Tag Archives: BBC Studios

Return to Paradise

Crime drama Death in Paradise is back in production, celebrating its 10th anniversary while becoming one of the first British series to start filming after the Coronavirus-enforced shutdown. Red Planet Pictures’ Tim Key and Alex Jones tell DQ how they have done it.

Death in Paradise began with a competition. Series creator Robert Thorogood entered his idea for a series about a ‘Copper in the Caribbean’ into the Red Planet Prize, a contest set up by UK prodco Red Planet Pictures in 2007 to unearth new writing talent. Thorogood was a finalist in 2008, but his pitch was subsequently picked up to series by BBC1 and France Télévisions, with the show launching in 2011.

Now celebrating a decade on screen, Death in Paradise has begun filming its 10th season on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. But the fact the cameras are rolling at all is also a notable achievement, with the show being one of the first British series to begin production following the coronavirus-enforced shutdown in March.

Inspired by the real-life story of a British police officer who went to the Caribbean to investigate a suspected murder during the Cricket World Cup, the series sets up a fish-out-of-water tale about a quintessential English cop who is posted to the fictional island of Saint Marie, and discovers it is his idea of hell.

Ben Miller led the series for two seasons, playing Detective Inspector Richard Poole, before he was replaced by Kris Marshall’s London detective Humphrey Goodman. Ardal O’Hanlon’s DI Jack Mooney took the lead midway through season six, before Ralf Little, playing DI Neville Parker, joined in the middle of season nine. This 10th run marks Little’s first full season fronting the show.

Alex Jones (left) and Tim Key on set

From a modest opening in its first season, Death in Paradise has grown to become one of the BBC’s biggest returning dramas, with viewers drawn to the classic murder-mystery plots and the stunning locations that provide the perfect escapism during its regular January and February timeslot. BBC Studios distributes the series worldwide.

“It means everything to us to be back. We never take anything for granted,” Red Planet’s executive producer Tim Key tells DQ on location in Guadeloupe. “Every year, you look at the ratings when they come in and we’re always delighted, but we never think, ‘We’ll be fine.’

“Given that it’s a show with a formula and a format and it has a number of boxes to tick, we have to make sure, creatively, we’re challenging ourselves and trying to keep the show fresh as well. We do that sometimes in quite small ways that the average viewer might not notice, and other times in more profound ways, with two-parters or different kinds of puzzles and guest casting.”

Season 10 brings Little’s DI Parker together with DS Florence Cassell (Joséphine Jobert, pictured top alongside Little), who appeared in five seasons before taking a break in season nine. The producers also tease that they have plans to surprise viewers who have stuck by the show for the past decade, and have kept to those plans despite the uncertainty created by the pandemic.

Death in Paradise’s latest lead, former Royle Family star Ralf Little

“We’ve stuck to our guns creatively,” Key says. “We’ve made very little concession to Covid, and the concessions we have made are ones I don’t think the audience would spot. We are a show that knows what its audience wants, and escapism is one of those things. Tuning in to Death in Paradise, hopefully at the beginning of next year, the last thing people want to see are masks and social distancing. It’s not playing to our universe on screen, but obviously it plays into it profoundly off screen.”

Red Planet was five weeks into pre-production when the UK went into lockdown and filming plans were suspended. Several crew members who were already in Guadeloupe had to return home quickly, before the production team could take stock of events going on around them.

“At the beginning, in those slightly bleaker moments, we were thinking it just wasn’t going to be possible [to start filming],” admits Red Planet’s joint MD Alex Jones. “The advantage we had on our side is that we have a great insurance policy that has a producers indemnity aspect to it, which has gotten us out of a pickle on a number of occasions and covers us against hurricanes and things like that, which traditional cover doesn’t do. Our Covid remounts fell into that. We were pretty unique and lucky that we were covered as soon as they were able to give us the nod to go.”

Rhe production team felt confident they could make the show while adhering to Guadeloupe’s one-metre physical distancing rule. “The type of show Death in Paradise is also leans very much towards a Covid-friendly world,” Jones continues. “We don’t have huge amounts of intimacy, we don’t have huge amounts of stunts or physical action. We film a lot outdoors because we’re in the Caribbean so we want to see the Caribbean. We had a lot of things working to our advantage. That with the fact we were really fortunate with the type of insurance cover we had, it started to feel like it was coming together.”

The biggest issue was gaining access to Guadeloupe, which was closed to non-essential business. But having worked closely with the region during the making of the series, the production was allowed to return as long as appropriate health and safety measures were firmly in place. “They saw us as an essential part of their economy and they supported us in returning,” Jones says. “They gave us an exemption, which meant we could start bringing our crew back. At that point, when all those things came together, we were like, ‘Right, let’s do this.’ We fired the starting gun.”

It wasn’t always smooth sailing, however, and the decision to push ahead came at the very last moment that it was possible to send generators and lighting equipment on a four-week voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to Guadeloupe. Key remembers speaking to Jones on a Friday, when they made the decision to “push the button,” and on the following Monday the equipment was being loaded onto the ships.

“When it happened, it happened very quickly. For the months before it, it was really stressful, like it was for everyone in every industry,” Key says. “You’re dealing with lockdown on a personal level and you’re dealing with it on a professional level, trying to get used to that new normal of working from home and sharing your home with your work colleagues on Zoom. At the same time, you’re trying to think if this show can be made. Suddenly it happened, and now we’re doing it. It’s so surreal, it’s really weird in a brilliant way but it’s ever so strange.”

Ben Miller (second from right) originally starred in the show

The production has put in place a health and safety protocol for all cast and crew to follow, while a Covid supervisor is also on set, meaning everyone has been happy to get back to work while wearing masks – and visors in some cases – when not on camera, as well as physically distancing at all times. Everyone was tested for Covid-19 before they left the UK, when they arrived in Guadeloupe and again before filming began. They also have to fill out a ‘fit to work’ survey every morning and record their temperature.

“They are doing everything we’re asking them to do as an automatic thing, not because we’ve enforced it. I’ve found it quite moving,” Key says. “They’re doing it in a very real and genuine way because they know what’s at stake in terms of the industry, their livelihoods and also their health. It’s very hard to put a set of guidelines in place that apply to every show, because every show’s different – and even for every location, because every location is different.

“It’s just empowering everybody to be responsible and training the crew to work in a slightly different way and making sure the whole thing doesn’t rest on the shoulders of one person alone. It’s a shared responsibility to deliver that.”

Filming began on Thursday July 23, with a three-day run to get the production underway before a day off on the Sunday to “let everybody catch their breath,” Key says. Production then returned to its usual weekly five-day filming routine. “So far we have been achieving our days. We even wrapped early once, which is quite unusual on this show. It’s because everyone’s on it – everyone’s prepped, they’re ready to go. It’s early days, but what we’ve learned is that the stuff we’ve put in place works. It’s doing what it needed to do.”

Kris Marshall led the cast from seasons three to six

Jones adds: “It’s about having a set of rules that work and are enforceable, rather than doing it as a box-ticking exercise, because the bottom line is we want to get to the end of this production without anyone contracting the virus so we can make it and deliver it on schedule. That’s our big thing and that’s what we drilled into people. If everyone does their bit, we should be able to keep the production running.”

Key believes Death in Paradise’s success is down to several factors: its winter scheduling on BBC1, the blend of detective and murder-mystery genres, and the fact that it’s family-friendly.

“You know exactly what you’re going to get and that, ultimately, is the thing it does,” he notes. “It delivers the hit you expect. We work really hard to make sure every episode gives you everything you expect. It is a crowdpleaser and we’re proud of that. We have done backstories that are slightly more hard-hitting than you might expect and we have also played with genre. Ardal O’Hanlon’s last episode was actually quite a dark story. I’m proud of that because it takes the audience by surprise a little bit and shows we can do things you weren’t expecting. But it was also sweet and funny.”

The Doctor Who-esque way in which the show regenerates every few years with a new leading detective and other new characters also helps keep things fresh.

“It’s the show you get no sympathy for doing,” Key admits, alluding to the production’s envy-inducing setting. “But it is a tough gig. You’re away from home for a long time and for our main cast in particular, to ask them to give up five or six months of the year to film abroad, it asks an enormous amount. We’ve been very lucky that with all of our leads, we’ve had a very collaborative discussion about how and when [they leave], so these things aren’t forced on us.

Marshall was succeeded by Ardal O’Hanlon

“Kris Marshall’s son was about to go to school and he said he thought this needed to be his last season. We said OK and we planned something. It’s a way for the show to reinvent itself, refresh itself and twist itself into a slightly new direction. Each time it happens, especially after the first [handover] from Ben to Kris, the audience see it as part of the story. They know the ingredients they love will always be there, even if the personalities involved will be slightly different.”

As for season 10, Little’s DI Parker will have to work out whether island life is really for him, having swapped Manchester for Saint Marie. Other returning cast members include Don Warrington as Commissioner Selwyn Patterson, Tobi Bakare as DS JP Hooper and Elizabeth Bourgine as Mayor Catherine Bordey, while newcomer Tahj Miles plays 18-year-old petty criminal Marlon Pryce. Filming is due to wrap on December 18.

“Florence has returned and she finds herself confronted by this new detective who she just can’t fathom out, and it allows us to play with some interesting tensions,” Key adds. “We’ve got some pretty big surprises lined up that I am ridiculously excited about. It’s going to be a good one.”

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Heading East

Producer Kevin Loader and production designer Simon Bowles reveal how the empty sets of British soap EastEnders gave them the opportunity to film Alan Bennett’s acclaimed Talking Heads monologue series during the coronavirus lockdown.

For more than 35 years, British soap EastEnders has been a firm fixture in the BBC schedules. However, the coronavirus pandemic forced the show to suspend production in March – and despite the Beeb subsequently airing fewer episodes per week, the series is now on a transmission break for the first time ever, with the most recent episode having aired last Tuesday.

Production is due to resume this week, but eagle-eyed viewers might find a way to return to Albert Square sooner than expected as two traditions of British television collide.

When Piers Wenger, the BBC’s director of drama, sought a way to produce new scripted television during the UK lockdown, he turned to Alan Bennett’s acclaimed monologue series Talking Heads, which first aired in 1988 and then in 1998. Now, 10 of the 12 stories featured in those original two seasons, plus two new scripts, have been produced under social-distancing guidelines on the empty sets at BBC Elstree Studios on the outskirts of north London, otherwise known as the home of EastEnders.

“It’s been a ridiculously fast turnaround,” admits producer Kevin Loader. “From the getting the first call from Piers to delivering them was just under 10 weeks. It’s pretty extraordinary, all things considered.

“He was saying he’d love to get them on [air] in June and this was the last weekend in March. It seemed an impossible idea. But we certainly went into that weekend thinking, ‘Yes, they could be done.’”

Simon Bowles captures a Zoom meeting with the production team

Loader and production designer Simon Bowles were working together not too far away at Leavesden Studios, home of the Harry Potter films, where they were preparing the second season of Armando Iannucci’s HBO comedy Avenue 5 but had to stand down when the studios were closed.

“One of the things that’s been impossible to do in lockdown is build sets. So the issue really was where the hell would we shoot them?” Loader says. “Piers said, ‘Look, EastEnders is off the air. I’m sure I can get BBC Studios Elstree to put the studios at your disposal.’

“The idea became to shoot it on the standing sets at Elstree. Without that, we probably would have had to give up straightaway. Then it was just about whether we could persuade 12 actors to do it with only a couple of weeks’ prep. From the minute they were called, the people who filmed first probably had four weeks to rehearse and learn it. Some of these monologues are over 40 minutes. That’s quite a lot.”

The iconic status of Bennett’s work – his scripts are even studied in schools – means Loader immediately told Wenger that if the writer agreed for them to be reproduced, they would have to be done so in their original running times and not cut down to fit a 30-minute timeslot.

“They had to be done word for word as classic texts, just as you would with Harold Pinter or a Samuel Beckett play, [which meant] they would come in a very odd lengths and be a scheduling nightmare,” says Loader, who produces the series with famed theatre producer Nicolas Hynter for London Theatre Company.

Jodie Comer delivers the monologue titled Her Big Chance

“To be fair, Piers and Charlotte [Moore, BBC director of content] were brilliant about that. It was in the very early weeks of the lockdown and it suddenly seemed a rather resonant thing to be doing to have these very, very concentrated, intimate texts where an actor portrays a character who’s making a confession to you of some kind, or at least trying to describe a little window in their lives at that moment.”

Bowles’ thoughts of spending time at home with his family during the lockdown quickly evaporated when he got the call from Loader. He immediately drove to BBC Elstree and enjoyed a tour of the EastEnders set with art director India Smith. Realising it might be the only time he would be on set before filming began, he had to quickly decide which backdrops would be used for each monologue and what props would be needed for each scene.

“We ended up choosing 34 different rooms from the whole world of EastEnders and went from there,” he says. “Then we had to dress these sets to be character-specific. There was a concern we would recognise the sets from EastEnders, but it’s a wonderful fusion of these two worlds – and hopefully EastEnders viewers will watch these monologues and actually spot who’s in which house, which I thought was rather fabulous and something we shouldn’t shy away from.

“But it even went down to the props as well, where I was taking objects from one house in Albert Square and putting them into a different one. The props and art directing team were like, ‘You can’t do that –that’s Phil Mitchell’s mug.’ And I’m putting it into Dot Cotton’s house!”

When it came to filming each episode, recording took place in adherence with social-distancing guidelines, which Loader says made it “a pretty strange experience” for everyone. Each monologue has one actor and one camera, but the script is split up into four or five scenes to demonstrate passage of time, either in a new location or the same one but with the actor wearing a different costume.

Gangs of London’s Lucian Msamati in Playing Sandwiches

All rehearsals were done between the directors and actors via Zoom, while hair and make-up designer Naomi Donne also conducted online make-up tutorials using kits she had sent to each actor’s house. Kristin Scott Thomas, who stars in The Hand of God, had to fit her own wig.

The day before shooting, the sets were dressed and lighted, with Bowles working alongside Smith and the EastEnders team to create a cinematic backdrop for each monologue. Then the actor would come in the following day, in some cases seeing their costumes for the first time when they shot their episode.

“Those three weeks before we shot were odd and rather intense because there was loads going on behind the scenes, but it was all happening bilaterally, with two people on Zoom talking about make-up, or a director and an actor rehearsing, or Simon working with the design team,” Loader says. “You didn’t really ever have a sense of what was going on, but you just knew it was all going on everywhere.”

Bowles continues: “ I was dressing the sets, but I couldn’t be there. They propped up an iPad on the mantlepiece of each set and I had a many hours sitting here [in my house] saying, ‘That sofa a bit further left’ and ‘Those curtains don’t work.’ With social distancing, a dining chair could be moved easily by one person. If it was a long settee, two people could move it because they were more than two metres apart.

“But smaller objects, like a heavy armchair or a piano, where you’d need a couple of people close around it, we ended up taking away walls of the sets and bringing forklift trucks in to pick them up and shuffle them around.”

Kristin Scott Thomas performs Hand of God

Working with existing sets gave Bowles a rare challenge, as he normally designs sets from scratch. “To Alan, the pieces should be about the cast members so, in his ideal world, they would be performing with a blank screen behind them so there’s nothing to distract from his words coming from their mouths,” he says.

“I had to de-dress some of the sets so you’re just left with the minimal amount. Every single picture on the wall, every cushion, every eiderdown, every settee, every bunch of flowers had to be really specific to that character and the background. Initially, I was very worried that I wouldn’t find enough specific items to address the sets but once I’d ransacked every single set and the small prop store at EastEnders, I was actually delighted.”

The original Talking Heads monologues were broadcast in two groups, with six airing in 1988 and another half-dozen in 1998. Loader says there was a discussion about inviting an older actor to play the two monologues originally recorded by the late Dame Thora Hird, but BBC coronavirus rules meant nobody over 70 could be on set. Those monologues – A Cream Cracker under the Settee (1988) and Waiting for the Telegram (1998) – were then substituted for the two new scripts.

The cast and crew are also donating their salaries to NHS charities. “So our pitch to the actors was, ‘We know you’re at home doing nothing. The BBC want these monologues, they’re brilliant texts. We’re going to not take fees and give a load of money to the NHS charities. And you’ve got three weeks to prepare,’” Loader remembers. “Within three days, we had it cast. Everybody said yes and they all turned up word-perfect on the day, which is extraordinary.”

As lockdown restrictions are lifted and TV production around the world begins to restart under strict guidelines, what are the lessons Loader and Bowles have learned as they return to work on Avenue 5?

“Zoom rehearsal probably has no future,” Loader says pointedly. “I don’t think the directors or the actors enjoyed that very much. Production meetings are also more fun in cafés than they are on Zoom. We’ll all be working in the future with smaller crews and things may take a little longer than they did until the situation changes.

“But it is also probably a lesson in how quickly you can find solutions if you have to. We’re very good in our industry at finding solutions, so this was a turbo-charged version of what we do anyway. You can work more quickly and lighter afoot than we thought in certain situations. That’ll probably be good for everyone.”

As for Talking Heads, which is distributed by BBC Studios and begins on BBC1 tomorrow, Loader believes the series marries “extraordinary” writing and performances. “The writing is exceptional. The more you look at them, the more intriguing they are,” he concludes.

“They’re very dark, some of them. They’re about the secrets human beings are carrying. And because a lot of these characters feel rather lonely and isolated, even within their marriages and their family relationships, they speak to a world in which a lot of people are feeling lonely and isolated. There will be lots to ponder and lots to enjoy. And the performances are extraordinary. I’m so moved by many of them, and they’re funny too. People who don’t know them will be amazed by them.”

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On the Hunt

Cheat writer Gaby Hull talks about the inspiration and writing process behind six-part drama We Hunt Together, an unconventional police thriller in which two couples begin a cat-and-mouse chase.

In his first original series, Cheat, writer Gaby Hull explored a complex psychological relationship between a university professor and her student that turns toxic.

Now, in six-parter We Hunt Together, he puts a psychological twist on two sets of relationships to elevate the show from being a traditional police thriller.

Commissioned by UKTV for its Alibi channel, We Hunt Together introduces two couples who embark on a cat-and-mouse adventure in a story of sexual attraction and emotional manipulation. On one side is Freddy (Hermione Corfield), a highly intelligent, charming woman – and possible psychopath – whose chance meeting with Baba (Dipo Ola), a compassionate yet damaged former child soldier, leads them to form a decidedly deadly duo.

Meanwhile, DS Lola Franks (Eve Myles) and DI Jackson Mendy (Babou Ceesay) must overcome issues arising from their own unconventional relationship to solve a high-profile murder case, with their differing opinions on human behaviour causing conflict.

Hull was reading Truman Capote’s non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, which details the 1959 murder of four members of the same family, when the idea for We Hunt Together started to emerge.

Gaby Hull

“It starts with a terrible killing and then it flashes back and tells the story of these two killers and how they came to this moment,” he says of Capote’s book. “You spend a lot of time in their company; it treats them very objectively and invites you to identify with them on some level, and I found that very interesting. This cat-and-mouse thriller started to form in my mind, where we spend an equal amount of time with the killers and with the cops, thereby hopefully inviting a slightly different experience for the audience.

“It is very recognisably a police thriller, but there is also a relationship drama bound up in the bells and whistles of it. It’s exciting to me because there are three relationships in play. There’s the relationships within the two couples and, of course, the relationship between the two couples. Hopefully that draws the audience in and gets them to think about things in a slightly different way.”

Hull, who has also written on ITV comedy Benidorm, admits blending genres was a “tricky” process, with the series combining elements of “twisted love story, a buddy-cop movie and a cat-and-mouse thriller.” But by pushing the relationships to the forefront of the story, he hopes viewers will become fully invested in the outcome of the police investigation.

“Hopefully the audience is rooting at some point for each character, even though, at the same time, you may be repulsed by some of the things they’re doing and you may find them dark and dangerous,” he says. “You are also hopefully finding they are a surrogate for your own experience and, on some level, empathising with them despite the terrible things they’re doing.”

A running theme from the outset of the series is whether humans can be truly accountable for their actions, a point of contention that immediately puts a wedge between Lola and Jackson. Hull says he has used extreme examples to test that question, asking whether, by spending time in the company of people who commit horrendous crimes, we understand them more and may even empathise with them.

“I’ve always been very interested in free will and how accountable we are for our own actions; the myth that we are in control of our own lives when, in fact, usually it’s lots of factors beyond our control that shape our behaviour,” he says.

Babou Ceesay and Eve Myles play a detective duo in We Hunt Together

“Jackson very much believes that. He’s tired of a police force that seems to disproportionately punish young black men who look like him. He can see the system is set up to punish individuals for systemic failures, and that’s led him on this interesting journey where he no longer really believes in crime or criminals.

“Lola is very much more old school and represents the other side of that argument – that there are bad people who do bad things, and those people need to be punished. They clash very distinctly, but they also bond. They have a shared sense of humour and a bickering brother-sister relationship, so we see a lovely friendship developing at the core of it.

“I’m also interested in the idea of love interrupting cycles of dysfunction, but not necessarily romantic love,” he continues. “That’s an interesting thing that’s playing out across the series, about how loving relationships, platonic and not necessarily romantic or sentimental, can interrupt cycles of abuse and dysfunction, and how we can apply that to the criminal justice system and every area of our personal lives.”

In writing the series, which is produced and distributed by BBC Studios, Hull used these themes to build the characters, “which is not always how I go about creating characters, but I felt this story was particularly theme-driven,” he adds. “That really helped me bring those characters to life and discover how we could explore the themes through the characters’ journeys.”

Hull also knew where the characters would be at the series’ end, which helped him build the story. “That’s the way I find helpful to do it – making sure all the procedural blocks are in place along the way, making sure there are exciting hooks and exciting procedural beats that are going to bring people back, and making sure the cat-and-mouse through-line is taking us through the whole time.”

Hermione Corfield plays Freddy

According to Myles, Lola is happiest when she’s at work – until she is partnered with Jackson, who unwittingly ruffles her feathers from the start. “Through the first episode, you find her very cold, prickly and not wanting to be seen or involved in anything or connected to anybody or anything,” she says.

“Babou’s character keeps pulling her and poking her, so you find her in a vulnerable place. Through the series, you understand how she’s got there, why she is the way she is and why the relationship between Jackson and her is so difficult to make work.”

“In may ways, Jackson’s narrative doesn’t exist without Lola’s narrative,” Ceesay notes. “It’s what reveals who he is, because he’s got a specific view on life. He’s new to homicide, it’s his first murder and he’s working with someone so experienced. This is the first time he’s been able to test his theory of life, which is no one is to blame, things just happen because of whoever they are.

“So this theoretical, intellectual idea he tries to live by, all of a sudden, he’s going to be challenged by actual murders and a colleague who has no time for nonsense.”

Corfield, who plays Freddy, says her character is incredibly complex, living a chameleon-like life in which she can change her appearance to suit her surroundings. “There are so many different sides to her and she has the ability to shape-shift in whatever situation she’s in,” she says.

“What drew me to her was this survival instinct she has. Although she has traits we can’t relate to, she has a set of ideals she sticks to and morals she strongly believes. She uses her attributes to manipulate each person to get what she wants. I loved the survival element and how that fed into her life, because she’s a hustler and she’s constantly trying to weave her way around life, getting the best she can.”

Dipo Ola as Baba

Baba is working in a nightclub bathroom when he first meets Freddy, and she awakens something inside him. “As a former child soldier, to jump from doing that in the Congo to seeking refuge in the UK and working in a bar, it’s the most extreme you could get for one person,” says Ola.

“It was interesting approaching that, because I felt it was a character I wouldn’t necessarily have played at this point in my career, as he’s been through a lot more than his years suggest and that was an interesting thing to wrestle with. But they need each other. Baba likes rules and causes; there’s a cause with her, and that’s what he runs with.”

“She is quite dominant, calling the shots, but he has a quiet, strong power and she knows that, and that’s what keeps her interested,” Corfield adds. “He’s also a dark soul, because of his environment, and she’s got her own demons. They’ve both had extraordinary lives. She recognises something in him that she sees in herself but hasn’t been able to run with until she meets him.”

The first two episodes certainly deliver on both thematic and plot points, introducing the two couples’ relationships and setting the foundations for the chase in a stylish drama that moves back and forth between both pairs’ storylines. With all four individuals crossing paths early in the series, which launches on Alibi tonight, it remains to be seen how Freddy and Baba can continue to stay ahead of Lola and Jackson as their partnership takes a murderous twist.

Viewers should expect a “thrilling, edge-of-their-seat cop thriller that is elevated by the characters,” says Hull, who has also written upcoming Sky comedy Two Weeks to Live, starring Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams. “Hopefully it’s a fun show with entertainment value at the core of it and tries to make people laugh and cry and really just feel very excited for the next episode.”

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Girl talk

Having started life as a one-off drama, Our Girl is now in its fourth full season. Creator Tony Grounds tells DQ about making the military series, being inspired by real-life stories and replacing star Michelle Keegan.

At a time when television production has largely shut down, the fourth season of BBC army drama Our Girl was delivered with military precision to ensure viewers wouldn’t face any delays catching up with Georgie Lane and the members of 2 Section.

In fact, creator and writer Tony Grounds is already looking towards a potential fifth season, as he spends time in his London flat during the ongoing Coronavirus-enforced lockdown.

“Will it really be over in three months? If it is, that’s great, and then we can probably all pick up again,” he says of the television industry. “But if it drags on, I don’t know how anybody will be able to go into production, because we have up to 400 people [on set] some days. You have a lot of physical contact.”

The duration of the pandemic will also go a long way to determining how television writers address the global health crisis in their writing, Grounds says, with the potential ‘coronavirus effect’ ranging from characters discussing it nostalgically in a pub to whole storylines covering the issue.

“As human beings when conversing, I’m sure it will be mentioned,” he says. “‘Do you remember that time we couldn’t hold hands?’, ‘Do you remember when the pub was shut?’ Or it could be, ‘Do you remember that time the pub was open?’ if it’s still going on. Things like soaps are going to cover it more, but I don’t know whether people want to hear other people banging on about coronavirus right now.”

Creator and writer Tony Grounds on the Our Girl set

Season four of Our Girl sees combat medic Georgie, played by Michelle Keegan, start a new stage of her career, having been promoted to sergeant and now training a new bunch of medics. Insistent to her friends in 2 Section that she’s happily settled in her new job and will not be joining them on their upcoming deployment to Afghanistan, Georgie has a night on the town that results in a near-fatal incident and the realisation that losing the love of her life in a Taliban attack is the real reason she doesn’t want to go back. She then determines that she must return to face her fears.

Produced by BBC Studios, Our Girl is a unique proposition in the television schedules, having originally launched in 2013 as a single film that told the story of disillusioned 18-year-old Molly Dawes, who decides to join the army. A full season then aired in 2014, with EastEnders star Lacey Turner continuing in the lead role as Molly completed her training as a combat medical technician and found herself deployed to Afghanistan with her all-male colleagues in 2 Section.

Season two saw Keegan take the lead, with Georgie sent on a humanitarian tour of Kenya, while season three followed the character as she was sent to Nepal after an earthquake.

“It’s been a fantastic journey,” says Grounds, whose writing credits also include The Bill, EastEnders, Ray Winstone starrer Our Boy and Bodily Harm. “It’s unexpected in the sense that the single film was just a single film, but it seemed to do so well. Ben Stephenson, who was head of drama of the BBC at that point, asked me if it could go to a series. Because we’re following the combat medical technicians around, it can be as long as you want because, as long as we’ve got a British army, there will be stories.”

Grounds recalls that, with Turner contracted to return to EastEnders at the end of the first season, he expected the show would come to an end. “Then Ben said, ‘What about Michelle Keegan?’ At the time, I didn’t know who she was. He pulled that rabbit out of the hat and I met with Michelle, we chatted about it and she was great.

Lacey Turner was the first actor to take the lead in Our Girl

“We didn’t set it up to be a long-running show. It’s funny, sometimes shows that set out to run forever never do. They fade at the end of their first season, whereas this wasn’t intended to be that at all and we’re still going. I do think we’re getting better and better. We’re finding out what the show is.”

Key to the series is its focus not on the army itself but the individual characters who must come together and work in often hostile and emotionally challenging environments. “We put the microscope on the squaddies,” Grounds notes.

In fact, Grounds devised the series after first meeting a batch of trainee female combat medics when he visited a British army base with a military friend back in 2011.

“I didn’t know girls were in the army. At that time, we didn’t have women in the infantry. Now everything’s equal,” he explains. “These girls were 17 with guns and they were in their final bit of training before going to Afghanistan with the Royal Engineers. It was fantastic [meeting them] so I said, ‘Brilliant, I’m going to write a single [drama] about phase-one training.’ That’s what I pitched and what I wrote.”

During its run, Our Girl has featured a mixture of single and two-part stories within seasons, each one contemporary and based on real events, following combat medics in their work around the world. Grounds has written all but a handful of episodes, a process that begins after sitting down with the exec producer for that season to map out where the story will head.

Michelle Keegan took over as the show’s star in the second season

“I pretty much do them all, because when we’re out filming in South Africa, it’s easier because I’m there and can change stuff. It’s less complicated and I can write stuff on the hoof with the actors as well,” he says.

“In some instances, we have to be fairly fluid, because we’re working with 100 extras and you have to be quick on your feet, because sometimes you’re handing bits of script over [on set]. We have military advisors as well to then go, ‘Oh, no, that would never happen.’ It’s not a documentary, but we want to make it as realistic as we can. And on this last one, we had military help before we left [the UK] and on set.”

At first, British heads of department would fly out to run the project with Grounds. But over the years, the series has become entirely populated by local crew. “We take trainees from the townships, everything, so we’ve got a big and fantastic machine going out there,” he explains. “I’ve got a lot of commitment to that, to what we’re doing there, which I think is right. It’s enjoyable to do, and I’m loving the commitment from all the team, actors and crew.”

The launch of this latest season last month, however, was overshadowed by news earlier in the year that Keegan would not be returning to the series should it be renewed for a fifth run, leaving Grounds to find a third lead character.

“She wanted a break,” he says of former Coronation Street actor Keegan, who has now completed three tours of duty with Our Girl. “We’re away for so much of the year filming – predominantly in South Africa, but we’ve also done Malaysia and Nepal and various places abroad. Mark [Wright, Keegan’s reality star/TV presenter husband] was coming back from LA and they planned to spend some time together and do something in the UK. I thought she’d left and then she said [at a press screening], ‘I wouldn’t say forever.’

Grounds (second from right) with members of the Our Girl crew

“So at the moment I’m making plans that she’s not in the next season. I’ll chat to her and, obviously, she can come back whenever she wants. She’s great for us and it’d be sad if she left. She obviously wants to keep that door open, which is great.”

Grounds is now working out what a potential fifth season may look like before turning his thoughts to who could take the lead in Keegan’s place. “I’m sure the BBC will have an opinion on who they’d like to play the part too. I keep reading articles in the paper saying I’m in the final stages of meeting people, but it’s not true because I’ve literally not met anyone,” he says. “We’re flicking through ideas and I’m sure the casting people are ringing up agents to check on availability and stuff like that.”

Whether the show returns is yet to be decided, but running Our Girl for four seasons is still a proud achievement for Grounds. He’s particularly pleased the drama has drawn an audience that doesn’t often tune into BBC1 at 21.00.

“We reach an audience other BBC shows don’t reach,” he says. “We have a drama that skews quite young and yet we’re looking at Afghanistan, Kenya, Somalia, Nigeria, Nepal and the jungles in South America. We’re doing something no other dramas do. We’re literally, hopefully, showing a different aspect of the world. We’re entertaining and hopefully inspiring the people who are watching as well.

“From that first single film, with Molly Dawes, it was really about a girl who broke the expected narrative of her life,” Grounds adds. “Everybody thought she was a failure, she was rubbish, she couldn’t do anything. But she becomes a combat medical technician and actually proves she’s got a lot to offer the world.

“I don’t want anybody to join the army particularly, but I do want people to think, ‘I could do that.’ Whatever it is, she broke the expected narrative of her life and that seemed to inspire a lot of people.”

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Making it in Manhattan

Richard Yee, co-creator, co-writer and director of Sky1 comedy drama Sick of It, discusses a scene from the season two finale that took the production to New York. The series is produced by Me + You Productions and Alrite Productions and distributed by BBC Studios.

Richard Yee

In season one of Sick of It, main character Karl retreated into himself after the end of his relationship, with only the voice in his head for company. In season two, Karl is still riddled with self-doubt and insecurities, but more hope has crept into his life. He’s started to venturing outside his comfort zone and has unexpectedly fallen for his aunt’s carer, Ruby.

The season finale brings this to a head when Karl reluctantly travels to New York to tie up some family business and Ruby takes it upon herself to join him. The scene is then set for them to finally get together.

From the beginning, when co-writer Karl Pilkington (who also plays the lead character) and I sketched out the arc of the season, we always wanted the storyline to take us to New York, and it was always my intention to film it there too. The trip to New York was the culmination of a slow-bubbling attraction that had developed between Karl and Ruby in the series, and a realisation in Karl that he’s got to let himself live a little.

From standing in a dated living room staring at his uncle’s coffin at the start of season one to running through the colourful streets of New York with Ruby at the end of season two, Karl’s mindset had changed, and the city was a living, breathing manifestation of the hope that had crept into his life. I wanted to capture the energy of New York on screen and for that to seep into the performances. I also had great cinematic ambitions for the series, so New York felt like the perfect location to bring it to a climax.

Karl Pilkington and Marama Corlett film a New York taxi scene in Sick of It

Of course, we were never budgeted to film in New York, so the inevitable question of ‘Why don’t we just fake New York in the UK?’ or film against a green screen was bound to come up… and come up it did. Again and again and again. In fact, halfway through production, we were still struggling to make New York work on our budget and it came up again, before an alternative suggestion was put forward – that we rewrite the finale and set it in Scotland instead.

As much as I love Scotland (I’m half Scottish, half Chinese), I was more determined than ever to stick to my original intention. I pushed back until finally production pressed the button and booked our flights to New York.

When we arrived a few days before the shoot to prep, the omens weren’t good. As soon as we hit Manhattan, street after street, many of which were on the route our scout had previously recce’d for our opening scene, were now dug up. The New York Department of Transportation had chosen the week of our filming to dig up Manhattan’s avenues and start resurfacing the roads. To add insult to injury, our hotel was directly next to a section of road they had chosen to dig up that night. They call New York the city that never sleeps, but they don’t tell you it’s because they dig up the streets in the middle of the night.

When Karl Pilkington and Marama Corlett (who plays Ruby) arrived a couple of days later, the roadworks were still underway outside our hotel. And in a mirror of what happens in the episode, they ended up in adjoining rooms. While I recce’d and prepped with my new production team day and night, Karl and Marama hung out in New York together. We’d bump into them randomly in the street as we scouted spots to shoot, and later at night would run into them in bars completely by chance.

Filming the taxi in Manhattan posed a unique set of challenges

We hadn’t even started filming but, by sheer virtue of being in New York together, they were living out their roles and developing their chemistry without realising they were even rehearsing. Things were looking up again – but then came the day of filming.

First up was a scene in an iconic yellow taxi. We’d planned a new route that avoided the resurfaced roads and roadworks and were all set to go. If only the same could be said about our picture car. The engine overheated en route before an actor or camera had even got close to it, and the driver had to turn back and pick up a new car from Brooklyn. Two hours later, we eventually got on the road. It wasn’t the best of starts.

Over the next two days shooting around Williamsburg (Brooklyn) and Manhattan, we managed to make the time up, working at a fevered pace. There were times I wasn’t sure if we ‘got it,’ but my New York script supervisor, Anna Lomakina, who had had just come off Lulu Wang’s The Farewell and Charlie Kaufman’s latest film, knew the city well and helped me tune into the frenetic rhythms of New York and how you film there.

Even if you have the resources, you can’t control New York. You can’t wait for trains to stop, or silence to fall before calling action. You have to embrace the chaos of it. The Safdie Brothers, whose brilliant new film Uncut Gems is based in New York, are masters of this. They never close down roads. Instead of stopping members of the public walking through the frame, they encourage it, and the cast play out their scenes in as close to a real-world environment as possible. They embrace chaos in a way that’s anathema to most filmmakers but manage to bottle the spirit and unpredictability of New York in a way that feels alive.

New York’s infamously busy Times Square was used as a location

Our final night in New York revolved around another driving scene, this time through Manhattan at night. Editorially, we wanted as much colour and light on the streets of New York as possible, to contrast with the more subdued colours of Karl’s world in the UK.

Invariably, that drew us to Times Square. No one in their right mind drives through Times Square, let alone tries to film a scene there, especially where continuity of background and performance is needed. But that’s what we did. Even at midnight, the traffic was stop-start and it was near impossible to match speeds against the backdrops. The continuity nightmare was made worse when it started raining halfway through. To save time, I was jumping in and out of the following vehicle myself to wipe dry the picture car to keep a modicum of continuity.

It was nerve-wracking having no control, it was one of the hardest scenes in the series to edit and there’s no doubt it would have been much easier to film in the UK in a studio. But it just wouldn’t have been as good. The lights looked beautiful on our vintage lenses, the excitement of actually being in New York rubbed off on the cast and their performances; and when you watch the scene, you share their excitement of being in New York for the first time.

I have no regrets and would take the real New York over a green screen any day of the week.

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Winter sun

The Mallorca Files aims to be the bright and breezy antidote to the trend for dark, melancholic crime dramas. DQ visited the set on the Balearic isle.

If you heard the word ‘Mallorca,’ your immediate reaction might well be to imagine Magaluf (or its ruder nickname) echoing to the sound of wall-to-wall British stag dos dressed in matching Viking helmets and singing ‘ere we go!’

What you might not think of is breathtaking scenery, marvellous architecture, picturesque town squares, delightful restaurants, historic churches, gorgeous coastlines and mighty mountains.

Ben Donald

But that’s exactly what you get in The Mallorca Files, BBC1’s sunny 10-part daytime detective drama. Created by Dan Sefton (The Good Karma Hospital, Trust Me, Delicious), the series offers less of the lager louts and more of the luscious landscapes.

A variation on the theme of the buddy cop movie, The Mallorca Files centres on a mismatched pair of detectives, Miranda (Elen Rhys) from the UK and the German Max (Julian Looman). They reluctantly team up to investigate crimes on the otherwise idyllic Spanish island.

In this series, which is produced by Clerkenwell Films and Cosmopolitan Pictures and distributed by BBC Studios, the twist is that Miranda and Max overturn the national stereotypes: Miranda is uptight and efficient, while Max is charming and easy-going.

Ben Donald, the executive producer, is sitting on a bench in the capital city of Palma, outside the splendiferous Gothic Cathedral of Santa Maria. Known locally as La Seu, this stunning edifice commands a spectacular view of the glistening blue sea.

It is a stone’s throw away from the Port Authority building that is doubling as the exterior of the police station in The Mallorca Files. Over more decades in this job than I care to remember, this may well be the most glamorous location for a fictional police station that I have ever visited. It certainly beats an industrial estate on the outskirts of a gloomy London suburb.

Donald, who has previously exec produced such BBC hits as Wolf Hall, Death in Paradise, Parade’s End and Spies of Warsaw, begins by outlining what he hopes to achieve with The Mallorca Files, which starts on BBC1 on Monday. “Mallorca is not all Kiss Me Quick hats and lobster-red, sunburnt Brits on the lash. It’s a beautiful island.

Elen Rhys as Miranda Blake and Julian Looman as Max Winter in The Mallorca Files

“When Miranda is posted here, she starts off very buttoned up. But quickly we begin to explore every aspect of the island through her eyes, and she soon grows to love it. She is very happy to stay because it’s so gorgeous and there are so many different facets to it. She sees that it’s a great place to be, and we want viewers to feel the same thing. When they see the show, I want everyone to go, ‘Wow! I would love to be Miranda and Max!'”

Like many feel-good dramas filmed in sunlit foreign locations – Death in Paradise, The Good Karma Hospital or Wild at Heart – The Mallorca Files is cannily scheduled in the bleak British midwinter. “Winter is often a depressing time of year. They call the last Monday in January ‘Blue Monday,’” Donald notes. “We hope that The Mallorca Files will cheer people up in the way that Death in Paradise does. It’s the time of year when series like this do well and when holiday companies start to advertise. People think, ‘Ooh, I wish I was there and on holiday.'”

The Mallorca Files certainly makes the most of the island’s ravishing scenery, also a draw for the makers of upmarket commercials and series as diverse as The Night Manager, Mad Dogs and, of course, reality series Love Island. “We thought about filming this on the Isle of Sheppey,” jokes Dominic Barlow, the show’s producer. “Mallorca is a unique island. It’s got so much going for it. I’m always surprised by what you see around the next corner in Mallorca. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”

Dan Sefton

Donald is keen to emphasise that The Mallorca Files – which is also heading to BritBox in the US and Canada and Germany’s ZDFneo – could not have been filmed anywhere else. “We are not in generic Spain. The stories in this series are very much connected to this place and embedded in the local culture. Mallorca has got a very proud history and a strong cultural sense of its own identity, which is reflected in the cuisine and the dialect.

“The Mallorca Files is not a parallel universe of expats. What you get is a very strong sense of this particular island, as opposed anywhere else in the Mediterranean. It’s not an invented island.”

The production has shot everywhere from the airport, a vineyard and an oligarch’s yacht to a nightclub, a bike race, a bullfighting arena and a judge’s house in a TV talent show.

Bryn Higgins, who directs the opening and closing blocks of The Mallorca Files, has found the island an eye-catching and extremely versatile backdrop for the drama, 95% of which is shot on location.

“Mallorca is the third character in the drama after Miranda and Max,” he observes. “It’s an island of great variety and history, and it allows you to go into so many different worlds. In 20 minutes, you can move from the ancient history of the old town to the modernity of the marina. It offers a huge range of locations. The island is a giant film lot.”

Higgins, who has also directed Black Mirror, Garrow’s Law, Casualty 1909, Inspector George Gently and Silent Witness, says what distinguishes this series is its cinematic feel. “In my very early conversations with Dan, most of our references were to American movies of the 1970s. There is a retro movie feel to it. It has pace, style and energy, and each episode draws on a different genre.

“The first episode is a chase movie like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The second is a western set in the world of bullfighting, which borrows from Sergio Leone. Then we did an episode about drugs in the clubs using handheld cameras, which has an element of The French Connection. We also did a wonderful satire of The X Factor. It’s wild, funny, intense and has references to Dog Day Afternoon, Network and The King of Comedy.”

The show has a ‘bright and breezy’ tone, according to its producers

The producers go on to underline that, in contrast to many fashionably dark cop dramas at the moment, the tone of The Mallorca Files is bright and breezy.”Sometimes police dramas can be very serious, gritty and depressing. But this is fun and has a lot of energy. It’s like Moonlighting or Dempsey & Makepeace,” Barlow says.

“The police station is not important in The Mallorca Files. It’s not a procedural show. Miranda and Max solve cases in cafés and sitting on the seawalls. We try to keep the island in view all the time. It’s like The Holiday Programme, where you just love looking at the locations. This is Dempsey & Makepeace mashed up with The Holiday Programme.”

Sefton chips in: “The tone is very clear. When we created the show, we said there is going to be no sex crime or missing children – just good, wholesome murder!

“It’s full of interesting themes – drugs, death and bullfighting. It’s not anodyne, but we haven’t gone to the places other cop shows go to – that’s just not my thing.”

One blot on the landscape is the memory of BBC1’s last drama set in Spain: the late and very unlamented El Dorado. Unsurprisingly, the producers of The Mallorca Files think there is no comparison between the two series. “The only similarity is they’re both set in Spain,” asserts Higgins.

“That was a soap. This has genuine cinematic ambition and style. It’s a beautifully written piece, and every film is very distinctive. Yes, it’s a detective series, but it doesn’t settle into familiar detective tropes.”

Before we go, there is one character trait of Miranda’s that we have so far neglected to mention: her piano playing. Might we see more of that in the second season of The Mallorca Files, which the BBC has just announced? “Why not?” laughs Rhys. “We could have The Mallorca Files: The Musical. Who wouldn’t enjoy that?”

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Power struggle

Richard Gere returns to TV for the first time in 30 years to star alongside Helen McCrory and Billy Howle in BBC drama MotherFatherSon. DQ finds out how this story of an international businessman and his newspaper empire goes beyond the boardroom to examine a family in crisis.

MotherFatherSon’s story about an international businessman and his newspaper empire might bring a certain media mogul to mind, but this Richard Gere-starring BBC drama is not quite as it seems.

Written by Tom Rob Smith (The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story) and produced and distributed by BBC Studios, the show centres on Gere’s Max, a largely self-made US businessman who acquires a UK newspaper and finds himself connected with the most powerful politicians in the land.

The show beings Gere back to the small screen for the first time in 30 years, but for the Hollywood star, MotherFatherSon doesn’t feel like TV. “To me, this is one eight-hour movie,” he says, speaking prior to the show’s international launch at Mipcom in Cannes last year. “It’s a novel, eight hours of telling a very deep, dense story. The world is so turned upside down in terms of movies right now; TV is where the most interesting stuff is being done for an actor. And there is no stigma with that all.”

MotherFatherSon stars Richard Gere as a newspaper owner

Despite the newspaper and political spheres in which it is set, the drama is family-oriented and explores the difficult relationship between Max and his heir and son Caden, who has been estranged from his mother and Max’s former wife, Kathryn (Peaky Blinders’ Helen McCrory), for much of his childhood.

When Caden’s self-destructive lifestyle spirals out of control, the devastating consequences threaten the future of the family, their empire and a country on the brink of change.

“He’s been brought up by his father in his father’s image and we notice very early on that’s not a great fit,” exec producer Hilary Salmon says of Caden. “He’s not really the young man who was built to be the editor of one of the UK’s biggest newspapers, and the cracks are starting to show even before the episodes start.”

For Billy Howle, who plays Caden, the relationship provides a deep seam to explore as the son and his father realise their differences.

“There is a whole process through Caden’s formative years where he’s not just brought up by his father but moulded in his image,” he explains. “Sometimes Caden breaks the mould and that is both a good and bad thing, seemingly. It’s not exactly what Max wants – he wants his son to be able to do what he has done and run his empire and continue to do that. But, at the same time, he doesn’t necessarily listen to Caden’s emotional needs as a father should.

The drama centres on the relationship between Gere’s Max and his son Caden (Billy Howle)

“They are not separate factions because they are tied by blood. But they are at loggerheads in terms of the difference in their outlook and belief systems. In a sense, our belief systems are innate and you can’t force them on another person. You can try, but they tend to bend and eventually break, as Caden does.”

While Max’s character might seem familiar, Smith says viewers will dispense of any preconceptions the minute they start watching the show. “The truth is, as soon as you watch this, that question will disappear. Max is Richard’s Max. It is very much his own creation; he comes from a world that I don’t think is a reference to anyone else.

“His father ran a steel factory, he grew up with the factory workers and had an extraordinary upbringing and then decides to switch to news. I don’t think that’s the same for [any real-life figures].”

Smith came up with the idea for the show after witnessing the impact one of his friend’s health problems had on his family. “The difference is that, with my friend, when the capillaries burst in his head, it upended his family, not the country,” the show’s creator continues. From there, Smith explores all manner of subjects but in a thematic manner, avoiding specific mentions of politicians or countries, for example. The result, he adds, is that the show can explore broad topics such as populism.

Helen McCrory as Caden’s mother and Max’s ex-wife Kathryn

Certainly MotherFatherSon taps into real-world issues, and Gere argues that drama’s role is becoming increasingly important as true-life events begin to reflect some of the more outlandish storylines in scripted series. “The reality-show president [Donald Trump] we have highlights the real stuff even more,” Gere explains of drama’s place in the entertainment ecosystem. “When we see something that’s true and honest and heartfelt, we will not become accustomed to something that is false and lies and all artifice.

“So when you do something that is actually coming from an honest place, a generous place, wanting to somehow explain the world as it is and with a motivation of making it better of understanding, it comes out even more. It highlights it more, not as entertainment but as the truth.”

Howle adds: “People turn to drama for the purposes of entertainment and escapism, but it also acts as an exploration and antidote to what is happening.”

However, Gere also admits that producing drama that cuts through reality has become trickier “because you can’t compete with how crazy someone like Trump is and many of these right-wing nationalist tribalisms on the planet.”

While storylines in the real world might continue to astound, MotherFatherSon currently looks set to be limited to just the eight hours ordered by BBC2. Smith says the series, which begins in the UK tonight, has a “great ending,” although Salmon refuses to completely rule out further episodes. “It is probably a miniseries but there is a way of bringing it back,” she says. “It’s up to Tom if he wants to continue the story. We’ll have to see how the audience responds.”

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Mays days

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.

Against the Law stars Mays (right) as Peter Wildeblood alongside Richard Gadd as his lover Edward McNally

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.

Mays admits to being nervous over sex scenes with Gadd

“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.”

A busy 2017 for Mays has also seen him star in Sky Atlantic period drama Guerrilla…

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 in Channel 4’s Born to Kill

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.”

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Everything old is new again

As UK networks continue to mine classic stories for new dramas, Stephen Arnell asks whether international coproductions are the key to unlocking creativity.

It’s fair to say last week’s announcement that BBC Studios is planning a six-part series based on John Buchan’s popular adventure The 39 Steps – just eight years after the corporation’s previous Bourne/Bond-style stab at the novel – hardly set industry pulses racing.

In fact, unless the approach to the source material is radically different from previous adaptations, one can’t imagine the atmosphere in the BBC production meeting to discuss the idea when it was broached was exactly electric.

With the recent transformation of BBC Production into BBC Studios, this was perversely exactly the kind of show calculated to reinforce prior negative expectations of what the new entity would be – safe, traditional and rather unimaginative.

The exit of Studios head Peter Salmon after six months to Endemol Shine may see BBC Studios leave its comfort zone – if a non-corporation insider is chosen to replace him.

Coupled with the plethora of Agatha Christie adaptations, younger takes on popular characters such as ITV’s Endeavour (Inspector Morse) and the upcoming Prime Suspect prequel Tennison (incidentally, there’s a Young Marple in development for CBS in the US), as well as reboots of Poldark (pictured top) and Maigret, new versions of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White and EM Forster’s Howards End, there is a feeling that mainstream drama in the UK is playing safe and becoming atrophied, although I’m sure production executives at the time felt that reviving a 1970s show such as Poldark was genuinely taking a risk.

The low figures attracted by recent series such as Jericho (ITV) and Dickensian (BBC1), which, despite familiar period drama elements and literary antecedents, at least attempted something a little different, may increase the caution displayed in TV drama commissioning in the UK for the big channels.

ITV's Jericho focused on 1870s Yorkshire
ITV’s Jericho focused on 1870s Yorkshire

If we are going to pillage the past for source material, maybe producers can consider some other authors than the usual roll call of Austen, Dickens, Trollope (ITV’s Julian Fellowes-penned Doctor Thorne) and the Brontes.

Will the upcoming BBC1 retread of Homer’s Troy stumble in the same way as ITV’s fantasy actioner Beowulf?

Both shows, and BBC2’s The Last Kingdom, smack of a desire to emulate Game of Thrones, as did the flop BBC1 War of the Roses epic The White Queen back in 2013.

To some critics, BBC1’s choice to adapt 20th century classics last autumn (Lady Chatterley’s Lover, An Inspector Calls, The Go Between and Cider with Rosie) resembled nothing so much as an English literature A-level syllabus circa 1973.

Despite the likelihood of negative comparisons to Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, the BBC’s upcoming series based on Len Deighton novel SS-GB promises something a little off the beaten track from recent network drama.

Julian Fellowes' new ITV series Doctor Thorne
Julian Fellowes’ new ITV series Doctor Thorne

With his works coming out of copyright, the oeuvre of HG Wells seems ripe for revival, judging by Sky Arts’ recent anthology series The Nightmare Worlds of HG Wells and the upcoming Mammoth Screen (Poldark) version of The War of the Worlds, which aims to hue closely to the novel. With Peter Harness (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell) adapting the story, we can be fairly certain that we’ll finally see something resembling Wells’ original vision.

There are, of course, some shining exceptions to the general air of caution, not least of which is The Night Manager (BBC1). Although never adapted for TV before, it does come from the pen of John le Carré, responsible for a string of successful movies, including The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The Constant Gardener, A Most Wanted Man, The Tailor of Panana, the 2011 film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and TV series/one-offs (Smiley’s People, A Perfect Spy, A Murder of Quality).

The Night Manager is truly something different for BBC1 – the sheer luxury on display in terms of locations and casting, the sumptuous photography and even the Maurice Binder-style title sequence lift the show into another sphere, almost one of decadence, especially considering the ongoing budget cuts at the BBC.

Now perhaps there’s a glimpse of where the money saved from BBC3’s linear demise is heading – and also of the advantages of coproductions.

Co-funded by AMC, which likewise coproduced Channel 4’s Humans, The Night Manager perhaps demonstrates that only international financing can release the creativity for UK drama productions of real scale and ambition.

Does The Night Manager prove that international coproductions are the way forward for UK drama?
Does The Night Manager prove that international coproductions are the way forward for UK drama?

Former C4 drama commissioning editor Peter Ansorge voiced his frustration last month, commenting on the difference in television drama between here and the US: “You can’t argue against HBO, AMC, Showtime and Scandinavia being the new gold standard in TV drama. Even Germany has got in on the act with Deutschland 83.

“I’d question whether this is the case in the UK. These international shows have one thing in common: they are all original and contemporary works, with challenging things to say about their recent history and their countries’ social and political realities. HBO and AMC dramas challenge US audiences to look at themselves in new, often breathtaking ways.

“In contrast, the UK typically looks back, or towards crime. Downton Abbey tops the ratings on Christmas Day, Agatha Christie is catapulted into the ranks of our greatest novelists, the writing team on EastEnders are suddenly on a par with Dickens, a Tolstoy period adaptation feels like an Austen, writ large.”

If this sounds like a blanket dismissal of UK drama, it’s not – but it’s beginning to look like only international coproduction money and ambition can lift the country’s homegrown drama into binge-worthy series that can play well in the US.

Peaky Blinders has, to an extent, proven that uniquely British subject matter can – given the budget, casting and swagger – translate to overseas markets (admittedly shielded from some of the heat of the ratings war by its presence on BBC2).

BBC1 must surely be hoping this is the case for the upcoming Tom Hardy eight-part miniseries Taboo (from Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight) and Steve McQueen’s as-yet untitled drama about the lives of a group of black Britons from 1968 to 2014.

The news that Julie Walters is to star in a TV series based on her role in the surprise BBC Films hit Brooklyn also raises hopes that there will be more ambition for the genre at the corporation than relying on rehashing popular classics.

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