All posts by Michael Pickard

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 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 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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World building

As television drama transports viewers to new worlds, both historical and fantastical, the role of the production designer has never been more important. DQ finds out more about the job from those doing it on shows in the UK, the US, Canada and Australia.

Since the emergence of Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and other streamers, the number of TV dramas in production has skyrocketed. With this, niche genres that would have been ignored by mainstream broadcasters are being exploited by these new services, keen to bring fans of these previously underserved stories together, wherever they are in the world.

As a consequence, it has fallen to production designers to flex their creative muscles and bring these stories to life, from a horror series in which a haunted house is a central character (The Haunting of Hill House) to a futuristic sci-fi show in which human bodies are interchangeable and death is no longer permanent (Altered Carbon).

Sam Hobbs has worked on Australian series including Janet King and The Kettering Incident, and most recently sent modern-day Sydney back to the 1980s for ABC drama Les Norton. Based on the novels by Robert G Barratt, the show follows country boy Les who arrives in the city on the run from his past and winds up as a bouncer at an illegal casino.

Hobbs says the role of the production designer is to create the dramatic world of the series, both in terms of its time period and by establishing the rules to which that world adheres. “With Les Norton, the first thing I tried to facilitate was a discussion of the zeitgeist of that period. There was a huge sense of optimism and that anything was possible, despite the radical changes to Australian society, but it happened in conjunction with a sense of fairness. That’s the background. It was a really dynamic time.”

Australian drama Les Norton is set in the 1980s

Hobbs took inspiration from research that included photography by Rennie Ellis, before designing the 160 sets and locations that would be used across the 10-part series. Casino and brothel sets epitomised the decadence of the period with a rococo, theatrical design, while conversations with the producers, directors and cinematographers also brought elements of nostalgic melancholy to the style and tone.

Equally important was avoiding clichés of the period by ensuring the series, from producer Roadshow Rough Diamond and distributor Sonar Entertainment, focused on the characters, who just happened to exist in the 1980s.

“We did some building to give us some studio sets to go to but then we were pretty much on the road building sets into real dwellings or onto real exteriors the whole way through,” Hobbs says. “It’s a pretty crazy schedule. It was 10 one-hour episodes we knocked off in a very short period of time.”

An increasing challenge facing productions is cast availability. For Les Norton, stars Rebel Wilson and David Wenham needed to shoot their scenes in a short timeframe, which for the art department meant having all 10 episodes prepared by the time the cameras were ready to roll.

“That’s quite a new shift in terms of TV production – that casts are now driving schedules to a degree,” Hobbs notes. “We accept that’s the way it’s going to be in the future because it’s great to have big names like Rebel and David, but it certainly makes it challenging for us.”

Perpetual Grace Ltd is a stew of ‘film noir, western and timelessness’

Locations included Sydney’s real Kings Cross district, where the story is set, as well as Bondi, which Hobbs describes as an “extraordinarily beautiful place.” But the show’s style stands in stark contrast to Foxtel’s mystery drama The Kettering Incident (2016), in which Elizabeth Debicki played a woman on a journey to discovering the truth about her past.

With the show set in Tasmania, “we travelled to lots of interesting locations to put that world together,” Hobbs says. “It was a very conscious effort to create a deeply melancholic universe where those characters were essentially trapped at the end of the world. Once we had that broad idea, we were really punching with all those set and location decisions to find that palette and tone. It’s a similar process. Every project throws up its own logic. Every project has its driving spirit.”

On Perpetual Grace Ltd, that spirit came directly from the tone and sensibility of the scripts, overseen by co-showrunners Steve Conrad (Patriot) and Bruce Terris. Set in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the western noir stars Jimmi Simpson (Westworld) as a grifter who attempts to prey on Pastor Byron Brown (Sir Ben Kingsley), who turns out to be far more dangerous than he suspects.

Having loved Patriot, which ran for two seasons on Amazon, production designer Laura Fox was familiar with writer/director Conrad’s “visual vibe,” which also flows through Perpetual Grace. “The similarity is he’s got an artistic style. It’s not hardcore realism,” she explains. “Our show is really a stew of film noir, western and timelessness. And, of course, the vistas of Santa Fe help define it. It has an interesting graphic quality we try to achieve with some shots. There’s some camerawork that’s visually striking.”

Just as he did with the spy genre in Patriot, Conrad has disrupted traditional ideas of the western genre in Perpetual Grace, which was commissioned by US cable channel Epix. Fox’s tasks included creating a saloon bar at the centre of the show’s location that mixes modern design with the traditional cowboys who frequent it. Similarly, officers from the Texas Rangers law enforcement agency drive modern trucks, while other characters have vintage cars. “So there’s a timelessness to it that disrupts the genre. It all works together in our world but there’s nowhere you’d see it exactly like that in an old western or in a modern setting,” says Fox, whose credits include films Alex Cross and 500 Days of Summer.

Filmed on studio sets, the interiors of the titular mansion in Sanditon were inspired by Bond movie Thunderball

As ever, Fox’s work begins with the scripts, the characters and speaking to the creators and directors, before working out how to use the main shooting locations. “It started with Steve and we all collaborated around his big vision and then brought new ideas to him and let it build from there,” she says. “We were talking to each other and making sure we were all living in the same world and not deviating too much.”

When a deserted prison didn’t match the look of the show, Fox transformed an old stable into the show’s jail. She also built elements of a NASA test site, a barber shop and a funeral home. “We were always trying to push the edge out of reality,” she says of the MGM-produced series. “You knew where you were but you hadn’t seen it before. It’s constantly that struggle between what is in Santa Fe and what we can push to fit our show.

“Every job I do, they start by saying, ‘We’re not going to build anything,’ and then you always end up building a lot of stuff. But it felt to me less like we couldn’t find it [the right location] and more like it needed to be from another world. I don’t think what we built exists.”

For ITV period drama Sanditon (pictured top), production designer Grant Montgomery built an entire town. Produced by Red Planet Pictures and distributed by BBC Studios, the series was inspired by Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, adapted for the screen by Andrew Davies (War & Peace). It tells the story of a developing Regency seaside town at the forefront of the great social and economic changes of the age.

Grant Montgomery

Production took place across 21 weeks, with filming largely based at The Bottleyard Studios in Bristol, England, where Montgomery oversaw a massive building project to create a slice of 1819 England. “The challenge was to create a seaside resort that pretty well doesn’t really exist,” he says. “We went down to [English coastal town] Lyme Regis but we couldn’t shut it down over the summer. That wasn’t going to work. We then decided that the best way forward was to build it, and I took my inspiration from Boardwalk Empire in the sense of how to stitch it together so it looked like it was next to the sea, which it’s not because it’s built in a car park in Bristol.”

Montgomery highlights one of the opening shots of the series, filmed using a drone, that reveals an overhead view of the town opening out on to a beach and the sea beyond. It was created by matching footage from the set with a beach the production team found. Green-screen technology was used to create the impression streets from the set led out to the sand.

The quarter-of-a-mile-long set also doubled for London, meaning it could be redressed to present different locations, while the design allowed for different camera angles to make the lot seem larger than it actually was.

Some exteriors were filmed on location, with 17th century mansion Dyrham Park doubling for Sanditon House, while all interiors were filmed on studio sets, owing to the fact that period properties owned by heritage charity the National Trust restrict the use of candles. It was here that Montgomery really pushed the boundaries of period drama, revealing that the black marble design of the grand house is based on interiors from James Bond movie Thunderball.

“We had a very tight schedule because we had a delivery day, so everything was set in stone. We built all the sets in 10 weeks – that’s a mountain to climb – but we tried to push it as much as we possibly could so it didn’t become pastel-coloured,” Montgomery says, adding that 35 Jane Austen ‘Easter eggs’ have been placed around the set for avid fans of the novelist to identify. “I had the Jane Austen Society there. They got them but some of them are pretty obscure jokes.”

In longform TV, Montgomery argues half the attraction for viewers is the chance to spend time with characters in another world. “They want to explore it with you and the more time that’s given to it, the better it becomes,” he says. “That’s part of the richness of TV drama.”

The Handmaid’s Tale takes its lead from Margaret Atwood’s book

By common agreement, Davies has played fast and loose with Austen’s novel to create a sexed-up period drama that is accentuated by Montgomery’s design. But when it comes to books and films that have a particularly strong sense of style, adaptations tend to be more faithful.

Elisabeth Williams has worked on two such projects, The Handmaid’s Tale and Fargo, both of which are produced by MGM. With both shows’ source material having already defined the look of the unique worlds in which they take place, did Williams have any room left to create something fresh?

“There has to be a certain respect for the original material, because these shows are basically an homage to both Margaret Atwood’s book and the Coen Brothers’ original film,” Williams says of working on seasons two and three of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and season three of FX’s Fargo, respectively. “If you steer far from it, you’re doing something wrong and that’s not the intention. So there’s definitely a desire to stay as close to the original as possible but also to add your own touch.

“For The Handmaid’s Tale in season three, I had the chance to pull away from what had been done in seasons one and two and make the world a little more my own. In Fargo, each season is set in a different time period so the style automatically changes, but still respects the Coen Brothers’ style. That’s the whole point.”

Williams describes her role as translating the showrunner’s vision into something visible, while adding her own style to create a sense of the location and even the characters’ personalities. On Fargo, she takes her lead from showrunner Noah Hawley, who for each season writes a 100-page series bible from which each head of department can work.

Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley writes a 100-page series bible ahead of each season

“So I was able to start some research and begin imagining the sets before I even got the scripts,” says Williams of the Calgary-based show. “All of the decisions are made with Noah, so for the first two months of prep it was just the two of us. We did a lot of it by phone; we would send each other some pictures and some images and I was able to come up with the look of the show.”

In contrast, The Handmaid’s Tale, which is filmed in Toronto, is more collaborative, with showrunner Bruce Miller spending a greater proportion of his time in the writers room. “What he says is, ‘I hire you guys because you’re best at what you do. I’m not going to tell you what to do.’ So it’s wonderful,” Williams says of working on the dystopian drama. “I was on my own at the beginning but I know what the style of the show is, so it’s not like I can stray that far. But it’s always the same process: it’s the script, research, concept boards, mood boards, looking for locations and then off we go.”

Season three featured a two-storey home belonging to Commander Lawrence (played by The West Wing’s Bradley Whitford). “We wanted to build one house so the actors and camera could move freely from one floor to the other,” Williams recalls. But since studio space is at such a premium in Toronto, owing to the sheer number of productions shot there, the crew wasn’t able to find a space big enough and was forced to split the set in half, with the ground floor and first floor side by side in the same studio.

While the process behind production design may have not changed dramatically in recent years, Williams believes the pace at which they need to work is increasing. “I feel like what we deliver are feature-quality TV shows, but the time you have to prep a feature is the same as the time you have to prep 13 episodes of TV,” she explains. “The scripts trickle in so it’s extremely demanding, in terms of time management, to deliver quality. TV is no longer TV the way we knew it 10 or 15 years ago. The quality is higher.”

Meanwhile, Hobbs says the key challenge for designers is to be clever with the way scripts are visualised and to avoid being derivative. “Scandinavian noir was a thing that kept swimming around and everyone just thought, ‘Well, if we do a Scandi noir visual style, that’ll be cool.’ But I found that really annoying,” he says. “Ultimately, you can keep doing great work as long as you think freshly about the material. Don’t look to other TV shows or movies. You can be inspired by them but not copy them. That’s the challenge, because we’re all watching so much stuff now. Ultimately, it’s got to come from the story and the words on the page.”

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Washed up

Flemish series Grenslanders (Floodland) sets a crime mystery against a unique backdrop as investigators from Belgium and the Netherlands join forces in this cross-border drama.

The mudflats of the River Scheldt, which flows along the border between Belgium and the Netherlands, provide a unique and eye-catching landscape that serves as the backdrop for Flemish thriller Grenslanders (Floodland).

It’s here that a small boat emerges from the mist, bobbing on the water, its cabin riddled with bullet holes and its walls dripping with blood. The next morning, a young girl is discovered wandering among the mud and grass, clearly injured and exhausted by an unknown ordeal.

When Dutch police inspector Tara Dessel (played by Jasmine Sendar) and Belgian psychologist Bert Dewulf (Koen De Bouw) are called in to investigate the mysterious boat and identify the girl, they confront the border communities where the people who live there may be hiding secrets of their own.

Produced by Eyeworks and Column Film for Belgium’s VRT and Avrotros in the Netherlands, the idea for the series came from co-creators Rik D’Hiet and Erik de Bruyn, who also wrote and directed the drama respectively.

De Bruyn had seen a show written by D’Hiet called Het Goddelijke Monster, a saga about a scandal-ridden family, and suggested they partner for a new project. The director was particularly keen to make a show that would appeal to Flemish audiences in both countries.

Dutch police inspector Tara Dessel: her vintage car completes the character’s look

“We speak the same language but we live in different countries so we are a bit estranged from each other,” D’Hiet says, speaking after a screening of Floodland at the Serié Series television festival in France. “So we started imagining what kind of series that could be. Very soon we wanted to create a series set in this special region that is called the ‘Floodland.’ We started thinking what would happen in this kind of region where you have these huge mammoth tankers going to the cities inland and at the same time you have this very regional culture that was very peculiar.

“Then I came up with two images – the first was the image of a girl wandering around in the flat lands on the Belgian border, and this other image was of a small yacht floating around on the Scheldt River. Fom there, we started to imagine and create the story.”

Mylène Verdurmen, head of drama at Avrotros, was immediately enthusiastic about the concept and the idea of creating a cross-border Flemish series. “They pitched it to me through these two images and the characters,” she recalls. “They didn’t have a huge bible yet, just a small story, but the story was told through the characters already and it was this magical thing. You knew it was going to be a great idea.”

The creators took special care to find the right tone for the series, looking specifically at how the characters would look and react to each other. “They all have their specific language and we also wanted a slight irony to the series,” D’Hiet says. “It’s not too serious – it has to be suspenseful, you want drama because it’s a mystery, but it doesn’t have to be too dark. It’s not Scandinavian noir.

“We wanted to lure people into the story in a rather classical way. We have these two main characters, Tara and Bert, but when the story develops we focus more on the other characters as well. It’s really about a cast of strong characters who have their own peculiarities but also that can move you in a special way.”

Peter Bouckaert

Sendar auditioned for the role of Tara on the basis of a single scene. Then, when she was called back a couple of months later, she met de Bruyn and sought to find out more about the character.

“I asked him, ‘What’s her issue?’ because she has issues,” the actor says. “We started talking and it was interesting, so from then on I really got excited. I wanted the part because it sounded really cool. After three auditions, I heard I got the part, but then we had to find my partner and I really connected with Koen, who plays Bert. As an actor you imagine what it will look like and how everything would be. Then when you go to the edit, it’s even more than you can imagine so I’m happy I got to be a part of this.”

For Tara, particular attention was given to how the character would look, from her vintage car and leather jacket to her hair. “I was wearing a wig and it needs to be on tight if we’re going to have boat shots. I don’t want to be losing the wig,” she jokes. “So we had discussions about that and how we were going to do it. Also for me, it was really important that she wears natural hair, because you don’t see that very often.”

Elly Vervloet, head of international drama coproductions at VRT, says Floodland is typical of the character-driven series sought after by the public broadcaster, with both Tara and Bert dealing with personal issues beyond the case at hand. That the story also deals with the subject of human trafficking also means the drama holds contemporary relevance.

“We all know what the problems are and that criminal organisations arise as soon as there is a humane disaster taking place. That is important for us [to talk about],” she says.

Verdurmen describes working on Floodland as “one of the loves of my life,” noting how she teamed with D’Hiet and de Bruyn in the beginning before producers Chantal van der Horst of Column Film and Eyeworks’ Peter Bouckaert came on board. Then VRT joined the coproduction, with distributor Federation Entertainment picking up worldwide rights to the show.

Though Flemish drama budgets do not match those enjoyed by producers in France, Germany or Scandinavia, the cost of the eight-part series grew from an estimated €4m (US$4.4m) to more than €5m, owing to the challenges of shooting on location, travel and battling unhelpful weather conditions. It aired on Avrotros in August and VRT in September.

Belgian psychologist Bert with Tara: on-screen relationship sets the right tone

“But we still had to chew every euro,” he says. “We were confronted with crazy things. When we were approaching May, there was a very rare bird who decided to breed in the area where we were shooting and all of a sudden we could not shoot there anymore. This was a location we had been specifically looking for because of the tides, so we had to scout other locations. We decided to shoot later on when the birds were gone. It was crazy stuff. It comes with the territory. And the weather was extreme.”

Sendar describes the six-month shoot as “challenging,” with production beginning amid freezing temperatures in January. “The entire crew had masks and gloves on. I was in this very cool vintage jacket,” she notes. “But during the summer, when it was 30 degrees, everyone was in shorts and I was still in the jacket and turtle neck jumper.”

With high-end drama budgets continue to rise, coproductions are becoming increasingly necessarily to balance the books and deliver cinematic visuals that can rival many big screen movies. As Bouckaert notes, however, building these relationships purely on financial terms is not a surefire recipe for success.

“Financing has to come in a natural way and this was the case for us from the very beginning,” he says. “We started together at a very early stage when there were no scripts yet. We had to think about what series this would be. There was a single vision and that’s so important. After three-and-a-half years of preparation, we still ran into things we hadn’t expected during shooting.”

While The Bridge and its various remakes have mastered the art of cross-border storytelling, Floodland stands out for its compelling lead characters and the unique environment in which its mystery plays out, holding more secrets that are waiting to be uncovered.

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Rogue caller

Sally Lindsay’s out for revenge in psychological drama Cold Call, in which she plays the unwitting victim of telephone fraudsters who is pushed to increasing extremes in her pursuit of justice.

When the telephone rings in the opening minutes of Channel 5’s psychological drama Cold Call, your stomach immediately weighs heavy with dread, fear and apprehension. June Clarke is already having a bad time, having lost her carer’s job, and that phone call is about to make things much worse.

Because when she answers the call, supposedly from a representative of her bank, it leads her to losing thousands of pounds in a fraudulent cold call scam. The four-part miniseries then follows June, charged up by a bubbling rage, as she attempts to hunt down those responsible and seek her revenge.

What adds fuel to the sickening fire is that this is a crime that could, and does, happen to anyone and everyone, with the reality of how June was conned by the scammers revealed early on in a heartbreaking pullback shot by director Gareth Tunley.

Director Gareth Tunley on set

“June is based on a lot of women I know who have literally done the right thing all their life,” star Sally Lindsay tells DQ. “They stick to the law, pay their bills on time, never go overdrawn, love their family, have a sense of social responsibility, try and do their best all the time and still this crap happens to them. Then it’s the rage that fuels her revenge. The overriding thing about this drama is everybody underestimates her because she’s just a carer and that’s where everyone gets it wrong. This is for everyone – it’s one for the little people.”

Over the course of four hours, viewers will see June slowly become stronger and increasingly willing to break the rules. “It’s almost like she’s putting her armour on throughout the drama until the end where she’s this warrior. It’s really interesting to watch,” Lindsay says. “We’ve only got four episodes and there’s so much in this drama, we could have had a three-season Netflix deal!”

Starring opposite Lindsay is Daniel Ryan as Des Grigsby, who went to school with June and then bumps into her at a support group for victims of fraud. Cheated out of thousands of pounds himself, he has devoted his time to tracking down fraudsters ever since and now pushes June to pursue her thoughts of revenge – but is he truly being selfless?

Sally Lindsay as June Clarke

Lindsay thought of Ryan for the part as they played husband and wife in Sky comedy Mount Pleasant for six seasons. He got the call, read the treatment and signed on to the show before reading a script.

He describes Des as a bit of a tech geek and a loner, who becomes obsessed with following the trail of the money he himself lost to fraudsters, which leads him to encourage an initially reluctant June to join his cause.

“We’re not quite sure whether it’s a moral crusade or whether there’s something else going on with him,” Ryan says. “Like all the characters, he’s maybe not what it says on the tin. There are possibly other motives.”

Lindsay likens June and Des’s relationship to that of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, with June playing the role of Shakespeare’s tragic king, pushed by the other to follow a certain path. “She gets engulfed by this idea of revenge that she never thought she would be. Her age and years of not being given a chance and just trying to survive just comes out.”

Daniel Ryan as fraud victim Des Grigsby

Best known to British viewers for her roles in Coronation Street and comedies such as Still Open All Hours, Lindsay joined the project from the beginning of its development several years ago. She was given a 30-page treatment by writers Karyn Dogan-Buckland and Mark Buckland that outlined how June was an ‘everywoman’ taken in by a scam that affects people every day.

“I had a cold call the week before the meeting. I didn’t fall for it – I nearly did,” she admits. “It was supposedly from the gas board, threatening fees and legal action and all sorts. What was so fascinating about the show is it is also like an education in the fact we’re hoping to show the viewer how they do it and how not to fall for it.

“The weirdest thing was I didn’t really have to do any research because the minute I started talking about it, everybody had a story – my neighbours, random people I was meeting with. These stories came at me thick and fast. It’s almost like it’s just under the skin of society. Half the population it’s not happened to know about it and feel very vulnerable because they don’t know what to do, while the other half of the population have experienced it and they’re angry and feel June’s rage. So hopefully we’ve got a balance in that way. That’s why I find it so exciting.”

Cold Call: about a crime that could happen to anyone

For producer Rebecca Davies, who has worked on series such as Victoria, The Syndicate and Creeped Out, coming from a background of high-end, big-budget drama meant she had to “reset my brain” to the more modest budgets afforded by Channel 5. This meant her early work with the writers involved removing superfluous characters or locations to ensure every penny was used in the most efficient way.

“It was about the story and what’s happening to June,” she explains. “That’s what we used the money for so when we went to locations, we could get the most out of the money and put it on screen. That’s where the money goes – on actors, locations and their design – so we’re not compromising, we’re just clear on how many we’re having and how that would work with the story and how we would shoot it.”

Yet throughout the series, produced by Chalkboard TV and distributed by Kew Media Distribution, the action remains grounded to ensure the drama never becomes overly heightened, always pushing the audience to ask themselves, “What would I do?”

“It’s very centred in reality but it’s still a piece of drama. Hopefully it’s entertainment,” Lindsay says. “I sometimes feel with some dramas, you’re like, ‘Come on, give us a laugh,’ because people are funny. We need to see that other side of characters to make them whole.”

“We didn’t want it to be too heightened and have June running around town murdering people,” Davies continues. “With the brilliant scripts, the actors make it so real but it’s still grounded, even when we’re in the big house in Cheshire and you’re uncovering this underworld behind all the scamming. We try to keep it as real as possible, which is down to the performances, the scripts and our choice of locations. It’s simplicity as well. The decisions we made to keep stripping back really paid dividends as you go through the show.”

Des pushes June to pursue her thoughts of revenge

Davies joined the production at the same time as director Tunley (The Ghoul, Creeped Out), who worked closely with the writers and DOP Ben Pritchard to shape the script with a visual eye.

“We felt June’s world was going to be quite warm, filmed in handheld but not in a way that was jarring or alienating, just rough around the edges,” he explains. “We wanted to create a nice world that the viewer might recognize – the world of working people, not poverty and misery, just hardworking people living a relatively nice life.”

That would then be shown in contrast to affluent Kirk, the piece’s apparent villain, where classical and tracking shots would capture his world in a colder but more cinematic way.

“There’s always a point of view. It’s not always June’s but she is the heart of it,” Tunley continues. “So we’re always thinking what the scene is like from her vantage point. We’re discovering things for the most part as she discovers them. She’s an interesting character in this because she discovers darker sides to herself that will be quite shocking for the audience and possibly quite divisive. She’s not the straightforward character she seems to be in the first episode. Sally makes you sympathise with the character even when she’s taking ever more extreme choices.”

“Gareth has made a four-hour film noir,” Lindsay says, noting the edge-of-your-seat thrill ride viewers will be taken on as June is pushed into increasingly extreme situations. “The cold call is just the start of her story. It informs the rest of her existence but it’s a very small part of who she is. We in the audience see this literally change in this person – this strength come from seemingly nowhere.”

“A drama that goes to some very deep, dark, unexpected places”

An associate producer on the series, Lindsay was behind the show’s choice to split filming between Manchester, where June lives, and upmarket Cheshire, the home of Kirk (Paul Higgins). She was also involved in script and casting decisions throughout.

“It was Sally who got it across the line for commission,” Davies says. “The fact it’s so different from the parts she does ordinarily, she’s a brilliant, very natural, instinctive drama actress and she was very collaborative throughout.”

Tunley concurs: “When it came to filming, I knew she was good but she was amazing. She knocked it out of the park every day and was just able to turn on a dime emotionally from scene to scene and within scenes and there was just such amazing nuance in her character and the same goes for the rest of the cast.”

With a seven-week shoot that demands June be in almost every scene, Lindsay was grateful for an extended rehearsal period that meant she and her co-stars were ready and prepared as soon as they arrived on set.

“It wasn’t a party show,” she jokes. “It was great though. What a joy and honour to take this mantle on and be asked to do this. It’s a real career high for me and I just hope I’ve done it justice. The crew were amazing. We worked against the clock but we were given a beautiful few weeks of rehearsal. It was just a joy to do.”

With several versions of the ending committed to film, Lindsay says she didn’t know which one would be chosen until the very last minute but admits: “I think they’ve gone with the right one – the one I wanted. It’s still really bloody interesting that we could do that. It was a living thing. Every day we were working on it. We were very open to shall we try this and that. You felt very alive doing it. It was great, I loved it.”

Ultimately, the power and horror of Cold Call, which debuts on Monday and will be stripped across four nights, is that the catalyst for June’s life to spiral out of control is something that could happen to anyone.

“She’s not targeted because she’s ‘June the carer.’ It’s just because she happens to be distracted on that day and she gives them the money,” Davies says. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a degree or you’re a lawyer or a doctor or work in a care home. It could happen to anybody.”

Tunley adds: “Hopefully it will make people be careful about who we’re letting into our lives. But mainly it’s a drama that goes to some very deep, dark, unexpected places. It’s June’s story but it’s also Des’s story and Kirk’s story – all these characters could have miniseries themselves and it goes into all their psychodramas. In a short run of four episodes, it covers a lot of ground. People will be surprised by how far it goes.”

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Murder in Vienna

Period crime drama Vienna Blood stands out as a unique European project, an adaptation of Frank Tallis’s novels that has been produced in English for German and Austrian broadcasters. DQ finds out more.

As a member of the writing team behind Sherlock, the television version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic character starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Steve Thompson has form when it comes to adapting detective novels.

His latest series, however, proved to be quite a different challenge. Vienna Blood, based on the Liebermann novels by Frank Tallis, sees a brilliant young English doctor – studying under famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud – partnered with a police detective who is struggling to solve a perplexing murder in 1900s Vienna.

Steve Thompson

Matthew Beard (Kiss Me First) plays Max Liebermann, who is keen to understand the criminal mind and begins to observe Detective Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt (Juergen Maurer, M: A City Hunts a Murderer), who is under increasing pressure to crack his latest case. Max’s extraordinary skills of perception and forensics, and his deep understanding of human behaviour and deviance, then lead Oskar to resolve Vienna’s most mysterious cases.

“They’re very different shows but they both hang on an iconic character,” Thompson says of Sherlock and his latest series. “The thing about Sherlock was you just wanted to hang out with the guy. For all that he was a high-functioning sociopath and was rude to just about everybody he met, you still wanted to be his mate.

“You want to hang out with Liebermann, too, because although he’s arrogant and thinks his way is the best way, he’s still very passionate, brilliant and charismatic. Our version of Sherlock was deliberately modern and used technology, but Vienna Blood is a very rich period drama that celebrates everything about that period.”

Shot almost entirely on location across the titular city, Vienna Blood’s every scene is soaked in the atmosphere of the period. It’s an important ingredient that Thompson took from Tallis’s novels, which are “phenomenal” at depicting the era.

“They’re just dripping in detail,” Thompson says of the books. “They’re so incredibly rich. It takes about two lines before you think, ‘This guy has actually been to Vienna.’ This is an incredibly vital time in the history of Vienna. So much was changing: this was the birth of modernism, and the clash between the modern and the old cultures was happening not only in medicine and psychology but also in music and art and architecture. That clash and richness of culture Frank sums up so beautiful in the incredible detail of what he writes.”

The initial challenge the writer faced was condensing Tallis’s lengthy novels, with the series comprising three feature-length films each based on different stories. Thompson describes the source material as an “embarrassment of riches,” noting that his task was really deciding what to leave out.

Vienna Blood stars Matthew Beard (left) as Max and Juergen Maurer as Oskar

“We learn a lot more about them [the numerous characters] in the novel so it’s really about stripping back, which sounds like a brutal thing to do but it has to come down to the spine of the relationship between those two central characters and the investigation,” he explains. “It’s enormously challenging. Obviously there are different stories [to include] because we’re telling Max’s personal story as well as the story of the investigation, but part of the challenge is weaving those threads together and keeping those story threads very tight.”

In the first film, The Last Séance, Max first joins Oskar to assist in solving the murder of a female medium, whose death suggests supernatural powers are at work – the door is locked from the inside and the bullet that killed her has vanished. But with Oskar under pressure to secure an arrest, Max’s intervention couldn’t be less welcome, at least at first.

“From the beginning, you need the development of their relationship. If they meet each other and say, ‘Oh, great,’ that would not be very spicy for the story, so it’s normal and logical that he’s disturbed in his work by a young dandy showing up,” explains Austrian actor Maurer, who worked with a voice coach to improve his English. But as Max proves valuable with his Freud-influenced theories, Oskar begins to view his sidekick as an asset. “That’s how the story develops – the chemistry between the two main characters is very beautifully written by Steve, so we just had to follow that path. Matt and me, we worked together quite well.”

For Max, his developing interest in Freud’s theories may help his police work, but as he delves deeper into the minds of criminals, he puts his own mental health at risk as well as his relationships with those closest to him – girlfriend Clara (Louise von Finckh), father Mendel (Conleth Hill), mother Rachel (Amelia Bullmore) and older sister Leah (Charlene McKenna).

Maurer on set with lead director Robert Dornhelm

“It’s not very interesting playing a know-it-all if they don’t have some kind of flaw, so I was intrigued as to what it would be and that gives a clue as to where we’re going,” Beard says of Max’s deepening fascination with the criminal mind. “Perhaps taking an academic approach to other people’s psychology and other cases is no bad thing, but when you start to apply an academic approach to yourself and your own close relationships, maybe that’s not particularly helpful and not what your girlfriend wants to hear when you start psycho-analysing her. So we start to see where that goes, and that was definitely a big pull for me.”

In a unique commissioning setup, Vienna Blood was ordered by Austria’s ORF and ZDF in Germany, with UK prodco Endor Productions partnering with MR Films to make the drama in the English language. Red Arrows Studios International is distributing, with BBC2 picking up the UK rights and launching the series on Monday, November 18. It will then launch on ORF and ZDF with German dubbing under the title Liebermann.

Beard, who is interested in psychology and had done his own research into the subject before filming began, says one of the most exciting parts of the job was working with a largely Austrian and German crew. “It was always going to be such an interesting challenge and I love that. Working with Juergen was an absolute highlight but then, every now and again, this care package would be sent in from home in the shape of my [screen] family and I was given a mum, a dad and a sister. It was so exciting.”

Thompson says the relationship between Max and Oskar is key to the series, with their friendship growing across the three episodes, while viewers will also see more of Oskar’s own family. “They become great buddies,” he reveals, “and it becomes a very warm relationship. They’re people we want to hang out with. That’s right at the heart of it.”

Amelia Bullmore plays Max’s mother, Rachel

With seven novels in Tallis’s series, there is scope to return to Vienna Blood, especially as the demand for crime drama around the world continues to prove insatiable. Thompson says the show has both the plot and the characters to be a success, and believes its Viennese setting will add an extra layer of intrigue and fascination, with the setting providing a mesmerising backdrop in the hands of lead director Robert Dornhelm.

“You watch crime dramas and think, ‘Oh my God, that’s so brutal. I’m glad I’m not there.’ But that’s never how you feel about this. You watch this and think, ‘I would give my right arm to be transported to Vienna in 1906, just for five minutes,’” Thompson adds. “Though parts of it are very dark and terrifying, parts of it are exhilarating to experience. In episode one, there’s a magnificent rooftop chase, and to run across the rooftops of Vienna was quite something. Just to see the labyrinthine parts of the city that nobody had seen for decades was really exciting.”

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Worlds apart

Science fiction crashes into Edwardian England in The War of the Worlds, a new BBC adaptation of HG Wells’ iconic 1897 novel. Writer Peter Harness, executive producer Damien Timmer and director Craig Viveiros tell DQ how they took this futuristic story back to its period setting.

Screen adaptations often update or revise their source material in some way. Take HG Wells’ 1897 novel The War of the Worlds for example: it’s been brought to the big screen twice, first by director George Pal in 1953 and then by Steven Spielberg in 2005, and both times it was updated with a contemporary setting. The same approach was taken when it was recently remade for television by Canal+ in France and Fox Networks Group.

So when writer Peter Harness (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell) and UK producer Mammoth Screen (World on Fire) set about developing a new three-part version of the classic science-fiction tale for the BBC, it seemed like an innovative idea to set the action at the time Wells wrote the now iconic Martian invasion story.

Eleanor Tomlinson (Poldark) and Rafe Spall (The Big Short) lead the cast as Amy and George, who face the escalating terror of an alien invasion and are forced to fight for their lives against an enemy they had never dreamed of. Rupert Graves and Robert Carlyle also star in the drama, which is directed by Craig Viveiros (And Then There Were None).

Eleanor Tomlinson and Rafe Spall lead the cast in the BBC’s The War of the Worlds

Harness began work on the project back in 2015, when Mammoth MD Damien Timmer first asked him about adapting Wells’ novel. A fan of the book – and of Jeff Waynes’ 1970s rock musical version – he was intrigued by the idea of setting it in the time of Wells, mashing up Edwardian England with Martians and death rays.

“It’s quite a brutal book,” he says of the source material. “There’s nothing cosy or Jules Verne about it. It’s very much a description of what it must be like to be attacked and invaded by far superior forces and technology.”

The challenges of creating a television version were clear from the outset, with the story following a nameless narrator who is little more than a witness to events. Harness was, therefore, tasked with creating characters the audience could root for.

Another change he made from the book was to give Amy, who hardly features in the novel, a more prominent role. “It is very much her journey,” Harness says. “She’s a tough and resilient character who really takes the role of the action hero in it. Her husband, George, is slightly more emotional and vulnerable, and I thought it would be interesting to have her as the one who copes and him being badly affected by things.”

Harness says every adaptation can be tricky, and The War of the Worlds was no exception. It wasn’t just the lack of characterisation that he had to overcome in bringing the story to the screen, but also the fact that the show would be telling a story that is now incredibly well known. “It’s more or less the first alien invasion story and I wanted to make it reasonably surprising, to try to get some of that feeling of newness and shock that would have been in the original book for people who hadn’t heard of Martians, alien invasions or spaceships,” he says. “So that’s been quite interesting and fun to do.”

Writer and exec producer Peter Harness on set

Harness sought to create tension by establishing the stakes early on and keeping “the terrible thing” from happening for as long as possible. Then once the invasion begins, he looked for ways to isolate people and put them in seemingly inescapable situations.

Without a big-screen budget, Harness wanted to keep the action on the ground and present the ensuing conflict from the point of view of the characters as they charged around London and Surrey to the south of the capital, with the production actually filmed in and around Liverpool in north-west England. “So you don’t necessarily ever get a big pullback and see the big destruction all around,” he says. “It’s what it must be like on the street running from something, being attacked. I wanted it to feel more like a contemporary horror film mashed up with a traditional period drama, so I concentrated quite a lot on making it unsettling, mysterious and tense. We’ve got some very nice set pieces that go a long way with tension and terror.”

“I hope it’s a scary and emotional ride and one that still has the power to surprise people, even after all this time,” Harness adds. “I hope you get everything out of it that you would get out of a period drama and everything you would get out of a weird, spooky sci-fi horror show.”

Behind the camera, Viveiros was keen to be faithful to the era in which the story is set, though in a way that resonates with contemporary audiences. “Back then, it was all about the fear of mechanical machines,” he notes. “We’re past that now, they’re part of our lives. The fear now is technology you cannot see. We’re trying to make the tripods feel like a living thing with alien technology far more advanced than anything we have.”

Robert Carlyle also appears in the drama

Actors on set were often playing against a green screen or staring into the sky at something that wasn’t there, but Viveiros says Spall and Tomlinson’s “perfect partnership and great chemistry” brings horror and terror to the screen. He also reserves particular praise for Harness’s take on Wells’ story. “To try to find a human story within the book, where we can invest in characters and feel an emotional tug and also be taken on an emotional rollercoaster, Peter has done the job,” says the director, who has seen his own sketches of the Martians realised during post-production.

Exec producer Timmer had waited 25 years to adapt Wells’ novel, and his persistence paid off once the rights recently became available. But he admits the “irresistible” project was a “foolhardy” thing to take on. “A world has been turned upside down by an army with death rays and huge tripods, and the thing they are trying to conquer is Edwardian England – that’s all quite expensive,” he explains. “Alien invasions are also two-a-penny now, so I thought it was really interesting to go back to the original genre-defining story. HG Wells creates a compelling and ground-breaking story, and it’s conceptually so rich and written with such panache. But what he is not trying to do is emotionally engage the reader with the characters. What Peter has done really cleverly is tell a story about a group of characters that is hopefully very moving and very complex emotionally.”

ITV Studios Global Entertainment is handling international distribution of the series, which Timmer describes as “madly overambitious.” But despite the challenges he has faced, by the time the series airs, hopefully Timmer will think it has been a war worth fighting.

Campbell’s out-of-this-world design
With credits to her name including BBC2’s award-winning Wolf Hall, production designer Pat Campbell is well versed in the art of period drama. Henry VIII never had to face off with Martians, though.

The series was filmed around Liverpool, England

At the outset, The War of the Worlds is the most typical of costume series, setting the scene in Edwardian England and introducing the characters viewers will root for once the invasion begins. “What we tried to do was make the Edwardian world as real as possible so you absolutely believe you are in that time and place – and then suddenly everything changes and you have these hideous monsters from outer space,” Campbell explains.

The production demanded three worlds be created: before, during and after the invasion. “That was one of the challenges because we saw so many places prior to destruction, during destruction and after destruction, so we had to decide which way we worked. Would you start with it destroyed and work backwards, or start good and work your way through the stages of destruction? We did a bit of both.”

The series was filmed around Liverpool, including London exteriors, with the village of Great Budworth doubling for more rural Surrey. Location reconnaissance began in October 2017, before prep started in January last year. Once production was underway, Campbell and her team would work around the camera units, setting things up for them to come in and shoot and then cleaning up once they’d finished.

The War of the Worlds premieres on BBC1 this Sunday

With sets built 12 feet tall, there was a wide mixture of in-camera effects and VFX, which notably created the Martians themselves, save for a leg or two. But the biggest design challenge was arguably creating the red weed, the creeping Martian plant that begins to spread across the Earth. After a lot of trial and error, the design team carved a landscape out of polystyrene, clad it in silicon gel and then attached enormous crystal spikes to create the red weed effect, with stringy roots falling down.

Summing up working on The War of the Worlds and its mash-up of genres and settings as “just a really interesting experience,” Campbell says: “Doing a period drama is lovely but this was a period drama that really stretched you. What we all found challenging in the art department was the amount of problem-solving we had to do to create the red weed, to create the Martians’ capsule and the different worlds. They were massive problems that had to be solved in a way that would be good visually but also had to meet our budget. That was really interesting because it wasn’t just putting in lots of lovely period props. There were challenges with many different elements.”

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Digging deeper

Westworld and The Punisher star Ben Barnes opens up about the conundrum at the heart of BBC domestic noir Gold Digger, in which he plays a young man embarking on a relationship with an older woman.

When Julia draws the attention of Benjamin during a visit to the British Museum, it could be the start of a blossoming romance. But thanks to the title of this BBC1 drama – Gold Digger – suspicions are immediately heightened as to the true intentions of this mysterious, 30-something man towards his 60-year-old love interest.

“The title insists that you watch the show through a certain lens,” says star Ben Barnes, who plays Benjamin in the six-part series. “It’s impossible to watch this show without prejudice because it’s impossible to watch the show without knowing what the title is.”

The actor highlights a scene in episode one, when Julia buys Benjamin a watch, as an example of the conundrum running through the series, which is produced by Mainstreet Pictures and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment. “You might feel very suspicious of that moment, but would you have felt suspicious if the show had been called ‘True Love?’” he asks.

“If the show had been called something else, you would feel differently about it. Then, as we move through the show, you realise it’s not even about the behaviours of these people necessarily. It’s about the way you’re watching it and the judgements you’re making and aspersions you’re casting all the way along, because of what you’ve been told the story is and then because of how the characters start to behave as you go as you along.”

Gold Digger stars Ben Barnes alongside Julia Ormond

Written by Marnie Dickens (Thirteen), Gold Digger is the story of one woman who falls in love with a much younger man and how their relationship affects her already damaged family. Divorced and with three adult children, Julia (Julia Ormond) is turning 60, feeling increasingly adrift and unsure of her place in the world.

Her romance with Benjamin changes everything. Julia revels in her second chance at love, despite the scepticism of her children (Sebastian Armesto, Jemima Rooper and Archie Renaux) and her ex-husband (Alex Jennings), who all believe Benjamin has an ulterior motive.

The events that follow promise to keep viewers hooked as to the true intentions of Benjamin, while a dark secret in Julia’s family threatens to be exposed.

Notably, Dickens has reversed the common age-gap dynamic, with film and television more commonly showing older men with younger women. By flipping the script, she sought to create a debate about why an older woman being with a younger man is still considered taboo.

Talking to DQ at the Monte Carlo TV Festival, Barnes agrees there are still prejudices against relationships with significant age differences: “You see a man and a woman together in the street and, if the man is older and the woman is younger, you think, ‘Oh, I wonder if that’s his daughter or if they’re in a relationship.’ But if you see an older lady with a younger man and people often think, ‘Oh, I wonder what’s going on there,’ and it piques your curiosity in a different way.

The story centres on the relationship between Benjamin, in his 30s, and 60-year-old Julia

“From the very first page [of the script], this is about a very specific moment in a woman’s life. She’s 60 – it’s her birthday and everyone’s forgotten. Her kids are grown up, divorce is behind her and she’s got a choice of paths ahead of her. Some people relating to Julia will think, ‘Life is short. Go for it.’ Some people will be thinking, ‘Be careful with your heart, look after yourself.’ So I think it will be impossible for to any two people to watch this show in the same way. It’s such a privilege as an actor to tell a story like that and play a character like that.”

At the heart of this domestic noir is Julia, whose new relationship with Benjamin is the catalyst for her family to face up to some haunting events in their past. It also provokes her children to look at their mother in a new way.

Benjamin, meanwhile, is presented from a variety of perspectives, through the eyes of Julia’s children, her ex-husband and Julia herself.

“She has these children who are extremely suspicious of my character and an ex-husband who thinks I’m nefarious, and then she starts to doubt [the relationship] because other people are doubting it, and my behaviour is also somewhat unpredictable as you go through the story,” Barnes explains.

“In the end, the most interesting thing to me about this story is it’s not even about those characters anymore, it’s about you watching it. Why am I placing judgements on these characters? Why am I empathising with this character? What is it about what they’ve told me and what I’ve been presented with that is causing me to have doubts or not have faith in these people’s humanity? When I first read it, I was like, ‘This could be interesting.’”

Jemima Rooper plays Della, one of Julia’s sceptical children

Barnes says he and Ormond (Sabrina, Mad Men), who is making her British television debut in Gold Digger, shared a chemistry from the moment they first met in the airport as they made their way to London from their respective LA homes for the initial readthrough.

However, the ending to the story turned out to be different from what was originally planned. “I was involved with that discussion,” he reveals. “I never said what I thought the ending should be or anything like that, I just said I really feel like the ending could reflect what we’ve just seen a bit more. Marnie and I had some really nice chats before we started shooting and I was discussing what I thought was great about it, which was this idea of the protagonist becoming the person watching, and it deserves an ending that underlines that.”

Barnes’ big-screen break came playing the title character in 2008 movie The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, before he went on to star in Dorian Gray, Seventh Son and The Big Wedding. More recently, he has turned to television, starring as Logan in HBO’s sci-fi drama Westworld and as Billy Russo in Netflix’s short-lived Marvel series The Punisher.

Gold Digger, however, offered him the chance to escape the genre trappings of those series and play a character more similar to himself. “This character sounds like me, he tries to be honest with people in a way I do and he uses charm in a way that is not dissimilar from myself,” the actor says.

Barnes as Logan in HBO’s Westworld

“It slowly dawned on me that I’d just accepted a part where every single moment for six episodes has to be completely ambiguous from more than one direction. But you can’t just play ambiguity; you have to play specific. You have to play the truth of what you believe this person to be, but you can’t give any games away because you need there to be tension.

“That was quite daunting in a way. Marvel and HBO take that away from you because they don’t give you the next episode, so you don’t feel a responsibility for looking after the themes of the story or the character’s arc. That’s not your job. Your job is to play moments in those shows, whereas in this I felt like I had a responsibility to the story as a whole and why it was worth telling.”

With Barnes having lived outside the UK for the past six years, Gold Digger also afforded him the chance to reconnect with the sights and sounds of London.

“It was kind of interesting to be shooting in places I know – a lot of it was Devon, which I don’t know very well, but some of it was [in London at] the British Museum or Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus and Seven Dials where I have so many memories,” Barnes adds. “It enthuses you in a different way. I really enjoyed it and I’m really curious to see what the reception of it will be.”

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Musical musings

While Phoebe Waller-Bridge celebrates the Emmy success of her incomparable comedy drama Fleabag, another of the Waller-Bridge family can revel in her own role in making the series a global phenomenon.

Isobel Waller-Bridge, a composer and Phoebe’s sister, scored both seasons of the BBC/Amazon hit, being responsible for its soundtrack and, most notably, the title card’s chaotic scramble of sound that perfectly reflects the show’s protagonist.

Isobel Waller-Bridge

She has worked in film and television for more than a decade, initially scoring short films and documentaries before partnering with award-winning composer Martin Phipps on BBC historical drama War & Peace and then taking on Fleabag in her first solo composing role.

She has since written music for BBC legal drama The Split and Agatha Christie adaptation The ABC Murders, as well as ITV’s Vanity Fair and a season five episode of Netflix’s Black Mirror, namely the Miley Cyrus-starring instalment Rachel, Jack & Ashley Too. She also worked on Vita & Virginia, a 2018 film about the love affair between socialite Vita Sackville-West and literary icon Virginia Woolf, starring Gemma Arterton and Elizabeth Debicki.

“With drama, I always approach music from the internal,” Isobel tells DQ at France’s Série Series festival. “The external stuff, we get with the picture and dialogue. It’s the moments in between I find interesting because you rarely do heavy scoring under dialogue, so you want to be able to carry a feeling from moment to moment. If it is underscoring dialogue, you’ve got to be very aware that the most important things we need to hear are the words, so I find a really minimal approach is best. Then once you’ve set your parameters in that way, it becomes really interesting in terms of how to create a feeling without it being too noticeable. It’s an atmosphere.”

In an ideal world, Isobel would join a production prior to filming to be able to read scripts and sketch some ideas, so that by the time she can see some of the picture assemblies, she is already writing scores. “Then by the time we get to the edit and we start cutting, we don’t really need a temporary score,” she continues. “That feels like a really rewarding process for everyone because when you start using temporary scores and everyone falls in love with it, the composer has to come in and do the same but better. Ideally I’m in early enough that we can temp with my music.”

Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag

Isobel credits fellow composer Phipps with honing her minimalist style and teaching her that making just a few music choices can be stronger than throwing a whole orchestra at a score. “Bigger doesn’t mean better,” she says. “War & Peace was a masterclass from Martin, with his choice of having just a choir, a piano and a couple of strings. It was brilliant.”

Then came Fleabag, created by and starring Phoebe, who based the series on her stage show of the same name. In season one, the aforementioned crash-bang title sequence was designed to mimic the main character via sound – music with a sense of humour but that was also a “total mess.” Rock-inspired guitar music was also used to amplify the title character’s confidence. “It was just really important that she never apologies for her choices and her life. She knew she was making mistakes, it was just a journey she was on.”

In season two, the arrival of ‘The Hot Priest,’ played by Sherlock’s Andrew Scott, brought with it a church-inspired score complete with choir.

“The choral thing, I keep talking about it as a Greek chorus because we’re dealing with these huge themes of betrayal, grief, family, love and forgiveness,” Isobel explains. “But also there’s something about the human voice that has a vulnerability to it, and it felt like an interesting way to connect through another voice. Because Fleabag looks at the camera less because of her relationship with the priest, the music really wanted to do what the camera was doing in season one, really speaking her mind. It comes from her, and that felt like a good switch.”

Isobel Waller-Bridge worked with Martin Phipps on the War & Peace score

In Black Mirror’s Rachel, Jack & Ashley Too, real-life pop superstar Cyrus plays a fictional singer whose life begins to unravel. Tracks from US rock band Nine Inch Nails are used in the episode alongside music from Waller-Bridge, who says she was initially interested in weaving Cyrus’s voice into the score but then decided not to, as it would have put too much focus on her character, Ashley O, rather than the two sisters at the centre of the story.

What Fleabag and Black Mirror have in common is that they both come from creators – Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Charlie Brooker, respectively – with clear visions of the show they are making. That suits Isobel, she says, because she can then work within set boundaries of the show, which can fuel creativity.

“When you’re working with someone who has a very direct and confident vision for their work, you immediately know what the parameters are and it makes it much easier to be creative,” she says. “If you’re working with people who sometimes aren’t totally sure what they’re aiming for or what they want, it’s harder because you’re second-guessing them. If you know what it is, it makes your job easier so it’s really thrilling. I love working with people like that.

“Weirdly, with Black Mirror, it was quite hands-off. I had one spotting session [where the composer joins the production team to go through the episode and choose the placement of the music] with the director Anne Sewitsky and we were all in there for that meeting, which is page one of the process. Then usually what would happen is, at the end of each week, I would meet with the same group and present the music I’d done that week. It was very relaxed. That level of trust makes you feel taller and you get to flex your muscles a bit.”

Miley Cyrus in Black Mirror episode Rachel, Jack & Ashley Too

Isobel compares pitching for jobs to the chemistry tests between actors, where she will meet the director to find out if they connect over the project. “I’ve had meetings where I’ve not felt that connection is as easy. The jobs where I feel I’ve done the best work are those meetings where I’ve gone in and it’s immediately absolutely amazing.”

But scoring film and television projects can feel like working in completely different countries. “You need different muscles,” she says. “On multi-episodic TV, the turnaround is so much faster, so it’s intense and you keep going and going. It just feels really different to film. Film and theatre feel really connected. When you’re scoring, you have in mind that you have your audience from beginning to end and you get to tell them this story, which makes it feel slightly different.”

Despite coming from a traditional, classical background, Isobel adds that she isn’t afraid to experiment with music if it serves the project. “There is a bit of me that likes the big, sweeping, beautiful, classical scores, though the projects I’ve been doing are all asking me to be challenged and I absolutely love it. If anything, it keeps me interested as a composer.”

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Wake-up call

A woman battles to uncover the truth about her husband’s disappearance in HBO Europe’s latest Czech drama, Bez Vědomi (The Sleepers), an espionage thriller set in 1980s communist Czechoslovakia.

Along a bustling West London road, a discreet, narrow passageway leads to a quiet, pretty street with flowerpots standing on the cobbled surface outside a row of terraced houses.

Cars also line the road – a Triumph, Mercedes and a blue Mini – but their vintage gives away the fact that this setting is not from the present day but the 1980s, when change is in the air across Europe amid the final days of the Cold War.

A camera team is set up outside one doorway as a woman wearing a blue jumper, red tracksuit bottoms and headphones enters the frame, jogging towards them from one end of the street, greeting a passing postman and entering the house. It’s a small, fairly insignificant moment but it sets the scene for HBO Europe’s Czech drama Bez Vědomi (The Sleepers).

The jogging character is Marie (Tatiana Pauhofová), who together with her political dissident husband, Viktor (Martin Myšička), fled communist Czechoslovakia 12 years ago. Now living in London in October 1989, they plan to take advantage of an amnesty and return to their home country.

Soon after they arrive, however, they are hit by a car – and when Marie wakes, her husband has disappeared and no one knows anything about him. In a country that still considers Viktor an enemy and one that Marie no longer understands, she faces the biggest challenge of her life to uncover what has happened to him.

The Sleepers is set in 1989 Czechoslovakia

Three days of filming in London cap an 87-day shoot for the series, which is mostly set and filmed in Prague. A skeleton team of producer Tereza Polachova, director Ivan Zachariáš, DOP Jan Velický and star Pauhofová have made the short trip to the UK, where they are working with a local crew to capture the exterior scenes that are needed to round out the production.

Written by debut TV screenwriter Ondrej Gabriel, The Sleepers is set against the backdrop of the turbulent political changes that swept across Czechoslovakia at the time, with the six-part series launching this November to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution that brought about the fall of the communist regime.

“Andrej is an old buddy. I’ve known him since 1991, as we were schoolmates,” says HBO executive producer Polachova. “He brought this story to us and I was immediately intrigued by it and wanted to develop it with him. Spy dramas are not common in Central Europe, so it was the right time to develop this. That was ages ago, and now finally we are shooting.”

But while espionage thrillers more commonly see a spy from elsewhere sent on a mission in this region, HBO’s creative team thought The Sleepers could provide a fresh take on the genre. “We’re so used to traditional shows where [John le Carré character] George Smiley and the Russians use Central Europe as a chess board to move people around,” says HBO VP and fellow executive producer Steve Matthews. “One of the first thoughts we had was, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to see that story from the inside of one of those territories, rather than the outside?’ That was one of the concepts from the start.

“There’s a definite Central European flavour to it. It’s a drama and it’s got these great human stories, but it did always require the mechanism of a spy story. The thing we learned after about a year was, ‘This is quite hard, isn’t it?’ because it’s all agents, double agents and triple agents. You really see what amazing plotters the Le Carrés [and other spy novelists] are.”

Tatiana Pauhofová had to learn the violin for her role as Marie

Produced with ETAMP Film, The Sleepers is the latest Czech series from HBO Europe, following Pustina (Wasteland), which was also directed by Zachariáš, and Agnieszka Holland’s Burning Bush, in which Prague history student Jan Palach sets himself on fire in protest against the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. But The Sleepers has proven to be the toughest production yet, owing to its familiar setting.

“Because the events of Burning Bush take place in 1968, many people do not remember that time anymore,” says Polachova. “But with this set in 1989, people do remember it and they relate to that period of time easier than they do to the 1960s. That’s why it was really important to stay as precise as possible in terms of the historical setting.”

That setting is perhaps more familiar now as a result of the ongoing tensions between Europe, the US and Russia that threaten to spill into a Cold War 2.0. Coupled with the rise of state propaganda and fake news, “something we never thought would be part of our lives again is here,” Polachova continues. “It’s a period piece but it’s actually happening now, and it’s not just a spy drama because it’s not told through a spy’s eyes. We’re following the story of a woman who is a normal citizen and, by accident, she finds herself in a world she doesn’t really understand.”

That woman is Marie, played by Pauhofová, who sees an opportunity to return home to Czechoslovakia and be reunited with her relatives. “Or at least she thinks it’s her home,” the actor tells DQ between takes on set. “When she goes back, she realises it’s not her home anymore. Back then, the difference between the socialist country Czechoslovakia and a country of freedom was big.

“Then her husband disappears, so it’s normal that she is trying to look for answers. And the more questions she asks, the fewer answers she gets. Even if she does get some answers, they only make the whole situation more complicated. But she’s the type of person who doesn’t give up. Maybe that would be best for her, but she doesn’t. The deeper she gets, the more terrible things she finds out.”

David Nykl also stars in the HBO Europe drama

The six-part series sees Pauhofová reunite with HBO Europe, having previously appeared in Terapie (the Czech adaptation of Israel’s BeTipul, which also led to HBO US’s In Treatment) and Burning Bush. She says it was a mixture of the story and character that drew her to the series, relishing the chance to play a character who believes she understands the world around her, only for her life to be revealed as an illusion.

“She’s not a spy, she’s a very normal woman. That’s interesting,” says the actor. “When a normal person knows the world and knows how things go and comes into surroundings that are very different and discovers the rules she is used to are not there, the combination of the spy world and socialist rules becomes very dangerous for her. She has to ask herself, ‘Who am I and what am I going to do?’”

Though she grew up watching a spy genre dominated by James Bond, Pauhofová says The Sleepers is a very different story from those involving Ian Fleming’s debonair British agent, while 1989 is recent enough for the actor to remember what life was really like behind the Iron Curtain, meaning she was able to use her own experience in preparation for the role.

Filming in Prague was complicated by the fact Pauhofová was simultaneously performing in a stage play in Bratislava, in neighbouring Slovakia, meaning long commutes between the set and the theatre. What’s more, the part also required her to learn the violin, as Marie plays the instrument during the series. “I’ve never played any musical instrument. I had to look professional but I didn’t have that much time so I tried to do my best,” she says. “It was pretty adventurous – I’ve done two concerts now. So that was the biggest thing I had to prepare for. Otherwise, it was just being on the set and being focused and passionate.”

Matthews says the series, distributed by HBO Europe, will be “classy,” with a look and style that will match other spy series on television. “Everybody loves spies,” he notes. “When we started developing this, it was before [John le Carré adaptations] The Night Manager, before The Little Drummer Girl, and now spies are back so it feels like the right time for this.”

He adds: “It’s going to be exciting, it’s going to be a cracking good story. It’s going to have extremely high production values and it’s going to be about something with relevance to it. It’s a classy spy drama.”

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Guilty pleasure

After three seasons playing an android in sci-fi drama Humans, actor Ruth Bradley reveals how she transformed herself again for Scottish drama Guilt as a woman investigating her uncle’s mysterious death.

By her own admission, Ruth Bradley “never fitted the mould of being the cute, non-threatening girlfriend.” So it should come as no surprise that the Irish actor once again finds herself in an unconventional role.

Having played a time traveller in Primeval, a serial killer’s lawyer in The Fall and an android pretending to be a human police officer in Humans, not to mention crime novelist Agatha Christie in TV movie Agatha & the Truth of Murder, she now stars in Scottish drama Guilt as an American woman who turns up in Edinburgh in search of answers after her uncle’s mysterious death.

The four-part series, written by Neil Forsyth, centres on brothers Max (Mark Bonnar) and Jake (Jamie Sives), who unwittingly run over and kill an old man, Walter, on their way home from a wedding. Uninsured and over the drink-drive limit, Jake is persuaded by Max to cover up the deed.

However, when neighbours and relatives, including Walter’s niece Angie (Bradley), begin to suspect the man’s death wasn’t as innocent as it seems, the brothers find their lives rapidly falling apart as their actions begin to catch up with them.

Laced with black humour and numerous plot twists, the show was intriguing to Bradley, and after reading the first three scripts – a luxury for an actor – she was hooked.

Ruth Bradley as Agatha Christie in Agatha & the Truth of Murder

“Usually you get the first draft of something, but these scripts were so polished,” Bradley tells DQ, having just finished a run in This Beautiful Village at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. “It’s so rare you get that level of perfection at such an early stage, and I just gobbled them up. That’s such a good sign, if you can’t stop reading something and you want the next one.

“I was so desperate for the fourth one. I just wanted to know what happened, so that’s a great sign. I went and met the producer and the director, and then met Jamie, who plays Jake, and that was it – we had the chemistry read and it was all great.”

Bradley says the appeal of the series, produced by Expectation and Happy Tramp North Productions, is its mix of black comedy and the sharp turns the plot takes through the four-hour running time. If the brothers at the centre of the story don’t know what’s coming, the actor hopes the audience won’t either when Guilt debuts this Thursday on BBC Scotland and then across the UK on BBC2 from October 30.

“It totally snowballs in a very realistic, ordinary, day-to-day way. That’s what’s so brilliant about it,” she adds.

Walter’s only surviving relative, Angie comes to Scotland from the US to tie up the loose ends following his death, only to fall for Jake. But their relationship enters dangerous territory when she begins to suspect Walter might not have died from natural causes.

“She’s very self-contained, cool and she’s not easily fazed,” Bradley says of her character. “She’s completely different for me to play; I’ve never played anybody like her at all. There’s something very chilled and cool about her, which I’m not at all in real life, so that’s great for me.”

In Guilt, Bradley’s Angie grows suspicious over the true cause of a relative’s death

With the Dublin-born actor having adopted an English accent in numerous series, the chance to hone an American inflection added to the appeal of playing Chicagoan Angie.

“I love when it’s a different accent because they lend so much to the personality and the character of anybody that you’re playing,” explains Bradley, who was aided by a dialect coach. “Angie is very specifically from Chicago, which is great because the narrower you can make the field and the more specific you can be, the easier it is. Her accent just lends so much to her. It’s the same with any accent – you learn so much about a person. It’s human nature. We all have an accent in some form; it’s also what we do with our face and how we move.”

Though Guilt is set in the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, the majority of production took place in Glasgow. It was the first time Bradley had worked in Scotland, and she praises the “perfect mix” of crew members for making it an experience to remember.

“It’s a rare thing that everybody is so enthusiastic,” she says. “It’s always down to the scripts. Not every member has read them but it just so happened everyone was really excited about the project. There was just such good will towards it. It was a rare thing. Mark Bonnar and I were saying it isn’t every day you get onto a gig like this. Robbie McKillop, the director, has an infectious enthusiasm so you really feed off him and his energy. He’s so enthusiastic and upbeat. Every day was a joy. There was lots of laughter.”

When selecting her roles, Bradley says she tries to avoid characters similar to those she has already portrayed, though her decisions are usually based on whether the material piques her interest, with the aim being to go into a new job with a genuine feeling of excitement.

Edinburgh-set drama Guilt also stars Jamie Sives (left) and Mark Bonnar

“If it’s something I really want to tackle and it’s something I’m afraid of, it’s a good sign,” she says. That uncertainty also penetrates her wider approach to acting, with Bradley noting that she’s now more comfortable with the ups and downs of the short-term lifestyle that comes with working in a profession where you may not know what your next job is.

“I’ve been acting since I was a kid and it’s much easier now than when I started out because the uncertainty [about your next acting job] becomes part of the certainty. The longer you’re doing it, you find this is the job as much as everything else, and I’ve started to thrive on that,” she explains.

“You can go, ‘I don’t know what’s happening next year, I don’t know what country I’ll be in or what roles I’ll be playing, I don’t know what type of psychology I’ll be exploring,’ and that used to terrify me. Now I can step back and go, ‘What is happening next?’ I can’t wait to see what falls into my lap. I’ve just accepted this is my job forever and I can just relax a little bit.”

If there’s ever such a thing as a steady job in acting, it’s being part of a hit returning series. But in May this year, Channel 4 announced that Humans, coproduced with AMC in the US, would not be returning for a fourth season.

Based on Swedish series Real Humans (Äkta Människor), the science-fiction drama imagined a world in which humans live side by side with androids designed to be synthetic humans, known as ‘synths.’

A regular cast member from the outset, Bradley played DI Karen Voss, a police officer who is actually one of a handful of conscious synths, who goes on to have a relationship with her colleague and even portray maternal feelings, all while struggling to understand her status and position in society.

Bradley as ‘synth’ Karen in Channel 4/AMC drama Humans

“Strangely, Humans is the perfect example of a brilliant show ending when it was ready,” Bradley says of the decision to end the series. “I always like the idea of the audience wanting more. You want to be part of something that people want to see. So for me, Humans was an amazing job and I met some amazing people. We still are a very close-knit group, but no part of me wishes I could be part of a regular thing. If you’re an actor, you can’t be hoping for that because nothing is certain.

“The more you can embrace that, the more you can enjoy every different experience. Even the bad experiences, you learn something from. There are bad gigs but I’d rather be changing all the time.”

To build the character of Karen, Bradley shaped a backstory with writers Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley, knowing from the start that Karen would be a synth pretending to be human.

“But how, as a synth, would you play a human? It was really interesting and great fun,” she recalls. “Me and the choreographer had so much fun exploring body language and walking around London as synths. I spent so much time in the first season sitting in coffee shops watching people and wondering how I would copy them.

“From the get-go, the writers and I knew what was driving her was that she was created for one purpose – to be a mother – but was never allowed to fulfil that purpose. That drove everything, the bad decisions and the good decisions, the kind ones and the cruel ones. So I always understood where she was coming from, even if her actions, particularly in the first season, weren’t great. It was a real journey and it never felt like it was going in a weird direction I hadn’t expected. It always felt completely right. Those writers are geniuses.”

Bradley also likens the movement choreography she had to learn to embody a synth with using an accent, describing an actor’s body as a tool, whether it is being used vocally or physically.

“The more obstacles you have in your way, the more you can really let go,” she continues. “That’s true of so many jobs. The more limits you put on yourself, the more you can actually forget them. There was so much research for the physicality [of Karen] that by the time you got to set, yes, you’d have to remember it all but you’d also have to forget it once they said action in order to do your job properly. So I just had to let go. It was really fascinating playing that character.”

Now with so much drama being produced around the world, for traditional broadcasters and global streaming platforms alike, it doesn’t seem likely that Bradley will struggle to find interesting characters to play.

“I don’t know if that’s because there’s so much more being made or because I’m coming into my own a bit more and have settled into myself as an actor,” she adds. “I don’t know if it’s my age. But the stuff is definitely more interesting now. I never did fit the mould of being the cute, non-threatening girlfriend.”

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Being Frankie

With Canadian mystery drama Frankie Drake Mysteries back for a third season, getting into character isn’t only down to the period costumes, star Lauren Lee Smith reveals.

With its charming blend of crime, mystery and the iconic backdrop of the 1920s, Frankie Drake Mysteries has pulled in viewers worldwide since it launched in 2017.

The Canadian-UK coproduction follows the adventures of Frankie (Lauren Lee Smith) and her partner Trudy Clarke (Chantel Riley) at Drake Private Detectives, Toronto’s only all-female detective agency, as they fight crime in the age of flyboys, gangsters, rum-runners and speakeasies.

In the third season, which launched in September, Frankie faces a family secret while the 10 hour-long episodes also bring her and her detective team – completed by Rebecca Liddiard as Mary Shaw and Sharron Matthews as Flo – into the world of British aristocrats, illegal boxing, political fundraisers and the supernatural. The show is produced by Shaftesbury for the CBC in Canada and UKTV, with Kew Media Distribution handling global sales.

When DQ meets Smith in London, she has arrived to film the first scenes of the new run, which will feature exterior shots of the British capital that will then be merged with footage filmed on interior sets recorded back in Toronto.

Lauren Lee Smith’s Frankie sports a new look in the show’s third season

Talking about returning to the show, she says: “It’s amazing. I feel very fortunate first of all, because you just never know in TV if you are still employed or not, which is a little crazy, but it’s been an incredible journey. Season one is always great because it’s filled with so much excitement. And then season two, we all sort of eased into it a little bit and we knew what we were doing. It was like coming back to school after summer vacation.

“Now, in season three, we’re all really, really excited to see what’s in store. It’s also nice because we shoot 10 episodes for five months and then we’re off for seven months. So by the time we get back to shooting, everyone’s excited to get back at it. So I’m just really looking forward to it and we’re excited to get back to hanging out with the girls and finding Frankie again, and pretending to be way more badass than I really am.”

In London, Frankie is meeting some friends – and bumps into Agatha Christie – when she stumbles upon a case to solve. Then when she returns to Toronto, she reunites with her team for further mysteries. Smith says the show is moving up a gear this time out, with more in-depth puzzles to solve and bigger action sequences.

“We’re going to amp it up a bit,” she continues. “Something I always really liked is that people said season one was like we were trying to create a female Indiana Jones vibe, and that’s a great way to look at the show. We’re bringing a little bit more of the action adventure for season three.”

The 1920s-set show is produced by Shaftesbury

The Vancouver native – who has previously appeared in series such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, The Listener, The L Word and This Life – says she has fallen in love with the outgoing, physical and fearless Frankie, who she describes as a superhero. Smith works with a boxing trainer for several months before filming starts to help her feel “super tough,” something that has become especially valuable as she prepares for the extra stunts and action in the new batch of episodes.

“But even just for me, to physically find Frankie, I found it really useful to have the boxing training,” she says. “You stand differently, walk differently. It’s just different, and it’s hardcore training. I do I find that it helps me to find the character. I would never in my life wake up in the morning like, ‘I’m gonna go train hardcore for the next two hours, five days a week.’ Not in a million years! But I love to have an excuse to do that.”

Over the first two seasons, Smith says Frankie has slowly let her guard down and allowed more people into her life, not least the three women who work alongside her at Drake Private Detectives. The female ensemble leading the show is one reason why the actor describes going to work every day as a “joy,” adding: “It’s amazing to be able to go to work with these three women who I genuinely adore and who are so talented. It definitely makes sense for the show, because it’s a little much to just have Frankie being able to handle everything. It’s not realistic; and for women in general, it’s a nice message to see these four women who aren’t at each other’s throats.”

Of course, one of the defining features of the series is its 1920s setting, with Frankie Drake Mysteries bringing all the razzle-dazzle of the jazz age to the screen. The hairstyling, make-up and costumes are more than just window dressing, however, with Smith reaping the benefits in her performance.

Frankie Drake Mysteries is led by a female ensemble cast

“You instantly hold yourself differently – you completely transform yourself [in costume],” she says. “So the team do an incredible job with that and also with the sets they build. I have no idea how they do it. I feel like we go home from work and these magic elves come in and turn run-down old studios into these beautiful sets, and they miraculously do it overnight. They change every episode, every day sometimes. Often we come on the set and we feel like we’ve been transported back in time.”

The actor also highlights a lightness of tone to the show that invites the whole family to sit down together and find comfort in the procedural series – a factor that has won it fans around the world. Among the international networks that carry the series is US cable channel Ovation.

“It’s a really great backdrop that we have, being early 1920s. It’s a fascinating time, and for women in particular. Women in Canada had just received the right to vote and, because of the war efforts that they were a part of, there was a newfound respect for women and a new freedom that women were experiencing in the flapper era.

“It’s a really interesting setting for a series. And then to have these four women who are so different, combined with the fact you know you’re going to get a fun, interesting mystery, it’s a really good combination. It leaves a lot of room to see where the show is going and where we can take it next. There are always mysteries to be solved. Hopefully we get to solve a lot more.”

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Task master

For Icelandic drama Pabbahelgar (Happily Never After), Nanna Kristín Magnúsdóttir juggled writing, directing, producing and acting. She tells DQ how she did it.

In 2018, a short film from Iceland travelled around the world, playing to audiences in destinations including Lübeck, Helsinki, Berlin, Barcelona, Athens and at home in Reykjavik.

Pabbahelgar (Happily Never After) was a six-minute clip in which a woman’s attempt to give her husband a ‘personal’ birthday present becomes rather complicated. But the end credits didn’t mean the end of the story, as the film was always intended as a taster for a six-part drama of the same name created by writer, director, producer and star Nanna Kristín Magnúsdóttir.

“I had written all the scripts for the TV series but then I did the short film to show the Icelandic Film Centre and Icelandic broadcaster RUV, which are funding this,” Magnúsdóttir tells DQ after a screening of the show at French TV festival Série Series. “I did a short to show them that this is what I want to do – ‘this is the tone.’ Some people do trailers, but sometimes they are just like music videos.”

When interest in the film grew, Magnúsdóttir put it out on the festival circuit. The full series, produced by Zik Zak Productions and Cubs Productions, was subsequently picked up for international distribution by Denmark’s REinvent Studios.

“So it worked out great,” she says. “This is a dramedy with a very raw look at Icelandic reality, and I found out through the film that people were not ready for this much rawness. But that was good. I was like, ‘OK, I have to pull back a little in the series without losing what I want to say.’”

Nanna Kristín Magnúsdóttir took multi-tasking to the extreme with her series Happily Never After

That rawness comes from the subject at the heart of Happily Never After: divorce. Magnúsdóttir plays 38-year-old Karen, a marriage counsellor and mother-of-three whose life is turned upside down when she discovers her husband’s infidelity. Suddenly single, she must say goodbye to her dreams of perfect family life, while offering advice to her clients now seems absurd.

The idea for the series first came to Magnúsdóttir when several of her friends were going through divorces, many because of infidelity. “But it was not always the man [who had cheated on his partner], sometimes it was the woman and

they have kids and families and stuff like that,” she explains. “This is interesting because you get so egocentric; all your feelings come out and you sometimes hate the person you loved two months ago, and it’s very, very emotional. There’s a lot of drama.”

When Magnúsdóttir herself went through divorce, she paused her writing to ensure the series didn’t become too personal, noting: “This story is not about me.” When she picked up the project again, Magnúsdóttir decided to inject some more humour into the storyline. Divorce, she says, is a process that can bring out the worst in people, but there’s also humour to be found in the situation.

Those lighter moments are present in Happily Never After’s scripts and the actors’ performances, while the camera acts as a fly on the wall, capturing every aspect of Karen’s emotional turmoil as if it were another person in the room. For much of the first episode, she is forced to put off confronting her husband about his affair by a series of family events that only serve to build the tension within both Karen and the audience waiting for the inevitable clash.

After graduating as an actor, Magnúsdóttir worked for several years in theatre, alongside taking TV and film roles in Iceland. “In Iceland, when you’re an actor, you’re not just a film actor – you do everything,” she says.

The show focuses on a woman whose life is turned upside down when she discovers her husband’s infidelity and they file for divorce

With ambitions to direct, she learned that many directors in Iceland write their own scripts, so she enrolled at Vancouver Film School to study screenwriting. Upon returning to her homeland, she immediately made a short, “non-budget” film, Playing With Balls, about a group of older lesbians who become intrigued by a young couple and one woman who decides to act on her desires. “I owe a lot of favours for this short film,” she says. “I didn’t want to get funding because I wanted to know if I could do it, and if I failed nobody would know.”

But the film proved so successful that it was screened at festivals in Toronto and Reykjavik. Another short film, Cubs, followed and again travelled beyond Iceland.

“So then I knew I had a voice, I had something,” she says. “I knew people wanted to watch what I want to show. When I started writing Happily Never After, it was my first time writing in a certain genre for a certain demographic. But because I was trying to write for someone else, it wasn’t that good. I just threw it away. Then I decided I was only going to write what I wanted to write. If nobody likes it, that’s that.”

But until the short film version of Happily Never After, essentially the first scene of episode one, proved to be incredibly popular, there weren’t many people interested in producing the series, “so I had to produce it myself because, at the time, Scandinavian noir was very popular – and nobody dies in my series,” Magnúsdóttir says of adding producer to a list of responsibilities that also included star, writer and director. “People were like, ‘This is not really what people want.’ That’s why I did the short to show what I wanted to do. It was not a burden to be in all these roles – I like to produce and write.

“This is my baby. I’m going to do two more seasons, and we’re starting to develop the next one. But this is not how I want to work [forever]. I want to be more focused on one [job] but this one is special and I had to do it, otherwise it wouldn’t have been made.”

Karen arrives on screens at a time when there are many great female characters populating dramas from around the world. But Magnúsdóttir believes this one is different. “For me as a woman and an actress, I find too often these characters are ‘strong females.’ That’s good, but sometimes they have very manly characteristics and lack what a woman has,” she says. “You can be a strong woman but you don’t have to behave like a man. There needs to be more variety in how you show women on TV. Karen is a mother and a couples counsellor, a friend and a wife – what we all are. We’re good at some things, not so good at other things.

Magnúsdóttir has plans for two further seasons of the drama

“I wanted to create a female character that is strong but with all the complexity women have, just like men. Men are not flawless; I like flaws. They’re what make people interesting, not just on TV but in daily life too. If you meet a ‘perfect’ person, they are most definitely not perfect. They will have a skeleton in their closet. Perfect is boring.”

It’s in her characters’ flaws, as well as the subject matter, that Magnúsdóttir finds the humour that is sprinkled through the series. And while she concedes the process of divorce is “very dramatic and traumatic,” she says stepping back from it reveals how “eccentric and strange” people can become.

“It’s not a comedy, it’s just a situation that can be fun,” she notes. “But as the season goes on, it becomes more dramatic because it’s also about loneliness. This woman has always done everything in her life with a partner, with her kid, but now every other weekend, the so-called ‘Daddy weekends,’ she has to be with herself all day long, and she hasn’t ever done that. It’s interesting because she’s really good at her job, but in her own life, she can’t really grasp the advice she gives everyone else.”

Once in production, Magnúsdóttir stuck to the script, which allowed her to focus on directing and acting. She also passed the producing baton to Birgitta Björnsdóttir. And despite having a hand in every part of the project, like all TV series, Happily Never After was also a extremely collaborative affair. “This project is so much more than just me. It’s a TV series. If it was all about me, I could just film myself on Facebook,” she says.

Magnúsdóttir’s other credits include writing on Icelandic neo-noir thriller Stella Blomkvist and directing episodes of The Minister, an eight-part series about an unorthodox politician’s rise to power, starring Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (Trapped).

Though taking on four different roles in Happily Never After might be an extreme way to showcase her talents, Magnúsdóttir is clear she won’t stop moving between different roles on future productions.

“In the end, I really love working with people,” she concludes. “It’s different if you’re a director, producer or actor, and it’s nice also for me as a filmmaker to see the process from different points of view.

“When you’re an actor, you don’t really know what’s going on. But as a producer, you get all the complaints. And as a director, you have to answer all kinds of questions, and I like that. I like all these kinds of roles.”

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Specially maid

Spanish series Arde Madrid imagines the relationship between Hollywood star Ava Gardner and Argentine dictator Juan Perón, as revealed through the eyes of a maid and a chauffeur. DQ meets writers and directors Paco León and Anna R Costa.

In television drama, sometimes perspective is everything, whether you follow the story through the eyes of the lead characters or take in the viewpoints of an ensemble of people each witnessing or experiencing the same, often life-shattering event.

But in the case of Spanish drama Arde Madrid, that perspective comes from a particularly unusual source.

Set in early 1960s Madrid, when the country was in the grip of General Franco’s dictatorship, the series focuses on the real-life friendship between Hollywood movie star Ava Gardner and Juan Perón, the Argentine dictator-in-exile, who each had a home in the same apartment building. However, the story unfolds from the view of Gardner’s maid and chauffeur.

Ana Mari (played by Inma Cuesta) is a loyal, conservative soul who teaches young ladies how to be good housewives and mothers. So when she is asked to work as a maid for Ava Gardner to spy on her for the government, she doesn’t think twice.

Arde Madrid centres on the maid and chauffeur who work for Hollywood star Ava Gardner (played by Debi Mazar, right)

However, to complete the task, she and Ava’s chauffeur Manolo (Paco León) have to pose as husband and wife – a job made more difficult by the fact Monolo is her complete opposite.

So begins Ana Mari’s education on the life of a Hollywood megastar, whether it is her all-night parties that rob neighbour Perón of his sleep or bringing a drunk Ava back to life after late nights dancing at Madrid’s hippest nightclubs. And in all the turmoil, Ana Mari barely notices she is beginning to fall for Manolo.

The eight-part half-hour drama comes from writing team León and Anna R Costa, who began to develop the story after hearing an anecdote about how Gardner shared a stormy, tempestuous relationship with her neighbour Perón.

“The lead roles are fictitious but the nucleus of the series is historical fact,” Costa says, before León continues: “We wanted to be very clear that we weren’t making a biopic. Quite the opposite – we wanted the point of view of the servants. Everything is experienced through their eyes.”

Filmed in black and white, the show stars Paco León as chauffeur Manolo

It’s a decision that means Gardner, portrayed by Debi Mazar, doesn’t feature too heavily in the series, instead mainly appearing through her interaction with Ana Mari and Manolo.

León and Costa wrote and directed the series, while León’s on-screen role added an extra layer to his involvement. He took the lead behind the camera, while Costa carried the weight of the writing process.

“It was complicated,” he admits. “I’ve directed and acted before so to have to do this together as a couple was a new, challenging experience. We both agreed that if I had done this alone, it could have been done but it wouldn’t have been as good.

“As directors, we talk about what is written all the time and it goes back and forth. It’s true there are moments when you have to compromise but also when we have the same thoughts. They’re great moments to have.”

The most watched series on Movistar+ in 2018 following its release last November, the series balances drama and comedy, which comes naturally to León, an actor known for comedy roles before stepping into dramas La Peste (The Plague) and La Casa de las Flores (The House of Flowers).

Inma Cuesta as Gardner’s maid Ana Mari

“It comes naturally to me, as a comedian, that comedy is the genre is the way of combining all other genres the series has – thriller, drama, historical,” he says. “The perfect way is to use comedy to combine all of that.”

The comedic sensibilities of the series are heightened by the fact it was shot in black and white. “In the beginning, it was a little complicated and we had a couple of discussions to convince everyone,” León says. “The arguments was that it was suitable for the time because we have memories of photographs and films of that period, so you’re immediately catapulted into those times.

“There are so many series around now, we thought it was best to set ourselves apart with black and white. It facilitated things like wardrobe choices greatly. It’s a class aspect, a time aspect. Obviously, the budget for makeup and wardrobe was tight, and when you have 200 people on set, it helped enormously with that.”

Costa continues: “The colour adds to confusion when you have mass scenes with a lot of people like in the last episode, where there’s a flamenco dancing scene. It’s one take for two-and-a-half minutes like a [Goodfellas director Martin] Scorsese walkthrough. You learn to visualise the set in black and white, knowing how it will turn out.”

León pictured alongside Anna R Costa, with whom he wrote and directed the show

The unusual story and its fresh perspective, blend of humour and drama and unusual visual palette helped attract the interest of Spanish pay TV platform Movistar+, which commissioned and produced the series. Beta Films handles international sales, while the show also screened at Berlinale earlier this year.

“It’s unique and original,” says Domingo Corral, head of original fiction at Movistar+. “Telling the story from the point of view of the servants was something that made the proposal very original. When we approach a story, we want to see a way to tell it that hasn’t been told before. That’s one of the key things when we choose a project.

“In this world where there are so many shows, when you find something that stands out, that helps a lot. It has a lot of pace and rhythm, it goes very quickly and, at the same time, people can trace the characters and the context of the period. Another thing that’s important is it’s not just a show, it’s also a brand and an experience. If you weren’t watching and experiencing it, you were missing something, and these factors all contributed to making the show a success.”

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Life-changing television

On the back of an extensive film career, NCIS star Maria Bello tells DQ why she has come to love working in television and reveals the secret to the long-running US crime drama’s global success.

In an acting career spanning more than 25 years, Maria Bello has thrived on the big screen. Despite early turns in television series such as Mr & Mrs Smith, ER, Touch and the lead role in the short-lived US remake of iconic British drama Prime Suspect, she is primarily known for appearing in movies including Coyote Ugly, A History of Violence, The Cooler, World Trade Centre and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.

But in 2017, she joined the cast of long-running crime procedural NCIS, then in its 15th season, and the actor says the decision has changed her life, both on screen and off.

“I really have come to love television and particularly acting on television,” she tells DQ at the Monte Carlo Television Festival. “There’s something thrilling about quickly seeing the finished product. We do a film and maybe it’s like a year, even two years sometimes, before it comes out. We shoot an episode [of NCIS] in eight days –eight days to shoot an hour of television. Usually in a two-hour film, it might take 90 days. So I like that quick pace.

“I’ve also always been such a traveller and adventurer, and that’s why I was really drawn to films – I’ve worked all over the world. What I found in the last couple of years committing to a TV show that’s in my backyard, in LA, was the beauty that comes with staying in one place for a little bit. Going to the same place every day with the same people who I really enjoy being with and working with, it’s a whole new side of my personality that I didn’t know existed, which is this love of security and having a grounded space to go to.”

Maria Bello as Jack Sloane in NCIS

A spin-off from military legal drama JAG, NCIS debuted on CBS in 2003 with weekly stories about a team of special agents from the Naval Criminal Investigation Service’s major case response team, which investigates crimes involving navy or marine officers. Now in its 17th season, which launched this month, the team is led by the ever-present Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon), supported by an evolving ensemble of characters that currently includes Donald ‘Ducky’ Mallard (David McCallum), Ellie Bishop (Emily Wickersham), Leon Vance (Rocky Carroll) and Jimmy Palmer (Brian Dietzer).

Since season 15, that roster has included Bello’s Jack Sloane, an NCIS senior special agent and operational psychologist who specialises in profiling.

“What I really liked about Jack was she was on an equal footing with Gibbs,” Bello says. “She doesn’t work for him, he doesn’t work for her. So they really are colleagues and help each other a lot, and you’ll see over the next few seasons that our relationship deepens. It’s really fun playing with Mark Harmon too. He’s genuinely a really fun, solid guy.”

Joining such an established series “was so easeful from the first minute I met the producers and two showrunners, Frank Cardea and George Schenck, who were such kind people,” she says. “And then meeting Mark, he’s one of the loveliest people you’ll ever meet. He’s the real captain of the football team and makes sure everybody who is there wants to be there. We’re all pretty grateful every day. That makes for a great work environment.”

While many crime procedurals place most of their focus on the show’s crime-of-the-week storyline, NCIS stands out for its greater emphasis on character development – something Bello believes has ensured the series remains among the most watched on US television.

“The secret to our show’s success is how much the characters love each other and their relationships,” she says. “Yes, they’re really smart and good at solving crimes. We have really great writers, so they’re interesting crimes pulled from the headlines. But it’s about the relationships between these characters. They’re a real family and they really care about each other. I think the audience feels that.”

This extends to collaboration behind the scenes, where Bello says the cast are encouraged to bring ideas for their characters to the writers. “We go to them with ideas, they come to us with ideas,” she says. “It’s also very improvisational on the set. If we want to add lines, change lines, there’s never an issue with it. They really trust us as actors. They trust that we know our characters maybe better than they do and they’re always up for new ideas.”

Bello describes her NCIS castmates, including Mark Harmon (centre) and Joe Spano, as being like a family

This season will also see Bello direct for the first time, with the star scheduled to helm an episode of NCIS in February. “It’s exciting. Rocky is one of our great directors and he’s also my cast mate, so I’ll shadow him and two other gentlemen I really like. They’re giving me that great opportunity and I can’t wait for it.

“I’ve been asked [to direct] before and I’ve thought about it. But this is the first time I feel that I actually really want to do it. I really trust my crew and they trust me, and I think I’m a really good leader but really chill as well. I feel like those people make the best directors – if you have a strong vision but you’re also very chill person. So I think that’ll work.”

Between 1997 and 1998, Bello appeared in 25 episodes of medical drama ER, joining at the end of season three as Dr Anna Del Amico and becoming a series regular through season four. The hit show was one of her first jobs, and Bello remembers herself as “such a wild child. “I had just started working in the industry so I was a little immature at the time,” she recalls. “In retrospect, I would have stayed on that show [for longer] but I wanted to do so many things and wanted to do movies. I’m happy about the rich career I’ve had, but now I would have appreciated that [time on ER] more.”

The actor is equally effusive about her time on Prime Suspect, the American reimagining of the British series of the same name. Bello played Detective Jane Timoney, a take on the original’s Jane Tennison, the character made famous by Helen Mirren. However, after opening to low ratings of around six million viewers (small by 2011’s pre-Netflix standards), the series lost its primetime slot and was cancelled after its initial 13-episode order.

Before NCIS, Bello was best known for her roles in movies such as A History of Violence

Still, Bello has fond memories of the experience. “I loved that show. I loved doing it, I loved being on it. I loved the writing, I loved the character,” she says. “People say now they feel it was ahead of its time in the US, that maybe they weren’t open to having this strong woman who had a really edgy personality. Maybe America wasn’t ready for that. I don’t know why it didn’t work in the states but I sure loved my experience on it.”

The actor, who is also a keen activist, says working in movies has been a “gift,” offering her the chance to move from job to job, never knowing where she might be in six months’ time.

“I loved living that way. There was something exhilarating about not knowing,” she says. “So I didn’t know if I could take a traditional job, to commit for three years, to be in one place, to work for 10 months a year, and I was a bit nervous about it. But I have to tell you, the gifts I have received from doing it, I feel much more rounded than I ever have in my life because of that.

“There’s something about structure and security I never knew was sexy, and it’s really fucking sexy. I enjoy it. I feel like I’ve been able to be more creative in the other things I’m doing by being on this particular show and having a place to go every day with people I really like.”

With NCIS unlikely to lose its place among the most popular drama series on US network television any time soon and Bello looking forward to doubling up her role by stepping behind the camera, this is a partnership that could run and run.

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Dangerous new world

An eclectic group of characters must face their own fears and flaws – as well as aliens – in The War of the Worlds, a modern update of HG Wells’ iconic story for France’s Canal+ and Fox Networks Group Europe and Africa.

For five seasons until 2013, British drama Misfits told the story of a group of young offenders brought together after they each gain superpowers following a strange electrical storm – ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances.

Now, Misfits creator Howard Overman has applied the same concept to HG Wells’ classic 1897 story The War of the Worlds, in which aliens invade the Earth, leading to widespread devastation and destruction.

Howard Overman

Like the 2005 Tom Cruise movie of the same name, but in contrast to an upcoming BBC adaptation set at the time Wells first published the story, Overman has placed The War of the Worlds in the present day to ask his characters what they would be willing to do to survive.

The eight-part series begins when astronomers detect a transmission from another galaxy, confirming the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life. Within days, however, mankind is all but wiped out, with only pockets of humanity left in an eerily deserted world.

The drama follows the destinies of a handful of survivors, all dealing with the sudden exodus, the loss of their loved ones and all that once gave meaning to their lives as they try to understand the reasons behind this unfathomable invasion.

Described as a unique marriage of human drama and science fiction, the show uses Wells’ story as a starting point before Overman takes it in an entirely new direction to explore human emotion during an unprecedented event, asking how people’s relationships and circumstances change when they are faced with the end of the world.

“I wanted to explore the idea that, just like HG Wells’ aliens, humanity has an almost limitless capacity to destroy those it sees as inferior or different,” Overman says. “This new interpretation of Wells’ cult novel focuses on the subtleties of human relationships, between, say, parents and children, couples, or complete strangers. The alien attack and its repercussions bring out the characters’ deepest vulnerabilities as they try to navigate this dangerous new world.”

Intriguingly, for large parts of the series, the alien is out there but can only be seen through snatched glimpses, allowing viewers’ own minds to perceive the horror confronting the characters.

But there are also lighter moments, with the extreme events facing the planet also lending themselves to stories of love, courage and hope, as well as themes of prejudice, responsibility and guilt.

Elizabeth McGovern and Gabriel Byrne in Canal+ and Fox Networks Group’s War of the Worlds

“Throughout the episodes, the series juxtaposes these contrasting ideas as the characters become increasingly complex,” continues Overman, who produces with Julian Murphy and Johnny Capps (both Merlin, Atlantis). “Cinematic and full of the mystery and intrigue that are found in the best works of science fiction, this series is both character- and action-driven.

“Our War of the Worlds is essentially a story about humanity. If aliens were to attack tomorrow, and life as we know it were destroyed, what would we do to survive? What would it teach us about other people – and, above all, about ourselves?”

The bilingual series, with characters speaking English and French, was suitably shot on both sides of the English Channel, with two units simultaneously filming four episodes at once over a period of 16 weeks. Actors jumped between scenes from different episodes, while directors Gilles Coulier (De Dag) and Richard Clark (Versailles) guided and supported them to ensure continuity across all eight episodes.

Filming took place in the Welsh cities of Cardiff and Newport as well as in London, France’s Charleville-Mézières and the Alps. Real settings such as the International Research Institute for Radio Astronomy were also used for the drama, which is produced by Urban Myth Films in partnership with AGC Television and distributed by StudioCanal.

Among those battling the aliens are Gabriel Byrne, Elizabeth McGovern, Léa Drucker, Adel Bencherif, Stephen Campbell Moore, Natasha Little, Stéphane Caillard, Guillaume Gouix and Daisy Edgar Jones.

Overman’s version of the classic story unfolds in France and the UK

Byrne (The Usual Suspects) plays Bill Ward, a committed eminent neuroscientist who will do anything to win back the woman he loves, McGovern’s Helen Brown, Bill’s ex-wife whose long-held convictions are rocked by the out-of-this-world events.

Byrne agrees with Overman when he says aliens are not the main focus of the series, which instead tells the story of humans in extreme conditions and deprived of the comfort and safety they used to take for granted. “As a scientist, Bill tries to gather together all the indecipherable clues from another world, to try to come up with a solution,” he says of his character. “As a man, he does everything he can to get back together with his ex-wife, despite the chaos they are living in.”

Describing his role as “very physical and emotionally intense,” Byrne says the project was more challenging than he anticipated. “I had to adapt to the specifics of this series – the way it was filmed, mainly, with two teams working simultaneously. We were constantly switching from one to the other, going back and forth between film sets. Under those conditions, it’s a challenge to maintain continuity, both in action and emotion.”

As McGovern explains, the series opens when Bill is trying to repair his and Helen’s marriage, with the alien invasion then throwing them back together.

“What I really loved about this project was Howard’s desire to talk about the destinies of ordinary people faced with a catastrophe that threatens life on Earth as we know it.” the Downton Abbey star explains. “He skilfully depicts our priorities, who we are, and the meaning of our relationships in a world that may be ending. That’s what I liked. He’s really interested in the characters. For me, that is far more fascinating than watching aliens from outer space attack us.”

Léa Drucker is among the French-speaking actors in the show, which brings the story into the present

Similarly, Drucker (Le Bureau des Légendes) was enticed by the opportunity to play an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances. “I have never worked in sci-fi. I like the realistic approach – that’s how the directors wanted it. We’re not superheroes fighting aliens,” she says. “Of course, there’s a lot of action, but the whole story is very thoughtful.”

Her character, Catherine Durand, is a scientist working at an observatory in the Alps, a loner driven by a desire to discover something extraordinary. But when she’s plunged into a state of war, she’s completely overwhelmed.

To prepare for the series, Drucker studied archival footage and images of war, and also visited the Tate Britain gallery in London to look at photographs by renowned war photojournalist Don McCullin. “To me, The War of the Worlds is first and foremost about war,” she adds. “It’s a humanistic series, but also a very harsh series. The world it depicts is rough and brutal, and the aliens aren’t the only reason for it. These extraterrestrials force us to question who we are as humans.”

But while the spectacle of the alien invasion will undoubtedly take centre stage, it’s the challenges the characters face in a modern setting that the creators hope will focus the minds of viewers.

“I think this story is particularly relevant today,” says McGovern. “Because of climate change and all that’s happening in the world now, we’ve lost confidence in our dominant position. We live with this constant anxiety: Is life on Earth about to end? What does that mean for us? What does that mean for us as a species? What’s really important? What isn’t?

“By placing this contemporary reality in the imaginary context of science fiction, The War of the Worlds invites us to think about our lives and what they mean today.”

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Love and war

Jonah Hauer-King and Zofia Wichłacz, two of the stars of Peter Bowker’s war drama World on Fire, talk about the tangled relationship between their characters and how the series balances epic action scenes with emotional storylines.

BBC series World on Fire, Peter Bowker’s ambitious attempt to dramatise the Second World War, zooms in on the ordinary people across Europe affected by the conflict.

Central to the story is a love triangle between translator Harry Chase, played by Jonah Hauer-King, who begins episode one declaring his love for factory worker and singer Lois (Julia Brown) in Manchester.

Fast-forward several months to the summer of 1939 and Harry is working at the British Embassy in the Polish capital, Warsaw, where he falls for waitress Kasia (Zofia Wichłacz).

As the Nazi threat spreads across Europe, Kasia must choose between love and fighting for her country, while Harry searches for his place in the world and Lois seizes new opportunities as the war unfolds. Harry’s mother Robina (Lesley Manville) and Lois’s pacifist father Douglas (Sean Bean) also find their lives upturned, while outspoken American journalist Nancy (Helen Hunt) finds herself in mortal danger.

Through these characters and their stories, Bowker’s seven-part, multilingual series puts a human face on the first year of the Second World War, capturing the lives of people across Europe and exploring how they are all connected, from Manchester to Paris, Berlin, Warsaw and the beaches of Dunkirk.

Jonah Hauer-King as Harry in World on Fire

“What’s exciting about the show and what’s challenging is we don’t have a central protagonist. There are a lot of stories here and what’s cool is you’re being shown a world that tells you that a war connects everyone,” Hauer-King tells DQ at the Monte Carlo TV Festival. “You have Poles, people from England and people from Germany and France and they’re all connected. They’re all part of these massive, scary events that are unfolding. So we’re at the heart of it in a way, but you feel part of a sort of strange TV family because you’re telling the story together.”

Viewers first meet Harry and Lois in Manchester, where they interrupt a Blackshirts rally and suffer for their protests. His mother takes a dim view of his relationship with a lowly factory girl, while Robina also chastises Douglas, a man still bearing the scars of his experience in the First World War. Then when Harry reappears in Warsaw several months later on the eve of war, he is in a relationship with Kasia. When the first bombs drop, he offers to marry her in a bid to help her escape to England.

“When we meet him, you become aware that he has a girlfriend, a first love, back home. But pretty quickly, he’s in Poland and we see that he’s gone down the route of falling in love with two people, which is not something I would recommend,” Hauer-King (Little Women) explains. “So he finds himself in this not very good situation. But in terms of him and Kasia, they have a really passionate and strong connection. Sometimes you meet someone that just immediately feels very exciting and very vital. Then the war comes.”

Those first scenes run just long enough to establish the characters before the action begins, windows shattering and roofs collapsing as German planes bomb Warsaw. “It’s just beautiful that we had those few scenes before the war, so we could show the joy and the life of these young people. Because after that, there’s just war,” Wichłacz (Amok) adds.

One of the Polish actor’s first ever acting jobs was in Warsaw 44, a film that chartered love and friendship during an operation led by the Polish underground resistance to liberate the city from occupation. Five years later, she’s starring in a British series that reveals what ordinary Poles experienced during those first days of war.

Zofia Wichłacz plays Polish waitress Kasia, who falls in love with Harry

“I knew this would be something completely different, so I was interested in doing it as well and telling a very interesting story,” she says. “The character, I fell in love with her.”

Similarly, Hauer-King has previously appeared in Ashes in the Snow, a movie about the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. “But when you read a script, often you’re really looking at the character and the journey they’re going on,” he explains. “I would do 10 Second World War movies if they all felt different, complex and unique in their own way. There are infinite stories within wars – and actually, that’s partly the point of this series. It’s trying to say there are different sides, different families, different nationalities and people are affected and changed in all kinds of ways. It’s not told as a binary, good-versus-bad story.”

Wichłacz describes Kasia as “a fighter” who loses everything and then battles to win it all back. “So this kind of journey is really exciting,” she says. “I get to play someone who seeks power that she’s lost before.”

In an ensemble drama without a leading protagonist, does Harry stand out as the hero? Hauer-King believes Bowker doesn’t write heroes, instead filling his dramas with a cast of complicated characters. “And that’s exciting because that’s real life,” he says. “The challenge for me was that Harry, despite putting himself in this difficult position, would be a hero in another series.

“There’s parts of him that relate to that, because he is compassionate, brave and has a lot of warmth in him, but he’s deeply flawed and has a lot to learn. He’s by no means a hero. That was exciting because it felt real and also gives your character somewhere to go. It’s fun looking at the journey and seeing the way a character changes over a period of time. That’s what Pete’s really good at – all of the characters go from one place to another. It’s a good acting challenge.”

The ensemble cast also features Sean Bean and Lesley Manville

The cast spent 10 days together in Prague before shooting began, with the Czech city doubling for some of the major locations portrayed in the series. Lead director Adam Smith would also find room in the schedule for as much rehearsal time as possible.

“TV schedules are crazy but he was very good and respectful that he wanted, even on the day [of filming], to try to have a bit of time to ourselves and with him before the 200 crew come in,” Hauer-King says.

Wichłacz continues: “Every day was different. But I always felt so secure and safe on set because, with each of the directors, I felt a great connection. We had four directors [Smith, Chanya Button, Andy Wilson and Thomas Napper]. Everyone was just amazing – amazing crew, amazing DOPs. And even if you’re shooting scenes with explosions but then the next scene is a very intimate emotional scene, I always felt like we had time or however long I needed to focus or to rehearse. It felt really special.”

Hauer-King says the show – produced by Mammoth Screen and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment – features a  “huge range of storytelling techniques,” from the epic set pieces that present a key moment from the war in each episode to the quieter, personal moments shared between characters, whether in England, Poland, France or Germany.

“That’s fun as an actor because you’re flexing different acting muscles,” he says. “It very much keeps you on your toes because, as we know, there’s often no kind of rhyme or reason to a TV filming schedule. One day you’re running through explosions and the next you’re in bed with someone and it’s a very different scenario.”

The actor describes it as a “genuine privilege” to work alongside such established and esteemed actors as Hunt, Bean and Manville.

“There was a scene with Lesley in episode seven where it was so exciting to watch someone like her,” he says. “I’m really young, I’m pretty inexperienced, so to watch someone like that who is such a master felt like a genuine privilege. You have to remember to act yourself sometimes.”

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With a number of drama productions from Central and Eastern Europe drawing critical acclaim in recent years, DQ finds out what’s coming next from the region and why it’s ripe for a breakout international hit.

While Scandinavia, Israel, Germany and Spain have been among the hottest territories for drama in recent years, a number of ambitious productions both in front of and behind the camera mean series coming out of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) now demand closer attention.

Over the past decade, the region’s drama output has earned plaudits on the back of HBO Europe’s original production strategy, which has led to a number of notable series – Hořící Keř (Burning Bush, 2013) and Pustina (Wasteland, 2016) from the Czech Republic; Hungarian crime drama Aranyélet (Golden Life, 2015), based on Finnish series Helppo Elämä; Wataha (The Pack, 2014), Pakt (The Pact, 2015) and Ślepnąc od świateł (Blinded by the Lights, 2018) from Poland; and Romania’s Umbre (Shadows, 2014) and Hackerville (2018).

Earlier this year also saw the launch of the first HBO Adria series in the shape of Success, a Croatian drama about four strangers bound together by a violent event. But while HBO continues to ramp up its own activities, it is by no means the only company that is pushing the limits of the region’s creativity.

Czech drama series Pustina (Wasteland) aired on HBO Europe

One of the most ambitious projects coming out of CEE is The Pleasure Principle, which is billed as the first international production between three countries in the region – Poland, Ukraine and the Czech Republic.

The 10-hour series, produced by Apple Film Production and distributed by Beta Film, sees police investigators from each country work together after female body parts are discovered in Odessa, Warsaw and Prague, in a cross-border inquiry that leads to shady businessmen, lawyers for sale, corrupt politicians, professional killers and traces of a common past. Canal+ Poland, Czech Television and Russia’s Star Media are also on board the series.

Series producer and director Dariusz Jabłoński says it was his ambition to create a universal crime thriller using local talent and crew. Set across 10 days in the three cities, the project used different teams to make the drama in each country, all under the supervision of Jabłoński.

“We have wonderful roles for the greatest actors of every country and, after a very deep casting process that I personally attended, we have chosen the best actors. Nobody refused us,” he says. “Then we started to think about shooting. Usually, when you make films that take place in different countries, you use one crew. But we wanted to show the differences between these three countries and, because of that, we chose a more challenging path by using completely local crews.

“So every country is shot by a different DOP who created the lighting for their own city. Warsaw is rather grey, all steel and glass. Prague is more bourgeois, with yellow and beige. Odessa is green and blue like the sea. All of them came with a simple idea that was different from the others, so I didn’t have much to supervise to keep everything balanced.”

Poland’s Wataha (The Pack), another HBO Europe original

The team communicated in the common language of English across the 120-day shoot, with filming being completed in one country before moving to the next. “We didn’t make any compromise over quality. It was shot in 8K with two, sometimes four, cameras, cranes and every technical tool at our disposal,” Jabłoński says. “I hope this show will not only be exciting for the viewers but also present the technical facilities of our countries.”

Russian drama Storm, meanwhile, sees respected police detective Gradov turn to crime – and murder – to find the money to pay for his terminally ill wife’s medical treatment. When his colleague, Osokin, begins to suspect Gradov is behind a string of crimes, he becomes determined to expose him.

Produced and distributed by Yellow, Black and White (YBW) for streamer and directed by Boris Khlebnikov (An Ordinary Woman), the series focuses on a complex group of characters and the choices they make.

“It is a wholly original story that writer/director Natalia Meschaninova came up with,” explains YBW creative producer Irina Sosnovaya. “The goal we set with this story was to make a genre series that would thrill and entertain within the social context of contemporary Russia. As producers, we tried to give as much creative freedom to the talented crew as we could, not forcing them to stay within the boundaries of the genre but encouraging them to write a social drama we would be excited to follow.”

The rise of streaming platforms is fuelling the drama boom in the region, Sosnovaya says, with creators no longer bound by the restrictions of major TV channels. Daria Bondarenko, YBW’s head of international development, distribution and coproductions, picks up: “Digital services allow authors to be uncompromising, to be bold and to take risks without looking back, so that’s where the cream of Russian talent gravitates towards. Directors, writers and actors now work on the digital series with as much freedom as they allow.

Magdalena Cieślak

“Just 10 years ago, Russia was an unknown and unexplored market. Nowadays things have changed tremendously: we see more and more shows that travel globally, some of them awarded and recognised at prestigious TV festivals. Every new pickup of a Russian show outside our local market is a big success for the entire industry; it is the recognition that makes us noticeable as a film-producing country.”

Shifting west of Russia, TVP1 series Our Century marks the first period drama to come from producer Endemol Shine Poland (ESP). Based on the book by Albena Grabowska, it follows the fortunes of the multi-generational Winny family, woven through the most dramatic events of the 20th century.

Magdalena Cieślak, head of scripted at ESP, says she and her fellow creative producer on the show, Małgosia Retei, “were immediately taken by the story when we read the three-part novel back in 2016.”

She continues: “It was nearly a thousand pages of gripping literature, which we believed could serve as the basis for a great script. It took us some time, though, to convince the broadcaster, as period dramas seemed a very costly and risky genre at that time. What helped us was the involvement of one of the best Polish screenwriters, Ilona Łepkowska, who supervised the script development and ensured the project we pitched to TVP1 was outstanding in terms of storytelling.”

Other talent involved includes director Piotr Trzaskalski, DOP Witold Płóciennik and actors Kinga Preis, Jan Wieczorkowski and Olaf Lubaszenko.

The story begins in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War and ends in modern times, covering almost 100 years of Polish history. Against this backdrop plays the story of one family whose lives are full of hidden secrets, passion, love, sacrifice and complicated relationships.

Certain book characters were cut to allow for greater focus on some of the more distinctive family members, while new scenes were created for the adaptation, which blends drama and tragedy with touches of comedy and some fantastical, dreamlike sequences that relate to one character’s ability to see the future.

Our Century is the first period drama from producer Endemol Shine Poland

Cieślak says shows like Our Century feed Poland’s current demand for homegrown series while also showcasing the “outstanding” quality achievable by the local production industry.

“Polish viewers prefer local stories and 80% of the dramas on air are created and produced locally,” she adds. “To find new ideas that will entrance the audience, we need to invest in local talent, beginning with script writing and development. Over the last two years, we have also seen more book adaptations making it to screen, so we are watching the publishing market very closely and searching for adaptation opportunities.”

Over in Croatia, the third and final season of Novine (The Paper), made by producer Drugi Plan for local broadcaster HRT and Israeli distributor Keshet International, is currently in production. Set in a busy newspaper office, the series presents a cocktail of political corruption, power struggles, crime and betrayal, with its characters navigating the blurred lines of morality and integrity. After exploring the media in season one and politics in season two, season three moves to the judiciary.

“If we take into consideration the size of the country and its capacity in terms of cinematography, and a specific language, we can say that Croatian high-end drama production is doing really well in European and even global terms,” says Nebojsa Taraba, producer of The Paper and creative director at Drugi Plan. “The Paper is globally available on Netflix, and HBO aired its first series from the Adria region this year, Success, which is also produced by us.

“There’s a lot being done in neighbouring Serbia – supposedly there are as many as 20 projects in different stages of pre-production and production, so high-end series are going through a real renaissance in the region.”

Nebojsa Taraba

When it comes to stories that will attract an audience, “there are no rules,” Taraba states. “People simply like strong stories they can relate to, regardless of the genre. People also like stories with some kind of social involvement and message. Luckily for us, or maybe unfortunately for us, the entire region of south-eastern Europe has many such stories, whether we tell them ourselves or someone else comes over and tells our stories. The best example of [the latter] is Chernobyl.”

Series like Chernobyl – made by the UK’s Sister Pictures for Sky Atlantic and HBO and focusing on the 1986 nuclear disaster – demonstrate that success can be found in unearthing previously unknown stories that are ripe for dramatisation or setting a fictional story against a specific historical backdrop. Germany has created several successful dramas fitting this description, including Babylon Berlin, the Deutschland series and Ku’Damm 56.

The makers of Czech drama Dukla 61 took a similar approach to history after discovering the true story of a mining tragedy that led to the deaths of 108 people. The two-part miniseries, set in 1961, takes place in the town of Havířov, home to the Dukla mine. It focuses on the Šlachta family, with father Milan and son Petr working in the mine, where the highest-quality coal is a commodity sought at any cost.

Blending family drama and disaster epic, Dukla 61 was inspired by a single line in a book. The project was then developed and produced by Czech Television.

“There was a book with a short sentence about some disaster that was in 1961; there was just one sentence that they brought in many miners,” says Czech TV creative producer Michal Reitler. “We started researching and realised nobody knew about this disaster. We focused on this for six months and then we developed the scripts.”

Director David Ondříček picks up: “The main reason why it’s so successful is that it has a great screenplay and is very authentic in tone and has a lot of emotions. We tried to tell a story without words, especially towards the end.”

Russian series Storm was made for streamer

The creative team credit the movement of film writers, directors and producers to the small screen with advancing the Czech drama industry, with Ondříček noting that television was considered a “dirty word” just a decade ago. “It was a filmmakers’ community, but it’s changed a lot,” he says.

Reitler adds: “It helps that money is coming to development first, so we can work with writers and then decide what we will produce. There becomes a system of how to develop scripts, how to find the right authors and how to work with them to find a way to tell a story that is understandable locally and globally.

“Everyone asks us if there will be a new Czech wave like in film in the 1960s. We can feel something in the air but we don’t know what it is. There are a lot of new producers. Our generation of directors is in good shape. We’ll see. I can feel that we try to make very authentic and very good-quality shows.”

As streaming platforms mature and creative talent find new places to tell their stories, there is ambition in the region to see its series go on to become as globally popular as projects from other countries. But as ever, financing looms large as the inevitable barrier to the most epic projects getting off the ground.

“The challenges we face are not of a creative but a financial nature,” says Taraba, noting that a Croatian series might cost six or seven times less than one produced in neighbouring Italy or Austria. “It is only financial restrictions, or the low intensity of production, that can stop the creative momentum of the Croatian and the regional market right now. For the price of an episode of an average drama series in the UK or Germany, you can produce an entire season of a series in the range of The Paper in Croatia.”

Croatian drama The Paper airs on HRT and is also available on Netflix

On making The Pleasure Principle, Jabłoński adds: “We used all the resources from Eastern Europe and we had to combine them because no single broadcaster was able to finance this show. So thanks to this combination, each of our partners got the show for their own exploitation, but we controlled everything to deliver a good show not only for our audience but the international audience.

“This is a trial to check if this combination will bring the quality that will make a difference and break the glass ceiling we experience as filmmakers from Eastern Europe because we feel we’re not able yet to make international audiences excited. I hope that will change.”

With the quality of drama and ambitious storytelling coming out of the region, coupled with the continuing demand for series worldwide, Central and Eastern Europe is well placed to smash that glass ceiling and become the latest global drama hotspot.

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