searches for money and the scandals that erupt when financiers, who have been fawned over by politicians and hostesses interested in nothing but money, crash – taking vast amounts of other people’s money with them.

When the news spreads that the ruined financier Merdle has committed suicide, Dickens has London society execute a smart U-turn, which is being much imitated in our day. Merdle, who had been revered as “the shining wonder, the new constellation to be followed by the wise men bringing gifts”, is immediately denounced by one and all as the “greatest Forger and the greatest Thief that ever cheated the gallows”.

Dickens was as angered by the incompetence of Lord Aberdeen’s government during the Crimean War as by the stock-market manias of the mid-19th century. Those who heard Gordon Brown and the Financial Services Authority boast of their “light-touch regulation” as the banking system careered to its greatest crisis since, well, Victorian England, would not need a literature professor to explain Dickens’s passage, “Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving how not to do it.”

Filming his social criticism is not as easy as it looks. There is a conceit among television people that if Dickens were reincarnated, he would write for them. They don’t seem to know that he did write for the Victorian equivalent of television, the popular theatre, and pretty dreadful his efforts were. He was a novelist, not a scriptwriter, and is far harder to adapt than those who glibly believe his work foreshadowed television drama realise. The line I quoted about the Circumlocution Office comes from a 1,500-word assault on Civil Service indolence, which is almost a stand-alone essay. It is rollicking, satirical, entirely applicable to the Financial Services Authority and impossible to film.

Instead of trying, Davies and the producers have Arthur Clenham, the hero, try to find why Little Dorrit’s father is in a debtors’ prison by sending him to their version of the Circumlocution Office. They house it in a rotunda, with a circular pattern of tiles on the floor. Clenham goes down a spiral staircase to meet Mr Tite Barnacle junior, who is surrounded by a circle of official papers. Clenham stops beneath a circular skylight in the domed ceiling – by which time, I think, most viewers will have got the point – and asks for files on the Dorrit case.

“Oh no,” [replies the outraged civil servant.] “Oh no, that’s not the way to do it. Upon my soul, you mustn’t just barge in here saying you want to know, y’know.”

“But I do want to know and I shall persevere until I do know.”

“Upon my soul, you stick to it in the devil of a manner. Look, I can give you some forms for you to fill in, if you like. They will go round the various departments, probably come back here from time to time to be endorsed or counter-signed, but nothing will come of it in the end. I promise you that. You’d do much better to give up. That’s what most men do.”

“But surely this is no way to get things done?”

“You might think so, sir, but that is how we do things at the Circumlocution Office.”

Davies invented all but the first line of dialogue, but captured the spirit of the original polemic on camera perfectly.

Even those who accept that costume drama isn’t just a fancy-dress party, and is often artfully adapted, may nevertheless agree that television ignores lesser-known modern writers. There may be a touch of cynicism behind going for this genre. The BBC knows it can capture a guaranteed audience among the educated middle class, for whom watching classic serials is like recycling newspapers or buying organic food: as much a duty as a pleasure. Yet the drama department might well wonder why it can find accounts of finance running riot in Dickens, Trollope and Balzac but not in contemporary literature.

Consider the possibilities. Until last year, London was as close to being the financial centre of globalisation as anywhere in the world. The markets had had the longest run in history, generating envy, exultation, riches and ruin. The decisions made in Canary Wharf and the City affected everyone, high and low. No artist is obliged to write a state-of-England novel, but so few wanted to tackle the country that was staring them in the face that the essayist DJ Taylor plausibly complained last year of “the fatal detachment of the modern ‘literary’ writer from the society that he or she presumes to reflect”.

Taylor suggested that the complexity of finance deterred authors. But when you look at the City closely, you find that the essentials of speculation have not changed much since dealers first met in Exchange Alley in the 1690s.

In any case, writers do not need to understand the motives behind credit default swaps, but the far more comprehensible emotions of euphoria in a boom and panic in a bust. Maybe they pull back because they know so little of commerce. Most are from public- sector families. They spent their lives around academia, first as students and then as creative writing or English Lit. teachers. Whenever I meet them, I glumly think that modern authors are the artistic equivalents of Westminster’s political class: narrow professionals with few experiences of life beyond their trade.

Perhaps I am over-complicating and the explanation for the near-obliteration of the themes of wealth and poverty is simpler. Last year’s costume drama, Cranford, went out as Northern Rock crashed. Mrs Gaskell had made much of the ruin brought by a run on a northern bank, but the BBC missed the chance to give the classic a contemporary feel. It played down the bank run because filming had stopped months before. Like the politicians, speculators and regulators, its writers didn’t know modern audiences would need to worry about depositors panicking, liquidity vanishing and debt deflating.

They know it now.

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