Little Dorrit

, another delectable Dickens doozy from PBS, premieres tomorrow at 9 p.m. on WHYY TV12.

It has a lot of Charlie's regulars:

Crotchety, God-fearing, wheelchair-bound old lady who hasn't been outside in 12 years - check.

Father/husband who dies a troubled death overseas, with his last request to deliver a gold watch with a cryptic message all the way back to London - check.

Icy, semi-crippled retainer who literally growls at strangers and constantly threatens to beat his loopy wife - check.

Hard-nosed, chrome-domed rent collector - check.

Box of legal papers, supposedly destroyed but secretly spirited into suspicious hands - check.

Kind, handsome man back from 15 years in far-off China, who sets out to do the right thing, but almost certainly will fall victim to the Cruel Hand of Fate - check.

Plucky young adult who will make her way in the world despite apparently humble beginnings - check.

That last would be the adorable Little Dorrit of the title, played with huge blue eyes and determined chin by Claire Foy, who was 23 and fresh out of the Oxford School of Drama when she got the part in the sprawling, eight-hour coproduction of the BBC and WGBH, presented under PBS's Masterpiece rubric. After tonight's two-hour send-off, it goes 90 minutes every Sunday night through April 26.

"You look a shrimpy little thing to me," says Flintwinch, the hard-hearted servant. She's a gritty shrimp best left unprovoked.

In addition to the tried-and-true favorites, and the usual array of marvelous minor characters that give his novels flavoring, Dickens added some ringers:

Dorrit's father, William, the original resident of the Marshalsea, a debtor's prison (where daughter Dorrit was born), who seems almost to relish his prisoner status.

An emotionally disturbed black girl, taken in, apparently as charity, by a proper suburban family.

The strangely mystic and plainspoken woman who seeks power over her.

And, best of all, a Bluebeard named Rigaud, sinister, angular, who leaves a trail of corpses in his wake. He's French, of course, introduced in a dungeon in Marseille, that most disreputable of French cities, and it's impossible to predict at the outset how he will ever worm his way into this decidedly English tale.

Making the story as modern as today, there's also a respected banker who runs a fraudulent investment scheme. This in a book written more than 15 years before Charles Ponzi was even born. He's not named Madoff, but he might be named Meagles or Merdle.

The best name in this one is Tite Barnacle, nephew of Lord Decimus Tite Barnacle, a functionary at Dickens' fictional Circumlocution Office, the ultimate bureaucratic dead zone, where filings and information go forever to be lost in the original circular files.

Dickens, of course, abounds in social commentary. Little Dorrit, considered one of his lesser works but made grand on TV, has a personal ring. Dickens' daddy was sent to the infamous Marshalsea prison as a debtor when Charles was 12. As was the custom, his family accompanied him. Everyone but the debtor himself could come and go in the daytime, and young Charles had to work in a factory to support his family.

Little Amy Dorrit, at 21, finds easier work as a helper and seamstress for disabled Mrs. Clennam, bringing money home while keeping her work status secret from her father, who still fancies himself a gentleman. Amy doesn't appear to have a mother. Hmmmmm.

Andrew Davies, who made 2006's Bleak House one of the best TV shows of the year, crafts another superb script, with characters and incidents squeezing out the sides, just the thing to satisfy close observers, which anyone joining this maxi mini-series should be.

Costumes, sets, and actors, a broad lot of those super-skilled, terrifically trained Brits, make for sumptuous viewing. Who's famous? Matthew Macfadyen (Arthur Clennam), who was Mr. Darcy in the 2005 Keira Knightley Pride & Prejudice. Tom Courtenay (William Dorrit), who was Farder Coram, wise Gyptian, in The Golden Compass. Judy Parfitt (Mrs. Clennam), who has been everywhere and done everything.

You pretty much know what to expect when Masterpiece visits the 19th century. But Little Dorrit stands at the high end of a very lofty list of period-piece achievement.

It's big entertainment.

Jonathan Storm:


Little Dorrit

Tomorrow night at 9 on WHYY TV12

Contact television critic Jonathan Storm at 215-854-5618 or Read his recent work at