What the Dickens! Spanking sessions, lectures on Empire and Miss Havisham’s an opium addict.. it’s BBC1’s new Great Expectations as you’ve never seen it before
His adaptation of A Christmas Carol portrayed Ebenezer Scrooge as a molested schoolboy who grew up to force Tiny Tim’s mother into prostitution.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that Steven Knight’s BBC1 version of Great Expectations turns Miss Havisham, played by Olivia Colman, into an opium addict and shows an ecstatic Mr Pumblechook being spanked in a dingy bedroom.
He has also included references to the British Empire’s connections to the slave trade, with several characters hammering home an anti-colonial message.
Knight, creator of Peaky Blinders, said: ‘What I didn’t want to do – and I think Dickens never tried to do – was make something specifically political.
‘He was never banging the drum, he was just saying, “This is what’s going on” and people could draw their own conclusions. You couldn’t write about certain things in Dickens’ time: Certain elements of sexuality, crime, disobedience against the crown and state.
‘What I tried to do was imagine if Dickens was writing the story now and had the freedom to go to those darker places, what would he do? If he had been liberated to write the things that were going on that he wasn’t allowed to write about.’
Playing the part: It’s no surprise that Steven Knight’s BBC1 version of Great Expectations turns Miss Havisham, played by Olivia Colman, into an opium addict
Harrowing: Colman’s Miss Havisham is seen in the throes of addiction in one scene
Bold words: Colman, 49, has hailed her Great Expectations co-stars Fionn Whitehead, 25, and Shalom Brune-Franklin, 28, as ‘irritatingly young and beautiful’ (pictured at Great Expectations photo call this month)
Dream: The actress, who plays Miss Havisham in the Charles Dickens classic, insists she forgot her age while spending time with Fionn, who plays Pip, and Shalom, who portrays Estella (pictured at Great Expectations photo call this month)
One scene sees a bare-bottomed Matt Berry as Mr Pumblechook being spanked in private by Mrs Joe Gargery, played by Hayley Squires.
Colman, who plays the jilted Miss Havisham, said: ‘The first time I read Steven Knight’s script, I thought it was much darker than what I had remembered from school. Quite a few bottom-slapping moments, which I did not recall from the original Dickens! There were quite a few changes and I found it quite gripping.’
Colman’s turn as the wealthy spinster sees her addicted to opium, frequently inhaling from a pipe in her rotting wedding dress in between educating Pip – played by Tom Sweet as a child and then Fionn Whitehead – in how to become a gentleman.
One such lesson is offering him up to a member of the local congregation to lose his virginity on his 18th birthday.
The first episode opens with Pip contemplating suicide on a bridge as opposed to being approached by the criminal Magwitch on the marshes. Later scenes see him refusing to earn a considerable sum of money from selling manacles and chains to be used for the incarceration of slaves. Magwitch says the Empire was built on the lies of privileged white men.
Critics have condemned the use of profanities in the new version, with Pip yelling ‘take your f****** hands off me’ in episode one.
Dickens enthusiast Sir John Hayes, chairman of the Common Sense Group of MPs, said: ‘The trend among clueless politically correct zealots is to bastardise the great canon of English literature either by vulgarising it in this way or sanitising it.’
But Knight told Radio Times: ‘I didn’t want to approach it and say, “Look at how radical I’m being”. [My version] is certainly not disrespectful, it’s the opposite.’
In character: Olivia said of her character Miss Haversham: ‘She is using Pip as a guinea pig for Estella. Teaching him how to be a gentleman but sort of mocking him’ (Fionn pictured as Pip)
Love story: Olivia said of Estella: ‘She wants him to fall in love with Estella, so that she can break his heart. She can then, bit by bit, payback men’
Colman has hailed her Great Expectations co-stars Fionn Whitehead and Shalom Brune-Franklin as ‘irritatingly young and beautiful’ after working with them on the set of the upcoming BBC adaptation.
The actress insists she forgot her age while spending time with Fionn, 25, who plays Pip, and Shalom, 28, who portrays Estella.
She explained: ‘I worked most of the time with Fionn and Shalom – they are irritatingly young and beautiful, and really good!
‘I have had a lovely time, and I sort of forget I’m not the same age as them. Then I look in the mirror and go “oh yes, they have given me a great white wig.”
‘It’s amazing working with them, they are brilliant. It is very exciting to see where they will go.’
Colman’s costume also includes an elaborate dead floral headpiece and a veil, along with a collection of silver jewellery and a grimy wedding dress.
On playing the renowned role, she explained: ‘Miss Havisham is a woman who was madly in love with someone; she went to get married and he never turned up. Her life stopped from that moment, pretty much.
Plot: Produced by FX Productions in association with the BBC, Scott Free and Hardy Son & Baker, Great Expectations is the story of Pip, an orphan who yearns for a greater lot in life (L-R: Fionn as Pip, Hayley Squires as Sara Gargery, Owen McDonnell as Joe Gargery)
Stars: (L-R) Young Pip (Tom Sweet);Sara Gargery (Hayley Squires) and Joe Gargery (Owen McDonnell)
‘She is only really in her forties, but she is always depicted as a much older woman. We have gone for long white hair and lots of broken veins. We think she went white with the shock and the heartbreak.
‘In this version she is an opium addict, so she has had a bit of a life – indoors, no sunshine.
‘She adopts a baby, Estella who she sort of trains to be an assassin in a way; to hurt men as much as she was hurt.’
On the games the character plays with Pip and Estella, Colman continued: ‘She is using Pip as a guinea pig for Estella. Teaching him how to be a gentleman but sort of mocking him.
‘She wants him to fall in love with Estella, so that she can break his heart. She can then, bit by bit, payback men.’
Produced by FX Productions in association with the BBC, Scott Free and Hardy Son & Baker, Great Expectations is the coming-of-age story of Pip, an orphan who yearns for a greater lot in life.
A twist of fate soon introduces him to the mysterious and eccentric Miss Havisham and Estella, showing him a dark world of possibilities.
Under the great expectations placed upon him, Pip will have to work out the cost of this new world and whether it will truly make him the man he wishes to be.
In a recently released trailer, Colman looks unrecognisable with white hair and yellow teeth.
The actress welcomes a young Pip to Satis House for the first time in the footage.
She tells the aspiring gentleman, later played by Fionn Whitehead, ‘Let me see you… what a prize creature we have fished from the river.’
Great Expectations will also star Ashley Thomas, Johnny Harris, Hayley Squires, Owen McDonnell, Laurie Ogden, Matt Berry, Trystan Gravelle and Rudi Dharmalingam.
Story: A twist of fate soon introduces Pip to the mysterious and eccentric Miss Havisham and Estella, showing him a dark world of possibilities (Laurie Ogden pictured as Biddy)
New life: Under the great expectations placed upon him, Pip will have to work out the cost of this new world and whether it will truly make him the man he wishes to be (Chloe Lea pictured as Young Estella)
Steven Knight has written and executive produced Great Expectations alongside Tom Hardy, Ridley Scott, Dean Baker, David W. Zucker, Kate Crowe and Tommy Bulfin for the BBC – the team behind FX’s A Christmas Carol – with Brady Hood and Samira Radsi as directors.
Great Expectations is the second Dickens adaptation penned by Steven, following the hit limited series A Christmas Carol.
Author Charles first released the work in a series of weekly chapters beginning in December 1860, before it was subsequently published as a novel.
His famous novel follows the story of Pip, who lives with his sister Mrs Joe Gargery and her blacksmith husband Joe.
The bitter Miss Havisham engineers a meeting between the young Pip and Estella with a view to having him fall in love with her so she can break his heart.
Line of Duty actress Shalom plays the aloof and enigmatic Estella, who becomes Pip’s obsession.
Steven adapted Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for the BBC in 2019, starring Guy Pearce as Scrooge.
There have been many adaptations of the classic novel over the years, both on the big and small screen.
War and Peace actress Tuppence Middleton, 35, played the character as a younger woman in the BBC’s 2016 serialisation, Dickensian.
Helena Bonham Carter, 56, portrayed Miss Havisham in Mike Newell’s 2012 film adaptation, co-starring Jeremy Irvine as Pip and Ralph Fiennes as Abel Magwitch.
Plan: The bitter Miss Havisham engineers a meeting between the young Pip and Estella with a view to having him fall in love with her so she can break his heart (Matt Berry pictured as Mr Pumblechook)
Gillian Anderon, 54, was a rather more glamorous and youthful incarnation of the character a year earlier in a BBC mini-series starring Douglas Booth and Vanessa Kirby.
In 1999 Charlotte Rampling, 77, played the role opposite Ioan Gruffudd’s Pip while Anne Bancroft played a modernised version of the character in Alfonso Cuarón’s 1998 film version starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke.
Earlier versions include Jean Simmons’ portrayal in an 1989 mini-series, having previously played Estella in David Lean’s 1946 film opposite Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham.
Miss Marple actress Joan Hickson played the role in 1981 while Margaret Leighton took on the part in 1974.
One of the earliest screen portrayals of Miss Havisham was Florence Reed in the 1934 film.
Miss Havisham is usually portrayed as an older woman but is in her mid-30s at the beginning of Dickens’ novel.
Great Expectations is set to air on the BBC from 26 March 2023.
On set: Great Expectations is set to air on the BBC from 26 March 2023 (L-R: Hayley Squires as Sara Gargery and Owen McDonnell as Joe Gargery behind the scenes)
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