`Great characters and a terrific climax'

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W ith the return of Pip, Estella, Magwitch and Miss Havisham to television next month, Great Expectations becomes the Dickens novel most often adapted by the BBC. There have been three previous versions, in 1959, 1967, and 1981, as well as the celebrated 1946 film directed by David Lean, in which John Mills played Pip and Valerie Hobson was Estella. A cast that included Michael York, Sarah Miles, James Mason, Margaret Leighton, Robert Morley, Rachel Roberts and Anthony Quayle could not rescue a TV movie of the novel made in 1975. Last year came a modern-day film version with Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke.

"Quite simply, it's Dickens's best story," says Hugh Leonard, who directed the BBC's 1967 Great Expectations, and did a stage version of it in Dublin three years ago. "I keep going back to it. It's a fairly short, it's got wonderful characters and there's a terrific climax."

The latest BBC version - with Ioan Gruffudd as Pip, Justine Waddell as Estella and Bernard Hill as Magwitch - has contemporary echoes, according to producer David Snodin: "It's like doing Shakespeare again and again. The sensibility of the time places a new spin on an old classic. Every time you read the book, you see something different."

David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby, Our Mutual Friend and A Tale of Two Cities have each had three BBC adaptations, and there have been two versions of Bleak House, Dombey and Son, Martin Chuzzlewit, The Old Curiosity Shop and Oliver Twist.