Interview: Steven Knight – Writer & Executive Producer of Great Expectations - Premieres March 26

Arriving on Hulu in the U.S. and BBC One and BBC iPlayer from Sunday, March 26

PHOTO: Fionn Whitehead as Pip (Image: BBC/FX Networks/Miya Mizuno)

[Published: 21 March 2023]



How do you balance staying true to the source material whilst also making it feel timely and modern?
I think that with any great writer like Dickens, the issues and the subjects that he deals with will always be timeless. They won’t be just of the time, they will be about the human condition. 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.

Is there something specific you want the audience to take away?

There is always a core thought or point to anything that I write that is in the middle of it, but I try not to expose it too obviously. The reason I wanted to do it is because Pip is the son of a blacksmith, a farrier; and I’m the son of a blacksmith, a farrier. Pip is trying to escape from his background to change himself and become a gentleman, and that rings a bell with me personally. That rings a bell in England – the class system and whether you can ever leave the place where you were born or be accepted in a social class that’s different to yours. For me there is something personal about the scenes where he’s in the blacksmith’s shop collecting nails. I think things work best when you take a personal experience and find the bigger message.

Tell us about Ashley Thomas as Jaggers. Was the role of Jaggers always expanded when you were scripting the adaptation?

Jaggers always had increased screentime, so we needed someone who could really fill the screen, and that’s what Ashley does. He’s just so brilliant. Dickens creates these gifts of characters which are just meant for the screen. He writes screenplay dialogue; it’s phonetic, it’s real dialogue. Often with adaptations of anything from more than 100 years ago, people talk in a very controlled and stilted way, as if that’s how people really talked. But Jaggers is swaggering around, he’s a real person. It was important to have a character who is morally in the middle of things. He sort of represents London; survive or die. He seems ruthless and awful but he’s not.

Tell us about Fionn’s performance as Pip?

On many occasions he’s in a situation where you expect him to be an innocent from ‘the sticks’, coming into the sophisticated world, wide-eyed and overwhelmed. What Fionn did brilliantly was being wide-eyed and overwhelmed, but he isn’t going to let anybody know it! He’s got that way of being very arrogant and that he’s a man of the world. We all know he’s not, but he’s able to express that through the performance which is incredibly difficult because it’s like walking a tightrope. I think he did it so beautifully.

How did Olivia and her performance impact the role of Miss Havisham?

It was written as quite a big role anyway – obviously you’ve got to write it to get the actor – and she’s got to read pretty much beginning, middle and end. But when I knew it was Olivia obviously then you go back and start to enjoy yourself because you can start adding bit more of what Olivia brings. She’s just so powerful on the screen. There’s a couple of things we changed once we knew she would be in the role – a couple of what you’d call saucy lines where you know she’s going to pull it off in a way that it’s going to be just right. And she does.

What is your research process like for each Dickens adaptation?

I focus on the book primarily. But even before adapting Dickens I’ve always been really interested in 19th century London and the reality of it. So I try to reflect what was really going on. There are great books like Mayhew’s London which is a documentary book: somebody went walking in at night in London and wrote what he saw. It’s amazing. So, for me, the research is into what London was really like, put that as the canvas, and then lay the story on top of it. Dickens thinks like TV drama: cliff-hanger after cliff-hanger, plant something, reveal it a bit later, then reveal it wasn’t true. All of the things that you do when you’re writing a TV drama. I really feel the episodic nature of it.

What was the most difficult part of adapting Great Expectations? How did the process of creating it differ to adapting A Christmas Carol?

Well, A Christmas Carol is a short story, so it was more contained. So much is known as part of our culture with A Christmas Carol. You know, Scrooge dances on Christmas morning. You don’t want to be someone who comes along and says “right, I’m going to vandalise what you think of A Christmas Carol, I’m going to make it totally different and turn it all on its head.” I don’t think you should do that. So with Great Expectations, the scene with Magwitch on the heath is what people think of, so I wanted to keep that. I think A Christmas Carol was easier in a sense because there was a more simple map, whereas with Great Expectations there’s more freedom to play with those characters.

Does the freedom make it more difficult or more fun?

More fun. For me, writing becomes a chore when you know what you’re about to do. You think “I’ve got to do this and this in the next three scenes, so here we go.” I prefer to not really know where it’s going. You know it’s going in a certain direction, but you don’t know how you’re going to get there. That’s what makes it fun, the freedom to go in a different direction.

What was the most rewarding part of adapting Great Expectations?

Well I always say my favourite two words are ‘The End’. When you get to the end and it’s like: it’s an object now. That’s always good. But Jaggers and Miss Havisham are obviously two gigantic characters from a gigantic intellect and it’s amazing when you’ve got those characters to play with.

What are some of your favourite scenes from Great Expectations?

I like any of the scenes with Miss Havisham, Estella and Pip when he’s being educated. I think they’re just great.

How did you collaborate with Verity and Sonja on the set and costumes?

We had some of the best designers around. When I’m writing a script, I tend to do quite a lot of direction about what the room or scene looks like. But that’s just the beginning because then the designer comes in and looks at what’s contemporary and what was really going on at the time. I go to the set and think “this is amazing” because they do such a good job.


Coming to BBC One and BBC iPlayer from Sunday 26 March.

The six-part limited series will premiere on March 26 exclusively on Hulu in the U.S. and feature the first two episodes on that date.

Source BBC One

March 26, 2023 3:00am ET by BBC One  


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