Like the Queen’s Speech and a miserable Christmas in Walford, high quality period dramas are fixed points on our TV screens at Christmas, and BBC One’s new adaptation of Great Expectations doesn’t let that tradition slip.
Fans of the novel know that Great Expectations is a soap opera in book form; a cast of colourful characters, family members popping up out of the blue, and a couple of good – if improbable – twists. All it’s lacking is someone shouting “Gerroutta my pub!”
So it makes sense that it should be adapted by EastEnders writer Sarah Phelps (who previously adapted Oliver Twist), and she makes a good job of unpacking the book into three hours of melodrama.
It rattles along like an omnibus at full speed, and though this means some of the subtlety and nuance is lost in the dialogue, no character feels like they have been under-drawn. In fact the small shortcomings in the script are made difficult to notice by the talent onscreen, because where Great Expectations‘ true greatness lies is in its precision casting. It’s clear great thought has gone into filling the shoes of each of Dickens’ larger than life characters, and there’s not one weak link in the cast.
Pip (Douglas Booth) is the protagonist but he’s overshadowed by Ray Winstone, who is magnificent as the Dickensian Phil Mitchell, Abel Magwitch. At first feral and dead-eyed like a bloodied Doberman, when he returns years later and reveals himself as Pip’s mysterious benefactor (a real ‘dum dum duuum!’ moment) he’s been blunted by time and has become a tired old dog looking for justice.
Gillian Anderson (no stranger to Dickens after playing Lady Dedlock in BBC One’s Bleak House) plays a rather different Miss Havisham. She’s more ethereal, more detached from reality than the flinty original, and though the idea that she is a ghost of her former self is a little too on the nose in the writing and presentation, hers is a memorable incarnation. She is as the butterflies her dead brother collected; a specimen of faded beauty, dead on the inside and preserved within the dust and decay of her home.
It’s also one of the most beautifully shot Dickensian adaptations, with each location possessing its own distinct visual signatures – from the chill and foggy misery of the Marshes to the rotting fairytale of Miss Havisham’s home.
Dramas depicting Victorian England can all look a bit alike, with their muddy cobbled streets, urchins and Hansom Cabs, but with intricate set design and judicious use of CGI Great Expectations has a flavour all of its very own. It’s the sort of television that makes HD worthwhile.
A sterling bit of Christmas telly, Great Expectations is just right for this time of year: a nice big slab of top hats and tantrums to curl up in front of after the relatives have been shooed away and the last of the turkey turned to curry.
If anything, it’s proof that no one does drama like Dickens. And no one does Dickens like the BBC.
Aired at 9pm on 27th-29th December 2011 on BBC One.
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