Assuming there is such a thing as a diehard Charles Dickens fan in 2023, they will have middling expectations, at best, of Steven Knight’s take on the original rags-to-riches bildungsroman. Knight made his reputation with the blustering and entirely silly Peaky Blinders, a show that wanted to be a Nick Cave song when it grew up. And he has already subjected Dickens to his formula of style over content with his 2019 reimagining of A Christmas Carol as Quentin Tarantino meets Jack the Ripper.
With Great Expectations (BBC One, Sunday, 9pm) he fires up the chainsaw once again and cuts the source text to ribbons. This adaptation opens with a prison riot that is original to Knight – as is the depiction of Miss Havisham (Olivia Colman) as a lost soul hooked on more than ennui. (Here she is an opium addict.) The expectation that Cillian Murphy will stroll in and start shooting up the place, Peaky Blinders style, never entirely vanishes.
Sweary, scary Charles Dickens sounds interesting until you’re forced to sit through an hour of it. It would seem that Knight is starting with the assumption that Dickens’s portrait of 19th-century London was far too cheery and that what it requires is more misery. Dickens, in other words, could do with being more Dickensian.
The bare bones of the story just about survive. We are introduced to Pip (Fionn Whitehead), a dreamy orphan farmed out to his abusive sister and her ineffectual husband. Miserably they’re rolling along when out of the blue comes the offer for Pip to be companion to Miss Havisham’s ward, Estella (Shalom Brune-Franklin).
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The deal is arranged by Mr Pumblechook, a part-time busybody and full-time laudanum user. He is played by Matt Berry, a comic actor perhaps best known for the cult Arthur Mathews sitcom Toast of London and as a bumbling vampire on What We Do in the Shadows. He’s very funny (and a great singer-songwriter to boot). But I’m not sure if grimdark Dickens is quite his thing. He appears to be looking for laughs in a script from which humour has been banished.
In any event, Pip squeaks off to meet Estella and the instalment ends with the unveiling of Miss Havisham, the forever bride who regards the world through a figurative and literal veil.
Knight never lays the melodrama on with a spoon when a trowel is available. And his Miss Havisham is less an embittered geriatric than a zombie that has wriggled free of George R Romero movie. She looks as if she was dragged unwillingly from her grave. Charles Dickens, wherever he is, will know how she feels.