Andrew Davies, known for racy adaptations of the sort that iconised Mr Darcy steaming gloomily in a big wet blouse, once declared that if Charles Dickens were alive today, he’d be writing EastEnders. Very possibly. As circus proprietor Mr Sleary lisps in Hard Times, “People mutht be amuthed, Thquire, thomehow …”
Dickens was also something of a chilled-out entertainer in his time. “I’m afraid he has too much talent for his genius; it is a fearful locomotive to which he is bound and can never be free from it nor set to rest,” opined Ralph Waldo Emerson, after attending a reading by Dickens in America. Two hundred years after the great novelist’s birth, the fearful locomotive steams on. Among the anniversary deluge is Great Expectations, the movie, and Great Expectations, the BBC mini-series, currently gracing our screens.
Why not? Everyone has had a go. There’s a South Park version, in which Miss Havisham commands an army of robot monkeys not to be found in the original text. The BBC adaptation is, happily, less creative. It’s by Sarah Phelps, who has, in fact, written for EastEnders. But any fears that Pip would greet Miss Havisham with “Shut your cakehole, you peroxide old bag” were soon allayed. Doubts were expressed at having Gillian Anderson, once the chilly Agent Scully in The X-Files, as Miss Havisham. Anderson, superb as Lady Dedlock in Bleak House, was considered too young by some to play the becobwebbed, apocalyptically disappointed bride of Satis House. In fact, she’s very good. She’s desiccated, bleached and weightless as a piece of driftwood. What flesh she has is scabby and raw. You just have to get over a certain resemblance to local vintage children’s show character Count Homogenised.
Dickens is routinely proclaimed as the first great novelist of mass culture, so it’s fitting that Anderson’s Miss Havisham also weirdly calls to mind Michael Jackson. Think about it: the paranoia and manipulation; the eccentric living arrangements and parenting style; the skin condition …
But there’s plenty for purists, too. The redoubtable Ray Winstone as Magwitch, rising from the marshes like the creature from the Black Lagoon, is a compelling sight. This is a production that makes the most of the marginal landscapes where much of the good stuff happens in Dickens. He was able to forget the social conventions that make many of his heroines so pious – think of David Copperfield’s Agnes, finger pointed heavenward – and give his sympathy with human nature’s more anarchic side free reign.
Unlike so many meticulous but bloodless adaptations, this one can be very moving. I was in tears – this is some sort of record – in the first 10 minutes. The scene where Pip holds out a filched piece of Mrs Joe’s mutton pie to the chained creature who has been threatening “his tongue and his liver and his lights” is devastating.
This is also a timely reminder of what a world that runs on status and money can do to folk. “Raised up, Mr Gargery! All of us!” cries the awful Mrs Joe repeatedly to her kindly husband, when Miss Havisham seems intent on improving her neglected brother’s fortunes. Even Dickens could take only so much of this unsisterly avarice and soon has her beaten about the head until she’s rendered mute. By the end of the first instalment, Pip is quite grown and prettier than the haughty object of his desire, Estella. We all know where the train is going but it’s well worth another ride.
The first part of the Downton Abbey Christmas Special was surprisingly entertaining, too. The series has always teetered on the brink of period send-up. For the special, it plunged right in. Hot topic is “poor Mr Bates” and his trial for murder, a catastrophe that fails to dampen the traditional massacre of estate wildlife or a festive, period Ouija board session in the servants’ hall. In other worrying news, Lord Grantham remains aghast at daughter Sybil’s marriage to Branson, the politically incorrect chauffeur. “Cheer up,” chirps Lady Grantham philosophically. “Come the revolution it may be useful to have a contact on the other side.”
As always, Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess, Lady Violet, steals the show. A hormonal, very single Lady Edith, possibly fearing a Miss Havisham-like future, bemoans the absence of the odd-but-eligible Sir Anthony Stallan from the shooting party. “He was so keen before the War!” she cries. “Perhaps he’s had enough banging for one life,” intones Lady Violet unsympathetically. Sir Robert has to make do with delivering increasingly ludicrous lines – “I think I can be relied upon to recall any guest who was found dead in his bed the next morning!” – with a straight face. Mad as a troupe of robot monkeys.
GREAT EXPECTATIONS, UKTV, tonight, 7.30pm.