Little Dorrit, a major BBC One Dickens adaptation – from 8.00pm, Sunday 26 October 2008
Little Dorrit is not one of Dickens' best-known works, but it contains all the elements required for a compelling drama, as scriptwriter Andrew Davies reveals.
"Television has not tackled this novel in living memory because commissioners tend to go for the usual suspects with Dickens: Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Great Expectations.
"But this is a tremendous opportunity to take a novel that not many people have read and introduce it to them.
"It is not an inferior Dickens in the slightest - in fact, quite the contrary. It's a great book. It's both a marvellous mystery and a wonderful love story."
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: Billy Liar, 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, Pride And Prejudice), 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 poor to rich, a deep bond grows between Arthur and Amy, and a dark villain Rigaud (Andy Serkis) threatens to spill a long-held family secret.
Writer Andrew Davies is in a league of his own when it comes to adapting the classics for television.
The briefest glance at his CV confirms as much. Over the past dozen years, he has adapted, among others, Sense And Sensibility, Brideshead Revisited, A Room With A View, Northanger Abbey, The Diary Of A Nobody, Fanny Hill, Bleak House, He Knew He Was Right, Daniel Deronda, Doctor Zhivago, The Way We Live Now, Wives And Daughters, Vanity Fair, Emma, Moll Flanders, Middlemarch, and the 1995 serial that is credited with kicking off this explosion in popularity of classic TV adaptations: Pride And Prejudice.
However, the indefatigable 72-year-old writer would be the first to admit that this astonishingly compendious list contains one glaring omission: Little Dorrit.
So he 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."
Little Dorrit is being broadcast in half-hour "soap-sized" episodes.
According to Andrew Davies, "Little Dorrit lends itself very well to this format – Dickens has the robustness of story and character to sustain half-hour episodes. You can cram an incredible number of people and incidents into a half hour without viewers feeling they're just being given snippets."
Davies goes on to outline some of the book's principal themes.
"Dickens brilliantly conjures up the debtors' prison. It is a fascinating environment. It's a place that gives a lot of people an occupation, but it's dreadfully pointless. It's such a ludicrous idea – if you imprison someone for debt, how can they ever pay it off?
"At the same time, the novel is also a very amusing and hard-hitting satire on bureaucratic incompetence.
"It exhibits a terrific disdain for the vast offices of government that don't give a toss about anyone and are merely a way of providing idle chaps with a job.
"Dickens shows that those bureaucrats are dismayed when people expect them actually to do anything. All in all, Little Dorrit is an astoundingly rich and complex work."
It is also a book which continues to resonate today. Davies points out the many parallels between then and now.
He smiles, saying: "The Circumlocution Office in the novel will certainly ring bells with anyone who has spent hours on the phone trying to get through to, say, the tax credit office."
But, more than that, Davies adds, "the book has very profound and universal things to say about parents and children.
"The heroine, Little Dorrit, has to be the carer for her father. She loves him, but he's a self-deluding hypocrite and a drag on everyone. Even though he's an old sponger, he nevertheless has a tragic dignity about him that Amy sees.
"It's a situation where the child is more mature and responsible than the parent. Everyone will be able to relate to that."
Andrew Davies proceeds to mount a spirited defence against critics who accuse Dickens of going over the top from time to time.
Davies, who has also been responsible for acclaimed small-screen adaptations of more modern novels such as The Line Of Beauty, Tipping The Velvet, Falling, Bridget Jones' Diary, The Tailor Of Panama, Take A Girl Like You, A Rather English Marriage, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, The Old Devils, Harnessing Peacocks and House Of Cards, asserts that "people say Dickens' characters can be caricatures.
"But even if they're highly dramatic, to me these characters are always believable.
"Dickens sees people with the same vividness that children see the world. We all recall our junior school teachers as amazing and grotesque, but as we grow older, we tend not to notice how incredible and peculiar people are. We lose that, but Dickens has retained that ability to see just how extraordinary people are."
Finally, Davies says he has no doubt that the serial will hold people's interest over many weeks.
"I think there is enough suspense in Little Dorrit to keep audiences riveted over 14 episodes.
"Above all, they will become emotionally caught up in the developing relationship between Amy and Arthur.
"Neither of them has had much luck, but they're now trying to do their best and to find happiness. Viewers will, I hope, be rooting for them all the way!"