What larks

7th January 2012

To BFI Southbank on Friday evening for two screenings in the wonderful Dickens on Screen season. First up was The Life and Adventures of Nicholas NicklebyAlberto Cavalcanti’s adaptation for Ealing released in 1947. After the briefest of breaks (no time even for a beer) I plunged into Great Expectations, directed in 1946 by David Lean. It’s a critical cliché that Great Expectations is considerably superior to Nickleby (as films) – and viewing them side by side did nothing to challenge the notion. But it was really revealing to see the former in the light of the RSC/Channel 4 version and the latter so soon after the exceptionally strong BBC series. The following handful of notes also includes a truly bizarre story about one of the scriptwriters of Great Expectations as well as a paragraph about an intriguing curiosity from 1949 that was also screened. This followed on from John Mills’ Pip thrillingly ripping down the curtains and letting in the sun to stop Estella (Valerie Hobson) becoming Miss Havisham – which of course is not at all what happens in the book.

By pretty much any criteria Great Expectations is a far more achieved film. Alongside Lean’s classical confidence, Cavalcanti’s Nickleby comes across as clumsy and clunky, and blighted by some truly dull central performances. (Does half – or more – of the pleasure of a Dickens adaptation come from the casting?) Only Cedric Hardwicke’s Ralph Nickleby remains truly impressive, while the actors in the costumes of Nicholas (Derek Bond), Kate (Sally Ann Howes) and their mother (Mary Merrall) now sound absurdly plummy and look entirely unconvincing. There are, however, some nice turns further down the roller, with Stanley Holloway’s Vincent Crummles being particularly enjoyable.

Cavalcanti conjures up some striking visual effects (Gordon Dines was the cinematographer), but there is little of the richly imaginative expressionism of Great Expectations (courtesy of Granada International and The David Lean Foundation, the recently restored BFI print looked glorious). Director of Photography Guy Green (later to become an intermittently interesting director) and production designer John Bryan were working at the top of their game under Lean, and the production assembled a stellar cast, including John Mills as Pip, Alec Guinness at Herbert Pockett (his first film role) and Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham. It’s not bad, either, to have Jean Simmons as the young Estella and Valerie Hobson as her (slightly) older incarnation.

Widely recognised more or less from the moment of its release as one of the great British films, Great Expectations is hardly in need of further encomiums from me. But I was particularly struck this time  9and this was viewing number seven or eight) by how sophisticated is the sound mix. Walter Goehr’s score is terrific but there’s a great deal more going on aurally in what these days one would call the sound design. Rushing wind and battering rain, the creaks of gates and doors, and the distorted sounds of the city streets are all employed to great effect, and from from always in straightforward naturalistic ways.

Another thing I found particularly interesting (not least because of my Screen Plays research) was learning that this consistently cinematic adaptation had its origins in the theatre. Just before the war Lean apparently saw a modest staging of the book by a company of actors assembled by the 25-year-old Alec Guinness. At least according to Guinness, this sparked Lean’s interest in the book – and led to the actor being asked to reprise his stage role, as well as an invitation to Martita Hunt to once again give her defining Mss Havisham.

Then there’s the matter of the (uncredited) collaboration of Cecil McGivern on the screenplay. McGivern wasa BBC radio producer in the 1930s who made a number of acclaimed wartime documentary features – his 1941 dramatisation Battle of Britain is available to listen to online from the BBC Archive. He had a brief spell in the film industry (Great Expectations was the most distinguished film to which he contributed) and then he became one of key creative figures building the television service in the late 1940s and ’50s. He is a fascinating figure who fell victim to BBC politics in 1961, when he was pushed out of the organisation. He joined Granada but died in a bizarre accident at his home.

This is how on 6 February 1963 The Times reported a verdict of death by misadventure:

Mr McGivern was found by his wife with his pyjamas in flames. A large matchbox was exhibited on the coroner’s table. The Coroner, Mr Hubert Pim [and how about that for a Dickensian name], said Mr McGivern accepted the challenge of an exciting career, but during the years his nerves suffered from the strain, and he was taking tablets and capsules sometimes more than was prescribed. An excess of these caused confusion in his mind…

How sad and strange and with what extraordinary echoes of the death of Miss Havisham. In the film, incidentally, her immolation is accidental, with a log falling from the fire and catching her dry-as-dust clothes alight. In the recent BBC adaptation, the spectacular scene (and it really was brilliantly handled) was clearly suicide (and I actually can’t remember how Dickens presents it – can anyone help?).

I hugely enjoyed the BBC series, and was particularly impressed by the ‘look’ of it. Director of Photography Florian Hoffmeister created consistently dazzling images and the location finding was remarkably impressive. I’m also one of those who loved Gillian Anderson’s Miss Havisham, although the acting of some of the other roles was rather less assured.

Thinking about comparisons, a viewing of any version of Nickleby is going to struggle in my eyes because it will never live up to (or even creep close to) the 1982 RSC stage version and its television incarnation produced by Primetime for Channel 4. This Nickleby remains one of my great theatrical experiences (see here for a discussion of another recent RSC event), and I am a big fan of the television version too.

There’s a good DVD release of the small-screen version (it’s out of print, but the RSC bookshop in Stratford had some just before Christmas), and BFI Southbank offers a rare chance to see the full eight hours on a large screen on Saturday 25 February (book here; although it’s a shame the BFI is currently illustrating it with stills from the 1947 film). After the showing I am chairing a panel discussion with adapter David Edgar, co-directors Trevor Nunn and John Caird, and actor David Threlfall (who was the unforgettable Smike).

What we got after Great Expectations was an eight-minute film produced by the BFI in 1949. This featured the Evening News film critic of the time, Jympson Harman, sitting behind a desk (on which his script all too obviously lay) analysing the famous opening scene of Lean’s film (above). For all its stilted quality, this is remarkable as an early example of film-on-film close reading with the use of step printing to slow down a shot and reveal the construction of a cut. It was fascinating to see how the BFI was working to further the appreciation of cinema some sixty-three years ago.

As for more Dickens on screen, the compendious BFI Southbank season runs until the end of March. If you want to know more, there’s a BFI ScreenOnline introduction to Dickens on film by David Parker, with details of a couple of recommended books. And at 9.00pm on Tuesday and Wednesday of this coming week, BBC Two is showing The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a new adaptation of Dickens’ unfinished Edwin Drood. Gwyneth Hughes writes about her script for this here, and the Guardian archive has an engaging collection of earlier attempt to provide an answer to this most famous of whodunits. What larks.

Image: Finlay Currie and Anthony Wager in the opening scene of David Lean’s adaptation of Great Expectations, 1946.

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