Contemporary expectations;Television

16th April 1999 at 01:00
GREAT EXPECTATIONS. BBC 2. Saturday, April 179.05-12.10am.

A jailbird, a legacy, a love story, a jilted dame - Aleks Sierz watches Dickens

Gabriel Thomson, the fresh-faced boy who plays young Pip in the BBC's new adaptation of Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, occasionally allows a cloud to cross his innocent brow. You can easily see why. Not only is he an orphan but every time he does something wrong, the sister who's bringing him up flashes her eyes in anger. Terrifying.

Then, while playing in the fields, he's grabbed by Magwitch, an escaped convict. Later, he's mocked by Estella, an upper-class minx, and menaced by Miss Havisham, a dusty old dame. But there is one advantage to growing up in a blacksmith's forge - you don't have to go to school.

As adapted by Tony Marchant, this version of Pip's growth from country boy to city gent - helped on his way by a mysterious benefactor - tells the story with a sharp eye for contemporary resonances. Having a benefactor is a bit like winning the Lottery. It allows Pip to realise some of his great expectations and move out of the class into which he was born.

But although Pip falls helplessly for the snooty Estella, she has other plans. After all, she's been brought up by the crazy Miss Havisham for whom time has stood still since she was jilted at the altar 30 years previously. Now, she amuses herself by teaching her niece how to be cruel to men. Can, asks Marchant, both Pip and Estella overcome the disadvantages of their upbringing?

The early scenes of this adaptation disappoint the most, simply because here the memory of previous versions - such as David Lean's 1946 film - is strongest. Gradually, however, Marchant and director Julian Jarrold draw you into the story's deeper emotional currents. So while the opening scene with the convict Magwitch fails to thrill, the climax when Miss Havisham sets fire to herself is truly terrifying.

Pedants will doubtless tut "that's not in the book" as Marchant adds a couple of new scenes - including one which shows the newly-married Estella as the victim of a wife-beater - but these do give the story an extra contemporary edge. This Victorian tale about lost fathers and damaged children feels like a modern account of how abuse in turn creates abusers.

Finally, instead of choosing one of Dickens's two endings - the happy or the sad - Marchant opts for his own last scene, showing Pip and Estella playing cards, a symbolic return to the shared moments of their childhood. It's a suitably muted note of hope, which feels just right.

As in other BBC frock flicks, the casting of Great Expectations may raise eyebrows. Charlotte Rampling at first seems much too young to play the crusty Miss Havisham but she does gradually convey a much more complex character than the aged monster familiar from previous versions. But Bernard Hill's Magwitch is far too good a soul - he wouldn't harm a fly.

As Pip and Estella, Ioan Gruffudd and Justine Waddell add shades of sadness to what can at times seem like a sentimental love story. Even more satisfying are the grotesque cameos, such as Ian McDiarmid's chilling Jaggers and Nicholas Woodeson's humorous Wemmick, the two contrasting lawyers.

For teachers, Marchant's Great Expectations will help with the psychology of Dickens's characters and the theme of class.

Doubtless squeals of disgust will accompany the shots of Miss Havisham's dessicated wedding feast, with its rats, worms and insects, although there is a greater danger that by the end, some will succumb to a total weepfest.

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