BBC, Charles Dickens, Destiny, Douglas Booth, Gillian Anderson, Great Expectations, Inheritance, Izzy Meikle-Small, Jack Roth, Joe Gargery, Miss Havisham, Oscar Kennedy, Pip, Ray Winstone, Shaun Dooley, Stephen Leacock, TV Review
Another Christmas, another pointless and inexorably undistinguished BBC adaptation of a literary “classic.” This time, it’s back to Miss Havisham’s dilapidated mansion and her rotten wedding cake, except that, in an unintended irony, the whole world outside of Satis House now seems to be equally petrified, with Dickensian zombies traipsing about in mindless re-enactment of scenes from the original novel. They probably purchased Joe’s forge on E-bay – after all, there must be at least a dozen still floating about, left over from previous productions. Scene after scene passes senselessly. We cannot imagine the characters interacting together, or connecting in any meaningful way, outside of the scenes in which they appear. There must be moments of tenderness or even humanity between Pip and Mrs Joe, but one cannot picture these irreconcilable zombies ever being synchronised in such a way.
It is not that Charles Dickens was not a fundamentally second-rate writer to begin with. A surer author such as Charlotte Bronte would have made Mrs Joe more sympathetic, and Joe more problematic, thereby creating a recognisably realistic ambiguity which would bring this story to life. In his essay “Fiction and Reality” (1916), Stephen Leacock tried to defend Dickens from the charge of being “a ventriloquist with a box full of grotesque impossible dolls, each squawking out its little phrases amid the laughter of the uneducated.” It is unclear whether Leacock would submit this version of Great Expectations for the prosecution or the defence, not least because there is little “laughter” to its proceedings. One of the few attempts at humour – a quip made by a soldier as he bops Magwitch on the head – backfires spectacularly in voiding the sense of dread which had previously hung over the mashes. But despite largely giving up on the humour, the characters remain caricatures.
Pip (Oscar Kennedy) is the eternal Dickensian orphan with his neat brown rags and a face like a knuckle. Magwitch (Ray Winstone) looks like a kindly man who has somehow mistakenly drawn the lot of a villain. Estella (Izzy Meikle-Small) is nothing but a nose pointed in the air. Orlick (Jack Roth) repeatedly pops out like a jack-in-a-box with his sullen leer and bad teeth. Pumblechook (Mark Addy) is virtually an animated costume, with a steaming ham where his face would otherwise be.
In the absence of any BBC adaptation of an MR James tale this Christmas, the first fifteen minutes of this Great Expectations is generous enough to try its hand at some festive ghostly hijinks. Pip meets Magwitch out on the broads, a eerily desolate dreamland where ghastly things jump out of the creeping fog and Compey is discovered wading desperately through the thick mud, rather than walking over the land above, as if in some nightmarish logic he is purposefully leaving footprints for a world in pursuit.
There is no Biddy this time around, thus avoiding the gruesomeness of her marriage to Joe at the end of the story, but this adaptation instead submits a particularly vivid Miss Havisham (Gillian Anderson). Maggie Smith was born for the role, but this production opts for a wispier and more ethereal shade of spinster, if with a little of the maternal glamour of the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio. Again, there is a senselessness to this Miss Havisham – we cannot imagine her existing when Pip is not there – and despite the time that she spends on screen, her character remains exasperatingly sketchy.
The wistful, somewhat imbecile note in Anderson’s voice makes her sound at times like Miranda Richardson’s Queenie from Blackadder. Rather anachronistically, she and Estella are both obsessed with received pronunciation (in an age when a Prime Minister could speak with a Derby accent). She would earn credibility from more menace, and yet this production bungles things by revealing her motivations too early. But Pip nevertheless deems this youthful Miss Havisham to be more attractive than Estella and her betrayal of his bourgeois aspirations anticipates how he will be later manhandled in love. A braver production would have focused even more on Miss Havisham’s story, of which we get a tantalising glimpse when she is panicked by her visiting relatives.
“You have grown Pip,” Miss Havisham gasps. They need more than two actors to avoid a clumsy transition from orphan to adult. The adult Pip (Douglas Booth) looks very beautiful but somewhat not entirely there, rather like a pedigree racehorse. One can imagine him leaving steaming piles of manure in his wake and, speaking of horses, such an exquisite man looks more than comical when trying to pose as a blacksmith. But we are resigned to following this Pip around London as he is tortured by his history and his destiny, punished for the not very heinous crime of wanting more of a life than hammering horseshoes into shape every day at Joe’s forge. Whilst undoubtedly tuning in to watch this Miss Havisham being burned alive like a Guy Fawkes, Tychy will probably not be reviewing subsequent episodes…
[Great Expectations is presently on the IPlayer here. Ed.]