I do enjoy a laugh at Christmas. And whatever other criticisms you might make of the BBC's new production of Great Expectations – which concluded last night – it wasn't short on humour. Shame that none of it was intentional.
Gillian Anderson doing a Gloria Swanson on Miss Havisham had me giggling. Estella peeling off her stockings to paddle in the river before a steamy kiss with Pip had me snorting uncontrollably. And Bentley Drummle becoming chums with Pip and visiting a whorehouse together had me roaring (in the book, Pip hated Drummle as a "clumsy, contemptible, sulky booby").
Sadly, these were the only light moments in what was otherwise a humourless production of one of the wittiest books in the English language. Who can forget the tenderness and pathos of Pip's meeting with Joe Gargery at Pip's chambers, Joe not knowing where to put his hat? Or Herbert Pocket's hopelessly gentle punch-up with Pip in the grounds of Satis House?
Screenwriter Sarah Phelps for one. This writer of TV soap opera re-invented characters, gave them new words and put them in non-existent scenes. This would have been entirely defensible if she had produced a startlingly novel effect. But the only effect was one of tedium, drift, and multiplying perplexity.
What dramatic logic was there behind making Drummle befriend Pip? Why make Miss Havisham more attractive than Estella? Or Pip (played by a former Mulberry model) more attractive than both put together? Why make young Herbert Pocket a thug – or simple, good Joe a wise, grave and knowing father figure?
And the dialogue – much of it not Dickens – was simply clunky ("I don't know who you are!" barks an uncharacteristically sharp Wemmick to Pip, megaphoning the fashionable theme of "identity".) A simple case of a misconceived casting director and writer? Perhaps. But I have a suspicion that under the current BBC head of drama, Ben Stephenson, there is a sense that the past is not respected, but condescended to.
Look at the BBC's attempt to recreate the 1950s in The Hour, shown earlier this year. Just as Great Expectations was both simultaneously feminised, Jane Austenised and "sexed up", The Hour failed to "inhabit" the period. The characters all felt as if they had been parachuted in from a later era. It's as if we were being told, "Those guys in the old days were OK, but if they only had their values straight – less sexist, more sexual, less naïve, more cynical – they'd be realistic, or better still, modern." The only really successful historical adaptation under Stephenson's regime has been The Crimson Petal and the White – the 2002 Michel Faber novel specifically written as a modern take on the Victorian period.
The reason Andrew Davies's great adaptation of Bleak House in 2007 was so perfect, was, I suspect, because he was genuinely and unironically in love with the period. This Expectations felt like just another source text to which Phelps could apply a contemporary formula. And the difference love makes, as Dickens knew, is the difference between all that rings true and all that is hollow.
Tim Lott's latest novel, 'Under the Same Stars', will be published in April by Simon & Schuster
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