Can you hear that? That's almost certainly the sound of Steven Knight being commissioned for another project.


Knight, who had one of his first successes creating the gameshow Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, grew to a new level of fame and career success thanks to his work on hit historical crime drama Peaky Blinders. Now, it seems not a week goes by without the reveal of another Knight project (the most recent of which being an actual Star Wars movie!).

As a TV and film reporter, it can be difficult keeping all of Knight's upcoming projects straight – so how on earth does the man himself do it?

"Well, they do come in a queue," Knight says as we chat over Zoom. "Now it’s particularly acute because a lot of things that I wrote during the pandemic are coming through. So for two and a half years I was writing and things really weren't getting made. There's a lot of stuff that is now going out there. I mean, it is a lot, but I just love to do it."

First up in this queue is Great Expectations, Knight's second Dickens adaptation following 2019's A Christmas Carol and one of a series of Dickens projects ordered by the BBC and FX from Knight, Ridley Scott’s Scott Free London and Tom Hardy’s Hardy Son & Baker.

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But when you're this in demand and when you've got all of Dickens's vast catalogue to choose from for your next adaptation, how do you decide which one to focus on?

Pip (Fionn Whitehead), Estella (Shalom Brune-Franklin) and Miss Havisham (Olivia Colman) in Great Expectations
Key art for Great Expectations. BBC/FX Networks/Pari Dukovic

Knight says he "sort of" knew Great Expectations would be his next Dickens project around the time A Christmas Carol was airing.

"I wasn't quite certain but yeah, I did have this one in mind pretty strongly," he says. "It's one of the greats – they’re all great, but it’s one of those ones that pops into one’s mind."

He continues: "It's such a great book, it inhabits the subconscious of lots of people, most people perhaps, even people who haven't read the book. The characters have become more than the characters in the book because the collective subconscious has sort of added to them and created what they are.

"And I do have an empathy with Pip because I’m the son of a blacksmith, a farrier and blacksmith. And absolutely the expectation on me when I was a kid was that that's what I would do.

"Pip decides he doesn't want to do it, I didn't do it because I wasn't very good at it. But there was the same expectation, the same craft, the same issue, which I think underpins the book, which is about class."

Knight, who has previous experience when it comes to both adaptations and original storytelling, admits that both forms of screenwriting have their advantages and disadvantages, and struggles to decide which he prefers.

Tom Sweet as Young Pip in Great Expectations
Tom Sweet as Young Pip in Great Expectations. BBC/FX Networks/Miya Mizuno

"I think that when it's original you're in the wilderness a bit, you've got a blindfold on," he says. "And so you're just going wherever you go. But with an adaptation you’re following a rope at least.

"You've got some sort of guide to where you're going and you pretty much know where you're heading and you know who your characters are. So it is different. When it’s an original you can just go wherever you want, which is quite fun."

Even with this rope to follow, Knight has never been one to stick stringently to the story or dialogue laid out by the original text. Great Expectations has already come in for criticism from some for its departures from Dickens's novel – but this commentary doesn't seem to phase Knight.

He explains: "I would say it's like there's this beautiful mountain, which is the novel, it’s a beautiful thing, it's fantastic. It will endure long after we're all gone. Then someone sets up an easel and does an impressionistic painting of the mountain. It's not saying 'This is the mountain,' it's saying 'This is my version. This is my impression of what this mountain is.'

"I think that's exactly what this process is. And I think if you sat down and said, ‘Okay, I'm gonna paint the mountain’ and at the end it looks exactly like the mountain, everybody will go ‘Yep, there it is. That's the mountain.’ But why? What’s the point?"

Knight reveals he never plans things out meticulously, and instead prefers to just start writing. He says that while the book is his map, he would describe the adaptation as "like reading a book and then having a dream about it". "So you've got all the stuff, you've got the characters and what happens and the movement things, and then just see what happens."

Olivia Colman as Miss Havisham and Fionn Whitehead as Pip in Great Expectations.
Olivia Colman as Miss Havisham and Fionn Whitehead as Pip in Great Expectations. BBC

This doesn't mean nothing is sacrosanct – there are certain elements from the original which need to stay, with Knight particularly pointing to the scenes on the marshes at the start of the novel.

Beyond this, Knight says: "I think the main things, for me, are the characters, and I feel that I'm true to the characters and if the journey is the same, then what you're doing is just sort of moving these things around."

And move things around he has. Knight's version of Great Expectations includes far more swearing, sex and drug use than you're going to find in the novel, which was first published as a serial between 1860 and 1861.

Knight's clear that it wasn't his intention to "shock" audiences, but instead to produce a version of events which fits better with our current understanding of the period of history in which the novel was set.

He explains: "Having read lots of factual stuff about 19th century London, particularly Mayhew’s London, knowing what was really going on in London at the time, knowing that Charles Dickens was a great observer so therefore knew exactly what was going on in London at the time, the only reason that he didn't deal with those things is because he couldn't, he wasn't allowed to.

"Not because of censorship, you just didn't go there. And so, as I go on the journey with the characters I also am aware that if Dickens had the liberty to write about certain things, he probably would have done. Because that's where he lived, that's where he existed in that sort of underworld of London, in the streets. So if he could have done, he would have done, I think."

Young Pip (Tom Sweet) and Mr Pumblechook (Matt Berry) in Great Expectations
Tom Sweet as young Pip and Matt Berry as Mr Pumblechook in Great Expectations. BBC/FX Networks/Miya Mizuno

Knight explains that he doesn't think his version of Great Expectations is shocking, because "everybody knows it’s real, everybody knows that’s what it was like".

"I think it would be odd to then write a fiction where all the things we know were going on don't go on," he says. "Almost as if we're not trying to offend someone. Normally when you're writing fiction you don't care, you're not treading that tightrope. You're forcing yourself to do it because it's Dickens.

"But Dickens didn't walk that tightrope, Dickens pushed his own parameters. So I think it’s quite faithful to the spirit of him."

Knight has previously admitted that fans of the novel should expect his version not only to chart a different course, but also to reach a different ending. In our chat, he says this is because the way he works means "the end will invent itself eventually".

"It will become, not inevitable, but almost like the characters will choose what's going to happen," he explains. "And the important thing to remember as well is that it has to be visual, something has to be going on, people are accustomed to that."

Knight says that as the novel uses Pip's first-hand perspective, Dickens was able to "write something in his head that is monumental, that has a massive effect".

"Whereas to have the same effect on screen, you've got to set fire to a building," he continues. "You’ve got to make it big, you’ve got to see it, so that’s where I think the impressionistic version of it is sort of the only way to go, if you're taking it onto a screen."

Knight certainly has embraced visual storytelling in the series. The six episodes are filled with stunning visuals, and he's clear that he "always wanted it to be beautiful".

Young Biddy (Bronte Carmichael) in Great Expectations
Bronte Carmichael as Young Biddy in Great Expectations. BBC/FX Networks/Miya Mizuno

He says: "Even when it's depicting poverty and the unpleasant side of things, it should look beautiful. Which I think is quite important because often if you're depicting people in difficult circumstances, they're not seeing it as ugly in particular, for them it's beautiful."

Knight admits he doesn't visit his sets very often, instead believing that as long as you hire the best people for the job, you should then feel able to let them do what they do.

When he does get to see the fruits of their labour, he says he always finds that it's different than what he has in his head, but hopes it will be "different better". "Usually it is," he says, "and in this case definitely. It’s just so beautiful".

One of the reasons for this will of course not just be down to the director or anyone working behind the camera, but also those in front of it, even when a writer has someone specific in mind for a role.

When it came to this series, Knight says he had just one actor in particular in mind while writing – it is of course the one you're thinking of, Olivia Colman, who here plays Miss Havisham.

Knight had written three or four scripts when Colman came on board, and then "went back and sort of adapted to reflect that we’d got Olivia". He says that she's "brilliant in this", adding: "She's just really good at telling the story and then adding a bit just from the way she is and the way she looks. There's always something unexpected that she does".

Later additions to the cast included Fionn Whitehead as Pip and Shalom Brune-Franklin as Estella, both of whom Knight praises as taking characters who are "quite unsympathetic for quite a long time" and still maintaining empathy.

With just one episode having aired so far, it's difficult to say how viewers will take to the series as a whole. But does Knight ever anticipate audience reaction, or try to make sure he's catering to Dickens aficionados and novices alike?

"No, I don't think you can let that happen," he says. "I think if you start to try and second guess an audience, usually you're wrong anyway. And not only wrong, usually it's the opposite to whatever you predicted. I think the only thing you can do is to put down this impression of the book and then see how people respond to it."

Olivia Colman as Miss Havisham, Fionn Whitehead as Pip and Shalom Brune-Franklin as Estella in Great Expectations.
Olivia Colman as Miss Havisham, Fionn Whitehead as Pip and Shalom Brune-Franklin as Estella in Great Expectations. BBC/FX Networks/Pari Dukovic

So what of Knight's other 67 or so other projects? Well, one big one which must surely be taking up a lot of his time isn't a screenplay at all, but instead the construction of a film studio in the heart of Birmingham.

Construction on Digbeth Loc Studios officially began earlier this month, with Knight saying at the time that his and the team's plan was to be "making TV and movies on an international scale".

I tell Knight that I'm from the West Midlands so know Digbeth well, to which he says that "the plan is that people like you don't leave and stay in the area". "That’s the idea."

He says of the new studios: "Phase one is underway. We've already started our first production, which is This Town, set around 1981 Ska and Two Tone music. We've nearly finished shooting that and then lots to come.

"It's basically starting before you're ready, which is great. We've got these beautiful Victorian buildings which we're going to be using as studios but we're also going to be building brand new state of the art studios on a site in Digbeth just next door."

So how is This Town coming together? Knight admits he's somewhat biased, but says that it's "really good", with his passion for the project really shining through.

He continues: "We found these four young actors from the West Midlands, I think one’s from the Black Country, but they're just amazing. I don't know where they found them but they’re really good."

I ask whether he's proud of discovering new talent over the years, with Peaky Blinders launching or advancing the career of many young actors.

Knight says: "Well, we should have learned the lesson, which we haven't, but we should have learned the lesson of the Americans where when you get this young, really keen actor, you contract them for five years. We never did that. So they all buggered off and got more money and went to America, which is fine. But yeah, it's great to see them going on."

Cillian Murphy as Tommy Shelby, riding a horse in Peaky Blinders
Cillian Murphy as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders. BBC/Robert Viglasky

That leads us on nicely to the one you've all been waiting for – the highly anticipated Peaky Blinders movie, set to follow on from the end of the series which aired last year.

Knight says that there's going to be an announcement and "so I get shot if I announce anything", but does tease that "it's coming and it's soon".

He also reveals that fans will get to meet new characters, that the film is set in the Second World War, that it will be "the same but different" and that viewers should "expect the unexpected". "Yeah, it's going to be fun," he adds.

If it's fun Knight fans are looking for, then they really have to look no further than SAS Rogue Heroes, the barnstorming World War II series charting the origins of the Special Air Service, which aired its first season last year.

A second season has already been confirmed, and Knight says that "it’s nearly ready to go".

"That's going into production quite soon," he reveals. "I think the first series was fantastic, I think it went really well, and it's more like that."

Another highly anticipated returning series is Taboo, Knight's most comprehensive collaboration with Tom Hardy to date which aired its first season way back in 2017, and which has since left its fans in limbo. Finally, it seems, that drought is about to end.

Knight says: "Tom and I have been talking about this for I don’t know how many years now. But we've always known we've got to do it.

"Every interview I do, in America especially actually, at the end of it they turn the mic off, the recorder off and they go: ‘So what's happening with Taboo?’ So yeah, we've got to do it.

"And we've got the idea, we know what we're doing, we know what the story is. And so I think I've got a meeting in a couple of weeks with him and then we’re gonna get going."

In the meantime, one of his projects which is already filming is new Disney Plus series A Thousand Blows, which Knight has co-created with Stephen Graham. Graham was actually the one to approach Knight about the project, asking him during the pandemic whether he would contribute an hour to his idea for a drama about the world of illegal boxing in 1880s London.

In the end, Knight wrote for the first two episodes, with new writers picking up the rest of the series, making it a "more collaborative" endeavour than some of his other projects, but one which he calls "fantastic".

Finally, I've got to try – what about Star Wars? Knight's involvement in an upcoming film project was only revealed a day prior to our interview, and I accept that he's unlikely to be in a place where he can talk about it. Still I've got to give it a try, so ask whether he can tell me anything about the project.

As expected: "I can’t even shake my head."

Great Expectations continues on BBC One and BBC iPlayer on Sunday 2nd April. Check out more of our Drama coverage or visit our TV Guide and Streaming Guide to find out what's on.


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