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
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas