A mouldy wedding cake is perched upon a laid table and several dusty clocks are stopped in their tracks at twenty minutes to nine.
Onto the scene appears a white-haired, spectral figure treading the wooden floor in a rotting wedding dress and one shoe.
The cracked lips break into a smile and a deathly white hand is extended to greet us.
Hello - it’s Hollywood actress Gillian Anderson, doing a fine impression of Miss Havisham, the spurned bride of Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations, on the set of BBC One’s forthcoming three-part adaptation.
The classic tale of love and loss is being screened this Christmas to mark the bicentenary of the author’s birth next year. It features an all-star cast including Poirot’s David Suchet and Beowulf actor Ray Winstone.
Anderson, no stranger to Dickens after her Emmy and Bafta-nominated turn as Lady Dedlock in the BBC’s 2005 adaptation of Bleak House, plays the lonely spinster who brings her life to a standstill the day she is jilted. It seems she’s really got under the character’s sun-starved skin.
“Miss Havisham is disintegrating,” says Anderson, who manages to look striking under all the make-up.
“I kept thinking, ‘What if she, like the house, starts to have mould growing on her?’ She hasn’t bathed for 18 years so I kept having images of that type of fungus which has frilly ends and I thought if we had that growing up my neck it could look amazing. But I think that suggestion went a bit too far.”
Although the narrator of the book is young orphan Pip, played by Oscar Kennedy and then Douglas Booth in this new adaptation, it is Miss Havisham’s extreme reaction to loss which drew Anderson’s interest.
“I found it fascinating that somebody can be so stalled in their emotional growth that this happens,” she says, pointing at the decaying “house”.
“And then there’s what is now known as the ‘Miss Havisham effect’. The theory that not only can people become addicted to loss and the pain of loss, but that there might be a chemical release that takes place upon yearning that soothes you in the same way as a heroin hit.”
Miss Havisham’s grief engulfs her to such an extent that she manipulates the lives of her adopted daughter Estella and Estella’s childhood playmate Pip.
But it was important to Anderson that she didn’t portray the character as pure evil.
“She’s represented as being bitter, resentful, angry - and it’s easy to get caught up in one note of that, so I guess I wanted to look more at the idea that those dark waters may run quite deep and we might only get a hint at what’s underneath,” she says.
Great Expectations has spawned many adaptations on stage and screen - the BBC is even making another version starring Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham for cinematic release next year. Anderson is well aware of how fans of the book might respond.
Especially as Great Expectations is the third big British literary adaptation she has starred in over the past 14 months (she played Wallis Simpson in an adaptation of William Boyd’s Any Human Heart and Mrs Castaway in Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal And The White).
She says: “Everybody who loves a book has an idea of how they see it. There’s a book I quite like which has been made into a film. I keep seeing the trailer and I have such a negative feeling towards it just based on the trailer, so I get it, I understand.
“But you just have to jump in with both feet and hope people like it.”
The Dickens tale is also another UK-based project for the American actress, who currently lives in London with her partner Mark Griffiths and her three children, and whose cut-glass English accent is down to her having lived in England for six years of her childhood.
“People tend to take risks with me more over here than they do in the States. I’m not sure they know what to do with me over there, although there are two films I’m interested in at the moment which would take me back there soon,” she says.
But if she’s craving shoots where she gets to wear nice dresses rather than the rotting lace she’s forced to don today, she’s not showing it.
“I don’t think of myself as a ‘glamorous Hollywood actress’ at all. If I look at my roles, the majority have less to do with glamour and have more to do with some kind of human condition, a lot of sorrow and pain.
“I keep on getting cast as sad women looking out of windows.”
Great Expectations begins on BBC One on Tuesday, December 27
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