‘The Empire was a horrible thing’: what the Dickens have the BBC done to Great Expectations?
Toxic relationships, self-harm, mental health issues, arson, prison breaks, bent lawyers and recreational drug use might sound like prime ingredients for a gritty, modern TV thriller. Add an expletive-laden script, an ethnically diverse cast and references to the evils of the British Empire and it smacks unmistakably of 2023. Yet this is the recipe for the BBC’s latest serving of Charles Dickens’s 1861 novel, Great Expectations, as cooked up by Peaky Blinders supremo Steven Knight.
Though still set in the 19th century, Knight’s six-part adaptation is a world away from the starched collars and stiff manners that we associate with that era. With a cast that includes Olivia Colman as Miss Havisham and Ashley Thomas as Mr Jaggers, Knight places the story of orphan Pip in what he calls “the Venn diagram” between the explosive action of Peaky Blinders – his long-running show about the criminal Shelby family in early 20th-century Birmingham that redefined the modern costume drama – and the rich atmospherics of Taboo, his 2017 series about the dark underbelly of 1810s London. “Were Dickens alive now,” Knight says, “he’d be writing movies and TV.”
Shalom Brune-Franklin, the English-Australian actress who plays Dickens’s conflicted heroine Estella, never expected to find herself in a costume drama. “I remember saying to the director, ‘I don’t know if I’m capable of doing the stuffy period drama thing’,” she tells me. “And he was like, ‘That’s what I want to hear!’” This adaptation is about taking the supposed stiffness of Victorian Britain and “stripping all of that s--- away”.
Fionn Whitehead, who plays Pip, says he never read Dickens as a youngster since his attention span was too short to “even try and decode the language”. The actor, who appeared as a young private in Christopher Nolan’s 2017 film Dunkirk, hopes this new dramatisation will be “more accessible for younger people”.
Great Expectations is one of Dickens’s most picked-over novels. There have already been 15 previous adaptations including seven films, five TV series, two stage musicals (one starring Darren Day) and even a South Park cartoon. Was Knight worried about entering such a crowded field? “I don’t watch a lot of stuff,” he says, bluntly. “It’s difficult to feel intimidated by things you don’t really know about.” He does, however, vaguely recall seeing an old low-budget Sunday afternoon version on the BBC with “scenery that moved”. There was no danger of that happening here.
Knight’s version looks textured and sumptuous, though not always in a pleasant way. It’s (largely) set in a London of mud and maggots, gold and nutmeg, opium and porcelain. You can almost smell the teeming streets and the musty tang of preservatives on the taxidermy. There are bloody fights.
And if the action is more Charles Bronson than Charles Dickens, then the language is also decidedly Tarantino-esque. Knight says his approach to adaptation is “like reading a book then having a dream about it”. So, in the Dickens novel, Jaggers, a London lawyer employed by Pip’s mystery benefactor, tells the boy that he is to be “brought up as a gentleman – in a word, as a young fellow of great expectations”. But, in Knight’s script, the line becomes more baroque: “I will teach you first to be a rat, then a snake, then a vulture and then, with blood dripping from your beak, I will teach you how to be a gentleman.”
Thomas delivers these lines with understated relish, telling me he was careful to avoid “caricature” or anything “pantomime-esque” – even when required to threaten to mulch a man’s testicles into a “savoury mash” and feed it to him. (When Thomas came to another Jaggers speech that casts aspersions on residents of the south London neighbourhood of Elephant and Castle, he called his friend, the rapper Giggs, who lives near the area, to share the joke.) At times, the modern language can come as quite a shock – such as when Pip tells an attacker to “Take your f---ing hands off me!” – but Whitehead says they were simply aiming for realism. “This is how someone would really respond if they were getting grabbed,” he tells me. “You wouldn’t say, ‘Unhand me, sir!’”
Knight has also taken liberties with the plot; is he worried he’ll upset purists? “It’s everyone’s right to react in the way they want to react,” he says. “But I would say that the book exists, it is still there. This is not an attempt to say the book is wrong or this is better.”
Although Great Expectations is over 160 years old, its themes still feel universal: the desire for social mobility, the seductive dazzle of money, the loss of innocence that comes with age, the will-they-won’t-they love story between Pip and Estella. The word used by every cast member I speak to is “relatable”.
Pip’s journey from young boy on Kent’s marshes to aspiring somebody in London, with all the pitfalls that come with youthful ambition, is a well-trodden one. And the dynamic between Estella and her bullying adopted mother Miss Havisham – played by a ghastly, ghostly, acid-tongued Colman in a wedding dress – is one that is sadly all-too-familiar in modern Britain, a “horrific, toxic relationship”, as Brune-Franklin puts it. Both Pip and Estella are shown to suffer mentally and physically.
Knight says he found writing Pip’s role particularly moving: like the character, Knight was raised by a blacksmith and, like Pip, he was expected to join the family business. Neither did.
Brady Hood, one of the two directors on Great Expectations, previously directed Top Boy, a modern-day gang drama set in London’s inner-city housing estates, which also starred Ashley Thomas. I ask Thomas whether, if you strip away the costumes and the scenery, there’s really that much difference between the London of Pip and Jaggers and the London of Top Boy’s tough protagonists.
“Throughout history, there are just traits that human beings have: some try to get ahead and focus on the preservation of the self. There are people who are greedy and people who feel they have to do anything to survive,” Thomas says. If things ever got too “theatrical” on set – too costume drama – then Hood would sit down the cast to dissect their characters’ motivations, Thomas adds. “Not necessarily like we’re in Top Boy but we’d take it out of a Dickensian world. We’d make it relatable to now.”
The refreshingly diverse cast completes the picture: Brune-Franklin was born in St Albans to a Mauritian mother and English father, while Thomas was born in west London to a Jamaican mother and Dominican father. Period dramas have traditionally cast white actors in the belief that “olden-day” society was ethnically homogeneous. But Thomas points out that by 1760 there were 15,000 black people living in London, a reality not widely reflected in school history textbooks. “People are conditioned to see the world in a certain way,” he says.
Although Knight’s Great Expectations acts as a timely corrective, he claims not to recognise the debate about so-called “colour-blind casting”, saying that, for him, casting is simply about finding the best actor for the role. Along similar lines, Knight’s screenplay has a strong anti-colonial message, summed up when criminal Magwitch (Johnny Harris) states that the Empire was built on the lies of privileged men.
This, suggests Whitehead, is simply fact. “The Empire was a horrible thing which involved a lot of British people going out and enslaving, pillaging and destroying a lot of cultures around the world. It was massively powered by greed,” he says. “If there’s anyone walking around believing that the Empire was a great thing they are clearly kidding themselves.”
In this light, some might suggest that Knight has made “Woke Expectations” here; but that would be wide of the mark. It’s far too unsanitised, vicious and stuffed with nefarious characters for that. It’s also so deliciously engrossing that such debates will probably come to seem irrelevant.
While Knight already has plenty more projects in the pipeline – a second series of Taboo is in the works, as well as a Peaky Blinders film and a drama about the 2-Tone music scene – in time, he plans to do “at least another two or three” Dickens adaptations. A Tale of Two Cities might be next, he says. I’d love to see what he’d do with David Copperfield. His Uriah Heep would be monstrous.
Great Expectations starts on BBC One on March 26