The title sequence of the new Great Expectations on BBC 1 is as clever as the rest of it. It shows a moth hatching from its burnished chrysalis, fluttering into life, embellishing its wings with curlicues and then settling upon a brocade where it turns black and still. It is creepy and suggestive. The final frame resembles a black heart. The moth, we may surmise, has been living among Miss Havisham’s ancient bridalware, but its brief life is also a metaphor for our own. More specifically its decorations prefigure the fine clothes that our hero Pip will wear when in London in receipt of his benefaction. But the moth also references Pip’s chilly love interest, Estella. Caught by Pip being chatted up by the evil Drummle, she will tell him: “Moths and all sorts of ugly creatures hover about a lighted candle. Can the candle help it?”
Wonderful moments in a superb production – Ray Winston’s look to Pip when he offers him the pie, Gillian Anderson’s ghostly entrance on the staircase and Oscar Kennedy wonderful throughout as young Pip. The interpretation of Miss Havisham is so different to what has gone before – the cunning and scheming is there but so also is the vulnerability.
Once the titles are over the adaptor Sarah Phelps’ cleverness takes over. Purists may think that she believes she is cleverer than Dickens. She does not let Pip narrate her tale. We meet Magwitch before Pip does and while Ray Winstone’s emergence from the Kent marshes is primeval and revolting it is not as scary as his appearance in the novel, where the convict starts up from among the graves where Pip has been considering the deaths of his family. Back at Pip’s adopted home, there is no Biddy, the simple, kind-hearted country girl whom Pip considers beneath him but who in the end marries Joe, the kindly blacksmith who is his surrogate father. The vicious Orlick assaults Mrs Joe, but Phelps misses out on Dickens’ macabre joke of making the brain-damaged woman then make him her favourite visitor.
But the sins of omission, necessitated when turning a 600-page novel into three hours of television, are outweighed by the virtues of Phelps’ inventions. Chief among these are her decision to turn Miss Havisham into Gillian Anderson. At 43, Anderson is much younger than the mad old lady of the novel, ten years younger even than Charlotte Rampling was when she played her in the 1999 BBC version. But the casting is triumphant. Anderson is girly, coquettish, vulnerable. Her manipulation of Pip is almost a seduction. She is worse than mad: she is very, very bad.
In fact, it is all round a brilliantly cast Expectations. Ray Winstone sees off all rivals as the desperate Magwitch. Shaun Dooley as Joe is an affecting embodiment of Christian decenc y. Claire Rushbrook as Mrs Joe is a despicable Tartar, Mark Addy a hilarious Pumblechook. As Jaggers, the lawyer, David Suchet is a sinister intelligence from another planet (London). Above all, Oscar Kennedy as the young Pip (we have hardly had time yet to judge the older, Douglas Booth) is a presence not a cipher, a formidable guardian of childhood secrets. As we expect from BBC classic serials, this Expectations looks wonderful. One got yesterday a real sense of the remote, watery geography of Pip’s home. Escaping it looks as hazardous as breaking out of Alcatraz. Hazardous, Pip’s escape will prove to be.