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Families are like boxes of chocolates. They turn up around Christmas, full of joyful truffles and pralines, and then six days and five boxes later you’re furiously sick of them and all that’s left are the ones with bright green insides and suspicious nuts.
Unfortunately, most Christmas TV seems reluctant to acknowledge this. The time of year when people feel the sourest about human nature is the time when we get warmth, love and familial togetherness shoved down our throats, all of which leaves (much like that 36th chocolate) a nasty taste in the mouth. It’s true that people should be selfless, and noble, and kind – except that it turns out to be quite difficult to manage on a day to day basis, to say nothing of major holidays. So it’s quite pleasant to find a Christmas special that concerned itself with families being not just slightly unpleasant to each other but so out-and-out vile that it makes you feel positively saintly by comparison. I’m talking, of course, about the BBC’s new adaptation of Great Expectations.
After a festive diet of Doctor Who, Downton Abbey and The Borrowers, Great Expectations was a black-hearted, cynical delight, a portrait of a world in which most people seem to make decisions by wondering ‘Will this destroy or seriously harm the happiness of another human being?’ with the implication that, if not, they are NOT TRYING HARD ENOUGH.
It’s ironic that the Dickens who wrote insane, flammable Miss Havisham, and horse- and wife-beater Bentley Drummle, is the same man who gave us a lot of what we now think of as the gooeyest, most sentimental ingredients of Christmas (turkey, snow, forgiveness, happiness in the eyes of small children) – ironic, but not entirely surprising. Dickens had a soft heart (the explanation for characters like Jo the crossing-sweeper) but a thoroughly nasty imagination (the explanation for Jo the crossing-sweeper’s fate), and it’s the nasty imagination that’s definitely uppermost in Great Expectations, a heartwarming story about bad things happening to not particularly good people.
Maybe it’s Christmas getting to me, but this adaptation of Great Expectations seemed to be more than ever about the uniquely knotty problems that come from families. The good ones don’t stick around while the bad ones refuse to leave; the ones you don’t have, you want, the ones you do have, you don’t appreciate; and just when you think you’re safe, hitherto unknown or forgotten-about relations turn up in droves to gleefully ruin your life.
The opening scene of Great Expectations (set on gorgeously atmospheric marshland – the Beeb, as always, has done great things with mist and fog) sees the orphaned Pip tending the graves of his (extremely dead) parents. But just as you think that he’s alone in the world, someone that looks suspiciously like a replacement father figure rears up in front of him, dripping mud, and Pip’s already dreadful life goes downhill from there. Unsuitable parents, indeed, keep literally coming back to haunt Pip. You think I’m exaggerating? Magwitch bursts up out of the ground, chains clanking like the nastiest sort of ghoul, and Miss Havisham spends all her time floating around her house ethereally in a long white dress. They’re Pip’s very own Ghosts of Parents Past.
Nor am I exaggerating about their unsuitability. In what may be one of literature’s most impressive examples of terrible parenting, Miss Havisham brings up her daughter Estella specifically to ruin other people’s lives, and in her free moments meddles so successfully with Pip’s that he ignores his only really good family member, his humble but loving brother-in-law Joe, in order to be spectacularly unhappy and spectacularly in debt in London. There’s a happy ending, of course – there always is – but it’s a doubtful and mixed one, even for Dickens. The real point of the story comes from all of Pip’s bad decisions, all the things (and there are many) that he gets wrong on the way to realising that Joe is not such a bad chap after all, even if he is a bit hairy and muddy and prone to dropping his aitches.
As always, the BBC has done a wonderful job of presenting its material. Dickens’s characters ought to have faces as weird and wriggly as their names, and this Great Expectations has an ensemble cast that looks like they were originally discovered in the pages of a particularly nutty cartoonist’s sketchbook. Everyone’s clothes stick out from their bodies like beetle carapaces or possibly armour, their hair is wild and there’s a definite aura of grime that hovers around their bodies to remind us – as if we needed to be – what a nasty world we’re in. It’s all exemplified by Miss Havisham, who we see literally rotting away as the plot progresses. Her hair-line recedes, her skin flakes, her dress tears and she gets unnerving crusty bits around her mouth. Gillian Anderson, by the way, deserves a special commendation for her portrayal, which she manages to make both creepily sympathetic and mad as a bag of furiously struggling rodents. It’s all very much in the spirit of the original, and wonderful (although that might not entirely be the right word) to watch.
Twisty, dark and full of the rottenest, meanest kind of Dickensian humour, the new Great Expectations was the perfect anti-Christmas treat. It was also a nice little reminder to us all to cherish the fact that our own families, for all their strange and infuriating flaws, are (probably) not actually trying to con us, crush our dreams or kill us. For which small mercies, as Dickens might say if he was feeling in the mood, God bless them, every one.