Top critical review
Not Suitable for Children: Andrew Davies Being Andrew Davies.
on 2 January 2018
Andrew Davies is like a peculiarly incompetent alchemist: everything he touches – Jane Austen, George Eliot, Dickens – turns from pure gold to base metal. The BBC's arrogance, philistinism and sheer incompetence in commissioning such tripe are staggering.
The root problem with all his work is that he neither understands, nor likes very much, the people whose work he adapts! Jane Austen and Dickens could hardly be less alike yet somehow Davies turns everything into a very similarly thin, watery, anaemic, generic historical pap, entirely devoid of what makes Austen Austen or Dickens Dickens, so all we end up with is a bit of vapid costume drama. How could any of this stuff have shaped the way everything written since has been done? You would never guess from watching one of Davies's fatuous productions that this was the world's greatest writing. The sort of thing which forces people to rethink the way they feel about everything!
Davies hates Dickens with a passion. Open "Little Dorrit" at random, read any paragraph, and you'll hear what's missing from this feeble, low wattage script. What's happened to the Dickensian energy, intensity, wit, drama, colour, vivacity, invention, fun? Where's Panks's vitality? Mrs Clennam's mad Calvinism? Dora's delicious and voluble nonsense? Rigaud's vigorous braggadocio? Miss Wade's weird, neurotic intensity? The bite of the satiric presentation of the Circumlocution Office? Davies is like a tone deaf mouse trying to sing The Messiah.
His basic offence is that he believes that plot is what makes a novel. Thinks a great book can be boiled down to a few bullet points. And because the plot of "Little Dorrit" is hopelessly complex and not very effective (most of the work is unravelled in a couple of unsatisfactory stretches right at the end of a nine hundred page novel) Davies spends an inordinate amount of screen time reworking Dickens's story so it resembles some minor Agatha Christie costume drama: the sort of thing the BBC thinks will sell to the Americans. There is no desire to bring Dickens, the real Dickens, to a wider audience.
None of this script has anything to do with Dickens's art. (Any more than the plot of "Middlemarch" is where the essence of George Eliot's masterpiece resides). Davies sacrifices everything to the most trivial aspect of these great works because he has such contempt for the audience: believes they are idiots who will be bored by the greatest entertainer we have ever produced. Dickens was and remains immensely popular all over the world. He is NOT an obscure intellectual. There's nothing to fear: just let him speak for himself. If you translate Dickens into Janet and John speak, he ceases to be Dickens! What is the point of the the "Little Dorrit" we have here? It's just wallpaper.
Dickens probably had a better ear for dialogue than anyone since Shakespeare: no two characters speak more than a sentence without revealing their personalities, their distinct ways of seeing the world. But Davis has no time for Dickens! Let them have soap opera! Everyone, even the incomparable Flora, is given a watery diet, a feeble vocabulary: everyone sounds like the weedy Andrew Davies! What we have here is a reworking of "Little Dorrit" in the manner of a Ladybird book: everything tidied, diluted and perverted to produce an anodyne costume drama vaguely rooted in one of the world's major novels. There's more Davies's invention (the ridiculous murder of a wholly invented barmaid!!) than respect for the greatest English novelist. No, Miss Wade's interest in Tattycoram is not sexual! It is far more disturbing than that.
Anyone wishing to catch something of the work would do far better listening to Anton Lesser's fine reading on Naxos or watching the six hours of Christine Edzard's superbly written and respectfully acted film than wasting time watching these many hours of vapid tosh. The plot of the novel is its weakest, least important and effective aspect: Davies labours in episode after episode to knock it into something he finds satisfying at the cost of everything that makes the novel a satirical masterpiece. Why the BBC has such contempt for literature and for its audiences is one of life's great mysteries. Why don't they trust the world's greatest communicator?
I blame their education. Whoever taught Davies English Literature deserves transportation to Las Vegas.