Great Expectations (1985 Miniseries)


I received this miniseries as part of a "Charles Dickens" boxed set, including also Oliver Twist, Bleak House and Hard Times, amongst one or two more. I had read the novel, Great Expectations, some time back. I think I would have been about 14-15, so a decade an a half ago. I was sure I would love it when I started reading it, but by the end, I was pretty sure I hated it. It struck me as a series of poorly, barely stictched together scenes in which everything worked out with a couple of twists and surprise: an ending. Had it not been for Tale of Two Cities, I would likely have given up on Dickens with that one book. (Note: that is the fate that has happened to many, nearly everyone I ask with a bone to pick with Dickens, attributes said bone to reading Great Expectactions in high school.)

With the passing of a decade and a half, though, as well as the ability to see it in a new light (and as a mini-series instead of a book), and with Harold Bloom's claim that he identifies with Pip more than most other Dickens' characters; I felt I should give it a second chance.

For those not in the know, or in the somewhat forgot, Great Expectations is about a young man named Pip who is raised by a poor blacksmith, but longs for something more. He gets his chance with a large side-order of pride and greed. His story is sort of a Christmas Carol in reverse. Pip is one of the most honestly human characters Dickens wrote: never a bad person, even when foolish, and it is hard to really hate him for his idiocy; as much as it hard to forgive him. He is a flesh and blood character that is taken as both good and bad at once. This, and its generally straightforward plot, is probably why it is often singled out as a common summer reading list title.

The 1981 miniseries opens true to form for most 1970s' and -80's BBC miniseries. True to dialogue with murky sets and badly mixed sound. It has that same absence of score and a habit of focusing on characters' faces. It stretches 12 episodes (11 of which are 25 or so minutes long, one of which is double length) and occupies a good 5-6 hours of time. I decided it was best to watch it in bursts, an episode or three over a couple of weeks.

There are two major things that I did not like about this production. The first is the acting of Stratford Johns as Magwitch. While Johns was perfect for the playing of the reformable convict through many scenes, when quiet, the believability of such falls a bit to the side. He copes with the balance between the criminal and the lovable by rasphy whiskers and dunderheaded looks. Had he been more agressively lovable, it would have been better. The other bit, and the major flaw of the production was, unfortunately, Julian Amyes direction. Amyes spent too much time lost between the close ups and far away pans, and often lost the important shot in the middle. Some of his scenes had a wondrous immediacy, but far too many had the look of a staged production. He also allowed his troupe to lapse into mumble mode too often. Effective as it is to show their consternation, it kills the effect when the watcher is as left behind from the monologue as the other characters in the room.

There was much to enjoy, though. While the central characters of Pip (Gerry Sundquist) and Estella (the very attractive Sarah-Jane Varley) were only middling, Tim Munro played a delightful Herbert Pocket. Added to this was Derek Francis as the stern but earnest Jaggers and Colin Jeavons as the "nearly a fool" Wemmick. These three supporting males were my favorite part, along with the Phillip Joseph as the slightly too comic Joe. James Andrew Hall's screenplay managed to get all the important bits in, and make all the subplots loop back around pleasantly. I'll admit that it is too long for me to really remember the book and so I have no idea how much it deviates. The scenes I recall seem about right, and that is all I can say about that.

This version's biggest strength, and biggest weakness, is its earnest portrayal of the original subject. Down to Matthew Pocket's not-quite-right-for-tv mannerisms; this version is about bringing Dickens as-is to the screen. It probably won't win over any newcomers, but I recommend it to people who have to read the book, or had to the read book. It will probably make more sense as to why you were meant to care, for the latter, and will save up time to read a better Dickens, such as Bleak House, for the former.

Written by W Doug Bolden

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