All posts by Michael Pickard

Norway’s darkest day

Sara Johnsen, the co-creator and writer of Norwegian drama 22 Juli (July 22), tells DQ about her approach to dramatising the devastating terror attacks that struck Oslo and the island of Utøya on that date in 2011.

For Norwegians, July 22 is a date that will live forever in infamy. On that day in 2011, the country witnessed its deadliest ever terrorist attack as eight people died in a bombing in the capital, Oslo, and a further 69 young people were killed in a shooting on nearby island Utøya.

Anders Breivik, a Norwegian extremist critical of Muslim immigration and European liberalism, was later jailed for 21 years for committing acts of terror and voluntary homicide.

Screenwriter and director Sara Johnsen was also in Oslo that day, working on her third feature film, Uskyld (All That Matters is Past), when she heard a big bang. “I thought it was thunder so I went outside and looked at the sky,” she recalls.

“Then the news started to come. We saw it was an explosion and then we found out there was a shooter. We then understood it was a terrorist attack and became really frightened. There were a lot of worries and emotions, and concern for all the victims and the innocence of our country. Nothing like this ever happens in Norway.”

Sara Johnsen co-created July 22 with her husband Pål Sletaune, who directs

Two years later, Johnsen and her director husband Pål Sletaune started work on a series about the shocking events that rocked the country. But rather than simply dramatise the attack as it unfolded in Oslo and then on Utøya, they were inspired by the approach used for Treme, HBO’s New Orleans drama set in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“I felt it was impossible to create a fictional person who wasn’t really there to represent someone who was really there,” Johnsen says. “How could you choose which person to represent? It still felt very close in time to the terror attack. But we were watching Treme and both thought this was a really interesting way to work with catastrophe and the consequences, by looking at the people indirectly involved.

“From then, we started to work with this angle and, doing all the research, we got more and more of an idea of how to create the series.”

They took their idea to pubcaster NRK in 2014 and found the broadcaster immediately receptive. Kjetil Østli and Ola Henmo worked with the showrunners as researchers over the following two years, with Kjersti Wøien Håland then joining a writers room that was set up to shape the storyline and the scripts. Gjyljeta Berisha co-directs alongside Sletaune, with the NRK-produced drama distributed internationally by DRG.

The six-part series is set before and after the attack, culminating in Breivik’s trial a year on from the atrocities, with viewers following the story through five fictional characters: Anine, a journalist for Aftenpost; Anne Catherine, an anaesthesiologist at Ullevål hospital; police officer Eivind; teacher Helga; and right-wing blogger Mads.

Sixty-nine people were killed on the island of Utøya, while eight died in the Oslo bombing

Anine’s investigation into the terrorist’s childhood was inspired by Aage Borchgrevink’s book A Norwegian Tragedy, while Anne Catherine, Eivind and Helga were constructed from interviews with medical staff, police officers and teachers, respectively. Mads was created to represent right-wing voices on blogs, discussion forums and other websites.

The terrorist responsible for the attacks, however, is rarely shown, played by extras on the three occasions he is seen on screen – and even then he is only shown from behind, adhering to the creators’ desire that the show be a story about how terror affects society and its people, rather than the orchestrator.

Johnsen says she and Sletaune felt a lot of pressure and faced many ethical challenges when creating fictional characters from the real accounts of those who were involved in the aftermath of the attacks.

“We are using a lot of real experiences and creating fictional characters. It’s a delicate matter because sometimes you feel some people might think, ‘that’s me.’ But we talked to many people and told them they could be anonymous,” she explains.

“That was challenging, to turn real life into drama. In reality, things tend to happen really suddenly and then nothing happens for a long time. It doesn’t have a natural dramaturgy, so you have to work out how to dramatise these real events. That was perhaps the main challenge, organising time.”

The drama unfolds in multiple settings, including a hospital

What shocked them most during their extensive research was how people found the systems they worked in actually hindered their ability to do their jobs. “All the time, they were thinking about budgets, money and reporting to their boss,” Johnsen says. “For me and Pål, this wasn’t something we thought about beforehand, so it was something new to us.

“When we started to work with the hospital, we heard how it was going to merge with another hospital and the doctors felt suppressed because they couldn’t say what they thought and couldn’t speak freely because of the hierarchy in the hospital. As an artist, I’m not used to that. If I want to fight with my boss at NRK, I just do it. I’m not afraid he will fire me. So I was very naive, not knowing how these systems work and how people feel it.

“Also, in the police, the boss doesn’t even know how it feels to be a police officer. It was all very interesting and enlightening for us. That was not so present from the start; it was something we learned when we did the research.”

Initially, each episode of the series was to be set in a different precinct – the police, hospital, the newspaper office and so on – returning to July 22 each time to see how events unfolded in those arenas. “But after we had written some of those, we thought it was too boring, so we started to create a more traditional drama with characters,” Johnsen admits.

“The really difficult thing was writing characters without giving them personal problems. When we got some feedback from a reader, they said there were too many characters and the audience wouldn’t be able to follow the story because they wouldn’t be able to get interested in the characters. That really stressed me out. We spent a lot of time thinking about it. Then we had this challenge to tell everything factual that happened on July 22, and it’s difficult to combine it with the drama. That was a puzzle.”

The impact on the police is also examined

Episode one opens before July 22, when a van delivers six tonnes of fertiliser to a property belonging to Anders Breivik. A fertiliser bomb was responsible for the explosion in Oslo. The first instalment also introduces many of the central characters and highlights some of the problems they face in their jobs. Episode two then covers the bombing in the Norwegian capital’s government quarter, with journalists watching smoke billowing around their office and teacher Helga searching for her missing son as stunned survivors mix with emergency service workers racing into action.

Subsequent parts then cover the Utøya shooting, the immediate aftermath of the attacks and the trial.

When it came to recreating the bombing – an explosion so big it rocks the characters mentally and physically – Johnsen says they had to manoeuvre the characters so they would be in town to see what happens. “The head of drama told us we could afford one big special effect, so we first planned for Helga to see it [the explosion], but then we wrote Anine’s story so she also would be in the centre and she would see the government building after the bombing.

“Pål and I wanted to recreate the feeling of chaos in the town but, at the same time, some other characters just see the smoke from a distance.

“With Utøya, we knew we did not want to be there during the shooting as our characters could not be there, so the challenge was how to tell the story from a distance and still feel the tragedy and terror. We found out Anine could be sent there by her boss as the news about Utøya came. The trauma team at Ullevål is also an important element in the storytelling, focusing on the way the doctors reacted when all those wounded young people came in.”

The programme was ordered by Norwegian pubcaster NRK

Central to the development and production process was the showrunners’ desire for realism at all times, a quality heightened by their decision to largely cast unknown actors, save for Alexandra Gjerpen (Norsemen) as Anine.

“Pål took responsibility for how to create this realism and what it was going to look like,” Johnsen says. “He’s very concerned about details, and that’s a very important part of the series. The human faces and their reactions to terror – that’s the main idea for the visuals. There are a lot of realistic details from the hospitals from which you can tell a bigger story, so that was important. He improvised a lot in the beginning of each scene. He doesn’t plan too much, which is very demanding but it made for good footage.”

Johnsen then spent a year-and-a-half in the editing room alongside the filmmaker’s longtime editor, Zaklina Stojcevska, cutting the material.

She says working alongside her husband also meant they both stayed fully engaged in the project. “We sat up almost every evening when he came home from the set – we sat in our kitchen and went through the next day,” she explains. Things would change because maybe we didn’t get a location or I would have to rewrite some dialogue. It’s been a very good experience that we don’t regret. This incident is so much bigger than our own egos, so we would always go back to the real events and say, ‘This is important because it happened.’”

Ultimately, making July 22 has been “the most meaningful project I’ve ever done,” says Johnsen, whose work on the show has seen her nominated for the Nordisk Film & TV Fond prize, which recognises  outstanding writing of a Nordic drama. It takes place as part of the Göteborg Film Festival’s TV Drama Vision event.

“It’s been really engaging and very sad, sometimes too sad. But, at the same time, it’s been really meaningful and important,” she adds. “I really like to work for a long time on something. NRK gave us a lot of freedom, responsibility and trust from both the producer and head of drama. The working process felt very important.

“I want to tell people what happened, but the good thing about this story is it’s really anti-violence. It really shows the consequence of killing someone. It’s not making it into something exciting. It shows the consequences for society – for every dead person, there are 200 people affected. I hope it’s going to work in a humanistic way.”

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Courting controversy

Kingsman: The Secret Service star Sophie Cookson tells DQ why playing the title role in The Trial of Christine Keeler was an intense and emotional experience.

Sophie Cookson has a new appreciation for courtroom dramas. While filming scenes for The Trial of Christine Keeler, she describes sitting at the witness stand for multiple takes as “incredibly static, with not that much tension.” Now that she’s watched the same scenes back, “it’s so tense and you’re just watching with your jaw hitting the floor at every moment. It didn’t feel like that at the time!”

In the six-part BBC1 drama, Cookson plays the titular character who, during the course of the series faces not only a trial by jury but by public opinion too. Keeler became famous around the world after finding herself at the centre of a political scandal known as the Profumo affair over her relationship with the secretary of state for war, John Profumo, in 1961.

In the show, from Ecosse Films and Great Meadow, Amanda Coe’s scripts present the events surrounding the scandal from Keeler’s perspective. “What makes this story so interesting is everyone already has a take on it,” Cookson says.

“They think they know the whole story when really they don’t, and what Amanda’s script does brilliantly is show the true human story behind it and finally look at it through female eyes. Before, it’s always been from the point of view of the establishment or the patriarchy. So, finally, it’s the real deal.”

Sophie Cookson as Christine Keeler, a socialite who became embroiled in scandal in the 1960s

The series finds Keeler living in London and working at the nightclub where she would meet Stephen Ward (played by James Norton) and fellow dancer Mandy Rice-Davies (Ellie Bamber), both of whom play pivotal roles in the ensuing scandal. Flashbacks are used to offer a glimpse of her earlier life.

“People know a moment of her life and think they have the whole picture, whereas we’re presenting a much more rounded version of events,” Cookson says. “People would say, ‘Oh she was a prostitute,’ which makes me boil with anger. I can’t be more emphatic about it. They were not prostitutes. There’s a lot of stuff people really have no idea about.”

The actor describes the way Keeler was treated by the press and the public at the time as “completely abhorrent,” adding that she was shocked by footage of Keeler being mobbed and having eggs thrown at her outside court.

The star acknowledges the “huge sense of responsibility” that comes with portraying a real person, especially in circumstances that led her to become the most photographed woman in the world. So her task was to portray the ‘real’ Christine at a time when, following the #MeToo campaign, this story could not be more pertinent.

“Women are finally getting a chance to tell stories from their side and getting an opportunity to say what they want to say,” Cookson says. “So it’s the perfect time to be redressing a story like this. But I don’t think it’s only a female story. It’s about someone who made a mistake while very young and lived life in a very spontaneous, free way – and it hounded her for the rest of her life.”

Ben Miles plays John Profumo, the politician with whom Keeler had an affair

Filming the series, distributed by Keshet International, was an “intense” experience for Cookson, who featured on the call sheet almost daily. “From what she went through and the events we portray, it is so harrowing and so emotionally exhausting that by the end of shooting, I was exhausted,” she says.

“But it was so thrilling and such a pleasure to be able to tell her side of the story. Christine wanted to make sure she wouldn’t be seen as a victim. The amount of hatred that was thrown and pushed in her face every day, I have nothing but respect for her. She got up every day fighting; she never gave up.”

Coe says Cookson, who spent an hour each day in hair and make-up, was the first to audition for the role and secured the part immediately, with her similar appearance to the real Keeler complementing her “layered and complex” performance. The actor gained insight into Keeler through the autobiographies she had written before her death in 2017, while Coe and the production team provided her with abundant research material.

“Every character requires something different of you,” she says. “You tap into it but I felt very lucky that we covered so many different aspects of her life, which made the jigsaw fit together really nicely.

“It feels very important to me that it’s a female story written by a woman. It was a really strong female unit that gave the production a lot of force and rallying energy. It was a privilege to be a part of.”

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Explosive Agent

DQ lands in Stockholm to find a city-centre park taken over by filming for spy action thriller Agent Hamilton. The cast and creative team reveal their screen ambitions for Jan Guillou’s iconic literary character.

It’s lunchtime in Kungsträdgården, a tree-lined park in central Stockholm that is surrounded by outdoor cafés and lies in the shadow of the city’s opera house, close to the water that flows between the many islands that make up the Swedish capital.

On this bright summer’s day in August, it’s hard to see where the crowds of onlookers end and the extras filming 10-part Swedish action thriller Agent Hamilton begin. But once the cameras are rolling, it quickly becomes clear.

In a scene from the opening episode, Swedish interior minister Sissela Lindgren (played by Anna Sise) is giving a speech during the annual May Day protests when word spreads of a bomb going off a few blocks away. Urged to leave immediately, she stands by as her assistant races towards the politician’s car. It’s then that a second bomb detonates in the vehicle, leaving several dead and countless bystanders injured.

On set beside a large stage, dozens of extras are standing in their first positions, some holding bags and others grasping bright red balloons, their faces stiff with anticipation. Then when a crew member using a loudspeaker calls ‘Action,’ they all hurtle off in different directions, replicating the chaos and panic that spreads after a terrorist atrocity.

A small girl, her face covered in blood, sits next to her mother, who is lying motionless on the pavement. Other ‘victims’ lie in piles of shattered glass, their figures scattered around the smouldering remains of a black Volvo, its roof and bonnet ripped apart by the force of the blast.

Jakob Oftebro plays the lead in Agent Hamilton

As the panic continues, flashing lights from a number of arriving police cars appear in the distance. Then Jakob Oftebro, in character as Hamilton, slowly walks past the wreckage as the camera captures him surveying the devastation.

In all, more than 100 extras are involved in the set piece, with up to 200 in total filling this corner section of Kungsträdgården. In between takes, make-up artists are reapplying scars and wounds with tubes of fake blood.

Crew members are discussing whether one extra should continue to hold their balloon as they flee from the blast, while others are preparing to set an extra on fire as the camera pans around the still-burning car for a close-up on the minister cradling the body of her aide.

It’s a surreal and unsettling experience to be watching these events unfold, from the panic-stricken crowd’s screams (more will be added in post-production) to the sight of young children covered in blood and bodies lying motionless on the floor. As Oftebro tells DQ during a break in filming: “It’s horrifying, isn’t it?”

Agent Hamilton is based on Jan Guillou’s bestselling Carl Hamilton spy novels, which have become Sweden’s most iconic literary property since their debut in 1986. Though the books are set during the Cold War, the series brings the lead character into the present and plunges him in the middle of a “Cold War 2.0” between Russia and the US in the heart of Northern Europe.

Following a series of bombings and cyber attacks in Stockholm, the Swedish Secret Service, SÄPO, is struggling to find those responsible. Nobody knows Carl Hamilton has returned home and enlisted in SÄPO’s black-ops division following years of Navy SEAL training in the US, but after the attacks, he is identified as a possible suspect by agent Kristin Ek.

DQ visited the set during filming of a crucial explosion scene

As they enter a cat-and-mouse chase to uncover the truth behind the attacks, they find darker forces at work, testing Hamilton’s loyalties to his country and exposing an organisation that is exploiting fake news, xenophobia and terrorism to turn a profit.

Starring alongside Oftebro (Below the Surface) are former Wallander duo Nina Zanjani and Krister Henriksson as Kristin and SÄPO boss DG respectively, plus Rowena King (Criminal Minds) and Jörgen Thorsson.

Executive producer Patrick Nebout (Midnight Sun) secured the rights to the Hamilton novels in 2016 after Guillou gave his blessing to a modern adaptation. The author created the character based on his knowledge of Swedish and international intelligence agencies, having spent a year in prison for espionage after helping to expose a covert spy group.

It’s not the first time Hamilton has been adapted for the screen, with Stellan Skarsgård and Peter Haber among those to have previously portrayed the character, who has been described as Sweden’s James Bond. But despite the flattering comparison, given 007’s lasting success on the big screen, Nebout says Hamilton is more like Jason Bourne if he were in Homeland, referring to the book-to-screen spy made famous by Matt Damon and US premium cablenet Showtime’s long-running espionage series.

“He’s very streetwise. He’s young. It’s closer to Homeland than a typical James Bond story, but you have all the same elements,” Nebout says of Hamilton. “We have action, we have a very character-driven story and we are in different locations. We are in Sweden, Russia, Germany and the Middle East. That’s where the Jason Bourne and James Bond comparisons can be made.

“There’s also a very realistic French show called Le Bureau des Légendes. We’re somewhere in the middle. We’re not completely in the naturalistic environment of Le Bureau des Légendes and we’re not in the heightened ‘fantasy’ world of James Bond.”

Director Erik Leijonborg: ‘I’m like a vampire – I need to live off the characters’ emotions and make them come alive’

Inspired by movies from the 1970s including Three Days of the Condor and Marathon Man, Nebout says the aim from the outset was to create a very modern and ambitious Nordic spy thriller. Though as a result of setting the show in the present, little remains from the books except the main characters and the setup of Hamilton’s Navy SEAL training.

“The Hamilton movies were quite black and white in the sense that there were bad guys and good guys, but we wanted to be much more complex, especially now with the ‘Cold War’ situation. It’s a very blurry universe,” Nebout says. “The first season really brings something accurate and relevant to today’s world, in terms of how the corporate world can also have alliances with terrorists and how this mixes together.

“Then you have someone like Hamilton, who starts as someone very straightforward in his notions of good and bad but comes to understand he’s being used by people with a very different agenda. So it’s a journey of someone who starts off very idealistic in his views and starts peeling things back layer by layer until he understands that everything is not what he thought it was.”

Agent Hamilton is the latest Nordic drama to steer away from the popular noir detective shows that have become synonymous with the region. The series, produced by Dramacorp-Pampas Studios, also uses an authentic blend of languages depending on where the story moves, featuring Swedish, Russian and Arabic alongside English.

Behind the camera is conceptual director Erik Leijonborg, who has shown an ability to handle large-scale action on Netflix historical series The Last Kingdom and more intimate character drama with Tjockare än Vatten (Thicker Than Water).

“That’s such a lovely part of directing,” he says. “I can be with two extremely good actors doing a love scene and the next day I’m in Morocco shooting an action scene with special effects and stunts. The combination is so fun. The crucial part is telling a story but in different ways. If I have a big explosion in one of the major parks in Sweden, with a lot of tension and special effects, then we can have a scene afterwards where Hamilton’s just sitting on a bed.”

Nina Zanjani plays Kristin Ek

The director says a key part of the show is delving deep into the characters to ensure they drive the plot, not the other way around. “There’s more than solving the case and killing the enemy,” he says. “We also need to ask how to feel afterwards.

“I’m like a vampire – I need to live off the characters’ emotions and make them come alive. It’s fun and stimulating to film because it’s very modern, dramatic and emotional. We can have those heroic moments but I’m still totally grounded in realistic filmmaking. That’s the only thing I know; I don’t know anything else, so here I am challenged to do some more dramatic scenes. I call my shooting style ‘dramatic realism.’ It’s still very realistic but very dramatic.”

Leijonborg, who shares directing duties with Lisa Farzaneh and Per Hanefjord, also sat in on the writers room with head scribe Petter S Rosenlund (The Saboteurs), who was a fan of Guillou’s novels. Rosenlund says the biggest challenge in adapting them was coming to terms with the social and political changes in the 30-plus years since they were first published.

“It’s based on the conflict between the military and police in Guillou’s books – we have this conflict between the secret police and secret military agents,” says Rosenlund.

“When it comes to who is who and who’s dealing with what, then we have this conflict. So Kristin understands something is happening on the military side and that Hamilton belongs to this super-secret department, which is created by DG.”

Zanjani’s Kristin, a mother who must juggle the demands of her job with parenthood, is key to grounding the series. “She’s the one who tries to answer the question, ‘How does a Swedish agent fit into society?’ She will be the one trying to uncover Hamilton’s existence and put it into daylight,” the actor says of her character.

Krister Henriksson as SÄPO boss DG

“The Swedish secret police can’t allow people to do some of the things he’s involved with. She’s the very skilled and smart police officer who starts to investigate some of the strange things that have been happening after the attack on Stockholm, so she tries to find who is behind it. [She and Hamilton] do the same thing, so they’re crossing each other.”

Zanjani hadn’t read any of the Hamilton books before accepting the role, which was created for the series. In any case, she believes “it’s better not to know [what happens in the books] because it makes you more free to find your character and make it your own,” she says. “But we all feel free in that sense. It’s the first time we’re doing it [in a contemporary setting], even though it existed before. It’s such a modern story so it makes us newly born.”

Meanwhile, Henriksson says he defined DG through the character’s relationship with Hamilton, whom he describes as being like the son DG never had. “That is a big problem. It makes relations very complicated – it’s love, it’s hate, it’s respect,” he notes.

The actor says he was inspired to join the series as Hamilton is an “iconic figure” in Sweden, much like Wallander, the fellow literary character Henriksson played on screen in more than 30 feature-length episodes over eight years until 2013. “Not everyone in Sweden has read the books but they think they know who he is,” he adds. “That’s why I’m here.”

Despite working in multiple languages in places around the world, Nebout says discussions around Agent Hamilton have always focused on the story to ensure the series has both the depth of character and complexity of plot to satisfy audiences. “That should be the focus for all producers and series,” he says. “It’s really about the script, the characters and being able to relate to those characters. Even if you hate Hamilton, it’s also about relating to him on the macro level and micro level.”

The series will debut on Scandi streamer C More before airing in Sweden on TV4. Germany’s ZDF, in association with ZDF Enterprises, is a coproducer alongside distributor Beta Film, which has already placed the series with Norway’s TV2, Denmark’s DR and Finland’s MTV3.

Having secured a two-season commitment for the show upfront, Nebout says plans are already underway for the next stage of the story. Combining impressive scale and spectacle with complex, modern-day themes, Agent Hamilton looks set to breathe new life into Guillou’s character and create an iconic spy for a new generation.

Humanising Hamilton
Carl Hamilton has featured in more than a dozen literary outings and several screen adaptations. But much like Daniel Craig’s first outing as James Bond in 2006’s Casino Royale, this new series takes the eponymous spy right back to the beginning, following him on his first mission.

In Agent Hamilton, little remains of Jan Guillou’s Cold War-set novels except the leading character, with the series opening just as the spy returns home to Sweden after completing training in the US with the Navy SEALs.

“He’s an activist, politically active, military trained and very capable of doing different stuff, technologically, intellectually and physically,” actor Jakob Oftebro (right) says of his character. “So he’s definitely different. He’s not that into gadgets or expensive cars. The series asks how you can be a secret agent and how it works to be in the military in a country that has traditionally been neutral. It’s super interesting to try to get into that psyche and find the righteousness in being a secret agent in Sweden nowadays.”

Oftebro’s preparation involved talking with current and former military veterans, secret agents, Navy SEALs and bodyguards, as well as plenty of physical training. But the star’s primary focus has been on finding Hamilton’s humanity, aided by speaking to people about how this kind of job can affect your life and mental health.

“I’m trying to find the human in the character and being a special agent, not only seeing someone as super cool doing super-intelligent stuff,” he explains. “We’re starting this story days after he arrives back home, so I’m trying to imagine being born in Stockholm and then leaving to train at the Navy SEAL academy and then coming back to Stockholm to be a secret agent. It’s quite a difficult job. Stockholm is not the biggest city in the world – obviously you would know people, so how does it work? How do you infiltrate? And how do you work as a secret agent in the city where you were born and raised?

“I think a lot of people can relate to that, if you’ve studied abroad or lived abroad and then returned. It’s always strange. You will eventually meet the teenage version of yourself or the child or have old memories. But you have to break loose from that and think, ‘I’m a secret agent now.’ It’s also difficult in a country that is so pacifistic and against war.”

After an on-set injury earlier this year that put production on hold, Oftebro recovered to take his place in front of the camera, which he says has been a huge honour.

“I have a dramatic background so after doing a couple of the action scenes, it’s nice to have a scene where you can see that he’s a human being and not a machine,” he continues. “The most fun has been when Hamilton and Kristin [Nina Zanjani] finally sit down together and the conflict comes to the surface. Everybody’s just human. Otherwise, you’re a psychopath. What’s interesting is the question of whether Hamilton is a psychopath. I really enjoy the character. I love doing this.”

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The Wainwright direction

From Happy Valley and Gentleman Jack to Last Tango in Halifax and To Walk Invisible, writer and director Sally Wainwright has made her mark on the drama industry with her unique blend of storytelling. Here, she lifts the lid on the creative process.

A rural crime drama following a no-nonsense police officer, a septuagenarian love story, a biopic about the Brontë sisters and a regency period drama might not have many plot lines in common.

But what Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax, To Walk Invisible and Gentleman Jack (pictured above) do share is a use of visual style, pace, music and humour that links them back to one person – writer/director Sally Wainwright.

Having started her writing career almost 30 years ago on British soaps including Emmerdale and Coronation Street, she has become one of the country’s leading screenwriters, with credits also including Playing the Field, At Home with the Braithwaites and Unforgiven. She won Baftas for both best drama and best writer for Last Tango in Halifax (2013) and Happy Valley (2015 and 2017).

“I like to see women being heroic, women in situations where they have to do stuff,” Wainwright tells DQ at France’s Série Series television festival. “That’s the only recurring thing for me. There are so many portraits of women on television from the male gaze of how women should be or ought to be or how men want them to be. We’ve had that in the ether for so many decades that women in real life copy or emulate the behaviour of the male construct of women on television.

“It’s become ridiculous how women behave in the way they’ve seen on telly and think that’s what women do. But it’s actually a construct created by men. It’s quite refreshing to have women written by women in a way that’s authentic.”

Sally Wainwright chats to actor Jonathan Pryce during filming on To Walk Invisible

Wainwright’s own writing process changes depending on the project she’s currently working on, because no two shows are ever the same. Her latest drama, BBC and HBO coproduction Gentleman Jack, was a particularly unique example.

The show, which takes its title from the nickname given to lead character Anne Lister (Suranne Jones), follows the real-life landowner, industrialist, traveller and secret diarist who is often referred to as the ‘first modern lesbian’ and charts her return to her ancestral home, Shibden Hall, and her blossoming relationship with Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle).

“It was unique because it all starts with her diary. Most of the diary isn’t transcribed [large parts were written in code] and it actually started because I was doing my own transcriptions,” Wainwright says. “It’s just another process to add to the processes you are already familiar with as a writer.

“Normally I would start with doing a really detailed scene breakdown in which I would hope to solve most of the problems of the episode so that by the time I’ve got that document, which can take between a week and two weeks to write, actually writing the dialogue is the fun bit.

“It should just flow then because you’ve knocked a lot of the problems on the head. You haven’t, of course, because as soon as you start to write the dialogue, other problems present themselves, but I do like to have a really detailed scene breakdown before I start.”

Writers will often explain that scenes are redundant in a series unless they have a purpose to either drive the plot forward or reveal something about one of the characters involved. Wainwright pushes that theory further by stating that a scene doesn’t just require a single justification but should do more than one thing.

Wainwright gives the thumbs up to Gentleman Jack star Suranne Jones

In fact, “a good scene will be doing at least three things,” she explains. “It will be pushing the story along, telling you something new you didn’t know about a character and it will hopefully be making you laugh, and any number of other things.”

Adapting Lister’s life for the screen was a very different process to dramatising the life of the Brontë sisters – novelists Charlotte, Emily and Anne – in To Walk Invisible, for which Wainwright relied heavily on her own knowledge of their novels, such as Jane Eyre, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Wuthering Heights. She also leaned on Juliet Barker’s biography of the Brontës. But with Gentleman Jack, it was Lister’s own diaries that dictated the process.

“In a way, the Brontës was easier because there was less material to juggle with,” she says. “One of the hardest things with the Anne Lister project was choosing what to leave out. It was really odd because I’ve started looking at season two and immersed myself in the journals again and then watching the episodes go out on Sunday night, I was struck by how much wasn’t there, by how much we’ve had to cut out. Hopefully she does come across on screen as a multi-dimensional character. There were so many more facets I haven’t got into the script.”

But does she find writing about real life characters whose lives have already been lived restrictive compared to inventing the next moves for Happy Valley police sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) or loved up Celia (Anne Reid) and Alan (Derek Jacobi) in Last Tango in Halifax?

“No, oddly not with Anne Lister,” she reveals, “because she’s such a force of nature and because we made the decision for the show to break the fourth wall. Because we made the choice to be a bit more experimental, you do feel like she could do anything or go anywhere, so I never feel constricted by what she does. I always feel engaged and energised.”

Wainwright says she hasn’t quite decided on the focus for the second season of Gentleman Jack, which was quickly renewed for a sophomore run after five episodes had aired on HBO – and just one in the UK. The writer says it will cover the 18-month period after season one, though she readily admits she might “steal” some elements from earlier or later in Lister’s life to make a coherent story.

Happy Valley stars Sarah Lancashire, with whom Wainwright has worked on more than one occasion

“It’s a really interesting time next because the political backdrop gets even more intense,” she says. “It also covers a period when Ann Walker moved into Shibden Hall, when they were conspicuously living as wife and wife. So there’s the public reaction to that and how they negotiated their way through it to still maintain their position in society. Some of the diary of this period has been published but it is just a fraction and there’s tonnes of stuff that hasn’t seen the light of day. That in itself is exciting.”

Wainwright isn’t expecting to experience a difficult second season, believing her own work often improves after the first seasons due to an increased confidence in the story and the characters.

“Everybody knows each other, everybody knows what they’re doing, they’ve already broken down a lot of the barriers,” she adds. “Sometimes second seasons go wrong because a showrunner starts to delegate, so they might not write the whole of it or they might not be across it in the same way because they’re off doing something else. I’m not going to do that. I’m going to make sure I’m there, which I always do. I’ve done that with Last Tango in Halifax, Happy Valley and Scott & Bailey.”

To that end, Wainwright’s plan is to repeat her own involvement beyond writing and directing the first two and the last two episodes, with a second director picking up the middle four. She first took up behind the camera on a season one episode of Happy Valley, before picking up four more in season two, helming To Walk Invisible and then leading the direction of Gentleman Jack.

As a writer who directs her own work, she says she’s usually very conscious of penning scenes she knows she can direct. The one time she didn’t follow that practice was a set piece in episode one of Gentleman Jack, involving three carriages hurtling towards each other on a country lane.

“I didn’t really know how we were going to do that. But I knew one of the first things you do as a director is find people who do know about it,” she explains. “We’d got six horses and literally one set of horses had to go through two sets of horses going the other way. We discussed it with the horsemen and with the VFX people about how best to achieve this, and the VFX guys said the best way to achieve this was in camera.

Wainwright won a Bafta for her work on Last Tango in Halifax

“The horseman was quite nervous but was willing to push it. So we shot it about four times and each time, the four going one way got closer to the two going the other way. They got tighter and tighter together so by the fourth time they did it, it looked credibly like there could have been a collision.

“It’s communicating with people effectively because you’re out of your depth and you are reliant on people with expertise. By the end of it, we all had a respect for each other. At the beginning, the horseman probably thought I was bonkers but we were quite good mates by the end.”

If Anne Lister was a force of nature in person, with Suranne Jones regularly captured tearing up the countryside on foot, the music backing the series from composer Murray Gold certainly adds an extra layer of pace and momentum to the story. Wainwright believes music can take a series to another level, even making or breaking the show.

“It’s so particular and vital to what you’re creating in terms of how you can push it further towards what you’re trying to achieve,” she says. “On To Walk Invisible we used John Lunn’s beautiful music. It’s got a Beethoven quality to it. It’s very classical and it really heightened the scenes. It felt very appropriate for the Brontës, whereas with the Anne Lister piece, I wanted it to feel more modern and I wanted it to have an energy Murray always brings to his work.”

In Jones and Lancashire, Wainwright also has two leading actors who she has cast on more than one occasion. Most notably, Jones starred in five seasons of detective drama Scott & Bailey before leading Gentleman Jack, while Lancashire had been ever present in Last Tango in Halifax before stepping up to front Happy Valley. Season five of Last Tango is now in production, while a third season of Happy Valley is likely to follow the second season of Gentleman Jack in Wainwright’s busy schedule.

“What I love about Sarah and Suranne, what they’ve got in common – and I don’t know if it’s because they’re northerners – is that they’re not afraid of being funny,” Wainwright says. “A lot of actors have this idea they’re going to be serious actors, they want to do serious things and it’s as if they’re frightened to be funny as well. What I love about Sarah and Suranne is they’re both capable of doing the deepest, darkest things and then two minutes later they can make you laugh. I do that in my writing, so to get actors who get that and want to do it and can turn it around on a sixpence is quite rare.”

Ultimately, it’s Wainwright’s range of material and approach to different genres that keeps her motivated to keep writing, and with the launch of a glut of new global streaming services amid the continuing expansion of the drama industry, she admits there’s a lot of work around.

“One of the anxieties for me as a viewer is that I put on Netflix and I can’t often find something I personally want to watch,” she adds. “There’s a lot of testosterone-fuelled thrillers and that kind of thing and I don’t see so much I’m personally drawn to. I find it quite hard to find stuff that’s for me, a woman in her mid-50s, so we need to make sure there’s a nice variety of content in this huge morass of stuff we’ve got now. People will always want to be told new stories.”

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Gold Dust

Danish drama Når støvet har lagt sig (When the Dust Settles) sees a disparate group of characters brought together by a devastating terrorist attack in Copenhagen. DQ finds out why this isn’t another Nordic noir.

At first, there is little to link the ensemble cast of characters at the centre of Danish drama Når støvet har lagt sig (When the Dust Settles). A father is fighting to keep his family together, an elderly man struggles to come to terms with his limitations and a female politician is making headlines with her latest initiative.

However, through the use of flash-forwards, the audience is soon informed of the tragic circumstances that will bring them together – a devastating terrorist attack at a restaurant in the centre of Copenhagen.

Ida Maria Rydén

This use of dramatic irony, where viewers know more about the characters’ fate than the characters themselves, is the driving force behind the 10-part drama, whose first four episodes introduce the eight main characters, before the central tragedy unfolds in episode five. The remaining instalments then follow the aftermath of the attack, which has a profound impact on these people and their city.

As the series comes from Danish pubcaster DR, the home of Forbrydelsen (The Killing) and Broen (The Bridge), “maybe some people will be disappointed it’s not a Nordic noir show,” says Dorte Høgh, who created the series with her Dicte writing partner Ida Maria Rydén. “But it’s actually very different. It’s not exciting in that way. It has suspense in it, as you wonder what’s going to happen to these people, but there’s no action. It’s really just about ordinary people and their lives.”

The idea for the series emerged when Rydén and Høgh, who went to film school together, were discussing their shared fondness for Robert Altman’s movie Short Cuts, which follows 22 main characters through parallel and sometimes connected stories. From there, they thought about how people can be brought together by a single event, and developed the series for six months before taking it to DR. Launching on the pubcaster in January, When the Dust Settles is distributed internationally by DR Sales.

“We thought that idea of connectivity was so important because everyone feels divided somehow, but we’re not,” Høgh tells DQ. “The fact is we’re more connected than ever. So whatever you do has a butterfly effect on someone else. That was the beginning. Then we thought, ‘What’s the ultimate way to connect people?’ We figured out that would be terror.”

Rydén picks up: “When we started, we were curious to see how many ways you can react to a big event. We thought some of them might go mad, some become very vulnerable, and we just checked out these different approaches. They have all taken some nice and strange journeys, some of which have surprised us as well.”

When the Dust Settles tracks eight main characters before and after a terrorist attack

From the outset, the writers were keen to ensure the story featured a cross-section of society, with each character taking on a different role – the hero, the coward, the leader and the suspect, for example. “We wanted all the main characters to be from eight to 80 so we have all kinds of ages, and different genders, sexualities and ethnicities,” Rydén says. “Then we fleshed them out with everything we know about being human. Anybody can be in a terror attack, but how would they act? We didn’t know how it would end, we just went along with it.”

Crucially, the focus of the show is not on those who commit the atrocity or why, but with the central characters, whose lives are followed before and after the attack. That the incident doesn’t happen until midway through the series also seems unusual, but the writers were keen to show the ensemble living normal lives and dealing with everyday issues and problems until one event brings them together.

“We all know they’re getting on board Titanic, we know that as a viewer something terrible is going to happen, but they don’t know,” Høgh says. “We hope viewers become more engaged in the characters [as a result].”

Rydén admits that stepping away from crime dramas like Dicte and into a character-driven story was a challenge for the writers, who had to juggle numerous plots while ensuring that when characters weren’t in the ‘A’ plot of a particular episode, their storyline was still serviced and viewers still believed in them.

Stinna Lassen

“Normally, you can juggle four or maybe five characters, and we had eight. It’s horrible,” she says. “I’m never doing it again!”

Høgh adds: “We had to make rules for ourselves. They all needed to be either in some kind of relationship or outside a relationship, struggling to get into a family or out. So they all have problems. We also gave the characters a flaw. They make a mistake in the first four episodes or they have secrets, something they are not really showing. So the terror attack needed to have an effect on these people.

“But only some of them are in the restaurant. The closer they get in time and place, you don’t know who’s going to walk in because, right up until the last moment, some of them are talking about going out to eat, while somebody works there but [might be getting fired]. That’s the whole thing. You don’t know who’s there until episode five.”

Producer Stinna Lassen (The Team) joined the creative team, which also includes conceptual director Milad Alami, just six weeks before shooting was due to begin in November 2018. “My main focus was to set a group of three directors who I thought were both experienced storytellers but also new to the TV scene and had a rich and original take on the material,” she says of bringing Alami, Iran Haq and Jeanette Nordahl together behind the camera. “Ida and Dorte are very experienced writers and I thought it would be exciting to pair them with quite new talent, which is a little untraditional for DR.”

The series also stands out as one of the first of its kind to air on the broadcaster, due to its character-laden, multi-plot storyline. “It’s very ambitious to want to tell a story where you follow eight characters with eight stories, as well as supporting characters and storylines,” Lassen explains. “Danish shows have become famous for quite intimate, character-driven stories, but this has the ambition of having eight nuanced main characters that are very different, in age, gender, sexuality and class.”

The producer split her time working with the scriptwriters, as well as being a regular in the editing room and watching dailies from the set. “It’s just continuous process,” Lassen says. “But it’s also like producing five feature films in parallel with different crews. It’s my job to make sure we’re all in sync from the beginning and people know what we’re doing, and then my directors will inspire the crew to carry out the vision. But obviously, I’m very much involved in overseeing everything that comes out of the material.”

With shooting taking place predominantly on location in the Danish capital, only the restaurant where the attack takes place and one character’s home were built in a studio. Lassen says it was a challenge to realise the scale of the story, with each character having their own “arena.”

The drama is being distributed internationally by DR Sales

“The number of locations we needed to find was a bit daunting,” she notes. “There was just a lot of moving around, which is always a risk because you lose a lot of time. But it wasn’t as big a problem as I anticipated.

“One of the characters, Jamal [played by Arian Kashef], is a Palestinian guy and it is a challenge in Denmark to find actors who are not extremely Danish and white,” she continues. “So just finding great actors, both professional and amateur, for that storyline was also a concern. We’ve been super-fortunate to find great actors, but it is a challenge in Denmark. We’re a bit behind when it comes to that, to be honest, but hopefully that will change so people can see different characters on screen.”

Then when it came to filming the terror attack, security on set was paramount, while the cast that day – a combination of main characters, extras and stunt actors – were involved in the planning of the scene a month before it was recorded. “We would workshop it again and again, we storyboarded it, then we would film the workshop and the storyboards. So by the time we were on set to shoot it, we knew exactly when people would do what and where the camera would be,” Lassen says.

“There’s no blood or gore – that’s not of interest. But the camera doesn’t look away either, so it has a dryness to it. It’s very unsentimental and the camera just observes, which makes it very brutal to watch.”

Rydén says she cried for 20 minutes when she first saw the footage of the attack. “It’s very simple, cruel and brutal. I was so overwhelmed – it was a bit embarrassing because I wrote that episode, so I should know what happens,” she says. “We call the style ‘naked.’ We’ve not done anything to the filming style. It’s not documentary but it’s very close. It feels real. That takes a good director. You can’t write that. That’s where Milad is very good, making it very sincere and very true.

“I think it will hit viewers hard, but I hope it will bring good feelings, even though it’s a tough show to watch. You will think about your own life.”

Høgh is correct when she says When the Dust Settles isn’t another Nordic noir but, like the best of the genre, it is set to grip viewers as the problems of an everyday group of people fade into the shadows in the face of a devastating terrorist attack.

The writer concludes: “From the beginning, these strangers have an impact on each other’s lives. These people are not connected, they don’t know each other, but there’s a reason why some of them arrive at the restaurant and some of them don’t, and it’s because of something someone else does.”

Milad Alami

Calling the shots
With the plan from the outset to tell a story of a group of unconnected people before, during and after a terrorist attack, the obvious decision was to place the incident itself bang in the middle of the 10-episode series.

With that in mind, there was no way conceptual director Milad Alami wasn’t going to film the focal point of Når støvet har lagt sig (When the Dust Settles) himself. So after shooting the first two episodes, the production jumped to episode five and that cold, unemotional and shockingly brutal moment when two gunmen enter a restaurant and mow down dozens of diners.

By the time the attack is shown on screen, Alami hopes viewers will have come to care deeply about the characters – feelings that will have been encouraged by the way he chose to film the series.

“We talked about having a more immediate and poetic approach to the story,” he says. “These types of series often have a more classical visual style but we wanted an immediate, rough appearance so that when we are with the characters, we really are with them. The first thing you see is the characters and you follow that person around. We had to be clear our main characters are the most important. We had to work with natural light and a handheld style, and to be more immediate with it.

“Because it’s about eight characters who are different in sex, background and class, instead of changing the visual language with each character, it felt interesting to give them the same space and the same visual language.”

When it came to the attack in episode five, Alami worked closely with DOP Sebastian Winterø to ensure the attack was filmed in an authentic and ugly way, as far from a blockbuster action movie style as possible. They also leaned on influences such as Gus Van Sant’s school shooting movie Elephant and the films of Michael Haneke to put the audience in the restaurant with the characters as events play out.

Some sequences in the episode had to be rehearsed, particularly when it came to utilising the numerous extras who filled the set. “We have some long sequences when actors are running everywhere; it just never ends,” Alami says.

“We were doing one scene where two actors were hiding and start crying and it just gets more awful. I shot it six or seven times because I wanted to reach a point where they were in the moment. We weren’t going after an action thing – all the violence in the series is super realistic and really dry. Someone gets shot and they fall down. It’s not like you usually see in films. There’s something eerie about that when you see it and work with it.”

When the Dust Settles marks the first television series for Alami, who returned to the set to film episodes nine and 10, with most of his previous work being feature films directed from his own writing. He was keen to join the project because of the creative freedom the writers and producers would afford him and the opportunity to tell a story about a diverse cross-section of society.

“Of course it was a challenge doing something I hadn’t written myself and trying to understand how I would approach an eight character, multi-plot show,” he adds. “But we had one week of discussions about all the characters, so when we were shooting it, all the things I was unsure about were gone. It felt very creative. I was more nervous before doing it than during filming.”

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Straight from The Heartless

Screenwriter Lucie Barât and her brother, The Libertines co-frontman Carl, are behind a music drama showcasing Britain’s indie scene in the early noughties. DQ spoke to the siblings about developing the show with RubyRock Pictures’ Zoë Rocha.

As the lights go down and the crowd sways inside London’s glamorous St Pancras Hotel, the stage is set for a unique performance. A short film introduces rockers The Heartless getting ready for a gig, only then for the four-piece group to step out onto the stage and roar into their set.

As a launch party, it certainly makes an impact. But it isn’t designed to simply showcase another band making an assault on the charts. Instead, The Heartless are the focus of an upcoming drama series, created by screenwriter Lucie Barât and her musician brother Carl, the co-frontman of UK rock band The Libertines.

The show, also called The Heartless, is described as a semi-autobiographical representation of the British music scene in early noughties London, recounting both Lucie’s experiences from that period and those of Carl and his band.

Carl Barât

Lucie, who previously wrote on Canal+ drama Spotless, says that for several years she had been mulling the idea of a biographical drama set during the time when she and Carl shared a flat.

“That time is quite pertinent,” she tells DQ. “The noughties is a time before the internet [became integral to everyday life], where there was the whole 2k thing, leaping between centuries, the Labour Party came in [in the UK]. We were in our early 20s and something exciting was happening in the indie scene off the back of all those manufactured boy bands.

“Everything felt a bit tired at the end of the 90s. [Before that] it was just an exciting time, and it’s going to go down in history as a very important time because it was before the internet.

“In terms of being a young person at that time – an angsty, angry young woman – writing about a character like that was quite cathartic. I had to leave it on the back burner until a time when I could reflect on that. I remember it being quite an apathetic society for quite a long time, and now we’re at a point where we can look back and reflect on those issues.

“We’re also so absorbed with social media; there’s a whole generation of people who have grown up with the internet and we’re looking at how that’s affected people, but also dialling it back to young people with aspirations and dreams and how different it was then for us.”

The early 2000s saw Lucie leaving drama school while Carl found major success with The Libertines. “What’s interesting for me is that time is becoming a ‘period,’” Carl notes. “Culturally, we’ve changed so much. We’ve become so obsessed with being tied to a handset and communicating with everyone by looking at a block.

The Heartless centres on Sally, played by Ella-Rae Smith

“If you’re into Nirvana, you can go deeper into Nirvana by finding out Kurt Cobain’s influences. To do that back then, you’d have to write off to magazines and fan clubs or search archives. Now, at the click of a button, you can find out all those things instantly. There’s no mystery or myth in that, so there’s a great romance to the pre-social media world.”

Lucie and Carl are now using social media to their advantage, however, connecting with potential fans of the series ahead of its release via an Instagram page dedicated to the band. Their first song, Heartless, is also available to stream on Spotify, with the show’s original soundtrack penned by Lucie and Carl.

In the series, the band’s story isn’t simply about a dramatic rise to fame and fortune. Along the way, they are confronted by mental health problems and crises of identity, while also being forced to face up to the struggle musicians face in their bids to make it big.

“All of that’s there – being on the dole, pounding the streets with no money to drop off demos,” Lucie says. “We start with all of that and then the band becomes successful, but there’s a bunch of characters left behind and we also see how it affects that group of people. There’s a sudden stratospheric rise, and [we look at] how that changes the dynamics.

Lucie Barât

“I finally found my way into telling this story by inventing a neutral character that comes in. She’s not from that world and we see that world through her eyes. At that point, I was thinking, ‘I’ve cracked it.’ This is something that isn’t just a version of my diary, which was hard to pull away from at first. That’s when I said to Carl about writing the soundtrack with me and he said, ‘Absolutely, I’d like to be more involved than that.’ So I shared the script with him.”

Carl picks up: “I have a certain ownership of the story as well. We’ve got a lot of memories about that time together in our flat. I wanted to be involved in the story; I’ve been wanting to work with Lucie for ages. We’ve both been living parallel lives and, for some reason, they’ve never met. It just seemed like an amazing project worth clearing my diary for.”

The series follows Sally (Ella-Rae Smith, Into the Badlands), who returns to the UK after a year in Australia and finds herself thrust into the hedonistic, high-intensity world of her childhood friends, siblings Asher (Lewis Rainer, Death Comes to Pemberley) and Anna (Hannah Dodd, Harlots).

Asher is in rising indie band The Heartless, which is fronted by the volatile Marion (Ellie James, Giri/Haji). The group is on the cusp of making it big, but the chaotic trio are always one step away from tearing everything apart.

It was the creators’ personal connection to the material that also made it stand out for Zoë Rocha, founder of RubyRock Pictures, the fledgling prodco developing The Heartless with Lucie and Carl. “As a producer, you want to work on projects that have a really authentic point of view on something, otherwise why bother? The audience can see through something that doesn’t feel real.

The actors playing the band members are all musicians

“When we were talking about it, Lucie wanted to make it feel really identifiable, but it’s all her experiences. And while the music element is important, those are only some characters. You are dealing with mental health, addiction and sexuality and all of those things within that world. It’s definitely not a sugar-coated way of looking at it.”

The teaser shown at the launch party introduced Sally and Anna, who make their way to a club to see The Heartless perform. Rocha says they made an early decision to shoot the short film as a “proof of concept” demonstrating how the music could interact fluidly with the drama.

Before then, and even before story outlines were put to paper, casting was completed so the writers had the luxury of creating characters around the actors who would play them.

“We wanted the band in the show to record the music Carl and I wrote, so then that became the idea of ‘why don’t they actually become a band?’” Lucie says. “We ended up doing a lengthy casting. Rather than actors playing rock stars, it was really important to us to be credible. We thought the best way was to make them a band, get them to do gigs, take them to a recording studio, do all of those things.

Zoë Rocha

“We managed to do all of that with them before we shot the teaser, so by the time we shot it, they were so relaxed with being on stage, the song they were singing, that they are a band and they come across as a band, not actors with instruments. Having the luxury of that was amazing. Casting the other main characters, we didn’t stop until we found the right people.”

“I’m of the belief that if you have the right casting for the musicians, they’ll evolve and become their own thing,” Carl notes. “Maybe some suggestions like a leather jacket here, don’t put your foot on the monitor… But essentially I’m a firm believer in the chemistry and them evolving together. Pushing them out on the road, they’ve now done gigs independently.

“Zoe’s been really brave as a producer. Music and TV often don’t work; it’s very hard to get them together. But to allow the band to be organic and done in that way is really interesting. I’ve had to turn my TV off many times when people have tried to do this and it goes wrong. This does feel different. Largely, I’ve left the band to their own devices, apart from pressuring them to rehearse more.”

Living in a “post-X Factor world,” where the latest musicians are just as likely to be found on television as they are performing in clubs, Carl admits it’s “a different time.”

“The hardest thing is where things used to be black and white, things are so mixed and integrated, it’s hard to tell what’s good and what’s not good,” he says. “No one really fucking knows. There’s not something people can kick against. It’s a very different scene. It feels like the Wild West, but then it felt like the Wild West then.”

Since the band was first launched, they have released a single, produced a music video and gone on tour, which Rocha says will be filmed for a documentary to accompany the series. Just don’t confuse The Heartless with Spinal Tap.

“The characters Lucie’s creating are really fascinating. There aren’t that many shows being made here [in the UK] today that can deal with all those subjects, but we see it in the US all the time with shows like Euphoria,” she says of HBO’s series about a group of students who navigate love and friendships in a world of drugs, sex, trauma and social media.

“I want everyone to fall in love with these characters and have the series reflect what the younger generation is feeling today that isn’t necessarily being shown to them, yet with the fun of the music alongside it.”

Carl adds: “I want people to identify with it and for it to reflect their own journeys. I want people to see what you can achieve by just getting together. You don’t need anything, just like minds and dedication.”

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Easy Rider

Anthony Horowitz’s teen super spy Alex Rider is coming to television in an eight-part series drawn from the writer’s hit novel series. DQ went back to school to visit the set.

In a hazy, smoke-filled school corridor, a blond-haired teenager is hurtling down a passageway. Shadows dance on the dimly lit walls as he charges along, his jacket lifting behind him, while a camera positioned on a moving platform captures him in full flight.

It’s not clear what he’s running from – or to – but the arrival on set of a group of ‘agents’ carrying guns suggest this isn’t your average school day. But then, since he was recruited by a shadowy government agency to work as a spy, no day has quite been the same in the life of Alex Rider.

Fifteen years after Anthony Horowitz’s literary character made the leap to the big screen in 2006’s Stormbreaker, Alex Rider will land on the small screen in an eight-part adventure of the same name produced by Eleventh Hour Films (EHF) and Sony Pictures Television (SPT).

Taking its lead from Horowitz’s second Rider novel, Point Blanc, the series sees the teenager learn that his recently deceased uncle, who unbeknown to him was a secret agent, had been surreptitiously training him his whole life to follow in his footsteps.

Anthony Horowitz

Then when clandestine MI6 offshoot The Department calls Alex up, the reluctant spy is sent undercover to the Point Blanc Academy, deep in the French Alps. Here he must uncover the sinister truth behind this exclusive boarding school, which is home to the troubled children of parents who run successful global businesses.

Otto Farrant stars as Rider, with Brenock O’Connor as his best friend Tom. At The Department, Stephen Dillane plays Alan Blunt, while Vicky McClure is his second-in-command, Mrs Jones, and Ace Bhatti is John Crawley.

Unusually, the series has been financed and produced without a commissioning broadcaster, with distributor SPT now shopping the coming-of-age drama worldwide for a 2020 broadcast. Horowitz previously partnered with EHF – where his wife, Jill Green, is CEO – on crime dramas Foyle’s War and New Blood, and exec producer Eve Gutierrez says she had been tracking the availability of his Alex Rider novels for some time.

“The world has changed so much since Stormbreaker that we realised there is now this huge TV landscape opening up and a desire for things that are more ambitious,” Gutierrez explains on the school set where Alex and Tom both attend lessons.

“That coincided with the rights situation clarifying itself and us being able to then start conversations more seriously with Anthony about what we might do with it and how it might evolve for the screen.”

As well as admiring the books’ story of an ordinary person becoming a hero, Gutierrez noted the popularity of series such as Stranger Things, in which children and teenagers are forced into adult situations, and saw an opportunity to bring the young spy to TV.

Whereas the books are predominantly aimed at a young-adult audience, however, writer Guy Burt has endeavoured to broaden Alex Rider’s appeal to viewers beyond that demographic. To emphasise the point that this isn’t a kids’ series, Austrian director Andreas Prochaska (Das Boot) was brought in to lead the show’s visual style alongside second-block director Christopher Smith.

“The books are written very much from Alex’s point of view, while the other characters are very peripheral in his world,” Gutierrez notes.

“So we have opened up all the other characters that exist in his world, particularly the characters who work at The Department, played by Vicky and Stephen, and also Jack, the girl who shares Alex and his uncle’s home and was a nanny when she originally joined them. She’s more a housekeeper to them now and provides a 20-something point of view of the world.”

Otto Farrant (left) and Brenock O’Connor as Alex Rider and his best friend Tom

The intensive six-month shoot began in March 2019 on location in the Romanian mountains, which doubled for the French Alps and the location of the Point Blanc academy.

The site was so remote that cast and crew had to use skidoos to reach the set, while the first few weeks of shooting involved several action-packed stunts, including a sequence from the book where Alex snowboards down the mountain on an ironing board.

“I was seriously intimidated by the prospect of bringing this sequence to life in Romania, a country I’d never shot in before,” admits series producer Matt Chaplin. “This iconic sequence was first up in the entire shoot, the first thing Otto had to do.

“We very quickly identified Romania as the place to do it. They have a film-friendly infrastructure, the right climate and topography, and had the right location to use as the basis for Point Blanc, which we are enhancing with effects.

“Then we set about figuring out how we would get 100 people up to the top of the mountain, shoot safely and then get them down again. The Romanian people we were working with were just brilliant. I’d go back there in a heartbeat.”

Filming then resumed in London for five months, in locations including Bermondsey, Crouch End, the South Bank and the Shard. Hornsey Town Hall was used for interiors of Point Blanc.

To find the right actor to play Alex, the production team embarked on an extensive search across the UK, scouring schools, drama groups and theatre schools. All the leading candidates were seen at least twice by the casting team, with the role open to candidates from anywhere and of any ethnicity. “We even had a girl turn up to the open casting demanding to know why Alex Rider couldn’t be a girl,” says Chaplin. “It’s a valid question.”

Ronke Adekoluejo (right) plays Jack, the Rider family’s housekeeper

Eventually, Farrant (Mrs Wilson, The White Queen) was selected for the role, with the producers convinced he could convey the emotional depth required to take Alex from an ordinary boy to an extraordinary hero across the series.

Speaking during a break in production, Farrant describes a vigorous week filming stunts at the West London school location for the climactic eighth episode. A demanding training regime before shooting started, incorporating running, Tae Kwon-do and Israeli martial art Krav Maga, has kept him in good stead for the gruelling schedule.

“It’s been a real test of endurance,” Farrant admits. “It’s a big job; it’s not something I’ve done before so it’s been really useful to take that [training] experience and put that into the work. I hope that reflects on screen.”

Farrant puts Alex’s literary popularity down to his relatability. “He’s a normal kid – he goes to parties, he has trouble with girls. He’s just a typical teenager,” he says.

“Then you throw in this world of espionage he has to navigate and he’s out of his depth. He really has to dig deep to essentially save the world. That is such a cool and epic story. I don’t think we’re telling a story of someone who has it easy, we’re telling a story of someone who really has to fight to save himself and save his friends.”

Part of Farrant’s task has been the aforementioned emotional journey, as Alex confronts the loss of his uncle, as well as lying to his friends and seeing his two worlds collide. “So you do see the struggle he goes through as a kid, becoming a man throughout all this turmoil,” he continues.

“He has to dig deep to find out who he is and how he fits into this world and the world of spies. He has to readjust throughout the series. That’s why it’s interesting to watch.”

British Olympic snowboarder Billy Morgan doubled for Farrant in some of the iron-boarding scenes, though the actor says he has tried to do as many stunts as the production team would let him. However, insurance practicalities prevented him from later joining Morgan on the slopes.

Farrant was keen to do stunts himself where possible

“I’m happy to do them and I love doing them. It’s a welcome relief from some of the more intense emotional sides of the character,” Farrant explains. “It’s actually quite cathartic doing those stunts. Mostly, I’ve done my own stunts bar some big hits and the snowboarding, because there’s some big hits in the snowboarding. Those guys were insane!”

Meanwhile, Alex’s best friend Tom has been given a beefed-up role in comparison to the books, where he doesn’t feature until further down the line. “There wasn’t a great deal on the page, so one of Guy’s fantastic contributions to this is that Tom is essentially his character,” says Gutierrez. “The relationship between Tom and Alex is one of my favourite things in the show.”

Tom is one of the few people to know about Alex’s double life, providing someone to whom the title character can reveal his worries about his covert activities.

“He’s definitely there to support Alex going through whatever it is he’s going through,” says O’Connor, best known for playing Olly in Game of Thrones. “From a human standpoint, Tom’s best mate loses an uncle very early on in the story. If your best mate at 16 loses his parental guardian, it’s a horrendous trauma, so that’s what Tom’s role is in the early part, to be the support to that, and then there happens to be some spy stuff along the way.”

It’s not all deep and meaningful, however. “For the first couple of episodes, all I do is pop up occasionally, say something sarcastic and then disappear again,” he jokes.

“It’s been such an easy ride for me. It gets messy – you don’t get to be friends with a super spy and get away with it. But I really love Tom, he’s exactly like I was at 16. He thinks he’s cool as hell and really isn’t. Tom’s very relatable to me; there’s very little acting required.”

The other person to learn about Alex’s secret spy games is Jack Starbright, played by Ronke Adekoluejo (Been So Long). Arriving in the UK from the US to study, she becomes a housekeeper in the Rider household, growing up alongside Alex.

Scenes set in the Alps were filmed in the mountains of Romania

In the beginning, Alex lies to Jack about his new role, struggling with the deception that comes with his secret life. She puts their changing relationship down to his growing pains as a teenager, until she learns there’s something bigger behind it.

“Obviously, discovering he’s a spy is a bit much to handle,” Adekoluejo says. “It doesn’t quite make sense. There was a child before and now there’s a spy. She definitely doesn’t approve. It’s a very dangerous profession!”

Keeping her role in the series quiet proved to be her own secret mission, particularly when she began borrowing the novels from her younger brother. But Adekoluejo says his excitement, and that of her younger, female cousins, means she is now even more thrilled to be a part of the show.

“We all have the desire to be the best version of ourselves and to save the day, whether it’s our own day, our family day or the world,” she says of the reasons for title character’s popularity. “So because Alex is so ordinary and very much a representation of us in our day-to-day lives, when you see him go on to become a super spy and save all these people, even though you might not admit it, you think you could do it too.”

With a dozen Alex Rider novels to draw from – the 13th will be published in 2020 – Gutierrez says there’s hope the series can run for several seasons. And as superhero films and series continue to dominate the screen, there’s something refreshing about watching Alex Rider save the world. “It’s so normal,” O’Connor adds.

“He’s just a normal kid in a normal school – and then he fights a supervillain!”

Have you met Mrs Jones?
Best known for starring roles in Shane Meadows’ gritty This is England franchise and Jed Mercurio’s hard-hitting police corruption series Line of Duty, Vicky McClure doesn’t often get to introduce younger members of her family to her work.

Clockwise from left: Vicky McClure in Alex Rider, Mother’s Day, Line of Duty and This is England ’86

So when the opportunity to star in Alex Rider came along, she immediately sought the advice of her 11-year-old nephew.

“I wasn’t familiar with the books, just because I’m not the demographic to have read them. But I asked my nephew and he knew exactly what they were,” McClure tells DQ on set, her hair in rollers ahead of the day’s shoot. “He’s been on a school trip while I’m shooting this where the theme was Alex Rider, so he was a big reason for doing this. I don’t think he’s really ever been able to watch anything I’m in because the majority of what I do is fairly dark. And the success of the books and the writers and the involvement of everyone in it – it seemed really exciting.”

McClure plays Mrs Jones, second-in-command of The Department, the shady organisation that recruits Alex. The actor describes her character as “very headstrong and probably slightly frustrated with certain decisions that get made.” Her relationship with Alex, however, is less business and more personal, with Mrs Jones adopting a nurturing role towards the teen spy.

“She does have this concern for him,” McClure says. “If it was an adult they were putting in that position, I don’t think she’d feel quite the same, but there’s a history there as to why she’s concerned for Alex’s welfare. He’s a child and he’s being put into situations and scenarios that are really dangerous, and part of the reason he’s in those positions is because of her part in The Department. There’s that element of responsibility.”

McClure says she always likes to push her characters’ hairstyles and costumes to the extreme, hence the rollers, so that she can change her appearance between series while remaining believable.

“[Line of Duty’s] Kate Fleming has got quite a distinct look, Lol [in This is England] has quite a distinct look, and it was the same for my character in [fact-based single drama] Mother’s Day,” she explains. “All these different roles I’ve done all have quite distinctive looks, so I’m always up for making sure there’s something to play with. Mrs Jones is very suited so I’m in predominantly in suits, which is fine by me.”

But why does she think Anthony Horowitz’s young hero appeals to so many readers, particularly youngsters? McClure points to the chance to escape reality within the pages of the novels, which also offer adventure, excitement and some humour.

“The scripts and the writing are brilliant – it’s a page-turner – and you could see there’s something we can all play with,” she says. “It doesn’t have to have blood and guts everywhere to make it exciting. It can still be exciting without those elements in it, so it’s quite safe but, in the same breath, there is violence, there are fights. There’s a lot at stake.”

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Bone idol

Showrunner Barry O’Brien outlines his approach to bringing an adaptation of Jeffery Deaver’s acclaimed novel The Bone Collector to NBC, two decades after Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie starred in a big-screen version.

Over the past 20 years, television has undergone unprecedented change as the impact of high-end drama on cable channels and now streaming services has raised the bar for scripted series, both in terms of story and production quality.

Perhaps nowhere has the bar been raised more than in US network TV, still known for its focus on case-of-the-week procedurals in a world where audiences demand character-driven stories with serialised plots running across entire seasons.

The latest series now trying to find a balance between these two storytelling models is Lincoln Rhyme: Hunt for the Bone Collector, which debuts this Friday in the US on NBC. The 10-part crime series is inspired by Jeffery Deaver’s bestselling book The Bone Collector, first published in 1997 and adapted two years later as a movie starring Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie.

Barry O’Brien

The plot introduces the enigmatic and notorious serial killer known only as the Bone Collector (Brían F O’Byrne), who once terrified New York City until he seemingly disappeared. Three years later, when an elaborate murder points to his return, former NYPD detective and forensic genius Lincoln Rhyme (Russell Hornsby) is brought out of retirement and back into the fold.

For Lincoln, it’s a particularly personal case, having been paralysed by a trap set by the killer. To bring the Bone Collector to justice, he teams up with young profiler Amelia Sachs (Arielle Kebbel), and the duo play a deadly game of cat and mouse with the psychopath who brought them together.

Series showrunner Barry O’Brien worked for many years on CBS series CSI: Miami, the first spin-off from iconic police procedural CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and says working on that series was like solving a crime puzzle. “It didn’t quite open up to the personal character narrative that audiences have embraced since that franchise was so popular,” he says.

“Now you have shows like The Night Of on HBO, which was just a brilliant story – so interior, so personal. The depth of character was really the engine of the show and, in that way, it was a living novel. That’s the kind of storytelling you see on cable and streaming and hasn’t been fully embraced by networks. So [on Lincoln Rhyme], we have to adhere to the requirements of our network, NBC. They want both, so it’s the challenge, the job and the opportunity to find that perfect alchemy of a procedural ‘A’ story and a character story as implied by our title – Lincoln Rhyme is hunting the Bone Collector.

“It’s an interesting time in network; they really do want both. They just don’t want a ‘case of the week.’ It’s far more complex than that, and that’s where this story will invite a lot of people to the show as we tell that story.”

Lincoln Rhyme: Hunt for the Bone Collector was first ordered as a pilot in January last year, written by VJ Boyd and Mark Bianculli, before NBC handed it a series order in May. O’Brien joined the project as showrunner while the pilot was being edited.

Lincoln Rhyme: Hunt for the Bone Collector stars Russell Hornsby as the titular detective

The first episode sets up the story of Lincoln’s return to policing, three years after injury left him disabled and bed-bound. With the Bone Collector seemingly returning to New York, Lincoln recruits Amelia to be his partner in the field, the profiler wearing a camera rig so that she can relay images from crime scenes to the high-tech workstation installed in his apartment.

“It was a ground-floor pilot that left the question, ‘What is the series? What is a satisfying way to continue this story?’” O’Brien says. “Network has its certain mandates and needs, and we came away with a hybrid of telling a procedural ‘A’ story every week – a murder and the challenge to solve that murder and bring justice to the family of the victim – along with telling the unfolding story of hunting for the Bone Collector.”

The series – from Universal Television and Sony Pictures Television in association with Keshet Studios – also tells a lot of personal stories concurrent to the weekly crime investigations, focusing on Lincoln coming to terms with his disability as well as Amelia’s introduction to the world of murder investigation.

“Trying to find a balance between the two has been the job and has been, at times, a little challenging,” O’Brien admits. “We quickly found a formula that works for everyone. Hopefully it will be satisfying to a wide audience – readers of Jeffery Deaver’s books to start with and then NBC’s audience that has certain expectations when they join a new procedural.”

From the beginning, however, O’Brien says the writers felt an “allegiance” not just to Deaver’s novels (the Lincoln Rhyme franchise comprises 15 titles), but also the movie, which paired Washington’s Lincoln with Jolie’s police officer Amelia Donaghy.

Arielle Kebbel plays Amelia Sachs, Rhymes’ young partner

“We feel a responsibility to the audiences of both, but we also want to give [the series] a new voice and its own identity,” he explains. “We made some subtle changes but, hopefully, fans of both the books and the movie will see enough of the familiar franchise at work here to feel invited to join us for the ride.

“Where we depart is we have given some nuance and some character development to Amelia’s character, to Detective Michael Sellitto’s character [played by Michael Imperioli] and Lincoln’s relationship with his caregiver. In the book, it was a man named Tom. But in our world, it’s a woman named Claire, who is played really convincingly by Roslyn Ruff. We have evolved but not departed.”

At the centre of the story is Lincoln, a detective who is utterly dedicated to his job and who has a unique understanding of New York City, its history and its environs that makes him more than a match for the criminals he is hunting. His efforts are supported by forensic specialist Kate (Brooke Lyons) and tech guru Felix (Tate Ellington), creating a unique task force that gives Lincoln all the tools he needs.

The key addition to that team is Amelia, a young woman weighed down by the murder of her parents, which she witnessed as a 14-year-old, and her role as carer for her younger sister.

“She has quite a world to contend with,” O’Brien says. “One of her challenges is to raise herself to her multitude of responsibilities and find her way forward. That journey, played so well by Arielle Kebbel, will drive us through the first season and beyond. That’s where we find our voice.

The Sopranos’ Michael Imperioli is among the supporting cast as Detective Michael Sellitto

“We are really telling a story of the team – Lincoln and Amelia – working together. They both bring a unique set of abilities to the table and they have to adjust as they work together. In the second episode, you see how Amelia pushes back somewhat. She’s more than just eyes and ears, she also has a brain and a point of view. So we tell the story of what Lincoln goes through to work with Amelia and to be adaptable himself.

“Then, conversely, Amelia has to learn to work with Lincoln. He can be irascible, he can be quite certain, he can be a little on a mission and she has to find space to insert her point of view and her opinions and theories.

“There’s a fundamental difference between the two you see in the pilot. Lincoln is about the evidence, whereas Amelia is a profiler. Lincoln doesn’t put a lot of credence into profiling; he’s about what the evidence is telling him. That’s his approach. Amelia slowly gets him to change his opinion and approach over time. This takes a season to create, and hopefully more than one season.”

As a writer and producer, O’Brien has enjoyed a career in film and television spanning almost 40 years. His first credits were on classic comedies Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley, while he has recently worked on network series The Following, Castle and Gone.

He says his showrunning style is collaborative, an open process that ensures everyone on the staff has a voice. “The writers room is a safe space for everyone to venture ideas – good, bad and different,” he says. “Sometimes bad ideas are the greatest gift to a writers room because they just spark something new. We got together in June and started breaking stories and started by asking what stories do we want to tell and where do we want to take these characters.

Rhymes is hunting down the Bone Collector after being left paralysed by a trap set by the killer

“We wrote a series bible that conveyed the arc of our season, outlining how the task force was going to coalesce around Lincoln and how these personal stories were going to find their own voice and narrative. We’re also telling the story of the Bone Collector, played so brilliantly by Brían F O’Byrne. He’s the shark out of the water, but we let the audience peek under the surface at him and his life throughout each episode as we advance that story, with the Bone Collector and Lincoln Rhyme on a collision course that we pay off at the end of the season.”

Inevitably, as creative decisions are made through the development of the series, the bible became less a roadmap than another form of source material, alongside the books and the movie, on which O’Brien and his staff could lean. He has also been inspired by other book-to-television dramas such as Justified, Sharp Objects and Mr Mercedes. “We found that, as we went forward each week, we evolved and we started telling our story our way, and I’m most excited about that,” he says.

Deaver, the showrunner adds, has been “incredibly supportive,” receiving constant updates about how the series is progressing and giving the creative direction of the show his seal of approval.

The wealth of material created by the author means there is plenty of scope for the show to continue across multiple seasons. “And he’s not through writing yet,” O’Brien says. “He is a huge cheerleader of the show and has given us access to his entire library. From a writing standpoint, it’s a huge gift. We have all this material to draw from and I do see a future where we continue to tell the Bone Collector story and bring other ‘big bads’ into the narrative, which might draw directly or be suggested by a Jeffery Deaver book.

“But we have presented a world to the network where this series definitely has a long-running future if we’re lucky enough to find our audience.”

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Doom and Gloam

With The Kettering Incident and now The Gloaming, writer Victoria Madden is honing a reputation for unsettling crime dramas. She tells DQ about her latest project.

From the opening moments of Australian drama The Gloaming, Tasmania’s breathtaking scenery is captured in all its picture-postcard beauty, from waterfalls and lush green forests to brooding, fog-covered mountains and the urban landscapes of the island state’s capital, Hobart.

It all serves to create a mesmerising backdrop for the eight-part series, which blends crime drama and the supernatural to build an unsettling story set across two timelines.

The story begins when an unidentified woman is found brutally murdered, with evidence discovered at the scene linking the crime to a 20-year-old unsolved case. Then what starts as a routine investigation exposes something more insidious, as political corruption and shady business dealings intertwine with sinister crimes and occult practices.

That the series comes from creator, writer and showrunner Victoria Madden will not surprise viewers who saw her previous show, The Kettering Incident, which similarly mixes crime and mystery to tell the story of a woman who returns to the titular Tasmanian town 15 years after her best friend disappeared, prompting her to discover what really happened.

Victoria Madden

Madden says it is “exciting” to be able to mash up traditional genres, describing The Gloaming as “very original.” She continues: “It feels a lot bigger than Kettering and that was a bit of a challenge. This is another level, partly because we’re filming in a city, whereas Kettering was out in a forest.

“The story that starts the series, what happened 20 years ago, feeds into the [present day] crime story. The supernatural elements then entwine into the crime story and I’ve used Tasmania’s convict history as well to draw on. It’s a bit of everything. The supernatural certainly plays a major role.”

After The Kettering Incident launched on Australia’s Foxtel in 2016, Madden began working on a new project that continued to explore a mixture of genres, and that would once again be set on the island of Tasmania, where she is from. She also wanted to draw on Tasmania’s mythology and history, and particularly the British colonisation and the Black War that led to the near obliteration of its Aboriginal population in the early part of the 19th century.

But rather than start with the idea for a character or the central plot, the writer determined that her next project would begin with an exploration grief.

“My mum was dying – she died just before we started shooting, which was difficult – and grief is such a strange emotion,” Madden says. “We all go through it on some level. It’s a mysterious process. Because Tasmania has a very dark and violent history with colonialism, a lot of what interests me is it’s a place that’s haunted by a past that hasn’t been resolved. You can see the past in so many places, so I felt grief was something I could explore on two levels – characters going through long-term, lingering grief and trying to draw out the grief in the land.

“‘Gloaming’ is also a favourite word of mine – it means twilight, in between day and night, and in grief you get stuck. You can’t go forward, you can’t go back, so it became this ghost story.”

The Gloaming stars Emma Booth as detective Molly McGee

Madden also wanted to flip the traditional crime drama structure, offering viewers a glimpse of the central criminal early in the story to make The Gloaming a ‘whydunnit’ rather than a ‘whodunnit.’

“I found that quite a tricky, complex thing to do, so I can see why people don’t do it that often,” she admits. “It’s interesting; it makes you think about why people do what they do and work out the motive behind it. From there, all the fingers of all the different genres start to spread out. But at the centre we have Molly and Alex, who are connected to the past and have to work together and resolve it. Molly is a messy, complex character and both of them are stuck, partly because of what happened 20 years ago. Their journey is a very heavily character-driven journey.”

After an opening prologue set 20 years in the past, the story begins in the present day where unorthodox detective Molly McGee (Emma Booth) is brought in to investigate the aforementioned murder. Fellow officer Alex O’Connell (Ewen Leslie) is then sent from Melbourne to Tasmania to help solve the case, while his return to the island brings back haunting memories of their shared tragic past. The cast also includes Aaron Pedersen and Rena Owen, while Michael Rymer (American Horror Story), Greg McLean (Wolf Creek) and Sian Davies (Wentworth) were on directing duties.

While The Kettering Incident rolled out weekly, all eight episodes of The Gloaming were dropped on Australian streamer Stan on New Year’s Day, with a story that demanded greater complexity to match the ambitions of the premium platform. One of the key things Madden had to get to grips with was balancing the stories of a greater number of characters all vying for screen time.

“I really love the way the Scandis tell their stories because all their characters have a journey, not just one or two,” she says. “I knew I had to get to know all the characters really well, know what they wanted and know what was driving them. Kettering was really good groundwork for that, so I knew I had to push a bit harder and try to open up different aspects of the stories and heighten the genre elements.

The drama, which also features Rena Owen, makes full use of Tasmania’s varied landscape

“Because there are so many characters, it was a question of where to focus. Every episode focuses a little bit on a character or a cluster of characters, so they’re all involved in one particular thing together. You don’t want to be in my room at home watching me put this together – you’d be pulling your hair out. The hardest thing is not showing your hand too much. The two mistakes writers make is they make the characters too self-aware and they don’t trust the audience enough to plant something and move on and then come back to it. Really clever plotters do that quite well.”

But while characters and plot points were constantly juggled, one element that remained in place was the ending, with Madden saying she always knew how the story would conclude. Having drawn criticism for the “oblique” ending to The Kettering Incident, she sought a more traditional, emotionally satisfying finale to this series. However, she adds: “I’m never going to write a sickly sweet end point. I like to keep it emotionally complex because that’s how you live your lives.

“I certainly knew a twist I wanted at the end, I just wasn’t sure at one point how I was going to get there. But, funnily enough, when you do know what you want at the end, it just mulls around in your head until you suddenly realise how it’s going to go. It’s like doing a big crossword puzzle.”

Madden was joined in the writing room by Peter McKenna (Red Rock), who penned episode six, while she also collaborated closely with McLean, whose passion for the material led him to take on an expanded role as an executive producer.

Behind the scenes, The Gloaming is produced by Stan and Disney-owned ABC International Studios, with Madden’s Sweet Potato Films and producer John Molloy’s 2 Jons. Working in Tasmania, with its temperamental weather and rugged terrain, proved challenging during production. In addition, Madden had to balance the darkness of her original material with the aspirations of the coproduction partners for a series that could appeal to a wide audience, not just in Australia but around the world.

Booth on set with Greg McLean, one of The Gloaming’s directors

“Some of the Disney people thought it was a little too dark so I had to compromise a little bit. The best thing you can do is step back, don’t chop it to pieces, and try to understand their concerns,” she says. “Sometimes it’s frustrating because [the discussion point] is something that’s always been there. But, at the end of the day, I try to find a way to deal with it. I’ve been doing it long enough to know you can’t get around notes. You fight the fights you think you need to fight, and sometimes you need to compromise. That’s the relationship.

“Stan were very supportive and are very supportive of the creative voice. That’s what sets them apart. We’ve had so many years of bring suppressed and toeing the network line but now that there’s streaming services, we have more freedom. We can be a bit bolder, and Stan have been incredible for that. They really liked Kettering and wanted that individual voice. They wanted a show no one else would have made.”

With The Gloaming, Madden has certainly built on the style and tone she set up in The Kettering Incident, enhancing her reputation as a writer of melancholic mysteries that subvert the usual genre cliches. It’s a long way from the start of her career, when she worked on shows including The Flying Doctors and Heartbreak High and was a story producer on British crime drama The Bill.

“I would like people to watch The Gloaming and think, ‘This is a Vicki Madden show,’” she says. “I’m not going to write a comedy next week – that would be tragic.”

If her hope for the series is that viewers immediately demand a second season, she is already working on how Molly and Alex might be reunited for a new story. But any potential follow-up will come after Madden takes a break and then focuses on an upcoming film project.

“We’ve all got our fingers crossed,” she concludes. “The characters go on this journey and you think, ‘I wonder what they’re going to do now.’ It will be another cop story with a different crime, and we can move around Tasmania. It may not be in Hobart, maybe the north-west, which is a different landscape again, and the relationship between the two characters will take them on the next adventure.”

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Turning the Scrooge

British screenwriter Steven Knight has reinvented A Christmas Carol for the BBC and FX. DQ speaks to some of the creative team to find out why this isn’t Peaky Blinders meets The Muppets.

Of all the screen adaptations of Charles Dickens’ classic Yuletide yarn A Christmas Carol, a three-part adaptation commissioned by UK pubcaster the BBC and US cable channel FX (which will show it as a movie) promises to stand apart from those past, present and yet to come.

For while screen icons such as Alastair Sim, Albert Finney, Bill Murray, Patrick Stewart, Kelsey Grammer and an animated Jim Carrey have all taken on the iconic role of miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, not to mention Michael Caine’s iconic performance alongside the Muppets, none were in the hands of screenwriter Steven Knight, the creator of Peaky Blinders and Taboo.

In the first of a series of adaptations of Dickens novels, Knight has chosen to tackle the story of Scrooge, who is visited by four ghosts from the past, present and future on Christmas Eve and taken on a journey through his lifetime to see how his self-interested, penny pinching behaviour has impacted his own life, that of his overworked employee Bob Cratchit and others around him. Is it too late to save himself?

Guy Pearce as Ebenezer Scrooge

The miniseries was first announced in November 2017, but it wasn’t until the start of this year that producer Julian Stevens (Informer) and director Nick Murphy (Save Me) joined the production, by which time Knight had turned in all three scripts. Production designer Sonja Klaus (Taboo) had already joined the project, with her work to recreate early Victorian London well underway.

But with the drama destined to be on air this Christmas, it meant a quick turnaround to get the show into production and delivered on time.

“Fans of Dickens will know the word ‘Scrooge’ as shorthand for a miser or a measly man. But actually, there’s a lot of information in the novella that Steve has brilliantly brought out,” Stevens says. “We’ll have a Scrooge who’s got a bit of swagger to him, he’s confident in his business acumen, of his ability to gain wealth. It’s not something he should be apologetic for, and that probably chimes well with a modern audience.”

In terms of the plot, Knight has added contemporary relevance to the consequences of Scrooge’s actions. “The universal story of kindness to others still exists but the examples that we’re showing of Scrooge as a businessman will resonate with a contemporary audience. That’s really what appealed to me about it. It wasn’t ‘contemporising’ the story in terms of setting, it wasn’t trying to do a modern telling of that story.”

Murphy describes Knight’s scripts as “phenomenally ambitious,” comparing them to a pimped-up version of Dickens’ story. “He has taken tendrils of the story and inflated them, poured acid on them and given characters a motivation and a depravity they certainly didn’t have in the story,” the director explains. “He’s given all the characters a huge amount of bite. They are fully functioning, aggressive contributors to Scrooge’s journey – that’s where the genius of what he’s written comes out.”

To questions he gets about why he’s making yet another version of A Christmas Carol, Murphy says he responds by stating the story is used as a prism through which to view modern themes such as coercion and control. “In Steve’s story, Scrooge’s greatest crime is not withholding his finance, but his abuse of power,” he continues. “From a director’s point of view, that’s been fascinating. It’s so much more rewarding to explore than just, ‘I should have been kinder.’ The Muppets did that perfectly well, they don’t need us to do it again.

The Lord of the Rings star Andy Serkis plays the Ghost of Christmas Past

“Steve’s such a muscular writer and this isn’t Peaky Blinders-does-Dickens either,” he adds, referring to Knight’s award-winning gangster drama. “As great as Peaky is, he’s not a one-trick pony but it’s got all the chutzpah you would imagine.”

Stevens began pre-production by bringing Murphy on board, hiring Lucy Bevan and Emily Brockmann to lead casting, and getting location scouting underway. As a relatively youthful-looking Scrooge, Guy Pearce (Jack Irish) leads the ensemble cast alongside Andy Serkis (Black Panther) as the Ghost of Christmas Past, Stephen Graham (This is England) as Jacob Marley, Charlotte Riley (Peaky Blinders) as Lottie, Joe Alwyn (The Favourite) as Bob Cratchit, Vinette Robinson (Doctor Who) as Mary Cratchit, Jason Flemyng (Save Me) as the Ghost of Christmas Future, Kayvan Novak (What We Do in the Shadows) as Ali Baba and Lenny Rush (Old Boys) as Tim Cratchit.

“From a purely practical point of view, one of the main things we realised we needed to do is source some sound stages,” Stevens says. “The way the scenes were written, we had to build sets. You couldn’t really go into locations because walls move and ceilings needed to be taken out. So we had to build sets.”

Filming ran over 10 weeks, with half the time in studios and the rest on location. Houses belonging to Scrooge – complete with wires to allow windows and shutters to fly open – and the Cratchits were both built on stages, as well as a coal mine required for an episode two set piece. A textile mill was also built and later superimposed into a real location.

On location, filming took place around London, most notably near Temple tube station and in the leafy suburb of Hampstead, where the production team took control of a single road for three days and covered it in fake snow to recreate Scrooge’s wealthy neighbourhood. For the Cratchits’ part of the city, an old hospital in Warwick was transformed into a more run-down area.

“With A Christmas Carol, a lot of it is set at night so we were filming [in the summer] when the days started to get longer and the nights started to get shorter,” Stevens says. “We went to Temple partly because it can be closed off and we can film really late. That’s where we put Scrooge and [business partner] Marley’s office. We built the set in the studio then took the front off and put it in a car park, with green screen around it. Then with the magic of visual effects, we created a few streets around it.”

Coming from a background of contemporary dramas, Stevens says managing the balance between special effects on set and visual effects proved to be the steepest learning curve, particularly on a period show infused with the supernatural and with all the costume and design elements that come with it.

Jason Flemyng receives a touch up to his Ghost of Christmas Future make-up

“You have to think of everything ahead of time, from the planning of the set build to the costumes and the special effects and visual effects and how they work, as well as the vast amounts of fake snow and even the different types of fake snow,” he explains. “To get your head around what you can do practically and what you can supplement in post-production with visual effects and where the budget is better spent was a huge learning curve.

“We were fighting sunlight and green trees but what it meant most of all was we didn’t have rain very many days, which is really problematic if you’ve got fake snow on the ground. But the way Steve writes, the relatively small cast and few locations meant it was quite a controllable job, which is probably how we managed to get it finished on schedule.”

A Christmas Carol is produced by FX Productions, Scott Free and Hardy Son & Baker, reuniting the creative team behind Knight’s dark period drama Taboo. Production designer Klaus had also worked on that series, and she was among the first to get the call for A Christmas Carol. “[Executive producer] Ridley [Scott] loved Taboo so much – that was an amazing show to do – and because Taboo was very dark, Ridley was very into keeping that [style]. This is not Taboo but there’s a dark side, which was really important to get across,” Klaus says. “Living in England at that time, if you were poor it was pretty shit. It was pretty grim, and you have to show that difference. A Christmas Carol is about that difference between the poor and the rich and the fact Scrooge is given a chance to change his ways and look back and think, ‘Jesus, I was a bit of a shit.’”

Klaus says the opportunity to build so many of the sets meant she could help to shape the characters in their surroundings. Scrooge’s meagre existence, for example, is heightened by the fact that he is presented as a thin, scrawny man in an oversized bed in a large bedroom with high ceilings.

“That’s what it’s about,” she says. “He’s this Johnny-No-Mates who’s got all these people telling him, ‘If you don’t buck up, you’re going to end up in the fires of Hell for the rest of your life.’ You need to emphasise that, so that’s what I did.”

A particular highlight for the designer was discovering Warwick’s Tudor architecture that would be used to create the Cratchits’ world, while scenic artist James Gemmill created many of the backgrounds that would remove the need for CGI to extend the vistas of London.

Director Nick Murphy pictured with actor Stephen Graham between takes

Klaus continues: “I love Steve’s writing, and he paid me the biggest compliment. He said to me, ‘It’s amazing, I don’t know how you do it. It’s like you’re in my head.’ For a writer to say that to me without having talked to him at all about what it should be, I almost couldn’t take the compliment. I just love his stuff. I love his writing. He’s so inspirational and amazing. For an artist like me, he’s just another great artist I love working with.”

Behind the camera, Murphy similarly had a free hand to interpret Knight’s scripts, which he says carry very little visual description but do specify mood, tone and action.

“I wanted it to be authentic – I didn’t want the fantasy to overtake reality because we have to convince the audience these are real human beings with real problems, and that’s hard to do if you’ve created a falsified Victorian England,” he says. “This is a world in which there is horse shit on the streets and real problems in people’s lives. It’s not a postcard Dickens.”

Therefore, Scrooge’s world is one that reflects the “scoured, bare interior of the soul,” with austere, empty rooms that contradict cluttered, messy London outside. “Then gradually, just as his soul fills up, so the visual world of Scrooge fills up and the emptiness falls away.”

This approach also translated into the director’s composition of Scrooge, with the character initially on screen isolated and alone, while other characters would be squeezed together in frame so they have a feeling of togetherness. “Then we gradually pervert that during the course of the show, so you bring Scrooge into the real world,” Murphy explains. “After that you have very flowery, elaborate language from Steve. His dialogue is phenomenal. But the challenge in there is to deliver such lines in a way that feels grounded. Not overtly modern but not wrapped up in genre.

“So what we’ve ended up with is some really nuanced, painful, beautiful performances from a myriad diverse cast and that is something I’m most proud of – that it hasn’t been buried in the Dickens-ness of it all. However fancy we get, drama is people in a room with a problem. That’s the core of drama, and the human story Guy has delivered is first and foremost one of a human being going through a very painful rebirth, no matter how elaborate those experiences are.”

Christmas dinner for the Cratchit family

When it comes to the story’s supernatural elements – enter the quartet of ghosts trying to teach Scrooge the errors of his ways – Murphy was intent on avoiding the kind of visual theatrics you might see in the Harry Potter films.

“On some level, we could argue the whole story is a dream of Scrooge’s own making through guilt, so I feel this could all be the creation of a Victorian magician,” he notes. “It is shadow play – surfaces lying to him and silhouettes – rather than elaborate 3D creatures being made or anything borne of a digital age. My hope is you feel he’s walking through a particularly terrifying Victorian circus. It feels much more in camera. That’s been quite tricky to pull off but that’s part of the plan.”

Despite the focus on in-camera stunts, Murphy estimates there are still about 1,000 visual effects shots in A Christmas Carol, “and that doesn’t even get us started on the snow. I never want to see another ounce of fake snow in my life,” he jokes. “We shot this in June and July. There was acres of the stuff.”

He recalls one moment on set shooting at ‘The Graveyard of Christmas,’ where Marley meets the first ghost at a venue the director describes as “two football pitches of dead trees in the snow with a massive bonfire in the middle.”

“That’s a big undertaking but even filling entire streets with snow and then firing the stuff into the air and hoping it falls right on camera is a very arduous, long-winded process,” he adds. “That’s been part of the challenge as well. We’ve got camels in the show and all sorts of things and, let me tell you, I don’t know much about camels but I do know they don’t like to do anything that you want them to do. The golden rule of being a camel is don’t do what the tall skinny director wants you to do.”

For all the changes and thematic updates made to Dickens’ story, Murphy believes the great author would approve. “Scrooge isn’t wearing a nightcap. He’s not an octogenarian,” he says. “What I can guarantee is he does say, ‘Bah! Humbug!’

“Steve’s not a fool. He respects the books enormously. We all do. We’ve kept in a huge amount of references and inclusion of the story. It’s not just taking the Scrooge character and riding roughshod over it. This is not a distant cousin of Dickens, it’s a punked-up sibling.”

Klaus adds that while there have been a lot of Christmas Carol adaptations, this one stands out for Knight’s focus on the dark side of Scrooge and the dirt and grit of Victorian England. “You do get a sense of that,” she says. “But also there’s a joyous side to it because we have the Cratchits. The audience, when they watch it, will want to go round to their house for Christmas and that is what they should feel. That means we’ve got it right.”

For Knight’s part, he has described his take on A Christmas Carol as a respectful and “timely interpretation of a timeless story.” In any case, the creative talent in front of and behind the camera mean this version will be a unique interpretation of Dickens’ beloved tale.

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Killer cop

After a season one conclusion that left the Twittersphere outraged, Bancroft writer Kate Brooke tells DQ what’s in store for the eponymous rogue cop in season two and why there’s no character like her on TV.

Kate Brooke

When it comes to crime drama, viewers have an expectation that by the time the credits roll, the culprit has been discovered and justice has been served, with the investigating police officer rightly celebrated for a job well done.

But when ITV miniseries Bancroft concluded in December 2017, the audience was left fuming that DCI Elizabeth Bancroft was not only the villain of the story but that she had also got away with her crimes.

“People wanted resolution,” says creator and writer Kate Brooke about the reaction to the show’s climax. “I felt like it was an end. It wasn’t justice, but not everything is about justice. We’re in a world where bad people get away with things and I really wanted to do a show that didn’t have an obvious redemption at the end of it.”

The story introduced ambitious and respected Bancroft, played by Sarah Parish, who is targeting a violent gang suspected of illegal arms dealings. But when a cold case being reinvestigated by DS Katherine Stevens (Faye Marsay) threatens to bring buried secrets to the surface, Bancroft does everything she can to stop the truth from emerging.

By the end, Bancroft has earned a promotion despite being revealed to the audience as a killer, with DS Stevens left in a hospital bed. Twitter lit up with unhappy comments.

Crime boss Daanish Kamara (Ryan McKen)

“I just wanted to hit an audience with an immoral female because there’s still not many of them around,” Brooke says. “I had the idea six years ago. It took so long to get onto the screen because commissioners would go, ‘So the twist is that she didn’t do it?’ I’d say, ‘No, the twist is that she did do it.’ and then they’d say it was not for them.

“I felt it had an ending – it just didn’t have an ending people wanted. But that’s ok.”

Brooke was in India when, jet lagged in the early hours, she tuned into social media to see the reaction unfold in real time. “I thought, ‘Oh shit, they hate my show.’ Everyone was so furious about it but actually that’s what they need,” she says. “The truth is, people are furious because they’re being moved in some capacity. In a world of television where it’s hard to break through, we broke through. We did really well.”

Produced by Tall Story Pictures and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment, the show proved to be one of ITV’s best-performing dramas of that year with a series average of 6.7 million viewers and a 25.1% audience share. Season two was announced in February 2018 and the three-parter will debut in the UK on New Year’s Day with all three episodes airing on consecutive nights.

Picking up some time after the end of season one, Bancroft is riding a professional high after heading up a newly merged police force and delivering extraordinarily low crime figures. But isolated from her estranged son Joe (Adam Long), she is facing increasing pressure from her pact with crime boss Daanish Kamara (Ryan McKen).

When a disturbing double murder causes her professional and personal lives to collide, she is forced to confront a new enemy while suffering the repercussions of her past actions.

“Everything she thought she wanted she’s got, but actually she’s a very lonely person,” Brooke says of Bancroft. “We really make her suffer in season two. There’s a desire [from viewers] for justice, especially justice for women, but look at Peaky Blinders. Tommy Shelby [played by Cillian Murphy] is constantly killing people but people don’t mind. A woman killing someone and getting away with it – we’re not allowed that. That’s why I wanted to do it.

“She’s not Villanelle from Killing Eve, she’s not a psychopath. She can feel things. But the key thing is she lives within society. She walks and breathes amongst us, and she’s a really good policewoman. She’s bloody good at her job. She just happens to be a little bit bad on the side. We just haven’t ever had someone like her. What was hilarious was people thinking this was going to be another ITV crime thriller and then it was like, ‘Oh shit, she killed someone.’ That was quite funny. By the time it got to episode three, people could see something interesting happening, so it will be interesting to see how they react to season two.”

DCI Bancroft (Sarah Parish) with onscreen mother Carol (Francesca Annis)

Bancroft’s world is explored in more detail this time around with the introduction of her mother Carol, played by Francesca Annis, and the opportunity to drill down into her psychology and discover what made her the person she is.

“I don’t think she should be excused, but we can begin to try to understand her,” Brooke continues. “There’s no sob story. That’s not the point. We know the show a bit better, we know the pace, but it still has these massive twists and turns, which is what an audience wants.”

Season two also sees Bancroft in a more grounded world, with Brooke admitting season one crossing into melodrama at times. Though she wanted the series to be more heightened than the average television crime drama, building the rules of the procedural also gives the character some boundaries to push against.

“The thing about Villanelle is she’s in a fantasy world. She can sort of do anything,” says Brooke, who herself has worked in fantasy when adapting Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches for Sky1. “Bancroft couldn’t just put on a disguise and shoot someone. She’d get caught. She lives in the real world. What is important and what we’ve learned from season one is you have to earn all the deaths. She can’t just go and kill someone. That’s why it’s a difficult show to write because if she was just killing everyone like Dexter, it’s just Dexter. If it was a story of the week, there’s no grounding to it, so we really try to earn the kills – and there are kills. We earn the kills and that’s the way to ground it. She’s basically a survivor.

Bancroft’s estranged son Joe (Adam Long)

“There are some very clear rules for her. She doesn’t enjoy killing. She’s not a psychopath who finds it fun. But she will do it if she has to. She will do it if someone comes up against her and either she or someone she loves is threatened. Then she will do anything.”

Brooke wrote the series with co-writer Ben Morris, who first worked with Brooke as a researcher on period drama Mr Selfridge. They start with Brooke’s story outline before breaking down the episodes in an American-style writers room with script editor Kathryn Shrubb.

“I started in theatre so I’m a collaborative writer – I like talking to other people and there’s lots of young writers who don’t get an opportunity,” Brooke explains. “I could have written all the episodes, but he’s fantastic in a room so we write very collaboratively. It’s great to be working with young writers.”

However, she admits that unlike in the US where the showrunner system is prevalent, the UK industry is still producer-led. “Here, it was very useful that I really knew the show. It’s quite high risk and I had to fight to keep the vision,” she says. “It’s been a very happy production but the UK traditionally has creative producers who like to hold the reins very tight and they’re not letting go without a fight.”

Bancroft with superintendent Cliff Walker, played by Adrian Edmondson

In particular, she says she had to battle to keep Bancroft’s mother Carol in the show “because it’s not plot. There was a lot of ‘cut the mother’ and then they got Francesca Annis to play her and suddenly everyone loved the mother! But she holds her place, it’s character and we’re a very plot-driven show. We want to open up those questions about Bancroft.”

Another key influence on season two of Bancroft has been Sarah Parish, who stars as the eponymous detective. Brooke spoke to her before putting pen to paper and then gives her a first look at the scripts.

“Sarah has inhabited her so fantastically,” she says of her leading actor. “We get on like a house on fire. She’s magnificent. She’s done such a great job. She just gets Bancroft. She’s a great ally for the show.”

Like season one, this new run of three episodes promises to pack in plenty of drama, with Bancroft left reeling as her professional and personal lives crash into one another in spectacular fashion. It’s a rollercoaster ride that Brooke hopes will start the new year with a bang and keep viewers hooked until the end.

“There’s lots of twists and turns and I hope it will deliver like season one delivered those massive surprises, and I hope that psychologically it will be more grounded,” she adds. “That’s the plan.”

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Trial by television

The writer and producing team behind The Trial of Christine Keeler tell DQ about dramatising the real-life story behind the woman at the centre of one of British politics’ biggest scandals.

Political dramas possess all the ingredients of must-watch television, from power, sex and double-crossing to emotional themes and ethical and moral dilemmas – and their appeal is heightened further when they are based on real events.

The next instalment of Ryan Murphy’s FX series American Crime Story will analyse the impeachment of former US president Bill Clinton, while last year’s British miniseries A Very English Scandal received widespread acclaim for dramatising the events surrounding MP Jeremy Thorpe’s trial for conspiring to murder his ex-lover in the 1960s/70s.

Arguably better known in the annals of British politics is the scandal known as the Profumo affair, which saw prime minister Harold Macmillan’s government plunged into crisis in 1961 when John Profumo, the secretary of state for war, was discovered to have been having a relationship with 19-year-old model Christine Keeler.

After initially denying the affair, Profumo was later forced to admit the truth. However, attention surrounding the pair grew following claims Keeler may also have been involved with Soviet naval captain Yevgeny Ivanov, creating a possible security risk. Keeler met both men through her friendship with osteopath Stephen Ward, who was later charged with a series of immorality offences.

James Norton as Dr Stephen Ward and Sophie Cookson as Christine Keeler

The chain of events surrounding the Profumo affair is now being dramatised by UK pubcaster BBC, in a show that will go beyond the headlines to tell the story from Keeler’s perspective and explore how this young woman found herself at the centre of a political and media storm, long before the days of social media.

The Trial of Christine Keeler stars Sophie Cookson (Kingsman: The Secret Service) as the titular character, with James Norton (McMafia) as Stephen Ward and Ellie Bamber (War & Peace) as Keeler’s friend Mandy Rice-Davies, who also becomes embroiled in the scandal.

When DQ visits the set during filming, the production is in the historical English city of Bath, where Ward’s court case is being shot. A room in Bath’s grand Guildhall has been transformed into a chamber from London’s Old Bailey courthouse, where barristers wearing traditional robes and wigs take their place. Men in suits fill the seats reserved for the jury, their eyes flicking back and forth between witness Keeler and defence barrister James Burge (Peter Davison) as if they were watching a tennis match.

Noting the presence of Davison, a former Doctor Who star whose daughter, actor Georgia Moffett, is married to another ex-Doctor Who lead in David Tennant, executive producer Kate Triggs quips: “We’re time travelling today.”

Via Great Meadow Productions, the label she runs with Robert Cooper, Triggs has produced a number of shows about real people, particularly women, including the late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. She also produced Room at the Top, a two-part adaptation of John Braine’s post-war novel, written by Amanda Coe.

Triggs was thinking of other women who might make interesting drama subjects when Keeler’s name came to mind. She mentioned the project to Coe and then the BBC came on board, though the show went on hiatus while Coe penned another BBC adaptation, Apple Tree Yard. Triggs then joined Mistresses producer Ecosse Films, which coproduces the six-part series with Great Meadow. Keshet International is the global distributor, with Endeavor Content co-distributing in the US.

The Trial of Christine Keeler used Bath for location shooting

This isn’t the first time the Profumo affair has been dramatised on screen, feature Scandal coming in 1989. But Triggs saw the series as an opportunity to redress the story from Keeler’s position.

“The fact it’s called the ‘Profumo affair’ and not the ‘Christine Keeler affair’ – her name’s hardly mentioned,” she says. “We thought it would be really interesting to see it from her point of view as much as possible and put her and Mandy Rice-Davies at the heart of the story.

“As these things take a long time to develop – we’re talking five or six years to the point of shooting – a number of things have come to the fore, in that the story felt resonant for very different reasons over those five years, which always makes you feel really confident about the story, because there are so many aspects to it. Now, in the post-#MeToo period, what happens in the story and the extent to which it deals with gender, power and sexual politics is really hitting the mark.”

Keeler, who died in 2017, 11 years after Profumo, spoke to the production via an intermediary and was keen to stress that she shouldn’t be portrayed as a victim in the saga. “There still is a feeling that Christine was just a call girl and just a good-time girl who deserved what she got,” says Trigg. “A lot of people don’t even know she later went to jail for perjury, which is a story I’m excited to show because you need to know that to understand the totality of her experience.

“Equally with Stephen Ward, there’s a contingent of people who still think his trial was a miscarriage of justice, but it’s more about understanding who he was to Christine and who Christine was to him, which I think this show and Amanda’s scripts do really beautifully.

“It’s also just a really personal story for young women and young men. And if it were happening today, Christine and certainly Mandy would be on Big Brother or some reality show because it would have been viral and gone everywhere.”

Researching the period, Triggs recalls wondering how Coe would ever be able to distil the events into a coherent set of scripts. “Then I got the first script and I vividly remember reading it and thinking, ‘She’s done it. She’s nailed it.’ It’s just fantastic – Christine is like this wrecking ball going through the script. She’s done an amazing job.”

Cookson and Ellie Bamber, who plays Keeler’s friend Mandy Rice-Davies

Speaking to DQ in a cafe beside the Guildhall, Coe says the scandal immediately struck her as great territory for a TV drama, adding that it cuts through layers of society at the time by touching on issues of class, gender, sexuality and race. “It was a bit of a gift,” the writer says. “It’s arguably something we’d find very trivial now, but it became something that imbibed the national consciousness and brought down the government – and that’s a big deal.”

Producer Rebecca Ferguson (Cold Feet, Next of Kin) believes The Trial of Christine Keeler contains many of the perennial themes of great drama. “There’s corruption, sex, lies, infidelity, friendship, love, politics and a light sprinkling of espionage – all the things that make great drama are present in this story,” she says. “We’ve been quite focused in terms of how we make it, and it isn’t like a classical period drama. Amanda’s writing is so fast-moving and fast-paced, with lots of short scenes. There’s a natural rhythm and modernity to it, so we’ve made sure how we make it isn’t in a stately, reverential way. We’re quite energised.”

Coe says she treats Keeler as a sympathetic figure, though one who will still divide viewers. She also offers a glimpse of her background and home life, revealing how she ended up as a dancer at the club where she would meet Ward and Rice-Davies. Original court and police transcripts heavily inform the scripts, “but it’s all woven in. It’s quite enjoyable dropping in the real dialogue,” she says. “It’s a bit like restoring a painting.”

One notable real-life line comes from Bamber as Rice-Davies, who, in response to Burge asserting that her lover Lord Astor had denied having an affair or even meeting her, famously replied, “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?”

The remark draws laughs from the court’s public gallery when it is recreated on set, with Bamber also letting out a giggle before she remembers where she is and straightens up.

Filming has taken place across the west of England, and particularly in and around Bristol’s Bottle Yard Studios, where the interiors of Ward’s London home and Marylebone Police Station were recreated. Other locations included Bristol Central Library as the police station exterior, the Wills Memorial Building for the House of Commons and the Lord Mayor’s Mansion House, which doubled as a Mayfair restaurant and hotel room. Overall, 17 weeks were spent in Bristol, with eight days at the Guildhall in Bath.

“I was quite worried initially, thinking, ‘How do we get 1960s London in Bristol?’ But lots of shows have done London here,” Ferguson says. “The crews down here are brilliant and the practical side of making the show has been a joy.”

As well as two female directors, Andrea Harkin and Leanne Wellham, most of the department heads are women, with the exception of DOP Joel Devlin, who worked across all six episodes. “It’s always the best person for the job but it’s just generally changing behind the camera,” Ferguson says of the increasing number of women in key roles.

“There’s still quite a long way to go in terms of giving female directors a chance to do the job and herald a quite big series. That decision came from Amanda, Kate and I and it’s just filtered through the whole production – and on a show like this, it felt right. We were doing quite sensitive, difficult things on set, with some abusive scenes and sex scenes. Often crews are predominantly male and a set can feel like quite a male environment, and we wanted to make sure that atmosphere wasn’t created for Ellie, Sophie, James and everyone. It had an ease to it and I definitely think that gender balance helps that.”

Fly-fishing scenes featuring Profumo in Scotland proved difficult when heavy rains saw rivers swell, while removing the furniture and fixtures of modern streets is always a time-consuming process for any period drama. Ferguson says the team also made the “mad but worthwhile” decision to build half of the benches inside the House of Commons, so wide shots could capture extras seated behind the main actors, rather than relying on close-ups.

For Triggs, the appeal of the eries comes down to “that age-old thing of sex and power. That’s what it’s about. It does have both of those things in it and it has young people going through a particular, intense experience, but it also has lots of fun.”

Is Coe worried viewers who know the outcome of the story might not tune in, or that viewers might seek spoilers online? Not at all, it seems, due to the show’s focus on Keeler’s perspective. “There’s that weird thing in TV drama, the ‘what next’ element, but sometimes dramas you really enjoy are ones you just want to hang out with,” she says. “You just like being in that world and seeing those performances.”

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Remade Abroad: Sisters/Almost Family

Almost Family executive producer Annie Weisman reveals how the Fox drama was inspired by an Australian series about a woman who discovers she has hundreds of secret siblings.

Annie Weisman

For several years, Annie Weisman had wanted to write a series about the relationships between sisters. Projects at US networks CBS and NBC didn’t move forward. But when Universal TV, the studio where she has an overall deal, said they were looking at adapting Australian drama Sisters, her chance finally arrived.

Sisters tells the story of a woman whose life is turned upside-down when her father reveals that during his career as a fertility specialist, he used his own sperm to impregnate his patients, meaning he may have fathered hundreds of other children.

Produced by Endemol Shine Australia, it aired on Australia’s Network Ten in 2017 and the following year debuted worldwide on Netflix.

“The premise is so eye-catchingly shocking and heightened,” Weisman says of Sisters. “It’s so much of the moment and in the zeitgeist and can only happen today because of new DNA testing technology. It’s just a new way into telling that story and a new look at sister relationships and so I leapt on it. It was a confluence of the studio having this property and me having an interest in the subject matter.”

A remake was then pitched to Fox last year, before the network ordered a pilot from Weisman and subsequently commissioned a full series, called Almost Family, in May. It debuted in October.

Australian drama Sisters centres on the daughter of a fertility specialist

Starring Brittany Snow, Megalyn Echikunwoke and Emily Osment, it similarly follows one woman who discovers her father may have conceived hundreds of children, including two new sisters. Universal produces in association with Endemol Shine North America and Fox Entertainment, with NBCUniversal distributing.

Owing to the fact that Sisters was already an English-language series, with Australian culture not too dissimilar to that of the US, Weisman says adapting Sisters for US audiences largely came down to the pace of the storytelling.

“The Australian show had a laid-back ease to the way the story unfolds, which was really pleasurable for me to watch on Netflix. But in the gladiator battle of US broadcast television, the shape of the advertising-driven six-act structure changes the pace big time,” the writer explains. “So there’s a need to amp up the pace and in doing that, you compress the storytelling and tell stories quicker.

“The big challenge of broadcast television is trying to tell a fast-paced story to a broad audience. If you get it right, it’s exciting because you can bring a lot of different people together.”

Annie Weisman adapted the Aussie show as Almost Family

Weisman chose to keep the same basic dynamics between the main characters, with one woman discovering her father’s actions and building a close bond with two new sisters. But the main change to the US series refers to the doctor at the centre of the fertility scandal.

In Sisters, he faces a civil action lawsuit. However, for Almost Family, Weisman elevated that to a criminal trial, upping the stakes against him so he is the subject of sexual assault charges against the women he unlawfully inseminated.

“Even in the six months after the pilot was made, we’re in such a different moment [in society] in terms of the perception of abuse of power among men and doctors so it really felt important for me to focus on that,” she says. “Interestingly, in doing that I’ve opened myself up to a lot of scrutiny and attack, but it was important for me to add it. It’s not in the original. I didn’t feel anyone was held accountable [in Sisters] but somehow it seemed to put more life and attention on him.”

As Weisman notes, the series has drawn criticism from those who have experienced these circumstances first hand and are upset at how the series presents itself as a quirky family drama about sisters who come together amid extraordinary circumstances, in effect making light of the doctor’s horrendous crimes — the very DNA tests that bring the siblings together also prove his guilt — at the root of their new relationship.

Sisters first aired on Australia’s Network 10

Weisman says that although she has strengthened the criminal case against the doctor in question, “for some people, that’s not enough. You hit the zeitgeist in a particular moment and there’s an attitude and perspective you collide with. That’s part of making things and putting them out there. That’s what happens. But that was an element I had very deliberately added because I thought it was irresponsible not to.

“It’s been the plan from the start that there is this criminal trial and that his crimes would be perceived as sexual assault. That was part of my pitch, part of my adaptation. That’s always been the spine of it all. But the thing I haven’t let up on and don’t apologise for is, it’s not the only thing we do in the show. It’s not the only note we hit. There’s also his point of view. There’s humanity in him, there is humour and lightness and I believe in that. The people who watch the show and stay with it will understand the show reflects life lived by us in families and how tragedy and comedy and absurdity, and the sublime and the ridiculous are very close to one another.

“Sometimes there’s an impatient appetite for the story to be told immediately but it’s a TV show. We’re unfolding that over time. That was always the plan: to see him come to terms with what he’d done and have remorse and accountability and the way that happens is dramatic and there are lots of twists. It’s a TV show, not an earnest documentary. That’s the journey we’re on with him.”

In writing Almost Family, Weisman says she has borrowed “liberally” from the original, describing Sisters as a buffet she has taken the best bits from. She also praises Sisters creators Imogen Banks and Jonathan Gavin for giving her the freedom to take the show in her own direction.

Almost Family debuted on Fox in October

While television is known as a collaborative medium, with all the opinions and notes that can be levelled at a showrunner from numerous interested parties, she says an adaptation can bypass that creative interference. “One of the nice things about any kind of adaptation is having a set of ‘givens’ to work from, so there’s less up for grabs in terms of just getting traction and moving forward,” she says.

“There are some proven elements you can work with and I think that’s really helpful. The trap is just not to be overly loyal to things, to use what’s helpful and be willing to leave behind what isn’t. It’s really important because at the end of the day, you have to make it your own and have to believe in it and be organic and intuitive and go where the story wants to go and not get in its way.”

Weisman adds: “Hopefully you’re lucky enough to work with people who aren’t overly precious with their material and aren’t overly protective. That would be tough and you can feel very hamstrung by that. The culture change is everything so you have to be nimble. You have to be responsive to what’s going on. You can’t be overly loyal to things. We hope we’ve been loyal and kind to it. I think the spirit of the core character relationships are very much intact. That’s what drew me in initially.”

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Expanding horizons

Once cancelled, The Expanse is the latest US series to have been be revived by a streamer. Star Shohreh Aghdashloo tells DQ why the space drama is out of this world.

For a few weeks in 2019, The Expanse was cancelled. Arguably the most popular space drama of recent years, thanks in part to its international syndication on Netflix, the show was inexplicably dumped by US cablenet Syfy after three seasons in May. Its fans were stunned.

But in the modern TV age, what is dead can be resurrected. No sooner had #SaveTheExpanse begun trending on social media than Amazon Prime Video stepped in to pick up the show for a fourth season, while also plundering the first three seasons for its subscribers.

For the cast of the show, rumours of the show’s return had swirled around aimlessly like a balloon in a storm, and with nothing to ground them, they remained only fragments of online gossip. “I remember, when I was told that it was cancelled, my first reaction was ‘C’est la vie,’” recalls Shohreh Aghdashloo, who plays UN executive Chrisjen Avasarala in the series. “And for me, life is a journey from chapter to chapter. When one chapter ends, another opens. There is no need for me to get worried. I just go with the flow.

“But my colleagues, they were not happy. They were like, ‘Surely there must be something we can do.’ I kept saying, ‘It is what it is.’ Then, a couple of days later, I saw a picture of a blimp carrying a message, ‘Save The Expanse.’ The fans had put their pennies and dollars together to send a plane with a banner to go around the Amazon building, where [Amazon owner and The Expanse fan] Jeff Bezos was in his office. And when he saw the balloon, he said, ‘What, this show’s going to be cancelled? I want to see the rest of the show,’ and picked up the phone.”

In The Expanse, Shohreh Aghdashloo plays UN executive Chrisjen Avasarala

Fans have a lot to answer for these days, with their online devotion and creative stunts previously saving numerous other shows from the scrapheap, not least Lucifer, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Designated Survivor. That they would go so far to save The Expanse was not surprising to Aghdashloo.

“From the very beginning, we knew it was very much a fan-based show,” she says. “They did lots of fan art that I’m collecting, they send gifts to us. One year, we started having hardcore fans visit the set and one of them made a bracelet for me with stars, the moon and the sun. Another one bought me a nice brooch. We were bombarded with gifts, and that has never happened to me before. You cannot believe a show can have such an impact on people.”

A star of film and television, with appearances in series such as 24 and Grey’s Anatomy and films The Lake House and The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants 2, Aghdashloo had plenty to keep her busy while a deal for The Expanse’s return was put in place. She had just filmed two movies, Run Sweetheart Run and The Cuban, while also producing 2018 feature Simple Wedding.

“It’s a very different kind of role,” she says of producing in comparison to acting. “Now I understand why Robert De Niro says he’d rather act than direct or produce, because you get involved with other stuff that you usually don’t if you’re just acting. I still prefer acting but, when it comes to making the projects I am in love with and would like to do, I have to produce or they won’t get made.”

Returning to The Expanse, Aghdashloo says the show’s move from Syfy to Amazon had little impact on the cast. “It was just like we were picking up from where we left off,” she says. “There was no difference at all. I’m so happy for my colleagues, these young people who spend six months of a year in the cold in Canada to bring the story to light. We were in the dark before Amazon, now we’re in the light. So it makes such a difference.”

The show was revived by Amazon after its cancellation

Part of the appeal of science fiction is the chance to talk about contemporary issues in a heightened setting, with modern-day themes played out in stories featuring groups of aliens or humans living in different worlds. It’s that approach to storytelling in The Expanse that most impresses Aghdashloo, who says that while the show may be deemed sci fi, “it’s not fiction to me. It’s just a symbolic way of talking about today’s world.”

Describing The Expanse as “relevant” and “timely,” she continues: “This is how the writers envision the future, in which women can work shoulder to shoulder with their male colleagues and they can hold key positions and roles in society. For my part, it’s geopolitical science fiction with a dash of Shakespearean drama. All the ingredients of Shakespeare are there – jealously, rivalry, confusion.”

A series regular from the beginning, Aghdashloo plays Avasarala, an Earth-bound politician working to prevent war from breaking out between Earth and Mars. “I adore her. I love her. I am in awe of her, for her perseverance and the fact she calls herself a public servant,” says the Iran-born actor, who joyfully recalls some of her favourite lines from previous seasons, such as her season two diatribe when Avasarala discovers Secretary Errinwright (Shawn Doyle) is betraying her by working with Jules-Pierre Mao (François Chau) and his family.

In the episode, titled Paradigm Shift, Avasarala tells Errinwright: “I will freeze their assets, cancel their contracts, cripple their business. And I have the power to do it, because I am the fucking hero who helped save Mother Earth from the cataclysm that Jules-Pierre Mao unleashed. Tell his children the government is more powerful than any corporation, and the only reason they think it feels the other way is because we poor public servants are always looking for some fat private sector’s payoff down the road. And I’m not looking. And by the time they can pull the strings to force me out, it will be too late. Their family will be ruined. Their mother, their children, their children! All of them: pariahs! Outlaws! Hunted and on the run for the rest of their days, until we find them, and nail each and every last one to the wall. Make sure you tell them that.”

Aghdashloo alongside Sandra Bullock in movie The Lake House

Aghdashloo explains: “When I read the line, I couldn’t wait to run it [on set] because, in real life, I agree with her so much. Whatever we’re suffering from comes from rotten, corrupt politicians. It’s because of their deeds, their acts, that millions of people have been misplaced and displaced, and it keeps happening. So when I read the line, I can’t even tell you how happy it made me.

“That night, I was learning it until I went to sleep. I told the writers I wished it was a daily show so we could watch it that evening, because it’s so timely and relevant. But then I had to wait another year for it to come out.”

With The Expanse now in season four, the story is naturally far removed from its initial premise. Based on the books by James SA Corey, it opened hundreds of years in the future in a colonised Solar System when the case of a missing girl brings together Avasarala, hardened police detective Josephus Miller (Thomas Jane) and rogue ship captain James Holden (Steven Strait), first of the Canterbury and later the Rocinante, to expose the greatest conspiracy in human history.

In the latest run, with the ‘Ring Gates’ having opened up access to thousands of new planets, a blood-soaked gold rush begins, igniting new conflicts between Earth, Mars and those from within the asteroid belt. Meanwhile, the crew of the Rocinante are caught up in a violent clash between an Earth mining corporation and desperate ‘Belter’ settlers.

Aghdashloo says appearing in the series is “beyond my wildest imagination,” adding: “This little girl from the Middle East is portraying a powerful female role in a US TV series, and now global TV series. It’s amazing. Sometimes it’s overwhelming – I have to pinch myself and think, ‘Am I really doing this?’ I love it because of the fact that when girls like myself in the Middle East or elsewhere see me, they think, ‘So there is a hope. If she did it, I can do it too.’

“I keep telling them all they need is courage, perseverance and love. Put it into a pot and you will be successful.”

In the future, Aghdashloo would love to play Indian stateswoman Indira Ghandi or Pakistani politician Benazir Bhutto. But for now, whether it’s film or television, she’s just happy to be in front of the camera. “When I was seven years old, my family would get together and, after lunch, they would say, ‘Bring Shohreh in so she can entertain us.’ And then I would start mocking every member of the family, singing and dancing.

“So that tells me that I was born an actor. I don’t act for the medium, be it TV, or cinema or theatre. At the end of the day, I think I’m a stage actress. Because even when I am on a set working for the camera, I get my energy from people on the set and thinking, ‘They’re watching.’

With Amazon Prime Video airing The Expanse around the world, there won’t be a shortage of people tuning in to find out what happens in season four, while the streamer has already ordered a fifth season of the space saga.

“Thank God for the game-changers – Amazon, Netflix, Hulu,” Aghdashloo adds. “We’re not only going global but our hands are free to go further and further [with the story]. There are always restrictions, but not as much. We get to tell the story the way it is. People keep asking me, ‘Now you’re on Amazon, can you swear more?’ Of course I can swear more, we’re global now!’”

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Unwanted guest

Following appearances on screen this year in Sanditon and A Confession, Kate Ashfield tells DQ about continuing her burgeoning writing career by penning Finnish psychological drama Huone 301 (Man in Room 301).

Kate Ashfield

Two years after her first writing project debuted, Kate Ashfield has found time between acting roles to pick up her pen once again. But while Channel 4’s Born to Kill, co-written with Tracey Malone, was the study of an apparently model teenager with hidden psychopathic tendencies, her latest project is entirely a family affair.

Produced for Finnish SVoD platform Elisa Viihde, psychological drama Huone 301 (Man in Room 301) tells the story of the Kurtti family, whose lives change irrevocably one fateful night. Years later, the secrets of that night start to unravel on a family vacation in Greece, pushing their family ties to the limit.

Ashfield, best known for her role opposite Simon Pegg in comedy-horror film Shaun of the Dead, was recently seen on screen in ITV period drama Sanditon and the same broadcaster’s true crime drama A Confession. But although she considers acting and writing on a level par, she says she is enjoying the creative freedom that comes with writing.

She began work on Man in Room 301 shortly after Born to Kill aired in 2017, when UK producer Wall to Wall Media approached her with a one-page outline for a drama about a British family that goes on holiday to Spain, only to suspect a man staying in the same apartment building is the grown-up killer of their three-year-old nephew.

After meeting with Elisa, Ashfield wrote a treatment for the show, turning it into a six-part series about a Finnish family that travels to Greece, with the action set across two timelines. The platform gave the green light after reading the first script, with the series now set to launch on December 19.

Man in Room 301 looks at universal themes around a family and its secrets

“The starting point was if someone was 12 when they did it [the crime] and were now 24, would you recognise them? Would it even be them?” the writer tells DQ, acknowledging the show’s similarities to the Jamie Bulger case in the UK, in which two 10-year-old boys were convicted of abducting and killing two-year-old Jamie in 1993. “But it’s very different in Finland because they don’t criminalise children like we do.” (The age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales is 10 and in Scotland it’s 12, having been raised from eight this year.)

“When the story was reset in Finland, it became more attractive to me as an idea because we’re such a small country and we have such black and white views, whereas in another country it’s not that clear cut. The criminal age in Finland is 15, so if something like that did happen, they would just stay at home. They’d probably get counselling, they might move school but they might not. It would just be treated in a whole different way, so that makes it a slightly greyer subject matter, which is always interesting.”

The story introduces a multi-generational family who go on holiday to Greece, only for the grandfather to suspect the man staying in room 301 is the killer. The two timelines, set 12 years apart, then slowly reveal how the events in the past and the present day collide.

Cameras roll on Man in Room 301

For Ashfield, writing Man in Room 301 offered her the chance to delve into another culture and write about universal themes involving a family and its secrets. But the slow, brooding thriller, which is directed by Mikko Kuparinen, posed several challenges for her, not least the cultural differences between Finland and the UK.

“They tend to not want anything to be too dark,” she explains. “The death of a child is terrible and they don’t want to focus on that in the way some UK television series might do. We’re also a lot more emotional and physical with each other than they are. They don’t say a lot; it all has to be pared down. Watching Nordic series, it’s less expressive. If you wrote a scene where they greet and hug each other, it just isn’t Finnish. They’d say, ‘We’d never do that.’ So it’s mainly in the way they relate to each other that’s different.”

Ashfield would regularly travel to Helsinki for meetings with Elisa, Wall to Wall and production partner Warner Bros International Television Production Finland. Scripts were initially written in English before the shooting versions were translated into Finnish.

Man in Room 301 centres on a Finnish family with a tragic past on holiday in Greece

“Because it’s about relationships, all those things are universal, so that was easy to negotiate in a different language,” the writer says. “It was just learning about the landscape and the culture, which was different. Because we were doing it with Warner Bros Finland, they were in script meetings and talked to anything they felt would be more appropriate or ring more true to people in Finland. I had one character house-sitting for somebody and they said, ‘We just don’t have any reference of that.’ It’s just the smallest things, you could never know what [the notes] were going to be when you sent the scripts across. That made it an interesting experience.”

In between script meetings, Ashfield would explore Helsinki and the surrounding area to build a picture of the landscape, the types of properties and the lifestyles of the people who live there to better inform her writing. One example is when she wrote that a character would break into the post box of another character in an apartment building lobby, only to discover mail is delivered to each individual apartment and lobby-set post boxes don’t exist.

“It’s really strange little things like that that you keep coming up against. You just wouldn’t guess it. You can’t break a door down in Finland; because of the weather, they’re much stronger. Also, the Finns, because they have such a strong welfare system and have universal basic income, they don’t have homelessness and they’re just inherently better people in terms of not breaking the law. If their child was drink driving and hit another car, they would take them to the police station to confess. Here we might say, ‘Well no one got hurt and we won’t tell anyone.’ But they wouldn’t do that because it’s just wrong. All that stuff is quite interesting and you end up looking at your own culture in a different way.”

The drama’s director Mikko Kuparinen

Unlike on Born to Kill, Ashfield wrote all six scripts herself, comparing the process to completing a “massive jigsaw” as she contemplated how the story would play out across the different timelines and use the juxtaposition between the scenic Finnish countryside and the sun-drenched Greek landscape, where Athens-based Inkas Film and TV Productions provided coproduction support. Warner Bros holds international remake rights while APC Studios is distributing the original series.

“You also have to put story hooks in,” she continues. “This has no ad breaks [in each episode] so it’s not like Born to Kill where you have to have a hook every act out. That in itself becomes slightly different storytelling. It’s very much character-led, especially as Finns are more contained emotionally so you need to really get into their minds. It becomes more psychological in that sense.”

An actor now embarking on a writing career, Ashfield says she wants every part to be good, from the grandma to the young girl, with scenes viewers won’t expect and the ability to shock and challenge the audience. The series stars Antti Virmavirta (The Other Side of Hope) and Kaija Pakarinen (Devil’s Bride) as the parents, Jussi Vatanen (The Unknown Soldier) and Andrei Alén (Rig 45) as the grown-up children and Leena Pöysti (Laugh or Die) and Kreeta Salminen (All The Sins) as their wives.

Ashfield faced cultural differences between Finland and the UK when writing the series

“It’s also about the dialogue,” she notes. “I’ve been acting for years and you just want everything you get your characters to do and say to be authentic and not expositional or contradictory emotionally. I get a real feeling of the characters, and that’s the joy. That happens when I write with other people as well. I know those people, I know what they’re like. That’s part of it for me.”

With Man in Room 301, she hopes to entertain viewers with a story that takes them out of their own lives, while also prompting them to imagine what they might do in a similar situation to the characters on screen.

“Hopefully you relate to all of the characters and think, in that circumstance, ‘I could have done that,’” she adds. “Who knows how one will react. I wanted to make them all as likeable as possible in that scenario.”

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Spectacular viewing

Described as ‘Friends with a twist,’ Israeli drama On the Spectrum has won numerous awards for its depiction of three housemates who all have autism. DQ meets the co-creator and stars.

In the 18 months since it was first released in Israel, On the Spectrum has become a global phenomenon and festival darling.

After winning nine Israeli Television Academy Awards, including best drama series, last year, it claimed the Grand Prix at 2018’s Series Mania. Earlier this year, it won the SDA Grand Prize at the Seoul International Drama Awards, while it also swept the comedy categories at the 59th Monte Carlo Television Festival. Parenthood creator Jason Katims is now developing a US adaptation for Amazon Prime Video.

The 10-episode series follows three roommates, all in their mid-20s and all on the autistic spectrum, who share an apartment and must learn to cope with the world around them while trying to achieve their individual ambitions.

On the Spectrum comes from writer Dana Idisis and director Yuval Shafferman, who co-created the series for Israel’s Yes TV and have taken a realistic and raw approach to its subject matter. The series is produced by Sumayoko Productions and distributed by Yes Studios.

L-R: On the Spectrum’s leading trio are played by Ben Yosipovich, Naomi Levov and Niv Majar

Idisis says her brother, who is on the autistic spectrum, and his friends inspired the series. “I really wanted to write something about adult people on the spectrum who are the heroes of the show,” she continues. “It’s Friends with a twist, about three roommates in their late 20s trying to figure out what they’re going to do with their lives, going on dates and going for job interviews. It’s a sad comedy. This was the origin of the idea.”

Beyond her family connection, Idisis researched the series via an assisted-living project in Israel that supports people with autism who live together as roommates and share a social worker who can help them with any issues they might have. “I met a lot of guys but also women living in this apartment. Something they said to me was, ‘Make it funny – don’t make us look naive. We can also be jerks and have fun,’” the writer recalls. “ I really liked that angle because I wanted to make that kind of show, so I was happy they gave me their approval to continue. I asked them what to write about and they told me about their experiences. They helped me a lot.”

Dana Idisis

The Hebrew-language series features three main characters – Ron, Zohar and Amit – who live together in a flat and each have different variations of autism. Amit, played by Ben Yosipovich, is based on Idisis’s brother, with the character particularly high-functioning and able to manage his life without much assistance.

“I wanted his story to be about obsession. He develops an obsession with a waitress and thinks they’re a couple because she’s so nice to him, but doesn’t understand the boundaries,” Idisis explains. “I also knew I wanted to write about a guy with Asperger’s, which Ron has. His story is based on someone I knew who was afraid to leave his apartment for a year because of his social anxieties, so I wanted to take that story and develop it.”

Zohar, meanwhile, is an example of the many people whose autism is undiagnosed, something the writer says is particularly common among women. “Genuinely, a lot of women aren’t diagnosed,” she notes. “Zohar really wants to have sex and have a boyfriend like every normal woman her age. She has a brother who’s really protective of her and there’s the question of when is the right time to let go. So these were the topics I started from.”

The actors all did their own research into autism and the particularities of their characters’ conditions, visiting the same charity as Idisis. However, they soon learned that the key challenge was not to imitate real people with autism but to take some of their personality traits and blend them into their characters.

“We went to the apartments, met the people living there and talked to them,” says Niv Majar, who plays Ron. “It was very interesting to ask them how they would want us to do it, and then we had talks with Dana and the director and had rehearsals.”

The show has won numerous awards

Naomi Levov, who plays Zohar, accompanied Majar to the apartments. “There were fewer women, so there was one I locked on to and tried to learn her movements and the way she acted,” she explains. “But very soon, we understood it was not something we wanted to learn or imitate. It’s about the essence of things.

“The thing I got most from those visits was that these people are very exposed, they’re very out there. From the girl I saw, the thing I took with me was her eyes – she was very vulnerable. But we were very liberated and able to do our own thing, not bound to some kind of act.”

Levov admits she struggled to film one scene where Zohar becomes mad with her brother when he takes her phone. “I didn’t think it would be so hard, but the director, Yuval, is really accurate. We did the same take 20 times and I had to scream and cry again and again until he had it.”

But that extreme reaction – coupled with Zohar’s ability to recreate it time after time – typified the way the actor approached the role. “My character is out there, she’s always very happy but she’s not predictable,” she says. “And I’m extreme myself, so I took it all the way. Between takes, Niv would come to me and say, ‘Take care of yourself.’ He was watching me.”

Yuval Shafferman

Majar adds: “I was afraid for her. I was saying to her, ‘Do you want me to tell them to slow down?’ But she went out there full-on in every take. It was amazing to see.”

Majar had his own tricky moment on set when it came to filming his first ever sex scene. But while viewers may find humour in some of the scrapes and situations the characters find themselves in, he says the series isn’t playing for laughs. “For me, it’s not a comedy. It’s a drama series, and life is very absurd and funny,” he says. “Of course, it’s a very funny show and we had fun making it, but it’s realistic. I didn’t think of it as ridiculous because it’s so real, with situations we can all relate to.”

Levov agrees that the comedy comes from the circumstances presented in the show. “There were places you had to be very accurate and you had to trust the director and the text for the comedy to come out,” she says. “It’s not something we thought about while we acted, to be funny. It was happening because of the characters.”

But that’s not to say the cast didn’t bring their natural comedic talents to the series. “They are very funny people,” says Idisis. “We did a lot of auditions and we chose this cast because they were very funny in the audition. Niv is a stand-up comedian, so even though he doesn’t think he’s funny, he’s funny. We just felt they were the right people for the cast.”

Speaking to DQ at the Monte Carlo Television Festival, where the show would go on to win awards for best comedy and best comedy actor and actress for him and Levov, Majar says he believes the worldwide acclaim for the show lies in the fact it comes from the perspective of people on the autistic spectrum, as opposed to others in society looking at them.

On the Spectrum was created for Israel’s Yes TV

“I’m hoping that’s one of the reasons people find it interesting, because I think it’s a special angle to look at it and maybe you can relate more like this,” he says.

Levov concurs, adding: “Also, it’s not kitsch or cheesy. People have over-processed images on Instagram and stuff and people want to see real people.”

Autism has been a subject at the heart of several series in recent years, including US medical drama The Good Doctor and the Korean show of the same name on which it is based, Netflix’s Atypical and another Israeli show, Yellow Peppers, which later inspired the BBC’s The A Word. The success of On the Spectrum, meanwhile, has now been chosen to be screened at the UN next April for International Autism Day.

“It’s an important issue and I hope people are exposed to this,” Idisis says. “It was important for me to write that they are the heroes. They need to deal with the world, not that the world needs to deal with them. Also, they are not geniuses. They don’t have special powers. It’s the grey area, which is the most difficult on the spectrum.

“Yuval and I didn’t want to tell a story about those with special abilities. This is about day-to-day life and the issues of relationships, dating and job interviews. This all makes it different from other shows.”

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Missing memories

BBC single drama Elizabeth is Missing offers viewers a gripping mystery as well as profound insight into how living with dementia affects one woman and her family, as writer Andrea Gibb and executive producer Sarah Brown explain.

Andrea Gibb

In her bestselling novel Elizabeth is Missing, Emma Healey poignantly takes readers inside the mind of a person living with dementia, as main character Maud sets out to investigate the fate of her missing friend.

For a feature-length adaptation commissioned by BBC1, the challenge for screenwriter Andrea Gibb was to turn Maud’s inner thoughts into external expressions and actions, which often cause the past and present to collide.

“She’s an unreliable narrator. That’s the beauty of the book,” Gibb tells DQ. “Emma presents Alzheimer’s from the inside, which is what makes it so special, because quite often you read books about dementia or Alzheimer’s disease and they are from the point of view of the carer or the people who are on the outside. But this book is totally subjective. In that sense, you are in her head. You are with Maud and you sense her frustration.

“From a dramatist’s point of view, you’ve got to work out how you’re going to show that. So there were a lot of challenges in coming to this particular book, which was exciting but also daunting.”

Elizabeth is Missing stars Glenda Jackson as Maud, a dementia sufferer searching for her missing friend

Gibb first read the novel before it was published in 2014, when STV Productions asked her to consider adapting it for television. She had previously written about dementia in her short film Golden Wedding, having seen close relatives live with the disease, and later discovered her brother’s friend was Healey’s uncle, providing a helpful dose of serendipity that solidified her connection to the material.

Unfolding entirely from Maud’s perspective, the story combines mystery with an exploration of her dementia as she sets out to discover what has happened to Elizabeth. But with her memory deteriorating, the past and present collide as time runs out for her to uncover the truth.

Maud is played by Glenda Jackson, in a role that marks the actor’s return to the screen after 25 years, having spent the intervening years in politics.

“Nothing can happen without her seeing it, witnessing it or overhearing it, so we never leave Maud,” Gibb says. “I’ve even got her inhabiting her own memories. So quite often, people from her past, they just appear and she just talks to them. My dad had dementia and, at the end, he was in a care home and he honestly believed he was in Africa. He lived and worked in Africa when he was younger and he believed in that care room that he was in Africa. Then when I’d go and see him, I was in Africa with him. So I was inhabiting his past and his present, and that’s what I wanted [for Maud]. I wanted to get that sense of it so that we’re inside the disease.”

But while single dramas commissioned by the BBC tend to be issue-led, such as last year’s award-winning Care, Gibb says Elizabeth is Missing doesn’t aim for social realism, with flashbacks offering the writer some dramatic licence.

That said, “you can’t avoid the issue,” she says. “You see how people react to her and the toll it’s having on the family. It’s just not spelled out in the way of some other dramas, whose objective is to highlight problems with social care. Our intent and objective was to show how it must feel to be in this situation. That’s what Emma does in the book. How would you feel if you know something isn’t right but you can’t articulate what it is and you can’t get anyone to listen to you because they all think you’ve lost your marbles? I’m hoping that will shine a light on the issue but in a more oblique way, rather than us hitting viewers over the head with statistics about social care.

Peaky Blinders’ Sophie Rundle plays Sukey

“Other dramatists set out to do it specifically, like Jimmy McGovern [Care], Ken Loach [I, Daniel Blake] or Paul Laverty [Sweet Sixteen]. They set out to specifically shine a light on a particular issue and they do it brilliantly. It’s always got heart and the characters are always totally authentic and believable. I hope we are also authentic, believable and true but we’re just doing it from a slightly different angle.”

Having most recently adapted Arthur Ransome’s novel Swallows and Amazons for the big screen, Gibb says her writing process for Elizabeth is Missing followed a similar path, which amounted to reading the novel numerous times before working out which scenes, characters and moments were indispensable to the story.

“A book is not a film. A film is very external, whereas a book is very internal,” she explains. “When you read a book, you’re in a relationship with that book, you’re running your own film in your head as you read it. Whereas when I put it on screen, it’s our film – it’s a total collaboration. I worked very closely with my script editor, Claire Armspach, and STV Productions’ head of drama Sarah Brown, who was very heavily involved in how we tell the story, with feedback. Development is a constant process of writing, rewriting, discussion and more rewriting. So you are working off a lot of input, which can be amazing if it’s good, and I was really lucky in that sense.”

Many years in development, the project was initially conceived as a three-part miniseries. But without the natural hooks needed to bring viewers back for each episode, BBC drama head Piers Wenger suggested the story might better suit a single film.

Sarah Brown

“When he said that, it made total sense to me but sometimes you go through development to find where you should be at the end,” Gibb continues. “So you can go up a lot of wrong paths and as long as you come back and you find the right one, then it’s all been worth it. This is much more of a single because it’s a single issue. Maud’s the protagonist who has a ‘journey,’ you follow it from beginning to end and, actually, you are in her head. The only thing that matters is how you tell her story.”

With the novel achieving critical and popular acclaim, Brown says she understood the weight of responsibility that came with not only adapting a bestselling book but ensuring the film was as truthful as possible to the experience of those who live with dementia.

“The unique thing about the story is we’re telling the story of dementia from the point of view of someone with it. We wanted the audience to gain some insight into having that condition,” she says. “It was a process in terms of writing and filming a lot of scenes but, in the shooting and editing, it became clear how this was Maud’s journey. She informed every decision we made.”

The production sought advice from Dementia UK over how to portray the condition, with an advisor consulting during the script phase and also speaking with Jackson about her depiction. “No one dementia experience is exactly the same but, in broad terms, we wanted to be as truthful as possible,” Brown notes.

Gibb also felt that weight of responsibility. “I needed the audience to understand how she felt in every moment, what every memory stirred up in her and emotionally how she got from one moment to the next,” she explains. “Memory isn’t fixed and I really wanted to create the sense she was unpicking something in an urgent way before her mind went completely and she couldn’t remember anything. In dramatic terms, there’s a ticking clock. She’s desperate to try to put the puzzle together to get some kind of closure, even though she’ll forget instantly and it will start up again. But somehow she manages to come to a conclusion, and that’s her triumph.”

Jackson with Emma Healey, author of the novel on which the drama is based

Elizabeth is Missing was shot predominantly in Glasgow over five weeks, and Jackson was on set for all but two shooting days alongside a cast that also includes Helen Behan as Helen, Sophie Rundle (Sukey) and Maggie Steed (Elizabeth). Liv Hill plays a young Maud, Nell Williams is Katy, Mark Stanley is Frank, Sam Hazeldine is Tom, Neil Pendleton is Douglas and Stuart McQuarrie is Peter.

Aisling Walsh (Room at the Top) directs, with Brown, Gibb and Gaynor Holmes executive producing. The producer is Chrissy Skinns and the show, debuting this Sunday on BBC1, is distributed by NBCUniversal Global Distribution.

Claiming Elizabeth is Missing is “one of the one of the best things I’ve ever worked on,” Gibb says the project has made her realise that the UK’s health system is a “time bomb” when it comes to caring for people in old age and those with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. “I learned so much about how we deal with our old people and how lonely and isolated they can be,” the writer says. “We need to take better care of our old people generally in this society. Emma’s book really makes you feel that because you’re in Maud’s head, so I worked really hard to try to bring that into the adaptation, without using a voiceover or anything like that, because I wanted her to reveal herself to us as we go along.

“We need to have a proper look at our care system and how we how deal with people. There are so many people who are going to develop [dementia] and we have an ageing population. We are sitting on a time bomb and it needs it needs some proper strategic thinking from our alleged politicians.”

Brown adds that the “genius” of the novel lies in its use of two mysteries as a way to bring viewers to Maud’s condition. “They’re compelling in their own right but they’re also there to highlight the disease. We didn’t set out to make a campaigning film but people are seeing it as a dementia film. There’s a conversation to be had around care and this will be something that contributes to that debate.”

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Character study

While series have a shelf life, some characters become immortal. DQ speaks to a group of writers about how they create the people we watch on screen.

When it comes to television drama, an intriguing plot might entice you to tune in and watch a pilot, a few episodes or even an entire season. But storylines can only take you so far.

For a series to break out beyond its log line and take viewers on a journey across multiple seasons – perhaps becoming a piece of timeless television that enters the zeitgeist along the way – it all comes down to character.

A drama about advertising executives in 1960s New York might not sound that thrilling on paper, but add the dynamic ensemble of Don Draper, Peggy Olson, Joan Holloway, Betty Draper, Pete Campbell and Roger Sterling and Mad Men becomes an Emmy-winning series that runs for seven seasons.

Similarly, describing Breaking Bad as the story of a desperate man with nothing to lose and what he is willing to do for his family’s survival creates enough curiosity to pique some interest. But throw Walter White, Jesse Pinkman, Skyler White, Hank Schrader, Gus Fring and Saul Goodman into the mix and you have some of the most watchable television characters of the past decade.

The same can be said for characters including Tony Soprano (The Sopranos), Villanelle (Killing Eve), Fox Mulder and Dana Scully (The X-Files), Buffy Summers (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Carrie Matheson (Homeland), Olivia Pope (Scandal), the Lannisters (Game of Thrones) and the inmates of Litchfield Penitentiary (Orange is the New Black), who themselves become the focal points of their respective shows, rather than any single plots they might become involved in.

Brazilian series First-Time Parents comes from Antonio Prata

But how do writers look to create compelling characters and how are they served through the story? “These are two pieces that are created and go together: characters and story,” says Brazilian screenwriter Antonio Prata. “One does not exist without the other. So we imagine the characters according to the theme covered in the series, the tone and the stories we want to tell.”

Prata’s Globo series Pais de Primeira (First Time Parents) explores the trials and tribulations of a modern couple who discover they are expecting their first child. “We wanted to talk about maternity and paternity nowadays, so we were interested in talking about a mother who grew up focused on her career and does not identify herself with the feminine stereotypes of the 20th century,” Prata says. “We also created a guy who tries to get involved as much as he can, who tries to be the best father in the world – but who tries so hard that he gets in the way and overloads his wife with his theories and opinions. They are characters that need to operate on the kind of path we create.”

The authenticity and relatability of those characters and their situation is what attracts viewers to the series, Prata believes. “The audience does not necessarily need to see themselves in them, but they must believe in their suffering and aspirations. Obviously, it is not enough for the characters to be well written; the role of the actors, the direction, the scenography, the lighting – everything helps or disturbs the ‘truth’ brought by the characters. The impact of the characters is also very much created by the way the actors embody them.”

Similarly, Dan Sefton imagines character and plot are on a feedback loop, constantly informing each other. The British writer has created series such as The Good Karma Hospital, Delicious and The Mallorca Files, while season two of his medical thriller anthology Trust Me aired on the BBC earlier this year. The latter’s story followed a soldier who, while hospitalised with spinal injuries, begins to investigate a new enemy as patients around him start dying.

“I just write everything down; every little idea I have goes down in the notes section on my phone,” Sefton explains. “This was an idea I thought of a long time ago and thought it would be a good idea for a thriller – Rear Window in a hospital, where this guy with a spinal injury is hunting down a murderer. Then we started to flesh out the characters and the plot.

The second season of Dan Sefton’s Trust Me centres on an injured soldier

“You start with that single idea on a note and expand and expand, and the details grow until you’ve got the whole show – four hours of stuff. It’s amazing to me, each time I do it, how it starts with something tiny and ends up being a production involving so many people to get it the best they possibly can.”

At the centre of Trust Me’s second season is Jamie, played by Alfred Enoch, who becomes convinced something sinister is unfolding in the hospital where he is confined to his bed.

“Initially with this story, I knew I wanted somebody who was very physical, because who’s the worst person to have a spinal injury? It’s someone who’s lived their entire life in a very physical way, someone who is very fit and active,” Sefton says. “Then you go, ‘He could be in the army – that works.’ Then you build on that and add some backstory that works for the plot.

“I don’t think it’s as simple as creating a fixed character. It goes round and round as they’re developed. Sometimes you have these cool ideas that could work for a scene and then you reverse-engineer the character so that it fits in. Sometimes it’s the other way round. It goes round and round – that’s why it takes so long.”

Set in the 1950s, Finnish period drama Shadow Lines is rooted in reality when it presents Helsinki as the heart of the Cold War, with CIA and KGB agents all vying for control of the capital of a country wedged between the US and Soviet Union.

Shadow Lines is written by mother-and-daughter duo Kirsti and Katri Manninen

It’s here that Helena (Emmi Parviainen), a student recently returned from the US, is recruited by a fictional top-secret task force hell-bent on keeping the country independent and preventing outside forces meddling in Finland’s presidential election. But as Helena discovers the truth about her past, her personal and professional lives collide.

Made for Finnish VoD and digital TV service Elisa Viihde, the show is written by mother-and-daughter writing team Kirsti and Katri Manninen. They devised the series based on research about the period and Finland’s place in the world at that time, setting a spy story against a factual global conflict. Its mixture of fact and fiction isn’t restricted to the setup, with some characters based on real people and the majority made up.

Helena is educated, ambitious and well-travelled, but once she joins this covert organisation, she begins to discover secrets from her past that change who she thought she was. “In thrillers, it’s good if the main character has some secret they are trying to uncover,” Katri Manninen says. “From Helena, we then started developing different characters. We also realised we wanted the group to be a family, because we are a very close family with my siblings and my parents. We wanted to have that family feeling, so we saw the characters through family members.”

That’s not to say Shadow Lines, produced by Zodiak Finland and distributed by APC Studios, leaves its villains out in the cold. “The Soviets were the bad guys, but even when we developed those characters, we were trying to make them interesting, and at least one or two of them really lovable and understandable, so that you could understand their struggle and you wouldn’t see the story from only one side.”

Manninen says that if writers have a structure in place, those boundaries can enhance creativity, because without limits, characters might be left underdeveloped. That structure, however, forces you to push further into their story.

Poldark was adapted by Debbie Horsfield from the books by Winston Graham

“We are writers who invent very elaborate backstories for our characters. We know where they were born, where they went to school, what they did,” she explains. “Then we have a general idea where that will lead them. But the twists and turns and what happens when they interact with each other, that is where the creativity happens, where there is a lot of freedom, where we follow the characters. People always say writing is so hard. We think writing is amazing. Because we know where we are going, we have the map; we don’t get completely lost. If I get stuck at some point, then I just take a pause and jump to the next point and start writing from there.”

Meanwhile, BBC period drama Poldark, set in the late 18th century, concluded earlier this year. Based on the books by Winston Graham, the series was created by Debbie Horsfield, who is also behind original series such as salon-set shows Cutting It and Age Before Beauty. Like Manninen, Horsfield creates characters by blending fact and fiction. “I take elements of people from real life and create a character out of that,” she explains. “Sometimes it might just be an event that happens where I think, ‘That could make a good story.’ But normally it’s something that is current in my own life or family life.”

For example, Horsfield’s six-part BBC marathon-running drama Born to Run followed three generations of a family who all decide to train for a marathon. Though it wasn’t directly about her, it was based on her experiences of starting running after having her first baby.

“So it’s generally things I have first-hand experience of, either because I know somebody who has been through it or I’ve done it myself. I like to work like that because when it’s something you have a close experience of, there’s an integrity to it. There’s an authenticity to it. I find human nature is much more extraordinary than anything you can actually imagine, so that’s why I like to base things on real events and real people.”

Cutting It and Age Before Beauty also have roots in real life, as Horsfield’s sisters run a hairdressing business. “I come from quite a big family, so it’s interesting to look at family dynamics. It’s something I write about quite a lot,” she continues. “With Poldark, I have become much more fascinated by 18th and early 19th century history than I ever was at school because Winston Graham researched it so brilliantly, but he makes it about individuals. History used to be taught at school as a series of battles and acts of parliament, which was so dreary, but now I’m actually interested if they incorporate characters I’m engaged with. I’ve had a lot of people say they have started to take an interest in the period of Poldark because of the way they can see it impacted the characters.”

South African murder mystery The Girl from St Agnes

For Gillian Breslin, head writer of South African murder mystery The Girl from St Agnes (pictured top), “character influences or creates plot, so our first step is to figure out who they are.” In the eight-part series, produced by Quizzical Pictures for streamer Showmax, the death of popular student Lexi (Jane de Wet) is recorded as a tragic accident. Unconvinced by the police verdict, drama teacher Kate (Nina Milner) starts her own investigation that reveals a myriad of secrets.

Breslin and her team spent two months working out character and plot before writing began, with particular focus on building Lexi. “We thought it would be best if she was somehow manipulative. Then I did a lot of reading on these teenage crises and the more I read, the more I got a picture of who this girl was,” Breslin explains. “We knew we wanted Lexi to be an outsider somehow, whether it was economically or because of her family. As we started exploring that, it gave us more insight into the kind of character she was. Then once we had Lexi, we built her friends.

“In fact, Kate became the hardest to build, because though she’s the driver of the drama, she’s the seeker. It becomes quite hard to get her story outside of that. So she was the most challenging one for us to come up with. But once we found her, it was easier from there.”

Once the characters had been worked out – their personalities and their secrets – Breslin pulled them all together through motives and shared relationships. Then when their character arcs through the series were drawn out, every beat of every episode was plotted out.

“When you write at a pace, the characters tend to be very shallow and one-dimensional,” The Girl from St Agnes director Catharine Cook adds. “What I loved about these characters, particularly Lexi, is that she’s lovely enough but she is manipulative, so you don’t just love her, you don’t just say she’s a nice girl that got murdered. She had this fallibility about her; she had this other side that we have to take in. None of [the characters] are simply likeable – all of them have something about them that isn’t so cool, like all of us have.”

Shadow Lines’ Manninen sums up the golden rules of character building: “You have to feel it. You have to feel the emotions and really try to get into each of your characters, even the bad guys, because if you can’t do that, it’s probably a sign that you’re writing them from outside. If you want to write characters that feel real, you have to really go inside them and see where they come from so that you can know where they are going and how they will to react to different situations.”

Once you get inside the heads of your characters, she continues, you still need those “Oh my God” moments where they turn in ways that shock even the writer. “You should really have a feeling in the pit of your stomach, like, ‘This is horrible. I’m a horrible person, I’m really going to hurt my characters.’ That means you’re going to create these emotional moments. Then you’re getting somewhere.”

As an increasing amount of drama is produced, much of it left unseen behind the revolving carousels of streaming services, it is ultimately the characters that leave a legacy that will last beyond this golden age of television.

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Back with a vengeance

After a 20-year absence, Rebecca Gibney is reprising her role as forensic psychiatrist Jane Halifax in Australian crime drama Halifax: Retribution. The star and series creator Roger Simpson tell DQ how the show has evolved to meet modern TV viewing habits.

If it had been up to Australian broadcaster Network Nine, forensic psychiatrist Jane Halifax might never have disappeared from television. The lead character in Halifax FP, she was portrayed by Rebecca Gibney in 21 telemovies between 1994 and 2002.

But it was at that point that the show’s creator, Roger Simpson, decided to pull the plug on the franchise. He went on to produce series such as police drama Stingers and Satisfaction, which starred Jacqui Weaver and Liam Hemsworth.

However, almost two decades after Halifax FP last aired, the series has now been resurrected, with Gibney returning to the titular role in Halifax: Retribution. Like the TV industry itself in the intervening years, the series has evolved, with the reboot telling one serialised story across eight episodes rather than returning to the original telemovie format.

Roger Simpson

“It’s kind of the stupid thing you only do when you’re young,” Simpson says of turning down Nine’s offer to produce more episodes of the original series. “I wouldn’t do it now, but it was the arrogance of youth and we thought, ‘Let’s try something new.’ We went on and made other things. But now we have a second chance to do it again, so it all worked out.

“But streaming has completely changed the nature of television. There’s no slot for a telemovie, so we really had to reconfigure it in terms of the format that’s now current, which is the six-, eight- or 10-part serial.”

Jane is the only survivor from the original series, although as Simpson points out, she was the only regular character in each of the telemovies anyway. “Each episode was completely different and each setting was completely different apart from Jane,” he says. “She didn’t even have the same assistants in the office. We used different directors, different writers, different composers and designers – and by doing that, we attracted the best of Australian actors and practitioners, so it was really quite a successful format we came up with, more by accident than anything else.”

Set once again in Melbourne, Halifax: Retribution finds a sniper terrorising the city, with Jane approached by Inspector Tom Saracen (Anthony LaPaglia) to leave her university teaching position and help find the killer, 20 years after she last worked with the police. In a long-term relationship with Ben (Craig Hall) and a stepmother to Zoe (Mavournee Hazel), Jane is initially thrilled at the prospect of returning to the field. But when someone close to her is murdered, she must confront the possibility that the killing is related to the shooter and also linked to secrets from her past.

When DQ speaks to Gibney and Simpson, they are approaching the halfway point of filming the series. Four directors are each overseeing two episodes of the Beyond Lonehand Production show, which is distributed by Beyond Distribution. Six writers, including showrunner Simpson, were involved in penning the scripts, based on an initial storyline Simpson conceived. Though he would usually prefer to write a series by himself, the length of Halifax: Retribution demanded a “high-concept crime,” while the speed of production meant Simpson needed to open a writers room to accelerate the writing process.

Rebecca Gibney returns as Jane Halifax in Halifax: Retribution

The expanded storyline also means viewers will learn more about Jane’s private life, with the original telemovies rarely touching on her non-work relationships. Part of Jane’s backstory is the revelation that she left police work after succumbing to the pressures of the job, going into teaching instead. Halifax: Retribution reintroduces her as a professor of forensic psychiatry at Melbourne University, quite happily ensconced in her new role until a new case draws her back into a life she realises she misses.

“In the old days, we could have no continuing story at all because the network reserved the right to show [the films] in whatever order the programmers decided,” Simpson says. “They wanted total flexibility. That precluded us from any serial elements or going into her private life.

“Twenty years ago, when she was in her early 30s, she was someone who couldn’t keep a relationship. That had to be the nature of the telemovie. She would have a different relationship, if she had one, for each film. Now that she’s 20 years older, we could give her a family, a history and a backstory. It was really interesting to explore who Jane Halifax is today.”

Halifax FP originated off the back of Australian period drama Snowy, on which Simpson was a writer and Gibney part of the ensemble cast. When it ended after a single 13-episode season, Simpson designed a new vehicle for the actor, writing the pilot of Halifax FP with her in mind.

“The usual thing is to write the pilot and then cast it. But this time we actually cast it first and wrote it for her,” he recalls. “We haven’t done that too often over the years. So that was unique. It’s been a long friendship so it’s been great to come back and work together again after all that time.

“She’s just utterly convincing in the role. It’s like she’s a born sleuth and, in Australian terms, she’s one of our leading actors down here, so the combination is pretty good.”

For New Zealander Gibney, returning to the role of Jane Halifax was like putting on an old pair of slippers, or in this case, one of Jane’s trademark designer jackets. When asked by Nine if there was a show she would like to bring back, she immediately said Halifax. And when the network said they would be interested in a reboot, she called Simpson.

“It was just one of those things that took on a life of its own really,” she explains. “I love the fact that when we first came up with Jane Halifax, I was about 28 or 29, and even back then with the research that I was doing, I thought, ‘I don’t know if that’s a true depiction of a real forensic psychiatrist.’ The reality is they’re older than that, so now I’m actually a woman in my early 50s, I feel like I can bring a lot more to the character.”

The series also stars Anthony LaPaglia

Gibney describes Jane as “ahead of her time,” being the first female forensic psychiatrist on screen in a world dominated by men. “She was alone, she was flawed. She had a lot of emotional issues. We hadn’t really seen a lot of that,” says the actor, citing Prime Suspect star Helen Mirren as her hero. “We’ve now got [other series like] The Fall, The Killing, The Bridge and Marcella, so there are a lot of strong female characters out there. But back then, Jane was one of a few.”

Revisiting Jane, what Gibney has enjoyed most is learning that the character has a family. But just as she is enjoying domestic life, she is drawn back into criminal profiling. It’s not just the sniper who is in her sights, however, but also La Paglia’s Tom, with whom she clashes from the outset.

“He doesn’t hold a lot of play with forensic psychiatry but he’s at a loss at how to find this person, so he needs her,” Gibney says. “Over the course of the series, we uncover their relationship and find out he has his own demons and his own secrets and they form an unlikely friendship. I’ve known Anthony for 25 years – we first played fiancés in [1994 romantic comedy] Lucky Break and then husband and wife in the [2012] PJ Hogan film Mental. Now we’ve come back together again. Our chemistry is great; we’re good friends and we carry that on screen with us.”

Gibney’s role in Halifax: Retribution isn’t limited to the lead character, however, as she is also an executive producer, following similar dual roles on series such as miniseries Winter and Wanted, which she created with husband Richard Bell. As such, she has been across the dailies and looking at the rushes and various episode edits, as well as having input into the story.

Gibney in Halifax FP

“I’m probably bossy,” she jokes. “Roger’s getting used to the robust discussions we have. We don’t always agree on how things should be, and that’s been interesting. Twenty years ago, I was quite content to play Jane Halifax, but now, because I’ve been producing my own shows, I’m probably a little more vocal and he’s getting used to it! He’s also a dear friend. It’s a great collaboration. It’s been great to be back.”

Watching early cuts of the series has allowed Gibney to be objective about her own performance and take a view of the overall production. She admits that, more often than not, “I just think [I’m] crap,” but says she has learned to watch herself unemotionally.

“Particularly now I’m in my 50s and looking at my face ageing on screen, I’m kind of OK with it,” she says. “Weirdly enough, I would have struggled with it a lot more in my 30s than I do now. I’m a lot more accepting about who I am as a performer and as a producer in general. I don’t really care as much about the physicality of how I come across, which allows me the freedom to probably be a better actor because I’m OK with who I am. I don’t want to stop the clock, I just want to slow it down! I have no interest trying to look like I’m in my 30s or 40s. I want to portray a woman of my age.

“Sometimes as a producer I have to let performances go through that I don’t like because the other actor or the shot works better. Sometimes it’s frustrating but, generally, I’m OK with that. While I’m very passionate about what I do, it’s not who I am. We are making entertainment. As a mother of a 15-year-old, that’s way more important to me.”

Providing Halifax: Retribution is a hit, Gibney is hopeful the character could return for a new story next year. Similarly, having let the original show slip away, Simpson is not about to make the same mistake twice, revealing that he’s “learned to love Jane Halifax all over again.”

He adds: “The mature Jane Halifax is probably a more interesting character than the one in her early 30s who was just starting out in this world of crime. Now she’s wiser and smarter. It’s been really enjoyable to come back to her.”

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A round of Gulf

New Zealand drama is making its mark on the international scene on the back of two ambitious coproductions fuelled by producer Screentime NZ, as CEO Philly de Lacey explains.

Isolated in the South Pacific Ocean, New Zealand lies more than 2,000 miles from its nearest neighbour, Australia. Yet in television drama, it is building bridges with countries on the other side of the world thanks to two series produced by Screentime NZ.

Philly de Lacey

First there was Straight Forward, which told the story of a Danish woman trying to escape her criminal past by starting a new life in New Zealand, where she must adopt a new identity to escape those trying to track her down.

Screentime partnered with Copenhagen’s Mastiff to produce the eight-part series, which debuted earlier this year.

Simultaneously, Screentime was also engineering a German-New Zealand coproduction, which led to the creation of thriller The Gulf, which launched in September on Germany’s ZDF under the title Auckland Detectives.

Produced by Screentime, Lippy Pictures (Jean) and Letterbox Filmproduktion (Bad Banks), the drama centres on the moral disintegration of Detective Jess Savage (Kate Elliot), who finds herself caught between upholding the law and morality as she investigates crimes on her home patch of Waiheke Island, New Zealand.

After losing her memory in the car crash that killed her husband, Jess becomes determined to bring the guilty party to justice. Convinced that someone is trying to kill her because of something she has uncovered in a recent investigation, she begins retracing her steps. But as she gets closer to the truth she so desperately seeks, Jess discovers that her world is not so morally black and white.

The series was later picked up by MediaWorks’ Three in New Zealand and Nine in Australia, and is set to debut this Wednesday on Sundance Now in the US.

The Gulf stars Kate Elliot as Detective Kate Savage

Screentime initially partnered with writers Donna Malane and Paula Boock, who had come up with the idea for the story. “It’s set far from the city but is a microcosm of society on this small island,” says executive producer and Screentime CEO Philly de Lacey. “It created for us a really distinct world that wasn’t too specifically New Zealand; it could be set anywhere. We had a great lead character in Jess, whose husband had just died in a car accident and she was trying to figure out what happened, which created a great and unexpected story across the series.

“Then we started talking to ZDF. They’ve got some English-language slots and typically take English drama from the UK, so it’s quite unusual for them to be looking at a drama from New Zealand. But it was quite fortuitous because the commissioning team had visited Waiheke not long before we pitched it to them. They understood the world we were talking about and they loved the idea of crime and nature together. It was something they hadn’t seen before.”

However, German crime dramas tend to have episodic elements, and ZDF was looking for three self-contained 90-minute films to screen for its local audience. This posed a creative problem for the writers and producers, who had conceived the series in six 45-minute parts.

“We then designed the series to have episodic stories that lasted two episodes and had a really great hook halfway through so we could draw the audience into each episode, but then we also had a strong serial arc that ran across the series that resolved itself at the end in a really beautiful way,” de Lacey says, explaining how Jess’s personal story dovetails with three criminal cases that have a major impact on her career.

Filmed in New Zealand, The Gulf features an entirely Kiwi cast

“What the writers also managed to do, which I thought was really clever, was take all the storylines that were seemingly completely unrelated and intertwine them in a unique way at the end. They really came up with something very special, full of beautiful, complex, multi-layered characters.

“The other thing that happened was we ended up with an entirely Kiwi cast, which I thought was pretty special for a show that was predominantly targeted at an international audience. ZDF really embraced the look of it and we were really lucky. I’m not sure how often that happens.”

Filming took place in Auckland, with the crew also spending 10 days on Waiheke, which sits in the middle of the Hauraki Gulf, the main waterway into the city near the northern tip of New Zealand’s north island.

“It’s white sandy beaches, foreboding rocky beaches, small townships. It has a small population but also a lot of holidaymakers on the island, so it made for a unique shooting location but allowed Jess also to go back to the city from time to time when she needed to,” de Lacey says.

“Anyone who’s ever visited New Zealand will have an understanding of it but, until you arrive, you don’t realise how diverse it is. One of the things we say is we have every geographical formation in the world in a very tiny space – we have mountains, fjords, white sand beaches, glaciers, subtropical rainforest. We have this crazy little microcosm of the world.”

The series will begin airing on Sundance Now in the US this Wednesday

Overseeing a series that had to work narratively in both 60- and 90-minute instalments provided de Lacey with a fresh challenge, but she says The Gulf works in both formats because it was a requirement from the start, rather than the show being retrofitted to suit one or the other.

“That was the biggest anomaly for me, but the biggest surprise was that it’s all English language with an all-Kiwi cast,” she notes, acknowledging actors including Elliot, Ido Drent, Jeffrey Thomas, Pana Hema-Taylor, Mark Mitchinson and Timmie Cameron. “I wasn’t sure what we were going to be allowed to do [with a German commissioning broadcaster] but we ended up with such a strong cast, it was so cool. ZDF really embraced the cultural nuances of New Zealand. They loved it and wanted more of it, and I thought it was interesting that they wanted to explore our world. They loved the idea of crime and nature in this world that they hadn’t seen before.”

De Lacey says the strangest part of the process was watching the series, which is distributed by Banijay Rights, later dubbed into German ahead of ZDF’s broadcast. But with the success of Straight Forward and now The Gulf, it’s unlikely to be the last time her own shows are translated for audiences around the world, such is the interest now in ‘Southern noir.’

“We set out to do something that was unique and different,” de Lacey concludes. “The New Zealand world we were able to provide is something people haven’t seen before. The story was gripping, the production was great and I’m wildly proud of the series. It brings those different cultural values together and allows you to create something you might not have come up with before. That’s what makes it really distinctive.

“Both Straight Forward and The Gulf have been really well received internationally and it’s great for New Zealanders. We’re on the other side of the world in the middle of nowhere, so it’s great our shows are starting to make an impact on the international landscape.”

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