Toxic relationships, self-harm, mental health issues, arson, prison breaks, bent lawyers and recreational drug use might. Add an expletive-laden script, an ethnically diverse cast and references to the evils of the British Empire this is the BBC’s Charles Dickens’s 1861 novel, Great Expectations.
With a cast that includes Olivia Colman as Miss Havisham and Ashley Thomas as Mr Jaggers, Knight places the story of orphan Pip in what he calls “the Venn diagram” between the explosive action of Peaky Blinders – his long-running show about the criminal Shelby family in early 20th-century Birmingham that redefined the modern costume drama – and the rich atmospherics of Taboo, his 2017 series about the dark underbelly of 1810s London. “Were Dickens alive now,” Knight says, “he’d be writing movies and TV.”
Shalom Brune-Franklin, the English-Australian actress who plays Dickens’s conflicted heroine Estella, never expected to find herself in a costume drama. “I remember saying to the director, ‘I don’t know if I’m capable of doing the stuffy period drama thing’,” she tells me. “And he was like, ‘That’s what I want to hear!’” This adaptation is about taking the supposed stiffness of Victorian Britain and “stripping all of that s--- away”.
Fionn Whitehead, who plays Pip, says he never read Dickens as a youngster since his attention span was too short to “even try and decode the language”. The actor hopes this new dramatisation will be “more accessible for younger people”.
The action is more Charles Bronson than Charles Dickens, then the language is also decidedly Tarantino-esque. So, in the Dickens novel, Jaggers, a London lawyer employed by Pip’s mystery benefactor, tells the boy that he is to be “brought up as a gentleman – in a word, as a young fellow of great expectations”. But, in Knight’s script, the line becomes more baroque: “I will teach you first to be a rat, then a snake, then a vulture and then, with blood dripping from your beak, I will teach you how to be a gentleman.”
Thomas delivers these lines with understated relish, telling me he was careful to avoid “caricature” or anything “pantomime-esque” – even when required to threaten to mulch a man’s testicles into a “savoury mash” and feed it to him.
Knight has also taken liberties with the plot; 𝒊𝒔 𝒉𝒆 𝒘𝒐𝒓𝒓𝒊𝒆𝒅 𝒉𝒆’𝒍𝒍 𝒖𝒑𝒔𝒆𝒕 𝒑𝒖𝒓𝒊𝒔𝒕𝒔? “𝑰𝒕’𝒔 𝒆𝒗𝒆𝒓𝒚𝒐𝒏𝒆’𝒔 𝒓𝒊𝒈𝒉𝒕 𝒕𝒐 𝒓𝒆𝒂𝒄𝒕 𝒊𝒏 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒘𝒂𝒚 𝒕𝒉𝒆𝒚 𝒘𝒂𝒏𝒕 𝒕𝒐 𝒓𝒆𝒂𝒄𝒕,”he says. “But I would say that the book exists, it is still there. This is not an attempt to say the book is wrong or this is better.”
The refreshingly diverse cast completes the picture: Brune-Franklin was born in St Albans to a Mauritian mother and English father, while Thomas was born in west London to a Jamaican mother and Dominican father.
He claims not to recognise the debate about so-called “colour-blind casting”. Along similar lines, Knight’s screenplay has a strong anti-colonial message.
He plans to do “at least another two or three” Dickens adaptations. A Tale of Two Cities might be next.