Great TV for Hard Times?

There’s a whole slew of scholarly opinion to suggest that, if you’re celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25th, you’re probably handing out the congratulations a few months to early. As far as I know, though, there’ve not yet been any plans to shift the date of Christmas in the hope of being more factually correct. On the contrary, this year, we have a whole other set of premature birthday celebrations to make a song and dance about. Despite the fact that the actual date’s not until February, this Christmas the BBC is kicking off the festivities for Charles Dickens’ bicentenary in true yuletide fashion – that is, a few months too soon.

Despite the fact that we’re not even in the right year yet, on all other accounts the timing couldn’t be better. What with all recessionary doom and gloom, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this winter we’re s a little light on the best of times and a little heavy on the worst. Good timing for Charlie then, to make his mark again, and spread a bit of good, old-fashioned, orphan-bashing, bonnet-wearing, preposterously-monikered, Victorian cheer.

Cultural commentators never get tired of saying how, in times of economic uncertainty, we turn to the comfortable, familiar, and traditional. The classic example is the tendency of theatres after ticket sales to drum out another production of Shakespeare, but anyone who’s seen Hamlet knows that any comfort we get from a familiar premise is wiped out by the unsettling quality of the actual play. In contrast, Dickens, with his domestic angels, soft comedy, and villains of pure caricature, is basically a comfy sofa and a tartan blanket inherited from your granny, but in prose form. And that’s just his books. What we’re being treated to this winter is more recession-beating than any stimulus package and/or austerity scheme (delete as ideologically appropriate) could ever hope to be – a multi-million pound, BBC-produced adaption, of Great Expectations, a book so entrenched in the British cultural psyche that it’s sits on equal footing with Romeo and Juliet on the GCSE curriculum. If the novel is a sofa and a blanket, then turning it into a festive serialisation is more-or-less equivalent to adding into the mix a roaring fire, and a big tin of Quality Street. I can’t even begin to describe the levels of comforting tweeness that we will reach if they had decided to show it on a Sunday evening.

A three-parter, which kicks off on Tuesday December 27th, the new adaptation stars relative newcomer Douglas Booth as Pip, Ray Winestone giving a brilliantly typecast turn as Magwitch and the X Files’s Gillian Anderson as a suitably ethereal Miss Havisham. As if the original source material itself wasn’t enough to mark it out as a piece of ‘classic TV’, the writer behind it is Sarah Phelps, who’s best known for her work on that Christmas Day stalwart and British institution, Eastenders.

Who needs to be bothered about all those nasty little things like the eurozone crisis, rising unemployment or a structural deficit that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere but northward, when we can spend an hour or two in a world where the biggest problems are comic displays of child abuse, and  working out why Estella is such a bitch. Alright, so we might stray dangerously close to the real world when we see Pip get into debt, when he hits London (remember the good old days when young men of great expectations made themselves, rather than their country, bankrupt when they went a bit too wild in the city?), but the joy of a classic adaptation is that we know that it’s all going to be alright in the end. As any good English student knows, there is – of course – a darker side to Dickens, but for all the tortured identity politics of Esther Summerson, and the grim ‘Elsinore’s a prison’ sentiments of Little Dorrit, but all generally comes good in the end. Lessons are learnt, morals are affirmed, and all us blessed by God, every one – exactly what we want from a costume drama, if my Dad (10% man, 90% sentiment) is anything to go by. Poignant makes-you-think endings do not, in his opinion, a good costume drama make. He still hasn’t got over David Morrisey falling off a cliff at the end of South Riding.

Whether the world needs another adaptation of Great Expectations is a moot point. The fact that the BBC can find money for a big, safe Dickens spectacular when it can’t find the change to maintain the same levels of quality at the World Service is also, sadly, another issue which most people who watch the new drama won’t be devoting much thought to.  Costume dramas have always seen us through the dreary, long nights of winter – when the economic climate has wiped the sun out of the sky for the foreseeable future, a good dose of Dickens is exactly what the doctor ordered.   And anyway, even without the financial misery and the shuttling from one lot of bad news to the next, we’re surely entitled to a bit of shameless sentimentality purely based on the time of year. It is, after all, Christmas, a holiday which Dickens practically invented in its modern form.  And, to paraphrase one of Mrs Joe’s pleasingly odious dinner guests in the new adaptation, ‘If you can’t beat a boy flog a dead horse at Christmas, when can you?’


Louisa Thompson