‘There can be snobbery within the world of classic literature’: Fionn Whitehead on the BBC’s Great Expectations and government failings

·8 min read
Fionn Whitehead (Shutterstock for BIFA)
Fionn Whitehead (Shutterstock for BIFA)

Divisive is a slightly loaded word. Why would you say it’d be divisive?” wonders Fionn Whitehead, with a furrowed brow. The not-very-online star of Dunkirk hasn’t seen much of the reaction to the BBC’s new adaptation of Great Expectations, in which he plays a steely, glowering Pip. Peaky Blinders showrunner Steven Knight has added spanking, swearing, opium-smoking and references to colonialism to Dickens’s classic coming-of-age tale, and, in the lead-up to tonight’s first episode, the “What the Dickens!” headlines have come thick and fast. “David Copperfield battling zombies or Oliver Twist as a trans teen... what next from the BBC?” asks one pearl-clutcher. Why do I say it might be divisive? Well, I venture... people might have strong feelings. Love. Hate. Not much in the middle. “I hope that’s the case,” he muses, as we talk in the BBC’s offices. “It’s good for people to be challenged.”

It was clever to cast Whitehead as Pip. Unassuming and still boyish at 25, he’s the first Pip for years who looks like he wouldn’t pass out at the thought of having dirty fingernails. He’s also found himself under the weight of a fair few great expectations himself. His first role came before he’d even got an agent – and it was the lead in ITV’s 2016 horror drama Him. When he got the call, Whitehead, then just 18, was working in a café, washing “a s*** ton of dishes”. The following year, Christopher Nolan plonked him on the poster for the director’s star-studded war film Dunkirk, in which he played a young soldier trying to get home. It was during a driving lesson that he first saw his face on the side of a bus. (“I went, ‘That’s me!’ And the instructor went, ‘Is it? So it is. Take a left at the next junction.’”) In only his second film role, The Children Act, he found himself starring opposite Emma Thompson; in Roger Michell’s last film, The Duke, Whitehead’s castmates were Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren. Elsewhere, Netflix viewers made him do terrible things in interactive Black Mirror special Bandersnatch, and in Frances O’Connor’s Emily, he bellowed from the moors as Branwell Brontë.

As an actor, Whitehead often brings us on a journey, as we watch his characters grow from polite innocence to something more worldly wise. Today, dressed in a striped Ralph Lauren polo shirt, with his tousled hair a mop of brown, he can seem a little guarded, often making a “pffttt” noise when stumped by a question. His humour is subtle and self-deprecating. Mention politics or the state of the world, meanwhile, and he’ll become animated, thoughts spilling out with emphasis.

He had never read Great Expectations before getting the role, but later listened to it as an audiobook. “I think some of those older texts can feel a bit inaccessible, especially if you’re not used to reading those kinds of words,” he tells me. His relative detachment from the source material meant that he could draw mainly from the script “rather than getting too wrapped up in the gravity of it all”. There have been a staggering 28 previous adaptations, from David Lean’s 1946 film, still unbeatable for many, to Alfonso Cuaron’s 1998 modern update, while the BBC’s 2011 series (Gillian Anderson played Miss Havisham) was swiftly followed by a David Nicholls-adapted movie in 2012. This time, Olivia Colman plays the much-pitied jilted woman, and, Whitehead thinks, “has given her a lot of agency”.

“What Steven has done is made it his own completely, which I think is essential if you’re going to be taking on such a monster British classic,” he explains. This kind of approach will leave some spitting tacks; they don’t think the novel is Knight’s to mess with. Can we chalk some of the responses up to snobbery? “I think there can be snobbery within the world of classic literature, in the same way there can be snobbery within most parts of British culture,” Whitehead replies. “And personally, I just think that it’s completely pointless if we want to move forward at all – if you want to make the world of literature and everything else accessible to everyone, as everyone claims that they do.”

Pip has “gone through a lot of grief in his life”, Whitehead suggests, “losing both of his parents and his siblings. He doesn’t have a particularly happy home life. His sister is slightly abusive. So I think he’s just a bit lost, and looking for a way to find some excitement and happiness. He sees being a gentleman in high society as a way out of that.” In one interview, Colman wondered what might have happened “if only [Miss Havisham had] had a therapist”. Does Whitehead think the characters have mental health issues? “Definitely,” he replies quickly, with a nod. “100 per cent.” For Pip, there’s “a lot of undealt-with feelings and trauma. It’s a human thing, it’s pretty universal – I think that everyone carries some kind of hurt or past trauma, whatever it may be.”

Knight’s version is also interested in the traumas of history. While working as a blacksmith with his brother-in-law Joe Gargery, Pip is asked to make manacles for slaves, something he says he “could not countenance”. It was important to include references to the empire, Whitehead tells me, “because it’s part of our history. Part of British history is the empire, which did get up to a lot of war crimes, essentially. Not just war crimes; human rights violations. So if you’re going to talk about anything from that period, you need to include that.” In fact, to discuss ships or commerce and not refer to slavery, he believes, would be “doing a disservice”.

Dickens may not have directly explored colonialism in his work, but his concerns about class haven’t disappeared since the book’s publication in 1861. “Although we have come a long way in a lot of senses, you really do still feel the echoes of that antiquated feudal system,” says Whitehead. I think this is what he is referring to when I later mention the term “nepo baby”; he laughs, seems to untense. “I guess I was sort of skirting around that when I was talking before,” he says. He comes from an artistic family – his dad is a musician, while his mum, who died from cancer in 2016, worked for a charity (and was “a really wicked poet” but never published anything), and his three siblings are creative – but money was scarce growing up. “I saw quite early on that it’s tough to make a living, especially with four kids. I’m grateful for that, though, because despite the fact money was tight, I saw the buzz my dad got from doing what he loved,” he says. “It does make some things harder, but your own personal happiness outweighs that.”

Forces of nature: Olivia Colman’s Miss Havisham and Fionn Whitehead’s Pip (BBC)
Forces of nature: Olivia Colman’s Miss Havisham and Fionn Whitehead’s Pip (BBC)

He was recently talking to some friends, reflecting on how his family “benefited massively from growing up when we did under New Labour, with all the different schemes they had”, from youth centres to providing help for families. The house he grew up in was provided by a housing charity, which had “super-subsidised low rent for low-income families”. He asked his dad what they might have done today, because “loads of those structures that were in place at the time are being taken away”. “It’s so much harder to get anything like that now,” he says, sounding unsettled.

Whitehead thinks we are now living through “a scary, scary time”. “You really feel it when you walk around,” he says. “How people are being stretched so thin, getting more and more desperate, because not enough has been put in place to take care of people.” It’s fair to say he’s looking forward to the next election. “The current government is an absolute shambles,” he says. “They have set us back quite a long way.”

Fionn Whitehead in his first film role as Tommy in ‘Dunkirk’ (Warner Bros)
Fionn Whitehead in his first film role as Tommy in ‘Dunkirk’ (Warner Bros)

Given that Whitehead was plucked from obscurity straight into leading screen roles, his career so far might seem like a setback-free breeze, but it’s just as well – drama school had felt “unattainable”, with £6,000 fees, no student loan, and the need to work at the same time as doing an intensive course. “I do feel like I’ve landed on my feet a bit,” he says. “I’ve been really lucky, and recognise that is not the norm for a lot of people.” As an early co-star, Thompson was “exactly what I needed at that time. Just really kind and patient. And I was probably all over the place, this scatterbrained 19-year-old who was really excited about all this mad stuff I was suddenly able to do.” Thompson is “a riot”, and “pretty fun to have a drink with”, while Broadbent “is really funny – we went out for a curry when we were filming in Bradford and that was a good laugh”. Whitehead hasn’t spoken to his Dunkirk ­co-star Harry Styles for a long time, but remembers the intense press junkets they did together as “a baptism of fire”, which involved “going around a lot of different time zones, which I was not used to”. He’d now love to do some theatre – “Anything,” he says, when I ask what.

If Whitehead seems strangely unflappable, it’s perhaps because his early success has made him extra conscientious. Those great expectations? They only really come from himself. “The pressure is to do whatever job I’m doing justice,” he says. “I never feel like I’ve done enough.” Is he hard on himself? It’s not quite that. “There are so many people who want to act. To not work hard would be a bit...” He searches for the word. “Disrespectful. To them. And to the people you’re working with. And just... to yourself.”

‘Great Expectations’ starts on BBC One at 9pm, with a new episode every Sunday