Tag Archives: BBC

Illuminating drama

A starry cast lights up the screen in The Luminaries, a BBC and TVNZ coproduction based on Eleanor Catton’s award-winning novel. The author, who has adapted her own work, and director Claire McCarthy tell DQ about transforming the book for television.

Among the literary prizes handed out for novels, the Man Booker Prize is one of the most prestigious, recognising the best original novel written in the English language and published in the UK.

When Eleanor Catton scooped the award in 2013 for her book The Luminaries, she became the youngest winner in the prize’s history, while it was also the longest ever winning novel, coming in at 832 pages. In addition, she was only the second New Zealander to win, beating 151 novelists who submitted their work that year.

The chairman of judges, Robert Macfarlane, described it as a “dazzling work, luminous, vast… a book you sometimes feel lost in, fearing it to be ‘a big baggy monster,’ but it turns out to be as tightly structured as an orrery.”

It was only a matter of time, then, before it would be brought to television, although it is not an exaggeration to say the book has undergone a huge transformation to reach the small screen. Overseeing the process has been Catton herself, who has written the six-part series for BBC2 in the UK and TVNZ in New Zealand. It is produced by Working Title Television and Southern Light Films, with Fremantle distributing.

A 19th century tale of adventure and mystery set on the Wild West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island in the boom years of the 1860s gold rush, the story is described as an epic story of love, murder and revenge.

Eva Green (left) and Eve Hewson in The Luminaries

In a unique structure, the book sets out events from the perspective of multiple characters, whereas the series focuses on defiant young adventurer Anna Wetherell, who has sailed from Britain to New Zealand to begin a new life. There she meets the radiant Emery Staines, an encounter that triggers a strange kind of magic that neither can explain. As they fall in love, driven together and apart by fateful coincidence, these star-crossed lovers begin to wonder: do we make our fortunes, or do our fortunes make us?

Eve Hewson (The Knick) and Eva Green (Penny Dreadful) lead the cast as Anna and Lydia Wells, respectively, alongside Himesh Patel (The Aeronauts) as Emery Staines, Ewen Leslie (The Cry) as Crosbie Wells and Marton Csokas (The Equalizer) as Francis Carver.

Working Title Television MD Andrew Woodhead had scored rights to the novel before it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, but Catton says it was never part of the conversation that she would adapt it herself.

“He began sending it to various people [scriptwriters] to read and everybody probably read the first few pages and said, ‘Absolutely not,’” she says. “In some ways it’s quite a niche project. It’s a New Zealand setting, it has this astrological superstructure. It’s not a historical story in any way, it’s entirely invented, so it’s not as if you can research it.

“So as more and more people turned it down, months were passing and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I just started seeing it in my head. Amazingly, he said, ‘Why don’t you give it a go and see what happens?’ At the start of pre-production, I was up to 61 final drafts of the first episode. It must be at least double that now – and the first ever script bears almost no resemblance at all to the finished episode.”

In the book, Catton wanted each person’s perspective to interpret the plot as a different kind of story – one person sees a murder mystery, another a heist gone wrong and, for Anna and Emery, it’s a love story. But to make it work on screen, the writer upended the entire structure to focus on Anna and Lydia’s relationship.

Himesh Patel, star of Danny Boyle movie Yesterday, also features among the cast

“The challenge was always how can we make the more experimental and original elements of the story work,” she explains. “There’s a very strong magical subplot in the book but we needed to figure out how to translate it to the screen. There’s an extended courtroom scene at the end where you’re offered a choice between a magical, impossible but quite romantic story, or something logical and plausible but maybe less romantic, and you have to choose. That’s much harder on screen, because seeing is believing.

“Bringing it back to the two women was a choice about focusing the drama on this essential question of do you make your fortune or does your fortune determine who you are. Anna’s relationship with Lydia in the show, more so than in the book, is a seduction. There’s a sense of them testing one another and not being entirely honest with one another. It’s such an enormous cast, we could have taken any number of avenues. But the moment we cast these amazing women, every time they do a scene together, I’m just like, ‘Oh my God!’”

Doubling up her duties as an exec producer meant Catton was heavily involved throughout the series, not least in casting. She praises Green for being the first to sign on when she could have waited to see who she would be playing against. “It was something I felt really strongly about, but I really was so pleased with who we cast,” she says. “I don’t feel like there’s a weak link in there. It’s actually very distracting because they’re all so good looking, enigmatic and such interesting actors.”

Behind the camera is Claire McCarthy (Ophelia), who is revelling in bringing 1860s New Zealand to the screen. “It’s such a rich world, and a world we haven’t really seen before,” she says.

The series, the director explains, dances a fine line between genre – period, fantasy and astrological – while almost lampooning a Victorian sensation novel. Those stories were popular in the same period and introduced outlandish plot lines in often familiar domestic settings.

Claire McCarthy

“In our retelling, the challenge has been about streamlining it, because it’s such a hefty tome,” she continues. “If we didn’t have Eleanor writing the scripts, I don’t think it would have been as subversive a retelling. She’s almost told it from the inside out.”

McCarthy has been working with production designer Felicity Abbot and cinematographer Vincent Baker to define the visual aesthetics and style of the show and reveal the story from Anna’s perspective. “There’s a sensual quality about the show but there’s also these kinds of genre elements – murder mystery and treachery, betrayal and these kinds of big, dramatic themes,” she says.

“So there’s a pace to the way the story unfolds. The story’s quite densely woven so it’s also working out how we can keep the viewer clearly inside the story, but also working out where we want them to fit inside the mystery.”

On set in New Zealand, McCarthy has found herself surrounded by many of the crew members and landscapes that were integral to making feature films such as The Piano, The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and fantasy series The Shannara Chronicles. So while a lot of The Luminaries is filmed on location, the production team also built the central town of Hokitika, where the story plays out.

“We decided on this 360-degree set in this mud bowl; it’s quite visceral and rugged,” the director says. “We really wanted it to feel like it was a living, breathing frontier town, right at the edge of the world. We built some sets for practical reasons and just to support the elaborate sequences we do have. We also have a large on-location set down in the real Hokitika on South Island, which has a very specific landscape and mountain range. The skies and the waters are really one of a kind.”

McCarthy jokes that the series is a “strange hybrid” between television and film. “It’s an epic tale,” she adds. “To be the director across six episodes is a unique, authored experience. TV is so bold. You can challenge characters to do things with story and the way it’s being told. Cinema can be more conservative. I find it really rewarding being so involved in the process. I really hope the audience likes it.”

For Catton, bringing The Luminaries to the screen has been “extraordinary, it’s such a dream come true.” She adds: “It’s almost like a new version of the book, it’s almost completely reimagined. So I hope there will be something for everyone.”


Grilling Eve
Eve Hewson is used to playing dramatic roles, with parts in TV series The Knick and feature films Robin Hood, Bridge of Spies and Papillon. Yet as Anna Wetherell in The Luminaries, she takes the lead in a series that has put her through her paces. “It’s been non-stop. It’s really intense, emotional and physical, but I’m really proud of it,” she says.

With Eleanor Catton adapting her own novel, Hewson says the series offers viewers a chance to see a different version of the same story. “It’s a smart and interesting adaptation,” she says. “Eleanor’s writing is genius, and in a TV series we have all these characters and the time to make the relationships distinct.

“What’s beautiful about the story is it’s a period piece, it’s mystical and wonderful and imaginative but it’s also the story of what women go through today and what they went through back then,” the actor continues. “There have been a lot of conversations about how we approach it and the way it’s dignified and truthful. We keep it true to the character and story.”

Hewson says she has been surprised by the number of women on the crew, which is led by director Claire McCarthy, describing the atmosphere on set as “nurturing.” She also says how nice it has been to be supported by a women director as she takes on Anna’s “very dark journey.” She explains: “I don’t know if it would have been the same if we’d had a male director by my side. There’s a closeness and I know I’m protected by her. We could have certain conversations about things that happen to women.”

The Irish actor also questions whether The Luminaries, and Anna’s story in particular, would have been dramatised for television if it were set in the present day, noting how much more palatable certain subjects are to audiences if they are placed in another time.

“There’s some weird thing about period dramas. Because it’s so far away, the audience accepts what happened to women more easily than accepting it’s happening today. Anna is a prostitute in the book but it’s much harder to get a six-part series on the BBC about prostitutes living in our time right now. For some reason, it’s more acceptable in a period drama.

“I just hope people connect with it and they feel what we all felt when we read the scripts. I hope they fall in love with the characters and Anna and they enjoy themselves. I hope we have made an entertaining show. Even though it’s well written and directed and the acting’s great, I hope people are still entertained. That’s the joy of TV.”

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Three’s no crowd

Pushing the boundaries of traditional relationship dramas, BBC series Trigonometry explores the polyamorous dynamics between a couple and their lodger. As the producers and cast explain, it’s sure to be a conversation starter.

It’s possibly the sexiest thing to happen inside a grimy-looking laundrette since Nick Kamen took off his Levi jeans back in the 1980s. Three people, all in love with each other, are flirting underneath the newly washed bed linen. There are giggles. There is stroking. Lips are licked, glances are cast.

Outside the West London laundrette, it’s pouring with rain; inside, it’s steamy as hell, despite the director, cameraman, lights and sound crew all being there too. This is Trigonometry, set to be one of the most controversial dramas the BBC has ever screened. As the name suggests, it focuses on a threesome – three 30-somethings who fall in love with each other and decide to live together.

“It is a big love story told in a completely different way,” says producer Imogen Cooper of the series, which has been made by House Productions for BBC2. “It is all the things you get in a traditional love story but everything is presented differently.

“It is hopeful, romantic and funny but also messy in the way that life is messy. We don’t shy away from showing what happens when three people fall in love, and in lust, with each other. There is a huge amount of chemistry between our cast and the heat of it all is shown on screen.”

Filming started soon after the same channel hosted a documentary by Louis Theroux about polyamory, the idea that people can have a three-headed or even four-headed relationship. But while Theroux’s doc focused on the sadness of some of those who seemed to have been forced into sharing their partner, this drama, written by real-life couple and playwrights Duncan Macmillan and Effie Woods, looks at how it can work – even if it is not without teething problems.

L-R: The three characters in Trigonometry’s unconventional central relationship are played by Thalissa Teixeira, Ariane Labed and Gary Carr

“It has been written in a way that our characters are as equal as we can make them; we didn’t want this to be about one person making a huge compromise, as we feel these three have got something special,” says Cooper. “It is a controversial subject matter but we are portraying it in the least shockable way – it is relatable. We don’t shy away from examining how these things aren’t easy. People have been talking about living this kind of life for many decades – about open relationships and that sort of thing – and it’s still something that hasn’t really caught on.

“There are no role models for this kind of relationship, so they are working out the rules as they go along. We examine how there is some jealousy but also how being in this kind of structure means the relationship is less intense – when someone is at odds with someone else, there is help in smoothing the situation. We show the beauty of this relationship but also the trickiness. Lots of people around them don’t understand it and immediately disapprove.”

The show centres on paramedic Kieran, an ex-soldier played by Gary Carr (The Deuce), and restaurateur Gemma, played by Thalissa Teixeira (The Musketeers), who have been dating for seven years after meeting on holiday. With work commitments meaning they barely see each other, they have long been aware that something needs to change in their relationship and are contemplating marriage. However, the change ends up coming from an unexpected source after the introduction of another person into their lives.

When Gemma’s first restaurant puts a strain on the couple’s finances, they take on a lodger, Ray, played by French actor Ariane Labed (The Lobster). The three quickly become close friends, and the couple gradually find that they are both falling in love with her.

“Ray is an ex-Olympian, a synchronised swimmer, whose life has changed after an accident that forced her to give up her career,” says Labed, who went through several weeks of synchronised swimming training before she started rehearsals. “She is almost starting from zero when she moves in with Kieran and Gemma, as she has only ever lived at home. But she is open to new adventures.

Lead director Athina Tsangari (left) on set with the leading trio

“The first evening she moves in, she kind of invites herself out with them. And from the start, there is this amazing chemistry and something special happens between the three of them. The way she enters their life feels very genuine – she never feels like an interloper. For quite a while, none of them can put into words quite how they are feeling.”

Carr adds: “There is an instant admiration but everything else is quite a slow-burn thing. They both just love being with her; they like her newness and the way she has thrown everything aside to start afresh. Kieran and Gemma are at a point where they need to kickstart their relationship, and they see something amazingly courageous in Ray. In some ways, through her admiration for them, they see their relationship through new eyes and it’s quite beautiful. Gemma and Kieran start to see all the things Ray adores about their partner as a new thing again.”

All three actors hope the story will open up conversations about love, and how we live as humans, among the audience. “Gemma, Kieran and Ray are making up the rules as they go along,” says Teixeira. “But the idea of a relationship like this is really ancient. I am surrounded by friends who have tried all sorts of ways of being with each other, and one key point is honesty.

“The interesting thing is how it rubs up against conventionality. There is an episode where they introduce the idea to their families, who are shocked. That perspective might be echoed in what the audience thinks, but the story is written with so much care that I think it will help people open up about their own feelings. Quite often, we hide things – but maybe it is best to be honest. Sometimes it can take courage to speak up about who you love.”

The three points in Trigonometry’s triangle are fairly unknown actors – a risk Cooper admits she was surprised BBC2 took with this new drama. “They have been incredibly supportive of all our cast, who all have loads of experience but aren’t that well known yet,” she says. “The casting process was quite tricky because we had to ensure there was chemistry between the three of them and they all lived in different places.

Trigonometry was written by real-life couple Duncan Macmillan and Effie Woods

“If the dynamic was wrong, the whole thing would feel wrong. But we feel so much confidence in the three of them together. There was a spark from the start and that has grown into something special, as they have to really trust each other on a show like this. They have a chemistry you want to watch.”

Taking the lead director role is Greek filmmaker Athina Tsangari – whose 2015 film Chevalier was named best film at the BFI London Film Festival – in her first British television job. “She’s never worked in this country before, but she’s helped make the whole thing just magical,” says Cooper. “Our first day’s filming, which is normally quite a difficult day, was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in this job. On the night they go to the pub, there is a drag night and we had 30-odd drag queens in this pub, which was just fantastic. We are showing a very authentic London in all its glory.”

Tsangari has given the series a cinematic look and has also encouraged the actors to improvise. “We don’t know what it’s going to look like when its finished, but Athina has encouraged loads of ad-libbing,” says Teixeira. “Because we are all comfortable with our characters, she will often leave the cameras rolling after we’ve done a scene to see what else she can get from us. There is so much going on in every line – jealousy, confusion, frustration, lust – and it’s fun to play around with it.”

However, some scenes were planned in great detail, including the first three-way sex scene. “I knew there was going to be a sex scene but I had seen Athina’s work and felt comfortable she would do it well,” adds Teixeira. “It was choreographed like a dance or a moving sculpture.On the day we did it, we ate cheese and drank wine. We all felt fine about it because it is very beautiful but also very funny; there are moments where one of us can’t get our trousers off. It is agonising and awkward, just like it is for everyone.”

The eight-part series, distributed by BBC Studios, will follow the threesome as they navigate everything from getting a mortgage together and finding a big enough bed to being married in a world built only for couples. There are hopes that, if Trigonometry performs well enough, a second season could follow.

“These characters go through an enormous story arc and it does have an ending that doesn’t leave things dangling,” says Cooper. “But this is also a story that could run and run; how they navigate things and this relationship going forward is always going to be interesting.”

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In the saddle

Director Leonora Lonsdale takes DQ behind the scenes of The Pale Horse, the fifth Agatha Christie adaptation from the BBC and writer Sarah Phelps.

The last time three witches caused such a fuss, a murderous Macbeth was acting on their prophecy that he would become king in Shakespeare’s tragedy.

But another trio close to the dark arts are now taking centre stage in The Pale Horse, an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1961 novel that marks the fifth collaboration between the BBC, producer Mammoth Screen (World on Fire), Agatha Christie Limited and writer Sarah Phelps (Dublin Murders).

The two-parter stars Rufus Sewell (The Man in the High Castle) as Mark Easterbrook, who attempts to uncover the mystery of why he features on a list of names found in a dead woman’s shoe. His investigation leads him to the peculiar village of Much Deeping, and The Pale Horse, the home of a trio of rumoured witches.

Word has it that the witches can do away with wealthy relatives by sinister means. But as the bodies mount up, Mark falls under the suspicions of Detective Inspector Lejeune (Sean Pertwee). Mark’s past then collides with the present as he discovers links to three witches – played by Sheila Atim, Kathy Kiera Clarke and Rita Tushingham – but are they as powerful as they seem?

Director Leonora Londsdale took on a TV series for the first time with The Pale Horse

On that question, director Leonora Lonsdale isn’t giving anything away. “They could be ordinary women or you could feel there’s a more sinister or a darker quality,” she says. “We always said that with this trio of women, you didn’t know if they lived together five years or 500 years. They could just be eccentric ladies living in a village or real witches whose power you don’t know if they use for good or evil.”

Lonsdale was immediately drawn to Phelps’ “vivid, brutal and beautiful” take on Christie’s novel, which Phelps describes “a shivery, paranoid story about superstition, love gone wrong, guilt and grief.”

“I immediately felt like felt there was an interesting idea about beauty and horror, and how horror can sometimes be best hiding in plain sight,” Lonsdale says. “I was looking at these kind of very dark, psychological films of the 60s – Repulsion, Belle du Jour and Rosemary’s Baby – where you have all these beautiful actresses and beautiful apartments, but the secrets are kind of festering underneath.

“I really liked the idea in the script that you have Mark’s world, which is full of glamour, sexiness and fun, but underneath is this terrible past he hasn’t dealt with, and there are these witches in it. It seemed there was enormous scope to have fun visually.”

With a background in commercials and short films, Lonsdale’s work on The Pale Horse is her first for a TV show. She had originally met with Mammoth Screen about another project but was later called by her agent to say they wanted her to come back to discuss this Christie adaptation.

The Agatha Christie adaptation stars Rufus Sewell

“I had 24 hours to read the script and do my pitch in front of [executive producers] Damien Timmer and Helen Ziegler, and Addo Yoshizaki Cassuto, the producer,” she recalls. “I didn’t sleep much but I prepared this big visual document. I really connected with the material, so luckily I didn’t think too much about it. I had interviews with Mammoth, the BBC and Agatha Christie Limited and it went from there.”

The director says she was encouraged to be quite bold with her visual style from the outset – notable in some of the stylistic depiction of 1960s London – with the belief that The Pale Horse was a different type of Christie story in the sense that it was among her later books and features magic, a characteristic that has also featured in novels such as Miss Marple story Nemesis, Endless Night and Murder is Easy.

“Certainly we weren’t afraid of this being a piece that could let go, be quite experimental and be quite dark,” Lonsdale says. “Sarah’s very clever because she’s probably as subversive as Christie was in her day. Christie herself delighted in exposing the kind of dark underbelly of these characters, exposing the polished veneer, in a way Sarah does so brilliantly.

“It was important to us that it’s set in 1961, so it’s on the brink of two decades. You have the war-torn London that’s still recovering from the 1950s and the Second World War, and the London on the brink of change. Those two different worlds we wanted to have embedded in the first episode, so you see Soho and you see these kind of shady revue bars, but then you’ve also got the poverty-stricken East End streets.”

Lonsdale also sought to immerse viewers in the story as much as possible. “We had the idea that the camera would be like death, so you build this sense of creeping dread and the camera sneaks up on them [the characters],” she says. “With Rufus’s character, we started with these fairly composed, quite choreographed settings. And then, as the story develops into episode two, we go into this slightly more free, mad journey or a kind of descent, where the camera becomes more handheld, [reflecting] his paranoia.”

Lonsdale on set with actor James Fleet, who plays Oscar Venables

Filming took place around the South West of England, particularly in Bristol and at the city’s Bottle Yard Studios. The village of Bisley, in Gloucestershire, was transformed into Much Deeping.

On set, Lonsdale maximised the limited amount of time available to rehearse. “Just being able to have a conversation about how we saw these characters, how we saw their worlds and what the dynamics were was invaluable,” she explains.

“In terms of how I like to work, it depends [on the] actor. Rufus is a very instinctive actor. Usually, he and I would have a conversation and, most of the time, we would be very much on the same page. I trusted him, so a lot of it was just about giving him space. I would let the cameras roll in between takes and he would just keep going and going and, eventually, we would know when we hit the sweet spot. We had a really good connection and it allowed us a sense of freedom.”

A traditional pagan parade that rolls through the centre of Much Deeping in episode one provided one of the challenges facing the director, with “many, many” extras brought in to fill out the crowd scenes. “But my costume designer Charlotte Mitchell just went mad for it and was bringing in animal masks, creating them herself and designing different costumes,” Lonsdale says.

“We spoke about the formation of the parade, how it would move and what would happen within the scene while all of this giant procession was going on. We sketched it out and spent a lot of time planning camera moves, because you have very limited time to shoot it. There was a lot of organisation and a lot of rehearsals, and it was fun in the end.”

The Pale Horse’s pagan parade scene

The Pale Horse, coproduced in the US by Amazon Prime Video, follows in the footsteps of Phelps‘ previous Christie adaptations – And Then There Were NoneThe Witness for the Prosecution, Ordeal by Innocence and The ABC Murders. Lonsdale says the latest in the series, distributed by Endeavor Content, stands apart for its 60s period setting and its compelling characters.

“We’ve got such an incredible cast – Rufus is incredible, Kaya [Scodelario as Hemia] is amazing, Sean Pertwee and the witches. It’s really the sunshine horror of the quintet,” she says. “I think and hope there’s a beauty to it and that it’s a really entertaining and interesting psychological look at Mark Easterbrook.”

But not even witches could see where this story is heading. “It’s going to surprise a lot of people,” Lonsdale adds. “I don’t think you can imagine where it’s going to take to you.”

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Courting controversy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Turning the Scrooge

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

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

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

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

Guy Pearce as Ebenezer Scrooge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Director Nick Murphy pictured with actor Stephen Graham between takes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas dinner for the Cratchit family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Trial by television

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Trial of Christine Keeler used Bath for location shooting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Taking responsibility

Documentary maker Nick Holt is moving into drama for the first time with Skins writer Sean Buckley on BBC2’s one-off Responsible Child, based on a tremendously challenging real-life trial of a young boy. DQ met them.

Nick Holt is best known as a documentary maker. Often groundbreaking, frequently award winning, his factual projects usually focus on the British legal system and include Channel 4’s 2013 commission The Murder Trial, which was the first time that cameras had been allowed into a court case in the UK.

He followed that up with hybrid project The Trial: A Murder in the Family, which combined real prosecutors and defenders with a jury made up of members of the public and actors playing the parts of the defendant and witnesses as a device to get inside a jury room and hear the conversations that took place.

In the process of this, while working in a Scottish court one afternoon, Holt spotted a 12-year-old child waiting for a case to be called. “I saw this young boy with a couple of lawyers I know and just thought ‘Gosh, he looks young to be a witness,’” he says.

“I later found out he was the accused, and I just thought that was extraordinary. It led me down a path of researching the age of criminal responsibility, which in the UK is 10. I couldn’t believe it was so low. It’s the youngest in Europe, younger than Russia, younger than North Korea.”

Responsible Child stars 12-year-old Billy Barratt, pictured here alongside Michelle Fairley

Holt subsequently attended the trial of the boy who was being tried with his older brother for the murder of his mother’s partner. From this comes Responsible Child, a feature-length film for BBC2 being produced by Kudos and 72 Films and distributed by Kudos’s parent company Endemol Shine. But this time, it’s a drama – Holt’s first.

“Several things about this case would be incredibly difficult to get a documentary lens onto,” Holt explains. “It would be very difficult to make a film around a child that’s gone through this because you wouldn’t necessarily get access to them. It’s difficult to film around the court and film the accused anyway but it’s even harder when the accused is a child. Getting first-hand accounts of children who have been through this is difficult because they’re often not named, and you don’t know where they are.”

Names have been changed but dramatic licence has been kept to a minimum. “I was keen to sail as close to the real case as possible – I knew the trial well and there was so much to go on. The story itself was complex and extraordinary enough,” says Holt, who met with the prosecutors, defenders and family involved as part of his process.

“I wanted to understand how you defend and prosecute somebody so young. There’s a lot more to the case than you hear in court, there are more forces at play and context to understand, so I was keen to find out about that,” he says.

Director Nick Holt chats to young star Barratt on set

“Working in documentaries, we film in the real world and our contributors are real people so I’m comfortable and used to meeting the people at the heart of the story and that’s no different to this. They’re supportive of anything that helps a wider audience understand this process and the challenges of putting a child on trial for murder and your child being on trial for murder.”

The drama will inevitably raise questions among its audience about the rights, wrongs and morality of setting the legal age of responsibility so young. But there’s far more pressure on a scripted piece to be entertaining than there would be on an informative factual piece and that line is a tough one to walk in a case like this.

“A drama is entertainment but it’s also an opportunity for people to engage in challenging aspects of the world we live in, and this is certainly one of those,” Holt says. “I don’t think many people understand that we put children as young as 10 on trial for murder. This might increase that understanding and people can debate whether that’s a good idea or bad idea, or whether a piece of law in place since 1963 should remain in place in light of new learnings about how a child’s brain develops. We can shine light on that through the specific story of one child. You engage with him and that drives the story, but at the same time you get an idea of how we deal with these children in the system, where the system falls short and where it does well. We can do both.”

Viewers will recognise Tom Burke from Strike

Casting was obviously going to be crucial to the project, and fraught with challenges for the casting director Daniel Edwards. A boy who could handle mature themes, difficult scenes and being in every frame of the drama was required to play Ray, the 12-year-old at the centre of the story, but cast him too soon and a growth spurt or broken voice mid-production could be problematic. Twelve-year-old Billy Barratt (Blinded by the Light, The White Princess) bagged the role.

The cast also includes Michelle Fairley (Game of Thrones), Tom Burke (Strike), Stephen Campbell Moore (The History Boys), Owen McDonnell (Killing Eve), Shaun Dingwall (Noughts & Crosses), Debbie Honeywood (Vera), Angela Wynter (Les Misérables) and James Tarpey (Our Robot Overlords).

“We were very clear from the start we wanted it to be from the accused child’s point of view and for that child to have a voice,” Holt explains. “It’s incredibly difficult in court – they may get a chance to give evidence or be cross examined, but it’s very rare for them to get a chance to show and share the world they’re living in. This was a good opportunity to draw that out and bring the child’s experience into the open.”

“With this story, not only do you have a young boy in every single scene, you have him in a story that’s incredibly raw and intense and involves a brutal murder. He needs to look quite adult and it’s difficult to find all that in the same place. With Billy, as soon as we saw him he had those aspects. He’s incredibly mature for his age. There is a heart-wrenching scene I find difficult to watch even now. He was superb in that but afterwards, would be eating sweets and watching TV no problem.”

Killing Eve’s Owen McDonnell also features in the drama

The next issue, and something else that was new to Holt, was attaching a writer. Sean Buckley, who’d cut his teeth on E4’s youth-skewing drama Skins, got the nod. “I asked around for names that might be interested in something like this. I met Shaun and he immediately chimed and had some connection with this boy’s story,” Holt says. “It was really important to have a writer who was happy to meet real people – lawyers, psychologists – and embrace that process. The story mirrored so closely what happened, it couldn’t be a writer that said ‘I’ll see you in a year’s time’.”

“It’s a tough subject, a subject I knew little about, but one I instinctively wanted to know more about,” Buckley tells DQ. “When I heard the details, it unsettled me alongside the whole issue of the age of criminal responsibility. I felt compelled to want to know more and to research, explore and find the drama.

“I’d written for very young characters when I worked on Skins where you would take a character specifically for an episode and take a life through. For whatever reason, one I’ve never quite gleaned, I seem to find the life and follow it closely. I had actor training, so I approach character very closely. I brought those elements into it and it enabled me to build the character on a very close human level alongside the very intensively researched procedural legal drama.”

The job came with huge writing challenges – both sticking closely to an actual court case and also being respectful to the people involved. It’s been a labour that has affected Buckley and stayed with him.

“Initially you have to try to forget all that and not let it get in the way. You do your research, trust your nose and where your research is taking you and trust your imagination as well – an intimate drama like this is where those two things meet,” Buckley says. “It’s all about the parts of the plot you choose to focus on that will illuminate the boy’s character. For me it was about moments in relationships which gave me anchors through the story, rather than the procedural elements of it.

“I hope it will connect with people head and heart. I hope it opens the question and the possibility of conversation above and beyond the headlines you’ve perhaps seen about other such cases. The intention and the aspiration with it is the audience feels, for 90 minutes, they might have lived the life of a boy behind a similar headline and all its nuance.

“In terms of work I’ve done to now I’ve never been so affected by a piece – and continue to be so. It’s been very consuming, intellectually and emotionally.”

As well as casting, and attaching a writer, there were plenty of other differences between unscripted and scripted for Holt to get his head around once he’d successfully pitched it to Kudos MD and executive producer Karen Wilson. “I’d never been through the process of working up a treatment or attaching a writer before,” Holt says.

“I’ve been on this for five years and that’s very different from documentaries. The thing that’s seductive about docs is you literally grab a camera, jump in the car and off you go filming. Drama has many more people involved. I was amazed how the pace and tempo was different. In docs you’re used to being light on your feet. In drama you have actors, locations, and a great deal of work goes into creating that whereas in docs you just enter that world and hug reality.”

So has it put him off? “No, I’d love to do another if the right thing came along. I’ve always been attracted to dramas that are established in the real world.”

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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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Worlds apart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writer and exec producer Peter Harness on set

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

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

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

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

Robert Carlyle also appears in the drama

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

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

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


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

The series was filmed around Liverpool, England

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

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

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

The War of the Worlds premieres on BBC1 this Sunday

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

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

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Digging deeper

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

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

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

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

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

Gold Digger stars Ben Barnes alongside Julia Ormond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barnes as Logan in HBO’s Westworld

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

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

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

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

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Fired up

Sean Bean, Helen Hunt and Lesley Manville head the cast of World on Fire, a seven-part series that follows ordinary people from across Europe as the continent becomes consumed by the Second World War.

In this DQ interview, writer Peter Bowker and executive producer Helen Ziegler reveal the origins of the series and explain how it follows the lives of multinational people on all sides of the global conflict.

They also discuss how they tried to distance the show from any elements of nostalgia, building the series around a love story between a British translator (Jonah Hauer-King) who falls in love with a Polish waitress (Zofia Wichłacz), despite his relationship with factory worker and singer Lois (Julia Brown) back home.

World on Fire is produced by Mammoth Screen for BBC1, and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.

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Materials world

Based on Philip Pullman’s acclaimed novels, HBO and BBC drama His Dark Materials aims to set a new benchmark for fantasy series. The cast and writer Jack Thorne reveal their approach to writing and filming the adaptation.

Fantasy novels have always proved popular source material for films and TV series, but the unprecedented success of HBO’s Game of Thrones has sent the genre into overdrive in recent years, with commissioners around the world looking to land their own fantasy epic that can match the majesty of the George RR Martin adaptation.

Recent book-to-screen fantasy titles have included MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles, based on Terry Brooks’ novel series, and Starz drama American Gods, adapted from the book by Neil Gaiman.

Jack Thorne

The streamers have also been getting in on the act. Amazon, which spent big on adapting Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens earlier this year, is taking its spending to the next level with its series version of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Netflix, meanwhile, is taking a major swing in the genre with The Witcher. Starring Henry Cavill (Man of Steel) and based on Andrzej Sapkowski’s series of books, the show will be released later this year.

Now, after Game of Thrones concluded with its eighth season earlier this year and with prequel House of the Dragon on its way, HBO is aiming to set a new benchmark in the genre with an ambitious series adaptation of Philip Pullman novel trilogy His Dark Materials, coproduced with UK pubcaster BBC1.

Debuting in the UK this Sunday and stateside the day after, the first season of the series – a second run of which is already in production – is based on the first book in the series, Northern Lights (published in the US as The Golden Compass).

Unfolding across eight one-hour episodes, made by New Line Cinema and Bad Wolf (A Discovery of Witches), His Dark Materials is set in an alternative reality that features multiple parallel universes, with some worlds more like our own than others. The story centres on a young girl called Lyra, who lives in a world where all humans have talking animal companions known as dæmons, which are the physical manifestation of the human soul.

The first season follows Lyra, who lives with other orphans alongside scholars at Oxford’s fictional Jordan College, as she discovers a secret involving her uncle, Lord Asriel, and the villainous Mrs Coulter. After Lyra’s friend goes missing, she leaves Jordan College and embarks on a dangerous journey, uncovering links between a spate of child kidnappings and a mysterious substance known as Dust.

His Dark Materials stars Dafne Keen, who recently appeared in X-Men film Logan, as Lyra

As adaptations go, there is little fantasy IP more revered than Pullman’s young-adult trilogy. And after the enormous disappointment surrounding the most recent screen outing based on the books – 2007 movie flop The Golden Compass – fans of the novels will be hoping for much better from the BBC and HBO.

The daunting task of penning the adaptation has been taken on by prolific British screenwriter and playwright Jack Thorne, whose most recent TV credits include Channel 4 drama miniseries Kiri and The Accident. The latter premiered on the UK broadcaster last week.

Thorne admits that when he was initially approached about the project, his first thought was to “run for the hills.” As well as being wary of the huge pressure of living up to the source material, he was just months away from the opening of his West End version of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter & The Cursed Child and also had a pregnant wife to think about.

However, clearly a fan of Pullman’s work, Thorne soon changed his mind. “They’re just so perfect, these books, and the idea of anyone else doing them… I would’ve been insanely jealous,” he says.

The hard work then began, with Thorne returning to the trilogy he had previously read twice and consuming all three books over the course of four days. He then met with exec producer Jane Tranter, co-founder of Wales-based Bad Wolf, and agreed to board the project.

From left: Exec producers Dan McCulloch and Jane Tranter, producer Laurie Borg and Philip Pullman

After that, Thorne and Tranter discussed their plans for the series with Pullman, keen to be as faithful to his work as possible. “The important thing we said from the very moment we met Philip was, ‘We want to tell this story,’” Thorne says. “I wanted to disappear; I didn’t want to be visible as a writer. I wanted to represent the soul of the books as well as I possibly could.

“Where we’ve added stuff or changed stuff, it’s been because we either thought that there was something we could do a bit differently to fit the screen a bit more, or because we were aware that we were going on a longer journey with this and maybe there were elements from later in the books that we could bring forward and help make our story sing.”

In one of many revelations offering an idea of the level of perfectionism applied to the project, Thorne says the first episode went through a whopping 46 drafts. “We went down a lot of wrong corridors, and sat in those corridors and wept,” he jokes.

“These books are monstrously good. When you’re given an adaptation, there are two forms. There are ones where you go, ‘There’s a seed of something brilliant here that I can play with and make work.’ And there are other ones where you go, ‘My job is just to get this as close to [the original] as possible on the screen.’

“I do think these books are perfect. And when you’re given perfection, that’s scary as shit.”

Hollywood actor James McAvoy plays Lord Asriel

The cast of His Dark Materials provides further evidence of the scale of this series, with the production able to attract internationally recognisable actors including James McAvoy (Split), Ruth Wilson (The Affair), Clarke Peters (The Wire) and Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator and star of hit Broadway musical Hamilton.

Many viewers will recognise British-Spanish actor Dafne Keen, who stars as Lyra, from her remarkable turn as young mutant Laura in 2017 X-Men movie Logan.

The 14-year-old reveals that she didn’t expect to land the part following her first audition, which took place when her face was swollen from a jellyfish sting. But a subsequent audition alongside Wilson, who plays Mrs Coulter, gave her a better feel for the character. And despite Keen being quite physically different from Pullman’s description of a blonde, curly-haired Lyra, the young actor believes they share many personality traits.

“We’re very nutty, both of us, very curious, quite loud and quite cheeky,” says Keen, who admits to feeling the pressure of portraying such a beloved character. “You tell yourself that you don’t think about that, but you genuinely do think about it. In your brain, you’re going, ‘Oh my God, someone save me!’

“When I was doing it, I was thinking there would probably be people who would be like, ‘This girl’s terrible, I hate her, she’s not doing it justice,’” Keen continues, before adding – like a true millennial – “sorry, not sorry.”

Ruth Wilson gets a chance to play ‘evil’ as Mrs Coulter

Sat alongside Keen is Wilson, who assures her young co-star that her concerns are unfounded. Recalling that she “knew instantly that [Keen] was the one” for the role upon that first shared audition, Wilson says: “She brought such an amazing energy that I thought, ‘I’ve got to put some of that into my performance.’ She’s totally at one with herself and there’s an animal side to her, which has got to be what Mrs Coulter was like when she was young… I’m taking notes from her.”

Keen and Wilson share plenty of screen time, with Mrs Coulter initially presenting herself to Lyra as a kindly benefactor before her true nature starts to be revealed. For those familiar with the books, it’s hard to imagine a more spot-on casting choice for Mrs Coulter than Wilson, who previously excelled as a character with a very dark side in the shape of Alice in Luther, the BBC detective series starring Idris Elba.

Far from being concerned about her “evil” Mrs Coulter frightening young viewers, Wilson identifies a surprising benefit: “My nieces and nephews won’t want me to babysit again, and I’m OK with that,” she jokes.

Revealing that she was instantly attracted to the character, Wilson notes: “She’s so mysterious, unknowable and constantly unpredictable, and that’s why it’s such a joy to play. She’s a master manipulator and she knows what she’s doing. She’s incredibly intelligent and driven and she knows what she wants.”

Despite the well-documented failings of 2007’s The Golden Compass, one area in which it did succeed was in its recreation of Pullman’s dæmons, winning the Oscar for Best Visual Effects.

The dæmons were operated by puppeteers during filming and then realised via CGI

Describing the creatures as “fundamental to every scene,” Wilson is confident this production has brought them to life equally well, while Peters, who plays The Master of Jordan College, is full of praise for the artists behind the dæmons. “What was awesome about it was the puppeteers and the way they served us as actors,” he says.

One scene from episode one sees The Master interacting with a dæmon in the form of a leopard. “It could have just been a puppet, but the puppeteer made it breathe and moved it around so it would get comfortable,” says the actor, best known for playing detective Lester Freamon in seminal HBO drama The Wire. “The face of the puppet looks so awesome that you didn’t know whether you were really looking at a leopard or not. So the experience of acting with something that, in the past, would have just been in your imagination was supported by wonderful technicians.”

One of the main criticisms of The Golden Compass movie was the extent to which it shied away from the religious themes in the source material, with Pullman’s trilogy offering a barely veiled criticism of Catholicism.

Executive producer Tranter insists that no punches have been pulled in this adaptation. “We planned to adapt the books as the books were written, so we will go to the heights of the discourse that the books go to,” she says.

“One of the beauties of working for the BBC and HBO is that no-one is fearful. In fact, everyone is embracing of the journey the books go on. You don’t work for the BBC and HBO and do a vanilla adaptation that cuts through the middle and doesn’t tackle, right from the get-go, every note that the trilogy has got to sound.”

The Wire star Clarke Peters as The Master

Thorne, meanwhile, believes the themes of His Dark Materials are now more relevant than ever. Speaking on the day Extinction Rebellion protestors were controversially removed from central London streets, he says: “We live in scary times. There’s so much in Philip’s book that’s about where we’re at now, even more than when he first wrote it.

“The thing that I most admire about his telling is that there’s an obvious story to be told – Asriel’s story – and he doesn’t tell it; he tells Lyra’s. That choice between following the person who’s intent on greatness, Asriel, and abandoning that in order to follow the person intent on goodness, in Lyra, is such a bold and brilliant choice.”

He also compares Lyra to young climate change activist Greta Thunberg, noting: “There are quite a lot of similarities there.”

Sounding wise beyond her years, Keen agrees that her character is a strong role model. “What’s really relevant is that Lyra is growing up in a world of men, in a college, which is basically what is happening to any girl in 2019,” she notes.

“The most amazing thing about Lyra, and what every single girl should take from her, is don’t be scared – go out there and be yourself. Because if you are a force of nature, which is what Lyra is, you will make yourself seen and heard.”

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Butterfly effect

From the makers of Chernobyl comes Giri/Haji, a drama set between London and Tokyo that explores how a single murder affects two cities. DQ visits the set of the Netflix and BBC series.

It’s a freezing cold evening in central London, where news crews and bewildered passers-by mill around, wondering what has just happened. It is the aftermath of the Battle of Soho, the action-packed set piece that sees the multinational cast of Netflix and BBC2’s Giri/Haji taking up arms in an explosive bout of score-settling.

This violent reckoning is the climax of events set in motion by a single murder in London that shatters the fragile truce between Tokyo’s Yakuza gangs. Dispatched to investigate is careworn detective and family man Kenzo (Takehiro Hira), chosen because of the suspected involvement of his wayward brother Yuto (Yosuke Kubozuka).

Once in the British capital, Kenzo is swept up into a dizzying world of uneasy alliances (with Kelly Macdonald’s lonely cop Sarah and rent boy Rodney, who actor Will Sharpe likens to “a peacock you find in a skip”) and dangerous foes (Charlie Creed-Miles’s remorseless British gangster Abbot and his weak-willed American ally Vickers, played by Justin Long). All will face the consequences of past decisions over the following eight episodes.

There’s a lot going on in Giri/Haji (which translates as Duty/Shame), from Bafta-nominated screenwriter Joe Barton (Humans). Blending Yakuza thriller and kitchen-sink drama, character study and even impressionistic animation, its very novelty proved irresistible to Macdonald, as did the opportunity to reunite with director A Child in Time director Julian Farino.

Giri Haji stars Kelly Macdonald and Kenzo Mori

“Julian phoned me up to ask if I’d read it,” she says. “I’d been told it was a Tokyo crime story that bleeds into London, but it’s so much more than that. It takes you off on unexpected tangents. The bonds that people share are unusual and it’s constantly surprising – all the more so, given Joe knew nothing about Japanese culture when he started, but that’s the confidence of youth, I guess!”

The initial concept was a loose one dating back almost a decade, inspired by Barton’s then-girlfriend taking a masters in forensic crime science and being intrigued by a middle-aged Japanese man sitting in silence at the back of the lecture hall. “It turned out he was a detective in the Tokyo police department,” says Barton. “There was something about that image that felt very cool and mysterious – it was an interesting protagonist for a high-end crime drama I might write in eight years time…”

Sister Pictures founder Jane Featherstone (Chernobyl) was intrigued, joining Barton to work up a script commissioned, then rejected, by another broadcaster. “I think they were afraid of how the Japanese element might land,” she says. “None of us know the answer to that yet, but both BBC and Netflix were excited by doing something a bit different. Netflix was keen to have something that worked in an emerging market like Japan, while the BBC, like all public service broadcasters, needs bold ideas to stand out more than ever.”

Those ideas are embodied by an opening 25 minutes featuring neither the English language nor anglophone actors. DQ finds the man required to carry much of those first scenes seeking sanctuary (and warmth) inside Soho Square’s Huguenot church. Largely unknown outside his native Japan, Takehiro Hira is excited about a role that could make his name internationally.

“Forty-something, family person, quite demanding parents – when I first read the script, Kenzo was me,” he muses. “Detective stories in Japan are usually black and white, but Kenzo has dark sides and personal baggage, which was so refreshing. I was giving a bit more than Julian wanted at first, so it was a wonderful challenge to learn to act more minimally than is usual on Japanese television.”

The show comes from Bafta-nominated screenwriter Joe Barton

Hira is supported by a stellar Japanese cast – not that the Giri/Haji team knew that while they were holding auditions. “We were completely ignorant!” laughs Farino, who split directing duties with Australian director Ben Chessell. “Masahiro Motoki [Yakuza boss Fukuhara] is one of Japan’s biggest movie stars and Yosuke is a huge name over there. I was struck by the unbelievable respect, precision and preparation of Japanese actors: they were word-perfect every time, which was humbling because not every British actor is like that.”

Thanks in part to Giri/Haji’s intentionally slippery grasp of genre, finding the tone wasn’t straightforward. “I get a lot of scripts where I feel I’ve shot them before I’ve finished reading them,” says Farino. “This was the opposite, a genuine journey – it respects the audience from the off. By degrees, you define it. Everyone has scars and moral complexity, but the pleasures were too great to make it noirish and miserable, and I didn’t want it too verité, so we didn’t go handheld.

“I describe it as a few inches off the ground, slightly heightened. [DOP] David Odd and I had never shot on such wide lenses before; we felt like we were shooting a wide shot and close-up at the same time.”

Two months filming in Japan proved a challenge both linguistically and logistically, but Farino, speaking not a word of Japanese, thrived on the experience. “It was an absolute pleasure. When you’re directing, you’re trying to get the feeling for a scene rather than hanging on the dialogue, so it felt surprisingly natural. We felt we were seeing little pockets of Tokyo you wouldn’t usually see, trying not to do the neon lights thing. It felt more like downtown Manhattan than Tokyo in the movies: washed-out browns and greys,”

“Tokyo isn’t easy to film in,” Barton adds. “In the UK, you can shut down a street for a bit and annoy everyone, but in Japan you can’t disturb people. The permissions process meant you needed a lot of time to set everything up; just finding somewhere we could put cars on a pavement was an incredible challenge. But weirdly, they’re very relaxed about firearms. In the UK, guys follow you around and lock up the gun when you’re not using it. In Japan, we filmed a gunfight in this big house and there were guns everywhere – you’d go to the toilet and there’d be one left by the sink. One actor was allowed to take one home to practice.”

The target for Giri/Haji was to stand out in a crowded landscape and break new ground for British television. “Very little British drama easily lends itself to epic,” says Featherstone. “We struggle with that in this country, but Joe found this cultural connection freed us up to think in a slightly different way about storytelling. We wouldn’t have been so brave if had been a purely British story.”

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Dark tales

Known for her frequent Agatha Christie adaptations, writer Sarah Phelps reveals how she transformed Tana French’s Irish crime novels into BBC drama Dublin Murders.

Sarah Phelps is a master of the literary adaptation. Best known for her TV reworkings of Agatha Christie novels, Phelps has so far brought four of the beloved author’s stories to the BBC – The ABC Murders, Ordeal by Innocence, And Then There Were None and The Witness for the Prosecution – with a fifth, The Pale Horse, to come.

The screenwriter, playwright and producer has also proved a dab hand at Dickens, having penned miniseries versions of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist as well as multiple episodes of Dickensian, again all for the BBC.

For her latest book-to-screen project, however, Phelps has turned to altogether darker and more contemporary source material, taking on Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad book series.

Set, as you might have guessed, in and around the Irish capital, Dublin Murders takes its lead from the first two novels in French’s six-part collection, In the Woods and The Likeness. Made for the BBC, Irish pubcaster RTÉ and US cablenet Starz, the show takes place in 2006, centring on detective partners Rob Reilly and Cassie Maddox, played by Killian Scott and Sarah Greene.

The series is produced by Euston Films, Veritas Entertainment Group and Element Pictures, with Fremantle distributing.

Dublin Murders revolves around detective partners Cassie and Rob, played by Sarah Greene and Killian Scott

Rob and Cassie are tasked with investigating the murder of a teenager Katy Devlin, whose body is found on a makeshift altar in the middle of a woodland archaeological site – the same location where, 21 years earlier, three children went missing and only one came back alive.

It’s soon revealed, however, that Rob’s connection to the case isn’t merely professional and that the troubled detective’s deeply traumatic childhood makes this a very personal investigation.

As the eight-episode drama unfolds and the partners track a killer, Cassie, too, finds herself dealing with her past, and secrets relating to the dark, mysterious history of the woods and the unusual inhabitants of the neighbouring estate – including Katy’s family – come to the fore.

While adapting two books into a single story may sound like a daunting task, Phelps says it was a natural approach to take: “Tana herself said that she’d always thought of the books as being in pairs, and when I was reading them, I thought it would be a really great idea to sort of plait them together.”

With In the Woods focusing more on Rob and The Likeness more on Cassie, Phelps wanted the “consequences” of each story to “impact on [both characters] and really intensify their relationship within the investigation.”

The show comes from serial adapter Sarah Phelps, pictured here at C21’s Content London last year

And although the series is a mashup of both books, Phelps believes the story has stayed more faithful to the source material than some of her adaptations of single titles. “I think I’ve stuck to the plot, which may surprise people who know that I like to deviate from plots as much as possible,” she jokes. “Obviously there are deviations and obviously I change things, because one of the strengths of Tana’s writing is it’s such an immersive world.

“Her books are very ‘interior’ – you get to know every single, tiny little corner of each character, because you’re in their skin. You’re in their brain, in all the tiny little fissures of their mind with all the things they really don’t want you to know. In TV, you need to show, rather than tell, so that was one of the challenges. Taking the read experience to the watched experience is always a challenge – but if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t do it.”

As well as adaptations, Phelps clearly has an affinity for detective stories, with Dublin Murders coming on the back of her multiple Christie works – most recently, The ABC Murders saw John Malkovich play her iconic investigator character Poirot. But what was it about French’s books that particularly appealed? “One of the things I found really exciting about them is that, within the genre of detective thrillers, they’re also modern reimaginings of really ancient tales,” she says.

“For example, In the Woods is a modern reimagining of the ancient tale of the children who go under the hill. When you peel it down to its roots… it’s infanticide – all these dark tales are invented to cover up some terrible crime.

“It was really exciting to think that this is a detective thriller, this is a murder mystery and this is also a really deep dive into the stories that we tell ourselves, that we’ve told ourselves forever. Why do we tell those stories? To keep away the beast in the dark as we huddle round the fire and hope we’re not going to die before tomorrow.”

Although set in the Irish capital, the series was largely filmed in Belfast, Northern Ireland

The theme of darkness is something that crops up frequently as Phelps talks about the series. Discussing entering the woods as a metaphor for descending into madness, she says: “I really like the idea that there’s this place where you think it’s familiar – it’s where you pitch your tent, it’s where you go and smoke a joint, where you build a den – but actually there’s something else going on.

“I’m always really attracted to stories where we think we know everything. You’ve got electric light, a torch on your phone… but when the lights go out, what we think and what we believe is a very different story. We’re great when the lights are on; we’re rational, we’re brilliant. But you turn the lights off in a dark place – in the country – it’s really dark. And I guarantee, within a minute, you’ll be thinking all sorts of shit.”

The writer adds that she’s always keen to pursue the idea of “who we are when the lights are on and who we are when they’re turned off – when everything goes wrong, when everything stops working. Who are we then? What do we believe when we’re out in the woods and all you can hear is a creak? That’s really what this show is about.”

The show opens with a flash-forward several months into the future, featuring a desolate Rob in a difficult conversation with Cassie, their relationship apparently broken beyond repair. This time shift is indicative of things to come, with Dublin Murders frequently swapping between 2006 and 1985 to reveal more about Rob’s past.

The production team took several steps to ensure viewers would immediately know what era they were seeing without it being literally spelled out on screen or awkwardly inserted into the dialogue.

Dublin Murders will air on Starz in the US after premiering on BBC1 in the UK

Saul Dibb, who directs the first two episodes, explains: “We took the idea of two different types of film that were present in 2006 and 1985 and we tried to replicate them. One is a very common Fuji stock from 2006, which is a bit cleaner and greener, while the one from 1985 is a lot grainier.

“We tried to make it subtle as well – it wasn’t a massive change, but a lot of other incremental things in the costumes, the performances, the writing and the language. It needed to be clear without the thing of turning the dial to no colour or super colour,” adds Dibb, who also exec produces alongside Phelps, Euston Films MD Kate Harwood, Noemi Spanos, Ed Guiney, Alan Gasmer, Peter Jaysen, Elizabeth Kilgariff and Tommy Bulfin.

Phelps picks up: “The colours in the 1985 sequences always make you think of the photo of your holidays that you’ve forgotten and you find it down the back of a skirting board. There’s a shock to it – immediately, you can taste Angel Delight. It was really shocking when I first saw the rushes, like seeing something you’d forgotten you’d lost.”

Although filming largely took place in Northern Ireland capital Belfast, Dublin Murders is notable for having an almost entirely Irish cast and crew, which certainly helps achieve the authentically Irish feel its creators strived for.

“The writing feels very, very real, and what it’s showing is not a stereotypical view,” says Dibb. “Partly, the challenge was shooting in Belfast and then keeping the look consistent to Dublin, but certainly in 2006 Dublin was a very fast-moving city, and that’s what was captured in the writing.

Dublin Murders’ cast and crew are almost entirely Irish

“It was exciting to be able to say, ‘We’re going to root this story, which has these pretty extraordinary characters and situations, in a very real world, with characters that you can engage with.’”

Keen to avoid anything like “the disastrous episode when EastEnders went to Ireland, over which we should draw a thick veil,” Phelps notes: “I wanted Ireland as it’s seen through the eyes of people who absolutely know it.”

As such, she felt it important to avoid landmarks and to show a side to the country less familiar to those from elsewhere. “It’s like when you’re watching London and you see St Paul’s. For Christ’s sake, I know what I’m looking at – let’s see Peckham!

“There’s an unfamiliarity to it. You don’t really know where you are and you’ve got to trust the people who are telling you the story, your guides. You’re like Dante in the Inferno.”

Dublin Murders debuts on BBC1 tonight before hitting US screens on Starz on November 10. And while its impact on viewers is yet to be seen, Dublin Murders has already quite literally left its mark on Phelps, who reveals she has tattoos dedicated to the show. One is of a set of antlers, a recurring visual theme in the show, and the other is of a hawthorn leaf, whose back story is rather more complicated.

The writer describes watching an episode of BBC factual series Countryfile in which a man in rural Northern Ireland was protesting against plans to cut down a hawthorn tree as part of a motorway expansion. The man warned that, because of the tree’s magical properties, cutting it down would have dire consequences.

“This guy wouldn’t back off. He kept going and going – ‘You cannot do this. This hawthorn tree is a magic tree. There’s going to be chaos.’ You’d think that, at some point, he’d be carted off,” Phelps recalls.

But it turns out the man got his way, with the motorway ending up curving around the tree, because, as Phelps sees it: “At some really deep metaphysical level, every single person, from contracting to engineering and planning – high government level – at some point woke up at four o’clock in the morning and went, ‘What if he’s fucking right? What if he’s right about the hawthorn tree?’

“And I thought, ‘That’s the story [of Dublin Murders].’ We think we’re modern, we’ve got everything. But deep down, what if? What if?”

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The word on Worzel

Iconic literary scarecrow Worzel Gummidge is returning to television in a pair of hour-long episodes written and directed by and starring Mackenzie Crook. The Office and Detectorists star tells DQ about becoming Worzel and adapting Barbara Euphan Todd’s novels.

One of the UK’s best-known comedy actors, Mackenzie Crook made his name in Ricky Gervais’s seminal workplace mockumentary The Office before taking on roles in Skins, Game of Thrones and Britannia, as well as the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

More recently, the Bafta-winning writer has become equally known for his work behind the scenes, writing and directing acclaimed comedy Detectorists, in which he and Toby Jones starred as a pair of eccentric metal detectorists.

Crook is now once again combining writing, directing and acting in his latest project, a modern-day adaptation of Barbara Euphan Todd’s classic Worzel Gummidge novels, which first introduced the walking, talking scarecrow that was previously brought to life by Jon Pertwee between 1979 and 1981.

Mackenzie Crook

Commissioned by BBC1 in the UK, Crook’s adaptation comprises two episodes, each an hour long. The first, The Scarecrow of Scatterbrook, sees Susan and John, new arrivals to the town, first encounter Worzel Gummidge, the scarecrow of Ten Acre Field. In the second episode, The Green Man, the titular character arrives in Scatterbrook and is unhappy to discover Worzel has been mixing with humans.

Worzel Gummidge is a Leopard Pictures production in association with Treasure Trove, Lola Entertainment and Pidgeon Entertainment, with Kew Media Distribution handling international sales. Kristian Smith (Detectorists), Lisa Thomas, Patrick D Pidgeon and Eric S Rollman executive produce.

Here, Crook tells DQ about his approach to adapting the novels, juggling writing and directing duties and getting into character.

What is your relationship with the Worzel Gummidge novels?
Before being approached by Leopard Pictures, I hadn’t read the novels or seen any of the earlier Worzel Gummidge TV series. As children, my sisters and I were discouraged from watching commercial TV so I missed out on a lot of my friends’ favourite shows. I read the cartoon strip in Look-in Magazine, but that was as far as my relationship with Worzel went.

Why did you want to adapt them?
It felt like an evolution from Detectorists: stories connected to the landscape and the myth and lore of the countryside but with a whole new layer of magic realism.

How was the project developed with Leopard Pictures and the BBC?
Kristian Smith, MD of Leopard Pictures, came to me when Leopard secured the rights to the novels and asked if I was interested in getting involved. Soon after I began to read the books, an idea of a new interpretation began to occur and I could picture the world and the tone almost immediately. Even before the books, Barbara Euphan Todd wrote Worzel Gummidge radio scripts for BBC Children’s Hour, and the first television adaptation was on the BBC in 1953. So it felt right to bring it home.

Crook was in the make-up chair at 05.00 every day to transform into Worzel Gummidge

Were you always keen to write and direct the films, as well as star in them?
Yes, I had a very clear idea of how everything should look and the rhythm of the dialogue and jokes, so directing as well was a natural choice.

What has been your writing process in adapting two novels for the films?
Our films take their themes and characters from several of the books, rather than being direct adaptations. There are 10 Worzel Gummidge books, which I read, noting down the appealing storylines and developing our plots from there.

How do we first meet Worzel in the series and how would you describe him as a character?
We first meet Worzel in his beloved Ten Acre Field doing what he does best. I stuck quite closely to the beginning of the first novel. Worzel is kind and funny, prone to mood swings, naive in some ways and wise in others. He’s concerned about the plight of the countryside around him and feels a responsibility to help.

What was your experience of directing yourself?
I’m usually uncomfortable watching myself on screen but with Gummidge it’s somehow easier because I’m very fond of him and he’s so much fun to play. I asked our producer, Georgie Fallon, to keep an eye on my performance and give me notes.

How did writing, directing and acting for Worzel Gummidge compare with your similar roles on Detectorists?
This was a bit more gruelling, as I was on screen for so much of it. Added to which, the lengthy prosthetics application meant starting three hours before everyone else.

The actor, writer and director rose to prominence as Gareth Keenan in The Office

What challenges did you face in the writing or production stage?
The scripts are set 90% outdoors in a blazing hot summer. It rained for the first nine days of the shoot, including on the days we shot the big village fete scene. That was disheartening at the time but, through the magic of lighting, editing, grading and so on, it all looks as though it was shot in glorious weather.

How involved were you in Worzel’s look and what considerations were involved?
It was his look that came to me first. Before I even began writing, I started sketching his costume and turnip head. I knew I wanted him in an old military redcoat that I imagined he found in a long-forgotten soldier’s trunk at the back of a barn. I didn’t want his clothes to be stuffed but rather just hung on his wooden frame, so that when his coat blows open you can see right through.
He needed to be the right balance of scary and appealing. His job is to scare, so he had to appear alarming at first, but we very quickly warm to him when we hear him speak and see his smile.

Describe the make-up and costume process you faced every day to get into character.
I was usually in the make-up chair by 5am, ready to start shooting at 8.30am. The prosthetic came in six separate pieces that were glued directly onto the skin and then painted with spirit-based dyes. The ‘rooty’ strands of the beard were added individually with every application. The costume, by comparison, was simple to put on and comfortable to wear. Underneath the coat and trousers, I wore a blue suit that was painted out in postproduction to create the hollow effect.

How might viewers compare this modern Worzel Gummidge with the Jon Pertwee series many will remember? 
Both series are very different interpretations of the books and, as such, I think they can happily co-exist without needing too much comparison.

Why do you think this character and his stories have stood the test of time? 
It’s a timeless and very simple premise for a story: lonely kids, away from home, find a secret – a magical friend who leads them into fun and adventures. Worzel’s charming mix of kindness, mischief, naivety and wisdom make him a scarecrow you want as your friend.

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Love and war

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jonah Hauer-King as Harry in World on Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ensemble cast also features Sean Bean and Lesley Manville

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fire starter

World on Fire aspires to be the definitive Second World War drama. DQ reveals how writer Peter Bowker has taken the global conflict and reduced it to a domestic level, weaving an emotionally tangled web of multi-national characters whose ordinary lives intersect through love, hope and tragedy.

“It sounds more complicated than it is,” explains writer Peter Bowker when he recalls the plot of his latest series, World on Fire. Described as an adrenaline-filled, emotionally gripping and resonant drama set during the first year of the Second World War, it follows the intertwining fates of ordinary people as they grapple with the effect of the war on their everyday lives.

But what makes the show stand out from other wartime dramas, such as HBO’s celebrated miniseries Band of Brothers, is the way it watches the conflict unfold from a multi-national perspective. Polish, French, German, American and British characters are at the heart of the seven-part series, as it charts the experiences of individuals and families facing the fall-out from war.

Bowker says it had never occurred to him to write a period piece about the consequences of military action, despite having penned Iraq War drama Occupation (2009). Yet when Mammoth Screen MD Damien Timmer asked him whether a Second World War drama could ever match the scale and emotional intensity of iconic documentary series World at War, an idea was planted that the writer couldn’t shake. “I turned him down a couple of times but the idea wouldn’t go away, and that’s usually a good clue that you should be writing it,” he says.

Peter Bowker

At the heart of the story is Harry (Jonah Hauer-King), a British translator who leaves home to work in Poland on the eve of the conflict. Back home in Manchester, he is romantically linked to Lois (Julia Brown) but then falls in love with Polish waitress Kasia (Zofia Wichłacz). Sean Bean plays Lois’s father Douglas, Lesley Manville is Harry’s mother Robina and Helen Hunt is American journalist Nancy Campbell.

When conceiving the idea for the show, Bowker says he was keen to avoid the ghosts of British comedies ’Allo ’Allo and Dad’s Army. One way around them was to employ a natural use of language, with characters largely speaking their native language, rather than have everyone talking English with accents. “It just looks silly now,” he says. “I don’t think you can get away with two Germans speaking English with a German accent anymore.”

The other issue he had writing the series was to avoid some of the language used by real people during the war. “I’ve read a lot of diaries in the Imperial War Museum [in London] and it’s amazing stuff, but of course the language of the 1940s is very much, ‘Gerry is on our tail again,’ which is a kind of comedy cliché now,” he continues. “It’s finding a way to make the language sufficiently of the time yet not fall into those types of clichéd tropes.”

Bowker also looked to introduce real events in a new way, such as following shell-shocked troops on the long road to the Dunkirk beaches, rather than simply meeting them on the sand. But above all, what surprised – and reassured – him the most after reading the accounts of young Polish waitresses living in Warsaw, on the cusp of the war, was learning that the hopes and dreams, fears and worries of people were just the same as they have today.

“They talk about boys, making a decent coffee, being annoyed with their parents,” he says. “Then they say, ‘Something interesting happened today. I joined the Resistance.’ It was so reassuring because nobody’s different in time. Historically, our concerns remain the same and that was exciting and felt new.”

Shepherding the project, which is produced by Mammoth for BBC1 and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment, alongside Timmer has been Mammoth’s exec producer Helen Ziegler, who joined while the show was still in development.

Jonah Hauer-King’s Harry is at the centre of the World on Fire story

“What grabbed me so utterly and completely is that Pete has this amazing way of making you feel like you’re absolutely there and making it incredibly immediate,” Ziegler says. “It just felt like I had honestly never seen that perspective on the war or felt like I was living and breathing it. I was with the characters and his aim of taking these ordinary lives absolutely sung off the page of the first script.”

For the most part, filming took place in the English city of Manchester and in Prague, with the Czech Republic capital doubling for Berlin, Paris and Warsaw. Then, to distinguish the various settings, production designer Paul Spriggs, lead director Adam Smith and series producer Chris Clough emphasised their architecture. Warsaw, says Ziegler, is a beautiful, glamorous city with an Art Deco style, while the show also embraces Berlin’s strong lines and Manchester’s industry and red bricks.

“It is an epic piece but we always want it to be intimate, we always want to see it through the eyes of the characters,” she says. “One of the rules of cinematic style is to be with the people whose story we’re following and see their worlds from their perspective.

Damien Timmer

“Paul, Adam and Chris found these incredible ruins and they built part of our Warsaw set within them so that we could show, as the bombing of Warsaw starts, how the city starts to crumble, and then go into the ruins and use them. It was such a clever idea, it’s such a feat. There have been lots of different creative ways to give this piece the scale it needs.”

Bold in scale, the series is also hugely ambitious. World on Fire is designed as a multi-season drama, with each season marking one year of the war. Each episode also includes a major sequence from the conflict, with season one featuring the fall of Paris in episode one, as well as the fall of Warsaw, the Dunkirk evacuation and the Battle of Britain, among other events.

“We’re based in London but we had so many different units filming all over the place,” Timmer says. “There would be a unit filming scenes in Berlin and another in Warsaw and scenes in Manchester, and the rushes would be coming in. Sometimes you’d go from watching Lesley in Manchester to something happening in Warsaw. It did feel like the war was unfolding in real time. It was quite curious.

“There’s a lot of visual effects but we try to do as much in camera as possible. Dunkirk was at St Anne’s Beach in Blackpool. It was the end of May, beginning of June, and for complicated reasons we had no choice but to shoot it in February when we were blessed with the bluest skies, incredible sun and what could have been our Waterloo turned out to work really well. But it was massive in terms of the technical exercise.”

Confined to filming most of her scenes in Manchester and nearby Wigan, Manville plays Harry’s mother Robina, an upper-middle-class woman she describes as frosty, private and cold. Still angry at her husband’s suicide, she mellows as the drama moves forward, particularly when Harry returns with a young Polish boy who she takes into her home.

“What was really lovely to play about this character was that it’s not a complete metamorphosis, but in her own quiet way she goes on a little voyage of discovery,” the actor says. “She finds true feelings for this boy and comes to care for him deeply.

Sean Bean plays Douglas, who the actor describes as a ‘beaten man’

“She lives in this huge pile of a house, alone and doesn’t seem to have much of a life or friends. In some ways, cold as she is, deep down she’s had this desire for something to make her feel and be warm and understand things. That’s what happens. And she’s got some very dry, funny lines as well. Peter has written some choice bits of dialogue for her. It’s upmarket Hyacinth Bucket [the snobbish lead character in UK sitcom Keeping Up Appearances], in terms of the comedy. It’s not ‘ba-boom’ but it’s very dry and witty. It’s lovely. Some of the later scenes with her son are quite powerful and potent.”

Later in the series, Robina discovers Lois is pregnant with Harry’s child, while he ends up marrying Kasia to rescue her from the war. “There’s a great line from Robina,” Manville reveals. “‘If I’d know he was going to marry a Polish waitress I would have seen you [Lois] as more of a prospect.’ That’s her in a nutshell.”

Harry’s relationship with Lois also fosters a blossoming friendship with Robina and Bean’s Douglas, who Manville admits are an odd couple. “What is lovely about it is these two characters, were it not for the war and the situation of her son impregnating his daughter, they’re an unlikely match,” she says. “He’s a bus conductor and she’s a wealthy upper-middle-class woman who doesn’t work. But they certainly develop this friendship that’s really rather tender. She starts to see that underneath all the layers of class, there are people who are human beings who you can have the same conversation with. They just sound different.”

Like Robina, Douglas is a single parent, having been left along with children Lois and Tom after their mother left home. He’s also still struggling to come to terms with his experiences during the First World War. “He’s a beaten man in some ways,” says Bean. “You can still see the strong character that he once was, but he’s been battered down and demoralised by the bloodshed and the horror that he saw out there. He’s not on his own either. There were many who were seen in that way and were treated as if there was something wrong with them. They didn’t really recognise shell shock, which has such a devastating impact on so many men.”

Lesley Manville is Harry’s mother, Robina

This means that on the brink of the Second World War, working-class Douglas is a conscientious objector – a position that leaves him open to criticism from his friends and neighbours.

“He’s chosen a very hard war to be a conscientious objector in because on the surface it was quite cut and dried,” Bean explains. “He’s very brave to have done that. He gets a hard time from everyone really and when he would go out to get food, people would turn their back on him. It was a very lonely life for him and he’s just trying to do his best. He’s trying to bring his kids up the best he can and he’s still suffering, psychologically and mentally. Then he meets a woman who’s got quite a lot of money. That brings Douglas out of himself and it helps Robina as well because they’re totally different.”

During filming, many of his scenes were emotionally intense, and viewers will see Douglas fall apart when he’s left on his own. But Bean also got to spend a lot of time in a kitchen, next to a fire, having cups of tea and reading the paper, “which was great,” he jokes.

Bowker adds: “What I’m particularly interested in is informing the universal, not establishing the universal and coming down. Sean’s found me out really because all I’ve done is reduce the world to a kitchen.”

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Is seeing believing?

BBC drama The Capture imagines a ‘post truth’ world where a soldier must fight for his freedom in the face of apparently damning CCTV footage. DQ visits the set and speaks to writer/director Ben Chanan.

In the brick-walled basement of a Central London property, computer screens flicker in unison. Dozens of CCTV monitors are relaying images from all parts of the city, while laptop and computer screens atop industrial-style metal desks variously display more camera footage, detailed maps or pages of complicated coding.

Nearby, a row of interview rooms are covered in soundproof cladding, with low lighting adding to the veiled atmosphere.

This is a safe house belonging to a CIA ‘dark ops’ unit, with US intelligence officials operating covertly on the streets of Britain. In the main surveillance room, Hollywood actors Famke Janssen (X-Men) as Jessica Mallory and Ron Perlman (Hellboy) as Frank Napier can be seen in an upstairs office, rehearsing an upcoming scene in front of yet more screens and computer cabinets filled with wires and flashing lights.

The setting, constructed inside a studio in West London, teases many of the themes and ideas behind The Capture, a six-part BBC1 drama described as a surveillance conspiracy thriller that examines ‘fake news’ in a world where the power and influence of the security services touches every aspect of modern life.

The show sees Callum Turner (War & Peace) play soldier Shaun Emery, whose conviction for a murder in Afghanistan is overturned because of flawed video evidence. Returning to life as a free man with his young daughter, he must soon fight for his freedom once again when damning CCTV footage surfaces after a night out in London.

The Capture centres on Callum Turner’s Shaun, who is implicated by damning CCTV footage

With DI Rachel Carey (Holliday Grainger, pictured top) brought in to investigate Shaun’s case, she quickly learns that the truth can sometimes be a matter of perspective.

“We’re all a bit fascinated by this surveillance world we live in and feeling a little uneasy about how it impacts our lives,” explains executive producer Rosie Alison. “This is a show about how you interpret what you see. It’s very much about the world of fake news, post-truth and people having different perspectives on what truth is.”

“We’ve been really influenced by what’s going on in the world around us, particularly in the last two years, and this show is a response to that,” adds producer Derek Ritchie. “The public are asking questions, so we wanted to ask questions as well. We want to encourage that debate about how we think about surveillance and digital technology and how it changes us and our perspectives of ourselves.”

In a competitive situation, series coproducers Heyday Television (The Long Song) and NBCUniversal International Studios (Hannah) snapped up the The Capture when it was being shopped around, having previously explored the idea of a surveillance thriller but having come up short when it came to finding an original idea or a book on the subject that could be adapted for television. Writer/director Ben Chanan’s pilot script, however, fitted the bill.

“In came this script and I couldn’t believe my luck. Ben had been sitting on his own, coming up with a brilliantly worked-out conspiracy thriller. I rang the agent and got Ben in and love-bombed him with passion,” Alison recalls. “We said Heyday was interested in this area and it was clear he had done something brilliant, so we’ve been enablers and caretakers of Ben’s brilliance. I was very passionate from the start.”

Hollywood stars Famke Janssen and Ron Perlman play a pair of CIA agents

Tom Winchester, president of Heyday Television, picks up: “I remember thinking at the time there was a slightly fantastical element to it because it felt a little bit like one step into the future. Two years later, it just feels this is the world we inhabit and it feels incredibly current. It’s one thing writing about what’s happening now but what Ben’s done is write about what could be happening in two years’ time. That’s the magic of The Capture.”

On screen, Grainger’s DI Carey proves to be the audience’s entry point to the story as she works her way through a moral maze to discover if Shaun is guilty or innocent. But it is Shaun viewers will relate to as the everyman caught up in circumstances that run wildly beyond his control.

Fellow executive producer Tom Coan likens Shaun to Harrison Ford’s character Richard Kimble in 1993 thriller The Fugitive. “He’s that guy who could be any of us and is relatable and accessible,” he explains. “He’s not a superhero or outside the realm of everyday life. That makes it more compelling, but scarier. It could be any one of us who finds ourselves in this position.”

Filming took in a range of locations in London across 81 shooting days that ran from October last year to April. With the producers seeking a gritty-looking London over a stylised, fake or glossy appearance to ensure the series remained rooted in authenticity, sites included housing estates, prisons and playgrounds. A counterterrorism advisor was on hand during production, while Military specialists Bare Arms also provided support. In addition, the cast all spent time with police. Grainger shadowed a detective, while Turner undertook army training for his role.

“As a producer, London is pricing itself out of filming. It feels like it’s becoming prohibitively expensive,” Ritchie says. “It’s a shame because it’s an amazing place to film. As a city, it’s getting very pricey. But the personality of the city is key to the series. London’s rich pageantry is there in The Capture.”

Janssen chats with exec producer Rosie Alison between takes

Back in the CIA bunker, CCTV footage continues to roll across the room’s copious screens. But rather than use incidental stock footage, every frame has been specially filmed for the series by Mark Doman (Spooks), who spent six months creating the surveillance world around the drama.

Ritchie says Doman’s expertise lies in framing, crafting CCTV that doesn’t capture anonymous people or the show’s protagonists in the centre of the camera but often in random positions, replicating the nature of real surveillance footage.

“There are key moments that are caught on CCTV and Mark is with us filming all of that, so he works with the main units and independently of it,” he says. “When we cut to one of those shots or see it in the background, the feeling of verisimilitude you get from it has got to be perfect. That comes down to Mark’s work on the texture and feel of the images, how they feel different from the conventional drama around them. It’s been a vital creative part of the puzzle.”

While water-cooler television might largely be a thing of the past, last year’s pulsating thriller Bodyguard (another BBC series) proved drama still has the power to bring viewers together. That’s certainly what the team behind The Capture hope will happen as they open up the debate about surveillance culture.

“In this post-truth world, where we’re being constantly bombarded by information, you have sensory overload – but the one thing we feel we can believe in is what we see. That’s the last bastion,” Winchester argues. “It’s just throwing that up for conversation. How much of what you see can you trust? For me, that’s fascinating.”

Ritchie adds that the denouement to the series, which is distributed by NBCUniversal International Distribution, is by no means clear-cut. “We want the audience to have different opinions. At the end, there’s a moral question posed and I would love it if the audience has different views on that. Everyone has a multitude of motivations and self-doubt. We’re trying to open it up for debate.”

With The Capture promising a great deal of twists and turns, viewers will do well to question whether they can believe what they see as this modern thriller unfolds.


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By Karolina Kaminska

Ben Chanan with The Capture star Callum Turner

In a world where video manipulation is becoming sleeker and fake news more prevalent, the themes of The Capture are increasingly relevant . But writer and director Ben Chanan hadn’t realised when he formulated the idea for the series that it would turn out to be so topical.

“The origins of the story go all the way back to my time in documentaries,” says Chanan, who won a Bafta in 2013 for The Plot to Bring Down Britain’s Planes. “I made a couple that involved quite a lot of CCTV footage and video evidence. I made a doc where I was filming the Metropolitan Police; I made another doc where I was filming with some counterterrorist operatives in London and Washington and I became aware of just how integral video evidence was to our justice system.

“At the same time, I was increasingly aware, through working in TV, that video manipulation was becoming better, cheaper, easier and faster, and I started to think surely those two developments would one day collide and that would be a really interesting world for a drama to be set in.

“So that’s where it started to percolate years ago. It just took me this long, probably nine years, to actually turn that thought into a narrative and get it made.”

During those years, the concept of fake news began to enter public consciousness, but Chanan says he came up with the idea for the series much earlier.

“The funny thing about fake news in terms of how it relates to this idea is that I hadn’t really heard the term, or at least not in the way we use it now.

“When I started developing the idea – in fact, when I started writing it – suddenly Trump was elected and fake news was a big thing. It’s weirdly timely in that it certainly wasn’t designed to coincide with it; I certainly didn’t hear all the talk about fake news and then get the idea. I guess it’s a lucky coincidence.”

In light of the show’s themes, Chanan says the aim of the series is to raise the issue of what might happen if people no longer trust video evidence.

“We still tend to believe what we see on camera, but what happens if we don’t believe that anymore? What happens to the justice system? What happens to video evidence? What happens to news? Are we going to have to develop ways, like the equivalent of a watermark on a £10 note, to verify video?” the director says.

Given the relevance of the show’s themes in today’s society, will The Capture return for a second season? “I have no idea,” says Chanan. “I have to finish this one first and then take a break and see how we all feel about it.

“It certainly is a contained story. We don’t leave the story of what’s happening to Sean and why it happens and where he gets to unresolved.”

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Peak performance

After nearly two years off screen, gangster drama Peaky Blinders has returned for a fifth season, once again following the notorious Shelby family on the lawless streets of Birmingham.

In this new season, set against the financial crash of 1929, gang leader Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) has risen from backstreet crime lord to member of parliament. When he is approached by a charismatic politician with a bold vision for Britain, he realises his response will impact not only his family but the entire nation.

The cast also includes Helen McCrory, Paul Anderson, Sophie Rundle, Finn Cole, Kate Phillips, Natasha O’Keeffe and Aidan Gillen, with new cast members such as Sam Claflin, Anya Taylor-Joy and Brian Gleeson.

In this DQTV interview, Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight reflects on the success of the series and the opportunities that presents to a writer.

He also talks about why season five is the best yet, reveals details about his writing process and explains why he enjoys working in television.

Peaky Blinders is produced by Caryn Mandabach Productions and Tiger Aspect Productions for BBC1 and distributed by Endemol Shine International.

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Pol position

As Poldark returns for its fifth and final season, series creator and writer Debbie Horsfield tells DQ how the period drama departs from its source material and outlines her approach to bringing the saga to a close.

It’s the last season of a costume drama, based on a series of popular novels, where the writer has left behind the source material to round out the story. But while Poldark may not generate the same number of furious Tweets as Game of Thrones’ finale, surely one of the most polarising in television history, creator and writer Debbie Horsfield is looking forward to the inevitable discussion that will surround her show’s conclusion.

“What’s not to like about robust and hearty debate?” Horsfield tells DQ. “There are always going to be people attached to certain versions of the books. I’m personally attached to a certain version of my script and I often lament the fact the scripts don’t make it in their entirety to the screen, for all kinds of reasons. We all have an attachment to our own personal version of something because we all view things through our own personal perspective. That’s just part and parcel of doing an adaptation.”

Debbie Horsfield

The writer believes there is less pressure on the conclusion to a piece of original drama, as viewers and fans will have no pre-existing expectations of what may or may not happen, unlike with an adaptation of a popular set of novels. “But even then,” she continues, “once you get to the second season of something, people have a set idea of how they want it to go, but that’s the deal. You write something, you put it out there and you expect people to have an opinion about it. You at least want them to watch and have a debate.”

As Poldark returns for a fifth and final eight-part run, it’s very much business as usual, with a new story unfolding and characters old and new uniting at the turn of a new century.

In terms of the production, everything is as it should be, from the magnificent, sprawling Cornish landscapes to the fast-paced scenes and quick cuts that propel the story forward and ensure the main characters are all serviced during the hour-long opening episode, setting them on the path that will lead to the series’ conclusion.

Season four ended in 1799, at the end of Winston Graham’s seventh Poldark book The Angry Tide. But in a departure for the series, Horsfield has set this new season in 1800, filling the time jump before the eighth novel, The Stranger from the Sea, which opens in 1810.

Episode one begins with Ross Poldark (Aidan Turner) determined to spend more time with his family following the death of Elizabeth Warleggan (Heida Reed). But when Ross’s former army colonel Ned Despard (Vincent Regan) and his wife Kitty (Kerri McLean) ask for his help, he is compelled to challenge the establishment and question his loyalty to king and country.

Meanwhile, as Dwight and Caroline Enys (Luke Norris and Gabrielle Wilde) join the cause, Ross’s wife Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) must contend with dangers closer to home, while George Warleggan (Jack Farthing), deep in grief over Elizabeth’s death, courts corrupt powers whose influence spans the British Empire.

Aidan Turner in Poldark, which will conclude with its fifth season

At first, Horsfield adapted two of Graham’s books per season. Then, as the novels grew longer, the adaptation slowed down to one-and-a-half books for each of the most recent two seasons due to the amount of material the show needed to cover. Season four concluded at the end of book seven, but owing to the fact book eight takes place after a 10-year time jump, Horsfield decided season five would bridge that gap, taking place between 1800 and 1802, immediately after season four.

“I hadn’t done an adaptation before Poldark so normally I just make stuff up, but it wasn’t quite as straightforward as that,” Horsfield says about her approach to the new season. “We wanted to preserve the integrity of the later books. There are five more books and we didn’t want to do anything in this season that was going to go against anything that happened in the later books. Also, in book eight, there are a lot of details and references to things that happened in that intervening decade, so I used that as a basis for a lot of the storylines.”

Season four and book seven end with Poldark as a mine owner and a rather frustrated politician, unable to effect change in the way he had hoped. Book eight then picks up with him on a secret mission in Portugal as a government agent.

“There’s very little in the books about what led him to that, so basically season five imagines what circumstances might have conspired to put Ross on that journey,” Horsfield explains. “Then my path was to look at what was happening historically in the period 1800 to 1802. Was there even a secret service in existence at that point? It turned out there absolutely was. There was a very active spy network in London because it was a time of fear of there being an English revolution following the American and French ones.

“So what I discovered in the research was the context was very much there for Ross to become an agent of the government, but it was just tracing those steps one by one to see how he gets there.

Set in the 18th century, Poldark is based on the books by Winston Graham

“We did work very closely with Andrew Graham [Winston Graham’s son and series consultant for his estate] and put all the storylines to him. He was very much in agreement that the methodology we were going with was what his father would have done. It was great to have that support.”

Horsfield admits the production team never knew from season to season whether the series would return, while the “best case scenario” was always that it would last for five seasons – the length of the stars’ contracts. The series is produced by Mammoth Screen and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.

As a result, she says writing this season’s finale – the show’s ultimate conclusion – was no different to penning the final episode of previous seasons. “You always want your final episode to be very climactic but leaving the audience wanting more,” she says. “It’s always nice to quit while you’re ahead and leave the audience wanting more, so that was in my mind as I was writing that finale.”

But with other Poldark books yet to be adapted, is this really the end for the show? “You can never say never,” Horsfield responds, though there is certainly no immediate plan to return to Cornwall.

“Who knows where everybody’s going to be in 10 years’ time and whether there will be an interest from anyone, the public included. I know most of the cast and crew, and certainly myself, are on other projects, so a lot of people are busy for quite some time. Obviously there are five more books, so one can never predict what will happen.”

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