All posts by Vicki Power

Playing politics

DQ meets the main players in four-part Channel 4 drama Chimerica, based on the hit play but updated to include the uncertain global politics of the Donald Trump era.

Lucy Kirkwood’s award-winning 2013 play Chimerica examined the shifting balance of power between East and West through the personal struggles of an American photojournalist.

The title is a portmanteau of the world’s two superpowers, and given the unstable feel of current geopolitics, it seems there’s no better time for a revival. Kirkwood has expanded and updated her work to create a four-part TV drama for Channel 4, produced by Playground Entertainment and distributed globally by All3Media International.

Crucially, the writer has moved the action forward to the 2016 US presidential election to reflect what’s happened since Donald Trump became a major player in global politics.

“Lucy has brought an emotional story to a relevant political aspect,” explains producer Adrian Sturges. “Moving the action from 2012 to 2016 naturally felt like the right thing to do because, in the meantime, Trump was elected and all the accusations of fake news and attacks on journalists have come more to the fore. It was felt to be a useful thing to grapple with in the overall piece.”

Star Alessandro Nivola and writer Lucy Kirkwood on the Chimerica set

The story centres on fictional American photojournalist Lee Berger (Alessandro Nivola, pictured top), who is covering the war in Syria for a respected New York broadsheet. But when Lee doctors a photo in a bid to make the front page, he gets caught and exposed. He tries to salvage his reputation by searching out a new scoop – finding Tank Man, the lone protester who stood up to Chinese tanks during the Tiananmen Square protest of 1989. Back then, a young Lee had made his name by photographing Tank Man.

DQ meets cast members Nivola and Cherry Jones on set at Twickenham Studios in south-west London, where the characters’ New York apartments have been recreated. It’s Nivola’s first lead in a TV series after roles in films like Face/Off, Mansfield Park and American Hustle.

“I liked the idea of a character who became obsessed with one thing,” explains Nivola. “He’s got this singular focus about something that ended up really damaging the people who he felt this discovery would serve. That just seemed like a great paradox, that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Nivola was also convinced Chimerica would have the directorial flair he looks for in projects under the stewardship of Michael Keillor (Line of Duty). “When you have one director directing all four episodes, you know there’s going to be some kind of continuity of the vision,” continues Nivola, who runs production company King Bee with his wife, British actor Emily Mortimer. He produced her comedy series Doll & Em for Sky Living and HBO and they currently have a production and distribution deal with Entertainment One.

Cherry Jones plays Mel Kincaid, ‘a salty dog, a war journalist’

Theatre legend Jones plays Lee’s long-time collaborator, Mel Kincaid. An Emmy and Tony Award winner most recently seen in Transparent and The Handmaid’s Tale, Jones describes her character as “a salty dog, a war journalist.” Mel has curtailed her career in war zones because she’s in treatment for alcoholism, so when Lee proposes she help him find Tank Man to lend credibility to any discovery he makes, she agrees.

Although Kincaid is male in the original play, Kirkwood turned her into a woman without altering the character or dialogue. For Jones, signing up was a no-brainer. “For one thing, you attach the name Lucy Kirkwood to anything and a theatre actress will jump up and come running,” she says with a chuckle. “And secondly, you say ‘London’ to me and I’ve already packed my bag. I would live here if I could.”

Jones consulted You Tube for tips on how to play a war correspondent. “I looked online at people like the great Kate Adie,” she says. “And there’s a great journalist called Deborah Amos who’s on NPR who I always love to follow – it seemed she was always crossing the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, wearing brown contact lenses. It was so dangerous what these women were doing.”

The rest of the cast is equally as exalted: Sophie Okonedo plays Tessa Kendrick, a high-flying British market researcher who catches Lee’s eye, and F Murray Abraham plays the broadsheet’s news editor, Frank Sams.

Though set in New York and China, Chimerica was actually filmed in the UK and Bulgaria. Sofia’s Nu Boyana Studios has a New York City block that was dressed as Chinatown, and communist-era apartment blocks doubled for downtown Beijing.

Sophie Okonedo and Terry Chen also feature in the drama

Dunsfold Aerodrome in Surrey provided a decommissioned 747 for airplane scenes and, most impressively, served as the location of the series’ biggest set piece – recreating the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989.

New scenes are melded with archive footage to create the atmosphere of the Trump election and Tiananmen Square, explains Sturges. “We had a really good archive producer who searched high and low for real Tiananmen Square footage, and did a sort of archive edit in pre-production to make sure the Tiananmen scenes would all fit together – the burned-out bus and various bits of banners are copied from what was actually there, so although the original footage is pre-HD, we tried carefully to match what’s in the footage.”

Green screens and CGI were used at the airbase to suggest the scale of Tiananmen Square. “We managed to hire one of the Russian tanks the Chinese used in Tiananmen Square to stage the Tank Man moment,” continues Sturges. “It was terrifying – I hadn’t realised how loud they are. But it was fantastic to recreate that scene.”

A bonus was the crew discovering that two Chinese extras hired for the Tiananmen Square scenes had been at the original protests. “One said it was extraordinary how much it was like the original Tiananmen Square, which was great,” says Sturges. “We asked him what chants were being used. We had experts on set, but it was great to get that texture.”

Alongside telling a personal story against a global geopolitical backdrop, Sturges says Chimerica commemorates a pivotal moment in recent history.

“This summer it’s 30 years since the Tiananmen Square massacre and I haven’t heard of anything else that’s attempted to tackle that subject,” he says. “I hope people will find Chimerica thrilling and mysterious and illuminating on a subject they haven’t thought much about since it happened.”

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Uncovering Traitors

Channel 4’s stylish new spy thriller Traitors, starring Keeley Hawes and Michael Stuhlbarg, looks at the communist threat to Britain just after the Second World War through the eyes of a young woman. DQ joined the cast on set in London.

Imagine a Britain deeply divided over political matters, with well-founded fears of Russian government interference and its ‘special relationship’ with the US seemingly on shaky ground.

While that may be a perfect description of today’s UK, in this case it applies to a period three-quarters of a century ago in the fledgling days of the Cold War. It’s that correlation that makes Channel 4’s new thriller, Traitors, even more relevant in its portrayal of international turbulence and murky government goings-on.

Eleanor Moran

Created and executive produced by playwright Bash Doran, who wrote four of its six episodes, Traitors is set during the pivotal time from the end of the Second World War up until 1948.

“The series is extremely timely as it tackles an extraordinary moment in British history that has continued to play out across the years,” explains Emma Willis, MD of Twenty Twenty Productions (part of Warner Bros International Television Production), which is producing alongside 42 for Channel 4 and Netflix, in a deal negotiated by All3Media International. “At the end of the Second World War, as is true today, the nation was divided with deeply opposing views on what Britain’s place in the world should be.

“Many of the series’ key themes are extremely relevant to today – race, gender, class inequality, the role of the welfare state, the special relationship with the US and a distrust of Russia. I’m sure this is one of the reasons why C4 commissioned the project – together with the fact it had a fantastic creator in Bash Doran and strong female leads.”

On the surface, Traitors is a young woman’s coming-of-age story. Clique’s Emma Appleton plays Feef Symonds, a naive young aristocrat who lands a job in the civil service immediately after the war, eager to make her mark rather than be married off to an earl. Actress-of-the-moment Keeley Hawes (Bodyguard, The Durrells) plays her influential boss, Priscilla Garrick, and Call Me By Your Name’s Michael Stuhlbarg plays a US agent, Rowe. He quickly tries to turn Feef into a double agent, eager to root out Soviet operatives in the British government.

Executive producer Eleanor Moran laughs about the moment she approached Doran with the idea for Traitors. “It was 2013 and I was thinking politics was in a really depressing place, which is hilarious to think of now,” she says.

Emma Appleton as civil servant Feef alongside Luke Treadaway’s MP in Traitors

She’d had an idea about a female-centric period political drama with an international feel – and she had a particular female in mind. “My grandmother had this incredible experience during the war where she had a great deal of freedom,” explains Moran. “She worked in the spying business and was a codebreaker. And after the war, all of that ambition was shut down when she got married.

“I thought that moment in 1945 was incredible for women in that there was this incredible push to go back into the home, but also with the Labour [Party’s landslide general election victory] and beginning of the welfare state, the civil service offered these huge opportunities for women.” However, the ban on married women working for the service forced females to resign their jobs upon tying the knot.

On set at one of Traitors’ many London locations last summer, a church in a leafy Georgian square in Islington, Hawes is looking business-like in Priscilla Garrick’s utilitarian work suit. Sitting down for a chat in a church hall – she’s here to film a scene with Stuhlbarg in the churchyard – Hawes explains her dismay at learning of the marriage ban.

Keeley Hawes as Feef’s boss, Priscilla

“I knew nothing about that,” she says. “The women in the civil service are being asked to go back to being housewives after spending the war being ambulance drivers. Suddenly being given the sack! It’s just terrible.

“Priscilla campaigns against the marriage ban, even though she’s not married. She is a real champion of women and really modern in that way. And when Feef comes in, Priscilla sees she’s bright.”

Traitors, which is distributed globally by All3Media International, weaves John le Carré-style spy plots into a story about women’s social struggles. It’s 1945 and the Soviet Union has replaced the Nazis as the biggest threat to global stability and democracy. But just at that moment, in September, President Truman decides to close America’s wartime spying agency, the OSS (Office of Strategic Services).

“We’re capturing that moment when the Soviets were trying to influence the whole of Europe and did manage to get people within British secret service to great effect,” explains Moran. “Michael Stuhlbarg’s character, Rowe, who is an OSS agent, is ahead of the game and realises there is infiltration, and his job is find out how much.” It’s the era of the Cambridge Spy Ring, which would come to light several years later.

Stuhlbarg was lured to British shores by the prospect of working again with Doran – he’d been in episodes of Boardwalk Empire and The Looming Tower that she’d written – and Dearbhla Walsh, who directed him in the third season of Fargo.

Rowe, explains Stuhlbarg, becomes a rogue agent after Truman’s disbanding of the OSS. The actor’s research impressed upon him the complexity of real-life OSS agents.

“Some of these men of the OSS balance a kind of integrity with an ability to lie, cheat, steal and murder,” explains Stuhlbarg. “So there’s this great juxtaposition of and being able to live with all that stuff – these are people fighting for the survival of democracy and are willing to do anything for it.

Michael Stuhlbarg plays US agent Rowe

“Rowe thinks it’s essential that America has an operational intelligence agency to compete with all the other spies.”

The 17-week shoot took place last summer in studios in Cardiff, in Morocco (doubling for Egypt) and in various picturesque London spots in which real spies surely operated – the Inns of Court, Whitehall and St James’s Park. Innovation was required, too – a replica House of Commons was built at University College School in Hampstead for scenes featuring a newly elected Labour MP played by Luke Treadaway.

Ultimately, Traitors chimes with what’s going on in the world today and also delivers a period thriller about a time not often depicted in spy stories.

“It’s very much about the kind of global fight for hearts and minds, much like the way we’re going at the moment, with Russians infiltrating the US election and Brexit,” says Moran. “This is a call back to that and also a depiction of a very specific moment in British social politics.”

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A dose of Karma

British India-set medical drama The Good Karma Hospital returns for a second season as the eclectic cast of characters face new challenges in their professional and personal lives. DQ goes behind the scenes on location in Sri Lanka.

Setting a feel-good drama in a sun-soaked paradise has proven a fruitful formula for British TV makers. It’s been deployed with success in series from Death in Paradise and The Durrells to Wild at Heart, The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and even Doc Martin.

Most recently it’s been a winner for ITV’s The Good Karma Hospital, which is back this month for a second season. Good Karma’s USP is that it’s a medical drama that offsets its palm-fringed backdrop with emotional stories from a run-down rural Indian hospital. There’s added comfort for viewers in finding familiar faces stationed in this exotic destination, including Amanda Redman and Neil Morrissey.

Set in Kerala in southern India, Good Karma is actually filmed in Unawatuna on Sri Lanka’s west coast to avoid India’s monsoon season. It’s based on the experiences of writer Dan Sefton, who also pens Sky 1’s Delicious and was the man behind last year’s Trust Me with Jodie Whittaker, recently renewed for a second season by BBC1. Accident and emergency doctor Sefton – currently taking a hiatus from medicine due to his writing workload – got the idea from working in a cash-strapped cottage hospital in South Africa after qualifying as a doctor.

The Good Karma Hospital stars Amanda Redman (left) and Amrita Acharia

DQ is visiting the stiflingly hot set of the drama at the dilapidated Amarasooriya Teachers Training College, which has been taken over for filming. Though set on a busy main road, it’s surrounded by large gardens that bring a blast of colour to the screen, and on which sits a charming open-air shack that serves as the doctors’ café. Off-camera, it’s a different story: dozens of extras mill about, crew members carry cables and lights, and there’s a queue for the food service truck’s fresh coconuts. Ask for one and the man behind the counter takes a machete, whacks the top off a coconut and sticks a straw in it – not a common sight at British craft service tables.

Redman is a regular customer. “I find the best way to deal with the heat and humidity is to keep still and drink coconut water,” says the actor, who works inside the college in temperatures that regularly reach 40°C. “Between scenes I’ll just sit with my coconut water and a fan on my face.”

Redman is Good Karma’s biggest name, playing the outspoken Dr Lydia Fonseca, an ex-pat surgeon with a big heart and brusque manner. Redman is a fixture of British TV, having starred in At Home with the Braithwaites, Mike Bassett: England Manager and New Tricks, and the no-nonsense Fonseca is a character close to her heart. “I love her passion and her warmth,” says Redman. “She says it like it is, which, in an increasingly PC world, is very refreshing.”

Rounding out Fonseca’s staff is handsome-but-surly Dr Gabriel Varma (James Krishna Floyd), Nurse Mari Rodriguez (Nimmi Harasgama) and Anglo-Indian Dr Ruby Walker (Amrita Acharia).

Neil Morrissey plays Greg, who owns the local beach bar

As Greg McConnell, Fonseca’s long-term boyfriend, Morrissey has lucked out – his character owns the local beach bar, which means the bulk of his scenes are played out in an open-air set cooled by Indian Ocean breezes.

Season one dealt with Walker’s impetuous decision to leave her NHS job and emigrate to India, only to find herself at Fonseca’s cash-strapped hospital. To avoid a sophomore slump, Sefton and producers Tiger Aspect had to find new storylines for season two, which begins in the UK this Sunday. Adding to the difficulty of their task was the fact that a major character, Maggie Smart (played by Downton Abbey’s Phyllis Logan), died at the end of season one.

“One of the big decisions we made was not to bring in any new regulars,” explains executive producer Lucy Bedford. “What we felt when reflecting on season one is that we had this amazing core cast, and that the nature of show meant we didn’t get to know them as well as we should have.

“So, along with our robust stories of the week, we also wanted to give a bit of space to the serial elements of the show, with all the characters going on big journeys.” Dr Walker will explore her Indian heritage and Dr Fonseca her inability to commit, while McConnell helps Maggie’s widower, Paul (Phillip Jackson), through his grief.

To ensure the exotic setting remains eye-catching, new filming locations were found for the series, which is distributed globally by Endemol Shine International. Dr Walker has been moved away from her cottage in the rice fields into an urban flat in fictional Barco – filmed in Weligama, a half-hour drive down the coast. “We did it to keep evolving the visual palette of the show and to give Ruby a different connection to the world, because she’s not a tourist anymore,” explains Bedford.

James Krishna Floyd as Dr Gabriel Varma

Episodes three and four are set on a lush tea plantation (three different plantations were used) and the final episode features a full-scale Indian wedding with all the regulars in traditional dress. Another big set piece sees Dr Fonseca visit her former medical mentor (played by British stalwart Sue Johnston) on her houseboat, built on a private jetty on nearby Koggala Lake.

The benefit of shooting in Sri Lanka is the low cost of labour and materials that enabled the production to mount big set pieces. For starters, up to 300 extras per day could be hired and clothed, as opposed to 20 to 30 per day in the UK. “The production side is one of the great gifts about shooting out there,” explains Bedford. “Because construction is cheap, we were able to mount these sets we wouldn’t normally be able to. The art department built a full-sized replica Keralan houseboat for the finale, so we could tell an emotional story but in a stunning setting.”

The downsides to filming in the country, says Bedford, are that vehicle hire can be expensive and certain equipment is unavailable – a portable ultrasound machine had to be flown from in the UK. A few actors went down with stomach troubles, and a serious outbreak of dengue fever – a potentially fatal mosquito-borne disease – in Sri Lanka saw two crew members admitted to hospital.

But the benefits of filming in such an alien locale outweigh the drawbacks. Over drinks at their hotel, the actors enthuse and laugh about their encounters with Sri Lanka’s wildlife. Morrissey flashes photos he took of a snake that slithered into his hotel’s lounge and Acharia recounts how she found a scorpion nestled inside her yoga mat. Redman spotted a crocodile in Koggala Lake, though from a safe distance – the houseboat she filmed in had safety nets around it.

Bedford, Sefton and their team are busy working on storylines for Good Karma’s third season, should it be recommissioned. Along with developing the characters’ personal lives, they conduct meticulous research into relevant medical storylines reflecting Indian culture in a bid to provide an engrossing hour of television that has a satisfying emotional payoff but remains upbeat.

Morrissey describes his take on Good Karma’s selling point: “When you’ve got those vistas of Sri Lanka on your 55-inch Samsung, there’s a feelgood factor. At the same time, we show people having serious issues, and it’s good to know that people in far-flung places are having the same problems as you are having at home.”

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