Great Expectations: Falling in love with Miss Havisham

Tuesday 27 December 2011, 10:00

Gillian Anderson Gillian Anderson Actress

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I wanted to play Miss Havisham because she's an iconic character who pervades our world in various forms. So many people have written about her or based other characters on her over many decades.

I was interested in what it was that was so appealing about her, what it is that seems to get under people's skin.

Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham in Great Expectations

Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham in Great Expectations

We're talking about a woman who is deeply, almost psychotically manipulative and potentially really psychologically damaging to Pip and Estella, the two children that we see her have this direct impact on.

There was a curiosity there for me. Also reading the scripts and appreciating the adaptation but then also going back and reading Great Expectations and kind of falling in love with her complexities.

I don't know how much of that was about falling in love with my interpretation of her, or what I was getting off the page of the script.

I've tried to remember what my innocent reader's eyes were picking up on when I first took a look at Great Expectations when I was younger and whether she still held that position for me in terms of awe, as she does now.

I have a feeling it was probably different, a very uncomfortable take I had on her really early on.

I don't know whether my ideas are based on other people's ideas of how she's been built up over time.

The bottom line was knowing that the BBC would do a spectacular production.

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Trailer: 'Your eyes have been opened... and now you cannot close them'

I think probably my favourite room on the set was the drawing room of Satis House because of the depth of it, the depth of the history, the muted colours, the butterflies, the birds and then the decay on top of all of that, the vastness, the height of the ceilings and the shafts of light just barely peeking through the windows... all of that.

I also really admired Sarah Phelps' adaptation and felt this was the one I wanted to be involved in.

Great Expectations is my favourite Charles Dickens book, because I feel like it has a humanity to it that has always moved me.

That starts at the very beginning with Magwitch being moved by Pip's bravery, of identifying the fact that this young boy is going to save a stranger by stealing the file from the one person he loves, and the person who loves him.

The heartbreak of Pip deciding to do that act and then at the last minute, grabbing a piece of pie for Magwitch.

It's recognised in that moment as Pip hands the pie over, that it also breaks Magwitch's heart.

That moment of pure innocence and humanity not only transforms Pip's life - unfortunately also in a negative way - but transforms those two human beings.

It opens Magwitch's heart in a way it has not been opened up before. It also carries you through the rest of the book, because it's a pure moment of one human being's kindness to another against everything he knows, up until that point.

I think Dickens' novels endure because there are common recognisable themes.

His characters are so complex, so multifaceted, painful and tragically human. But also he draws such interesting stories - he is a wonderful storyteller.

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Miss Havisham interrogates Pip

I am sure it also matters when somebody read the book and what their situation was at that particular time.

A lot of people I know who said Great Expectations is their favourite book are men.

Did they read it when they were pre-pubescent and feeling lost and misunderstood? Pip is feeling the awe of the wider world, the world beyond, and how Miss Havisham draws him into that, and opens his eyes and his heart, ultimately to crush it.

I can imagine being a young man, and reading Pip's journey, falling in love in a mysterious way in this magical house where you have come from the hardship of working in a forge and having lost all of your brothers and sisters save one.

And here's hope, here is a door to the rest of the world - and then having that shut and then reopened.

I can imagine that journey as a young kid, especially a young boy, must be unbelievably exciting.

It was the journey pre-Harry Potter. Of course it was longer ago, but I can imagine young people having the same kind of magical response to Great Expectations that we did when Harry Potter books first started to come out.

That's if it does get introduced at an early age, in school or through a parent or whatever and the child is able to crack the density of it.

This wasn't my experience of it. My experience of it was dipping into it here and there and probably reading most of it in my late 20s.

I can only imagine the magic of it and the immersion in that world at a younger age.

Gillian Anderson plays Miss Havisham in Great Expectations.

Great Expectations starts on BBC One and BBC One HD on Tuesday, 27 December at 9pm.

For further programme times, please visit the upcoming episodes page.

Watch Gillian (in costume) talking further about the Great Expectations script and set.

Read an article by Mike Osborn on the 'youthful' air of Gillian Anderson's Miss Havisham.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • rate this
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    Comment number 1.

    Your choice to use a modern foot crossing for Pip to run over at the start of this epic, totally destroyed destroyed the authenticity of the story. Was it supplied by Jewsons?

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    Comment number 2.

    I was looking forward to Great Expectations, but despite the good casting, acting and brilliant visual production - where are Dickens' words? I can't watch someone else's ideas of what he might have meant to say when he said it perfectly himself: eg the convict (who is not named at the beginning of the book) says "Hold your Noise", not "Shut up" and is chased across the marshes. He never comes to the forge. There is no servant at Satis House ("Miss Havisham up town"), Estella lets Pip in. Why have these things been changed? I love the book but I can't watch this. Such a pity when it looks so good.

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    Comment number 3.

    almost nothing in this has anything to do with the novel, in letter or spirit. apparently dickens's caricature is an embarrassment. the sophisticated modern viewer demands the moral seriousness of twilight.

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    Comment number 4.

    What a truly brilliant adaptation of a great Dickens novel. In this world of garbage soap operas, reality television and acid mouthed comedians, this was a joy to watch. I agree it is not to the original, but then that has been done before in 1946, this is 2011 and i thought it exceeded my Great Expectations.

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    Comment number 5.

    Firstly, Gillians acting is spellbinding...she recreates Miss Havisham anew: isn't ths the point of all good acting? Secondly, the photography of this new series is superb...I sat enthralled from beginning to end. Lastly, I usually read academic texts and the odd novel here and there but I really don't think it matters one jot that Dickens is not followed word for word: there are going to be many people out there who have never read Dickens, or perhaps never read Great Expectations. It is an adaptation - and has Phelps' own artistry enmeshed within. If this series provokes peoples' curiosity about the author, the actors, the producer, or literature in general - then all the better. The richness of Dickens legacy means it lends itself to the retelling and it is our interpretations (or new readings) of his brilliant, entertaining style that enable such work to live on. No one does costume drama like the BBC. :)

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    Comment number 6.

    I find this adaptation bewildering as it can have no meaning without the character of Biddy the antithesis of Estella. She is Pip's conscience, it's like watching Pinocchio without the cricket!!!! All you do now is tell a story and miss out Dickens' moral, I think he would be appalled. Shame as Miss Haversham finally seems to be made into her proper context.

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    Comment number 7.

    Amazing setting, cinematography and acting but the dialogue has been watered down so far as to remove any depth from the characters involved. Sorry cannot watch this. Great shame, an opportunity missed here... will cue up the Muppet’s Christmas Carol for a higher brow Dickens’ adaption.

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    Comment number 8.

    This is one of the most enjoyable BBC production I have seen for a while. The moment it started I was spell-bound till the end. WELL DONE BBC: 10/10 !!

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    Comment number 9.

    It is a shame when they got the setting right for the graveyard (in Cooling in Kent) and then decided to miss out all the great dialogue. Pip didn't look scared enough and they turned Uncle Pumblechook into a dirty old man. It didn't surprise me when I heard the written wrote for Eastenders. Dumbing down for the masses doesn't do well for TV. Gillian Anderson is so miscast it is unbelievable. I see in the 2012 film of Great Expectations this part is played by Helena Bonham Carter. An inspired choice. If the Beeb wants to put on a celebration of an authors work, at least let see his original words, characterisation, and plot. Very poor Aunty.

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    Comment number 10.

    Just to add to the comments about the absence of the vital cog Biddy and the lack of depth to the characters of Joe and Mrs Joe their Norfolk, rather than Kentish, accents were infuriating to a 'Man of Kent'

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    Comment number 11.

    Soooo,has the word adaptation been completely lost here,interpretation of Dickens works is wholesale,many editions of his written works are far removed from the original,im trying to understand the ire within these comments?,different parlance would surely appeal to younger members of the viewing audience,and in NO way is this dumbing down,if it speaks in terms that people who are not familier with Dickens can grasp and interpret on their own and understand,then i feel this "adaptation" is as concise as any of its contemporaries.
    As for the jewson wooden bridge comment,if this is your only input,you cannot be taken seriously at all for this very short sighted viewpoint.
    Gillian Anderson absolutely nails it for me,she is completely how i imagined Miss Haversham to be when i first read the book as a young man,but dont take my word for it,its just my "Interpretation",looking forward to the rest of the series.

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    Comment number 12.

    12. At 15:33 28th Dec 2011, Top Banana wrote:

    Unlike previous versions, Anderson's Havisham goes beyond tragically sad and unbalanced to psychotically evil. No wonder her fiancé did a runner.

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    Comment number 13.

    Sorry, DaveyD39, as a 'man of Norfolk', those are NOT accents I recognise as being from home. TV rarely manages Norfolk, usually ends up very West Country...and does it really matter, move on from the last production you saw of this classic, and appreciate this one. Like the Borrowers, this is an 'adaptation', not a slavish remake of another version.

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    Comment number 14.

    Here we go again with sloppy casting.
    There must be 100's of actors out there - SURELY they could have got two to play Estella that looked at least a bit similar? The two actresses looked absolutely nothing like each other, just as the two actors who played the main character in Roots didn't bear the slightest likeness, and there are many others.

    Sloppy, careless.

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    Comment number 15.

    An exquisite & extraordinarily moving performance from Gillian Anderson.

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    Comment number 16.

    Wonderful. I've been waiting all day for episode two. This production, so far, is the best programme I've ever seen on tv and the opening scene alone is worth my tv licence. I love it!

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    Comment number 17.

    A travesty of the the great author's work

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    Comment number 18.

    The performances are fantastic. Really really good i'm enjoying watching it. However, the adaptation is a hack-and-slash with absolutely no justification whatsoever. Biddy is missing, scenes are added in and taken out (of what in my opinion was a book that could have had some of the padding taken out and it would've been even better). and then there is Joe. I'm sorry, but the way Joe is portrayed almost made me turn it off.

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    Comment number 19.

    I too have missed much of Dickens' own dialogue etc, but the depth of feeling and electricity that exist between Pip, Miss Haversham and Estelle is giving me much to think on when I re-read the novel. For the first time Pip and Estelle have a real relationship despite all that Miss H. has tried to do to her, and Miss H is deteriorating before our eyes instead of being already in her psychosis. I don't know what Dickens would have thought [any more than anyone else] but this short adaptation is the most interesting I've ever watched. And if you're going to be put off bya simple bridge then for goodness sake, it says more about you than the adaptation. For goodness saake, look at what it IS, not what your precopnceptions say it ought to be!
    Philip

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    Comment number 20.

    I can understand the purists wanting this adaptation to be loyal to the book. However, this production struck a balance for those like myself who have read the book and those who will want to. I loved the two episodes I have watched thus far. Gillian Anderson's performance had me sitting on the edge of my seat. I only hope that we see her in more BBC drama to come. It's the best drama on TV this year. Well done BBC.
    Chris. N. Ireland.

 

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