Friday, March 30, 2012

The Literary Hoof: "Great Expectations" on PBS Is a Classic Tour de Forge

Who's teaching whom? You'll have to read Great Expectations to learn what the young apprentice and his master were studying here. (Image scanned by Philip V. Allingham of Victorian Web.)
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens was written before subtitles became commonly used. If it had one, it would be "Or: Be careful what you wish for".

If you have never read Great Expectations (when I was in high school it was required reading for English classes) by Charles Dickens, consider picking it up now, especially if you have children of your own. Make it a family project to read it together, maybe even aloud. The forge images will come alive. So will the characters in the forge.

Here's a preview of the 2011 BBC miniseries starring Douglas Booth as Pip, which will be aired in the USA beginning Sunday, April 1, 2012 on PBS Masterpiece.

That's right: The classic Victorian novel of an orphan's fate begins and ends in a forge, and it could be said that it truly is a tale of seeing that forge in two very different lights. I think of it as a perfect allegory for T.S. Eliot's great quote:  "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."

Actor Shaun Dooley plays blacksmith Joe Gargery, one of Charles Dickens' rare sympathetic heroes, in the BBC film of Great Expectations that will air on PBS in April, beginning this Sunday. "I have often thought of the steam-hammer that can crush a man or pat an egg-shell, in his combination of strength with gentleness," is how Pip described him. (BBC photo)
Like War Horse, Great Expectations is a book that has been adapted into a film and a play. But it's also been a film many times over, starring some great and not-so-great actors. And it's about to become one again: Hollywood and the BBC both re-discovered the book last year and have brought forward films--one for television and one for the cinema--at almost the same time.

For the high-dollar new Hollywood version, Jeremy Irvine, the star of War Horse, has signed on to play Pip, the once-future farrier of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations in the cinema version. He had to learn to ride a horse for War Horse; for Great Expectations, he had to learn to shoe one.

The movie blogs are reporting that Irvine even went to farrier school in England to get his hammer technique down.
Jason Flemyng as blacksmith Joe Gargery
But what about Jason Flemyng, who plays the wise and kind Joe Gargery in the new film? He must definitely have gone to farrier school!

Joe's not the only smith in Great Expectations. There's also the evil journeyman, Orlick.

Orlick just doesn't fit in. And he sees young Pip as a threat to his job security.

Dickens writes: “He was a broad-shouldered loose-limbed swarthy fellow of great strength, never in a hurry..he always slouched, locomotively, with his eyes on the ground; and when accosted or otherwise required to raise them, he looked up in a half-resentful, half-puzzled way….”

The kindly blacksmith Joe Gargery finally lost his temper and scattered the evil journeyman Orlick among the horseshoes in this scene from Great Expectations. The jealous Orlick didn't want to see Pip be an apprentice. (Image scanned by Philip V. Allingham of Victorian Web.)
It's hard not to love a story that has characters with names like "Uncle Pumblechook". I'm sure there must be an event horse somewhere with that name--or there will be soon!

Here comes trouble, also known as Magwitch, an escaped convict who threatens to rip Pip's liver out if he doesn't bring him a rasp. Why does he need a resp? You'll have to watch the film or read the book! (PBS press photo)
Dickens introduces his readers to Magwitch in one of the most unforgettable descriptions of a character ever written:
"A fearful man, all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin."
And that's just the beginning of the book.

I'm not a director, but I think the 1946 black-and-white version of Great Expectations would be hard to beat. Thanks to, you can view the entire David Lean film of Great Expectations online or even download it.

David Lean received an Academy Award nomination for directing this film and went on to create great film classics such as Doctor Zhivago. Let's hope the BBC version is half as good as that one.

In this old illustration from the book, Joe Gargery hammered on to repair the handcuffs that would be used to capture escaped convict Magwitch, while the soldiers who commandeered his services helped themselves to his special bottle of Christmas port. Some thank you, but the calm blacksmith wisely kept his eyes on his anvil.
If for no other reason, watch Great Expectations to teach your children and remind yourself that you should be careful about wishing to be someone you're not. Pip's unexpected opportunity to become a young gentleman causes him to turn his back on the forge and the one person who has something to teach him, about both working and living with honor and faith.

A comment about Joe from a review in The Telegraph sums it up: "Joe Gargery has a recessive role to play as the novel unfolds. But there he is, smudged with soot from the forge, a distant bedrock of compassion. If you finish the book without caring for Joe quite deeply, pop in a thermometer: you may need defrosting."

And if you don't get the message of Great Expectations, you just might be doomed to a life like Orlick's.

Art: illustrator Chris Riddell's characterization of Joe Gargery from the Observor's gallery of characters in Dickens' novels. says that part 1 of Great Expectations airs on Sunday, April 1 and part 2 on Sunday, April 8. PBS will also stream part 1 of Great Expectations beginning April 2 on its Masterpiece web site.
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