TV Review: Great Expectations

“If you can’t beat a boy at Christmas when can you beat him?”

One of the centrepieces of the BBC’s festive television schedule was a new adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations by Sarah Phelps. Dickens could well loom large in the coming months as it is the 200th anniversary of his birth in February, but I’m not yet aware of a deluge of programming, whether on television or in the theatre, though I am reliably informed that there’s many radio serialisation on at the moment. As is often the case with new productions of classics, the key word is adaptation and though purists may baulk at some of the changes instituted by Phelps and director Brian Kirk, but that would be a shame as I found this to be a rather special piece of television, the BBC doing what it does best.

From the gorgeously, hauntingly atmospheric landscapes of the beginning – Magwitch rising from the mists of the wetlands was a perfect opening scene – the show looked a treat. The splendid isolation of the Gargerys’ house making for some beautiful shots (though it did pose the question of who exactly used that forge…) and the faded glamour of the dust-covered Satis House was excellently judged, the perfect receptacle for the casting choice that caused the most headlines prior to transmission: Gillian Anderson as Miss Haversham.

Usually played much older, Anderson’s jilted spinster was a masterstroke, the inherent tragedy of the character considerably heightened by the greater sense of a person gone to waste, the bitterness and cruel manipulation no less potent in this chapped-lipped, wraith-like personage. The casting was excellent most of the way through the three parts too: Vanessa Kirby’s not-quite-callous-but-almost Estella, Claire Rushbrook’s vicious Mrs Joe, Frances Barber’s Mrs Brandley, Tom Burke’s harshly cruel Bentley Drummle, David Suchet excelling as lawyer Jaggery. And balancing the portrayal of human nature, Shaun Dooley’s Joe was perfect, Ray Winstone made an unexpectedly fitting Magwitch, layering in much more depth than I thought he was capable of, and Harry Lloyd – one of the most ridiculously handsome men ever – was great as the lovely Herbert Pocket, complete with lovely dancing lessons with Pip.

The only slight casting mis-step for me was in the transition from young to older Pip. Oscar Kennedy was a brilliantly Dickensian moppet in the early scenes, but it was hard to credit that he would grow up into the male model-good looks of Douglas Booth. There were too many scenes where Booth just looked too modern – I think it was his fringe – and when decorously covered in sweat after a hard’s day work, he looked more like a gay chat line model than a trainee blacksmith! But he did do good work in the later parts, as Pip’s journey through society takes its many twists and turns.

And overall, it just worked so well, all the elements clicking together to create a piece of television that felt right on every level. It was great family viewing for the holidays and it felt like a great addition to the Dickensian canon. And yes, it did do some things differently to the book, but that really shouldn’t stop you from trying to appreciate it as a separate piece of art (though easier said than done as I discovered to my peril when watching the recent film version of The Deep Blue Sea).

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