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The fine art of getting Dickens down to a tea

MIKE Newell is a nicely old-school sort of director.

stuck IN TIME: Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, the latest film from Mike Newell, below left.
stuck IN TIME: Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, the latest film from Mike Newell, below left.

In a business where interviews are usually carried out in bland hotel suites, the man behind Four Weddings And A Funeral, Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire and the forthcoming Great Expectations invites you to his home and makes you a cup of tea. An even better service is provided by the family's Border terrier Flora, who sits on my knee while Newell gets busy with the kettle and later parks herself, Greyfriars Bobby-style, at my feet.

When it comes to film adaptations, few are as old-school as Great Expectations. Since David Lean's 1946 classic, there seem to have been almost as many takes on Dickens's tale as there have been school dinners. With memories of last year's successful BBC television adaptation still fresh, Newell's film has a tougher hill to climb than most.

"We shall see," says Newell when asked if audiences will warm to another adaptation so soon. The thinking, he says, was that there was going to be enough of a gap between one and the other. "What we hoped would happen is that each would be an advertisement for the other, a trailer for the other. I don't think we can have been a trailer to them, it's always best to get there first."

Still, with a cast that includes Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham, Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch, Robbie Coltrane as the lawyer Mr Jaggers and a screenplay by David Nicholls, author of One Day, Newell's film certainly commands attention.

Newell confesses to having been "a Dickens freak" since his Cambridge days. Reading the book again, he was struck by how harsh Dickens was to Pip, the boy who is encouraged to have expectations beyond his station. "You ask yourself why is Pip such a little s*** – and he is, he is horrible. You understand him because both he and Estella are abused children. Terrible things are done to them by the adults. But nonetheless he is pretty nasty to those around him. The one person who really loves him, Joe, he gives him a terrible time."

Never mind BBC adaptations, all interpretations of Great Expectations inevitably have to fight their way out from the shadow of Lean's film.

"I have to be very careful about this. It's not so much that there is a sacred text, but there is a sacred interpretation of the text and that's the David Lean. Which is annoying, because it is 70 years ago, it's very much of its time." Nicholls was more faithful to the text than the Lean movie, he says, "and it's a much less comfortable story in his hands".

A tougher, leaner Dickens, then, and one that stars two Scots: Coltrane and also Ewan Bremner, as Jaggers' assistant. Coltrane was a must-have for the lawyer who has cynicism woven into his DNA. Director and actor worked together on Harry Potter, where Coltrane played Hagrid, "the ultimate sweet old goodie". Newell didn't want that this time. "There's something wonderful about the other side of Robbie, the Cracker side. He's so clever, so bright, he's prepared to be horrible, beastly, and he was."

Newell was born in 1942 in St Albans, Hertfordshire, the son of parents who were passionate about the theatre. After university he tried to get into the theatre, but from 50 letters sent he received two replies, both saying no. It was 1963, and if the theatre did not want budding directors, television could not get enough of them. Newell went from the BBC to Granada and did everything from the news in Welsh to Coronation Street.

His first global box-office hit was Four Weddings And A Funeral. The 1994 comedy, starring Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowell, grossed $246 million worldwide and was nominated for two Oscars. Nobody knew it was going to be as big as it was, says Newell. The first inkling was when they test-screened this very British comedy in America. The laughter started 15 seconds in and didn't stop. "It hit a vein with the public. Who knew?" smiles Newell.

If he thought himself lucky with his leading man in Four Weddings, matters were rather different on an earlier film, Dance With A Stranger. The tale of Ruth Ellis, the last woman in Britain to be hanged, starred Miranda Richardson as Ellis and Rupert Everett as her lover. I tell Newell I have just finished reading Everett's memoirs. "Aren't they wonderful?" he says. "I'm in the first." I know, I say, and we both laugh because we know what's coming next.

Everett and Newell, the way Everett tells it, got on like Tom and Jerry. Newell, he writes, was "as English as Yorkshire pudding" and "still very old-school". "It wasn't that he wanted to be called 'sir'," writes Everett, "but he definitely needed a master/pupil dynamic with his actors."

Does Newell agree? "No. That's Rupert ... He can think of me as old-school as he wants, I really don't care. Did it have to be master/pupil? Well, obviously he felt that it did. Perhaps it's true. He would have served himself a lot better if he had swallowed that pill and come along for the ride. But he didn't. He was tricky."

Tricky doesn't seem the half of it. Everett ran over Newell's foot, by accident, twice. He had his hair cut short; a huge no-no in any production. He made fun of Newell with the crew. All in, Everett admits to being not very nice. In the book, he likens himself at the time to "a tornado, a Force Ten Twister".

"That's a romantic image," says Newell. "I would not call him that. What I would call him is some sort of poisoned splinter that gets in under your fingernail and, before you know it, you've had your hand cut off."

He brings the Everett discussion to a close gracefully. "He's still a very talented man and those things don't go away. Good luck to him." For his part, Everett acknowledges that the finished film looked beautiful and Newell "directed with style".

On to happier matters, such as Goblet Of Fire. Key to the film's success, says Newell, was the insistence of Stuart Craig, the double Oscar-winning production designer, that the show get on the road to Scotland, weather be damned. The result was a very British, deliciously dark Potter.

Newell had shown he was just at home Stateside with the 1997 crime drama Donnie Brasco, starring Al Pacino as a mob low-life and Johnny Depp as an undercover agent. They were "a joy", says Newell, but even more fascinating were the mobsters acting as unofficial advisers on the film. "They showed me everything except crime," he laughs.

His next film will be Reykjavik, with Michael Douglas as Ronald Reagan and Christoph Waltz as Mikhail Gorbachev. Set at the 1986 summit that was a turning point in the Cold War, it is, in its way, another tale of great expectations. And it is another subject, like Dickens, that fascinates Newell. For this nicely old-school director, school is never out.

Great Expectations opens on November 30

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