Robert Hanks' Television Review

ONE REACTION to last year's Vanity Fair was pique at the "estuary English" spoken by too many members of the cast. There is some common sense in this - it's clear that a lot of young actors simply can't do posh in the way that they used to - mixed up with a snobbish assumption that classes and their vowels are eternal. I would guess that there is a fair gap between the way a young Victorian gentleman sounded and the way John Mills talked when he played Pip in David Lean's Great Expectations, but nobody complains that he got it wrong.

Still, the fact is that Thackeray and Dickens both described 19th-century types thinking 19th-century thoughts, and, as the 20th century fades out, it is sometimes difficult to find plausible equivalents. You can see this in BBC2's new two-part version of Great Expectations, which started last night.

Pre-publicity had latched on to the casting of Charlotte Rampling as a far younger, more glamorous Miss Havisham than we're accustomed to. In fact, as far as age and appearance goes, Rampling is ideal - the chronology is not obvious, but it seems pretty clear from the fragmentary history in the book that she can't be nearly as old as she seems to young Pip. Any controversy here will have more to do with the appropriateness of the performance, with madness indicated by drooping eyelids and quizzical, monkeyish moue. Elsewhere, we see solid British character actors doing what we expect: Ian McDiarmid brusque and softly menacing as the lawyer Jaggers; Bernard Hill, snarling under a shaven pate, as the convict Magwitch.

But there is still a gulf between what an adaptation needs and what you sometimes have to settle for, best illustrated by the children in the early part of the story. Real modern children look a little too well-fed for the pinched orphans that inhabited Dickens's imagination, and that's the case for Gabriel Thomson's Pip, though he is perfectly fine. Meanwhile, as the young Herbert Pocket, Laurence Dobiesz is amazing, walking and talking with a precocious dignity and unselfconscious absurdity that is utterly true to Dickens's conception. But just as surely as he is right, the young Estella, Gemma Gregory, is wrong - she has a knowingness and, when she has to sing, a pop-influenced way of scooping the notes that were clearly born of the 1990s.

The worst piece of casting must be Tony Curran, the lusty, red-curled plumber of This Life, who here plays the malcontent blacksmith's journeyman Orlick. In the book, Orlick is defined by resentment - he desires what others have; what Curran expresses is a much more modern idea, the existential rage of somebody who has no desires.

Still, the very fact that Orlick is present is a point in favour of Tony Marchant's adaptation. Pip's nemesis in the book, the counterweight to his rising fortunes, Orlick has been altogether omitted from previous versions. You can tell Marchant has gone back to the source and thought things through from first principles. The second half is tonight, and perhaps there'll be room to return to it tomorrow; in the meantime, this looks a flawed, uneasily intelligent Dickens. And at the end of the 20th century, that may be all we can look for.