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TV review: Great Expectations, Fortress Britain with Alice Roberts, and Pluto: Back from the dead

31 March 2023

BBC/FX Networks/Miya Mizuno

Young Pip (Tom Sweet) and Mr Pumblechook (Matt Berry) in Great Expectations (BBC1, Sundays)

Young Pip (Tom Sweet) and Mr Pumblechook (Matt Berry) in Great Expectations (BBC1, Sundays)

DOES a work of fiction matter? Since it is made up in the first place, should anyone care if a subsequent adapter twists it this way or that, refashioning it to express themes entirely other than the intentions of its original author? My conviction is that, yes, a great work of fiction really does matter: it is a precious vehicle that communicates unforeseen truths, insights, and sympathies — and let’s remember that our Lord taught, essentially, by telling stories. We would rightly condemn anyone for altering, say, the parable of the Prodigal Son to give it a tragic ending.

All of this emboldens me to say that the new series of Great Expectations (BBC1, Sundays) is, on the first episode’s showing, a shameful travesty. This is surely Dickens’s greatest novel: an extraordinary exploration of his own psychology, confronting deep anxieties about his identity. Is he really a gentleman, or merely a mountebank entertainer? It confronts every reader with the questions who are you, actually? and where do you truly belong?

Steven Knight, who wrote the screenplay, however, has chosen to ignore most of Dickens’s brilliant juxtaposition of characters and situations, and has forged something quite different: he has turned a subtle narrative of slow moral awakening into a banal exposition of class ambition. There are acres and acres of explanation, invented scenes, and dialogue with nothing of the original’s brevity and wit.

Dickens’s genius created an extraordinary mythic framework, from the existential terror of Magwitch hiding in the marshes to the phantasmagoria of Satis House, its physical degeneration incarnating Miss Havisham’s moral collapse, her life consumed by bitterness and vengeance. This version is flatter and pedestrian, and takes itself far too seriously.

Further round the coast of Kent, we find Fortress Britain with Alice Roberts (Channel 4, Saturday). Based in Walmer Castle, her four-part exploration of our national obsession with repelling foreign invaders started with Henry VIII. She sets a very low bar, assuming viewers’ almost total ignorance. A co-presenter, striding into Hampton Court chapel, asks brightly “Whereabouts are we, then?” See the altar and cross — any clues there, perhaps?

To repel the real threats from Roman Catholic European powers, Henry built a chain of stunning coastal forts — but how did he pay for them? Cue a potted history of the Reformation, although it made no mention of the staggering treasure of which holy shrines were despoiled. This included cartloads of gold and jewels from Thomas Becket’s shrine at Canterbury, just up the road.

BBC4 anticipated the resurrection theme of Easter with Pluto: Back from the dead (Thursday of last week). Discovered only 85 years ago, 3.5 billion miles away, this tiny planet has been known as a lifeless rock — until recent space probes initiated drastic re-evaluation. It now seems to be dynamic and heated from within, its red surface probably mantled with organic material: the first evidence of water and life anywhere beyond Earth.

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