Harrow, Disney-owned ABC Studios International’s first scripted series, is a fresh twist on a well-worked genre. Don Groves chats to the creative team and star Ioan Gruffudd.
Four years ago, Australian screenwriter Stephen M Irwin and writer/producer Leigh McGrath had an idea for a procedural crime series centred on a brilliant yet unorthodox forensic pathologist.
Both loved classic, character-driven forensic shows like Quincy, which ran on US network NBC from 1976 to 1983 and starred Jack Klugman as an LA County medical examiner.
But they knew they needed an original angle to differentiate their show from myriad other procedurals and came up with this twist: the protagonist, Dr Daniel Harrow, committed a murder years ago, and thus much of the suspense hinges on how, why and when the crime occurred.
“It’s a ‘whydunit’ as opposed to a whodunit, where the character solves murders as well as using his skill to cover up his own crime,” says McGrath, a former story editor on Thames Television’s long-running UK cop show The Bill.
Irwin, who at the time had just scripted murder mystery Secrets & Lies for Brisbane- and now LA-based prodco Hoodlum, wrote the pilot script on spec and he and McGrath created a pitch document, with the show taking its name from the lead character’s surname.
The problem was that Hoodlum had zero experience in the crime procedural genre. “It was a big idea and it was not an easy fit in Australia or overseas, so the first challenge was getting people to read the script,” says Tracey Robertson, who founded Hoodlum with Nathan Mayfield in 1998.
Sally Riley, who had been appointed head of scripted production at Oz pubcaster the ABC in May 2016, liked the idea but could not immediately see where a show like Harrow would fit in the schedule.
Fortune was in their favour, however, when Robertson and Mayfield met with Keli Lee, the London-based MD of international content and talent at Disney’s ABC Studios International.
Lee was executive VP of talent and casting at ABC Entertainment Group when ABC greenlit the US remake of Secrets & Lies, which was co-written by Irwin and executive produced by Barbie Kligman, Robertson and Mayfield.
Lee was impressed with the Harrow script and the treatments for all 10 episodes, and within a couple of weeks commissioned the show, the studio’s first scripted series. Soon after, the ABC’s Riley came on board.
“Nathan and Tracey were absolute terriers who, by hard graft rather than good luck, got the script to the right people at the right time,” says Irwin, who wrote eight episodes and co-wrote another with Lucas Taylor, the script editor, while McGrath penned one.
The producers drew up a list of actors from Australia, the US and the UK to play the lead. Lee pushed for Welsh-born Ioan Gruffudd, whom she had known since he starred as a 200-year-old man attempting to find a key to unlock the curse of his immortality in the series Forever, which ran on ABC in 2014 and 2015.
After reading the pilot script, the LA-based Gruffudd spoke via Skype one Sunday morning Australian time with Irwin, who was at home in Brisbane. “I knew we’d found our guy, someone who could be a little bit acerbic, funny, gruff and likeable and could carry quite a lot of medical information,” Irwin says. “He also needed to have the gravitas that suggests the character might have done something quite bad for a reason to be revealed.”
Asked what differentiates Harrow from multiple other crime procedurals, Robertson says: “Some tend to just be all plot while others are all character and no plot. We have created great, well-defined characters in Harrow himself and the people around him, while each episode deals with a crime of the week. There are no cardboard cut-out stereotypes.” The drama premiered on ABC Australia in March, with Disney Media Distribution licensing the US and international rights.
To ensure the series had a large-scale, cinematic look, the producers hired directors who either had feature film experience or had worked in the TV murder-mystery genre. Kate Dennis, whose credits include the Australian original and US remake of Secrets & Lies, plus CSI: Cyber for CBS, AMC’s Turn and Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, for which she was Emmy nominated, was the setup director and directed one episode.
Dennis, who was booked to direct an episode of Netflix comic book-based drama Marvel’s Jessica Jones when Robertson offered her the gig, was initially reluctant. “I told Tracey that me and procedurals are probably not a good mix, but I read the script and thought this one was different and out of the box,” she says. “It’s very character-driven and there is the mystery of the man at its core. I was very attracted to it.”
Dennis created the look and style of the show with Robert Humphreys, who was the DOP on the first five episodes (Simon Chapman shot the remainder). During three weeks’ hectic prep, she wrote a detailed series bible for her fellow directors that set out numerous cinematographic rules, including often having the camera behind Harrow or raking past close to his face; shooting through foreground objects and shifting shadows of water or patterns on windows and other reflective surfaces; basing the colour palette on the human iris; and making Brisbane itself a character.
Tony Krawitz (The Kettering Incident), Tony Tilse (Wolf Creek, Underbelly), Daniel Nettheim (Doctor Who, Broadchurch) and Peter Salmon (Wanted, Rake) each handled two episodes, while Catriona McKenzie (The Warriors) did one.
Nettheim had long wanted to work with Robertson and Mayfield again after directing the duo’s first ever production, Fat Cow Motel, an interactive comedy drama that screened on the ABC in 2002. He watched footage of the first five episodes before directing the final two instalments. “My prerogative was to honour the earlier work and to try to bring something fresh so I was not repeating the same ideas,” he says.
“The show has a unique tone because of the level of humour. What I really enjoyed from some of the earlier episodes was seeing what an actor like Darren Gilshenan can bring to those comedy parts and how well that sits with the grimmer parts of the investigation.”
To round out the cast, the producers did a lot of chemistry tests, pairing various actors with Gruffudd. Robertson found that process so productive that she intends to use it for all future productions, including supernatural crime drama Tidelands, Netflix’s first original Australian series, which was also written by Irwin and is shooting in Queensland this year.
Ella Newton is Harrow’s estranged teenage daughter, Fern, while Anna Lise Phillips plays his ex-wife, Stephanie. Robyn Malcolm is Maxine, Harrow’s often exasperated boss, and Darren Gilshenan is Dr Lyle Fairley, a resentful colleague who keeps butting heads with Harrow.
Remy Hii portrays Simon, a forensic pathologist who is completing his studies and is a protégé of Dr Harrow. “The two have an odd-couple relationship as friends and colleagues,” Hii says. “Playing opposite Ioan was a lot of fun because he has such an incredible range. At my first audition, we did chemistry reads together and there was an immediate connection.
“A lot of the subject matter is dark because we are in a morgue for much of the series and we deal with death but the scripts are so witty and they pop off the page. All the characters are larger than life, but so relatable.”
Hii, who appears in every episode, adds: “It was a heavy workload and lightning fast – that is Australian TV. You prepare to the eyeballs and, at the same time, you are prepared to drop much of your homework in order to get it done. You never know what challenges will be thrown your way. It was a blessing working with six of Australia’s top directors – people with so many different processes, styles, visual flair and experiences.”
Mirrah Foulkes plays scenes-of-crime officer Sergeant Soraya Dass, a former detective who has moved to Brisbane from Melbourne and works with Detective Senior Sergeant Bryon Nichols (Damien Garvey). Dass develops a romantic relationship with Harrow but has her own dark secrets, says Foulkes.
Foulkes had taken time out from acting to write the screenplay for Judy & Punch – a feature she will also direct, which reimagines the puppet show Punch & Judy – when Robertson asked her to audition in early 2017. She found the short prep time challenging, noting: “My favourite part of the process is rehearsals and eking out all the interesting things that are going on in the writing. You don’t have time for that in Australian television. The best-case scenario in a show like Harrow is you get a quick catch-up with the directors and touch base on some key moments in each episode, some key emotional beats. It was incredibly hard and fast, and I enjoyed it. The scripts were hugely ambitious and the shoots were really tricky.”
Filming started in Queensland in August 2017. The budget was only slightly higher than the average for an Australian drama but did allow a nine-day schedule for each episode (seven is typical), plus elaborate set builds and hiring well-known actors such as Tony Barry, Ditch Davey, Gary Sweet, Chris Haywood and Dan Ewing for guest roles.
“When you have a big international partner in Disney-ABC, the bar is raised in production values,” Mayfield says. “This is about taking a show that speaks to its Australian audience but is viable and competitive to sell internationally. Disney-ABC brought a wealth of knowledge, information and experience. We got a lot of valuable insights into storylines and character beats.”
Business partners for 21 years, Robertson and Mayfield share every aspect of their jobs, from creative development and physical production through to business affairs, although he is Brisbane-based and she spends most of her time in LA.
“We are a very close-knit team,” Mayfield says. “There is a short-hand and a trust that have been built over two decades. We do butt heads occasionally on creative things when neither of us has the answer, but that is healthy because the best idea wins. We always want to deliver on the promise.”
Gruffudd gravitates to the dark side
Ioan Gruffudd follows his riveting performance as a renowned surgeon accused of date rape in the SundanceTV and ITV series Liar by playing a forensic psychologist who harbours a dark secret in Harrow. DQ gives him a call.
It’s no coincidence Ioan Gruffudd is now being cast as damaged characters after playing heroic types in Horatio Hornblower, Black Hawk Down and two Fantastic Four comic book adaptations.
“I’d been dying to play these three-dimensional parts, flawed characters, for such a long time but I’d never really looked old enough or had enough weight and gravitas in my face and experiences before,” the Welsh actor says on the line from Brisbane while shooting the final episodes of Harrow. “I’m meeting these characters in the right time of my life. I’m in my 40s and I am starting to look right for these parts.”
Gruffudd did not expect the critical acclaim that greeted Liar in the UK, the US and Australia, which no doubt persuaded the networks to greenlight a second season from the creators Jack Williams and Harry Williams. The first season of the show saw Gruffudd’s character accused of rape, with viewers left to unravel the truth.
“We knew we were doing something special and good but you just never know, until you go out there into the universe, how people are going to respond,” he says. “I think the purpose of casting me was to put people off the scent, especially in those early episodes, to lull the audience into a false sense of security that this guy could not possibly have done this.”
Gruffudd leapt at the chance to play the title role in Hoodlum Entertainment’s Harrow, drawn to the scripts by Stephen M Irwin and producer Leigh McGrath. He relished the prospect of playing a character he describes as eccentric, slightly curmudgeonly, borderline arrogant and selfish but also funny.
In addition, he was a fan of Hoodlum’s Irwin-scripted Australian series Secrets & Lies, rating Irwin as an exceptional writer. And he was happy to return to Queensland, where he had worked on the films San Andreas and Sanctum.
Harrow also stars Remy Hii, Mirrah Foulkes, Ella Newton, Darren Gilshenan, Anna Lise Phillips and Robyn Malcolm, for whom Gruffudd is full of praise. “I am working with the crème de la crème of Australian actors. They are stars in their own right and could lead a show in their own right,” he says.
Similarly effusive over set-up director Kate Dennis, he says: “Kate blessed the ship and all who sailed in her. She set up the look, the costumes, the production design and the tone. It is unique but there are elements of House, Rake and CSI. It’s funny when it’s supposed to be funny, with office gallows humour, and the next scene could be quite sad and tragic.”
Dennis marvelled at Gruffudd’s ability to tread the fine line between comedy and drama, the ease with which he mastered wads of dialogue laden with medical terms and his ever-cheerful demeanour on set. “He’s a genuinely terrific person to be around and deeply professional,” she says.
Hoodlum’s Tracey Robertson adds: “The show has a great sense of humour and deals with the light and the dark really well. Dr Harrow has his own view of the world and is a really lovable character, which Ioan sells to the moon and back.”