British actor Freddie Highmore made his name in feature films and as a young Norman Bates in Psycho prequel series Bates Motel. He explains why his starring role in ABC medical drama The Good Doctor is his biggest challenge yet.
At the age of just 27, Freddie Highmore is already an industry veteran with a slew of box-office hits and two decades of work under his belt. But it’s his latest role, as genius surgeon Shaun Murphy in The Good Doctor, which is winning him some of the biggest plaudits of his career thus far.
The British actor plays the shy autistic savant – who can’t look people in the eye but is able to come up with ingenious ways around complex medical problems – with an authentic delicacy and passion that has helped make the show a huge hit around the world.
“Shaun is probably the most challenging character I have ever played,” says Highmore, who first found fame in feature films Finding Neverland and Charlie & the Chocolate Factory. “There was an awareness from the start that this was a story we wanted to do correctly and not mess up, because it feels like it has a wider importance rather than just being a television show in its own right.
“We have a full-time consultant on board to help us with the autism side of Shaun’s character, but autism is just one aspect of what defines Shaun. We have taken care to portray autism authentically while also being aware that he can never represent everyone who is on the spectrum.
“We are telling this one unique, individual story but, at the same time, the letters I get from people with autism saying how the show has inspired them are the most meaningful things about the job.”
The Good Doctor is based on the Korean medical drama of the same name, the international potential of which was first identified by Korean-American actor Daniel Dae Kim (Lost), who also stars in the show as Dr Jackson Han. Kim struggled to find a home for the format until Sony Pictures Television expressed an interest and brought David Shore, creator of House, on board. It was subsequently ordered to series by US network ABC in 2017.
Highmore, who demonstrated his full range in thriller Bates Motel, a five-season prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal horror Pyscho, was an obvious choice to play the lead in The Good Doctor, and the actor admits he relishes taking on challenging roles. “I am always drawn to interesting characters, and Shaun is unlike anything we have seen before on television,” he says. “I like that he offers up a different version of masculinity. He’s not an alpha male.”
The actor, who in the flesh is an interesting mix of shyness and confidence, has always wanted to be more than just the leading man – and having directed and written episodes for Bates Motel, he does the same again for The Good Doctor, in addition to serving as a producer.
“When you spend eight months of a year on a project and devote so much of your time trying to make the show as good as you possibly can, it feels natural to want to contribute in other ways,” Highmore says. “I’ve enjoyed being involved on different levels and getting to write and direct as well as produce. It’s exciting to be able to have the chance to influence something of the wider process and also getting to learn from David Shore.”
Highmore wrote the opener of season two and directed the 15th episode. He says that, for his colleagues, there is an easy way to tell where Freddie the actor ends and Freddie the director starts – he changes accents.
“Apparently I direct in a British accent,” laughs the Londoner, who interrupted his Hollywood career to do a degree at Cambridge University. “Normally when I’m on set, I try and stay in an American accent as much as possible. But the British one comes to me naturally when I’m directing.”
Highmore has spent much of the past eight years in Vancouver – the filming location for both Bates Motel and The Good Doctor – and is already preparing for more time in a city he regards as his second home after a third season of the latter drama was commissioned before the second had even finished airing. Season three is due to launch next week.
“A lot of the crew on The Good Doctor also worked with me on Bates Motel, so I have shorthand with them,” he says. “And because the cast is supportive and we have got to know each other so well after an intense few months, I know they all want me to succeed, and that really helps me. I feel very grounded in Vancouver because I know it so well.”
Highmore admits he can’t reveal much about what will happen in the third season, not least because he and the fellow writers are yet to sit down and discuss it. As well as working with a team of researchers to come up with interesting medical stories for Shaun and his colleagues to solve, the production can also look to David Renault, one of the team’s writers and a former doctor, to ensure the medical and the personal merge just as they would in real life.
“As with all good dramas that have a story of the week, the balance is about finding an interesting and dramatic plot that will reflect more widely on the characters people like,” says Highmore. “This means you can investigate your characters on a deeper, higher-stakes level, but it’s important that doesn’t feel gratuitous or forced. Because it’s in a medical setting, where so much of it is about life and death, you are pushing people – the patients and the surgeons – to the extremes of what humans are pushed to. Because it’s happening on a daily basis, that makes for an interesting exploration of character.”
While it will be more of the same in season three – Shaun and his fellow surgeons battling difficult medical problems while navigating their often-problematic personal lives – viewers are gradually learning more about Shaun. For Highmore, the character’s quiet and gradual evolution is one of the highlights of making the show, partly because it’s in contrast to the madness happening around him.
“What I love about the show is that while Shaun necessarily evolves and changes as an individual, that is not done in a melodramatic way,” the actor adds. “We end season two on an emotional high; Shaun is happy because he has asked someone out and she has said yes. It reminds us that the interesting, happy, fun, joyful moments in life aren’t necessarily the extreme ones you can get in the life-and-death situations of surgery but, ultimately, in the small wins we all experience.”
As Netflix series The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance returns to the fantasy world first brought to life by Jim Henson’s 1982 feature film, DQ lifts the lid on the secrets behind making and working with the puppets that populate the land of Thra.
This is a cleaning job unlike any other. Deep in the crevices of a former kettle factory in the Berkshire countryside, the foam and latex features of an extraordinary turkey-faced monster is being wiped of snot.
It is the messier side of creating a mythical world of dictatorial evil puppets. The puss –made from a mixture of slime and breakfast cereal Weetabix – cakes the features of an evil Skeksis called The Collector who not only favours murder and intrigue but also has a tendency to leave snot all over himself, his food and his friends. He is one of the terrifying baddies in an ambitious new Netflix series based on Jim Henson’s seminal 1982 film The Dark Crystal.
“The snot can get disgusting and start to smell,” admits Toby Froud, design supervisor for The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, when he meets DQ at the Henson Studios creature workshop at the company’s enormous Langley Studios in London. “We have to clean all of the puppets as much as we can. We check their heads daily and strip them down and put them back together again.”
Froud, alongside executive producer Lisa Henson, is Dark Crystal family and has garnered cult status as the baby from the 1986 film Labyrinth, which featured David Bowie. While Henson is carrying forward the work of her father Jim – the legend behind The Muppets, Fraggle Rock and Labyrinth – by producing this epic series for The Jim Henson Company, Froud is working with his parents, who helped create the original Dark Crystal world.
His concept artist father Brian envisaged Dark Crystal’s mythological land of Thra with Jim; its landscape is based on his own home in Dartmoor. A book Brian wrote to accompany the film, delving deep into the myths only touched on in the original story, has served as the bible for the new series.
Froud’s mother Wendy is also on board. She helped create the original puppets (and met Brian on the set of the original film) and the pair are working behind the scenes with their son for the series, which will go deeper into this mythical world of kind-hearted Gelflings who can share dreams with each other, evil Skeksis who drain the life force out of other beings and cheeky little Podlings who hate being washed.
While the film was set at the end of the Gelfling civilisation, with the small, friendly creatures almost all murdered by the Skeksis, the 10-part series is set generations earlier, before the epic battle to come. It focuses on three main Gelflings – Rian, Deet and Bria – who all learn that something has gone wrong in the world they know. The Dark Crystal, the source of all life on Thra, which is controlled by the power-hungry Skeksis, is malfunctioning. Separately, they hear about the desperate measures the Skeksis have taken to retain their hold on Thra.
Recreating the world of The Dark Crystal has been a long-held dream for Henson. “I’ve been wanting to do something with this for around 15 years,” she says. “It has been a great passion of mine. The original movie was such a complete fantasy world; it felt like there was a reality to it, a history.’
While filmmaking has moved on so much since the original movie was made, the ethos of the series has been to stick to what is essentially a very sophisticated version of the ancient art form of puppetry. “This is pure puppetry,” insists Henson. “I want people to get excited about puppetry again. The characters are animated from within and that gives a real unity and authenticity to their performances, which makes it different from computer animation.”
To create such a physical world is some undertaking. These puppets eat, they get messy, they fight. All their tools and weapons have been created to be particularly light, while their chairs, houses, tables, food and plates are all puppet-sized.
More than 150 puppets, which have fibreglass structures surrounded by foam and latex, have been created for the show. “Live action from real puppets is something that pushes the whole production,” says Froud. “Creating them all has been a lot of work and it is a constant process. If the puppets get knocked about, they have to be re-skinned and we also re-skin the different heads onto the skull structure to give us more characters. Trying to keep track of all the puppets is one of the hardest things to do.”
In addition, 72 sets have been created, from ornate dining rooms to dank caves, all four feet off of the ground to allow the puppeteers to stand below the set floor with their hands, covered by the puppets, in the air.
“It can get pretty crowded on set,” says Neil Sterenberg, puppeteer for the show’s hero Rian as well as a Skeksis called The Scroll Keeper. “It takes three people to operate each puppet. The lead puppeteer operates the mouth and main body movements. Another puppeteer operates the eyes and ears via a monitor while a third puppeteer works the other hand of the puppet.
“It takes a lot of manpower to make these puppets work; the whole thing is like an iceberg. When you might have four or five puppets on the set together in a scene, you’ve got at least 10 people working underneath them. But we do have a monitor close to us so we can see what we are doing.
“It is like working in a painting because the sets are so stunning. Rian has a wind machine that follows him everywhere. He’s sat around a real fire – there were fire extinguishers everywhere – and seeing the natural light frame his face is just magical.”
Being a Skeksis, which is large enough to have two puppeteers crouched inside it, is an entirely different challenge. It can take 20 minutes just to get in place. “It is like performing in a duvet,” says Sterenberg. “It can get extremely hot in there and you can only do it for an hour at a time. It is particularly challenging because you have no vision at all of what is going on; you have to depend on a monitor to show you where you are going and what you look like.”
For scenes featuring both Gelflings and Skeksis, the staging is even more complicated. The flooring for the Skeksis is two feet lower – which is why you won’t see many full-length scenes with them all together. That is where CGI has been brought in – for full-length action scenes, action that shows the puppets running and also, on occasion, for hiding puppeteers.
The Dark Crystal film was a hit from the start and, for many fans, the return to this world — the series drops this Friday – is a landmark event. The top-notch cast, all fans of the original, includes Sigourney Weaver, Helena Bonham Carter, Nathalie Emmanuel, Mark Hamill, Lena Headey, Taron Egerton, Eddie Izzard, Simon Pegg, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Alicia Vikander and Natalie Dormer.
For puppeteers like Sterenberg, who has previously worked on Star Wars, the return to the world of Jim Henson is nothing less than a dream come true. “The Dark Crystal is a film I would watch over and over again,” he says. “I was inspired by the beauty and artistry of the puppetry to enter the business. Even now, when I am in a room full of Skeksis, I think, ‘How did this happen to me?’ To be in something that inspired me is incredible.”
The Affair star Ruth Wilson opens up about starring in three-part drama Mrs Wilson, which is based on the true story of her own grandmother who discovered her late husband lived a life full of secrets.
Every time she spotted the clapperboard on her latest drama, Ruth Wilson admits she got a little shiver. Part excitement, part terror. The award-winning star of The Affair and Luther has never appeared in a drama quite like this.
The board said ‘Mrs Wilson.’ The story is that of Wilson’s own family; in particular her grandmother Alison and her enigmatic and fascinating grandfather Alexander Wilson, who married four times without ever divorcing and led several lives all at once. A successful novelist, an MI6 spy and Indian colonel, he was also in prison several times, permanently broke and clearly something of a womaniser. Even today MI6 won’t release some of his files because they are too sensitive.
Wilson plays Alison who, while she was suspicious about her husband’s activities, could never have imagined quite how many secrets he was hiding from her. Many of them only emerged after her death. The actor also coproduced the three-part drama, made by Snowed-In Productions for the BBC and Masterpiece for PBS. All3Media International is distributing.
Wilson admits that when she first took the project on, she underestimated just how hard it would be to work so closely on a drama about her own family.
“It has been the toughest thing I have done and I am very glad it is almost over,” the actor admits when she talks to DQ on a set at Blythe House in South Kensington, London, for a scene where a suspicious Alison follows Alexander. “It is personally very close so there is this pressure. Also, it is a very demanding part. She is being snapped this way and that, constantly overloaded with more bad information. I’ve found it exhausting and deeply emotional. Sometimes I wish someone else was playing it to give me some distance. But, at the same time, I had to play it.”
Wilson’s connection to the story starts when she was 15 and her grandmother, who she remembers as an emotionally closed-off but kind woman, revealed to her two sons and grandchildren a memoir she had written. In it, she explained that her husband Alexander, who died before Ruth was born, had another wife and three other children. She described how she had only learned the awful truth about his bigamy after he died and how it meant there were even two funerals – one for her and one for his other wife.
It was the first time either of her sons had heard anything about their father’s past and their mother’s torment. But when she died seven years later, more, much more, was to emerge. Unknown to Wilson’s father Nigel and his big brother Gordon, there were two more wives and two more sons. Both these other children had been interested in finding out more about their father – Michael, the son of his second wife Dorothy, had been told he’d died in the Battle of El Alamein – and were shocked to find out about his other wives and children.
Alison was actually Alexander’s third wife. He married Gladys in 1916, had three children and they ran a theatre troupe together. Then in 1925, in what appears to have been his first job for the secret service, he was appointed a professor of English literature at the University of Punjab. It was while in India that he married second wife Dorothy, an actress (played by Keeley Hawes in the drama), and they had a son, Michael.
He returned to England with Dorothy in 1933 and for a short time lived with Gladys. Eighteen months later he returned to Dorothy and they lived together from 1935 to 1940.
By then he was in love with Alison, a secretary at MI6. Dorothy told her son his father was dead, but Alexander continued to see his first family, who presumed he lived in London for work. Alison knew he had been married before but he showed her fake divorce papers.
In 1955 he married for the last time after meeting nurse Elizabeth, who was just 26. Alexander was 62 but told her he was 10 years younger. They had a son, Douglas, but she obviously felt something wasn’t right. He was still living in Alison’s family home, and Elizabeth moved to Scotland when their son was just two.
In 2007 all of the family met for the first time – a now regular occurrence that is highlighted in the drama. “It has actually become an amazing unification,” says Wilson. “They all had different experiences of him. A lot of them felt they didn’t really have a family so in a way they are connecting the dots. For me it has been incredible meeting them. Michael was an actor and two of the family have set up acting troupes. My creative streak comes from that side of the family; Alexander was the biggest actor out of all of us.”
Wilson would often tell people the strange tale of her mysterious grandfather who was, according to his children, a fantastic father. A practising Catholic, he instilled in them all faith in the church and a fierce patriotism – but he was also a serial bigamist and a liar.
“My family all told me I should turn it into a drama but it was only when I met Neil Blair [JK Rowling’s agent and founder of The Blair Partnership] that it happened,” she recalls. “Seeing the clapperboard saying ‘Mrs Wilson’ is a bit scary. I get a little shiver and I think ‘Oh God, we are actually making it.’ It is such an extraordinary story. It is better than fiction because it is real life.”
Scriptwriter Anna Symon spoke to all of Alexander’s remaining children to get their memories of both him and their mothers, with the series set in 1963, the year of Alexander’s death. All the family were shown the scripts and offered comments on everything from what medals Alexander, played by Iain Glen (Game of Thrones) before his death and then in flashbacks, would wear to what scenes should be put in.
From the start, the idea was to tell the story from Alison’s point of view, even though they had to use dramatic licence to ensure the stories of all four wives were told. In real life Alison probably only ever found out about one other wife.
“My grandmother burned all of his papers,” adds Wilson. “This was her side of the narrative and the one she wanted to leave behind. I think in some way she probably did want this story to be told. She probably could never have imagined it being dramatised but I felt her with me as I was making it.”
When DQ catches up with Wilson five months later, after an emotional screening of the first episode of the drama that left both her father and uncle close to tears, the actor admits she is still struggling with the whole idea of it.
“It really was quite an odd experience and one I am still in,” she says of making the drama, which begins on BBC1 tomorrow. “It has made me understand my grandmother in a much deeper and emotional way because that is the thing about drama – it digs much deeper than a documentary or a memoir would because you are acting out scenes that happened. She had the rug pulled away from her and felt she had to construct this fake reality.
“There was some weirdness, like giving birth to my father, but my connection was more than that. The whole time I was playing her, I felt this string of anxiety pulling me – almost as if she was passing through me. Sometimes I felt overcome by powerful feelings. The crew and cast were so amazing, and everyone dealt with it so sympathetically that I felt someone, somewhere was really looking after it. Maybe it was her. I’d like to think she would be proud of what I’ve done.”
A mysterious and deadly virus has broken out in an isolated community on top of the world. DQ heads to Lapland to visit the frozen set of German-Finnish coproduction Arctic Circle.
The thermometer says it is -18°C, but with the wind-chill factor it’s closer to -35°C. The gale is so fierce the cameras have to be weighed down, while the actors are having to shout to be heard.
Crew members are covered from head to toe, with just their eyes peeping out, and wrapped up in so many layers of clothes that it’s hard to work out who’s who. No one can hear what their directions are.
It’s a wintry day two, out of 100, of filming in Finland’s frozen Lapland region for crime drama Arctic Circle, and everyone is just beginning to realise how big a challenge they have ahead of them.
“The wind was blowing so hard it was hard to even speak,” says lead actor Maximilian Bruckner, who plays virologist Thomas Lorenz, as he peels off layers and comes into the relative warmth of the ski resort restaurant in Kaunispää, northern Finland, one of the show’s bases. “It doesn’t even feel like you can work hard on the acting anymore; it is all about survival.”
His Finnish co-star Iina Kuustonen (pictured top) already has tiny little cuts, the start of chilblains, on her hands after they were exposed to the cold for just a few minutes. “I’ve put lots of cream on them and they feel a lot better,” says the star of top-rated Finnish drama Syke (Nurses). “The clothes I have to wear for my scenes are not the warmest but as soon as the cameras are off I layer up and put electric feet warmers in my shoes and mittens.
“The hardest thing I have found so far is that when it’s so cold, it’s hard to move your mouth. You slur your words; you sound almost like you are drunk. But the key is moving a lot and I think we will manage. It’s hard but it’s also brilliant.”
It should be worth the pain – Arctic Circle is ambitious in every sense of the word. A Finnish-German coproduction, it has a multi-national cast, a thrilling story that takes off in all directions and, most importantly, it is set in this fantastic, difficult and heart-stoppingly beautiful snowy wilderness.
Filmmakers often talk of the setting being a character in their dramas, but Lapland forces itself front and centre of this 10-part drama. The colours, particularly during the stunning sunrises and sunsets, create a mystical, otherworldly backdrop. And the characters behave the way they do, are who they are, because of the forbidding nature of this vast, hostile place.
“The people here are tough and have to be self-sufficient,” says Kuustonen, one of Finland’s biggest stars, who is from Helsinki but has holidayed in Lapland every year of her life. “You can’t just go to a store and buy stuff if you live in a small village here. You might be two or three hours from the nearest hospital. My character chops her own wood, she takes care of everything. People have to do that here.”
Kuustonen stars as Nina Kautsalo, a Lapland police inspector who lives in the small town of Ivalo. A former soldier in an elite branch of the Finnish military, she is also a single mother to a six-year-old girl. Most of her work is taken up dealing with drunks and minor crimes by the Lappish equivalent of hillbillies.
The actor admits it was hard work getting into shape to play this tough woman. “I had a personal trainer four or five times a week, learning the kind of stuff you do in the military,” she says. “I learned how to kick-box and also how to fire a gun. The important thing was I had to look like I knew what I was doing, I have to look as strong as her.”
One evening Nina discovers a sickening sight. A clearly ill prostitute has been chained up in a disused cabin alongside two corpses. So far, so Scandi noir – but there is a twist. Doctors treating the sick woman are mystified by her symptoms. A blood sample sent to Helsinki attracts the attention of German virologist Lorenz (Bruckner), who lives in the city. He recognises it as a dangerous and rare virus he saw in Yemen several years earlier and insists on travelling to Ivalo to see what he can learn.
He pairs up with Nina and the two find themselves fighting danger on two fronts, tackling both a mysterious killer who has been murdering prostitutes and a virus that threatens the entire world.
“I always like to try something new but this was a huge challenge for me in lots of ways,” says Bruckner. There is the role, the cold and then there is the fact that while most of his lines are in English – he speaks German only to his daughter in the show – he could barely speak the language before he got the role.
“I am mainly acting in English, but before I started all I could say was ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” he admits. “Learning English was reason why I wanted to do it and now I speak so much in English that when I had to do some German lines the other day, it felt strange. The story is a brilliant thriller. I don’t like the word ‘journey,’ but Thomas goes on one. He behaves in a way you would not expect a professor to behave. He is quite manly and heroic.”
With a gorgeous single-mum cop and a handsome, nearly divorced male professor, romance is almost inevitable, and sure enough the arc of their relationship is one of the lynchpins of the fast-moving series.
“They come from different cultures – he is much more emotional than her – and they have the weight of the world on their shoulders,” says Bruckner. “And then their relationship complicates things.”
As the case progresses, mysterious millionaire Marcus Eiben, played by German Clemens Schick (Casino Royale), heads up to Lapland too. He pretends he wants to use his charity foundation to help understand the virus but he may have more nefarious ambitions.
“He is a mysterious guy and over the 10 episodes people will know whether he is good, bad or bad with a good reason,” says Schick. Like his compatriot Bruckner, he speaks most of his lines in English, working from a script that is colour-coded for English, Finnish and German, each of the three languages used in it. “It is a challenge acting in another language but a gift too,” Schick continues. “I think I do act differently [in English]. Language is the entrance to your emotion, so speaking in another language has another entrance to your emotion. You talk differently, you emote differently. But I think these multilingual, international productions are the future of television.”
The story was developed by Yellow Film, Finland’s largest production company, which immediately envisaged Arctic Circle as its biggest project to date. Although there is Finnish in the show, the presence of foreigners means most of the conversations take place in English, a language in which most Finns become almost fluent while still at school. “The concept was always to have a virus and then to have another group of people who find out about the virus for a completely different reason,” says Yellow’s Jarkko Hentula. “It was almost three years in development but from early on we knew we wanted a foreigner, someone who has to travel and finds himself in Lapland.
“We start off with quite familiar terrain: dead bodies, the things you have seen before in police dramas. But then this virus thing comes in, and that is followed by this foreign guy who has to make friends among the local community. Episode by episode, the story gets bigger.”
Showing off the beauty of this desolate space, which has more reindeer than humans, was also top of the agenda from the off. “We always wanted to do it here in Lapland but, of course, it’s easy to write down, ‘It’s winter and -30°C and there are snowmobiles,’ but it’s quite a different thing when you start filming that,” smiles Hentula. “The biggest challenge is to capture on screen the vastness of this place, which is something unique and intriguing, and something people haven’t seen before.”
While there have been other dramas filmed in Lapland, including Sweden’s Rebecka Martinsson and the Swedish-French copro Midnight Sun, this is the first to have been filmed in Finland and the first to have been made during the height of winter. The filmmakers were encouraged by a new 25% tax incentive for productions made in the country as well as aid from House of Lapland, which helped find locations and crew to make the production as seamless as possible.
“Finnish Lapland is quite different to other places in Lapland in that there are much more open plains,” says Hentula. “It has the feeling of an American small town and we deliberately play on that. Many of the Lappish towns, including Ivalo, have just one road that all the shops and houses are along.”
Kuustonen says audiences will recognise the character of the small-town cop from US shows. “It’s like being a sheriff in the Midwest,” she says. “Everyone knows each other; in the hospital, in the bar, in the gas station.”
After developing the story, Yellow immediately got in touch with Finnish director Hannu Salonen (Shades of Guilt) who lives and works in Germany. “I immediately wanted to do it,” he recalls. “The story was brilliant but being able to set it in this postcard-style but also life-threatening landscape was exciting.”
The director was similarly excited by the idea of going “into the unknown” with the long shooting schedule in Lapland, which started after three months of filming in Helsinki. “It is a real adventure for all of us,” he says. “We don’t yet know what will happen if it gets really cold. Will our cables break? Will our cameras work? I can’t hear who is speaking to me and the actors can’t hear me. It means we can only film one or two pages a day, as opposed to eight pages.
“But then you look at the landscape. There is this beautiful blue light that stays with you for about three hours when the sun starts to set and you are reminded why we came here.”
It was Salonen who put Yellow in touch with German prodco Bavaria Fiction, which had been looking for more international projects. “Within two weeks of hearing the project, we met Yellow at Content London and from the start we felt like kindred spirits,” says Bavaria producer Moritz Polter. “From the moment we got involved, we had input in the writing process but we also had to know when to hold back. Keeping the sensibility of the local flavour was also key for us.
“One interesting thing for us was the way people talk to each other in Lapland. Everything is more straightforward because it has to be. When you go on a date, you might have travelled for two hours. That means you often don’t go back to your house after the date. There is a different way of interacting and that was fascinating for us.”
While the show has a hint of Scandi noir, the setting gives it a very different feel. “The snowy look means it is different,” Polter says. “You can see for miles and miles – it’s very different to the darkness you usually get in Scandi noir.”
The idea of a new spin on the typical Scandi crime drama – and an international show shot mainly in English – also attracted French distributor Lagardère, which immediately spotted its potential for markets around the world. “A key trend at the moment is emotional drama, and we liked that there was a real family and personal element to this show as well as the investigations into the murders and the virus,” says Frederik Range, Lagardère’s director of acquisitions. “There are lots of different layers to the story and we see it much more than a Scandi noir, which often only appeals to a narrow market and where the characters are sometimes quite cold. We believe this could do well either on mainstream or paid-for television.”
Arctic Circle is due to premiere on Finnish streaming channel Elisa Viihde this December and will then appear on linear net YLE in the same country. If it proves popular enough, there is plenty of material for a second season further exploring the backstory of the virus.
On the set, despite the difficult conditions, there is a palpable sense of excitement about the drama, which will plunge audiences into a story that’s both familiar but also unusual and strange.
“People will be surprised by and interested in this world,” adds Schick. “It is a story that has huge potential. There is a killer and, on top of that, there is this uncontrollable, scary element that is inside people and could easily get out of control. The location is beautiful and it was a brilliant move from the writers to put this darkness in the last place in the world you would expect it to be.”
Award-winning writer Abi Morgan explores the highly charged world of divorce lawyers for her latest BBC drama, The Split. DQ visits the set to hear how the female-led series was influenced by US legal dramas – and Sex & the City.
Abi Morgan was chatting to another mum while watching her daughter playing hockey when she was hit by inspiration for her newest television series. The woman, dressed in jeans and a jumper, was frantically responding to calls and texts on her phone while trying to also concentrate on the fiercely contested school match. Intrigued, Morgan asked her what she did. She was a divorce lawyer.
“I loved the contradiction of this woman, who was very dressed down to watch the game, dealing with all these acrimonious exchanges all while she was trying to keep an eye on the match,” recalls Morgan, the Bafta- and Emmy-winning writer of Suffragette, The Iron Lady and The Hour. “We got talking about her job and one of the key things she said to me was that it’s an area of the law that, unusually, is predominantly populated by women. It is regarded as the unsexy end of law but its about so much more than being in a courtroom. And immediately this incredible landscape unfolded.”
A year later, with Sister Pictures producer Jane Featherstone (who the writer worked with on River and The Hour) on board, Morgan is chatting with DQ in what used to be the Holborn office for one of London’s top law firms. This is the wonderfully apt set of The Split, a sexy, glamorous, romantic and entertaining six-part drama set in the world of female divorce lawyers for the rich and famous.
“I had just come from writing Suffragette, which featured this incredible, diverse group of female soldiers,” Morgan says. “I wanted to do another very strong group of women but also women who could look incredibly sexy and powerful and hold their own in what would have traditionally been a male domain.
“And I loved the idea that it meant we could really look at modern marriage. I am always fascinated by the truths we tell each other, particularly when you are just a few women alone at a book club or mums’ night out.”
Morgan doesn’t mind admitting The Split was influenced by hit US legal dramas The Good Wife, Suits and Law & Order. It’s a British show but it’s unusually, and surprisingly, glossy. The series is set in a monied world of billionaire businessmen divorcing their first wives for a younger model and young footballers organising their pre-nups before they marry. Each episode will feature a case of the week, while stories about the lawyers and one particular divorcing couple will arc the series.
The star of the show is Unforgiven, Spooks and River actor Nicola Walker, who is almost unrecognisable in her glossy lawyer uniform. “The interesting thing about this show is that everyone is incredibly well dressed,” continues Morgan. “When we were researching, I was chatting to one lawyer and I asked whether her handbag was from Marks & Spencer – I got that a bit wrong: it was a £25,000 tote from Bottega Veneta.
“There is a bit of a Sex & the City vibe with the clothes. That is not something we normally do on British television but it is totally authentic to this world. They all wear heels, even if they kick them off the moment they sit at their desks. They are groomed and glammed up because they have to be. Their female clients are rich women who should be able to recognise their handbags, while they are also dealing with successful men. They need the men to find them attractive but also to know that they can do their job.”
Walker plays top divorce lawyer Hannah as her life is about to turn upside down. After 20 years of working for family law firm Defoe, she quits when her formidable mother Ruth (Deborah Findlay), who runs the company, refuses her a promotion. So she moves to Noble and Hale, a very different, more corporate company, working alongside former lover Christie, played by Barry Atsma. Their flirty friendship leads to her questioning her long marriage with Nathan, portrayed by Episodes star Stephen Mangan.
Meanwhile, 30 years after leaving the family for the nanny, her father (Anthony Head) returns to their lives wanting his slice of the firm Ruth has spent so long building up. It shakes the world of Hannah and her sisters Nina (Annabel Scholey), who is also a divorce lawyer, and millennial Rose (Fiona Button), who has eschewed the high-pressure world to be a nanny.
“I loved the idea of this intergenerational piece,” says producer Featherstone. “It is definitely about modern marriage but it is also about relationships between mothers, daughters, siblings, husbands, brothers and all of those things. It is not just about sexual relationships but also the responsibilities you have within a family. Ruth, the matriarch, has trained her girls to be as independent, strong and fiery as her, but that creates its own problems.”
Morgan, a child of divorce herself who has never married her long-term partner, actor Jacob Krichefski, says the impact of such a significant life event as divorce is examined in terms of both the lawyers and their clients.
“I’ve had divorces within my own family and seen it happen to friends, and I know how complex and difficult and painful it is,” she says. “This also came out of a desire to look at the legacy we give our children when we bring them up and also the ideas about marriage that we inherit.”
Fittingly for such a female-centric drama, it has an all-female creative team. As well as Featherstone and Morgan, Lucy Richer and Lucy Dyke are coproducers, while Jessica Hobbs (Broadchurch, Apple Tree Yard, The Slap) directs the show, which launches on BBC1 tonight. It is distributed by BBC Studios.
The incredible office that doubles for the glossy and modern Noble and Hale was until recently the London headquarters for Olswang, which happened to represent Featherstone when it came to signing her work agreements. The Split’s research team came to talk to solicitors in the office and, when they heard the company was moving out (after a merger), they asked to lease it, having already spent a year trying and failing to find the right spot for their fictional company. The details of the law firm have been copied down to the smallest item, from the trainers under the desks and different-coloured files (to intimidate the opposition) to Olswang-branded sweets. A bowlful of Nobel and Hale sweets sits in the impressive reception that overlooks Holborn.
London is officially the divorce capital of the world and Morgan and the producers have drawn on rich research with real-life lawyers; there were also two legal advisors to ensure all the events in the show could really happen.
“The whole thing is fascinating and we’ve looked at some real cases of when a private fight goes public,” says Morgan. “You see how emotional everyone gets and think, ‘Oh so that’s why Fiona Shackleton came out of court with her hair soaking wet’ [when Heather Mills doused the lawyer in water during her divorce hearing with former Beatle Paul McCartney].”
Featherstone adds: “And it is astonishing hearing what some of the judges say in front of them. They are incredibly opinionated and basically tell them they are damaging their children, damaging themselves and are stupid people who shouldn’t be wasting their time. That’s not to say we are going to mock people who are going through this. The tone of the piece has a light touch but the emotions are all there.”
Emmy-winning actor Archie Panjabi stars alongside Jack Davenport in espionage thriller Next of Kin. She tells DQ about taking the lead in her first British drama and explains why she thinks the series will provoke a timely discussion among viewers.
Growing up in the humdrum north London suburb of Edgware, Archie Panjabi knew she wanted to be an actress but saw very few Asian role models on television. There was a family in EastEnders and there was Amita Dhiri in This Life, and that was it.
“There really weren’t very many roles for British Asian actresses,” says the star. “Even in the cinema there was nobody from my background apart from in Bollywood films.”
However, things are changing, slowly, and Panjabi is leading the way. Having first found fame in films such as Bend it Like Beckham and The Constant Gardener, she is best known for her Emmy-winning role as the enigmatic Kalinda Sharma in The Good Wife.
But it is only now that the 45-year-old is taking to the screen in her first lead role in a British drama, Next of Kin, an exciting contemporary series set in the world of terrorism and espionage. It is made by Mammoth Screen for ITV and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.
“From the moment I read the script, I wanted to read the next one but it was the character of Mona that really excited me,” Panjabi says. “I’ve worked my entire career to get an opportunity like this and I think for the whole shoot I was just smiling away. It was amazing to get an opportunity like this. When I was younger all I dreamed of was having a small part on television; I never thought my career could take me to America or a job like this.”
She’s still smiling when DQ visits ITV’s London headquarters shortly after the show has wrapped. Written by Vera and Indian Summers creator Paul Rutman and his novelist wife Natasha Narayan, Next of Kin was conceived as they watched the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in Paris.
Since then, sadly, there have been many other atrocities for the writers to draw inspiration from. But while sympathy always, obviously, lies with the victims of the attacks and their families, Next of Kin looks at the story from the other side.
Punjabi’s Mona is a GP whose family emigrated to Britain from Pakistan when she was two. Her older brother, Kareem (Navin Chowdry), who is also a doctor, still has ties to Pakistan but she is married to an Englishman, played by Jack Davenport, and feels British, as do her two younger siblings Ani (Kiran Sonia Sawar) and Omar (Mawaan Rizwan).
The story unfolds in both Pakistan (filmed on the Indian border) and the UK. The story begins in the former as Kareem is kidnapped just before flying home to Britain. Meanwhile, in London, as they wait for news of Kareem, the family witnesses the smoke from yet another terror attack on the capital.
Debuting in the UK on January 8, Next of Kin was filmed last summer in London as the country reeled from a series of terrorist attacks. They were filming not far from London Bridge when eight people were murdered by Jihadists in July.
“There was a weird energy on set the next day,” recalls Panjabi. “It felt a bit surreal. On one hand, we are using art to talk about a subject that is happening right before us, a subject we don’t fully understand. But on the other, people have just died because of this subject. It was odd and sad and I think it made us all reflective. It was a strange, sad time.”
In the show, it rapidly emerges that there may be a link between the kidnapping and the terrorist attack; what is unclear is how much Kareem’s son Danny, Mona’s nephew, had to do with each. What follows is a Homeland-style thriller but one very much with a family at its heart.
“It’s a timely piece; it really shines a light on the area of the families of terror suspects and I think it will provoke a discussion,” says Panjabi of the six-part series. “One of the things the show doesn’t do is seek to explain it or understand it, because it’s such a complex thing to understand. The focus is very much on what happens to a family when a younger member is suspected of being radicalised. How does that affect each member of the family?
“I do spend a lot of time crying on the show,” she adds. “It was emotionally draining and also emotionally challenging. Her brother has been kidnapped and her teenage nephew is suspected of something by the police. She believes 100% – at the beginning, at least – that he is innocent. She is fighting tooth and nail for him but, at the same, time she’s struggling to keep this big family unit intact. So it is traumatic for her, and playing her is quite traumatic because you don’t just want to cry all the time – you have to build up a whole different repertoire of crying. I don’t think I’ve ever had that opportunity to do something like this before.
“Every time I felt stressed I could hear my mother saying, ‘Well, you wanted to be a lead!’”
For Panjabi, the icing on the cake of getting the role was working with Pirates of the Caribbean actor Davenport, who starred in This Life – the show that inspired her so much.
“I didn’t tell him this, he has no clue,” she giggles. “But it was one of my favourite shows. It was such groundbreaking drama at a time when I was just starting out acting, and I remember thinking how wonderful it was that the characters were so messed up, so flawed and yet so immensely likeable. They were always the kind of characters I want to play, even now. So working with Jack was kind of like a dream come true.
“He has this quality where he’s very strong and confident but he’s also very charming and not afraid to be affectionate.”
Panjabi is currently living in New York, where she keeps her Emmy hidden in a box, but wouldn’t rule out a return to the UK should more work arise.
“We are making so much good-quality stuff now in the UK that every American actor wants to come here, so it’s a very exciting time because we’ve really caught up,” she says. “I feel lucky to be part of both worlds.
“There isn’t very much difference apart from the budget. In America, when you’re offered a coffee, you’re offered coconut milk, almond milk… whereas in England it’s just milk! You also get a chair with your name on it over there. But other than that, I think the etiquette is pretty much the same; you have a group of individuals who want to make something magical and memorable.”
In the meantime, Panjabi is pleased that at an age when actresses were traditionally put onto the scrapheap, she’s going from strength to strength.
“People from my background say it’s tough for us but I think it’s tough for any actor, especially when you get older. Someone once said when you turn 30 that’s it, so I think I am lucky. From growing up at a time when there weren’t that many roles for British Asian actresses, I’ve found that I have been working pretty solidly so I feel very grateful and so very lucky.”
Ahead of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s impending nuptials, royal marriages will be pushed further into the spotlight in season two of Netflix’s The Crown. DQ visits the set to hear how the Queen’s union with Prince Philip is pushed to the limit in the second run.
In what looks like a car park at Elstree Film Studios, situated next to a large branch of Tesco, sits Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street.
The doors and gates of Buckingham Palace are surrounded by green screens that allow The Crown’s crew to work their magic so that it really looks like a palace rather than a particularly ornate bit of plywood. Meanwhile, the door of the somewhat grubby-looking prime ministerial home is taller than normal; it was raised by nine inches to make John Lithgow look more like the rather smaller Winston Churchill in the first season and now it is stuck at that size.
These two buildings, weighted with history, are at the heart of British life and the interweaving stories of what goes on behind their doors are the spine of the award-winning show, one of the most ambitious pieces of television ever made.
The first two seasons cost a rumoured £100m (US$133m) but almost every penny can be seen on screen. This season also spans Antarctica, the South Seas, the Suez Canal, Scotland, Lisbon, Washington, Nazi Germany, Paris and Ghana, while much of the action of the first three episodes takes place on the Royal Yacht Britannia. No effort has been spared to make this sumptuous world believable.
The characters, too, are larger than life, encompassing everyone from the Kennedys and preacher Billy Graham to cuckolded prime minister Harold Macmillan and Christine Keeler, the showgirl who helped bring down a government. But, at the heart of it, is a special but often dysfunctional family.
The Crown showed the world a very different side of the royals in its 10-part first season. Starring Claire Foy as a naïve but eager-to-please princess who found the crown thrust upon her two decades before she expected it and Matt Smith as her alpha male husband who was forced to give up his own aspirations to stand behind his wife, the show humanised them and made them more understandable.
“I am not a Queen nutter or anything,” insists Peter Morgan, the show’s creator and writer. He first wrote about Elizabeth II in The Queen, the Oscar-winning film about how the Palace and prime minister Tony Blair reacted to the death of Princess Diana. That led to The Audience, the award-winning play where he looked at the secret weekly meetings between the monarch and prime ministers over the decades. The Crown, the entire second season of which landed on Netflix today, was the obvious next step.
As a younger man, Morgan was a republican, but he admits he has since changed his mind. “Most sensible people in the early 1990s probably thought this lot should be kicked out,” he says. “But if we had a referendum on the royal family tomorrow, I think 80% of the country would vote to keep them. I certainly would. I really would. Look at the heads of state everywhere else – there has been a catastrophic failure of the political class in the last couple of years, but [the Queen] represents stability.”
The second season of the Netflix show, which is made by Left Bank Pictures and distributor Sony Pictures Television, starts in 1956 with prime minister Anthony Eden’s disastrous Suez Crisis and ends in 1964 with his successor, Harold Macmillan, resigning amid the Profumo scandal. In every crisis, the Queen is left to pick up the broken pieces, as she has so many times since.
In this season we also see how, despite her home life being turbulent, the Queen always puts duty first. Her marriage to Philip is particularly under the spotlight at the start of the 10-episode run.
“Doesn’t everybody in Britain know Philip’s had an affair?” teases Morgan. The answer is no; no one knows for sure whether he had an affair or two, but there have been plenty of rumours. The season plays on them, and how they and Philip’s playboy behaviour impact the Queen. The rumours arc across the season, starting with Philip’s five-month tour on the HMS Britannia that took him away from his family to open the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and visit some of the Commonwealth’s far-flung islands. It ends with his name being mixed up in the Profumo affair.
History has proved the Queen and the Duke of Cambridge’s marriage to be spectacularly successful and last month they celebrated 70 years together. It meant the programme-makers had to think hard about how to treat these rumours, and they tread the line carefully.
“There has never been any confirmation of an affair and it would be prurient, really horrible and irresponsible to make hefty suggestions,” says Left Bank’s Suzanne Mackie. “We know for a fact that this has been a very long and successful marriage. So many people we have talked to, historians and people who have worked in the palace, say they have witnessed a lot of love and affection in this marriage. We have nothing but respect for that. It would be ghastly of us to say anything else.
“And yet, like any marriage, it has to go through periods of change and periods of uncertainty and instability. It is something most of us have experienced; this is a real marriage and we would be whitewashing it to say it was happy all the way through. So we go on a complicated twisting, winding road and we hope that we come out with something truthful.”
While the programme-makers have always been keen to stress they are making drama, not a documentary, they try not to steer too far from facts. A group of historians dubbed The Brains Trust both suggest storylines to Morgan and also ensure the spirit, if not the letter, of the drama is correct.
One story sees the Queen fall out with Jackie Kennedy (Jodi Balfour) over nasty comments the First Lady made about the monarch. This plot element was based on rumours in Cecil Beaton’s diaries but is heavily fictionalised. A separate story about the Duke of Windsor (Alex Jennings), the Queen’s uncle who abdicated the throne, and his Nazi past is more based on fact. It hinges around the discovery of the Marburg Files, which indicated just how sympathetic the Duke was to Germany’s ambitions.
“You can access the files at the British library and they are amazing,” says Philippa Lowthorpe, the Bafta-winning director who helmed the episode. “When we were filming, I carried them around in my bag so when the crew asked – and they frequently did – how much of it really was true, I could fish them out and show them.
“They are telegrams and letters from people who were around the Duke. Everybody was talking about him. They were manipulating him but he didn’t seem to mind. He had sympathies with Hitler and his philosophy.
“We used copies of the real files throughout the show and there’s a scene where the Queen is given them. It was the first time Claire got to read them – there are about 60 documents in the file – and when she finished the scene she just said, ‘Oh my God.’” Just to emphasis how true this story is, real pictures of the Duke are used at the end of this particular episode.
Meanwhile, the turbulence we see in the love life of Princess Margaret, played by Vanessa Kirby, who in this season meets and marries the philanderer Tony Armstrong-Jones (Matthew Goode), is also based on fact.
“Tony represents the shock of the new, which is a real theme of the series,” says director Ben Caron, who directed three episodes of season two. “This is the end of the age of deference and the royals are being thrust into the modern era. Tony is from an artistic world and he challenges all the conventions people have got used to.”
The plan is to have six seasons altogether and filming for the third starts in July but with an entirely new cast who will take the royals into the 70s and 80s, the era of Margaret Thatcher and Princess Diana. Olivia Colman, the Bafta- and Golden Globe-winning star of Broadchurch and The Night Manager, will replace Claire Foy as an older version of the Queen, while the producers are close to choosing the rest of their royal family.
Caron, who directed the final scene to feature Foy, Kirby and Goode (ironically one that has not made the final cut), says wrapping the shoot was a bittersweet moment. “The gaffers put on an amazing light display and turned the whole room into a big disco,” he says. “Everyone had slowly started appearing on set from all the departments you don’t always see and you suddenly realise the magnitude of the thing.
“There were a few speeches and some champagne. We’ve all been on this amazing two-year journey together – we’ve seen more of each other than we’ve seen of our own families and it was tough having to say goodbye to the cast. But, for the rest of us, the work continues.”
Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker has become rather adept at predicting future technologies and scientific advancements. With season four coming to Netflix, he and coproducer Annabel Jones reveal the writing and development process behind the anthology series.
The future can often look like a bleak and rather scary place in Netflix’s Black Mirror. That’s why when those in the scientific know tell the show’s creator, Charlie Brooker, that he’s unconsciously stumbled upon something they were working on, it terrifies him.
“We don’t really talk to scientists, even though we keep thinking that we should go on some fact-finding mission to Silicon Valley,” says Brooker, who writes and coproduces the hit anthology series.
“So when people whose job is to worry about the future say to me, ‘Yes, you were right about that,’ my only thought is, ‘Oh shit!’”
Yet Brooker has an uncanny knack of getting things right. “I am often surprised when something I’ve written about turns out to be true,” he adds. “Last season, I had one story called Hated in the Nation, which had little bee drones in it. They were terrifying, and it turns out they are real – I didn’t realise until after the show went out.”
The Waldo Moment, which debuted in 2013, foreshadowed both the rise of Donald Trump and Apple’s iPhone X, which allows people to become avatars on their phones.
“Sometimes when we’re doing a story, it resonates with something that’s going on in the real world, but that’s often a coincidence, or it’s accidental, or it’s just because that stuff was in the ether. The Waldo Moment is a good example, where actually it was about Boris Johnson on panel shows but then down the line it became more of a global thing than we probably realised at the time.”
But Brooker is clearly doing something right, and it’s not just his predictions. After starting as a cult hit on Channel 4 in 2011 before moving to Netflix for season three last year, Black Mirror won two Emmys in September and has rapidly become event television. Its range of often dystopian, sometimes beautiful and always challenging stories means the fourth season, due to land on Netflix this month, is eagerly awaited around the world.
So where does Brooker, a former television reviewer for The Guardian who started his working life writing about games for PC Zone magazine, get his twisted ideas? Instead of reading science periodicals and going fact-finding in Silicon Valley or even Silicon Roundabout, Brooker and his long-time coproducer Annabel Jones (their House of Tomorrow production company is part of the Endemol Shine Group) talk about their everyday fears and then think of ways adding technology to them to make things even scarier.
“Often it starts with just a general discussion about something like parenting and then one of us will come up with a ‘what if’ idea and we’ll ping-pong it back and forth,” Brooker explains. “I’ll be trying to think of the worst possible outcome and Annabel will challenge me by saying, ‘Well, that wouldn’t happen because…’ and I will say, ‘No, but it would.’ It is at the point where I realise I can’t shut up and Annabel is saying, ‘That sounds horrible,’ that we really think, ‘OK, we’ve got something here.’”
And then comes the hard work. “Writing can take two or three days, or sometimes a month, and then I hand it over to Annabel, she makes a load of critical marks and find myself getting defensive on every level,” he admits. “Sometimes I end up ripping it up and starting again – that has happened several times – or I just park an idea and start on another.”
If a script does pass the Jones test, there is almost inevitably some kind of rewrite when the director or even the cast come aboard.
The scary parenting idea turned into season four’s Arkangel, which explores what might happen if you could watch your child 24/7 with a sophisticated surveillance tool. The episode was directed by Jodie Foster, who immediately loved the story.
“Jodie had lots of thoughts and suggestions so I went back to redraft it,” says Brooker. “We were so flattered to have her on board and, of course, she is someone who understands privacy, who understands being in the spotlight and how you can control your profile in the world.
“Because she was, of course, a child actor she knows how to work with them and it was a pleasure to see her on set working and getting these great performances from the young actors.”
Meanwhile, when movie actor Andrea Riseborough was sent the script for Crocodile, a story set in Iceland in a near future when memories are no longer private, she immediately asked to play a different role, which meant Brooker had to rewrite the script with the lead character as a woman, not a man.
“Basically, the more people there are who get involved, the more flesh is added to the bones,” says Brooker. “Luckily, I find now that when I get to the end I can’t remember what it looked like originally. The finished product has always got so many things I would not have thought of.”
When it moved to Netflix, Black Mirror shifted from a three-episode season to six episodes, giving Brooker and Jones the space to push the boundaries ever more, with the duo determined that each story should have a very different feel.
This season sees everything from a satirical Star Trek-style space story in the ambitious feature-length USS Callister (pictured top), starring Jesse Plemons and Cristin Miloti, to a short domestic black-and-white tale called Metalhead, starring Maxine Peake, which is just 38 minutes long.
“We feel that we can really explore and push the perception of what the story is without breaking it up,” says Jones, who has worked with her Black Mirror collaborator for nearly two decades. “On Netflix, not only can we experiment with the size and tone of a story but even with the duration. Working like this gives us so much more freedom to tell different stories.”
Since the success of Black Mirror, anthologies have become fashionable once again, as seen recently in another transatlantic collaboration, Electric Dreams, comprising adaptations of short stories by science fiction writer Philip K Dick for Channel 4 and Amazon.
However, Brooker says he deliberately avoids watching any competitors. “I think I would probably suffer crippling professional jealousy,” he reveals. “I tend to avoid things that I think might be in the same ballpark if I can, just because I don’t want to be shown up.
“People did tell me to watch [HBO drama] Westworld and [Spike Jonze movie] Her because they were similar to Black Mirror, but I’ve deliberately avoided them. I also don’t want to be influenced by them – they might put me off.
“But it’s flattering there are more anthology shows around. It’s not a format I’ve invented by any means; I nicked it from The Twilight Zone. It’s pretty much the oldest format in television history, but I think the advent of streaming platforms has brought it back into fashion. You no longer have to worry about an audience coming back week on week; it’s all just there in the magic streaming cupboard.”
For someone who conjures such chilling stories about the future, Brooker remains remarkably sanguine about the rise of technology and its impact on humans. He believes we just need to learn how to deal with it.
“You can’t put progress back in a box, that’s the problem – it won’t fit,” he says. “If you’ve ever tried putting an iPad back in a box, you can’t even do that! It’s weird, there’s a bewildering number of technological things we’re having to grapple with at the moment and we have to work out what the social rules are, basically. The closest analogy I can think of is the motor car, which obviously revolutionised transport and was a good thing but it took us a while to learn the rules; to have road signs, to work out road markings.
“We must have had a lot of accidents before we worked out a system of keeping everybody safe. It feels like there’s a hundred different motor cars being invented every week at the moment, that’s the difference, so we’ve got our work cut out. But what are we going to do, go back to xylophones and eating mud? No!”
Hayley Atwell stars in Oscar winner Kenneth Lonergan’s adaptation of the beloved EM Forster novel Howards End, a coproduction for BBC1 and Starz. DQ visits the sumptuous set to find a period drama moving with modern times.
There is a stunning stately home overlooking a lake, an ornately decorated marquee and a beautiful bride in a wedding dress. This is the lavish setting for a key scene in a new BBC- and Starz-financed production of the seminal EM Forster novel Howards End. The only problem is the intermittent rain that is stopping filming every half-an-hour. But, as anyone who has ever filmed in England knows, that’s unavoidable.
“Poor Evie, getting married in the rain!” laughs Hayley Atwell, who plays the book’s central character, Margaret Schlegel, as she snuggles up in a warm coat on set (it may be April but it’s cold as well as wet). The scene being filmed at the West Wycombe Estate in the Chiltern Hills – when Evie Wilcox marries Percy Cahill – is key to the story as the worlds of the three families featured in the book come crashing together. No one comes out unscathed.
Howards End was made into a hugely successful Oscar-winning film 25 years ago with Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter and Anthony Hopkins, but the time is ripe to make a new adaptation, says Sir Colin Callender, whose Playground prodco has made the four-part miniseries in association with City Entertainment and KippSter Entertainment. It is distributed internationally by Lionsgate.
“The story is about two smart, free-thinking women who are trying to make their own way in the world,” he says of the series, which debuts this Sunday in the UK. “If you think about what is going in the world, particularly here in the UK and in America – the way women’s roles and their relationships with men are being discussed – then you see just how of the moment the story remains.”
The drama looks at three families occupying different levels of the Edwardian middle class. There are the Schlegels, Margaret and Helen (played by Philippa Coulthard), orphaned sisters who live in an intellectual world of money, loosely based on the Bloomsbury Set, a real-life group of intellectuals. While on holiday in Germany, they meet Henry Wilcox and his wife Ruth, played by Matthew Macfadyen and Julia Ormond, who are wealthy capitalists.
At the start of the story, Helen is staying with the Wilcoxes at their house, Howards End, when she falls in love with their younger son Paul (Jonah Hauer-King). But Paul is penniless and meant to be heading to Africa to work for his father; the romance is hurriedly finished before it even really begins, leaving Helen heartbroken.
Back in London, the Schlegels meet struggling clerk Leonard Bast, played by Joseph Quinn, at a classical music concert. He is entranced by their intellectual world of chatter and music and wants to be part of it, but the economics of his situation make it impossible. Meanwhile, the Wilcox family come back into their lives when they take a luxury flat opposite the Schlegel home.
The screenplay has been written by Kenneth Lonergan. The American has an Oscar and a Bafta under his belt for last year’s movie Manchester by the Sea, which he both wrote and directed, but this marks his first television adaptation. “I looked at the book and had lots of questions. And every time I asked a question, Colin and the BBC seemed to get more excited,” laughs Lonergan. “It was an interesting challenge for me to adapt something where the characters have such a rich internal life but also where the story is focused on the challenges and the different strata of society.”
He adds that while most of the dialogue in his scripts came directly from the book – around two thirds of it – the rest was made up based on his experience of watching other period dramas “…and Monty Python.”
The producers and director Hettie Macdonald were determined that while Howards End would have all the same production values of other BBC costume dramas, it should have a modern feel.
It certainly looks the part, introducing us to a world that was changing, where horse-drawn carriages were being shunted off the road by motor cars. The series was filmed partly on a stage in Twickenham, south-west London, and partly on location. Finding Wickham Place, the home of the Schlegels, proved particularly difficult. Many of the streets the producers like were unavailable due to building work, so exteriors were shot in Islington, north London, and interiors were built on the stage.
Just as challenging was finding the production’s Howards End, the mystical house that belongs to Mrs Wilcox and starts and ends the story. Forster based the story on his own childhood home, Rooksnest, a country house near Stevenage that once belonged to a farming family called Howard. The house used in the show is a private home in Godalming, Surrey, which has rarely been used for filming before but, like Rooksnest, was constructed around a Tudor building.
While every effort went into making Howards End look right for the era, it also feels surprisingly contemporary. “I think there was a temptation for all of the actors to start acting all period drama,” says Quinn. “Once you are wearing the costumes, you feel you need to act differently, but Hettie was really adamant that we didn’t do that; she even joked on set that she was going to have a ‘period acting bell’ if anyone went ‘too period.’ The story is funny and sad and very relatable. They are people just like us; they just lived in a different time.”
Atwell says she was immediately attracted to doing the project, particularly once she knew Lonergan was involved. “I had seen Manchester by the Sea just a few days before being offered the job and the idea of him adapting this story was very exciting,” she reveals. “He hasn’t given it a sense of reverence and he has written it in such a clever way. There are so many layers to it, and so much symbolism; themes in it that we try to tap into and hit upon. But it’s also very funny. There are pages and pages of dialogue where five or six actors are overlapping. What is funny is the truth of playing people who are not listening to each other, they are just overlapping. It is very quick-witted.”
The actor started in period drama, with starring roles in Brideshead Revisited and The Duchess, but for the last few years has been best known as Marvel hero Agent Peggy Carter. Atwell first portrayed Carter in 2011 movie Captain America: The First Avenger, before going on to star in spin-off Agent Carter for two seasons on ABC. She admits she revelled in playing a character who was a little deeper than your average superhero.
“I have been doing Captain America [the movies and associated series] seven or eight years now and it is full of people who I really love, but I am classically trained and I found this source material a lot more interesting, a lot more fulfilling,” Atwell says. “You can have conversations with our director and the other actors about what is in these scenes, what is the most interesting thing to play. You can analyse what is really happening because it is all really subtle. When you have to do a lot of exposition to drive the plot along, it can be tiring and a bit boring, with all due respect. When you have a job like this, there is so much to it. It was exciting creating such a rich inner world rather than just turning up and looking good and pointing a gun.
“Margaret is the heroine of the story. There is a line at the start of the book, ‘only connect,’ which is kind of the message of the story. The thing that drives her is a desire to connect people, which, given the context of the time, was quite unusual for a woman in her position and class. She’s just wonderful.”
Channel 4’s one-off drama Unspeakable follows a mother investigating whether her new boyfriend is in an inappropriate relationship with her 11-year-old daughter. Filmmaker David Nath and stars Indira Varma and Luke Treadaway discuss a story lifted straight from the headlines.
You’re a divorced woman in a new relationship with a handsome younger man when an anonymous text arrives on your phone, saying: “There is something going on between your boyfriend and your daughter.” Then a second text arrives: “It’s not right.” What do you do?
Do you approach your new boyfriend, knowing that if you are wrong he will be appalled that you even suspected him? Do you ask your 11-year-old daughter – and if so, how? These questions are at the heart of Unspeakable, a new one-off drama for Channel 4.
Created, directed and produced by Bafta-winning documentary maker David Nath of Story Films, a production company he set up with fellow journalist Pete Beard a year ago, the story could not be more current. Indeed, the project came out of several news stories in which accusations both real and false have been levelled against people from anonymous sources.
Nath is best known for his documentaries including Bedlam and The Murder Detectives, but he decided this story was best told via a drama.
“It’s fictional but this is based on real stories that have happened,” says Nath, who made his first drama, The Watchman (also for C4), just a year ago. “The consequences of a sexual allegation are quite terrifying. Initially I did look at making a documentary about it, but it became clear quite quickly that it wouldn’t be possible. The anonymity would have made it difficult, but even if you had got past that I felt the power in these stories is when the protagonist – in this case a woman – goes through a period of uncertainty, where she questions everything. That is difficult to represent in a retrospective film; I wanted to show it as it was happening.
“It was based on a real story I heard where an allegation had been made from an anonymous source and there was this window where the mother didn’t know what to think. In the real story the window was only two hours, but I thought that period of doubt was so interesting. It shows an accusation can completely change your view and perception of someone you think you know.”
Luther and Game of Thrones star Indira Varma plays Jo, the woman who receives the mysterious text message just minutes after dropping her obviously upset daughter and son off to school. The tense 60-minute film, set over 48 hours, is a masterclass in acting as you see her character go through the gamut of emotions as, at first alone and too terrified to talk to anyone about the information she has just received, she tries to figure out what is going on. Once Luke is home from work, she has to work out what she now thinks of him.
“The first third of the film is like an inner monologue representing a journey of increased suspicion,” says Nath. “Uncertainty creeps into terror as every seemingly innocuous thing becomes loaded as she looks for clues. The nature of that accusation is something you would find very difficult to ignore or compartmentalise because of the nature of what it is.
“Once the poison is in there, it is very, very difficult to remove. It has a hold over you. Your mind starts to play tricks and you selectively recall things. I wanted there to be a strong sense of her rattling around her house looking for clues.”
Varma admits she was worried that the first third of the film, being solely focused on her, would be “boring” but she quickly realised how dramatic the situation was. “The nuances are so clever,” she says. “This is someone who wants to stay in control of the situation and not get ahead of herself. She is on this knife edge because she wants to be a responsible parent but she is also a woman who is in love and wants to hold on to her relationship. You see her wrangling with this dilemma and that makes it a very interesting thing to play.”
Nath says he tried to get into the head of how a woman would react by asking female friends, who all said – as the daughter in the story was staying at her already-paranoid father’s house – they would confront the boyfriend. “But they struggled when I asked them how would you confront them, how would you say the words: ‘Did you do this?’”
“What worked so well is that it is all very subtle,” says Luke Treadaway, who plays Jo’s boyfriend Danny. “There is no dastardly twiddling of a moustache. Danny doesn’t know what is going on. He thinks he is having a normal weekend until Jo tells him about the text.
“The thing about the script was even as you get to the end you don’t know what is going to happen. The writing is so subtle that the ending might well have been different.”
During the making of the film, which debuts on C4 this Sunday and is distributed by All3Media International, the team thought deeply about this particular crime. “I have come to think that men have somehow lost the trust of women,” says Nath. “There is an anxiety about new relationships. People who abuse children are manipulators, which is why [Jo] would be so worried. In society there is a presumption of guilt that has to be disproved, which makes the currency of this particular allegation very, very strong.”
Although this is his second short film, Nath says making a drama is very different to documentary-making and admits he found it nerve-wracking. “It’s more exposing,” he says. “With documentaries, you have a small crew and you direct them by being invisible and putting people at ease, while in drama it’s the opposite. You have to be quite demonstrative and everybody from the props to the lighting and the actors all want you to reassure them and make decisions. You can’t hide in any way when you are directing a drama.”
But, of course, dramas also hold plenty of advantages over documentaries – chiefly in that you are not confined by what you’ve been able to film. “The thing that is the same is that both are absolutely about telling stories powerfully and the best that you can,” says Nath. “In documentary you might not have all the elements; you only have the elements you have been able to gather. In drama you can construct any story you want, so the responsibility is on you tell it perfectly. That is a different pressure.”
But despite Nath’s fears, Varma says she didn’t even notice he was practically a novice. “It’s hard to believe it was his second drama, as he was brilliant,” she says. “He told me that, as a journalist, he can tell what makes a good story, and he was right. And what was particularly brilliant was he was able to articulate what he wanted, which not all directors can do. It’s an intricate story and I felt David let me do what I wanted, but then he would tweak things very delicately. I felt very led. The drama is so precise, but that is also the joy of the piece.”
New Doctor Who star Jodie Whittaker plays a medical imposter in Trust Me, a thriller penned by real-life doctor Dan Sefton. DQ hears from the duo about making the show.
Doctorates appear to be arriving like buses for actress Jodie Whittaker, who will become a doctor not once but twice over the next few months.
The actor was recently announced as the 13th incarnation of the BBC’s famous Time Lord in Doctor Who – the first woman to take the prestigious primetime title in the show’s 54-year history. The star, best known for her role in Broadchurch, will replace the outgoing Peter Capaldi when he regenerates during the upcoming Christmas special.
Before then, however, she’ll be seen on BBC1 as another medic as she takes the lead role in gripping drama Trust Me. She plays Cath Hardacre, who, after being suspended from her job as a nurse for whistleblowing, steals the identity of a doctor friend who has emigrated to New Zealand.
She moves from Sheffield to Edinburgh to work as an A&E doctor, but it’s not easy to shake off her past. Not only is she unqualified but her bitter ex Karl (played by Blake Harrison) and a hungry investigative journalist Sam Kelly (Nathan Walsh) are both on her case.
Written by Dan Sefton, best known for ITV’s The Good Karma Hospital and Sky1’s Delicious, Trust Me plunges viewers into a world the writer knows well, as he also works part time as an A&E doctor. StudioCanal is distributing the series internationally.
“As a doctor, I’ve encountered imposters in real life. There was actually one in the department where I worked,” he says. “Often they are well liked and competent; I’ve also met qualified doctors who are frankly dangerous. For me there’s a delicious irony in the idea that the imposter doctor is better than the real thing, both clinically and with patients.”
It took him seven years from first reading a book about imposters to getting his drama made. “My first thought was making it about a pair of identical twins. The story changed in various ways until I came up with the idea of a nurse impersonating a doctor,” he recalls. “The problem was a lot of people didn’t believe it was credible, even though I, as a doctor, was telling them it was credible – there have been so many stories of people doing it.
“It was really frustrating because I knew it was a good idea and I was worried that someone else would get there first. It wasn’t until Red Production Company came on board that they really listened to the story and immediately saw the potential in it.”
Whittaker says she was hooked from the moment she read the first script. “It really fascinated me because it went in a completely different direction to how I thought it was going to go,” she says of the series, which launches on BBC1 on August 8. “At the beginning, when she’s suspended for whistleblowing and loses her job, it could have gone in so many ways. The fact she takes on a new identity isn’t the way I thought it would go. I love the fact that her choices are quite morally dubious; they certainly aren’t black and white.”
Sefton says he looked at US shows where the lead is often an anti-hero. No one walking into an NHS hospital would like to think they are being treated by an unqualified doctor, yet at the same time Cath is good at her job. The story is told from her point of view and the viewer is on her side – at least at first.
“I enjoyed the push-and-pull feel of playing with the audience’s sympathies,” the writer explains. “She is a good person but she shouldn’t be doing this. She’s an honest woman who has done one dishonest thing; there will be consequences. I read a lot about the different types of imposters; there are far more men than women. Men always do it for egotistical reasons; they want to be something impressive. But the women generally do it for a way of getting on in life.
“In this show Cath is giving herself the opportunities she’d never had. But once she’s made that choice, that changes who she is. She begins to like her new life and that’s where it becomes complicated.”
Whittaker agrees: “It’s really interesting to play flawed characters. I would be terrified by the choice this protagonist has made – I’m a crap secret-keeper. Often we are surrounded by people who do things that we don’t agree with. For the audience not to agree with her but still be emotionally behind her is an interesting thing to play.”
Sefton worked as a medical consultant on the Glasgow and Edinburgh set (the show was co-executive produced by Gaynor Holmes for BBC Scotland), helping the cast find their way around a busy emergency department. He also allowed the actors to experiment on him with minor procedures – up to a point where the producers had to step in because they were worried he could sue them for health and safety breaches.
“I kept volunteering to be a guinea pig,” he admits. “But the producers were worried I would get hurt and sue them. I still encouraged the actors to stick needles in me. The only way you understand the tension of doing something like that – of crossing a line – is when you do something like that to another human.”
Although Sefton has scripted medical dramas including Doctors, Casualty and Holby City, he says he deliberately made the medical stories in Trust Me different. “There is a horror show element to it,” he says. “A lot of things Cath has to tackle are the things that still scare doctors. She sees some very nasty cases; they all do.
“In episode two, you see Sharon Small’s character, Dr Brigitte McAdams, talk about the patients she has killed and how much that has affected her. People know about medical mistakes but don’t see how it can also hurt the doctors.
“Because this drama isn’t about the medical stuff, there is a nihilism which you don’t normally get as you don’t need to resolve the medical stories. In real life there is often no easy answer, there is no meaning to the problems people come in with. They aren’t resolved. I want this to be a tough watch because even though she is doing a bad thing, she is still turning up there every day to help people.”
In his first screen drama, novelist Patrick Gale tells two gay love stories set 60 years apart. DQ speaks to the writer and actors Vanessa Redgrave and Joanna Vanderham about starring in Man in an Orange Shirt .
From the sidelines, it looks like a cosy scene. Stepping down from Battersea Park’s picturesque bandstand, arm in arm, in immaculate 1940s dresses, Joanna Vanderham and Laura Carmichael are deep in conversation.
While extras in period costume walk behind them (and assistant directors, also in period costume, shoo away curious dog walkers) they are seemingly oblivious as their characters swap the closest of intimacies. The pair play sisters Flora and Daphne and the scene is at the heart of an ambitious new BBC2 drama, Man in an Orange Shirt, chronicling the modern history of gay lives in one family, set 60 years apart.
Vanderham, complete with a huge prosthetic pregnant bump, plays Flora, who just hours earlier discovered something that would change her life, the life of her unborn child, and his child too, forever.
Cleaning a desk belonging to her husband Michael (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), she finds letters from his lover Thomas (James McArdle), an artist who had been her husband’s best man at their wedding. She’d burned them and hastily arranged this meeting with her sister. But as she muses the reality of her husband being a gay man, she finds that she can’t even tell her big sister this dark, dark secret. The possible consequences – divorce and even jail – are too tough to contemplate.
“The way this scene is described in the script is ‘the women meet for lunch and everything is perfect’ with lots of exclamation marks,” says Vanderham. “But of course, the opposite is true. There are all of these things going on underneath the surface but Flora swallows it down. It’s a very British thing to do. She never says anything, she never says how she feels.
“From this moment she moves forward in a way that means outwardly it looks like things are fine. But what we see is the cost and how much keeping everything bottled up costs her. At the start of the film she’s full of life and vitality; excited about her marriage and becoming pregnant. By the end she’s a tight-lipped, close-mouthed, unhappy and lonely woman.”
The two-part story of The Man in an Orange Shirt has been written by novelist Patrick Gale, whose original commission was the rather open-ended idea of doing something about the experience of gay men in the 20th century. He decided to turn the tale inward; in some ways it is his own story.
“It was the most terrifying commission I’ve ever had,” admits Gale, who is making his screen debut with the project. “The gem of this whole story comes from when I tried to come out to my mother when I was 22. I had written my first book about being gay and it was my way of coming out to her. But instead of talking about it, she revealed to me that my father had had an affair with another man when she was pregnant with me. She had found some letters and had burned them. The amazing scene that is in the first film actually happened to my mother but in real life she never confronted my father. She never told him.
“She just waited until I grew up and told me. Thanks mum! To my dying shame I never had a conversation with my father about it. He knew I was gay and was very sweet about my lovers but – being so British – we never really had a conversation about it. I wonder, I still wonder, what he thought of it all.”
The second of the films brings the action into the present day. Flora, now played by Vanessa Redgrave (who also played an older version of Vanderham in Richard III at London’s Almeida Theatre recently), is bringing up her grandson Adam (Julian Morris) after both his parents were killed in a car crash. He is gay but his grandmother’s attitude towards homosexuality means he can’t confide in her, and he’s filled with self-hatred over his own sexuality, spending his time meeting up with strangers for meaningless sex without even bothering to find out their names.
When he meets a man he genuinely likes, an architect called Steve (David Gyasi), he is frightened by his feelings and jeopardises the relationship.
“For me, the first storyline was about the enemy without and the second one is about the enemy within,” says Gale. “The core of gay shame is one we learn very young. My parents were very Christian and supportive but they passed on gay shame to me. Mine came out in appalling eczema I experienced in my teens; my shame came out in my skin.
“We are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality [in the UK] but I think the problem of gay shame is one that won’t go away, however much legislation you pass. We will always be a minority, we will never apply to that Disney model of gender roles.”
Appearing in the drama, which is produced by Kudos and distributed by FremantleMedia International, also made Redgrave think about her own experiences. One of Britain’s most famously liberal stars, whose husband and father were both bisexual, she took some convincing to play the part of the embittered Flora. Gale wrote her a three-page letter explaining why Flora acts as she does in an attempt to win over the veteran actor – and it clearly worked.
“I had to start with the thought that she wasn’t always brusque and difficult,” says Vanessa. “She was somebody very nice who has had to fabricate a whole denial system in her life. The impact of that has built and built throughout her life.
“It has made me think a lot about my father’s generation. He was bisexual and a lot of his friends were totally gay; there were quite a few lesbians too. To protect themselves, they protected each other. How could we have called ourselves a democracy up until 1967 when this was illegal? The cruelty! What a cruel, harsh attitude of you can do this, but you can’t do that. Total stupid rubbish!”
The Man in an Orange Shirt, which debuts on BBC2 on July 31, is one of the cornerstone dramas commissioned by the BBC to celebrate the decriminalisation of homosexuality and it shows the legacy of draconian laws that meant it was impossible to live as an openly gay person. “It’s a drama about some people who are gay and some who are not,” adds Vanderham. “Flora is the female protagonist and she suffered just as much as the men in her life. More than a gay story, it is a human story which needs to be told.”
With starring roles in Guerrilla and Born to Kill, Daniel Mays has already had a busy year. He tells DQ about his next show, Against the Law, in which he plays a character who was instrumental in the UK’s decision to decriminalise homosexuality in the 1960s.
Once best known for playing a variety of spivs, Daniel Mays is one of those actors who is only getting better with age. But even he admits his latest job was a challenge he wasn’t sure he would be up to.
The 39-year-old has had quite a year, from his Bafta nomination for Line of Duty to roles in two of the last few months’ most exciting dramas: as a widowed father in Born to Kill (Channel 4) and Inspector Liam Cullen in Guerrilla (Sky Atlantic/Showtime). Mays may have first made his name portraying a variety of slightly dodgy womanisers – from train robber Ronnie Biggs in Mrs Biggs to Private Walker in the 2016 Dad’s Army film – but he has long been keen to show there is much, much more to him.
So now for something completely different: in Against The Law, which will air on BBC2 next Wednesday (July 26), he plays Oxford-educated, upper-middle-class journalist Peter Wildeblood – one of the first people to admit they were homosexual in court after being caught up in what became known as The Montagu Trial in 1954.
Wildeblood was at the centre of the case, which saw the establishment determined to stamp out homosexuality by going after Lord Montagu of Beaulieu (played by Mark Edel-Hunt) and his friends. But the high-profile action, during which Wildeblood’s former lover gave evidence against him to save his own skin, backfired. The case, which was followed by Wildeblood’s hard-hitting book Against the Law, provoked such a sympathetic outcry that it led to a public inquiry that in turn paved the way for the UK to decriminalise homosexuality in 1967.
The one-off drama, produced by BBC Studios and distributed by FremantleMedia International, is at the centre of the BBC’s season exploring the 50th anniversary of the change in the law. “When I read it, I was a bit nervous,” Mays says of Brian Fillis’s script. “I knew I was going to be stepping out of my comfort zone, but the opportunity to highlight this story and all the good Peter Wildeblood did for his community was too difficult to pass up. In my career I want to be involved in projects that not only entertain but also that enlighten our minds, so I was thrilled to be part of this.
“There will be lots of people who don’t know who Peter Wildeblood was, what he endured and what he eventually achieved. He is such a hugely important figure in the gay rights movement but he’s an unsung hero. I was so pleased to be offered this role as it is an extraordinary story.”
Unusually, the factual drama is interspersed with real-life testimony from gay men who endured all sorts – prison, beatings, turning evidence against lovers – at a time when it was illegal to be with another man.
“The first time I saw those testimonies put into the drama, I was completely moved and astounded at how honest and courageous all those men were,” says Mays. “It adds a really interesting element to the whole piece and actually really deepens the drama.”
A heterosexual married father-of-two, Mays admits his first gay sex scene, which shows Wildeblood with his lover Edward McNally, played by Richard Gadd, terrified him. “This was an example of feeling the fear and then going for it; I knew I had to take a risk,” he says. “Sex scenes are always embarrassing to film. They are meant to be closed sets, but basically there are always people standing around watching you.
“We knew that no one wanted to have two self-conscious actors rolling around. I think it helped that we filmed the scene towards the end of the shoot so we already had a lot of trust between us and we opened a bottle of champagne to give us both a bit of Dutch courage.
“Peter Wildeblood isn’t a character that people would associate me with, and that made the role all the more appealing. I feel honoured that the BBC would trust me with telling the story of such an inspirational man.”
While there is plenty of debate in the industry about whether success is skewed towards chisel-faced, floppy-haired, upper middle-class actors who went to private school and Oxbridge, Mays, with his hang-dog looks and mop of unruly curls is quietly making his own way and is even taking the posh roles.
As the third of four boys in his family, the Essex-born son of an electrician and factory worker was naturally an attention-seeker who preferred dancing to football. He won scholarships to the Italia Conti Stage School and to Rada (The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) where they tried to knock out his accent, but he remains a proud Essex boy.
“I see ‘posh’ as a dialect, the same as Northern or Irish, but it’s not one I speak with in my normal life,” Mays says. “I know there are some actors who have changed the way they speak but the idea of that has never sat well with me. I would feel like I was betraying myself.”
A self-confessed workaholic, his can-do attitude has made him a favourite with casting directors, which means he is always busy.
“I know it might feel like I am never off the box at the moment,” Mays laughs. “I apologise. It’s funny being in the position where I am now. It’s a balancing act; you’ve got to pay the mortgage but you want to be creative in the choices you make. Sometimes it’s about being brave and turning stuff down; other times it’s about challenging yourself.”
And there are plenty more challenges ahead. Mays can next be seen in horror movie The Limehouse Golem, alongside Bill Nighy, which will hit cinemas in August. After that, he will be in a comedy film called Swimming with Men, alongside Rob Brydon (Gavin & Stacey), which is due to be released next spring. Based loosely on a Swedish documentary called Men Who Swim, it’s about a group of mid-life crisis men who take up synchronised swimming.
The actor also recently recorded an episode of BBC2 comedy Inside No9 with Steve Pemberton and Rhys Shearsmith – there’s a Sex Pistols theme – and is currently filming HBO movie My Dinner With Herve, about French actor and The Man With The Golden Gun star Herve Villechaize, alongside Peter Dinklage and Jamie Dornan.
“And then I think I am going on holiday,” sighs Mays. “It’s been a non-stop 12 months but it’s hard to say no to all these exciting jobs. The more left field it has been, the more I see the merit in it. I’m a year off 40 now and I still have more ambitions; there is other stuff I feel capable of and I just hope I get even more opportunities. I don’t want to stop now.”
An award-winning stage turn changed the fortunes of actor Denise Gough, who tells DQ about starring in BBC2 three-parter Paula.
Denise Gough is really enjoying becoming, at the tender age of 38, the television industry’s hottest young find.
The Irish actor, who fronts new BBC2 drama Paula, has been the theatre world’s secret star for nearly two decades – and even that world had, at times, ignored her. But her Olivier Award-winning turn as a drug addict going through rehab in scorching drama People, Places & Things in 2015 changed everything.
It means she doesn’t take anything for granted, and now that she’s reached where she always wanted to get to in her career, she’s not just going to grab at any role. Known for her political activism, she’s also going to say exactly what she thinks.
“I don’t even really mention the name of People, Places & Things anymore, I just call it this huge thing that I did,” she grins, her big blue eyes lighting up. “If it wasn’t for that, I would never have been allowed to even look at a TV show of this calibre.”
Gough, who was also recently seen in BBC1’s Apple Tree Yard and Sky Atlantic’s Guerrilla, is in almost every scene of Paula, a tense thriller filmed in Belfast about a chemistry teacher who has a one stand that goes terribly wrong.
The three-part drama, which launches tomorrow, is produced by BBC NI Drama with Cuba Pictures and is written by Olivier- and Tony-Award winning playwright Conor McPherson in his first original work for television. The distributor is BBC Worldwide.
It also stars Victoria actor Tom Hughes as a psychopathic baddie who becomes obsessed with Paula after working as an odd-job man in her house.
Frustrated with her married lover, her emotionally incontinent parents and her alcoholic brother, Paula seduces him one evening. But he is far from the easy-going handyman he seems; he lives with two girlfriends, who each have his children, and is plagued by dark nightmares that leave him sobbing at night. His obsession leads to a trail of murder and destruction.
“What I liked about the script was no woman was tied up, raped and left as a corpse,” says Gough. “You read so much of that stuff you become immune to it. She’s also a very human woman; this isn’t just a story about a woman who is connected to all the men in the story. I love men but it’s nice to play a character who is complex. Some people say she’s not very likeable but I think that is just a funny thing we say about women. We don’t say that about Jamie Dornan in The Fall; he’s just hot.
“I like women who aren’t apologetic about the things they do in their lives. Why does she have to be likeable? I like her. I love the scene where she gets together with Tom’s character. There is a build up to why she decides to do it; she thinks, ‘I’m going to have him because I’ve had a shitty time. I am going to have this.’ Who hasn’t done that? She kind of seduces him in quite a bold way that we don’t see very often. She’s thinking that she wants to feel something other than what she is feeling. I am tired of only ever seeing women being seduced. There is something very truthful about that scene. She takes what she wants. Unfortunately for her it turns out he is a bit of a wrong’un.”
Gough admits she hopes her electrician father won’t watch her sex scene with Hughes, even though it is far from the first time his actor daughter (she is seventh out of 12 children) has stripped off for a role.
“I’m afraid he’s going to have to get used to it; now that I am 38 I can’t keep going, ‘I don’t want my dad to see that.’ I’ll never forget my first ever TV job. I was in a show with Andrew Lincoln, playing a prostitute – which for the first 10 years of my career was all I got offered – and I had two scenes. There was a lead-up scene and then the next one saw [my character] pleasuring her pimp and then blowing her head off. The whole time I did it I thought, ‘At least there is that first scene,’ so it’s not just about the sex and the blowing of the brains. But the night before it aired, the director rang to tell me the first scene had been cut.
“The next night everyone was at my house to see my big TV debut; the family, the neighbours, the bishop. They saw me doing this thing. I’ve had to do some pretty dodgy stuff on TV.”
Now the actor has a choice of roles, it’s something she appreciates all the more because it has been so hard-fought. “I know I have been painted as a Cinderella story and that’s OK,” she says. “I am an old-school story; this is a story of old-fashioned graft. I have been working since the age of 22 when I left drama school. It hasn’t been easy. There were a huge amount of times when I phoned my agent and said, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’
“It’s hard to keep up your self-esteem when you are being constantly rejected and have no money. But I kept working and this is my pay-off. I am enjoying that. There is a raft of very young people coming out of drama school or who have millions of followers on Twitter and suddenly become movie stars. There has to be somebody who is flying the flag for hard graft and I’m fine if that’s me. There were hard times, there were terrible times but I won’t have those terrible times in the same way now I’ve got loads of money,” she laughs.
Now that she is in a position to be listened to, the actor, who is currently working at the National Theatre in Angels in America, wants to do her bit to make things better for women in the drama industry.
“It feels like a good time, there are a lot of scripts that are being written now that are female-driven and written by women, but we still need to do more,” she says. “With the whole pay gap thing, I am pleased that women are getting bolder. It’s a conversation that we need to keep having. I remember reading Jennifer Lawrence talking about how she blamed herself for not getting paid the same as a man because she didn’t even question it. Well, now we are questioning it. I make sure I am on top whack.”
Her financial security means we should be seeing plenty more of Gough in work she is passionate about. “It’s so nice I don’t have to do something just to pay the rent,” she adds. “I have everything I have ever wanted.”