All posts by John Winfield

The spy who loved me

As Killing Eve’s second season launches in the UK, star Jodie Comer and exec producer Sally Woodward Gentle extol the contribution of head writer Emerald Fennell, discuss the show’s female perspective and tease the changing relationship between the main characters.

With TV drama occupying an increasingly lofty position in the minds of viewers and talent alike, it’s not uncommon these days for big new shows to be given premieres comparable to those usually reserved for Hollywood blockbusters.

Indeed, an esteemed London location complete with free-flowing wine and delicately assembled canapés is par for the course when it comes to providing the first glimpse of any drama series a major broadcaster gives two hoots about.

So it’s indicative of the reverence in which Killing Eve is held that the UK premiere for the spy thriller’s second season felt like a notch above, even in this landscape. At a preposterously packed Curzon cinema in Soho, the red carpet was quite literally rolled out for the stars of the BBC America hit, with DQ barely able to squeeze through the throng to grab a well-deserved glass of said wine.

Despite mostly comprising journalists and those who worked on the show, the attendees’ excitement at being among the first in the country to see Killing Eve’s return was palpable, with a steady succession of people being told politely but firmly to ‘please wait for the announcement’ as they attempted to get into the auditorium early and secure the best seats.

Writer Emerald Fennell with Damon Thomas, who directed several episodes of season two

High expectations are natural when a show’s debut season performs as well as Killing Eve’s, drawing both critical and audience acclaim and becoming one of VoD platform BBC iPlayer’s most popular shows ever.

For those in the dark, the series stars Sandra Oh as intelligence agent Eve Polastri, who becomes obsessed with the slippery, psychopathic assassin she is attempting to apprehend, Jodie Comer’s Villanelle.

The second season has just finished airing stateside on BBC America ahead of hitting UK screens on BBC1 this Saturday. It will air weekly on the linear network, while all episodes will again be made available simultaneously on iPlayer.

Based on Luke Jennings’ Codename Villanelle novella series, the first season saw Eve and Villanelle’s unique game of cat and mouse unfold across Europe, climaxing with Eve stabbing Villanelle during a tender moment in the trained killer’s Paris apartment. The supporting cast is led by Fiona Shaw as Eve’s boss, Carolyn Martens, and Kim Bodnia as Villanelle’s handler, Konstantin. One notable addition to this year’s cast is The Mighty Boosh star Julian Barratt, as a loner who encounters Villanelle in the first episode.

Off camera, the most significant change for season two is that head writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge, creator and star of the equally critic-pleasing Fleabag, has taken a back seat, remaining an executive producer while Emerald Fennell takes the writing reins.

An author and actor best known for playing nurse Patsy Mount in BBC period drama Call the Midwife and due to play Camilla Parker Bowles in the third season of Netflix’s The Crown, Fennell’s appointment as head writer on Killing Eve represents a significant step up. However, any fears that the switch would impact the show’s singular style evaporate in the opening scene – which takes place just seconds after the end of the first season – with the drama again smoothly combining laugh-out-loud moments with abrupt and sometimes brutal violence.

Jodie Comer returns as Villanelle, who begins season two badly wounded

Exec producer Sally Woodward Gentle of producer Sid Gentle Films says: “We’d worked with Emerald before as an actor and also as a writer – we’ve optioned various books that she’s written. She’s also a very good friend of Phoebe, so it felt like a natural handing-on.

“She’s got an amazingly dark sense of humour and a fearlessness like Phoebe had. But at the same time, she didn’t just want to ‘do a Phoebe.’ She wanted to inhabit it herself, and I think she’s done that brilliantly.

“Emerald’s got a brilliant deadpan, dark sense of humour, and the more deadpan she plays it, the funnier it gets. They are really funny episodes, and Phoebe is just hilarious. So between the two of them, they’re a really good mix.”

Comer, who recently won the best actress Bafta for her performance in the show, adds: “The writing is absolutely different. Phoebe and Emerald are so similar but they’re genius writers in their own right. I feel like Emerald really captured the heart of the show and the characters. We’ve got a really strong star.”

With Woodward Gentle, Waller-Bridge and Fennell steering things off camera and Comer and Oh front and centre on screen, Killing Eve is very much a women-led project, despite being based on a property created by a man. “We read Luke’s books and really liked them and enjoyed this female assassin, enjoyed the fact there were two women [as the main characters],” Woodward Gentle says. “But to give that a female spin, and tell that story via a woman, we felt was a far more interesting way into it and something we hadn’t really seen before.

“We’ve seen female assassins actually behaving in quite a two-dimensional way [in other movies and series]. Having a woman write it and giving all those layers to the women in all of the roles was what excited us and made us think that this was not going to be La Femme Nikita or something else that we’ve seen.

Sandra Oh won a Golden Globe for her performance as Eve in season one

“But we’ve also got some phenomenal men who work on the show, so it’s really a combination of some extraordinary women and some quite sweet, slightly capable men,” the exec producer jokes.

Comer says she feels “extremely lucky” that her past five parts have been written by women, with her recent roles coming in shows such as Starz period drama The White Princess, written by Emma Frost, and Marnie Dickens’ BBC series Thirteen.

“I feel as though a lot of the roles I’ve played have been complex and challenging, and Villanelle is the cherry on the cake,” she says. “As an actress and a human being, you want to be challenged and to push yourself into new depths that you may not have been to before. These scripts and this show definitely give me that.”

As Russian Villanelle, Liverpudlian Comer uses practically every accent other than her own to play the deceptive globe-trotting assassin, effortlessly slipping from native-sounding French to posh English southerner. But rather than any formal training, Comer puts her vocal authenticity down to her childhood. “Growing up, me and my dad, if there was an advert on the telly with someone with a silly voice, we’d always impersonate it around the house, joking around. And I think, through doing that, I’ve now got an ear for it.

“Some are a lot harder than others, don’t get me wrong – I do have to concentrate and work. For me it helps because, when I’m doing my own accent, I find it harder to separate myself from the character for some. But also you don’t see a lot of Scousers on the telly, so maybe we need to change that up a little bit!”

Season two begins with a badly wounded Villanelle fleeing her apartment and evading the authorities on the way to seeking urgently needed medical treatment. Eve, shaken up from the pair’s encounter and unsure of Villanelle’s fate, hurriedly returns to London, where she soon begins working with Carolyn again despite ostensibly being sacked in season one.

Oh alongside Fiona Shaw as spy boss Carolyn Martens

Comer clearly relished returning to the character that has made her a star on both sides of the Atlantic. Discussing the appeal of playing Villanelle, she says: “She’s so free; she has no sense of consequence or fear.”

Turning to Woodward Gentle, the actor adds: “I remember you saying, Sally, ‘What would it be like to wake up and have no fear?’ To be able to play that, it is literally playing. You get to do all this crazy stuff and express all these emotions, or lack of emotions. It’s so much fun to play.”

A large amount of that fun can apparently be found in the scenes where Villanelle kills people. “What I really enjoy about the murders in the show,” says Comer, pausing at the absurdity of her statement, “is that they’re not always what you expect. Honestly, the murders are the best days on set, purely because most of the time they’re outrageous. Nothing’s ever quite what you think. It’s just so much fun.”

The actor admits to being surprised by the direction the story takes in the second run. While Villanelle found herself reciprocating her pursuer’s infatuation with her throughout the first season, it’s reasonable to assume being stabbed would puncture those feelings, with the actor expecting her character to think, “It’s payback time.” But in fact, the opposite is true: in Villanelle’s eyes, Eve – to whom she now refers as her “girlfriend” – stabbed her “to show me that she loves me.”

That seemingly bizarre conclusion is typical of the complex and contradictory relationship that drives the series. Woodward Gentle offers some insight: “We actually talked to a psychologist who is used to working with psychopaths and asked, ‘What would that stabbing mean?’ He said that it could actually mean several things: it could just raise fury and a sense of revenge, or it could confirm everything that [Villanelle] thought, which is that there is this great intimacy between them; that now they’ve bonded and it’s confirmed that they have a very special relationship. We play off both those possibilities as we run through the series.”

Despite their characters’ connection being central to the show, Comer didn’t share a great deal of screen time with Grey’s Anatomy star Oh – whom she beat to the best actress Bafta last month after Oh triumphed at the Golden Globes last year – in season one. “We’re like passing ships really, or we were in season one,” Comer says. “Whenever Sandra was in, I wasn’t, which actually kind of added to the tension when we did get together. It felt so charged.”

However, she teases more interaction between the central duo this time around. “Within season two, they do come into contact a little bit more – under what circumstances that is, I cannot say. Whenever we get together on set, we find another piece of the puzzle. We still don’t have a lot of the answers, which I don’t mind. I find it quite exciting.”

Comer’s sentiment will likely be shared by UK viewers ahead of Killing Eve’s return, after its airing across the pond drew acclaim equal to that for the first season. With a third run already confirmed, it won’t be long before that red carpet has to be rolled out again – hopefully in a more spacious venue this time.

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Virtues reality

Stephen Graham gives an award-winning performance as a man facing up to his haunting past in Channel 4 miniseries The Virtues. Shane Meadows, the director known for This Is England, details how his own life experiences inspired the drama.

Best known as the man behind the This Is England film and its trio of TV sequels, Shane Meadows has a well-earned reputation as a writer and director who can deliver an emotional gut punch like no other.

So it should come as no surprise that his new series, The Virtues, promises to be just as powerful and affecting, touching on themes of child abuse, alcoholism, revenge and redemption. The show sees Meadows reunite with This Is England actor Stephen Graham, who goes straight from starring in season five of BBC1 police drama Line of Duty to leading the cast in this Channel 4 miniseries.

Graham plays Joseph, a recovering alcoholic who falls off the wagon in spectacular fashion when his ex-partner moves to Australia with their young son. Physically and mentally at rock bottom, Joseph withdraws the scant contents of his bank account and boards a ferry to Ireland to confront the truth about his childhood in the care system, a past he had gone to great lengths to bury.

After an arduous trip, he tracks down his long-lost sister Anna (fellow This Is England alum Helen Behan), who, after overcoming her shock and disbelief at being reunited with her brother, lets him stay at the home she shares with husband Michael (Frank Laverty). Taking on work at Michael’s construction company, Joseph is quickly forced to deal with long-repressed trauma when he meets Craigy (Mark O’Halloran), an outsider dogged by troubling rumours who recognises his new colleague.

Shane Meadows clutching his award for The Virtues at Series Mania

Meanwhile, Joseph soon finds himself drawn to Michael’s sister Dinah (Niamh Algar), another character haunted by a deeply held secret.

The drama is given extra gravitas by the fact the story was inspired by traumatic events from Meadows’ own life, something he hints at when discussing the origins of the show, which he co-wrote with This Is England ’86, ’88 and ’90 collaborator Jack Thorne (National Treasure, Kiri).

Admitting the project had been in his head for some time, Meadows explains: “I’d been through something in my childhood that I didn’t realise had happened until I got to about 40. I got to the bottom of this thing that had happened in my life as a kid – I’d had fragmented memories. The sort of acorn, if you like, for Joseph’s journey was born out of what happened to me as a kid.

“When I discovered this thing, I sort of went into a place of trying to track down the people who had done it. I was like Columbo – but not a good Columbo; a sort of Travis Bickle-style Columbo. I was sat with my kids having tea one night and I’d just about tracked down this guy I wanted to find, and I wanted to confront him, basically.

“But I knew if I confronted him and, at any stage in that conversation, he smirked at me, I was probably going to jump over the table and bite something off his face. So I decided to ring Jack and talk about making something instead, which was probably far healthier.”

The Virtues stars Stephen Graham as Joseph

Meadows subsequently met up with his frequent collaborator to discuss the disturbing genesis of the story in the somewhat incongruous surroundings of a leisure centre. “I sat in a room with Jack and told him about this thing and said, ‘Ultimately, I don’t want this to be about me; it’s not about me. But I want to create a series where I get a chance to face somebody who wronged me.’ We [ended up] knowing we were going to make something rather than me go off and be naughty.”

Recalling the emotional meeting, Thorne picks up: “It was extraordinary. Just imagine two bald men sobbing. It was a real privilege to be trusted to be part of that – an experience the like of which I’d never had before. From then, it was just about trying to do our best with Shane’s heart.

“It felt very, very important and significant. It was an honour and also a burden, both things at once. You didn’t want to do wrong by this man who’s very important and special to me.”

Lightening the mood for a moment, he adds: “So yeah, that was the writing process – one of fear!”

With such delicate material, a heavyweight cast was always going needed to portray The Virtues’ array of troubled and layered characters. As such, Graham (Boardwalk Empire, Little Boy Blue, Save Me), another of Meadows’ regular collaborators, was the director’s choice for the lead from the beginning. And hearing the actor speak of his admiration for Meadows, it’s instantly clear there was no chance he was going to turn this one down.

Joseph goes off the rails after his ex-wife moves to Australia with their son

“The experience is so overwhelming and it’s from a place of such purity and honesty and joy that, without wanting to sound wanky and pretentious, it’s not acting,” he says of working with the filmmaker. “You embody that character and that situation.

“Every single member of the crew, they’re so emotionally involved. They create this platform to enable you to play. The joy about Shane, without being disrespectful, is I’ve worked with a couple of directors who can be extremely opinionated about what [a performance] is meant to be and what it is, whereas Shane will take an idea and allow anyone to bring something else to the table.

“When you’re working with him, there’s no ‘wrong,’ it’s just looking at things in a different way. With how beautifully he orchestrates it and puts it together, these words just come flying out of your mouth.

“Shane was the first person to really have trust in me and to make me believe in my own ability. People would give their right arm to work with him.”

Both Meadows and Graham highlight the freedom afforded to the dialogue, with actors allowed to deviate from the script when caught up in the emotion of their performance. “There’s no script supervisor saying, ‘Ooh, where does it say that?’” Graham notes. “That doesn’t exist in this situation. It’s such a collaboration.”

On screen, this brings an added layer of realism to the drama as the characters’ lines never feel forced. Recalling a scene in episode one when Joseph talks to his son for the last time before his move to the other side of the world, Meadows says: “If you were writing it all out [not just the dialogue], you’d need something like 150 pages. But like in real life, there’s not that many lines. There are only two or three emotional moments, but they tell you everything.

Niamh Algar as Dinah, another troubled character to whom Joseph is drawn

“Sometimes when you write that on a page, it doesn’t seem like there’s enough information. But the great thing about working with actors like Stephen and the kid in that scene is they’re able to [pick up on] the subtext, and the things that aren’t said are sometimes the things that can push you back in your chair.”

A drama’s score is often key to heightening its emotional moments, and The Virtues seizes this opportunity thanks to music from celebrated British singer-songwriter PJ Harvey, whose involvement in the project was seemingly meant to be.

Contrasting the show’s music against This Is England’s very of-the-era soundtrack, Meadows says: “This was always going to be much more cinematic – I knew it had to be a score, rather than a soundtrack. As I was on the cusp of having a word with my agent about approaching PJ Harvey to see if she’d be interested, a letter arrived for me from her, saying she liked my work and would be interested in scoring it. So I got to play it cool in the first meeting!”

The director and musician collaborated on the score in a somewhat unusual manner. “The whole thing was done completely mobile. She read the scripts, she wrote tunes and she sent them to me,” Meadows explains. “She would never put the images on. A lot of times, people will score and they’ll sit there [and write to it], but she just wrote it and sent it to me.

“Sometimes she didn’t know which scenes I was going to use it in. She sent me these incredible soundscapes and they really inspired me, so it wasn’t the traditional thing where I would give her a finished episode and she would then write over the top of it. It was a two-way thing.”

Although the tracks Harvey supplied were intended as demos that could be tweaked according to the final episodes, both agreed they worked perfectly in their original form.

Produced by UK duo Warp Films and Big Arty, with distribution by ITV Studios Global Entertainment, The Virtues launches on UK broadcaster Channel 4 tomorrow night following its world premiere in March at Series Mania, where it won the official competition’s grand prize. Graham was also named best actor.

While viewers will have to wait and see whether Joseph gets a happy ending, the journey to bring this deeply personal story to the screen certainly seems to have been a cathartic experience for Meadows.

“I first spoke to Stephen about this part I don’t know how many years ago. I kind of knew it was coming but I didn’t quite know the reason why,” he says, adding that it “didn’t come to fruition” until his aforementioned realisation of childhood trauma. “This Is England and The Virtues were the two that I knew I had to get out the door before I went crackers.”

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Going nuclear

The cast and crew of Chernobyl, a five-part miniseries from HBO and Sky, reveal how they told the story of the infamous Ukrainian nuclear disaster that continues to affect thousands of lives more than three decades on.

Thirty-three years ago to this day, a routine safety test at a power plant in what was then Soviet Ukraine sparked the deadliest nuclear accident in history.

Beginning with an explosion in a nuclear reactor in the early hours of April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl disaster officially claimed 28 lives directly and led to a further 15 indirect deaths – although other estimates put the actual death toll from the accident and its ongoing impact in the tens of thousands.

Whichever end of the scale is more accurate, one thing is beyond doubt: as bad as Chernobyl was, had the spread of radiation not been contained, things could have become much, much worse. That they did not was down to the bravery and brilliance of a number of people in the days and weeks following that first explosion – and it’s these individuals who take centre stage in Sky Atlantic and HBO’s miniseries about the tragedy.

The five-part drama, simply titled Chernobyl, debuts in the US on May 6 and then in the UK on May 7. Made by Sister Pictures and Mighty Mint Production, the HBO and Sky copro is directed by Johan Renck (Breaking Bad) and distributed by HBO International. It covers the dramatic events of the disaster itself and the repercussions on both a global level and for the people of the nearby town of Pripyat, combining disaster movie elements with political intrigue and personal trauma.

Chernobyl stars Jared Harris as real-life nuclear physicist Valery Legasov, who died in 1988

It has been created by Craig Mazin, a writer best known for his work on comedy movies such as Identity Thief and the latter two instalments of The Hangover trilogy. So what drew someone with a track record in humour to such a serious and historically significant project?

Mazin, who also wrote and exec produced the show, explains that the lure came more from what he didn’t know about Chernobyl than what he did. “I kind of knew something about Chernobyl but I didn’t know much. I knew that it exploded. I often say to people, if you ask someone what happened to the Titanic, they will tell you it sank; and if you ask how it sank, they will tell you it hit an iceberg. That only works halfway for Chernobyl – if you ask someone what happened at Chernobyl, they’ll say it blew up. But ask them how it blew up…”

Reading up on the subject to fill this “surprising gap” in his knowledge, Mazin found himself increasingly fascinated by the full extent of the disaster, becoming “obsessed” with Chernobyl. “The more I read, the more shocked I was that the explosion is not at all the story,” he says. “The story is, in fact, about how it came to happen and the remarkable acts of courage, bravery and sacrifice that were required because of it. It’s about a system that’s corrupt; it’s about the worst that humans can do but it’s also about the best that humans can do individually.”

Mazin acknowledges he had to consider the massively varying estimates of the tragedy’s true human cost, scoffing at the improbably low death toll arrived at by the Soviet government. “The best estimates put the numbers somewhere in the many tens of thousands. There are estimates of up to a million,” he says. “But if I have a choice between going for something that sounds more dramatic or something that sounds less dramatic, I actually try to opt for less. Because what is dramatic about Chernobyl doesn’t need anything extra.

“Believe it or not, this is the restrained version of what actually happened there, because there are some accounts where it gets even worse. But there’s no question it took an enormous number of lives, and it also shortened an enormous number of lives – particularly children.”

Stellan Skarsgård plays soviet deputy prime minister Boris Shcherbina

The individuals highlighted in the drama are a mixture of real-life figures and fictional characters created as an amalgamation of multiple real people. Among those playing historical figures are Jared Harris (The Terror, Mad Men) as Valery Legasov, a leading nuclear physicist who was tasked with steering the immediate response to the disaster. Prolific movie actor Stellan Skarsgård (Good Will Hunting, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), meanwhile, is Soviet deputy prime minister Boris Shcherbina, who leads the government commission investigating the accident.

Paul Ritter, best known for his comedic work in series including Friday Night Dinner and No Offence, portrays Anatoly Dyatlov, the deputy chief engineer at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and the man who would ultimately take the blame for the disaster.

Among the great many other actors in the accomplished cast – Chernobyl features a whopping 102 speaking roles, according to Mazin – are Harris’s The Terror co-star Adam Nagaitis and Oscar nominee Emily Watson. Nagaitis plays a fireman who is one of the first responders to the explosion, while Watson is a nuclear physicist battling to impress the gravity of the situation upon a range of politicians with their heads firmly in the sand.

Harris’s Legasov finds himself in a similar position, with the actor describing his character as the “Cassandra of the story,” referring to the Ancient Greek mythological figure who was cursed to deliver prophecies that were true but were believed by no one. “He understands what the dangers are and how bad it can go if they don’t get on top of it quickly,” he says. “He’s also responsible for trying to figure out how you contain this event where it’s known that it could happen but no one’s planned for what to do if it does happen.”

While the miniseries’ Legasov “suffers the same fate” as the real scientist – taking his own life on the second anniversary of the disaster while suffering from the effects of radiation exposure – Harris says the drama’s version is “more structured towards our narrative and our story.”

Emily Watson’s character is an amalgamation of scientists who worked to mitigate the disaster

He continues: “He sort of plays off Stellan’s character. They have this frosty, antagonistic relationship in the beginning but they learn to rely on one another and trust one another, and their friendship becomes one of the spines of the whole story.”

The visible impact of Legasov’s radiation poisoning was achieved by the make-up department, led by Daniel Parker. In this respect, however, Harris got off lightly, with other actors displaying the full extent of radiation’s horrific effect on the human body throughout the drama.

“Adam Nagaitis had it worst of all,” Harris asserts. “The process they put his character through was really, really gruelling.”

“Daniel had to become almost a physician,” says Mazin, “because it wasn’t enough to say, ‘Well, someone is experiencing the effect of radiation.’ There are levels to it. He came up with these stages and sub-stages, and then stages inside of stages.”

The make-up team’s efforts extended to the creation of a spreadsheet to keep track of the different levels of radiation poisoning even before Parker’s “artistry was put into place.”

This attention to detail was replicated across every element of the production, with Mazin saying he and the rest of the team shared an “obsession with historical accuracy” that went down to “the chandeliers and the tyres on the cars.” Nowhere is this more evident than in the show’s costuming, overseen by Odile Dicks-Mireaux, whose enthusiasm for accuracy sometimes went further than the drama could follow. From the lead cast to the most minor of background roles, everyone on screen is dressed in authentic garb from the era.

Adam Nagaitis as a fireman who suffers the terrible effects of radiation poisoning

“We had to occasionally negotiate with her because she was so ferocious about accuracy,” Mazin notes. “She and her staff gathered up actual period clothing from all over Eastern Europe. She clothed thousands of people – it was mind-blowing.”

But how do you ensure accuracy when recreating the particularities and scale of a nuclear power plant? It turns out nothing beats the real thing, with the production gaining access to Chernobyl’s ‘twin’ station, the Ignalina nuclear power plant in Lithuania.

“It was difficult,” Mazin says of filming in the station. “For Lithuania to gain entry into the EU, they had to agree to decommission that plant. So they are currently in the process of decommissioning it. They mentioned at some point they had already decommissioned it, yet we couldn’t shoot one day because they were removing stuff out of it.

“It’s not a normal shoot day when you show up at work and hand your passport over, and they keep it. It was pretty intense and very eerie.”

Renck, whose direction has given the series a distinctly cinematic feel, echoes the writer’s view: “The building is massive, it’s eerie, it’s windowless. Every time we went back, I felt the same. Everything is preserved. It’s the sister plant to Chernobyl and everything was built around the same time, so everything in there puts you quite close to what would have been [in Chernobyl].”

“The size of it is astonishing,” adds Mazin, who also visited the real Chernobyl site as part of his research. “These buildings were enormous. The thought that something inside could turn on you just seems beyond the pale.”

Chernobyl launches on HBO and Sky Atlantic next month

One area in which the show does abandon its pursuit of total accuracy, however, is language. The actors speak entirely in English and without accents, wisely avoiding evoking audience memories of any number of dodgy attempts at Russian accents by Hollywood actors down the years.

Of the decision to film in English, Mazin says: “It’s a little tricky when you’re thinking about making a show in a language that isn’t local to you, in part because you then have to ask about performance. If we are to make it in another language, we are narrowing ourselves to people who speak that language, and we don’t. So right off the bat there’s a disconnect. Not only did we feel we wanted to get performances and performers we could connect with, we didn’t want to mess around with accents either.”

Actors were told to “speak in a way that felt natural to you, because in the end the language should disappear.”

This miniseries is not the first time Chernobyl has been examined on screen, with numerous documentaries being made on the subject. There was even 2012’s risible horror film Chernobyl Diaries, in which American tourists visiting the exclusion zone around the plant find themselves pursued by mutants. However, it is the first time the true story has been dramatised on this scale, with a significant budget evident from the off.

“I’m shocked that we were able to do it at all,” Mazin says of bringing the financing together. “Given what we had to face, it was remarkable. We started with HBO, but then it became clear that this was bigger than any one network. So we reached out to Sky and they rescued us, they really did.”

Chernobyl is “so much a European production,” the American writer continues. “We’re based here in London and we did all of our post-production in London; we did all of our prep in Lithuania; and we shot in Lithuania and Latvia and a little bit in Ukraine. It’s a story about Europe that takes place in Europe.

“As the foreigner, I must say that I’m in love with the way television is made in the UK. I’m in love with the actors. I just love the way they are trained and the skills they bring to things.”

With the debate around the environment and climate change reaching fever pitch in London this week with mass protests organised by Extinction Rebellion activists, Chernobyl feels particularly timely, highlighting one of the worst cases of the man-made destruction of our surroundings.

But for Mazin, the most important thing about the show is that it tells the stories of those who sacrificed themselves to save others. “I hope that people will understand how just a handful of human beings, and then hundreds of thousands of human beings, gave up themselves for all of us,” he says. “Telling their stories is one of the great joys of this.”

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Writing The Widow

Writer brothers Harry and Jack Williams discuss the origins of The Widow, the globetrotting ITV drama starring Kate Beckinsale in her first TV role in more than two decades.

As is par for the course for a Hollywood actress, much of the media attention around Kate Beckinsale focuses on her romantic relationships.

But in the Underworld star’s new TV drama – her first small-screen project in more than 20 years – it’s the absence of a partner that drives the action.

The Widow focuses on Beckinsale’s Georgia Wells, who has been living as a recluse in the Welsh countryside for three years since her husband Will’s death in a plane crash in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Everything changes for Georgia when she spots a man with a remarkable resemblance to Will (Matt Le Nevez) in the background of a news report about the troubled African country. Convinced that, somehow, Will is still alive, she returns to DRC capital Kinshasa for the first time since the plane crash, embarking on a quest for truth that takes her down a dangerous and difficult path.

Harry (left) and Jack Williams

So begins the latest series from Harry and Jack Williams, the writing brothers behind acclaimed dramas such as The Missing (BBC1), Liar (ITV) and, most recently, Baptiste, a spin-off from The Missing. The show is produced by the writers’ prodco Two Brothers Pictures and distributed by All3Media International.

Making its UK debut on ITV last week after being released in its entirety on Amazon elsewhere in March, The Widow first began to take shape following conversations Harry had with his then girlfriend (now his fiancée), herself a widow. “She had actually written a blog about it, and being in that emotional place was something we’d been talking about – so naturally I ended up coming up with a TV drama with that at the heart of it,” he says wryly.

“We thought it was intriguing to start with a character who’s lost someone. And then, putting our mystery and thriller hats on, we thought, ‘What happens if you see that person again, and what does that do to you?’ It felt like there were a lot of stories there and a lot of ideas, which we were keen to embrace.”

The writers had hoped from the off that Beckinsale could be secured as their lead – something that must have seemed a tall order given it had been two decades since her last dabble with TV, in 1998 telemovie Alice Through the Looking Glass. Sam Donovan, a director on The Widow alongside Olly Blackburn, says: “She was nervous about doing eight hours. It’s a lot of work – four feature films back-to-back, essentially.

The Widow stars Kate Beckinsale, best known for her work in the Underworld movie franchise

“We had a lot of rehearsals, we worked with all the other actors together, we did big page-turns, we had chats on the phone. It was the whole kind of skirting round each other before she agreed, before we agreed. We checked each other out, essentially, before we all said yes. But she got it – she got the character, she got the loss and the determination that Georgia has, and she was super excited to get stuck into the eight hours.”

Donovan was one of several members of the team behind Liar who reunited for The Widow, alongside the Williams brothers and producer Eliza Mellor. “Sam directed the second block of Liar,” says Jack. “There are some scenes that you write and you go, ‘This could be awful’ – it’s a good scene but it could, in the wrong hands, be shit. There was a scene where Joanne Froggatt’s character drugs Ioan Gruffudd’s character and kidnaps him, and it was one of those that could have been awful. But it was amazing when we watched it, so we were like, ‘He’s good – let’s get him again.’”

Harry adds: “It looked fantastic, everything he did in Liar, and we were on the same page in this one as well.”

Beckinsale was undoubtedly encouraged by the continuing success other movie actors have found by migrating to the small screen, offering them the opportunity to flesh out a character across several hours of drama. The latest include Richard Gere in BBC series MotherFatherSon and Julia Roberts in Amazon’s Homecoming.

“You can tell proper character stories over a longer period of time,” Harry says of TV drama. “You can really dig into character. For us as writers, we love having eight hours to dig into a story and tell loads of stories, so I suppose the same must apply to actors when they’re looking at roles. People don’t see it as a step down to go and do a TV show.”

Much of the action unfolds in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, although these scenes were filmed in South Africa

Jack adds: “Everyone’s getting spoilt by the amount of good TV. Actors want something to get their teeth into, a proper role to get stuck into.”

Georgia is the latest in a long line of strong, believable female characters written by Jack and Harry Williams. “With her character in particular, it was quite interesting. You see her in Wales, very closed off, very shut off emotionally. Over the first hour, it’s interesting to watch someone face the challenges that she goes through,” says Jack.

“It was a very good character to write but a very hard one to play,” says Harry, praising Beckinsale for both her performance and her stunt work throughout the show, with Donovan describing her as a “one-take wonder” when it comes to action scenes.

The brothers decided to marry their widow starting point with a longstanding aim to place a drama in Africa. “We’d been talking about something set in Africa for a while, something about the Congo,” says Jack. “It’s just a very interesting place to set something. It was lots of different ideas coming together at the right time.”

While the series is fictitious, it touches on many real-life issues facing countries like the DRC, including child soldiers and corruption. Jack also admits true events helped feed the story, but adds: “I can’t fully say what. A lot of it was informed by the Congo as a place – historically why it’s important, why it’s interesting and why the country faces challenges. Some of that has been in the news recently and I think that’s reflected here. There are some specific things that I won’t spoil.

“This story couldn’t happen anywhere else; by the time you get to the end, this is not a story that could have happened in any other country. It’s not an issue-led show, but that’s there and it’s part of the tapestry. Hopefully it’s accurate.”

Harry adds: “There was a lot of research. A lot goes into it.”

The supporting cast includes Game of Thrones’ Charles Dance

Unfortunately, it proved too complicated to actually film in the DRC, so much of the action was shot in South Africa instead, with the globetrotting production also spending time in Wales and the Dutch city of Rotterdam. The latter plays host to a subplot involving experimental treatment for the blind, which promises to tie into The Widow’s complex narrative as the plot develops.

“We’ve done a lot of shows that are very intricate and involved, but this one more than anything. It’s one of those that, when you get to the end, it would bear re-watching,” says Jack, revealing that the writing process for the series took around 18 months.

“Quite often, we’re working it out as we go, but with this one we kind of knew the shape and the arc of the whole thing a little bit more,” adds Harry. “It took a long time, but I really enjoyed it.”

Despite their impressive hit list, the brothers say the way they write together is far from a fine science. “There’s no process or anything,” says Jack. “It’s like making sausages – no one wants to see that; you just want to eat them.”

Harry picks up: “It’s struggling through ideas and thoughts for a really long time and talking about what the story might be, what we want to say, and then interrogating it as much as we can. Once we’ve figured out what the story is, we divide it in half and go away and not look at each other. Then we write our own halves and swap them over. You can kind of rewrite over the other person’s as much as you want.”

The approach often leads to confusion in terms of who has written what in the final script, with Jack admitting he has found himself praising his brother for his own work on more than one occasion. “I turned to Harry after watching something the other day and I was like, ‘That’s so good, that was a great scene,’ and he said, ‘Well, you wrote it,’” he explains. “I did feel quite ashamed but also quite proud of myself, like, ‘Good on me!’”

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For better or worse

With season four of Catastrophe set to be its last, creators, writers and stars Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney reveal the secrets of the partnership that drives the hit comedy-drama both in front of and behind the camera.

In this age of partisan politics, Russian bots and fake news, Twitter wouldn’t be the first port of call for many internet users looking for a cordial interaction. Yet it was the social media platform that became the unlikely launching pad for one of the most acclaimed sitcoms of recent years when US comedian Rob Delaney struck up a conversation with Irish writer and actor Sharon Horgan via the site.

Discovering a shared comedy chemistry, the two strangers went on to create, write and star in Channel 4’s hit relationship comedy-drama Catastrophe, which returns to screens for its fourth season on the UK network tonight.

Delaney, who rose to prominence via his jokes on Twitter and was once named by Comedy Central as the platform’s funniest person, recalls the pair’s initial connection fondly: “I wrote to Sharon because she had made [BBC3 comedy] Pulling, and that was the greatest sitcom I’d ever seen, so when I saw that she followed me on Twitter, I was like ‘Wow.’ So we met, we chatted and it was really fun.”

While the idea to collaborate on a series didn’t come immediately, “we just sort of knew that we’d like to work together at some point on something,” says Horgan.

Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney came up with Catastrophe after meeting on Twitter

The rest, as they say, is history, with the duo birthing a show that centres on the inventively named Sharon and Rob, who find themselves facing parenthood after a fleeting hook-up during the latter’s business trip to London.

However, things could have turned out very differently had execs at the BBC – who must now be kicking themselves – not decided to pass on the Bafta-winning series after Horgan and Delaney wrote a pilot for the pubcaster. “We took it to the BBC, who said, ‘This is great – we don’t want to make it,’” Delaney jokes.

Asked why the BBC wasn’t keen, Horgan says: “I don’t know. They’ve been lovely about it. Maybe it wasn’t the right thing for them at the time. I can’t remember.”

“Great networks,” adds Delaney, “can obviously make horrible mistakes.”

C4 made no such error, with Catastrophe airing for three lauded seasons to date and covering topics such as sex, fidelity, divorce, depression, drugs and alcoholism as Sharon and Rob, married since season one, raise their family in middle-class London.

After season three ended with Rob facing a drink-driving arrest having relapsed into alcoholism, the new run sees him struggle to regain the trust of his wife, who finds herself having her own brush with the law. “Season four is about the struggle of staying together when there’s no other option,” Horgan explains. “They’ve both fucked up but they’re both trying to stay together.”

Season four picks up after Rob (Delaney)’s drink-driving incident

Delaney picks up: “At the end of season three, they’ve realised, ‘OK, this is our pile of garbage,’ and they both have to weave it into a tapestry and use it as a blanket. They love each other, and it’s about enduring love – and real love takes work.”

The theme of sticking together is one to which Horgan and Delaney will no doubt relate, with the duo involved in an intense working relationship as the driving force for Catastrophe both on- and off-camera.

Horgan’s behind-the-scenes involvement in the show goes further still, with her prodco Merman (Women on the Verge) coproducing along with Avalon Television and Birdbath Productions. And early last year she struck an overall deal with Amazon, which holds the rights to Catastrophe in the US. ‘Busy’ doesn’t quite cover it. “It’s a lot harder work than I thought it would be, fucking hell!” she says of running her own production company. “It’s really hard work, but it’s fun and rewarding, and it’s exciting getting work picked up.”

Discussing their writing process, the pair reveal that they speak all the characters’ lines out loud, accents included. “We do all the voices, it’s pretty great. You should hear Rob doing my mum – he doesn’t sound anything like Mrs Doubtfire,” Horgan says sarcastically.

As for how much they are like their characters, Delaney explains: “We are Sharon and Rob, but I’m as much Sharon as I am Rob, and we’re also [supporting characters] Chris and Fran, and little Jeffrey.”

“One thing we really try to do is not have anybody sound ‘clever’ or written, so we make sure to say things out loud, then transcribe, then read it out loud 100 times so it doesn’t sound like some smart, clever writer or anything like that,” he adds.

Horgan has a two-year overall deal with Amazon Studios

“That’s the difference,” says Horgan. “When you’re writing on your own, you can’t really do that, unless you’re insane. The thing with Rob is he doesn’t always know when amazing stuff is coming out of his mouth – so I just immediately start writing it down.”

Episodes come together via “really, really detailed outlines,” says Horgan, with Delaney agreeing: “We outline like crazy people, write terrible first drafts and then rewrite, rewrite and rewrite.”

Script notes from collaborators are also crucial. “We love notes,” says Horgan. “If we send in a draft of anything and we don’t get notes back, we’re immediately suspicious.”

“Yeah, like either the person is stupid or lazy,” adds Delaney.

When it comes to plot points, Horgan and Delaney admit to drawing quite heavily on real-life experiences, both their own and those of people they know, although they add that this has decreased as the show has gone on. “There are always parts of us in there,” Horgan explains. “That’s helped us – if you’ve lived it, you can be braver.”

One wonders to what extent this might apply to the show’s infamous sex scenes, which are characterised by their mixture of realism and hilarity. “I think we both wanted the sex to be like, ‘Oh Christ…,’” says Delaney, placing a hand over his face in faux embarrassment.

“We didn’t want the sex to ever look pretty,” adds Horgan. “We wanted it to look real and rank.”

And while she notes that such scenes between Rob and Sharon have become less frequent as the series has gone on, fans of sexual slapstick can rest assured that other characters carry the torch in season four, including a very public liaison involving Fran, played by the always excellent Ashley Jensen (Agatha Raisin, Extras).

Mark Bonnar and Ashley Jensen play Chris and Fran

Jensen returns to the show as part of a strong supporting cast that also includes Mark Bonnar (Unforgotten) and Daniel Lapaine (Black Mirror). But one actor who will unfortunately be missing from the show is Star Wars legend Carrie Fisher, who played Rob’s insufferable meddling mother, Mia. Best known for portraying Princess Leia in George Lucas’s original sci-fi trilogy, Fisher died at the end of 2016.

Like Horgan and Delaney’s meeting, the improbable casting of a Hollywood star came about in unconventional circumstances. “We were at an awards show for a gay magazine – the Attitude Awards,” Delaney recalls. “[Fisher] was presenting an award, and her speech was so funny that Sharon leaned over to me and said, ‘We should get her to play your mother.’ And I was like, ‘Ha ha, you’re drunk.’

“But anyway, we sent her all the scripts and the pilot, and she agreed to do it – probably because she enjoyed spending time in London,” he jokes. “She would improvise – ferociously. It was scary at first, but then we knew to prepare for it and she was just so wonderful.”

Horgan continues: “The first scene she ever did was between me and her on the phone, and we ended up just insulting each other. We just went at each other. This was the first time we’d ever met, and she definitely called me a c**t.”

She adds that Fisher’s passing will be addressed in the final episode of the new season. And with Horgan’s Amazon deal and production commitments, plus Delaney’s increasing presence in Hollywood – he recently appeared in Deadpool 2 and has been cast in the forthcoming movie about disgraced Fox News exec Roger Ailes – Horgan has revealed in an Instagram post that this will be the series’ last outing.

“We’ve been doing it for five years and we’ve made four seasons we love,” says Horgan. “We give it an ending.”

Delaney adds: “We’re very proud and we’ve made exactly what we wanted to make, for better or for worse. We’ve said what we want to say.”

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Shades of grey

As season two of HBO’s Westworld draws to a close, co-creators and showrunners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan discuss making the series, rebooting the Western genre and their fascination with the mind-bending themes at the heart of the drama.

With overlapping timelines, dozens of characters and a premise built on mysterious and complex technology, Westworld might seem a daunting proposition for the more casual TV viewer.

Set in a colossal Wild West-themed amusement park for the super-rich, where guests’ darkest desires are fulfilled by hyper-realistic android ‘hosts,’ the HBO series has demanded its audience’s full attention from the start, trusting viewers to keep track as the rug is constantly pulled from beneath their feet by a succession of twists and reveals.

Among the many surprises of season one, the most significant was perhaps the revelation that two main characters – William and the Man in Black – were in fact the same person, depicted at two different ages.

Season two, the finale of which aired on HBO in the US last night and hits UK screens on Sky Atlantic this evening, has kept the intrigue flowing, exploring the newly sentient hosts’ quest for freedom while simultaneously taking viewers deeper into the origins of the park and its key characters.

It has also revealed the existence of at least two more parks run by the shady Delos corporation, with a British India-based location referred to as The Raj and the previously-hinted-at Shogun World, set during the Edo period of feudal Japan.

Evan Rachel Wood and James Marsden play ‘hosts’ Dolores and Teddy

Lisa Joy, co-creator and co-showrunner of Westworld alongside husband Jonathan Nolan, admits there is “a lot of complexity” to the show’s “puzzle-like structure” but adds that, this time around, the show has “played the timeline stuff cards up.”

“Each season, the questions that we tee up, we do try to have an answer for all of them. We do intend to answer the questions we set up,” says Joy, whose previous TV credits include Pushing Daisies and Burn Notice.

Nolan, who has worked with his brother Christopher on blockbuster movies such as Interstellar and the Christian Bale-led Batman trilogy, adds: “We do this in part because it’s the kind of show we would like to watch, which is why it’s layered and complex.”

He compares Westworld’s weaving narrative to the film noir structure. “You start at the end and then figure out the way to the beginning. And you have the classic noir protagonist in Bernard [Jeffrey Wright], who has forgotten something important.”

It’s an approach that has at times made it necessary to withhold information from the cast – which includes big-name stars Sir Anthony Hopkins, Evan Rachel Wood, Ed Harris, Thandie Newton and James Marsden – to “keep the story as fresh and present for them as possible.”

Ahead of season one, even acting royalty like Hopkins, who plays Westworld co-founder and park director Robert Ford, reportedly had to battle to get access to complete scripts. Wood, meanwhile, was largely kept in the dark over revelations about her character Dolores, a host who exhibits different personalities throughout the show.

Ed Harris as William/the Man in Black

“We didn’t really tell Evan anything, as we wanted her to be sort of stranded in her character’s situation, guessing what the larger story was,” Nolan says.

For season two, however, the tables were turned, with Wood being given a clearer picture of the overall story while Wright – whose character, Bernard, discovers late in season one that he is not human but a host based on the park’s other co-founder – was tasked with reacting to developments along the way.

“This season we sat down with Evan and laid out the story; for Jeffrey, we explained we weren’t going to tell him anything,” Nolan reveals.

Joy adds: “We’re lucky enough to have this tremendous cast and crew who I think are as invested in protecting the story and their character arcs as we are. So it’s actually not that hard to keep things under wraps, as we have such wonderful collaborators.”

The Wild West-themed park in which much of the action plays out sees Westworld straddle the dual genres of Western and science fiction. And while it might seem a curious combination, it’s not without precedent, following in the footsteps of the short-lived but hugely popular series Firefly as well as movies Back to the Future Part III, Cowboys & Aliens and, of course, the 1973 Westworld film on which the show is based, written and directed by Jurassic Park novelist Michael Crichton.

“We were fascinated by the idea of this moribund genre,” Nolan says of the Western element. “The most terrifying part of launching the show was that half of it was this dead genre. Even when Crichton wrote the original film, the Western period was on its way out.

Westworld’s second season has introduced new locations, including Shogun World

“But I think for him and for us it’s a genre that is so consistent; its rules are so simple. There are some phenomenal movies and they all have this underlying structure, which is an investigation of good and evil, free will. It’s a fascinating genre.”

“The idea of good vs evil is really quite binary – the black hat and the white hat – and what we’re trying to do is delve deeper and deeper into character, and eventually you see that everything is shades of grey,” says Joy.

The Western setting also allows for some stunning cinematography. Much of the exterior shots in the show, produced by HBO Entertainment, Kilter Films, JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions and Warner Bros Television, are filmed in Utah, making use of awe-inspiring locations such as Castle Valley to illustrate the enormous scale of the Westworld park.

The expansion this season into Shogun World, meanwhile, saw Nolan and Joy draw inspiration from Akira Kurosawa, the celebrated Japanese filmmaker known for such titles as Seven Samurai. “We had a lot of conversations about what the look and feel of that should be,” Nolan says. “We were riffing on Kurosawa, so we went back and looked at all of his films to see if there was a signature film stock or a signature aspect ratio, anything we could play with. Kurosawa was restless; he moved back and forth between black and white and colour, he moved back and forth between different aspect ratios.”

This led to increased experimentation in filming methods, with parts of Westworld being shot on anamorphic film. “When you use anamorphic lenses, your bokeh and your focus roll off in a very beautiful way and it just has a totally different, very beautiful texture to it,” Nolan explains.

Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard has struggled to come to terms with the discovery he isn’t human

The showrunner adds that the different techniques are used to suggest to the audience that things aren’t quite what they seem. “By the finale, you realise that that’s our gentle way of putting you in a virtual space,” he notes.

What proved most attractive to Nolan and Joy, however, was the opportunity to explore the themes inherent in a show about androids gaining sentience, particularly free will and the implications of artificial intelligence.

After Abrams had come to them with the idea of remaking Westworld – initially as a film before later suggesting a TV series – Nolan says the pair realised it was “everything we’re interested in and everything we’re talking about right now, in terms of artificial realities and artificial intelligence and consciousness, and human nature, which I’ve always been fascinated by – memory and morality and all this stuff that we’re made of. Looking at it from the perspective of a set of creatures made in our image was just kind of irresistible.

“My point on artificial intelligence is I’m not really sure why anyone would be writing about anything other than artificial intelligence right now. [Star Trek creator] Gene Rodenberry would be very disappointed we’re not already there, but it does feel like we are stumbling into it a bit now. I think we’ve just got a few years left until AI shows up and tells us to stop writing about it!

“We were endlessly interested with exploring what it would be like to have an artificial consciousness – how you would perceive and understand time, how you would perceive memory. From the beginning, we said that this would be a show about the emergence of a new form of life on Earth – and that’s not a short story.”

Anthony Hopkins returned for season two despite his character being killed off in the first run’s finale

Westworld, distributed by Warner Bros Television Distribution, also examines free will from the point of view of both the hosts and the humans, with several episode titles referring to philosophical concepts relating to free will, and the question of whether it truly exists for anybody.

Season one finale The Bicameral Mind takes its name from a term coined by psychologist Julian Jaynes, who proffered the idea of two separate minds within every individual – one that gives instructions and another that performs them. Jaynes discussed how consciousness comes from breaking down the wall between the two by exposing the individual to new stimuli.

And tonight’s finale is called The Passenger, alluding to the notion that the conscious mind is just that: a passenger in a vehicle being driven by the subconscious, to which we are all slaves.

Nolan’s position is unequivocal. “As far as we can tell, free will is an illusion,” he says. “If you think about the beginning of The Simpsons, where Maggie has the little fake steering wheel, that’s consciousness. Marge is at the wheel; we don’t get to talk to her. We’re Maggie, looking out the window and imagining we’re making the decisions – and most of the empirical evidence suggests that we aren’t.”

Joy adds: “Humans can be reduced to some rather elementary building blocks. When you start to think about the drives that humans have, sometimes we find that we are maybe simpler than we thought, more manipulable.”

Profound stuff, and viewers can expect more in season three, which received the green light soon after the second run’s premiere. The ending of season two teases the prospect of major changes to come, with the show poised to spend more time outside its amusement parks.

“One of the things we’re excited about is the third season is our world, and we now have the fun-slash-terrifying challenge of building out what the real world looks like,” Nolan says.

Quashing any suggestion that the pair are making it up as they go along, Joy reveals that she has had an ending in mind since day one. “When we were writing the pilot, I pitched a scene to end the entire series on, and so far we have not deviated from liking that scene. As a writer, you never want to tempt a smiting from the TV gods, so I would never venture to guess how many seasons we will live for. But I do think there are tentpole moments we are trying to work towards, and hopefully we will reach our ending in the time we have.”

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Eyre to the throne

Award-winning director Richard Eyre discusses his take on Shakespeare’s King Lear in a new BBC and Amazon film starring Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Andrew Scott and Jim Carter.

There can be few directors alive today more familiar with William Shakespeare’s works than Sir Richard Eyre.

A multi-award-winning director of film, television, theatre and even opera, Eyre has been behind high-profile stage productions of Hamlet and Richard III and also helmed TV versions of Henry IV: Part One and Henry IV: Part Two for the BBC’s The Hollow Crown, a five-film adaptation of multiple Shakespeare plays.

His most celebrated Shakespearean work to date, however, is surely his 1998 stage version of King Lear, starring Ian Holm. The production earned Olivier Awards for both Holm and Eyre, and now the director will be hoping for similar acclaim for his screen version of the tragedy, which airs on BBC2 in the UK next week and launches later on Amazon, which co-financed the film.

Leading the cast this time around is Sir Anthony Hopkins as Lear, who slowly descends into madness after disposing of his kingdom among his daughters.

Anthony Hopkins was mistaken for a homeless man during filming

The talent-laden ensemble also includes Emma Thompson, Emily Watson and Florence Pugh as Lear’s daughters Goneril, Regan and Cordelia respectively; Jim Broadbent as the Earl of Gloucester, whose sons Edgar and Edmund are played by Andrew Scott and John Macmillan; and Downton Abbey’s Jim Carter as the Earl of Kent.

The first thing viewers tuning in at 21.30 on Monday will notice is the one-off film’s decidedly un-Shakespearean setting, opening as it does with an establishing shot of present-day London with 95-storey skyscraper The Shard front and centre. However, the Bard’s unmistakable dialogue from the 1605-penned play remains intact.

Explaining the decision behind the modern setting, Eyre says: “It’s unusual for a Shakespeare play – it’s set in a pre-Christian era… the period is probably druidic. And if you ask, ‘How am I going to make it look?’, you’re thinking, ‘I don’t want it to look like druids in sheets at Stonehenge.’

“I decided I wanted to set it in a contemporary world. In some ways, the buildings are playing off against the language.”

As for why he was keen to return to King Lear 20 years after his theatre version, Eyre’s reasoning is straightforward: “I think it’s the best play ever written, and I’ve felt that for about 35 years.

Emily Watson (left) and Emma Thompson as Regan and Goneril

“This is a story about two fathers, one with three daughters, one with two sons. It’s a play about family, amplified by being about the state, so the stakes are that much higher. None of its truths are going to change for hundreds of years.”

Bringing such a revered and challenging property to the screen was always going to demand a cast with serious acting chops, and producer Colin Callender of Playground Entertainment says he was delighted with the line-up put together for the show. “The ability to bring a play like this to the screen enables us to assemble a cast that you would never ever see on stage together, and it’s a testament to Richard that we were able to put together such an extraordinary ensemble,” he says.

“Part of the joy of seeing something like this on screen is that every role comes to life in the most extraordinary way; a way that doesn’t always happen on stage because you don’t get actors of this calibre playing all these secondary and tertiary roles.”

The choice of Hopkins as Lear, meanwhile, was a no-brainer – but that’s not to say it was simple to secure his services. The process can be traced back to when Eyre directed the actor in the 2015 BBC/Starz film version of Ronald Harwood play The Dresser, which also starred Ian McKellen. The story is set in the backstage area of a production of King Lear, which led to the pair discussing the Shakespeare play.

“I had directed King Lear, Tony had been in King Lear and we talked rather facetiously about how we’d make a film of King Lear one day,” Eyre says. Then, after Callender came to him with the project, it was the director’s wife who pushed him to move ahead, telling him: “You just have to do this with Tony Hopkins.”

Andrew Scott plays Edgar

Multiple emails back and forth between actor and director followed, with Hopkins busy with projects such as HBO drama Westworld. The pair talked “more or less everything King Lear” before, two years later, rehearsals finally began – and Hopkins didn’t disappoint.

“He’s the most extraordinary, eccentric, lovable, bizarre man,” Eyre says of the Silence of the Lambs star. “He generates a nuclear energy on set, benign energy.”

The actor’s performance as an increasingly bewildered and dishevelled Lear was apparently so convincing that he was mistaken for a homeless person during filming on location in the UK town of Stevenage. “A woman in a mobility scooter scooted up to Tony and said, ‘You know, there’s a hostel for the homeless up the road, so you might want to take your shopping trolley down there,’” Eyre recalls.

For Thompson, meanwhile, performing in the film led to a reappraisal of her own interpretation of the play, which she also describes as her favourite. As Goneril, who along with her equally devious sister Regan has long been perceived as one of the major villains of King Lear, the actor plays a character who schemes against her ailing father. But Thompson says: “This is the only production of King Lear I’ve ever seen in which you actually sometimes sympathise more with the children, and I think that’s an amazing insight into the play. I’d never been able to see that, so I’m very grateful.”

Describing working with Hopkins for a third time – the pair previously starred in The Remains of the Day and Howards End – as “joyful,” the Oscar winner adds: “It’s great to play all that rage. It’s really fun, I loved it. Anthony and I got very violent in one scene – it was really enjoyable!”

Downton Abbey star Jim Carter plays the Earl of Kent

Andrew Scott was also thrilled to act alongside Hopkins. The Sherlock star, nominated for an Olivier Award for his stage portrayal of Hamlet last year, plays Edgar, who is betrayed by his malevolent and bitter half-brother Edmund. “What I found so extraordinary about Tony is how ferocious and alive he is about being an actor,” he says. “Every day he’d come in and if you asked him how he slept, he’d say, ‘Fuck sleep, I don’t sleep!’”

As for the film itself, which is produced by Playground and Sonia Friedman Productions in association with Lemaise Pictures, Scott notes: “A lot of it is about the vulnerability of our leaders. This is something that was written 400 years ago, but we rely on human beings to lead us and we have to see that they are human beings.”

Rejecting the suggestion that Shakespeare on TV might lack broad appeal, he says: “Human psychology has not changed, and I hate the idea that this kind of drama is only for a select few, because that means that only a select few are seeing it.”

Co-star Jim Carter, best known for playing butler Mr Carson in Downton Abbey, concurs, believing it’s crucial that Shakespeare’s works continue to be adapted for the small screen. “Having it in people’s living rooms, bringing it to people at home, rather than people having to make the effort to go out and see it, is hugely important,” he says of the drama, which is distributed internationally by Great Point Media.

“For this to come to people where they really feel things much more deeply – in their own home – is fantastic. Thank you BBC.”

But how can young people, in particular, be expected to connect with something written so long ago? Scott might have the answer. “Shakespeare is a little bit like rap,” he asserts. “The majority of the audience who are watching on television will go, ‘I don’t understand that, but I understand the music of it.’ There are still certain things that I don’t understand about it, but I understand the music and I understand the feeling.”

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Royal appointment

With the third season of Netflix’s The Crown about to begin production, creator and writer Peter Morgan explains why he keeps going back to the royal family and discusses the pitfalls of depicting real people.

It’s a bad time to be a republican in the UK.

The royal family, never far from the headlines even in regular circumstances, are seemingly everywhere at present. The Queen’s 92nd birthday last month was followed just two days later by the birth of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s third child, Prince Louis. And in case you haven’t heard, there’s a wedding coming up in a couple of weeks, with Suits star Meghan Markle leaving the world of TV drama behind to join the Windsor clan. Good luck stepping into a newsagent without seeing her face staring back at you from at least half-a-dozen magazines.

This surge of interest in Britain’s most famous family must have Netflix execs rubbing their hands with glee ahead of The Crown, a global hit for the SVoD giant, entering production on its third season this summer. The show, which centres on Queen Elizabeth II, will return with an entirely new cast as the action picks up at a later stage in the characters’ lives.

While the new actors face a daunting task in living up to the rave reviews earned by Claire Foy (Elizabeth), Matt Smith (Prince Philip) and co, The Crown’s creator and writer Peter Morgan is braced for the equally difficult proposition of outdoing his acclaimed work on the first two seasons of the show.

“I’m still slightly embarrassed to be writing about these people and to find myself still doing this,” admits Morgan, for whom The Crown is a third major project with the UK’s reigning monarch at its centre, following 2006 film The Queen and 2013 play The Audience, both of which starred Dame Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II. “I yearn to write a heist film,” he jokes.

Peter Morgan between Matt Smith and Claire Foy, stars of the first two seasons of The Crown

So what is it that keeps Morgan coming back to the royals? “They link us – they connect all of us,” says the Academy Award nominee. “There’s something really interesting and profound about the way all of our lives are interconnected with theirs. They are, at some level, the thing that unites all of us. Our grandparents, our parents, our children – [the Queen] has been there as a constant for everyone, and this family has been there.

“Whatever you may feel about them, about monarchy, we’ve lived with this very special relationship with this extraordinary woman. Whatever you feel about [the existence of a monarchy], it never stops binding us together.”

Making a drama about such high-profile figures inevitably invites scrutiny over historical accuracy. And while Morgan is keen to stress that he has never purported to be a “documentarian,” that’s not to say he doesn’t feel enormous pressure to get things right. “If you start to make an imagination about certain relationships, about certain moments in history, to offer an explanation about why people did something and you shortcut it because you have an hour to explain why something like the Suez conflict happened,” he says. “I feel the responsibility of that and whether I’m misjudging it or I’ve oversimplified it.

“The good news about these characters is we do know where they are most of the time – it’s a matter of public record. You know where they were on which day and what they were doing. My job is to join the dots. We have to make some leaps of imagination about how people were feeling. And maybe sometimes I get it wrong.”

Literally holding up his hands, he adds: “This is just me having a punt. I’m just guessing.”

The writer initially had an idea for one season of the show, with plans to focus on the young queen’s relationship with prime minister Winston Churchill (John Lithgow) in the 1950s. But it soon became clear that there was a much bigger story to tell.

The Netflix show has been described as the most expensive drama ever – something Morgan refutes

“It just gets more and more interesting the closer you look and the longer you give it,” Morgan says of Elizabeth’s reign. “The truth is, if I gave it the same time again, I could still find more stories to tell.”

Netflix clearly agrees, with The Crown already confirmed for a fourth season before the third has even started filming. And so, it seems, do the streamer’s subscribers. While Netflix is famously tight-lipped over viewing figures, Morgan expresses his surprise at what he has learned about the show’s audience.

“One of the things that’s been interesting to watch is how different generations have connected with the show,” he says. “To be honest with you, this is crass, but I thought this would appeal largely to educated, mainly female, over 40s. But all the research suggests it’s completely different. I think that speaks to the unconscious current that [the Queen’s] face, her presence, has in all our lives.”

Indeed, even without viewing statistics, The Crown’s importance to Netflix is evidenced by its prominence in marketing material for the streamer’s offerings around the world. It’s also among the most critically acclaimed drama originals Netflix has served up so far.

Of course, the greatest proof is in the cold hard cash Netflix has fronted up for the series, which has been touted as the most expensive TV show ever made, with £100m (US$135.28m) being a commonly cited figure. However, Morgan bristles at such claims. “None of the rumours of our budget were true, none of them,” he insists, “and it’s been sort of painful not to be able to say it. We have perfectly healthy budgets, but there are many television shows that have larger budgets.”

Olivia Colman, pictured in The Night Manager, will replace Foy as Queen Elizabeth II in season three

Regardless of the actual financial details, The Crown represented a major coup for Netflix back in 2014. The streamer reportedly outmuscled both the BBC and ITV to secure its first UK original, produced by Left Bank Pictures, in a move seen by many as a watershed moment in the power struggle between traditional linear broadcasters and the SVoD contenders.

Netflix will be hoping its faith in the show continues to pay off in season three, and with a host of talented actors forming the show’s new cast, it surely has little to fear. Leading the pack is Olivia Colman (Peep Show, Broadchurch, The Night Manager) who replaces Foy on the throne as Elizabeth II. Tobias Menzies (The Terror) will play Prince Philip, while Helena Bonham Carter and Jason Watkins will also star as the action shifts from the 50s to the 70s, when Harold Wilson was UK prime minister.

It’s hard to think of a better choice than Colman for the lead role. The actor has the ability to be “both plain and dazzling,” says Morgan. “There’s a sort of everywoman [quality to her]. She’s very connectable and yet quite anonymous. We were all excited about her.”

Colman needed no convincing. “We rang her up and she said yes on the phone,” Morgan reveals. “She didn’t want to meet or anything. It was weird because we rang her on the day that she had just watched it, and her husband had said, ‘Claire Foy is just so good!’ But she said yes on the spot – normally it’s a big palaver.”

With work on season three still at a very early stage, detail is scant. But one thing we do know is that Colman will be the highest-paid cast member this time out, after it was controversially revealed that Foy was paid significantly less than Smith for the first two seasons of the show.

Morgan, meanwhile, is just focused on getting through it. “I have yet to enjoy the moment of feeling confident,” he says. “I just feel overwhelmed and nervous as my default condition. I gather there are pills you can take. That’s how I feel about the show. The biggest challenge for me is all the time thinking of misjudging it. I describe the show as a haemophiliac – if you touch it too hard in the wrong place, it will bruise.”

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Blast from the past

Kit Harington stars in and exec produces BBC1’s Gunpowder, which dramatises the plot to kill King James I. Alongside co-star Liv Tyler and the show’s writer and director, he reveals his very personal reason for getting involved.

Most people have at least one black sheep in their family tree, a relative who perhaps earned a less-than-honest living or brought dishonour to the family name with their actions or lifestyle.

However, very few of us can claim to be related to someone who tried to kill the king of England. Step forward Game of Thrones star Kit Harington – a direct descendant of the chief conspirator in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot to assassinate King James I.

For anyone thinking that means Jon Snow himself is related to Guy Fawkes, think again, as while Fawkes was the man caught red-handed guarding the gunpowder under the House of Lords, it was Harington’s “great, great, great, great, great something-or-other” Robert Catesby who actually spearheaded the plot.

As such, it’s Catesby, played by Harington, who is at the forefront of BBC1’s three-part miniseries Gunpowder, which aims to be a faithful dramatisation of the events now marked across the UK every November 5 with fireworks and bonfires.

Gunpowder stars Kit Harington as his ancestor Robert Catesby

The Game of Thrones star also executive produced the show, which launches this Saturday at 21.00 – “the Taboo slot” – and was produced by Kudos. Endemol Shine International is the distributor.

Discussing the appeal of the programme, Harington says he “prefers to avoid the term ‘passion project,’” but admits: “Really the idea spawned from a piece of family curiosity, which is that my mother’s maiden name is Catesby, my middle name is Catesby… I was always told, ‘Did you know you were related to the leader of the Gunpowder Plot?’

“More than that, me and Dan [fellow exec producer Dan West] couldn’t really work out why it hadn’t been dramatised. It’s such a significant piece of typically English folklore and we mark it every year, so it seemed odd.”

Indeed, while the gist of the Gunpowder Plot is one of the best-known slices of history in the UK, the facts and detail behind the story are much less widely understood.

With a PhD in history, writer Ronan Bennett is surely better equipped than most TV scribes to bring a truthful account of the events to the small screen. Yet even he admits that, upon being approached to pen the series, “I had forgotten if I ever knew about Catesby; that Catesby was actually the real mastermind of it.”

Liv Tyler also has a major role in what is her first UK television series

Bennett adds: “If you ask most people what they know about the Gunpowder Plot, they’ll go, ‘Guy Fawkes tried to blow up parliament’ – something like that – and everything else is empty. People don’t really know anything about it.”

Making the show, therefore, became something of a history lesson for all involved, including the impressive cast, which also boasts Hollywood star Liv Tyler, Sherlock’s Mark Gatiss and Downton Abbey’s Tom Cullen, who plays Fawkes.

“I think I knew more than some people about the Gunpowder Plot, but not a lot,” says Harington. “It was only by doing some research into it that I started to understand who [the conspirators] were.

“[Catesby] is a widower, he doesn’t connect with his son, he’s experiencing huge persecution and he’s a very proud man,” he says of his ancestor who, along with his accomplices, attempted to take drastic action against the king’s discrimination against Catholics. “In some ways, he’s on some kind of a death wish and he pulls a lot of people – some innocent people – with him into this plot.

“It was just fascinating learning about this piece of history.”

Guy Fawkes is played by Tom Cullen

Harington also reveals that, as the production went on, his feelings towards the plotter changed significantly, adding that what was once almost a sense of pride over Catesby shifted to feeling “desperately sorry for him.”

“As you will see, he was a deeply sad man who botched the one thing he wanted to do. He fucked it up. Deep down, he was tortured.”

Securing Tyler’s services marked something of a coup for the production, with the high-profile actor only having one other TV series to her name, HBO’s magnificent Damon Lindelof drama The Leftovers.

Now living full time in the UK, having moved to London last year, Tyler’s first UK series sees her play Anne Vaux, who assisted Catholic priests when practising the religion was outlawed.

“I don’t think these guys would have been thinking of me at all for this part, but I read it and I loved it,” she says. “I was really drawn to it. As an American, I know a little about the story but I don’t know everything, and it’s always nice to be learning something.”

The show’s first episode depicts executions in graphic detail

As for her convincing English accent, Tyler, who previously had to lose the American twang to play Arwen in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, says it “kind of just came back – it’s like skiing.”

Gunpowder also marked a first for J Blakeson, who became the latest in the ever-growing line of film directors to try their hand at TV when he signed up for the show.

Having helmed features such as The Disappearance of Alice Creed and The 5th Wave, Blakeson says the involvement of big names like Harington, combined with the subject matter, meant it was an “easy decision” to board the project.

“You get a lot of scripts and read them, but very rarely are they ones you want to do. But this one… to read a script where you’re 25 pages in and you’re still in the first scene, it’s a rare thing.

“It was incredibly well written and it had that dream thing for a project, which is that people think they know [the story] and there’s recognition of it, so people are interested in it, but actually you have a story to tell that’s interesting and enlightening and people don’t know it. So there’s a real opportunity there.

Derek Riddell as King James I, the principal target of the Gunpowder Plot

“But primarily it was just a really good script and I really liked it.”

A strong sense of authenticity runs through the production, not least in the language, with Bennett explaining that many lines in the script were lifted directly from historical accounts.

That realism also extends to the depiction of the harsh era in which the story unfolds. One scene begins with King James defecating into a bucket just inches from his bed, with the royal stool then being carried away by an unfortunate servant.

But what really stands out in the first episode is the explicit portrayal of capital punishment. Indeed, a grisly and prolonged execution scene is as graphic as anything you’re ever likely to see on the Beeb.

Warts-and-all representation of the era was key to Blakeson, who says: “We have this very nostalgic view of the past, of it being this lovely place, but one of the great things about Ronan’s script is it’s not described as that at all. There’s no indoor plumbing, there’s no sewer system. People would die in the street – death was everywhere. It’s a horrible place.

“So showing the history as being like that – being textured, being lived-in – was quite important. It was like a living, breathing version of history.”

Gunpowder’s story is obviously not one that lends itself to a sequel, but having clearly enjoyed his first taste of exec producing, could more work behind the camera follow for Harington after Game of Thrones concludes?

“Yes,” is the resounding answer from the actor, who has launched prodco Thriker Films along with West and describes Gunpowder as being “like a tester” for projects to come.

“We very much want to continue looking for things, sourcing things, producing things. We’re looking for that next thing now,” he explains. “This was a test to see if, on a personal level, this was something I enjoyed doing, and I did enjoy it very much. I felt so proud of it all the way along, in a way that I find much harder to do as just an actor.”

Still, with Harington’s Catesby bearing Jon Snow’s trademark curly locks and beard, no one could blame the actor for seeking something totally different next time out. “Why I keep desiring to film in cold, muddy places on horses, I have no idea,” he jokes. “It must be something built into me from a past life.”

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Foster care

Dinner parties will never be the same after BBC drama Doctor Foster became the surprise hit of 2015. DQ hears from stars Suranne Jones and Bertie Carvel and writer Mike Bartlett about what’s in store for season two.

When the BBC first announced Doctor Foster way back in 2014, you could have been forgiven for thinking it was the pubcaster’s answer to ITV’s light-hearted hit Doc Martin.

After all, both shows are about local GPs serving close-knit communities in fictional English locales – the town of Parminster in Doctor Foster’s case and Portwenn village in the Martin Clunes-fronted series.

Mike Bartlett

However, any similarities end there, with medicine playing only the smallest of parts in BBC1’s dark, sexually charged and thrilling drama about a woman scorned.

Starring Suranne Jones in the titular role, Doctor Foster was a surprise smash hit for the channel in 2015, thanks to a combination of terrific writing from playwright-turned-TV scribe Mike Bartlett and a stellar performance from Jones.

It became the BBC’s highest-rated drama of the year, attracting an average of nine-and-a-half million viewers and securing top gongs at the National Television Awards (NTAs).

Doctor Foster’s first season saw GP Gemma’s seemingly perfect life begin to unravel after she discovered her husband, Simon (played by Bertie Carvel), was having an affair with a much younger woman and had also secretly jeopardised the family’s finances.

Unfolding across five episodes, the show followed Gemma’s journey from despair to rage and revenge as she uncovered the full extent of Simon’s betrayal, culminating in an excruciatingly uncomfortable dinner party scene in the finale as everything is laid bare.

Yet despite the show’s success, news of a second five-part season took many by surprise, with the story seemingly having reached a natural conclusion at the end of the first run.

“I didn’t know when we started season one that it would go further,” admits Bartlett. “But when we were shooting it, I started to realise that there could be more, that there could be another story.

Season two sees the return of Simon (Bertie Carvel), now married to former mistress Kate (Jodie Comer)

“The more I looked at the last scene, the more I thought that while it looks like a happy ending, there are lots of threads untied. And then when it went out, people said, ‘Did Gemma really get justice?’ That showed that the audience was feeling what I do – that it doesn’t end there and there’s more to tell.”

Details of exactly how that story advances are scarce, but what we do know is that it picks up two years on from the events of season one. Simon, who had moved away, drops a double bombshell by simultaneously announcing his return to Parminster and his impending marriage to Kate (Jodie Comer), the young woman at the centre of his breakup with Gemma.

As if that weren’t bad enough for Gemma, who has been trying to get on with her life, her now ex-husband appears no worse off despite all his bad behaviour – in fact, he’s better than ever. And then there’s the impact of their acrimonious split on their son, Tom (Tom Taylor), who finds himself caught up in his parents’ animosity as he enters his teenage years.

Jones, who won Best Drama Performance at last year’s NTAs for her portrayal of Gemma, says she couldn’t wait to put on Doctor Foster’s stethoscope once again when she found out about the second season. She describes her character as being “embalmed,” highlighting the decision to have Gemma wear some of the same items of clothing as in season one to illustrate her failure to move on from the turmoil of two years ago.

The new season picks up Gemma (Suranne Jones)’s story two years on

“She’s put up her walls,” the actor continues. “She would have been comfortable, but [Simon] has come back and he’s put a mirror up.

“As well as it being exciting, thrilling, sexy and dark and all those things, I looked at them both and thought, ‘You’re both really hurt,’ and I hadn’t seen that before. Now it makes even more sense where we go [in this season], because you’re looking at vulnerable, damaged people.”

Revealing that the show takes a darker turn this year, Jones believes her character has different motivations in the new episodes. “Gemma doesn’t behave well,” she says with a smirk. “Before, she did that through hurt; now she has channeled her anger. It becomes dark and twisted.”

The actor is full of praise for Bartlett, whose other TV work includes 2012 series The Town for ITV and the upcoming Trauma for the same network. “We’re all very lucky to be working on a Mike Bartlett project – he’s a brilliant writer. When you read one of his scripts, you can’t wait to jump in. Without being rude, there are a lot of scripts that don’t do that to you.

“It feels different and exciting, and at times bizarre, unusual and bonkers – yet you understand it in your gut and you know how you’re going to express that.”

The first season of Doctor Foster was the BBC’s biggest drama hit of 2015

The softly spoken Bertie Carvel, meanwhile, comes across as worlds apart from scheming love rat Simon, a character that saw him become arguably the most hated man on British TV for a few weeks in autumn 2015.

“I hope no one recognises me,” he jokes ahead of tonight’s season two premiere. “Or that maybe they’ll have a more nuanced understanding of the character I play!”

Echoing Jones’s praise for Bartlett, Carvel says: “He gives us incredibly three-dimensional characters. What’s really fun as an actor is even though you’re playing a character who is apparently very Machiavellian, whose objective might be dark and quite cruel, there’s enough space and recognisable humanity.”

The actor refers to the show as the “moral equivalent of a hand-held camera,” explaining: “It’s not comfortably tracking along; there’s a sort of wobble to it. We catch things in the frame, in the characters, that aren’t necessarily what the steady shot is tracking towards. Often you find that, half-an-hour later, you’re looking at something from a really different point of view. That’s what’s so exciting about the series as a whole.”

Bartlett is coy over whether the series, produced by Drama Republic and distributed by BBC Worldwide, could continue into a third season. “It depends what happens in this series really – you’ll have to wait and see,” he teases.

But no matter how it ends this time around, don’t be surprised if the writer manages to come up with a fresh set of twists and turns to ensure further appointments with Doctor Foster.

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Star turn

Twists and turns abound in Tin Star, Sky Atlantic’s Rocky Mountains-set drama that sees Tim Roth play a small-town police chief attempting to escape his demons. DQ hears from the star and writer/director Rowan Joffé about pushing the limits in this 10-part series.

Tim Roth isn’t exactly known for playing the quiet type.

Perhaps most famous for appearing in several Quentin Tarantino movies – including Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and The Hateful Eight – the actor has a knack for portraying menacing characters with a simmering intensity, with other memorable villainous turns in 2001’s Planet of the Apes and 2008’s The Incredible Hulk.

So when the early stages of Tin Star, his new series for Sky Atlantic, see Roth as a level-headed family man and police chief in the peaceful surroundings of rural Canada, it’s safe for viewers to assume that things are going to go south – and fast.

Rowan Joffé

The 10-part drama, which launches in the UK on September 7, stars Roth as former London copper Jim Worth, who has upped sticks along with his family to escape a troubled past by beginning a new life in the Rocky Mountains.

All seems to be going swimmingly at first, with the new police chief – a former alcoholic – spending more time catching fish than criminals in the sleepy fictional town of Little Big Bear. But things soon take a dark twist as the arrival of a shady oil company coincides with a past that refuses to fade away, and an attack on his family turns Jim into a one-man wrecking ball on a quest for revenge.

Coproduced by Endemol Shine-owned firm Kudos Film and Television alongside Amazon Prime Video in the US, Tin Star is distributed by Sky Vision.

The show marks Roth’s first lead TV role since his only other major venture into the medium, Lie to Me, came to an end in 2011 after three seasons on US network Fox.

However, the actor reveals the decision to return to the small screen was not premeditated. “I wasn’t looking for a TV show,” he explains. “I put my feet up in the kitchen and I read a couple of [Tin Star] scripts, and I thought they were bonkers.

Tin Star’s cast is led by Tim Roth as troubled police chief Jim Worth

“That immediately gets my attention, and then the next question is, ‘Where the fuck does this go?’ And then I found out, and it’s interesting. So I thought, ‘I fancy this.’ Then you call [the producers] and tell them that, and they pay you shit-loads of money!” he jokes.

Roth says he was captivated by the “very, very anarchic story,” adding: “The minute I thought I knew what was going on, it was something different – we always got it wrong.”

Filmed on location in and around Calgary, Alberta, Tin Star makes full use of the region’s natural beauty, with sweeping shots of mountain ranges and rivers providing stark contrast to the ugliness that unfolds between the characters on screen.

Yet while one might think filming in such a place sounds like an actor’s dream, Roth offers a different view. “Having worked in Calgary, I have to say I wasn’t keen to go back,” he admits. “It’s nothing against Canada, but you’re talking about ‘Trumpland’ in Canada. It’s all flourishing – the oil and the corporations, the invasions of the local culture. It’s just there.”

The show centres on Jim and his family’s attempt to start a new life in the Rocky Mountains

It’s a view echoed by Rowan Joffé, who wrote and directed every episode of the series. “Canada looks like this wonderful, impeccable, clean place – and it is, until you look at what they’re doing with the tar sands out there,” he says, referencing the controversial oil extraction that has been gathering pace in the country. “It’s pretty horrific in many ways.”

Best known for writing 2007 horror sequel 28 Weeks Later and for penning and directing 2014 feature Before I Go to Sleep, Joffé became the latest in an growing band of contemporary movie directors to try their hand at TV drama when he signed up for Tin Star, his first major TV project.

The chance to take charge of what he describes as a “10-hour movie” proved irresistible to Joffé, who says: “Sky were always true to their word, which was, ‘You can author the show.’ And so we just ran with it.

“We thought there was absolutely no point in doing this unless we felt like we were taking risks. The opportunity to write what I wanted to write and to be able to collaborate with actors who I really admire, and for no one to tell me no at any point… It’s just been amazing.”

The show also features Mad Men star Christina Hendricks

Joffé’s affinity for his cast – which also includes Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks as oil rep Elizabeth Bradshaw and Genevieve O’Reilly as Jim’s wife Angela – is clear, with the director revealing that they played an important role in shaping the plot.

“The story began to change and morph around the actors,” he says. “Without doubt, many of the best moments on screen – particularly in Tim’s case – were ad-libbed. Tim brought a level of wit and comedy to it that was way beyond my ability as a screenwriter.”

Joffé was “free with us and let us be free at the same time,” adds Roth, who particularly relished the chance to really get under the skin of a character across 10 hours.

He describes the experience as “much more satisfying” than working on network television’s standalone episodes – such as in Lie to Me – which he calls a “much harder job.”

“Theatre is where actors really exist, as opposed to film, which is the director’s world. But [television now] is very similar to the stage experience, especially now that there are so many good writers and so much rich talent involved.

Genevieve O’Reilly as Jim’s wife Angela

“For us as actors, it’s incredible. We get to play more with television now – to invent, change, metamorphose, have fun and be challenged.”

Playing Jim was made more difficult by the increasing presence throughout the series of his dangerous alter ego, Jack, who Jim has learnt to keep at bay – as long as he remains sober.

Indeed, as the show progresses, Jack increasingly comes to the fore, simultaneously ratcheting up the violence and taking the show to “dark, shocking places,” according to Joffé.

“We went far; I wouldn’t have wanted to do it if we didn’t. It was just anarchy on the page,” says Roth, who credits Joffé for creating a character that tests audience sympathies.

“We take you to a very dark place, but the audience is supposed to be my ‘mate’ – they’re part of the fun too. On the one hand you enjoy the journey with this guy, and on the other you hate him.”

As for the suggestion of a second season, it seems Roth would jump at the chance. “In a hypothetical world, if we got to do another 10-hour movie, I’d be happy with that. I’d like to chip back at and fuck with this character again.”

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Arresting behaviour

As Channel 4’s genre-defying cop show No Offence returns for its second season, DQ hears from the cast and creator about the strength of its female characters and striking the show’s unique tone.

It’s hard to imagine there are many laughs to be found in a show centring on the hunt for a deranged killer who targets young girls with Down’s syndrome.

Yet somehow the team behind No Offence managed to pepper the first season of the Channel 4 series with comedy moments. That they did so without detracting from or trivialising the hard-hitting subject matter, or creating an awkwardly mishmash tone, was all the more impressive.

The police procedural comedy drama, whose debut outing was a major ratings hit for C4 in 2015, returns to UK screens tonight, with DI Deering (Joanna Scanlan) and her team of detectives back to tackle criminals on the streets of Manchester.

This time around, a pair of warring crime families take centre stage, with the first episode beginning with a bang – quite literally, thanks to a huge explosion in the opening minutes.

DS Joy Freers (Alexandra Roach) and DC Dinah Kowalska (Elaine Cassidy) return in season two

Creator and writer Paul Abbott, perhaps best known as the man behind the original UK version of Shameless, which also ran on C4 and has since spawned a hit US version, admits getting No Offence’s unique tone right is a continuous challenge.

“It’s a very tight bandwidth to try to pin down, but when we did, we fired. It was great,” says Abbott, who assembled a writers’ room for the show. “You’ve no idea until you hit it – and it’s very hard to describe what that moment is.”

With No Offence’s first run tackling topics including honour killings, racism and drugs, one could forgive executives at C4 for feeling a bit shaky about some of its storylines – especially when comedy is being added to such a hefty mix. But Abbott praises the channel’s flexibility.

“We’ve had to calibrate certain storylines where Channel 4 didn’t like the way we’d approached the story, and that wasn’t rude to say – it was a very sensitive story,” he explains.

This season, controversial subjects include female genital mutilation, and Abbott says no topic was off-limits. “You have to negotiate your way through. We went round it all and we basically found a very grown-up, intelligent way through it. We didn’t have to back down on anything.”

Will Mellor, who plays DC Spike Tanner, picks up: “That’s the show, though. We don’t pull punches. There are certain shops that put this box set in the comedy section!

L to R: Rakie Ayola as Nora Attah, Trevor Laird as Upjohn Henderson and Joanna Scanlan as Viv Deering

“I was thinking, could you imagine going to the wife and saying, ‘Let’s watch something really funny tonight – season one of No Offence.’ Then one minute you’re [seeing someone] dragging a Down’s syndrome girl out of a river and the next there’s someone getting sucked off in a bush.

“Where can you put this show? There’s no genre for it. I don’t think it’s a comedy, but what is it? That’s why I think it’s genius.”

Scanlan admits to having trouble finding the right balance in her performance. “Tone is the hardest thing to nail on the show. When we were shooting, I didn’t really know what the character was until I saw what was done in the edit. I was never certain who she was, because that tone is so very particular, and it was nerve wracking,” says the actor, adding she felt much more comfortable the second time around.

“It’s got a flavour unlike anything else,” she continues. “You’re taking the story seriously and the characters’ set of coordinates really seriously, but there is also some levity in it and some lightness. It’s an odd confection.”

Scanlan’s no-nonsense, authoritative Deering is just one of several terrifically written leading female characters in No Offence – another thing that makes the show stand out.

The most notable addition to this season’s cast is Rakie Ayola as the fearsome Nora Attah, matriarch of the Attah crime family, while Elaine Cassidy (DC Dinah Kowalski) and Alexandra Roach (DS Joy Freers) both reprise their leading roles from season one.

Will Mellor as DC Spike Tanner

Asked how he manages to write such compelling female parts, Abbott’s response is typically wry. “People ask me why I write women so well, but they don’t ask other writers why they’re such lazy fuckers,” he says.

“As women get older in this industry, I realised really early on as a writer that, if you write really good parts for women, you get the best available, because they all think there’s nothing left for them.

“All the females in the show, whatever axis they come from, they’re all defined as people you’d take out for a pint. The whole point is to attract the male viewers as well, and not by changing the politics of the show, just by making unmissable females.”

Scanlan believes Abbott is “just reflecting reality” in terms of the female presence in police forces. And, reinforcing the writer’s comment about parts for older women, she says: “I feel lucky in that I’m part of the generation who, in the eighties, might have thought we’d run out of road by now.

Sarah Solemani as Detective Superintendent Christine Lickberg

“I’m not sure we’re making a programme about gender politics, we’re making a programme about a family. Deering plays this matriarchal role but she also plays a sort of patriarchal role. She’s mum and dad in one.”

It’s not just in front of the camera where women have a strong presence in No Offence, with no fewer than three females among those who took to the directors’ chair in season two.

In addition to Catherine Morshead (Doctor Who), who directed several episodes of the first season, Deutschland 83 director Samira Radsi and Sara O’Gorman (New Tricks) have helmed new episodes.

Meanwhile, although the cast believe No Offence is a realistic depiction of police work, what do real-life police officers – like Abbott’s son, Tom – think?

“They love it, and I love phoning Tom because he’s a writer as well. When I phone him, I don’t get the kind of research question back – he knows exactly how I’m trying to squeeze in something that really shouldn’t fit. He gives me an intelligent perspective on how we can make it fit for us. It’s very useful.”

Furthermore, Mellor’s brother-in-law acts as police advisor to the show. “He told me about the script before I was even in it!” the actor says. “He was like, ‘Ooh, it’s good, this. There’s some good stuff in here.’ I know he loved it as well. He’s in CID [Criminal Investigation Department] and he advises on all the scripts.”

But despite the help on offer from the real thing, Abbott reveals No Offence – produced by the writer’s own AbbottVision and distributed by FremantleMedia International – is one of the hardest shows he’s ever had to write.

“Every single episode had umpteen drafts beyond what I thought we would need,” he says. “You have to accurately and, with all dignity, write a procedural cop show at the same time as you’re trying to be subversive and witty and to occupy that yawning space that isn’t always there.

“You wring yourself mad in the mornings trying to climb back into a scene. But when you do, and it’s speaking for itself in its own overcoat, we can all fly.”

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The new Black

Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror has found a new home on Netflix. Can viewers expect more of the same from the dark anthology, or does the new platform mean it’s all change?

The fact that the first face you see in the opening episode belongs to Hollywood’s own Bryce Dallas Howard (pictured above) perhaps tells you all you need to know about the return of Black Mirror.

Charlie Brooker
Charlie Brooker

Having aired for two three-episode seasons and a Christmas special on the UK’s Channel 4, Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series is now exclusive to Netflix, with a bumper run of six episodes landing on the US-based streamer today.

The move to Netflix means a bigger budget for Brooker and co to play with, and this is visible from the off.

As well as Jurassic World star Howard, debut episode Nosedive, seen by DQ, also features fellow Hollywood actor Alice Eve (Star Trek: Into Darkness) and UK heartthrob-of-the-moment James Norton (Happy Valley, War & Peace), while familiar faces in other episodes include Game of Thrones duo Jerome Flynn and Faye Marsay.

But for the team behind Black Mirror, the biggest difference has been the increased freedom offered by the show’s new home.

“Anthology shows like this have been waiting for a platform like Netflix to come along,” says creator and exec producer Brooker. “We don’t have cliffhangers; we don’t have recurring cast members or characters. Shows that reinvent themselves every week have struggled in the ratings.

“On Netflix we can put the whole thing up and it’s kind of like a short story collection. We have effectively got a bigger canvas and we’re not constrained by ad breaks or running times. One of our episodes, Hated in the Nation, is kind of a Black Mirror Scandi noir. It’s 90 minutes – it’s like a movie! We could do two-hour episodes or two-minute episodes.”

Fellow exec producer Annabel Jones echoes Brooker’s sentiment. “Netflix loved the show and stepped in to commission six films. That allowed us to play out on a bigger campus, take more risks and explore more worlds without destabilising the Black Mirror sensibility. It’s great, and we’ve got another season coming up too,” she says, referring to the six further episodes due on Netflix next year.

Hated in the Nation – 'kind of a Black Mirror Scandi noir'
Hated in the Nation – ‘kind of a Black Mirror Scandi noir’

In addition to the acting talent, there’s also a more Hollywood feel behind the camera following the Netflix move. One episode, Brooker reveals, was scored by celebrated feature film composer Clint Mansell (Requiem for a Dream, Moon), while episodes two and three were directed by Dan Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane) and James Watkins (The Woman in Black) respectively.

Helming Nosedive was Joe Wright (Pan), who was already a fan of Black Mirror’s aesthetic before coming on board. “Be Right Back [season two] was one of the most exquisitely shot episodes, and so was Entire History of You [season one],” he says. “They’ve all been very cinematic; they’ve all been beautiful.”

Brooker admits to giving little visual direction in his scripts, and is full of praise for the ability of directors such as Wright to bring his words to life. “Often what happens is we’ve got a script, but what’s not in the script is the whole visual layer. That wasn’t really described at all in the Nosedive script,” he says.

“Joe gave it a level of artistry that is frankly embarrassing. When I first saw the rushes, I thought, ‘This is either going to work or this is mental.’ As soon as I saw it all come together, I was flabbergasted. It was the best possible outcome.”

Annabel Jones
Annabel Jones

Black Mirror’s move to its new home didn’t come without ruffling a few feathers, however. In August, Channel 4 chief creative officer Jay Hunt criticised producer Endemol Shine Group and the show’s creators for a perceived lack of loyalty to her network.

But Brooker fails to see what all the fuss is about. “It’s quite interesting, let’s put it that way,” he says of the suggestion of bad blood after the deal. “Somebody didn’t come out and wave a cheque and we ran away from Channel 4 towards it. It’s been interesting watching that play out. We still talk to Channel 4 – we’re still friends!”

Leaving the Netflix move and its implications aside, does the new Black Mirror stay true to the show that built a cult following with its nightmarish visions centred on Western society’s ever-increasing reliance upon and obsession with technology?

While the short answer seems to be yes, with Black Mirror continuing to focus on the same themes, Brooker highlights a deliberate move towards “more variety of tone” in the new season.

“Because we’re doing six stories this time round, we wanted to not always fling you into a pit of despair. Sometimes we kick a few hope biscuits at you on your way down,” he says. “Having said that, there are stories in which we do fling you into a pit of despair and then piss on you – because people seem to like that.”

Indeed, while maintaining Black Mirror’s trademark frighteningly believable vision of a world gone a little bit madder, Nosedive stands apart from older episodes thanks to its heavy dose of comedy.

Brooker adds: “This season we were almost imagining we were creating different-genre mini-movies. Nosedive is a kind of poignant satire. We’ve also got a detective movie, an outright horror movie, one is a romance… they’re so different.”

While anthology shows that reset with new stories and characters each season have become increasingly popular in recent years (True Detective, American Horror Story), anthologies like Black Mirror, which does this every episode, are much less common.

One of the most famous examples of such a series is The Twilight Zone, which first aired in 1959 and is cited by Brooker as a major inspiration for Black Mirror.

Halt and Catch Fire's Mackenzie Davis stars in the episode San Junipero
Halt and Catch Fire’s Mackenzie Davis (right) stars in the episode San Junipero

“I’d always loved shows like The Twilight Zone, Tales of the Unexpected and all the weird and wonderful one-off plays that the BBC used to put on,” he explains.
“It felt like those kind of ‘what the fuck?’ stories didn’t have a place on television anymore.

“Primarily, the intention was to create a show that gave you that frisson you get when you watch something like The Wicker Man, a particularly nasty episode of The Twilight Zone, or [BBC’s 1984 nuclear winter drama] Threads – anything that provokes a strong reaction in people.”

Brooker’s earlier TV writing credits were for comedies such as Brass Eye, The 11 O’Clock Show and Nathan Barley, which he co-created. And perhaps surprisingly, he believes writing dystopian drama requires a similar skillset. “It’s kind of therapeutic – it uses the same kind of muscle as in comedy writing,” he explains. “A lot of our stories are about the worst-case scenario unfolding, which is the same as in something like Fawlty Towers. We know we’ve got a good idea if I’m laughing and Annabel’s going, ‘That’s horrible.’”

So, as someone who is now best known for cautionary tales about the rise of technology, does Brooker truly fear for our future?

“I’m quite optimistic about technology, actually, which you wouldn’t get from the show,” he says. “I like video games. I’m an early adopter of stupid electric toothbrushes and that sort of nonsense.”

If not all-powerful tech, perhaps something else will herald the end of days? Brooker concludes: “If you’d told me at the start of the year that, by October, half our cultural icons would be dead, we’d have voted to leave the EU, Donald Trump would be hovering near the White House – oh, and The Great British Bake Off won’t even be on BBC1 anymore, I’d be digging a fucking bunker!”

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