Despite the triumphant eight hour version of Bleak House in 2005, there was talk of the BBC cutting back on costume dramas and putting Charles Dickens adaptations on hold.

Thankfully, there seems to have been a rethink at Broadcasting House and so we were treated to a marvellous three part version of Great Expectations over Christmas and can look forward to The Mystery of Edwin Drood soon.

The BBC is to Dickens what Fox television is to reactionary journalism and the festive period is the ideal time of year to watch these dramas.

My first impression was that Gillian Anderson was seriously miscast as Miss Havisham. The ex-X Files actress was a perfect Lady Dedlock in Bleak House but initially she looked altogether too youthful and attractive to be the faded old woman Pip describes in the novel:  “I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes”.  By episode three, however, my doubts had subsided as her spectral beauty at the start make her decline and eventual death all the more tragic and moving.

Even had this not been so, the rest of the cast would have more than compensated. Ray Winstone as the convict Abel Magwitch and David Suchet as the ruthlessly efficient lawyer Jaggers are every bit as good as you would expect them to be and Douglas Booth in the role of the adult Pip is a real discovery.

Dickens’ moral messages are always fundamentally simple, even simplistic, and Great Expectations is perhaps the most rounded and complete of all his novels. Sarah Phelps does a fine job in condensing the essential ingredients of the plot into three hours. Dickens’ tale shows the importance of being true to one’s roots and this theme is so universal and accessible that it comes as no surprise to learn that this particular adaption has also proved to be a success with a younger audience.

The third episode is where the mysteries are resolved and connections are made to the extent that we can appreciate the wisdom of Jaggers’ affirmation that “some secrets are best left”.  We can also understand Miss Havisham’s harsh judgement of Pip when she says: “You are not a gentleman nor a blacksmith – you’re just a boy from the forge”.  In other words, you can take the man from the forge but you can’t take the forge from the man.

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