"Masterpiece" is back, amid high expectations


It's always good news when "Masterpiece" returns, with its richly crafted dramas. Now -- after another long pledge-drive pause -- three minisries will air on Sundays, starting with "Great Expectations" and Gillian Anderson's wondrfully offbeat performance. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By MIKE HUGHES

Sprawling from the marshes of Kent to
the ballrooms of London, Charles Dickens'“Great Expectations” is
a key part of some British educations.

“Everyone is made to read it,” said
Douglas Booth, who stars in the new PBS production.

He was about 13 when he tackled it.
Vanessa Kirby, his co-star, was younger when her dad read it to her.
“It's very much a part of my childhood,” she said, “as, I'm
sure, everybody's.”

Well, not everybody. Gillian Anderson –
who does spectacular duty as Miss Havisham – didn't read it until
she got the role. But she has an excuse: She's American.

Or, semi-American. Anderson was born in
Chicago, but moved to London as a toddler. She was 11 when her family
moved to Grand Rapids, Mich., where her dad made industrial films.

“The fact that I grew up in the UK
(United Kingdom) had sort of an organic effect on me,” she said.

It was partly a good thing, fueling her
British portrayals – including Emmy-nominated work in Charles
Dickens' “Bleak House” and now Emmy-worthy work in his “Great
Expectations.”

And it brought problems, as she tried
to blend into Middle-American middle school. “I didn't really fit
in …. I don't think I lost my British accent right away.”

School never really caught on with her;
in retrospect, she figures she may have had attention-deficit
problems. Fortunately, Grand Rapids also has a strong theater scene.

Anderson did community and school plays
as a teen-ager, studied acting in Chicago, then launched a theater
career in New York. “I remember being extremely busy – waiting
tables, hopping on the subway (to auditions), changing clothes in the
rest room.”

She moved to Los Angeles, landing
“X-Files” and fame. Since then, she's spent much of her time in
England, peaking with double Dickens. Rebecca Eaton, producer of PBS'
“Masterpiece,” calls Anderson's “Bleak House” work “one of
the best performances we have ever had,” but calls this latest one
“the performance of a lifetime.”

Booth echoes that. “She made some
really creative choices,” he said. “She is such a brilliant
actress.”

Like Anderson, he didn't thrive at
school; eventually, he was diagnosed as being dyslexic, requiring new
career plans. “The first thing I thought was, 'OK, I'm going to be
a brilliant musician.'”

He did play the trumpet well, but
eventually discovered modeling and acting. He drew praise playing Boy
George in a British TV film, then landed two mega-roles: Before
turning 20, he had filmed starring roles in “Great Expectations”
and (opposite Hailee Steinfeld) the upcoming “Romeo and Juliet.”

Yes, he had read and admired them, even
with dyslexia. “Great Expectations” is “such a great
roller-coaster ride,” he said.

That ride takes Pip from the marshes to
society, but keeps Miss Havisham in her crumbling gown and crumbling
mansion.

There were actually three versions of
the gown, Anderson said, reflecting different points of decay. “One
day, I had all three on at different points.”

And there was the giant building that
was used as her mansion. “Over the years, it had been a boys'
school, a girls' school, a sanitarium,” Anderson said.

During the three weeks of filming
there, she said, British crews kept adjusting it.”You would see the
mold, the cobwebs …. You could observe it deteriorate.”

A life was deteriorating, too, ending
in a burst of flames. It was one stop in the Dickens roller-coaster.

– “Masterpiece Classic,” 9 p.m.
Sundays, PBS (check local listings)

– Charles Dickens “Great
Expectations,” April 1 and 8, and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,”
April 15; then Sebastian Faulk's “Birdsong,”April 22 and 29.
“Masterpiece Mystery” returns in May.