Is it all over for costume drama?

It's a lavish, star-studded show, but 'Little Dorrit' is losing viewers, says Andrew Johnson

With an all-star cast of favourite British TV faces and its timely plot about debt and greed, Andrew Davies's adaptation of Little Dorrit should have proved ratings gold.

Yet audiences for the lavish adaptation of Charles Dickens's novel, one of the Victorian author's more weighty tomes, have been sliding at a rate to rival the stock exchange since the first episode was broadcast last month.

Now, halfway through the 14-part run, barely four million viewers are regularly tuning in to each episode to catch up with the changing fortunes of William Dorrit (Sir Tom Courtenay) and his daughter Amy, played by newcomer Claire Foy. The first episode gathered a healthy 6.3 million viewers, but last Wednesday's audience was only 3.8 million.

The BBC is renowned for its costume dramas, and enjoyed regular audiences of more than six million viewers for its serialisation of Dickens's Bleak House, starring Gillian Anderson, in 2005. Last year's Cranford, a dramatisation of Elizabeth Gaskell's tales set in a Cheshire town, starring Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins, attracted almost 8.5m viewers, while Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles last month pulled in 5.9 million viewers.

Critics, who have praised the production and acting in Little Dorrit, suggest the theme of debt may be putting viewers off, and that the story is more slow-moving than that of Bleak House. The novelist Beryl Bainbridge, who earlier this year questioned the BBC's appetite for costume drama, said yesterday that she couldn't get to grips with the latest series. "The scenes are good but I can't believe in it," she said. "When I see Sue Johnston, who is very good, I remember her from Brookside. It's just not real enough... That world has vanished."

Philip Reevell, a TV commentator for Broadcast magazine, said: "Broadcasting in 30-minute instalments worked for Bleak House, [but] if the story doesn't carry it then it has the potential to be quite damaging."

A BBC spokeswoman said the corporation was "very pleased" with how the series is doing: "Audiences have two opportunities to watch Little Dorrit – weekly episodes on Wednesday and Thursday, and the Sunday omnibus." She said that the combined audience for these broadcasts is averaging over seven million viewers, "as we expect for a drama of this type".

Little Dorrit

Based on: Charles Dickens's 1857 novel about debt, greed and bureaucracy

Stars: Tom Courtenay, Claire Foy, left, and Amanda Redman

Broadcast: Current

Critics said: "Brilliant, obviously"; "Accomplished rather than inspired"; "A witheringly appropriate choice for today"; "Not... as impressive or involving as 'Tess' or 'Bleak House'."

Ratings high: 6.3m

Sex factor: (4) Once again Andrew Davies sees something in the novel that even Dickens missed, and inserts a lesbian tryst between the enigmatic Miss Wade and angry protégée Tattycoram

Bleak House

Based on: Charles Dickens's 1853 satire and thriller about a never-ending legal case

Starred: Gillian Anderson, Charles Dance, Denis Lawson and Burn Gorman (above)

Broadcast: October 2005

Critics said: 10 Emmy and two Golden Globe nominations. Lauded for innovative 30-minute episode format

Ratings high: 7.32m

Sex factor: (1) Screenwriter Andrew Davies decided Dickens didn't understand the sinister side of the relationship between John Jarndyce and his ward, Esther

Tess of the D'Urbervilles

Based on: Thomas Hardy's classic 1891 tragedy of unrequited love and misguided ambition

Starred: Gemma Arterton, above, (most recently 'Quantum of Solace' Bond girl) and Eddie Redmayne

Broadcast: September 2008

Critics said: As grimly languorous and glum as Hardy was

Ratings high: 5.96m

Sex factor: (3) A tale of rape and lust; not much in the way of light relief

North and South

Based on: Elizabeth Gaskell's 1855 social novel, billed as a passionate love story between middle-class Margaret Hale and northern mill owner John Thornton

Starred: Daniela Denby-Ashe and Tim Pigott-Smith, above, and Richard Armitage

Broadcast: November 2004

Critics said: Largely unnoticed because the BBC gave it a low profile, but massively popular with viewers who voted it Best Drama on the BBC's annual website poll

Ratings high: 6.75m

Sex factor: (4) Thornton's brooding persona drew parallels with Jane Austen's Darcy and earned Armitage (now smouldering in BBC drama 'Spooks') a host of female fans


Based on: Three soap opera-esque Elizabeth Gaskell novels set in a small 1840s Cheshire market town

Starred: Michael Gambon, Imelda Staunton, Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins (pictured)

Broadcast: November 2007

Critics said: Nominated for four Bafta TV awards, seven Bafta craft awards and eight Emmys, it proved that Dickens hasn't cornered the market in posh TV adaptations

Ratings high: 8.43m

Sex factor: (2) With gossips, bachelors, spinsters and tragedies, it gave 'Coronation Street' a run for its money

To have your say on this or any other issue visit

Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Life and Style
food + drink
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Senior Account Executive / Account Executive

£25 - 30k (DOE) + Bonus & Benefits: Guru Careers: We are looking for an Accoun...

Account Manager / Sales Account Manager / Recruitment Account Manager

£25k Basic (DOE) – (£30k year 1 OTE) : Guru Careers: We are seeking a bright A...

Resourcer / Junior Recruiter

£15-20k (DOE) + Benefits / Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a bright R...

Web Designer / Digital Designer

£25 - 40k (DOE) + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Web Desig...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits