BBC, Books, Charles Dickens, David Suchet, Destiny, Douglas Booth, Estella, Gillian Anderson, Great Expectations, Harry Lloyd, Jack Roth, Joe Gargery, Miss Havisham, Opinion, Pip, Ray Winstone, Shaun Dooley, TV Review
A couple of nights ago, Tychy reviewed the BBC’s new adaptation of Dickens’ Great Expectations, rather sinning against the light of critical objectivity as I was determined to dislike it since seeing the trailer. Besides, there are so many ineptly conceived characters and badly constructed scenarios in the original novel that it leaves subsequent dramatists to negotiate their way around a perilous obstacle course. On the whole, however, this production managed to sustain some competent television and once we got down to the bones of the story in episodes 2 and 3, the time passed quickly enough.
This version of Great Expectations succeeded despite rather than because of Dickens’ weakness for caricature. David Suchet and a particularly good Harry Lloyd respectively made their characters, Mr Jaggers and Herbert Pocket, seem more real than they generally do in Dickens’ novel. Unfortunately, Jack Roth’s Orlick degenerated into Gollum from Lord of the Rings and Mrs Joe’s stroke improved her character so much that it became the equivalent of a spiritual conversion.
So what further can one learn about Great Expectations from this production? It mostly affirms that Dickens’ novel is a lavish monument to human stupidity. Pip is so thick that it does not occur to him to question the likelihood or wisdom of being dependent upon the deranged Miss Havisham (Gillian Anderson), whilst Miss Havisham and Magwitch (Ray Winstone) fail to foresee the entirely predictable results of their actions. The plot hinges upon Miss Havisham’s implausible failure to wonder about the identity of Pip’s true benefactor. She is supposed to be the lady of the manor and yet she shows no astonishment when somebody outside of her small Essex hamlet intervenes to provide the local blacksmith’s boy with a fortune.
Perhaps we just go along with the general implausibility of the story – Pip is a peasant who is trying to blend into the aristocracy without any education or training, aside from some dancing lessons from Herbert Pocket, and for a while he apparently finds this all quite easy. It seems natural that Pip simply forgets about Joe, as they have nothing in common and no grounds for mutual sympathy. Shaun Dooley’s Joe is not even a character – just a floating troubled face – and nobody in their right mind would choose to hang out in his grotty forge. In the end, we have merely to condemn Pip for poor manners in not sending Joe the occasional Christmas card.
Tychy‘s original review pointed out that Douglas Booth’s Pip looked as stupid as a horse, albeit one with the fine quivering sensitivity of a thoroughbred stallion. In a single scene he laughs, when distressed he strains to push out a few painful tears, but he has otherwise only two horsy facial expressions – bored and startled. My review was vindicated when Pip’s nemesis Bentley Drummle (Tom Burke) was indeed murdered by his own horse, presumably one of Pip’s spiritual brothers. I think that it was the Guardian reviewer who pointed out that Pip was not supposed to look prettier than Estella, but if Pip was not only a complete idiot but physically unattractive as well, then his character would be intolerable. The poor man has to be left with something.
The supposedly “controversial” happy ending was not entirely unexpected, because this production had not sufficiently invested in the more monstrous and Gothic elements of Estella’s character to begin with. The highlight of this adaptation was Gillian Anderson’s Miss Havisham and despite my initial reservations, she ended up reigning over Pip’s world with an undisputed psychotic majesty. One should really not encourage BBC adaptations of Dickens’ novels because they will only make more of them (and, believe me, they will), but if the lights behind this production could procure some decent writing from somewhere – perhaps something by Le Fanu or Stevenson – then expectations for next Christmas would undoubtedly brighten.