I wasn't entirely sure what it was that I was missing from Sarah Phelps's adaptation of Great Expectations until we got to Herbert Pocket. Herbert, you may remember, is the young man Pip encounters at Satis House one day when visiting Miss Havisham and Estella. Herbert challenges Pip to a fight, in a "manner at once light-hearted, business-like, and bloodthirsty".
Herbert has all the mannerisms of a practised pugilist, but none of the finish, and Pip repeatedly lays him out until he finally throws in the sponge – all with the same breezy politeness with which he began the fight. And one of the brilliant things about the scene is the mystifying absence of malice in it. In Phelps's version, though, Pocket isn't an enthusiastic eccentric but a sneering lout, the latest in a long line of people who look at Pip as if he's something they've found on the bottom of their shoe. He pokes him disdainfully with a stick. And my problem with that was less that Phelps had added cruelty to Dickens's novel (cruelty is hardly alien to it), but that she'd taken away one of its rare lighter moments. Great Expectations has a famously dour opening, but a Dickens without an eye for the comedy of human behaviour isn't really Dickens at all.
That said, if you like dour you'll probably love it – and between them Phelps and the director, Brian Kirk, have come up with a terrific way of laying the ghost that haunts all Great Expectations adaptations: the precedent of David Lean's famous film version. Here, our first view was not of the lonely churchyard where Magwitch seizes Pip, but of the Thames, its placid water suddenly broken by a convict's head; Magwitch then erupted from beneath a footbridge to clutch at Pip's ankle, a troll suddenly made nightmarishly real. That seemed absolutely true to the childish fears that pervade the opening pages of the book – and as Pip, Douglas Booth also brought something touching to the unforced act of kindness that sets everything in train in the novel. Pip brings the file under dread of being torn to pieces, but he brings the pie only because he's seen that Magwitch is starving.
After that, the misery is piled on a little heavy. "If you can't beat a boy at Christmas when can you beat him?" asks Pumblechook, cracking Pip around the head, a line invented for him by Phelps and unnecessarily twisting him from pompous hypocrite to something more vicious. And, while there's more textual backing for Mrs Gargery's violence against Pip, she seems even more shrewish on screen than she is in the novel. The writing sketches this with an impressive economy at times. "I have some news, niece, wonderful news," says Pumblechook at one point. "Who's dead?" replies Mrs Gargery instantly. But again all the absurdity of her bad temper has gone. Phelps's biggest liberty, making Miss Havisham young and beautiful rather than the "yellow skin and bone" of the book, didn't greatly worry me, because Gillian Anderson nicely captured the continuing hysteria of her obsession. But I do hope things warm up a tiny bit in the coming episodes.
Fast Freddie, the Widow and Me was also a story of covert benefaction, a Christmas fable in which a callow luxury car salesman is sentenced to community service for drink-driving and finds his heart softened by the experience. Unfortunately, it required its leading character, played by Laurence Fox, to flip between opposed psychologies every 10 minutes and concluded with a stratagem so far-fetched and so breathtakingly amoral (a dying foster child had a "real family" magicked up for him to make his wish come true) that it left you speechless. If Great Expectations had more rage, malice and cruelty poured into it than was entirely comfortable, this had been artificially cleansed of them in the interests of a completely ersatz sense of uplift. Fake family, fake snow, fake emotions.
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