Charles Dickens is more Christmassy than a family argument over a game of Monopoly and with the great writer’s 200th birthday coming up in February, we’ve been enjoying a great deal more of the author on BBC TV and radio of late. This three-part adaptation of his much-loved newspaper serial forms the centre-piece for the whole extravaganza and it does not disappoint. From the desolate mist-swept marshes of the opening scene to the lethally-sharp characterisation, Great Expectations is the kind of rich treat that we love to sink into during the lull between Christmas and New Year.
This time last year, the corporation’s Upstairs Downstairs re-up was getting mixed reviews, which was slightly inevitable in the wake of Downton Abbey’s stellar debut, but with Dickens, the Beeb are back on familiar ground. The painful yet tragically human characters, that unambiguous line between the kind-hearted and the mean-spirited and the dense trappings of a harsher time are all here and writer Sarah Phelps plays with them beautifully.
From Pip’s opening encounter with the abrasive Magwitch to the dusty wedding room at Satis House, this one oozes atmosphere and boasts some fine performances throughout. Ray Winstone is a gift as the chained and bloodied convict, Claire Rushbrook blusters as Mrs Joe, Suchet is steals a couple of scenes as the emotionless patrician that is Jaggers and Orlick’s teeth tell you all you need to know about him. Yet although the novel is told through the eyes of Pip, this is just as much Miss Havisham’s story as his.
Many people who’ve read the book might agree that Gillian Anderson is still a little young to play the spinster who never recovered from a jilting. Yet she plays the part well and has certainly found her niche in these productions over the last few years, from Bleak House to this January’s The Crimson Petal and the White, it seems the years she spent living in London as a child had a profound affect on her. She captures the ethereal nature of Havisham brilliantly and there are also hints of her menace in this opening episode. At this stage we watch as she trains her adopted daughter Estella to resist the lures of men, but it soon becomes clear that her twisted soul has manifested itself in a far more sinister plan and she attempts to hurt menfolk through her beautiful heir. As such, Pip’s heart is her plaything and we see early evidence of this here when she wrongfoots him with the apprenticeship. After a decade of playing a mainstream American icon, it seems fitting that the self-confessed High School oddball has returned to her roots. And just like any of the Dickensian antiheroes, Miss Havisham must be a joy.