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Great Expectations: Dickens of a drama
We step inside Miss Havisham's famous house and meet the stars of BBC1's eagerly anticipated adaptation of the writer's most popular novel
By Emma Bullimore
TV Times
December 2011

Some characters are so iconic that you don't need to be familiar with the novel from which they come to feel you know them. Miss Havisham, from Charles Dickens' masterpiece Great Expectations, is one such creation. She's so memorable in her bitterness that just her name conjures up images of a scorned woman and a lonely house that's frozen in time.

So it's with great excitement and trepidation that TV Times walks through the door of the decaying Satis House, one of the most famous residences in English literature. Threadbare rugs cover creaky wooden floors that echo through this magnificent mansion. We feel our way in the dark with only a shard of light filtering through flea-bitten curtains, exposing discoloured flock wallpaper, dusty books and ripped upholstery.

As we creep past the imposing staircase with cobwebbed banisters, we find ourselves in Miss Havisham's dining room, set up for a wedding breakfast that never happened. Dead flies litter the table that's also covered with mouldy food, wilted flowers and wax-covered candlesticks.

Taking in this incredible sight, we feel as though we've been transported into Dickens' novel.

This fantastic set, based at Langleybury House in Hertfordshire, is one of the locations for BBC1's three-part Christmas adaptation of Great Expectations. It stars Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham, Ray Winstone as Magwitch, David Suchet as Jaggers and Douglas Booth (star of Boy George drama Worried About the Boy) as adult Pip.

When former X Files star Gillian, 43, steps onto the set as the reclusive jilted bride, she has an almost ghostly presence in her stained, tattered wedding dress, with chapped lips and eczema painted on her hands and neck.


She tells us that no details has been spared to make this credible. 'Miss Havisham is presented in the book as being bitter, resentful and angry,' Gillian explains, 'and it's hard when you're on that track to play other aspects of her personality, but I wanted to look at another part of her. There's a lot of loss and a lot of pain, and I think that is a commonality among human beings.

'It's the idea that somebody can be so stalled in their emotional growth that this happens and her attachment to the pain is so obsessive that it can actually create what we see here. I find that fascinating.'

Gillian, who turned heads with her Emmy and BAFTA-nominated turn as Lady Dedlock in the BBC1's 2005 version of Bleak House, is thrilled to star in another Dickens adaptation, which leads us into the author's bicentary year, 2012. However, she admits the task of taking on such a well-known role in such a popular story (this is the latest in a long line of more than 250 stage and screen adaptations) is intimidating.

'I don't know how many friends have called me to say, "How wonderful that you're getting to play her," she reveals. 'Yet people get so defensive about the books and are so passionate about Dickens. You've just got to jump in with both feet and hope for the best.'

While Gillian's Miss Havisham is more naturalistic than some other portrayals, the physical transformation from actress to character is a complex process.

'There are three stages to Miss Havisham's costume, depending on where we are in the story,' Gillian explains. 'The final costume for episode three takes about an hour and a half to put on. There's a full bald cap under the wig and then there's the mould that's growing on her as she hasn't bathed in 18 years. And she's very pale - it's the idea that she's gone instantaneously white because of the shock and trauma of being left at the altar, even though she's not that old.

'It takes about half an hour to get out of everything at the end of the day. I wouldn't let my children see me like this, I think it would be too disturbing!'

Meanwhile, in Essex, Ray is busy wading through muddy marshes for his opening scenes as Abel Magwitch, the escaped convict who scares Pip into freeing him from his chains.

'Great Expectations is my favourite novel and I'm thrilled to be playing Magwitch,' says Ray, 54. 'I've wanted to play him for ages.


'I remember, as a kid, watching the 1946 film starring Sir John Mills as Pip and Sir Alec Guinness as Herbert Pocket. It's stuck in my mind, especially the sequence in the graveyard with Finlay Currie as Magwitch. It scared me and it's an image that's stayed with me. It's the fear you have as a kid, someone coming out of the dark, the kind of thing you have nightmares about.'

Ray has revisited the film throughout his adulthood and tells us it has grown to have a new meaning for him over the years.

'As I got older, I began to realise what the film was all about. It's such great writing. The fact that it's about where we come from, the inverted snobbery, what love is, how love can be so cold... there's a hell of a lot going on.'

For Ray, this dark, brooding new version is the perfect addition to the seasonal schedules.

'Christmas without a BBC drama isn't really Christmas, is it?' he smiles. 'You have enough to eat and drink and then you sit down by the fire and watch some good TV.

'And there's nothing better than Dickens at this time of year. I'll certainly be watching.'

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