By John Stark
July 10, 1989 12:00 PM

The Disney Channel (Sun., July 9, 8 P.M. ET)


Few literary works are as well suited for the miniseries format as the episodic, melodramatic novels of Charles Dickens. In a medium that only rarely exceeds minor expectations, this six-hour, three-night adaptation of Dickens’s masterpiece is a cause for felicitous celebration. (Parts II and III will be shown on consecutive nights.) Almost nothing has been left out of the hefty book, which chronicles the adventures of an orphan named Philip Pirrip—called Pip—from his childhood as an impoverished blacksmith’s apprentice to his life as a London dandy, thanks to a financial windfall from a wealthy, mysterious benefactor.

Considering the harmonious subtlety of this production, from the ensemble acting to the atmospheric lighting, it comes as no surprise to find a MADE IN ENGLAND stamp on it. Britain’s Kevin (North and South, Book II) Connor directed a mostly British cast, featuring Anthony Hopkins as the terrifying escaped convict Magwitch, whom young Pip encounters in the opening scene; John Rhys Davies as Pip’s blacksmith brother-in-law, Joe Gargery; and newcomer Anthony Calf as the adult Pip. Although none of the actors in this large cast are in the delicious stratosphere of Edith Evans or Alec Guinness, they are impossible to fault. Especially memorable is Rosemary McHale as Mrs. Joe, Pip’s sadistic sister and guardian, who goes from a screeching shrew to a brain-damaged spastic.

Since Dickens thrived on irony, it’s fitting that Hollywood movie queen Jean Simmons (see page 70) plays the elderly spinster, Miss Havisham, who, years ago, went bonkers after being jilted on her wedding day. The British-born Simmons played Miss Havisham’s ward, Estella, in David Lean’s 1946 movie version of the novel. So why isn’t Simmons working more? She’s haunting in the role, turning in a beautifully controlled performance that saves Miss Havisham, who wears her hoary, tattered wedding gown and bridal veil around the house, from becoming a caricature.

Although this Great Expectations doesn’t have Lean’s brilliant command of atmosphere—he was working in black and white, which seems more suited to Dickens—it is visually arresting. You feel as if you’ve entered Pip’s harsh Victorian world, be it in the form of Miss Havisham’s rat-infested parlor or a crowded street in industrial London or the lonely, fog-enshrouded graveyard where the action commences. This engrossing odyssey is the first crack at Dickens by the folks at Disney. Let us hope, gentle reader, that it is not their last.