Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Great Expectations (1959)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Great Expectations (1959)
BBC, 5/4-28/6/1959
13 x 30 minutes, black & white
ProducerDorothea Brooking
ScriptP.D. Cummins
Original novelCharles Dickens

Cast: Dennis Mallard, Dinsdale Landen, Colin Spaull (Pip); Marjory Hawtrey (Miss Havisham); Helen Lindsay (Estella); Jerold Wells (Magwitch); Michael Gwynn (Joe Gargery); Kenneth Thornett (Mr Jaggers); Colin Jeavons (Herbert Pocket)

Show full cast and credits

A young boy, Pip, has a frightening encounter with an escaped convict on the Kent marshes. Some years later he finds himself picked out for great things by an unknown benefactor.

Show full synopsis

Produced by the prolific Dorothea Brooking - then best-known for children's programmes - and serialised in 13 half-hour episodes, this is a typical example of television adaptation of Dickens in the late 1950s: modestly budgeted, well acted, targeted at a family audience, and staying close to the original text.

All of the main characters are here: the young apprentice Pip, who unexpectedly comes into a fortune through the auspices of a mysterious benefactor; the jilted bride, Miss Havisham, and the girl, Estella, who she has raised to wage war on the opposite sex and with whom Pip falls hopelessly in love; the escaped convict Magwitch, who pounces on young Pip at the beginning and will have a profound influence on his life thereafter; and Pip's stepfather, Joe, the village blacksmith, a gentle man from whom Pip will become estranged as he rises in society. In a generally competent cast, Dinsdale Landen and Michael Gwynn stand out as an adult Pip and Joe respectively.

The adaptation does have its quirks, however. There is one major narrative change, with Joe's proposed marriage to his housekeeper Biddy taking place before Pip goes to London. In the novel this revelation occurs much later and is the last nail in the coffin of Pip's disillusionment, as he was planning to marry Biddy himself. Maybe adaptor P.D. Cummins thought Pip had suffered enough by then.

It gives great prominence to Pip's co-worker at the forge, Orlick (a character omitted from David Lean's 1946 film) - who is responsible, we later discover, for the brutal attack on Pip's bullying sister and who critics have seen as symbolising Pip's dark side. Episode 11, in which Pip is captured and tortured by Orlick before being rescued, is strong meat, particularly as Orlick is played to the hilt by Richard Warner, who had previously appeared as the lovable Mr Perks in Brooking's dramatisation of The Railway Children (BBC, 1957).

Finally, the ending is ambiguous. Pip has been telling his godson a story which is really an account of his own life. "Can't you make it have a happier ending?," the boy enquires, at which point Estella suddenly materialises and she and Pip are at last united. Real, or wish-fulfilment? It is a skilful way of reflecting Dickens's own doubts about an ending which he had originally intended as melancholy but was pressured against his better judgment into making tentatively happy.

Neil Sinyard

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. 'I'll cut your throat!' (5:48)
2. Mrs Joe on the rampage (4:19)
Complete first episode (28:47)
Dickens on Television