Friday, 6 January 2012


This is the trailer for the latest adaptation of “Great Expectations” by the BBC. If you are in the UK, and you missed it, it should still be on the BBC iplayer. In the UK, the DVD will be available from 30th January 2012 at Amazon UK. I don’t know when it will be available in the US -- but I am sure it will be at some point.

I think that “Great Expectations” is one of Charles Dickens’ finest novels, and the BBC1 adaptation, shown on three consecutive nights over the Christmas holiday, did Dickens proud. Gillian Anderson, as the ethereal, strange, completely bonkers Miss Havisham, and Ray Winstone, as the menacing Able Magwitch, were nothing short of superb.

“It is traditional to surround yourself with familiar faces at Christmas and the BBC’s festive offering was like an old friend. In keeping with the celebrations of Charles Dickens’ forthcoming bicentenary, “Great Expectations” has to be the jewel in the BBC’s crown.”
From Anne Billson; The Telegraph

For those who don’t know Dickens’ story, here is a sort of synopsis.

Pip, is a young orphan, being brought up by his horrible sister, and her husband, Joe. Joe is a blacksmith; gentle and kind. Pip walks through a graveyard, and out onto the marshes of the River Thames estuary. It is Hackney Marshes, before 20th century drainage, and development. Pip is accosted by an escaped convict, Able Magwitch, who demands that Pip steal a file from the blacksmith’s forge, so that he can rid himself of his shackles. Magwitch tells Pip that if he tells, Magwitch will seek Pip out and kill him. Pip returns with the file and some food for the convict. But Magwitch is recaptured and taken back to the prison ship, bound for Australia.

Miss Havisham is a recluse, living at Satis House. She was jilted on her wedding day, and ever since has remained at the house, still wearing her wedding dress, with the wedding banquet set out on display, waiting for the wedding that never took place. Miss Havisham has an adopted daughter, Estelle. She wants a boy to come and play with her daughter. Pip is that boy. As a child, he falls hopelessly in love with Estella; it is a love that he carries with him into adulthood. This is what Miss Havisham desires; she wants to wreak vengeance on the male sex, because she has been betrayed.

Pip is now an adult, and apprenticed to be a blacksmith at his Uncle Joe’s forge. It is announced that a mysterious figure has stepped forward to be a benefactor to Pip; Pip is to be made a gentleman. He has great expectations.

And that is as far as I am prepared to go with Dickens’ tale. The adaptation tells it better than me. The events up to this point precipitate the rest of the narrative. If you read the book you will not be disappointed; Dickens really does know how to tell a tale and Brian Kirk’s direction of the adaptation is inspired.

“Immediately, in the opening scenes, you can see why this story is a perennial favourite. The glowering sky and gloomy wetlands, are a director’s dream, and Brian Kirk rises to the challenge here, with the sort of desaturated steel-grey look seen in many a recent Hollywood action movie. Ray Winstone as Magwitch emerges from the marsh, like Martin Sheen rising from the Nung river in “Apocalypse Now”, accompanied by the sort of chords that Bernard Hermann gave us in Psycho”.
Anne Billson. The Telegraph.

“A small boy runs frightened, from a lonely churchyard, across a flat, marshy landscape. He starts to cross a little wooden bridge over a muddy creek. Suddenly a big hand appears from underneath the bridge, it grabs the boy's legs, and brings him down. The boy shouts out.”
Sam Wollaston, The Guardian.

The episode plays upon our most primal fear; the hideous troll under the bridge, a troll suddenly made nightmarishly real. It seems absolutely true to the childish fears that pervade the opening pages of the book; the evil monster, which every child knows, lurks beneath the bed -- just waiting.

"Come 'ere, shut up," growls the escaped convict, to whom the big hand belongs. "You scream again and I'll cut your throat, d'you understand?" 

“Winstone is a brilliant Magwitch – rough and gruff and terrifying, but with just a twinkle of kindness and humanity under the mud and the blood. The whole opening scene is perfect; misty and spooky, with the hulks – the prison ships from one of which Magwitch has escaped – at anchor in the distance.”
From Sam Wollaston; The Guardian

Covered in blood and slime, Magwitch, is at once the monster of nightmares; a huge misshapen baby gasping its first breath. In a single sequence, the director Brian Kirk gets to the heart of Dickens’s novel as a fable of rebirth and renewal.

The scene of Magwitch rising from the water is a playful acknowledgment of what underlies all attempts to adapt classic novels for the screen. A moving body breaks out of a flat surface; two-dimensional print gives way to the three dimensions of real life.

Pip brings the file to Magwitch, under dread of being torn to pieces, but he brings the pie only because he has seen that Magwitch is starving. It is this unforced act of kindness that sets everything in motion in the novel.

“Satis House is cold, dusty and cobwebbed, forgotten and forlorn. I see some people have been moaning that Gillian Anderson isn't old enough to be Miss Havisham, that she's a cougar rather than a crone, too ravishing for Havisham. She's not that ravishing, though. They've done a pretty good job of ageing and witchifying her. And, more importantly, she feels like Miss Havisham – not overdone like a pantomime witch but quietly sad, bitter and vengeful, cruelly manipulative, and more than a little bonkers.

Dickens scholars are always going to get upset by any adaptation. They are going to get upset by the end of this one too, as it will coincide neither with Dickens' original ending nor with his revised ending, but will steer a kind of compromise course between the two. That's part of a Dickens scholar's job though, to get upset and argue.”
Sam Wollaston; The Guardian.

The defining scene in any adaptation and in the book, is the death of Miss Havisham. In Dickens’s novel, her dress catches light when she sits too near the fire; she dies weeks later from shock. In the adaptation, however, she solemnly lowers her veil, makes a pyre of her ex-fiancé’s love letters, then steps into the blaze and burns herself to death.

“At 43, Gillian Anderson is the youngest actress to play Miss Havisham. It is a shock to meet this pale yet still beautiful wraith, mouth in need of lip salve and Baby Jane ringlets slowly unravelling, speaking in an insidious singsong, instead of the usual dotty dowager tones. This is a Miss Havisham who has never really grown up.”
From Anne Billson; The Telegraph

“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 have had a profound affect on her. She captures the ethereal nature of Miss Havisham brilliantly and there are also hints of her menace in this opening episode. We watch, cringing, 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 men folk through her beautiful heir. As such, Pip’s heart is her plaything. And although the novel is told through the eyes of Pip, this is just as much Miss Havisham’s story as it is his.”
From Channel Hopping on the Box.

“'You've changed," I tell Gillian Anderson. In 1996, she was chosen as the world's sexiest woman by FHM magazine's readers; this Christmas she will be bald and on fire as Miss Havisham in the BBC's adaptation of Great Expectations. So what made her take this role? Anderson bristles: "That's not really a serious question, is it? The real question is, 'How the fuck did I end up as the world's sexiest woman in 1996?' – not why would I do Great Expectations. Any actor would want to do Great Expectations. I never set out to be the world's sexiest woman."

“Anderson plays Miss Havisham in a childlike, sing-songy voice. Where did that come from? "When I read a script I hear the voice. If I don't hear the voice, the script's not for me. When I work on something, I work on it in that pitch in my head, but don't actually say it out loud."

“But what woman in 2011 could identify with a character whose life stops because she's jilted by a gold digger on her wedding day? Maybe what they're talking about is their heart being broken 20 years ago and they're still pining. But there is something twistedly romantic about the idea that someone is so in love, that their heart is so broken, that they cannot love again, and they literally stop time.

"There is something titillating and tantalising about pain, whether it's physical pain or our own sorrow or somebody else's pain. If you think about tabloids, the glee they take in somebody else's ruin – there's all of that in Miss Havisham and there's a lot of that in our contemporary existence."
From The Saturday Interview. The Guardian.


  1. I love that novel! I hope the latest BBC version crosses the Atlantic soon.
    - Jean Roberta

  2. Thank you Jean! I love the novel too. I think of all Dickens' work it is my favourite.

    Yes, hopefully, you will get to see the new BBC version soon.