Arts: On the darker side of Dickens

BBC's Great Expectations will be rather more disturbing than the usual costume drama. By James Rampton

Prozac. Child abuse. The Islington Tendency. Clinical depression. Abusive relationships. These are hardly terms that Charles Dickens would have been familiar with, yet they peppered discussions during the making of BBC2's grippingly dark new version of Great Expectations. The adapter, you see, is Tony Marchant, hitherto known as the writer of such stark, in-your-face contemporary dramas as the Bafta-winning Holding On, Goodbye Cruel World and Take Me Home. So has the BBC let a hungry Rottweiler loose at a refined tea party? That's certainly how keepers of the Dickensian flame will see it.

"Some things will upset the purists - that's inevitable," Marchant shrugs. "But the weird thing is, if I don't upset the purists, maybe I haven't done a good adaptation. The mark of a good adaptation is how many letters you can attract from the Charles Dickens Society."

Letters may well come flooding in about Marchant's portrayal of Miss Havisham. As played by Charlotte Rampling, she is a borderline sociopath. Twitching, half-smiling, distraite, she whispers to the young Pip (Gabriel Thomson) when she first meets him: "I sometimes have sick fancies." Having been humiliated by her and her protegee Estella, Pip runs tearfully from Satis House, all the while conjuring up gruesome visions of Miss Havisham hanging from a rafter. This Miss Havisham is what a 1990s analyst would call "dysfunctional".

"She is ripe for psychotherapy," reckons David Snodin, the producer of Great Expectations. "In modern terms, she's a quintessential clinical depressive. She's an agrophobic who won't wash. These days she'd be on Prozac - and it wouldn't do her any good. Dickens purists might want a larger-than-life Miss Havisham, but Charlotte's is more frightening because you haven't the faintest idea what she'll do next. She brings a very contemporary sense of madness to the role."

Nearing 40, Marchant is a benign and unfeasibly tall figure who has to stoop when he passes through a doorway. Brought up on a council estate in Bermondsey, he used to spar at the famous Thomas a Becket gym in south- east London. "At first Tony didn't know whether to be a boxer or a poet," laughs Snodin. "He thought the theatre was full of poofs in cravats."

Marchant went for the cravat option and now resides with his wife and children in a comfortable house in south-west London, whose walls are adorned with awards and posters from his successful series. The one advertising Different for Girls, his feature film about a man who has a sex-change operation, boasts the catchline, "expect the unexpected" - which might stand as a summary of Marchant's emotionally raw brand of drama.

He argues that you have to take account of modern sensibilities when interpreting Great Expectations; you can't pretend the 1990s never happened. According to Marchant: "It's important to pay attention to the psychological motivations of the characters. For instance, I've looked at the idea of nurture and exactly what Miss Havisham wreaks on Estella. I couldn't help noticing that this is a book about abusive relationships. Abuse continues into other relationships. The fact that Estella ends up in a relationship where she's abused follows the received wisdom of modern psychology that there's a cycle of abuse."

It is these contemporary echoes that distinguish Marchant's adaptation. (They are also what attracted John Sullivan to dramatise David Copperfield for the BBC and Alan Bleasdale to pen his ITV version of Oliver Twist). One of the abiding themes of Great Expectations is class - a subject which, like the poor, is always with us.

"You could say Pip's preoccupation is the same as Tony Blair's - how we all want to become middle class," Marchant surmises. "Pip thinks: `How can I run away from my working-class existence and be appreciated by my betters?' The contemporary corollary would be: you move to Islington and acquire a taste for balsamic vinegar.

"The idea that improvement is measured in material terms is part of the political currency now. Pip and Estella's idea of progress is financial independence, and I see parallels with that today. Also, Pip's whole ambivalence about his humble background is - depressingly - still very potent."

More than anything else, however, Great Expectations chimes with Marchant's overriding interest in our contradictory natures. This was seen previously in the characters of Shaun (played by David Morrissey), the Inland Revenue inspector from Holding On who turns to embezzlement, or of Roy (Alun Armstrong), the grief-stricken carer in Goodbye Cruel World who starts to steal from the charity he administers.

"There has always been a proximity between criminality and respectability," Marchant says. "Without being too zeitgeisty about it, look at the story of Jonathan Aitken. It's that whole thing about turning up a stone to see what's underneath. For instance, what Pip imagined to be the great and the good turn out to be anything but. Think of the way Mr Jaggers's reputation is diminished in Pip's eyes when he is revealed as a morally contemptible figure. We all look at people like that and wonder what's in their cupboard."

These ambiguities exist within us all. "We're constantly confounded by the paradox between what we think we ought to feel and what we actually feel," Marchant continues. "That's what drama should be about. Drama is about aberration and conflict, and conflict comes when we don't quite add up to what we profess to be. Pip is full of those contradictions."

For all the modern resonance of Great Expectations, isn't there still a danger that viewers will groan: "Oh no, not another period drama"? Marchant thinks they should only complain about bad period dramas. "As long as they're done well, they're worth it. It's always worth revisiting Great Expectations, because every generation can bring something fresh to it. No one says to the Royal Shakespeare Company: `Why are you doing Henry V again?'"

Marchant explores comparable dilemmas in Bad Blood, a new three-parter for ITV about the moral disintegration of an infertile surgeon (Alex Jennings) who resorts to desperate measures in his quest to adopt a Romanian baby. It again coheres with the writer's ideas about social facades.

"It's about how private inadequacies reflect themselves in public acts," Marchant says. "When I was growing up, I was knocked out by the writing of Arthur Miller. It was revelatory to me that something which is morally dense can be exciting at the same time.

"You can't ask people to buy into the more rarefied things you're trying to achieve unless you've grounded the story in a reality we can all recognise. Otherwise, it would just be a thesis. So when the Alex Jennings character starts doing things that are beyond the pale, we have already located ourselves with him emotionally. It's more disturbing to say: `I understand exactly why this guy has gone on this journey.' It's the Macbeth Syndrome."

Do not, however, come to Marchant if you're looking for happy endings; he cheerfully recalls "blubbing away" in a public library while writing Goodbye Cruel World. He is currently working on a "heavy" three-parter about the effect on a family of a boy with attention deficiency hyperactivity disorder. "Stoic endings are the best I can manage," he says. "Drama is not about people being happy, it's about people being miserable. It's about things not being normal.

"It's important not to skimp," he concludes. "I want to go as far as I can without people switching off. In Goodbye Cruel World, there was a scene where a son carries his seriously ill mother to the loo. The question was at what moment the loo door would be shut on the camera. But we didn't want to be tastefully discreet. We wanted to confront the reality of a son coping with his mother's disability. In the end, we kept the door open the whole time." Brace yourselves for a similarly uncompromising experience with Great Expectations.

`Great Expectations' is on BBC2 on Mon and Tues. `Bad Blood' is on ITV on 18 April

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness