There was a time when a new BBC Sunday night Charles Dickens adaptation would have been the height of appointment television. But 162 years after Great Expectations was first published (and with no fewer than 17 screen adaptations), expectations of a new version might be somewhat diminished.
The draw of this new six-part series comes via the involvement of Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight and the casting of Olivia Colman as Miss Havisham. But even that starry double act follows in the footsteps of two other relatively recent big name duos: Sarah Phelps’ 2011 version starred Gillian Anderson, while Mike Newall cast Helena Bonham Carter in the role just a year later.
So what could yet another interpretation of Dickens’ dissection of class hierarchy possibly have to offer? Well, right off the bat: production values. This Great Expectations looks utterly sensational. Those murky marshland scenes were beautifully realised – eerie, atmospheric and slick with frost-bitten mud that you could almost feel underneath your fingernails.
Some early reviews have been outraged by departures from the text but the first episode, at least, stayed fairly close to the source material.
Too-bright-for-his-own-good orphan Pip (Tom Sweet) was loathing his life working at the blacksmith forge run by his sister and her husband when two crucial events occurred. Firstly, he encountered and helped escaped convict Magwitch (Johnny Harris) and secondly, he was enlisted to be a “companion” to Estella (Chloe Lea), the young ward of local spinster Miss Havisham. Both events set him on a path of social climbing, mysterious benefactors and shifting fortunes and fates.
There was certainly the signature Knight bombast here – we were introduced to Magwitch in a dramatic and fiery prison break. But the slightly overwrought nature of Knight’s work suited the ominous mood of Pip’s first meetings with the people who will change his life.
In fact, this first episode was a relatively slow burn, building to the reveal of Colman as Miss Havisham. Shrouded and sneering in her wedding veil and plucking at the jewellery laden around her neck like chains, Colman leaned into the reckless bitterness of the character, dancing her two young marionettes towards one another with a real sense of malice and festering venom.
Colman may be the most famous name in the series, but casting across the board is strong, and happily diverse. Matt Berry’s line delivery as Mr Pumblechook was made for Dickensian pomposity, Hayley Squires shone as the proud, brittle Mrs Joe and in episodes to come, Ashley Thomas (also known as the rapper Bashy) is fearsome as the formidable lawyer Jaggers. Meanwhile, newcomer Sweet captured Pip’s early precocious ambition and Lea was perfectly haughty as young Estella (these roles are later taken over by Fionn Whitehead and Shalom Brune-Franklin respectively).
I can see how Knight’s own ostentatious stamp might ruffle the feathers of purists (episode two features a rather unexpected spanking scene). And I question whether it should have been made at all. Even with his surprises, Knight’s Great Expectations can’t escape being a story that we already know inside out.
Yet there is an argument that any new Dickens adaptation needs to have a fresh angle. Knight certainly has that. Whether it’s for better or worse is yet to be seen.