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Nothing little about BBC’s ‘Dorrit’

Lenghty Dickens book adapted for TV

LONDON — Toxic debt, failing financial institutions, lax regulation — ring any bells?

As fate would have it, all of the above underpin the BBC’s latest period drama blockbuster, a marathon adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “Little Dorrit,” which bowed on flagship web BBC1 on Sunday and is certain to strike contemporary resonances.

Unlike those old showbiz faves “Oliver Twist” and “Great Expectations,” the narrative labyrinth that is “Little Dorrit” is one of the great English novelist’s less well known tales.

No wonder TV producers have avoided it — until now.

The sheer scale of this Victorian behemoth is so great that when it was last adapted for the screen, in a 1988 theatrical version helmed by Christine Edzard, it came in two self-contained, three-hour installments, “Nobody’s Fault” and “Little Dorrit’s Story.”

The BBC version clocks in at eight hours serialized in 14 parts — 12 half-hour episodes scheduled twice weekly with one-hour opening and closing shows.

In the U.S. PBS is expected to air “Little Dorrit” next year in eight one-hour slugs as part of “Masterpiece.”

English lit TV adaptations are part of the BBC’s DNA. This fall the pubcaster has already given Brits a so-so version of Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” starring Bond girl Gemma Arterton as the eponymous heroine.

So what’s so special, apart from its huge size, about “Little Dorrit?”

In one important way, the program represents the end of an era because its arrival coincides with the departure of the BBC’s head of fiction, Jane Tranter, soon to start work co-running BBC Worldwide America’s studio in Los Angeles.

It was the single-minded Tranter who commissioned Andrew Davies to write the script for “Little Dorrit” following the success of “Bleak House,” which he also turned into a TV soap.

Tranter wanted Davies to do another Dickens. He suggested “Dombey and Son” or “Little Dorrit.” Maybe he’s paid by the page, because “Dombey and Son” is another chunky tome.

It is not clear why Tranter chose “Little Dorrit.” But on the strength of the opening 60-minute episode, directed by Dearbhla Walsh, one of three directors involved in the skein, “Little Dorrit” is as good as anything that has emerged from BBC drama since Tranter took over what was then a failing department in 2000.

In fact, it is impossible to imagine any other broadcaster tackling something of this ambition and succeeding on this scale.

The cast — a roll call of home-grown thesps including Matthew Macfadyen, Tom Courtenay, Andy Serkis and Mackenzie Crook — are clearly in their element. Relative newcomer Claire Foy is utterly convincing as Little Dorrit.

The photography is imaginative, and there is enough dramatic tension to keep Dickens skeptics on the edge of their seats.

Remarkably, Davies makes light work of the tortuous plot in the all-important curtain-raiser. Most of the main characters are quickly established.

In the novel readers have to wait until page 70 before Little Dorrit is introduced. Davies, however, puts the heroine at the center of the action from the start.

“I always like to get our heroine in a big closeup right at the start of things, to say very clearly that she is the one we’re following, she is the one we’re investing our hopes in,” Davies explained.

What ensues is totally absorbing, a master class in period literary drama.

No wonder Tranter is getting out now. Trying to do another Dickens on the back of this project would have been nigh impossible.

Or maybe she is saving “Dombey and Son” for Hollywood.