By Will Barber Taylor
Great Expectations is the highly acclaimed BBC Dickens adaptation, filled with memorable and colourful characters, about a poor orphan elevated into wealth, and then humbled by pride and love. Written by acclaimed playwright Hugh Leonard, who adapted many of Dickens’ books for TV and the stage, and directed by BAFTA-winner Alan Bridges (The Shooting Party), this is a delightful cautionary tale of the power of wealth to corrupt. Starring BAFTA-winner Francesca Annis (Home Fires), Gary Bond (Zulu), Hannah Gordon (The Elephant Man) and BAFTA-nominee Peter Vaughan (Game of Thrones).
Set in Kent and London in the early-to-mid 19th century, Young orphan Philip Pirrip (Christopher Guard) – known as Pip – encounters escaped convict Magwitch (John Tate) in a deserted graveyard, and helps him find food and escape his shackles. When his kindness is later rewarded by an unexpected inheritance, the adult Pip (Gary Bond), surrounded by home comforts and luxuries, grows mean and arrogant – but is smitten with Estella (Francesca Annis). Raised by the vindictive recluse Miss Havisham (Maxine Audley), Estella has been brought up to be distrustful of all men, and is aloof and cold towards him.
Great Expectation is one of Charles Dickens’ finest novels. Published during the latter part of his career, it has been adapted numerous times on film and television. One of the earliest adaptations, the Charles Dickens Classics release of Great Expectations brings all the darkness and depression of Kent and the bright but tawdry world of Dickensian London to life.
Alan Bridges, director of classics such as The Shooting Party and Age of Innocence crafts a daring and lucid picture, bringing Dickens’ characters to life with all the colour and brightness that they possessed when encapsulated on the page. Bridges’ vivid depiction of young Pip’s first meeting with Magwitch in the graveyard. Equally stunning is his tragic realisation of Miss Havisham’s dining table which is a thing to behold in of itself. His frank and honest portrayal of the grimy and unromantic poverty which Pip finds himself in is a triumph of early BBC TV directing.
The acting in the drama is exceptional. Both young Pip (Christopher Guard) and adult Pip (Garry Bond) display the two faces of the character – that of an honest and gentle figure and that of a naïve person, easily swayed by things that he never had. Guard’s reaction to Magwitch (John Tate) is particularly well done – a mixture of astonished fear and fascinating, perfectly reflecting Dickens’ description of the scene. Tate’s portrayal of Magwitch is equally well done; he captures all the discrepancies that make Magwitch such a fascinating character. Maxine Audley’s Miss Havisham is also worthy of high praise; her imperious demeanour hides a wrecked and fragile figure, whose desire for revenge drives her to enact hideous acts on those she professes to care for.
In conclusion, whilst it is nearly 50 years old, this release of Great Expectations is as enjoyable, engaging and witty as it should be. I’d highly recommend it for anyone who wishes to venture down the road of memory lane to witness how powerful TV drama could be, long, long ago.