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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."

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Max Dunbar
December 10th, 2008
12:12 PM
I agree with the main point of this article but it does take time to write and publish a book and the fiscal crisis has only just happened really. Patience, Nick!

December 2nd, 2008
11:12 AM
How many contemporary novelists have you actually met, Nick? it doesn't sound like many., in fact the main person your caricature fits is a novelist you admire - Martin Amis. It's sad to see someone so out of touch with literature denouncing it. GIVE EXAMPLES. without them, you're simply arguing with straw men and it's to your detriment. After all, the person who's doing most to make the world of finance understandable to book-lovers is the novelist John Lanchester. There are a lot of recent books which deal with finance, but not in a straightforward way - for example, The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst (which the BBC actually adapted!). And the novelist Ali Smith, who could also be said to adhere to part of your caricature, quotes Nick Cohen on the frontispiece of her novel The Accidental. Evidently the kind of nuance required to write - or even to read - a novel has eluded Mr. Cohen. But that's his fault, not the fault of novelists.

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