The announcement this summer that several vintage BBC TV adaptations of Dickens novels produced between 1958 and 1969 were at last to become commercially available on DVD was met with unconstrained glee in the household of Mr. & Mrs Regency Mod. My regular reader(s) will be aware that this very portal of debate and deliberation was the site of an article concerning the legacy and reception of Charles Dickens in the 1960s. Coincidence, then, that the august corporation should reexamine its archives and dust away the cobwebs from telerecordings of yore? Perhaps. But here at Regency Towers, we flatter ourselves that, in our own small way, we have cajoled certain people into action so that others may now reap the fruits of our labours.
So, it was with mounting trepidation and a not uncommon sense of excitement that, a month or so ago, the outer polythene wrap was removed from my newly-received digital recording of Campbell Logan’s 1967 production of Great Expectations, starring Gary Bond as Pip, Francesca Annis as Estella, Maxine Audley as Miss Havisham and John Tate as Magwitch. Reader, you may recall I wrote briefly about this in my last post (May 2017) on what little information I could find. Now, having watched this fascinating and important landmark in television Dickensiana, I can provide more details and opinions.
Serialized over ten 25-30-minute episodes (from Jan 22), filming for the 1967 BBC dramatization of Great Expectations started late in 1966. Most of the action was recorded in the studio on videotape with outside location sequences in film and occasional inserts of filmed landscape. However, because the videotape was lost or destroyed and only a film telerecording exists, the inside shots are now visible in a format that largely mirrors the exterior scenes. The overall impression is therefore more antique than, say, The Forsyte Saga, running concurrently on BBC2, which still survives in ‘as live’ b & w videotape. Occasional faults in picture quality tend to reinforce an impression of a film made decades earlier, prior even to the classic 1946 David Lean production. Personally, I find this lends an eerie, gritty atmosphere to the whole, with unexpected benefits for a modern audience.
An episode-by-episode analysis of this adaptation would be superfluous to current requirements. Nonetheless, the opening scene of the novel, where seven-year-old orphan Pip encounters the desperate escaped convict Magwitch on the north Kentish marshes, is the stuff of legends and a crucial marker of any film, television or theatre production. How does it fare?
John Tate as Magwitch, Great Expectations, BBC, 1967
Working with a small budget (the BBC had invested heavily in the lavish Forsyte Saga on BB2), there is a certain impression of making do. A jauntily incongruous soundtrack thankfully fades before young Pip, played with quiet aplomb by Christopher Guard (elder brother of Dominic), approaches the graveyard where the manacled Magwitch lies in wait. Despite its minimalism, the ensuing encounter is dramatic enough, Tate immediately capturing both the convict’s raw, brutal instinct for survival and the humanity that will bind him to the boy who brings him food and a file. Dialogue is crisp, rushed even, but so much action is packed into Dickens’ opening chapter that this hardly matters. The harrowing sight of a decaying corpse hanging from a jibbet will provide the backdrop to the opening credits to each episode, thus reinforcing the shock and significance of Pip’s early encounter with the convict.
Indeed, what the early scenes lack in scale and grandeur is made up for in small details that reveal a close, astute reading of the novel. For example, as Pip pours tar water into the brandy that will cause Uncle Pumblechook (Norman Scace) such choking discomfort at the Christmas dinner, the camera picks out the upturned hare imagined in the text to be winking at the guilt-ridden child. The range of Guard’s facial expression here is impressive. Nearly thirteen at the time (and thus suited to later scenes of Pip’s burgeoning feelings for Estella and changing relationship with Joe (movingly played by Neil McCarthy), Guard’s ability to convey emotion outwardly translates to the screen the inner workings of Pip’s mind (a haunting feature of Dickens’ brilliant first-person narrative). Unfortunately, his early visits to Miss Havisham’s Satis House are undermined by the choice not to cast a child actress as the younger Estella. Though Maxine Audley as Miss Havisham is coldly middle-aged as the book insists (rather than decrepit), the gap of eight years between Annis and Guard at the time of filming precludes a convincing depiction of the (pre-)adolescent tension so crucial to these character-forming events in Pip’s life.
An overall emphasis on close textual analysis, though, is a welcome feature of an adaptation that preserves much of Dickens’ memorable dialogue. It also extends to a sensitive handling of subtleties of the novel that have eluded subsequent versions, especially for cinema. Those of us disappointed by how later productions mistake or ignore the novel’s significant dating (GE is a Victorian novel set for the most part in the Regency period) will be reassured by writer Hugh Leonard’s evident knowledge of its historical setting. References to ‘His Majesty’ and ‘the King’ during the scene of the soldiers’ arrival at Joe’s forge in Chapter 5 (the novel opens c.1809-13) are maintained in preference to the incorrect ‘Her Majesty’ of other versions. Later episodes of Pip’s life in London, his renewed acquaintance with Estella and Magwitch’s flight convey convincingly an 1820s ambiance (give or take an occasional anachronism) rather than an erroneous Victorian one. Only the very last scenes of the adaptation (Pip’s ‘final’ encounter with Estella) are correctly and unambiguously Victorian (the unfolding of both endings of the novel can roughly be dated to 1840-1845).
Maxine Audley as Miss Havisham and Christopher Guard as Pip, Great Expectations, BBC, 1967
More importantly, perhaps, the shady and insidious character of Orlick (played by Ronald Lacey), excluded from so many film and television versions, is present in this production. Orlick is a crucial figure in the novel’s structure and meaning, shadowing and exposing Pip’s guilty thoughts, the responsible party for the violent attack on Mrs. Joe and a determining agent in the Compeyson plot. Adaptations of the novel without him are effectively stripped of an entire layer of its deeper meaning, his absence usually clearing the way for a smoother transformation of the protagonist into a romantic Hollywood hero. Lacey’s Orlick is a sinister, lime-besmirched whiner, at times bordering on the ridiculous. Yet the scene of his capture of Pip out on the marshes towards the novels’ denouement is strangely powerful and unsettling.
It should be remembered that in 1960 Julian Moynahan’s article ‘The Hero’s Guilt: The Case of Great Expectations’, published in Essays in Criticism, had foregrounded Orlick’s role in the novel. The darker realism and proto-modernism of Dickens’ later period was now competing with his Pickwickian joviality and fireside Christmas cheer. Director Alan Bridges may also have been thinking of ‘rite of passage’ British films such Look Back in Anger and Billy Liar as well as Ken Loach’s immediately contemporary Cathy Come Home, broadcast on November 16, 1966. Though her brief analysis of the 1967 Great Expectations is, in my opinion, unduly negative, Professor Mary Hammond makes a good point when defining it as ‘kitchen-sink Dickens’ (Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations: A Cultural Life, 1860-2012) and is certainly correct to link it with Loach’s drama and flag up contemporary comparisons with Joe Orton’s Loot.
Despite press criticism that the adaptation was ‘slow-moving’ (Hammond cites The Western Daily Press) the ‘three stages of Pip’s Expectations’ are given equal space over the ten episodes. The shift from Kent to London occurs during episode 4, the arrival of the mildly obsessive-compulsive lawyer Mr. Jaggers (brilliantly played by Peter Vaughan) at the forge providing the culmination to episode 3. Magwitch’s return from Australia to Pip’s new quarters in the Temple (the culmination of the second stage) takes place in episode 7. With Magwitch’s flight and recapture dominating episode 9, space is given in the final episode to Wemmick’s wedding, Pip’s illness and convalescence with Joe (complete with psychedelic dream sequences de riguer for early ’67), his return to the forge and (of great interest) a culminating scene adapted from the novel’s original ending in which Pip and ‘little Pip’ (Joe and Biddy’s son) meet Estella by chance in London but there is no hint at all of a future partnership.
Maxine Audley as Miss Havisham, Francesa Annis as Estella and Gary Bond as Pip, Great Expectations, BBC, 1967
Great Expectations has proved a difficult novel to transmit to the screen without curtailing much of its wry humour or the ambivalent narratorial construction of Pip as at once a sympathetic and deeply unsympathetic character. In compensation for the Orlick plot and symbolism, the Logan-Bridges production leaves out most of Pip’s education in London (with Matthew Pocket), the ‘third convict’ scenes, the Finches of the Grove drinking club and perhaps the most amusing sections of the novel, the theatrical set-pieces of Mr. Wopsle’s dramatic career (one of which features the sighting of the returned Compeyson). Nonetheless, Gary Bond is largely successful in conveying the central transformation of Pip’s character as he learns to love Magwitch, the architect of his ‘fortunes’. Like the majority of the Kentish characters, however, his pre-gentleman accent seems to come from anywhere but the Hoo Peninsula!
The major women characters are all well-cast and convincingly played. Maxine Audley (Miss Havisham), known to some of my readers as Mrs. Beauchamp in Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (1967), was a highly-experienced stage and screen actor at the time of production. Her interpretation of the jilted bride encrusted in dusty cobwebs, faded linen and vindictive intent strikes a fine balance between unhinged delusion, calculated revenge and (alongside Dickens himself) a sarcastic contempt for the hangers-on and toadies around her. Meanwhile, Francesca Annis plays the beautiful but ‘heartless’ Estella with just enough compassion for us to feel aggrieved at the choice of the original ending for this production (especially as the viewer sees her turning back to look at Pip as he continues examining exhibits in a museum). Finally, Hannah Gordon as wise, loving Biddy and Shirley Cain as Mrs Gargery (Pip’s sister) both give strong, sensitive performances.
Bernard Hepton as Wemmick & Gary Bond as Pip, Great Expectations, BBC, 1967
Whilst acknowledging Professor Hammond’s view that the directing of the original ending may ‘border[s] on misogyny’ in ‘the use of broken Estella to salvage Pip’s ego’ (Hammond, 2016, p. 140), I would like to suggest an alternative reading of the unusual choice of the original ‘less happy’ ending.
This TV production of Great Expectations was broadcast in the lead-up to the decriminalization of homosexuality for men over the age of 21 in August 1967. Gary Bond (26 at the time of filming) was a gay man who, from 1969 to 1976, would be the partner of actor Jeremy Brett. Although further research would be needed to put this case, I wonder whether the decision not to have Pip and Estella united romantically may have been a reflection, not just on the sexuality of Bond himself, but the impending change in the law. Without going as far as calling it a ‘gay reading’ of the novel, I wonder if these circumstances might have dictated the choice for a new, daring adaptation of Great Expectations so soon after the 1959 BBC production.
More than a conventional romance between a man and woman, Great Expectations is one of the ultimate novels of what today we might call a ‘bromance’. Pip has significant emotional attachments to four other men: Magwitch, Joe, Herbert Pocket (charmingly played by Richard O’Sullivan) and Wemmick (delightfully played by Bernard Hepton). Whilst the first ultimately reveals a marked father-son structure, the other three are ‘brotherly’ relationships which all end in marriages except for Pip. Towards the end of the novel, the protagonist jocularly refers to himself as “quite an old bachelor”, a line that is preserved in the final episode of this adaptation. Later, as Pip leaves Estella to look once again at the ‘exhibits’, the viewer is left with an impression that time has left him with no romantic interest in any woman whatsoever.
© The Regency Mod, 2017