All posts by Gabriel Tate

Butterfly effect

From the makers of Chernobyl comes Giri/Haji, a drama set between London and Tokyo that explores how a single murder affects two cities. DQ visits the set of the Netflix and BBC series.

It’s a freezing cold evening in central London, where news crews and bewildered passers-by mill around, wondering what has just happened. It is the aftermath of the Battle of Soho, the action-packed set piece that sees the multinational cast of Netflix and BBC2’s Giri/Haji taking up arms in an explosive bout of score-settling.

This violent reckoning is the climax of events set in motion by a single murder in London that shatters the fragile truce between Tokyo’s Yakuza gangs. Dispatched to investigate is careworn detective and family man Kenzo (Takehiro Hira), chosen because of the suspected involvement of his wayward brother Yuto (Yosuke Kubozuka).

Once in the British capital, Kenzo is swept up into a dizzying world of uneasy alliances (with Kelly Macdonald’s lonely cop Sarah and rent boy Rodney, who actor Will Sharpe likens to “a peacock you find in a skip”) and dangerous foes (Charlie Creed-Miles’s remorseless British gangster Abbot and his weak-willed American ally Vickers, played by Justin Long). All will face the consequences of past decisions over the following eight episodes.

There’s a lot going on in Giri/Haji (which translates as Duty/Shame), from Bafta-nominated screenwriter Joe Barton (Humans). Blending Yakuza thriller and kitchen-sink drama, character study and even impressionistic animation, its very novelty proved irresistible to Macdonald, as did the opportunity to reunite with director A Child in Time director Julian Farino.

Giri Haji stars Kelly Macdonald and Kenzo Mori

“Julian phoned me up to ask if I’d read it,” she says. “I’d been told it was a Tokyo crime story that bleeds into London, but it’s so much more than that. It takes you off on unexpected tangents. The bonds that people share are unusual and it’s constantly surprising – all the more so, given Joe knew nothing about Japanese culture when he started, but that’s the confidence of youth, I guess!”

The initial concept was a loose one dating back almost a decade, inspired by Barton’s then-girlfriend taking a masters in forensic crime science and being intrigued by a middle-aged Japanese man sitting in silence at the back of the lecture hall. “It turned out he was a detective in the Tokyo police department,” says Barton. “There was something about that image that felt very cool and mysterious – it was an interesting protagonist for a high-end crime drama I might write in eight years time…”

Sister Pictures founder Jane Featherstone (Chernobyl) was intrigued, joining Barton to work up a script commissioned, then rejected, by another broadcaster. “I think they were afraid of how the Japanese element might land,” she says. “None of us know the answer to that yet, but both BBC and Netflix were excited by doing something a bit different. Netflix was keen to have something that worked in an emerging market like Japan, while the BBC, like all public service broadcasters, needs bold ideas to stand out more than ever.”

Those ideas are embodied by an opening 25 minutes featuring neither the English language nor anglophone actors. DQ finds the man required to carry much of those first scenes seeking sanctuary (and warmth) inside Soho Square’s Huguenot church. Largely unknown outside his native Japan, Takehiro Hira is excited about a role that could make his name internationally.

“Forty-something, family person, quite demanding parents – when I first read the script, Kenzo was me,” he muses. “Detective stories in Japan are usually black and white, but Kenzo has dark sides and personal baggage, which was so refreshing. I was giving a bit more than Julian wanted at first, so it was a wonderful challenge to learn to act more minimally than is usual on Japanese television.”

The show comes from Bafta-nominated screenwriter Joe Barton

Hira is supported by a stellar Japanese cast – not that the Giri/Haji team knew that while they were holding auditions. “We were completely ignorant!” laughs Farino, who split directing duties with Australian director Ben Chessell. “Masahiro Motoki [Yakuza boss Fukuhara] is one of Japan’s biggest movie stars and Yosuke is a huge name over there. I was struck by the unbelievable respect, precision and preparation of Japanese actors: they were word-perfect every time, which was humbling because not every British actor is like that.”

Thanks in part to Giri/Haji’s intentionally slippery grasp of genre, finding the tone wasn’t straightforward. “I get a lot of scripts where I feel I’ve shot them before I’ve finished reading them,” says Farino. “This was the opposite, a genuine journey – it respects the audience from the off. By degrees, you define it. Everyone has scars and moral complexity, but the pleasures were too great to make it noirish and miserable, and I didn’t want it too verité, so we didn’t go handheld.

“I describe it as a few inches off the ground, slightly heightened. [DOP] David Odd and I had never shot on such wide lenses before; we felt like we were shooting a wide shot and close-up at the same time.”

Two months filming in Japan proved a challenge both linguistically and logistically, but Farino, speaking not a word of Japanese, thrived on the experience. “It was an absolute pleasure. When you’re directing, you’re trying to get the feeling for a scene rather than hanging on the dialogue, so it felt surprisingly natural. We felt we were seeing little pockets of Tokyo you wouldn’t usually see, trying not to do the neon lights thing. It felt more like downtown Manhattan than Tokyo in the movies: washed-out browns and greys,”

“Tokyo isn’t easy to film in,” Barton adds. “In the UK, you can shut down a street for a bit and annoy everyone, but in Japan you can’t disturb people. The permissions process meant you needed a lot of time to set everything up; just finding somewhere we could put cars on a pavement was an incredible challenge. But weirdly, they’re very relaxed about firearms. In the UK, guys follow you around and lock up the gun when you’re not using it. In Japan, we filmed a gunfight in this big house and there were guns everywhere – you’d go to the toilet and there’d be one left by the sink. One actor was allowed to take one home to practice.”

The target for Giri/Haji was to stand out in a crowded landscape and break new ground for British television. “Very little British drama easily lends itself to epic,” says Featherstone. “We struggle with that in this country, but Joe found this cultural connection freed us up to think in a slightly different way about storytelling. We wouldn’t have been so brave if had been a purely British story.”

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Caught out

George Clooney leads the creative team behind Catch-22, a six-part dramatisation of Joseph Heller’s iconic war novel. DQ hears how the sprawling story featuring dozens of characters was brought to the small screen for broadcasters including Channel 4, Sky Italia and Hulu.

Taking on Catch-22 is a statement in itself. Adaptations in the 1970s were either flawed (Mike Nicholls’ 1970 film) or calamitous (a 1973 television pilot), falling foul of the book’s intentionally chaotic structure, encyclopaedic cast of characters and the iconic status of the novel itself, with Joseph Heller’s unforgiving satire of war, bureaucracy and human foibles already established as a literary landmark.

“There’s a justifiable protectiveness if you’re a fan of the novel,” concedes Luke Davies, who adapted the book as a new drama Channel 4, Sky Italia and Hulu with fellow Australian David Michod. “If you’re a fan, you tend to be an obsessive fan – and I am one of those.”

Yet take it on he did, pulling apart the dense, diffuse structure and piecing it back together chronologically. The six-part series, from Paramount Television, Anonymous Content and Smokehouse Pictures, focuses the narrative tightly on Second World War US bombardier captain Yossarian, serving in Italy in 1944 and as fearful of dying at the hands of vindictive superiors as much as the anonymous Germans. The early drafts attracted the attention of a very big hitter indeed.

George Clooney in Catch-22, for which he directed episodes and also exec produced

“If you’re going to devote 18 months of your life to something, it has to be worth taking a risk on,” says George Clooney. “I don’t care about the medium, I just care about the quality of the work. There are 430 scripted television shows out there, which is great for actors. Some television is as good as anything I’ve ever seen, but there’s a lot to sift through to get to those things.”

While it’s not quite right to say Catch-22 marks Clooney’s return to television after 20 years away – since leaving ER he has turned in the odd cameo and produced a number of HBO projects – it is unarguably his most prominent TV role in years, both on and off camera. Television’s facility to give the story and its characters more room to breathe swung it for the Hollywood heavyweight. “You couldn’t do this in two hours. We kill a lot of people and, in a movie, you don’t get to learn who those characters are, so it doesn’t have the same resonance. With this it’s, ‘I liked that kid, he had a family and a life.’”

“This was a seminal book for me growing up,” says Clooney’s longtime collaborator and co-director/producer, Grant Heslov. “The sex, violence and humour made it appealing, but later in life I’ve noticed the horror as much as the hilarity. George and I read Luke’s scripts simultaneously and, by the end of the sixth, we’d agreed to direct and produce them. As he often does, George said he’d play a role because it’d make it easier for us to do it right away.”

Clooney’s turn as rigid, parade-obsessed General Scheisskopf was both a chance to indulge his inner ham and a less time-consuming part than the paranoid, vindictive Colonel Cathcart, relinquished to Friday Night Lights’ Kyle Chandler after Clooney’s workload became too great. “From the minute Kyle opened his mouth, Grant and I were high-fiving, thinking we’d hit the jackpot,” the actor recalls.

Kyle Chandler plays Colonel Cathcart

“They didn’t tell me about the high five until months later,” Chandler says wryly. “I didn’t think I should be in a remake of it until I read Luke’s scripts. There are pitfalls with Cathcart – you could easily create a cartoon – so I had to create my own arcs inside the big arc. George said it came together OK!”

With Hugh Laurie as the enigmatic Major De Coverley and other parts taken by a squadron of predominantly British up-and-comers, the lead role was won by Girls’ Christopher Abbott, who captured the innate charm and weary charisma of one of literature’s great anti-heroes.

“I like Yossarian very much,” says Abbott. “He’s an existentialist and has a lust for life. I sympathise with that fight to stay alive. It’s beautiful.”

Yossarian’s airborne experiences were made that much more visceral and credible by two vintage Mitchell B-25 Bombers, flown over from the US to the set in Sardinia. “Even going one mile per hour down a runway was scary,” says Abbott. “The nosecone is vulnerable, hot and claustrophobic. It all came together about why Yossarian is the way he is – I understood that pure fear.”

Other aspects of the era were treated with less respect. “You can’t erase history,” says Clooney. “You can’t change the way people spoke, you just make it look as ridiculous as it should have looked in 1944, but didn’t.”

House and The Night Manager’s Hugh Laurie is Major De Coverley

Davies also addressed Heller’s grimly sexist treatment and wafer-thin writing of women, giving the female characters fuller personalities and proper names, which also precipitated an important decision from Clooney behind the scenes. “I was going to direct four episodes and Grant two, but all the Me Too stuff started coming through and I went to Paramount and said, ‘It’s all guys – we have to be part of the solution in all this.’”

Enter Ellen Kuras, cinematographer for Scorsese and Gondry and director of series including Ozark and Legion. She flew over only four weeks before production began, but was entirely unfazed. “I’m used to being the only woman on set,” she grins. “Catching up to the tone and perspective was challenging, but we got there. George and Grant wanted to make it feel more like a longform movie than six disparate episodes – crossboarding [shooting multiple episodes at the same time] meant we could all see what each other were doing and make the tone and trajectory much more seamless.”

The latter was logistically tricky, not least for Abbott. “It was insane,” he acknowledges. “We’d shoot one episode in the morning then two others in the afternoon, each with a different director, context, costumes and make-up. It was hard keeping track, even with prep time.”

“There’s no way you can do this half-assed; you’ve just got to go for it,” adds Clooney. “You’ve got to take a swing and you can’t always be subtle about it. War’s a gruesome business, so there’s a morbid comedy to it.”

Chandler believes that morbid comedy is what has kept the story fresh and relevant since its publication in 1961. “This piece is like a card – you can slice it into the deck anywhere you want and it’ll fit. Even the Romans would find this funny.”

But for Davies, it’s also a tragedy. “Our series doesn’t discard the comedy, but dark and sorrowful things happen and our ending is open to interpretation, like the story itself. For me, it’s the origin story of the geopolitical here and now, not just at the obvious level of the insanity of war, but also the insanity of bureaucracy and the systems and structures that send young men to their deaths. It still feels incredibly resonant.”

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Angels and demons

Michael Sheen, David Tennant and the cast of Good Omens reflect on starring in the eagerly anticipated adaptation of the hugely popular fantasy novel, under the stewardship of showrunner Neil Gaiman, who co-wrote the book with the late Terry Pratchett.

It’s a bitterly chilly November day and we’re surrounded by bunkers on the decommissioned RAF base of Upper Heyford in the English county of Oxfordshire, once a nuclear weapons site during the Cold War. It all feels unavoidably appropriate for the filming of Good Omens, the six-part adaptation of Neil Gaiman and the late Terry Pratchett’s apocalyptic comedy. Telling the story of an angel and a demon who, having grown to love Earth, join forces to prevent the coming of age of the Antichrist (an unwitting 11-year-old called Adam, living quietly in rural Oxfordshire) and the End of Days.

L to R: Douglas Mackinnon, David Tennant, Michael Sheen and Neil Gaiman

Its co-creator is, inevitably and aptly, dressed in regulation black and fizzing with delight at how the shoot, now at its halfway stage, is going under director Douglas Mackinnon. “We have the best cast I’ve ever worked with,” says Gaiman, who is showrunning the series.

After a close shave with Hollywood courtesy of Terry Gilliam and derailed by 9/11, it took the combined financial muscle and creative ambition of Amazon and the BBC for it to come to screen with an astonishing cast in tow, from Frances McDormand as God to Benedict Cumberbatch as Satan, via Anna Maxwell Martin’s Beelzebub and Jon Hamm’s Archangel Gabriel. It is produced by Amazon Studios, BBC Studios, Blank Corporation and Narrativia.

Leading the spectacular ensemble are the men trying to avert Armageddon and avoid an unwanted return to their desk jobs: Michael Sheen’s upstanding, eccentric angel Aziraphale and David Tennant’s louche, dangerous demon Crowley, sparring partners ever since Crowley persuaded Eve to eat that apple.

David Tennant as louche demon Crowley and Michael Sheen as eccentric angel Aziraphale

“I knew how much Michael loved Good Omens,” Gaiman recalls, “so I had dinner with him and asked if I could send him scripts. He rapidly came on board and once we had Michael Sheen, everybody else just went, ‘Oh, okay – it’s real.’ I had to talk Michael into being the angel, because you could absolutely have gone the other way with him as Crowley and David as Aziraphale. They love the idea that, if ever we did this as a stage production somehow, they would swap roles each night.”

“I’ve always been interested in how we portray goodness,” says Sheen, looking striking indeed with a bleached blond barnet (“I now find myself going, ‘Ooh, look at my roots!’”), tartan bowtie and flannel trousers. “The stereotype is that it’s fun to play the baddie because evil’s interesting and goodness is just boring. Certainly, there’s something holier-than-thou about Aziraphale, but over the course of the story the edges get knocked off him a bit. For someone who’s eternal, actually he does change as the piece goes on.”

“I didn’t know the book, I’m ashamed to say,” admits Tennant, deeply unsettling with prescription yellow contact lenses (“They’re prescription, which helps”), enormous orange quiff and snakeskin boots. But he has been made aware of the pressure being applied by its authors’ dedicated fans.

“Nina Sosanya [playing Sister Mary Loquacious] said, ‘I would have done anything to be in this. It’s my favourite book of all time.’ That’s the sort of refrain I keep hearing. So of course, once you realise you hold something so precious to people in your hand, you don’t want to disappoint them, while still bringing it to a wider audience. I’m sure some people will be furious and some people will be utterly delighted. All you can do is do your best.”

Miranda Richardson as medium and part-time sex worker Madame Tracey

The presence of one of its creators doesn’t hurt, of course. “He’s like a very kind and gentle surgeon,” enthuses Miranda Richardson, fresh from playing with a “thundergun.” “He’ll come up and say something like, ‘The trick is this…’ or ‘Think about this…’ It’s not that you’re doing anything wrong, he’s just adding to the mix.”

Outside the tent, the towering Death stalks by with a cheery smile, green mask off (and to be replaced by a CGI’d skull in the final edit, along with the voice of Brian Cox), while War waves a fiery sword around. It has started to drizzle, but the mood remains upbeat.

“Laughter keeps you going on days like today,” Richardson adds. She plays Madame Tracey, a medium, part-time sex worker and “generous person.” “She comes from a very good place and becomes a vessel for Aziraphale who at one point is looking for a body and a voice.”

Mad Men star Jon Hamm plays Archangel Gabriel

“My character is also a vessel, but more like a leaky canteen,” says Michael McKean, who plays the Scottish Sergeant Shadwell, the last witchfinder standing. “He’s given himself over, because no one else wants him, to the eradication of witches on this earth. He looks upon life with a very jaundiced eye.”

The Spinal Tap star’s accent has been monitored throughout by Scots Mackinnon and Tennant, the latter of whom “commends it to the roof.” Shadwell’s sidekick has also been preoccupied with accents – his quailing mentee, Newton Pulsifer, is played by Jack Whitehall.

“It’s not a posh character – finally!” laughs Whitehall. “In terms of the costume I went down the Harry Potter route in the hope that it would help me put to bed some of the dreams that I still have. I got to use my northern accent for Newt’s ancestor, who I also play. I’ve been honing it for a long time. I always want to throw in a ‘yah!’ but I resist!”

Newton Pulsifer gives Jack Whitehall the chance to try an accent

Aria Arjona plays Anathema Device, a descendant of the witch who correctly predicted the end of the world and was burnt at the stake by Shadwell and Newt’s ancestors. The Puerto Rican True Detective actor has found filming in the UK to be eye-opening. “It’s a completely different style of working than in America – a little more technical, and the schedules are crazy, but everything ends up being done. For Anathema, like all my characters, the wardrobe is what gets me there. Once I put the boots on it all fell into place. She has a kind of wire up her spine, a tension which came as soon as I got them on.”

Speaking of tension, the uneasy geopolitical situation has ensured the series, which debuts worldwide on Amazon Prime Video tomorrow before rolling out on BBC2 in the UK, feels regrettably topical. “It’s quite a tonic to come to work and almost be making a joke of the end of the world,” says Tennant. “I think probably we all need to do that. I just pray we make it to transmission…”

“It’s never a bad time to re-establish why it’s good that we don’t all blow each other up,” Sheen concludes. “Good Omens is very British about the end of the world, and there’s something reassuring about that.”

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Back in the field

Three years after German breakout drama Deutschland 83 travelled around the world, Deutschland 86 continues the story of reluctant Stasi agent Martin Rauch. DQ visits the set to find out why this spy thriller is more than a history lesson.

Deutschland 83, from American writer Anna Winger and her German husband Joerg, aired in 110 territories, winning an International Emmy for telling a relatively untold story through the prism of a spy thriller, with all the trappings of the era – from the music to the fashion – present and correct. It also launched Channel 4’s foreign-language streaming service Walter Presents, and became the UK’s highest-rating subtitled drama when it aired on its parent broadcaster in 2016.

Three years have passed since then, both in the real world and in that of the series. Deutschland 86 picks up the story of reluctant Stasi agent Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay) in the unlikely environs of an Angolan orphanage. It feels like scant reward for saving the world from nuclear disaster in 1983, but he has been banished there, far from his girlfriend and infant son, for the crime of blowing his cover. When his aunt, Lenora (Maria Schrader), herself tainted by his perceived blunder, arrives in West Africa to send him back into the field, he consents on the understanding that he can return home when he completes his mission.

“A lot of people are interested in Martin,” says Anna Winger. “His legend from 1983 has travelled, then people meet him and no one believes it’s him. He’s asking himself what kind of life he wants to live now that he can try to take control of his own destiny. He has to decide whether to live up to that reputation or escape it.”

Anna Winger

“Falling in love, killing a man, being separated from his family for three years… These experiences have changed Martin a lot,” says Nay. “His motivation for the whole season is to get back home, meet his three-year-old son and start a new life.”

This is easier said than done, of course, when his assignment includes running with Libyan insurgents, terrorists in Paris and journeying to Cape Town, another divided city also caught between global superpowers. The fall of the Berlin Wall all but coincided with the collapse of Apartheid, the Wingers noted. Was there a connection?

It turned out that there was. East Germany supported Nelson Mandela and the ANC as fellow socialists, training the latter’s militant wing, the MK. West Germany, meanwhile, observed the UN boycott on trading with South Africa while trading arms with the Apartheid regime on the side. The ‘good guys’ were, it seems, on the wrong side of history.

Most peculiar of all was the prospect of the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR), increasingly distant from Moscow and running out of money, propping up an ailing regime by engaging in criminal capitalism. This need for hard currency, and a growing sense of panic, brought them into the world of illicit arms dealing, running drug trials for Western Big Pharma, even selling dissidents to and borrowing huge sums from West Germany.

“The theme of the season is that it all comes down to money,” says Anna. “The wall came down because they ran out of cash and Apartheid failed for the same reason. 1986 was getting darker in the GDR – the iceberg is on the horizon. There was an exhaustion setting in about the Cold War. People were done, they didn’t want it any more, and the same was true of Apartheid.”

D86 also tracks the green movement, given a huge if unfortunate boost by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and the growing AIDS crisis, while the so-called Summer of Anxiety, when terrorist attacks blighted Europe, unavoidably invokes present-day concerns over terrorism, albeit religiously rather than politically motivated these days.

Lest that all sounds a little heavy, the Wingers are keen to reiterate that D86 is above all a spy yarn. “Like D83, we built a timeline of events, created a backdrop of real history then set our characters free across it,” says Anna. “It’s an adventure, a spy story and coming-of-age story rather than a history lesson.”

Deutschland 86 continues the story of Jonas Nay’s Martin Rauch

Which makes it a little ironic that DQ is sitting in a room that feels a little like a lecture theatre. We’re in the former Stasi HQ in Berlin – now the Stasi Museum, a grey memorial to an unloved regime but doubling as GDR offices for the series. It’s the final week of a 100-day shoot split between Cape Town and Berlin, and the cast are demob happy in defiance of the oppressively brown surroundings, yet conscious of the legacy contained in the walls of the building.

“The power of this building…” muses Schrader. “You can recreate something on a soundstage but I think people felt the authenticity and attention to detail in the first season. I’m from the West, and this is a loaded place. Knowing what some of my colleagues went through, it was very different for them, but when I entered the building it took a lot of energy.”

Cape Town, meanwhile, proved the perfect location, with its abundance of mid-80s architecture and a surfeit of spectacular scenery allowing it to double for other settings including Johannesburg and Tripoli.

“There’s a huge variety of landscapes and possibilities here,” says Joerg, “although to our chagrin it’s become much more expensive because of all these productions, which is great for the local economy but annoying for us!”

Filming in South Africa was an eye-opening experience for some of the cast, who discovered alarming evidence of Apartheid’s baleful legacy. “People would call it economic problems,” says Schrader, grimacing. “But the economic war is a racist war in South Africa. It’s normal in a restaurant that all the guests are white and the staff are black.”

Maria Schrader returns as Martin’s aunt, Lenora

The new locations also created openings for new characters, many of them women, most notably Rose Seithathi (Florence Kasumba) and Brigitte Winkelmann (Lavinia Wilson). It all makes for a breath of fresh air after D83’s predominance of middle-aged white men in cheap suits.

“Brigitte is a symbol for all the Western 80s decadence you can imagine,” says Wilson, a German resident despite the name. “She’s the wife of a German diplomat in Cape Town and her official job is a dentist, then one day Martin shows up at her clinic… She has another job, of course – she’s an undercover agent for West Germany, a player with lots of attitude and a really good liar, which I am definitely not. She’s full of surprises.”

“Rose grew up with a mother working in a German Jewish household,” Kasumaba, who played an ally of King T’Challa in Marvel’s Black Panther, explains. “She’s a secret agent for the MK who has had to leave her family and country in the past because of her total commitment to the cause. Somewhere along there, she met Lenora and they became a team: they fight together, and Rose needs Lenora’s contacts.”

Nay is thrilled to be back in a series that paved the way for Sky Atlantic’s Babylon Berlin, Netflix’s Dark and the rebooted Das Boot in a genuine renaissance for German television.

“Everybody’s excited,” he grins. “We’re telling the stories we want to tell. We’re late starters in Germany in getting series sold abroad, but we have high-end drama coming now. We were good at art-house cinema, sometimes a miniseries or TV film, but now doors are opening for serials.”

Back in 2015, the Wingers spoke of their concern that D83 would prove an unorthodox fit for RTL, the German broadcaster and coproducer better known for procedurals and gameshows. Domestic viewing figures were indeed disappointing, and so an amicable parting of the ways became almost inevitable. “We were given freedom to make the show we wanted to make, but it wasn’t the right show for them or their audience. There’s no animosity there,” Anna says.

Black Panther’s Florence Kasumba is among some notable female additions to the cast

RTL parent company Fremantle and coproducer UFA Fiction took the show to Amazon Prime, which, attracted by the drama’s international performance and binge-worthy qualities, provided a budget boost to reflect the story’s global remit and extended length, running as it does at 10 rather than eight episodes. Amazon has also committed to a third season, making the Wingers’ dream of completing the trilogy in 1989 a reality.

D86 launches in the UK tonight on More4, with the whole season available on Walter Presents after transmission of the first episode.

“Viewers now don’t care so much about where a series is from,” says Joerg, considering the show’s international success. “They want to be surprised; they’re looking for original material. We’re telling our story in a familiar way for international audiences. The whole grammar and dramaturgy of the show is in line with that. We didn’t strategically plan an international hit. Our goal from the very beginning was to make a show we would love, and if you’re really interested in something, that enthusiasm communicates somehow.”

Said enthusiasm is expressed most effectively, once again, through the diligent, affectionate recreation of the era. “Our make-up artists always said we tell the main story with the characters and we tell the 80s with the extras, who get the big hair and crazy stuff,” laughs Wilson.

Alongside the story, D83 stood out most for its use of music. This year there will be songs from everyone from metal legends Megadeth to synth-pop duo Pet Shop Boys and, perhaps inevitably for a show set in part in Apartheid South Africa, Paul Simon’s Graceland. Nay confides, laughing, that he has once again been lobbying for the inclusion his favourite band, The Police, whose final studio album was released back in 1983. But while he was disappointed at this omission, his passion for the new season is undiminished.

“Having two more episodes than for D83 means more characters and more layers,” he says. “Season one was following Martin; now it’s more an ensemble thing. We had to make up a vision for the first one. Now it feels bigger, and the more I saw, the more interested I got, which I think will be the same for the viewer.”

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Shooting for Mars

House of Cards creator Beau Willimon joins the space race with Channel 4 and Hulu coproduction The First, but as DQ discovers, this eight-part drama keeps its feet firmly on the ground.

Mars has fascinated writers of fiction for more than a century, from the outlandish late Victoriana of HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds and Percy Greg’s Across the Zodiac to the recent CGI extravaganzas of Ridley Scott’s The Martian, Julien Lacombe’s French series Missions and Ron Howard’s blend of documentary and drama for National Geographic, Mars.

The most ambitious of them all, however, is also the one most grounded in realism and minutiae. The First – co-financed by Channel 4 in the UK, US streamer Hulu, IMG and AG Studios and created by House of Cards nabob Beau Willimon – barely leaves the planet for its first eight-episode season, set in 2031, with Willimon determined to honour both the efforts that go into making any space mission a success and the human costs.

“We wanted to delve deeply into the lives of the crew, the ground team and the aerospace moguls to see what their motivations were for embarking on this journey and the sacrifices required,” says Willimon. “Our focus is how hard it is to get to the starting line. When you talk to people in NASA or the private sector, who devote a decade of their lives just to getting a rover to Mars, it would be irresponsible not to explore that side.”

The First stars Sean Penn, who accepted the role at the second time of asking

The series was, in a sense, decades in the making. Willimon was inspired by his father’s years as chief engineer on US navy submarines: the space-age technology of subs, his father’s necessarily lengthy absences on tour and the concept of epic journeys all fed into The First. “I see this as an ancient story that happens to be set in the near future, rooted in a little kid fascinated by his dad working on a submarine,” he says.

Willimon recalls how, ater a snatched coffee at a Tribeca bistro with C4’s now-outgoing head of international drama, Simon Maxwell, three years ago “I said, ‘how do you feel about a show about a mission to Mars?’ and luckily he leaned forward rather than said, ‘I’ve got a plane to catch.’”

The scripts began to take shape and the cast was assembled, headed up by Sean Penn in his first TV role, playing rugged but troubled Mars mission leader Tom Hagerty, and Natascha McElhone as distant, cerebral aerospace CEO Laz Ingram.

McElhone signed up after an eight-hour coffee meeting with Willimon (“For all future actors I may work with, they need not worry, it’s not a requirement!”); Penn took a little longer, Willimon explains. “His rep said he was unavailable, but I’ve been around long enough to know you should always ask at least twice. We got the scripts to him and he responded well, so I flew to Dallas to discuss the story and character, and eventually he came on board. Actors who take their careers and craft seriously take the time to be sure this is where they want to invest their talent. It’s why they have the careers they have – they’re rigorous.”

Underpinning the series is research perhaps even more rigorous than Penn’s quality control. Not every show, for example, features ‘futurist’ among its credits  for helping to make tangible and feasible the technology on display.

Natasha McElhone plays the CEO of an aerospace company

“The difficult thing about the near future us that it’s near,” laughs Willimon. “If you were setting something 100 years from now, you could have warp speed or teleporting and the audience will accept as a given that these things will be figured out between now and then.”

The solution came from looking back, explains The First executive producer Jordan Tappis, documentary-maker and co-founder with Willimon of Westward Productions; The First is the company’s debut drama series. IMG is handling worldwide distribution of the series, which launched in Hulu in September and comes to C4 on November 1.

“Step one was going backwards into what the world looked like 15 years ago, before trying to predict what happens 15 years from now,” says Tappis. “We focused on communications and cars, two areas where the eye can see the evolution of technology. The big prediction we made is that people could use smart technology built into earbuds and glasses. We effectively took the same idea that Google Glass represented, but made it cool and integrated. The aesthetic was, in some ways, as important as the technology itself.”

The space travel elements needed to look absolutely accurate to the people whose job it is to do it for real. NASA was “extraordinarily forthcoming,” says Tappis, as were the veteran astronauts and representatives from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California who were consulted.

“From the jargon to the designs, you won’t find many liberties taken with tech and science,” says Tappis. “But when we’ve had to make a narrative choice that doesn’t chime exactly with the research, it’s never by accident. For example, the rocket used is an original design, but derivative of the SLS rocket that NASA will likely use for their first manned missions. The capsules are technically accurate, but we also needed bigger cameras so we changed the dimensions a little bit.”

The eight-episode series is set in 2031

Ditto the presence of Laz Ingram, a female leader in an industry many might assume to be male-dominated. “There are loads of women in senior positions in aerospace,” says McElhone. “Julie van Kleeck is a VP at Aerojet, Gwynne Shotwell runs SpaceX, Leanne Caret is CEO at Boeing Defense, Space and Security. I’m sure the ladder isn’t straightforward, but we did a screening at JPL and every gender and ethnicity was represented. The show reflects that rather than altering reality.”

Even the selection of New Orleans as the centre for the launch was carefully thought through, with NASA having built a manufacturing facility there. Aesthetic and financial incentives also played a part, of course.

“New Orleans is an incredibly diverse and vibrant city,” says Tappis, “which makes a nice contrast to the surface of Mars. It’s also custom-built for the film community. There are incredible tax incentives, the state rallies behind productions and there are wonderful crews. The only challenging aspect is the unpredictable weather, but the looming danger of a hurricane or rainstorm is thrilling and in line with some of the themes we’re exploring in the show.”

In short, the psychological and physical peril of such a mission is placed front and centre, yet Tappis is convinced the appeal of the red planet will endure. “Why do people climb Mount Everest? Why did ancient humans see birds flying over the horizon, seemingly towards nothing, and decide to paddle in that direction? Mars is the great unknown, the ultimate antagonist. It’s staring at us, daring us to give it a shot, and I guess that’s what we’ve done with The First.”

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Troy story

The Night Manager writer David Farr takes on Homer’s Iliad in an epic series promising sweeping battles, desperate conflict and forbidden love for the BBC and Netflix. DQ heads to South Africa to see the making of Troy: Fall of a City.

It’s perhaps the oldest story ever told. The Trojan Wars have everything: epic conflict, sweeping affairs, shocking betrayals, iconic characters, battling deities and heroic sacrifices. In that sense, it’s no surprise the BBC and Netflix would be interested in telling it – but they’re hardly the first, with Hollywood’s last attempt the big-grossing but critically maligned Troy from 2004, starring Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom.

Troy: Fall of a City was born on a beach in Crete, when executive producer Derek Wax was struck by a Zeus-esque bolt of lightning while reading The Penguin Book of Classical Myths and decided that Homer’s Iliad was ripe for adaptation once more. The eight-part series became the first project for his new company, Wild Mercury, produced in association with Kudos, with both companies owned by Endemol Shine Group. Endemol Shine International is the distributor.

Series producer Barney Reisz was undaunted by the inevitable comparisons. “The film came at the moment when everyone thought CGI was the next best thing, so they poured their resources into making it epic and lost the story a bit. It looked amazing, but for what gain? We’re making an epic show but trying to tell that story from a human, personal, authentic standpoint. It’s not our interpretation of the Iliad, it’s our interpretation of the myth as interpreted by lots of different people.”

Those people include not just Homer, but also Greek tragedians Euripedes and Aeschylus. But in the absence of Trojan sources and with even the dates of the war itself disputed (estimated to be somewhere around late 1300 BC), screenwriter David Farr, the Emmy-nominated adapter of The Night Manager, had carte blanche to be as creative as
he wished.

David Gyasi plays legendary warrior Achilles

Farr had Bettany Hughes on hand to advise on historical detail, but was also keen to explore the relatively untold story of life in Troy during the siege. “On the Greek side, you have an existing, well-trodden narrative,” he says. “It works and it’s exciting. The great challenge was to explore characters and stories in a way that would be as gripping as what’s happening outside the walls. We didn’t want to reduce the world to something smaller, but we did want to find the psychology and the grit in it.”

DQ can attest to that, having come to one of the series’ three major sets, an hour or so outside Cape Town, on an unseasonably warm July 2017 day during the six-month shoot. “We looked all over for a location,” says Reisz. “The real site of Troy in Turkey, plus Spain, Croatia, Malta… We chose South Africa because of the amazing landscape, the fantastic beaches and terrific infrastructure – we’ve only brought about 10 crew from the UK.”

Below the spectacular crags of the Simonsberg mountains, a collection of derelict farmhouses have been transformed into Troy’s Upper City, the courtyard outside the Trojan Citadel; the interior sits in a Cape Town warehouse, while the set for the Lower City, occupied by the general populace, is in the northern Cape Town district of Durbanville.

The Upper City architecture is a striking mix of Moroccan, Assyrian and Ancient Greek, assembled with some educated guesswork from production designer Rob Harris. Crumbling shrines and shrivelled offerings sit alongside swords, shields and spears in racks. The dilapidation is telling and quite deliberate: the series was shot in three blocks and in sequence by three directors – Owen Harris (Black Mirror), Mark Brozel (Dickensian) and John Strickland (Line of Duty) – so the sets have been allowed to deteriorate to reflect the trajectory of the conflict. We’re halfway through the series and – spoiler alert – Troy is losing the war.

The cast is a who’s who of sturdy television actors: on the Greek side, there’s Johnny Harris as Agamemnon, David Gyasi’s Achilles and Joseph Mawle as Odysseus; for the Trojans, David Threlfall’s King Priam, his queen Hecuba (Frances O’Connor) and Tom Weston-Jones as Hector. Caught in the middle are star-crossed lovers Helen (German actress Bella Dayne, last seen in Humans) and Paris, played by relative newcomer Louis Hunter. There are also other, less familiar faces. To serve this lesser-told side of the story, Farr invented some characters and expanded others who had walk-on parts in the Iliad – notably Priam’s advisor Pandarus (Alex Lanipkun) and Greek spy-cum-assassin Xanthius (David Avery), who befriends a Trojan family and comes to understand the toll of war on normal people.

The show’s battle scenes were overseen by on-set military adviser Nigel Tallis

“Even though it’s a mythical world, the characters are still human,” explains Avery. “There’s conflict and struggle. It shows that anyone can be touched by war, from soldiers to kings to families – it’s not just happening in a field hundreds of miles away, there are repercussions for everyone.”

Reisz agrees. At a time where the failings of patriarchy are being exposed in all areas, it’s a timely demonstration of “the complete fallibility of men. They’re fighting over beautiful things for the sake of it. I hope it’ll say something about the stupidity and futility of war, why people go to war and why many wars are never won or lost.”

Triggering the conflict are, of course, Paris and Helen (pictured top), whose affair ensures the divine prophecy, in which Paris brings about the downfall of his city, would come to pass.

“It’s a monumental shift, but it happens slowly,” says Hunter of his character’s journey from goat herder to returning royal prince to spark catastrophic conflict. “He’s impulsive and makes a lot of mistakes at first, but you see him develop and mature. This war goes on for 10 years, so Helen and Paris are constantly questioning whether their love means so much that they’ll put up with all the death and famine. The blood is quite literally on their hands, but their love is deep and true.”

“What makes Helen charming and allows her to affect men in the way she does is her vulnerability and open heart,” adds Dayne. “She’s intelligent, well read and knows about the politics. She also has a confidence in her sexuality, which women weren’t supposed to have at that time. She was more of a symbol of beauty than beauty itself. I had to think like that, because otherwise the pressure [of playing her] would have been too much.”

Former Shameless star David Threlfall as Priam, king of Troy

The gods, strikingly, are played by local actors and integrated as carefully as possible: there will be no declaiming in togas or brandishing fistfuls of lightning, nor will deities be dictating the actions of mortals. Instead, Farr approached them as a means to explore concepts of destiny and fate.

“They’re a presence,” explains Reisz, “without interacting too directly with the humans. They’re around and influencing things, but not in charge as they’d like to be. The key is that we know the humans are completely invested in them and fundamentally believe in them. People do extraordinary acts because they’ve been told to by the gods.”

As important as the emotional grip and thematic sweep of the story, meanwhile, is the fact viewers have certain expectations of Greek mythology that have to be met – expectations of battles, duels and a particular artificial horse.

“You only get one shot at it so you may as well get it right,” laughs Harris of the absent Trojan Horse that was the talk of the cast when DQ visited – drafted but not yet built. “It’s nearly eight metres tall and will accommodate a couple of soldiers. The idea is it’s a thing of beauty that people want.”

Harris’s greatest challenge to date, however, has been the construction of a 25 metre-long Greek ship, in 70 pieces. “If you put 50 people on a ship, it can’t tip over. We used a structural engineer and built it in a studio, then wondered how it would fare in a tidal pool. But it did float!”

The battles presented their own logistical challenges, overseen by on-set military adviser Nigel Tallis. Almost 200 extras and stunt professionals assembled for the biggest battle. Alfred Enoch, playing the part of Aeneas – general, Greek ally and future founder of Rome – was unsurprisingly caught up. “We were doing a battle scene at night, lots of extras and stunt guys, and after I killed the first person I just had a little look around and thought, ‘This is great!’”

Troy: Fall of a City premieres tomorrow

The set-piece duels reflected the characters involved: there’s Achilles, efficient and elegant; Hector the muscular bruiser; and Paris, agile and quick. The set-to between Hector and Achilles took some four days to shoot and will most likely occupy about five minutes of the series. But, promises Farr, it will be well worth it. “We’ve all seen 100 westerns with 100 shootouts and they’re all great. This was the first ever shootout. It’s been replayed time and time again and never ceases to intrigue us, as long as you care about the people involved. You just have to enjoy those moments for what they are.”

The shoot wasn’t without its hairy moments. Half-a-dozen black mambas were removed from the location prior to filming, and a snake wrangler remained in attendance throughout. Baboons lurked during the beach scenes, scavenging food. A storm accounted for some of the set, a sickness bug for some of the cast, but only for a few days in both cases. A couple of stuntmen came a cropper when horses were startled, breaking ankles. But otherwise, given the level of ambition and devil-may-care attitudes of some of the stars (Hunter voluntarily tumbled 120 feet off a cliff for one scene), it’s had a relatively clean bill of health.

Off set, the collaboration between Netflix, the BBC and Wild Mercury also seems to have run smoothly, with the US streaming giant conforming to its hands-off reputation. “They brought a lot of money to it, which is hugely welcome,” says Farr. “They respond like audiences would – we’re a bit bored there, we don’t get that bit – but they don’t tell you how to solve it. They’re very positive and they trust people who make stuff to make stuff.”

The broadcasting arrangement sounds similarly straightforward. “The BBC will show it as early as possible,” says Reisz, nodding to its debut tomorrow, “once a week for eight weeks, then have it on iPlayer for a time. Thereafter, Netflix can show it in all territories apart from the UK, everywhere on the same date, then there’s a UK DVD date and Netflix will get it in the UK eventually.”

At the end of which, Troy will have definitively fallen – although that doesn’t necessarily bring an end to the team’s adventures in the ancient world. After all, in The Odyssey and The Aeneid there are two ready-made sequels waiting. “If I got another chance to wave a sword around, that would be amazing,” laughs Enoch. “That’s the idea,” reckons Reisz.
“Three seasons.”

Farr is a little more circumspect. “Let’s wait and see how this one goes! I’m sure Homer was asked what came next after The Iliad and said much the same thing. Unlike other things I’ve worked on, there are consequences to this story and those consequences are very interesting, so let’s see.”


The Trojan Horseman
Horse trainer and stuntman Elbrus Ourtaev on the challenges of maintaining safety and order while working with no fewer than 18 horses on the set of Troy: Fall of a City.
I’ve been doing this for about eight years. I ended up in South Africa as one of the Cossack riders with the Moscow State Circus, then got involved with the film industry, started Film Equus and here we are with lots of horses riding around, doing silly things.

We have 18 horses for this show, although they don’t use too many in the big sequences. Maybe six in the big battles, but they’ll use CGI to make that look like more. We specialise in stuntwork – the most specialised sequence here was in the forest where a horse rears up, gets shot by an arrow and falls with a rider.

Training actors is more difficult than training horses! On Troy: Fall of a City, we had to start at the beginning with a lot of them and only had a limited time to get them to the level we needed. Sometimes the production would ask a horse to gallop with an actor, but it couldn’t be done – safety is the priority and things can happen so fast with horses. We can’t say ‘action’ on set. If you say ‘rolling,’ horses know it’s coming, and if you say ‘action,’ they’ll just start running. It’s been a privilege to be in this show – we love historical films and we’re proud of all the actors. They’ve worked very hard.

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Back with a Vengeance

Ahead of the launch of Anglo-French drama The Tunnel’s third and final season next week, DQ visits the set to find stars Stephen Dillane and Clémence Poésy in an optimistic mood and a new lead writer taking the show back to its roots.

The Tunnel has never been a series to take the easy path. Its Anglo-French take on the beloved Scandinavian culture-clash police drama Bron/Broen (The Bridge) risked charges of mere imitation, while filming in the Channel Tunnel represented a logistical high-wire act.

Most recently, external factors – Brexit, the withdrawal of original coproducer Canal+ and showrunner Ben Richards standing down – have combined to make the third and final season, subtitled Vengeance, another tricky proposition.

Yet when DQ meets cast and crew in a terraced house above Dover train station on a baking hot May day, optimism abounds. Much has changed for the leading pair of coppers, Karl Roebuck and Elise Wassermann, in the eight months since they brought down a ring of international terrorists. The perpetually careworn Karl (Stephen Dillane) is in an uncharacteristically happy place, reconciled with wife and family.

“Part of the difficulty of the second season,” recalls Dillane, reclining in the front garden in an uncomfortable-looking tweed suit, “was that this awful thing had happened [the murder of Karl’s teenage son], but it was important not to become morose or depressed. That was hard to pull off. You could decide this man was utterly floored by his son’s death, which would be a reasonable character choice, but here, he’s not. We’ve had to move things on now, and he’s in good shape: still a detective, happy enough with work. Family life has changed, but he seems alright.”

The Tunnel stars Stephen Dillane and Clémence Poésy

Similarly, Elise was left in disarray, betrayed by her lover and almost blinded by a pathogen that was injected into her eye. “I was up for having a scar,” laughs Clémence Poésy in the back garden, wearing Elise’s de facto uniform of shapeless jumper and black skinny jeans, “but she’s made a full recovery.”

Physically, if not psychologically? “Yeah, she starts Vengeance in denial. She’s made lots of very rational changes to put the events of the last series behind her, but something’s not quite right: she grinds her teeth a lot and breaks a tooth in her sleep. If it seems to be under control, it probably isn’t, and Karl coming back breaks that cycle.

“Season one felt like Elise opening up to someone then trying to protect that person, season two was the opposite, with Karl seeing her vulnerable and trying to protect her. Season three has them both going through a lot without sharing everything. Karl is worried about Elise and Elise is unsettled by decisions Karl is making.”

With former showrunner Richards stepping aside to work on the BBC’s adaptations of JK Rowling’s Cormoran Strike books, Emilia Di Girolamo, lead writer on Law and Order: UK, came on board. “Ben looked at complex geopolitics with [second season] Sabotage,” she says. “It would have been easier to go bigger and more epic, but I wanted to take it back to its roots and have an intensely personal, emotional story. I worked in prisons for eight years and have a PhD in offender rehabilitation, so it mattered to me that the killers’ motives are rooted in their experience. In this case, that’s trauma and loss. I get excited by how horrifying human nature can be when a person has been so damaged that they have nothing left to lose.”

Dillane’s Karl Roebuck is in a happier place at the start of season three

The Tunnel’s final season, which begins on Sky Atlantic on December 14, revolves around crimes fuelled by the refugee crisis. “We were writing as the refugee camps in Calais were being dismantled,” says Di Girolamo. “I remembered reading these articles about 10,000 unaccompanied refugee children who were missing in Europe. As a writer and a parent, I couldn’t ignore this startling statistic, so I asked the question behind the story: how can one child’s life be worth more than another’s?”

And then there is the spectre of Brexit hanging over a show that pivots on the fragility of cross-Channel relations. “Nobody in the writers room really believed it would happen,” recalls Di Girolamo of the UK’s vote to leave the European Union. “But while we’ve got a few Brexit gags and have ramped up the unease between our French and British characters, we wanted to focus on the case and the characters. It wouldn’t have massively affected the drama if we’d voted Remain.”

The Tunnel itself experienced something of a ‘Frexit’ with the withdrawal of coproducer Canal+ (which, it is anticipated, will be airing the series in France as an acquisition), yet this decision was, in reality, neither a huge surprise nor unduly problematic, says executive producer Karen Wilson.

“Sky were clear they wanted a final season, whereas it was a big thing for Canal+ to even come back for a second. Their involvement would have been a bonus rather than something we were anticipating, because historically they haven’t done returning series. They also have a different way of working: they expect to have all their shooting scripts before going into production, but no one in Britain works like that. The European aesthetic and English-French coproduction are what have made this show unique, so rather than running away from it, we decided to embrace the challenges and the differences. We’d reached an entente cordiale by the end of season one!”

French actor Poésy returns as Elise Wassermann

In some ways, it was even a positive development. “It’s a lot simpler working for one broadcaster than two,” says fellow exec producer Manda Levin. “We had a story meeting where all the British people were thinking the audience would never forgive Karl for his fling, but the French people didn’t get that at all – he’s just shagged a really sexy woman! We came at stories really differently, but we do miss their robust script notes that pushed and challenged us. They forced us to involve the French perspective even when that was difficult from the start, and that’s what made the show feel a bit different and made us work in a different way. By season three, we knew how to do that, so I hope Vengeance won’t feel any less French.”

Logistics were easier this season, with French sequences shot in one six-week block, sandwiched between English shoots of similar lengths. The active participation of [Channel Tunnel operator] Eurotunnel further smoothed things, and also of course afforded enormous creative opportunities. The Tunnel remains the only TV series to shoot inside the Channel Tunnel itself, although documentaries and commercials have been given access on occasion. Producer Toby Welch has nothing but praise for the Eurotunnel team, especially in meeting some of the final season’s more challenging briefs, which included rats swarming over one character.

“We can’t compromise their security or disrupt their business, so the challenges they faced to make it work for us were huge. While we did use some CGI, a member of our art department still had to count in and count out 200 dead rats meticulously while a member of Eurotunnel oversaw it. There was as much attention paid to the number of dead rats going in and out of the tunnel as there was to crew members [three Eurotunnel staff were required to be in attendance for every member of The Tunnel’s cast and crew], and rightly so! We also had access to some phenomenal properties outside the tunnel: at the beginning of season three, [Eurotunnel’s director of public affairs] John Keefe took us on a tour of cool things that hadn’t been in the show yet, so Samphire Hoe in Kent features prominently in the final season.”

Six-episode Vengeance is the concluding season of The Tunnel

Perhaps appropriately, having invoked a plague of rats, the biggest challenges were presented by some pretty Biblical weather on Samphire Hoe itself, a nature reserve created from almost five million cubic metres of chalk marl excavated during the tunnel’s construction.

“Samphire Hoe is quite exposed to the elements,” Wilson explains, “so prior to filming a big sequence there, the production team looked at the weather for the last eight years and identified the week that has always had kind weather. Inevitably, it was awful! They closed the road from Dover and some people couldn’t even get to the location. We lost a day but it all came together in the end.”

Many of the off-camera team members from previous seasons have returned, among them director Gilles Bannier, a veteran of French crime thriller Spiral, who filmed the second half of the season; the first three episodes were helmed by Taboo and Jordskott director Anders Engstrom. The show gave Bannier the platform to realise his ambition of working in British television – he has since directed both Tin Star and In the Dark – and it remains a unique proposition on his CV.

“My trademark style is based on documentaries, where I began my career – I used to be very handheld. I wanted to keep [The Tunnel] simple, to look after the beauty and cinematic side of it and to make sure the police work felt real, but also to hold the characters at the centre and foster the dark, baroque feeling that is part of The Tunnel. It’s totally different to all the crime shows I’ve done. In France, the idea of the auteur is still very strong, while on UK television the writer is the most important. For The Tunnel, it was a true collaboration between the writers, directors, producers and execs, which I loved.”

In the absence of Canal+, Bannier and French adapter Eric Forestier (who also directed Poésy in 2008 feature La Troisième Partie du Monde) helped ensure the accuracy of the French aspects. “We would ask whether we’ve done the equivalent of getting a 19-year-old into Wetherspoons and asking for a cherry brandy,” laughs Welch. “They told us what smelled French, even down to the names of characters.”

This final season, produced by Kudos and distributed by Endemol Shine International, will be leaner than ever, running for just six episodes – a decision, the team insists, that was driven by creative rather than financial reasons. “With six episodes, there’s something exciting about being so near the end, even at the start,” says Welch. “It’s nice to have a new format, because there’s no point in repeating ourselves, and there’s something very satisfying about having a trilogy.”

And a trilogy it will remain, Levin confirms. “Knowing we won’t see Stephen and Clémence on screen together again makes me sad, but we do them justice. We started The Tunnel with a man losing his son. Emilia loves writing about parents, children, love and loss, so there was a real circularity to the series. Going out on a high is the way to go.”

For Wilson, the series’ legacy is significant. “I started at the BBC and every story we developed had to be completely British. The idea of subtitles on BBC1 was anathema, and the world has evolved so much since then – in terms of stories we can tell, there are no holds barred.”

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Building Babylon

Babylon Berlin recreates 1920s Berlin in exquisite detail to bring Volker Kutchser’s detective Gereon Rath to television. DQ visits the set.

Amid financial turmoil and growing distrust of establishment figures, an ultra-nationalist movement stirs, snaring growing numbers of supporters through lies and scaremongering while opposition parties flounder. A functioning political process begins its slow, stealthy death march, while the importance of fighting for freedom and democracy becomes impossible to ignore.

Small wonder the story of the Weimar Republic, Germany’s postwar democracy dismantled by the Nazis in the 1930s, feels so appropriate for our times. For X Filme, the German production company weighing up the possibilities, the big question was how to tell it. Enter Volker Kutscher, author of the noirish Gereon Rath detective novels.

Kutscher’s first story in the series, Babylon Berlin, follows vice squad detective Rath as he is dispatched from his hometown of Cologne on a secret mission to bust an extortion ring in Berlin. Instead, his investigations turn up sinister goings-on linking politics to the underworld and police corruption to a proposed right-wing military putsch. His sidekick, Charlotte Ritter, is an unlikely combination of police stenotypist and prostitute, such was the struggle for many to make ends meet on the cusp of the Great Depression. Although ridiculed by her superiors, she becomes indispensable to Rath, her dual life granting him crucial access to Berlin’s seamy underbelly.

It’s a rich stew of cultural, personal, political and economic excess in arguably the most intoxicating city of the age, and proved irresistible to producer Michael Polle and X Filme co-founder Tom Tykwer, director of ambitious art-house touchstones including Run Lola Run and Cloud Atlas.

Tom Tykwer (centre) on the Babylon Berlin set

Brought to X Filme to build up the television department, it’s fair to say Polle is fulfilling his brief with Babylon Berlin, which will premiere on Sky Deutschland this October before its free-to-air debut on Germany’s ARD Das Erste next year.

After an aborted attempt to work up their own material for a Weimar-era drama, the team turned to Kutscher’s books and, after a patient hunt (they had been optioned by another company), bought the rights. Kutscher has been a hands-off partner on the Babylon Berlin set, happy to leave the production to it once he had seen the scripts, according to Polle.

Crucially, like the novel, the TV adaptation examines the era without imposing any knowledge of what was to come. This was the pre-cabaret age, when optimism still abounded and political turmoil was matched by a thriving creative arts scene led by director Fritz Lang, dramatist Bertolt Brecht and the art movements of Expressionism and New Objectivity. The Nazis were a minority concern and few had heard of Adolf Hitler.

Tykwer was joined by Achim von Borries (Alone in Berlin) and Henk Handloegten (Summer Window), with the triumvirate directing and writing all 16 episodes that make up the first two seasons. And despite being both the most recognisable name internationally and the ostensible showrunner, Tykwer appears to run a very collaborative process, insisting each episode is credited to the three of them. Certainly, it’s unusual for an auteur to harness their creative instincts to the collective quite so comprehensively.

“Tom wanted to develop characters and stories longer than films allow,” claims Polle. “This was the right project at the right time for him. It’s not about who’s best – they’re a strong team. That spirit of co-operation was fascinating. Achim says that, when you see an episode, you have no idea who shot which scene, which was the goal all along.”

The team behind the show sought to recreate the ‘optimism’ of 1920s Berlin

While Tykwer was virtually a TV debutant before Babylon Berlin, with just two episodes of Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s Netflix folly Sense8 to his name, Von Borries and Handloegten had considerable experience in small-screen drama – something undoubtedly invaluable to the extraordinary logistical effort required to shoot 16 episodes concurrently over eight months.

It’s a bone-chillingly cold December day when DQ visits Babylon Berlin’s backlot set, Neuen Berliner Strasse, at the Studio Babelsberg in the Berlin suburb of Potsdam, on the outskirts of the German capital. Scenes from episodes two, three, 12, 14 and 15 are being shot by all three directors across several locations in Berlin and Cologne, the hometown of not only Rath (played by Generation War’s Volker Bruch, pictured top) but also Kutscher.

At Babelsberg, a week before wrap, von Borries is directing Liv Lisa Fries (Day of Rage, Night of Reason) as her character, Chartlotte, attempts to rescue her younger sister from the clutches of an exploitative gangster outside Moka Efti, a legendary Berlin nightspot whose art deco facade is impressively rendered here. Almost all the houses on this network of streets are in fact facades, but their doors and windows still offer different perspectives and angles for filming. Interiors were shot in studios or production centres – primarily the former ministry of the interior for the GDR, which was used as the inside of a police station, various offices and part of Moka Efti (an old silent-cinema building was also used for the latter).

As well as overseeing the score, as he has done for the vast majority of his films, Tykwer brought several key collaborators to the series. Most critically, there’s production designer Uli Hanisch, whose work on this outstanding set allows grotesque wealth to nestle cheek by jowl with extreme poverty. Various streets from several different Berlin districts are here: principally, Friedrichstrasse, Charlottenburg and Kreuzberg Neukölln. No single thoroughfare is straight, again offering multiple camera angles for the creative director of photography. Greenscreens lurk on street corners, although on-location filming was carried out where possible, including a memorable day of filming on Alexanderplatz, a large public square in central Berlin. “The plan was to get an idea of Berlin in the 1920s, and to do that you have to film in the streets,” says Polle.

Henk Handloegten delivers instructions

The scene being depicted when DQ visits is set a few days after police had used horses and tanks to disperse a Communist march for Official Workers’ Day, May 1, 1929. It’s a little calmer now, but only just. Political slogans cover walls and lampposts. Adverts promote Sanatogen ‘Fur Deine Nerven’ (for your nerves). Beautiful vintage cars squeal through crowds of people going about their business. Around 150 extras are on set today, each with their own name, number and costume – “some people say there aren’t any 20s costumes left in Europe because we have rented them all!” laughs Polle. The blend of 1920s Berlin with the aesthetic of classic American gangster movies is entirely deliberate, and a decision that Boardwalk Empire fan Kutscher endorses.

“Watching The Sopranos 15 years ago was an epiphany,” he told The Guardian last year. “That and The Wire. Seeing my books being adapted for TV in the tradition of those HBO shows is exciting.”

The timing for such a series is unquestionably right. “Once, there were more urgent stories to tell, like the Second World War and Hitler,” reckons Jan Mojto, CEO of Beta Film, Babylon Berlin’s distributor and strategic partner to X-Filme. “Germans have always had a complicated relationship with their past, but that’s changing now. The country is facing its own history in all its contradictions, understanding that, even if it was very black, there were light moments. It’s a more realistic attitude to one’s own history than just guilt.”

Babylon Berlin will join a growing number of German series making an international splash, notably Second World War saga Generation War and Cold War thriller Deustchland 83. Not since the days of Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz in the early 1980s has German television drama enjoyed such a high profile. Deutschland 83, however, proved to be a much bigger hit abroad than at home – an indication of the gamble being taken by producers when they aim for a wider market. As a result, broadcaster RTL has partnered with Amazon on its sequel, Deutschland 86. Netflix, meanwhile, will launch German-language supernatural drama Dark this winter.

The market, however, hasn’t been entirely cornered by SVoD services. For Babylon Berlin, X Filme opted for a pay TV/free-to-air partnership between Sky Deustchland and German national broadcaster ARD – an unusual but not unprecedented setup.

The drama also stars Liv Lisa Fries

“For a project of this size and scale, it’s the first one,” says Mojto. “The budget is comparable to international standards, close to €2.5m [US$2.65m] per episode, but we could never have got that from a single broadcaster in Germany. The arrangement wasn’t too complicated; the important thing was that the three directors wanted to tell this story in a certain way, and we all met on that ground.”

European coproductions have, says Polle, become increasingly common, with Borgen creator Adam Price and Danish network DR working with Franco-German network Arte on faith-based drama Rides Upon the Storm.

“National networks now don’t have enough money to fund big, ambitious series alone,” he notes. “But from a storytelling point of view, even if its being made for a global audience, you shouldn’t be considering what French or American people might think about a scene. The story just needs a strong identity – if it’s unique and good, you’ll get attention around the world.”

Another key decision, says Mojto, was to shoot Babylon Berlin in its native language. “Given the size of the project,” he says, “four years ago it would have been reasonable to try and shoot in English, but we felt it would not enhance its authenticity. [Italian mob drama] Gomorrah was shot in a Neapolitan dialect so strong that lots of Italians struggled to understand it, but that didn’t prevent the series from travelling around the world.”

This is unlikely to be the last we’ll see of Gereon Rath, or his unwitting involvement in the birth of the modern age in all its glory and horror. “Volker wanted to tell the story of Berlin throughout this time,” says Polle. “His first idea was to finish the series in 1936 and the Berlin Olympics. His latest novel is set in 1937, so the first idea went a little too well! But that’s OK – the more books he writes, the better for us.”

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Keys to the Kingdom

As historical drama The Last Kingdom charges towards the end of its second season, read DQ’s report from the Budapest set, where stars Alexander Dreymon and David Dawson were preparing to do battle once again.

It’s a cold, wet, November day – the perfect conditions in which to experience a slice of ninth century English life, albeit on the outskirts of Budapest.

It’s here that production designer Martyn John is dodging muddy puddles and piles of dung on the remarkable set he has overseen for the second season of BBC2’s
The Last Kingdom, adapted by Stephen Butchard (Good Cop) from Bernard Cornwell’s bestselling Saxon Stories novels.

The first season followed young warrior Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon), born a Saxon but raised a Dane and wrestling both with his dual heritage and the bitter warfare splitting England apart. Now, allied with King Alfred (David Dawson), he hopes to reclaim the lands in the north that are his ancestral birthright. It’s not a journey without its difficulties.

“Uhtred has to make quite a few sacrifices,” says Dreymon, looking impressively energised near the end of a seven-month shoot. “He pays a high price to achieve his objectives. It’s a rocky road. It’s important to keep the moments where he’s playful and still a little boy, but there’s a lot less messing about this year. It’s more political and serious and dramatic.”

Actor Alexander Dreymon during a break in filming

Most notably, Uhtred is enslaved and chained to the oar of a Viking longship – a terrifying experience for a man who believes he will only reach Valhalla by dying with sword in hand. “Going through that emotional arc, you have to dig quite deep,” says Dreymon. “I was very disappointed I wasn’t able to go through the journey physically because we didn’t have time. To get to that point of emaciation wasn’t possible, but with prosthetics and baggy clothes and sleep deprivation, I think we got away with it.”

If Uhtred is the hero, then Alfred is the anti-hero, and one who fades into the background of the books adapted in this second season, which debuted in March. Butchard was keen to rectify this: “I tried to keep Alfred and Uhtred tied together as much as possible by having Alfred use Uhtred for his own ends, to spread his influence in the north. England is a game of chess for him, and Uhtred is his key piece on the board. In a period of violence and conflict, Alfred is trying to build something substantial, because it’s only in periods of peace where cultures grow.”

“You’ll really find out why he goes down in history as Alfred the Great,” says wiry, self-confessed “history geek” Dawson. “It’s not just about him taking land, but about him trying to create an identity for his kingdom. He was militarily smart, building forts around Wessex to secure it from any more Viking invasions. He’s clever with his court, which is full of people wanting to take his place. But he also translated books into English to promote learning and signed a peace treaty with the Danes when they would have expected a ruthless response. He’s a frail intellectual who achieves so much, and as a skinny lad I appreciate that!”

Dawson is speaking just outside Alfred’s Wessex stronghold of Winchester, as recreated by John. Not quite as regal or majestic as you might expect, it’s a network of dwellings and stables, official rooms and religious buildings. There are loose straw roofs for the poor and thatched for the more wealthy. With authenticity the watchword, timber was used where possible.

What becomes rapidly clear is John’s ingenuity. A TV veteran with the likes The White Queen and Foyle’s War under his belt, he may ostensibly be showing us around Winchester but, from a different angle and with a bit of redressing, the same space has represented York, Northampton, Leeds and assorted other settlements in East Anglia and Wessex.

The Last Kingdom airs on BBC2 and is available on Netflix in the US

Here is a network of staircases inspired by the famous Escher lithograph; there, a pagan meeting hall that had doubled as a cathedral in an earlier scene. The architectural design incorporates Saxon and Viking influences, but with elements of ancient Roman mural and filigree for the eagle-eyed. Truly, anything goes if it enhances the show.

“I’ve got to use all my sets four or five different times,” says John, who looks exhausted but justifiably proud of his achievements. If this does indeed prove to be his last run on The Last Kingdom (“Two seasons is enough for me!”), then he has left quite the legacy for his successors.

Continuity has been key to the smooth running of the shoot. Most of the cast and, perhaps unusually, most of the crew returned for the second season, including producer Chrissy Skins and director of photography Chas Bain. The directors, though, continued to rotate – a policy with pros and cons.

“It’s a great learning curve,” Dreymon says. “The whole crew and most of the cast have a shorthand now, but the one person with the ultimate decision is the one who changes every two episodes. Everyone’s nerves get tested sometimes, but the best directors are the ones who are open to suggestions, whether it’s from me or a runner on their first day.”

Jon East, who directs the second block of episodes in this second season, has both originated series (The Last Weekend, Critical) and stepped onto moving vehicles (New Tricks, Whitechapel). For him, too, it was a challenge: “You’re trying to create a reasonably seamless next chapter – you don’t want you to create this odd, ungainly shape in front of an elegant wall of bricks, but you have to bring some distinctiveness to it. You can either ask the audience to observe the characters and scenario, or ask them to step inside it and immerse themselves. I’m in the latter camp – I like to take an audience right alongside the character for a more visceral experience.”

Those visceral experiences are most arresting in the epic battles that were a hallmark of season one, climaxing in the bloodbath of Ethandun that saw Alfred defeat the Viking hordes. While season two doesn’t have anything on quite that scale, there are still some impressive set pieces. For East, though, the priority was always narrative over spectacle.

“Those long action sequences can make it feel as if time is standing still,” he argues. “You think, at some point, they’ll stop clashing swords and someone will win, when what the audience is really watching is what happens to individual characters. You need story milestones worked into those set pieces, and characters need to go on an emotional journey as well as a physical one.”

The period drama is filmed in Budapest, Hungary

East talks with audible excitement about filming the slave sequences and a fortress siege featuring “stuntmen who had to dress in layers of fire-resistant clothing, set themselves on fire and hurl themselves off battlements in 34 degree heat.” His most enjoyable moments, however, tend to be lower key.

“My favourite scene is a very quiet one between Uhtred and Hild, a warrior who becomes one of his coterie. They just sit in a field and talk, shot in a ‘magic hour’ light. There was a delicacy, honesty and truthfulness about their performances that was very touching.”

On the whole, however, The Last Kingdom’s team had to work hard to avoid scenes looking too idyllic and thus clashing with the dour, angst-ridden nature of much of the narrative. Unlike season one, the bulk of filming was done over the sweltering Hungarian summer rather than the bitterly cold winter. Plenty of post-production work was carried out to ensure that ninth century life looked every bit as nasty, brutish and short as it really was.

Oddly, the actors missed the wintry chill. “I think you benefit from seeing people’s breath, being cold, miserable and in the mud,” grins Dreymon. “The make-up artist has kept putting on dirt all the time because you couldn’t see it in the sunlight. It’s been easier this season to not suffer those conditions, but I would gladly do it again in the winter just for the look.”

Yes, winter will come again to Winchester as surely as there will always be a Westeros-shaped shadow over any series involving swearing, sex, men with mullets and frequently wielded swords. The comparison to HBO’s Game of Thrones is one everyone acknowledges but few seem to mind (although perhaps tellingly, no one will admit to having watched The Last Kingdom’s nearest equivalent, History’s Vikings). Dawson even concedes that The Last Kingdom would probably not have been made without the success of Game of Thrones.

“It’s incumbent upon any team working within this genre to try and put clear blue water between themselves and that giant of a show,” says East. “But The Last Kingdom has as its basis those fantastic novels and a drive towards historical and visual authenticity that differentiates it.”

The Last Kingdom, produced by Carnival Films and distributed by NBCUniversal International Television Distribution, has a new US partner for season two, with Netflix taking rights stateside, replacing BBC America. And though the drama has yet to be recommissioned for a third season, given the rich history and with 10 Cornwall books to plunder (each season has so far covered two each), there’s scope for at least another three outings. Dreymon, however, must be hoping the divergence from the source novels is complete by that stage, as by book 10, Uhtred is in his 50s – a leap of the imagination surely beyond even the most gifted make-up artist.

The central theme, however, will never age and, if anything, feels more pertinent now than ever: the clash of cultures personified by the one-man melting pot at its heart. Can such apparently opposed perspectives ever be reconciled? “There’s a bit more gravitas this year,” says Butchard. “Saxons and Danes are living together and becoming more integrated, so it’s harder to say who the enemy is and who’s fighting for who.”

Dreymon believes that, however nightmarish his era may appear, Uhtred has attributes that many significant 21st century figures might do well to heed: “He’ll look beyond what religion people are from or where they’re from, which is a beautiful thing – he’s really ahead of his time.”

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