Tag Archives: BBC

Turning up the volume on hidden disability

As long-running British medical drama Casualty dedicates an episode to its first regular deaf character, DQ speaks to actor Gabriella Leon and writers Charlie Swinbourne and Sophie Woolley about shining a light on this hidden disability.

Since it debuted on BBC1 in September 1986, medical drama Casualty has become a staple of the UK pubcaster’s Saturday night schedule. Set in the fictional Holby City Hospital, it follows the staff and numerous patients who pass through its Accident and Emergency department.

Now in its 34th season, the BBC Studios production has highlighted issues such as dementia, rape, OCD and organ donation, as well as becoming known for spectacular action scenes including fires and car, train and helicopter crashes. For the season 31 finale, Casualty also pushed production boundaries by filming an episode in a single take.

But in a new milestone for the show, its latest episode unfolds from the perspective of nurse Jade Lovall, the series’ first regular deaf character, as she reaches the conclusion of a storyline that has seen her searching for her birth mother.

Though it might be just another day on the emergency ward, with a cyclist being treated for head injuries and a heart transplant patient suffering dizzying collapses, viewers will spend the day with Jade and experience a small part of what life is like living with a hearing impairment when the episode airs tomorrow.

From waking to an alarm that uses flashing lights and vibrations to the muffled audio that only sharpens once she turns on her hearing aid, it is an eye-opening insight into Jade’s life. Loud noises trigger her hyperacusis (sensitivity to noise), while the ringing sound of tinnitus underneath dialogue punctuates the drama at regular intervals.

L-R: Sophie Stone, John Maidens, Gabriella Leon and Charlie Swinbourne

Seemingly simple tasks such as ordering a coffee are used to dramatise the struggle people with hearing difficulties can have when trying to communicate with those who are unaware of their hidden disability, while the episode also touches on the prejudices experienced by people who are hard of hearing.

Gabriella Leon, who plays Jade and has a hearing impairment in real life, joined the cast of Casualty in 2018 after answering an audition call for women who were not defined by their disability. “I identify with that,” she tells DQ.

Her character is “funny, endearing and perhaps a little clumsy,” she explains. “Jade’s a loyal friend and really cares about her patients and being a part of a team. She is a shining example of someone who is not defined by her invisible disability or her troubled upbringing and, despite the odds, has achieved what she has. Jade is always up for a laugh and a party.”

Though Casualty has previously featured guest characters with hearing impairments, Jade became the show’s first regular deaf character. Admitting she was surprised when she was told the news of her recurring part, Leon says she saw it as an opportunity to educate and normalise seeing characters with disabilities on screen. Her role off-screen involves ongoing conversations with the story team and writers about how to best portray Jade’s disability, which can often be based on her own real-life experiences.

“I always encourage working with a deaf team of creatives when specifically focusing on Jade’s disability, as it’s really important to me that everything is authentic,” she says. “It involves rehearsals with British Sign Language [BSL] monitors and interpreters to incorporate BSL and Sign Supported English, translating the script from English to BSL and making sure the signs we’re choosing are relevant and authentic for Jade and the person she’s signing with.”

This Saturday’s episode of Casualty focuses on deaf character Jade, played by Leon

Her current storyline sees Jade confronted by her past, as she decides the time is right to finally meet her birth mother. On the day of their meeting, she’s also dealing with a particularly hard day at work.

“This episode is really special. I have so many emotions!” Leon says. “There is such a lovely personal angle in the storytelling that I hope the audience can really get behind. Jade is faced with some overwhelming decisions and it’s a testament to herself, how she approaches these things. It’s a celebration of someone with a disability, in really being able to understand and experience what Jade is going through. It’s a triumph that the whole team should really be proud of.”

The episode is written by Charlie Swinbourne and Sophie Woolley and directed by John Maidens, all of whom are also deaf. Leon says she’d been pushing to do a story that would explore both a ‘day in the life of Jade’ and her character’s past spent in foster care, “and I’d said that deaf writers should do the episode,” she says. “We had a meeting to explore where we could see this going and it blossomed from there. There is something really satisfying and special working with people that share the same struggles and victories as you in terms of disability. Charlie and Sophie are wonderful to work with.”

In autumn 2018, after Swinbourne and Woolley had joined the BBC Writers Room’s Writers Access Group along with other writers with disabilities, they were invited to visit the set of BBC daytime drama Doctors in Birmingham, where Loretta Preece was the producer. When Preece moved to Casualty, Leon spoke to her about exploring Jade’s disability, and Swinbourne and Woolley came to Cardiff, where the show is filmed, to discuss potential stories.

At the same time, Swinbourne was also involved in writing stories for fellow BBC soap EastEnders, involving character Ben Mitchell coming to terms with hearing loss and the introduction of deaf character Frankie, played by deaf actor Rose Ayling-Ellis.

Multiple individuals with hearing disabilities were involved in making the episode

“The big difference was that for EastEnders, I wrote and pitched a long-running storyline that was going to play out over many months,” he says. “With Casualty, we were focusing on one day in Jade’s life, one episode, and I was co-writing the script.

“As with my previous work, the aim was to tell an authentic story about being deaf, how it goes beyond just not hearing things, or having to work hard to lipread, but also how it shifts everything. I wanted to take the audience into a world they might not have experienced before, and for them to see new sides of characters they might have felt they already knew.”

The writers collaborated over email, Skype and WhatsApp, putting their own lives and experiences into Jade’s story. “Deafness is a hidden disability and, for that reason, it’s often misunderstood,” Swinbourne says. “People just don’t see the work that goes on beneath the surface when you’re deaf in a hearing world. I hope that, through this episode, the audience will get a different sense of Jade, see her inner world and what her life is really like – not only through her deafness, but also by meeting her mother and finding out the truth about her early years.”

Woolley says she “loved every minute” of working on Casualty, her first TV writing credit, having previously acted and written for screen, radio and the stage.

“After visiting Cardiff and speaking with Gabriella about her experience and the research she’d done for her character about meeting her birth parents, we wrote a draft every two weeks and had notes from the script editor and the medical editor, with the comments from their medical advisors,” she says. “I was over the moon when I found out [deaf actor] Sophie Stone had been cast as well [as Jade’s birth mother Susie].”

Sophie Woolley

Woolley, who went deaf over a 20-year period, reveals she has experienced a wide range of different deaf identities, from wearing hearing aids to lipreading and using BSL interpreters at work. She now has a cochlear implant, which helps her to hear well, but says she could relate a lot to Jade’s experience, which was made more authentic by the number of deaf creatives working on the episode.

“It makes a big difference in a show-making process to have more deaf people in all parts of the creative team,” she says. “If the only deaf person in the team is one deaf actor and they are asked to do an inauthentic line or directed to do something a deaf character would not do, it puts that deaf actor in a position of having to decide whether to say, ‘Actually, my character would never do this.’”

Working with director Maidens was “brilliant because, as a deaf director, he really understood everything in the script and related to it on a personal level,” Swinbourne says. “We were able to talk to him before filming about our intentions in certain scenes, how things might play out. I was also able to visit the set during filming and see him in action. He did an incredible job in this episode and made our script come to life.”

Leon also describes working with Maidens as “an absolute dream,” adding: “He’s one of the most prepared and creative directors I’ve ever worked with. He really made my experience so very memorable, and it was a really joyous set working on this. Again, it’s comforting to have other deaf creatives around me who understand. It makes the work so much more poignant, because they know themselves the best way to go about this.

“I want to see more d/Deaf [differentiating between deaf people who are hard of hearing and may lipread or use hearing aids, and deaf people who use sign language] and disabled creatives involved in episodes that aren’t necessarily connected to disability. A diversified set is rich and always makes the work better.”

For Swinbourne, the key to the success of the episode is authenticity. “Working with writers, directors and actors with experience of deafness and disability is key, because we’ve lived it, we know how complex it is and what’s interesting or novel about it,” he says. “This episode had two deaf writers and a deaf director, and starred two talented deaf actresses. Every one of us fed our own experiences into our area of work.

“Too often when deafness and disability is portrayed, there can be an illusion of representation, because often very few deaf or disabled people have been involved in making it, on screen or off. I hope this episode is a big step forward for the industry in realising what deaf talent can do, and I hope we are helping to open the door for more of our peers to follow behind us and show what they can do. There are so many talented people out there who deserve an opportunity.”

Leon’s message to those seeking to improve representation of disabled people in the television business is succinct: hire them. “It’s so important to actively go looking for d/Deaf and disabled talent for on and off-screen roles. It’s time for stories to be told by a different narrator and angle. Honour our stories by actually having people with disabilities play people with disabilities – the work and talent will be immense.

“Equally, it’s doubly imperative for them not just to be used as ‘disabled characters’ but ‘characters that happen to have a disability,’ where that fact isn’t integral or even mentioned in the plot. That is how the industry normalises having d/Deaf and disabled talent represented, and a new wave of layered incredible stories will emerge for our viewing pleasure.

“There needs to be a genuine want for change, for better inclusivity, and a want to learn and be educated. There also needs to be a continuation of establishing characters like Jade, who isn’t defined by her disability but it is a part of her and her experience of life, and having more narratives from people with disabilities, written and created by people with disabilities. This is why I’m so proud of this episode and the work Casualty are pushing to do more of.”

tagged in: , , , , , ,

Lighting the way

Eva Green, Eve Hewson and Himesh Patel speak to DQ about filming The Luminaries, a tale of love, murder, magic and revenge set in 1860s New Zealand at the height of the gold rush.

It’s a quirk of production schedules that the first scenes viewers see are sometimes the last to be filmed. Such was the case on luxurious BBC and NZTV period drama The Luminaries, but for co-stars Eve Hewson and Hamish Patel, it was a high-pressure situation.

The six-part series opens as Anna Wetherell, nearing the end of a voyage to start a new life in 1860s New Zealand, meets Emery Staines, who has plans to make his fortune during the country’s booming gold rush. There’s an instant connection between the two that informs the plot of the series, but if viewers didn’t buy their blossoming relationship, would they care what happened next?

Eva Green as Lydia with Martin Csokas as her lover Francis Carver

When we first meet them, “they’re mysteries. We don’t know anything about them,” Hewson tells DQ of the show’s central pair. “But what’s important about that first scene is we don’t know anything about these people, but we know we want them to be together, just because there is something between them and it’s such a beautifully written scene. It was really fun to play and, oddly, it was the last scene we shot together.

“We did everything else and then the last thing we did was the scene where we met. Hopefully it works. The thing with Anna and Emery is they both feel like they know each other even though they’ve never met. And it’s that feeling that drives them to try to find each other again.”

Patel continues: “We were really banking on that scene working. We were saying ‘If it doesn’t work, why do we care about these two people getting together?’ We had to make sure that we got the chemistry right. And I think we did. I hope we did.”

An epic adventure mystery, the Luminaries blends elements of a classic Western period drama with love, magic, murder and revenge. Set against New Zealand’s stunning landscapes, Anna immediately finds a romantic connection with Emery, but scheming fortune teller Lydia Wells (Eva Green) leaves a trap that means the young lovers are unable to reunite.

Eve Hewson believes her character, Anna, is not as naive as she appears

Deceived and betrayed, Anna’s fortune begins to fall and she is drawn into a blackmail plot involving opium, gold, shipwreck, fraud and false identity, which leaves her accused of murder and fighting for her life.

But Anna and Emery are ‘astral twins,’ which means they were born at exactly the same time and ultimately share a single destiny. When Emery disappears, Anna is left without an alibi for a murder she did not commit and the noose begins to tighten around her neck.

Produced by Working Title Television and Southern Light Films for BBC1 in the UK, in association with TVNZ, distributor Fremantle and Silver Reel, the cast is led by Eve Hewson (The Knick) as Anna, Himesh Patel (Yesterday) as Emery and Eva Green as Lydia. The series is written by Eleanor Catton, based on her own Booker Prize-winning novel, with Claire McCarthy directing.

After disembarking from the ship that brings her to New Zealand, Anna reveals her intentions to find gold and make her own fortune, although it’s clear there are other reasons behind her round-the-world journey to start a new life. “I really don’t think she’s as naive as you might think,” Hewson says. “I think she was running from something in England and she wanted to escape or start a new life, or run away. The idea of a young woman getting on a ship was a big deal back then so you’d have to have a very good reason why you’d leave, because you probably would never go back home. There’s a lot of things going on with her backstory that’s not what it seems in the show.”

Himesh Patel sees a “romantic drive” in Emery

Similarly, Emery’s naïvety sees him used by his new ‘friends’ and his own ambitions immediately sidetracked by his attraction to Anna. “He is letting his heart lead him because he has a really romantic drive that is quite stubborn,” Patel explains. “That’s what he’s desperately trying to hold on to, even though he’s getting tossed about by the waves, sometimes literally. I hope people enjoy how the story unfolds because he is tested quite a lot, as all the characters are. But he’s got a resolve and a romantic outlook that is so at odds with everything that happens in the story and that happens to him. It’s about whether he can hold on to that belief.”

Known for television roles in Penny Dreadful and Camelot, Green tells DQ she likes playing multi-dimensional characters, “usually strong women,” where first appearances can hide secrets or cracks underneath their facades. Lydia, whose very job is a performance, fits the bill perfectly.

“She’s such a very strong, ballsy character, very driven, very daring, and she’s a lot of fun to play because she’s always game,” Green says. “It’s quite jubilating to play her. She’s also a feminist ahead of her time. She’s a very cool character. She’s quite like the baddie at the beginning but there are a few layers. And what brings humanity is actually her love for Francis Carver [played by Martin Csokas]. That actually redeems her. She’s not just the baddie.

The 19th century mud was very real on set

“At first, Lydia’s intention is to use Anna. But Anna turns out to be a force to be reckoned with. Lydia vows revenge and Anna becomes her enemy. But it’s quite a complicated relationship between the two women because you really feel they could have been friends.”

Lydia’s love for Carver stands out, not least because he isn’t her husband, Crosbie Wells (Ewen Leslie). But maybe it’s all part of her game. “She’s completely blinded by her ambition and greed, doing anything to get her gold – and it’s not her gold, she stole it from her husband,” notes Green, who says she was reminded by her character of Lady Macbeth. “She’s quite a cuckoo in that way. But it’s such a tough world. She is a survivor. She feels there are no rules, she’s above the law and she can have whatever she desires no matter what the cost. She’s so driven and her hubristic nature will ultimately be her downfall.”

Catton says she spent five years writing The Luminaries and then seven years adapting it for the screen, revealing she had discarded more than 200 drafts of the first episode alone. Had she not done so, Anna might have been a minor character. But through that process, she became the audience’s perspective in this new world.

“Eleanor told me that once they decided they were going to go through Anna’s eyes everything kind of clicked into place,” Hewson says. “And when I read the script, I was like, ‘This is just fantastic.’”

The Luminaries writer Eleanor Catton (left) with director Claire McCarthy

“I read the script and then started reading the novel and was waiting for the two to converge at some point,” Patel adds. “But then as I got more of the scripts and realised the way Eleanor was adapting her own story, it was really fascinating and so brilliant. Eventually, fans of the novel will realise where our stories converge.”

The six-month shoot took place largely on a farm outside Auckland, on New Zealand’s North Island, where the frontier town of Hokitika was recreated in breathtaking 360º detail. Filming also took place on nearby Bethells Beach, and on South Island, where director McCarthy could capture its iconic scenery.

“We got to set on day one and it was like this town had been there the whole time,” Hewson recalls. “It was really amazing work from the production designers and I just loved getting to work every day. It was at the bottom of a hill. You could see the sea on one side and you could see Auckland in the distance. It just felt like we went down this hill in our own little time machine and got to live in that world.

“I felt like I was going back in time,” Green says. “We were in costume and it was actually very hot as well. It was very muddy, for real. We were back in Hokitika. We shot on the amazing Bethells Beach, with those caves. It was just amazing. That’s the luxury of being an actor, that you can discover amazing places. I feel blessed.”

Claire McCarthy runs through a scene with Eva Green

Filming certainly took its toll on Hewson, who says her character goes to a “very dark place. It gets really messy and horrible what she goes through,” the actor says. “That was really challenging for me, just because there’s a lot of painful subject matter and physically it was very draining to be that emotional all the time. I remember just feeling exhausted. As an actor, you want to do those parts but it’s also hard to do them. You have to go home and watch an episode of Friends.”

At a time when the world is still battling the coronavirus pandemic, the trio says The Luminaries is perfect escapist television for viewers looking to get caught up in a love story and a murder mystery.

“It’s exotic and it’s quite unknown,” Green says of the world of The Luminaries. “But also it’s a very hard environment. To be a woman in that environment was extremely hard and you needed to be super strong.”

“I genuinely think we need great stories right now to take us out of the narrative that we’re living in for a minute,” Hewson adds. “I hope that people find it as compelling as I think it is.”

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Heading East

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simon Bowles captures a Zoom meeting with the production team

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

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

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

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

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

Jodie Comer delivers the monologue titled Her Big Chance

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

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

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

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

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

Gangs of London’s Lucian Msamati in Playing Sandwiches

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

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

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

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

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

Kristin Scott Thomas performs Hand of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

tagged in: , , , ,

Building The Nest

Bafta-winning writer Nicole Taylor takes DQ inside her thrilling five-part emotional drama The Nest, which has become the biggest new drama launch on the BBC this year.

While the emergence of streaming platforms and the democratisation of choice has largely sounded the death knell for ‘water-cooler’ programming, TV drama still has the power to unite audiences. So it proved earlier this year when, stuck at home at the start of the UK’s coronavirus lockdown in March, millions of viewers tuned in to follow emotional thriller The Nest.

Its weekly roll-out on BBC1 – it wasn’t released immediately as a box set – and the storyline’s dizzying twists and turns ensured people were hooked on the story of a pact made between a wealthy couple and a teenage girl. And the word-of-mouth recommendations that followed have seen the five-part series become the broadcaster’s biggest new drama launch of the year so far. An average of nine million people have now seen the series across its 30-day catch-up window.

Penned by Bafta-winning writer Nicole Taylor (Three Girls), the story introduces Dan (Martin Compston) and Emily (Sophie Rundle, pictured above), who live in a huge waterside house just outside Glasgow and want for nothing except a baby, having tried for many years to conceive.

Nicole Taylor

By chance, they meet Kaya (Mirren Mack), a troubled 18-year-old from the other side of the city. When she agrees to carry the couple’s baby, can she give them what they’ve always wanted, or have they all embarked on a course of self-destruction?

“The idea came to me in the form of this central trio,” Taylor tells DQ. “I was really interested to see what would happen in an extreme, psychologically plausible scenario where you had a woman who was just desperate [for a baby] because of years of infertility, where, in that grief state, one starts to deploy the magical thinking of, ‘This is meant to be.’

“You pose that on the most arbitrary things just to feel like you have got some control over the narrative of your life in moments of despair. So that character of Emily made sense to me, and Kaya and Dan, they just all came to me, as did this idea of a relationship of mutual destruction.

“Whatever I’m writing about, there’s always a central question I ask myself that I don’t have an answer to but I feel has right [answers] on both sides. Though this isn’t an ‘issue’ drama in any way, I feel like surrogacy is quite an interesting one where there’s equally persuasive arguments for and against. I’m always writing about themes of class and young women and things like that. That’s where it all came from.”

Through Kaya, Taylor explores whether an 18-year-old with few prospects and working a zero-hour contract should be allowed to do something for money that is potentially life-changing. “It’s a really tricky question, but that’s what’s appealing about it as well,” the writer says. “I don’t have an answer to it, but I wanted to kick it about and get the audience kicking it about as well.”

The Nest, a fictional and very heightened story, stands in contrast to Three Girls, the multi-Bafta-winning factual drama that aired in 2017 and told the true story of three victims at the centre of a child sex abuse ring.

But there were some similarities in Taylor’s approach to both projects, namely the “tons and tons” of research she did for both – because even though the characters in The Nest were invented, “the issues are real,” she says. “Care leavers, an infertile couple… it felt like I’d done more research than is strictly necessary for a fictional piece but having done Three Girls, that’s just the way I like to do things.

Sophie Rundle and Mirren Mack in The Nest

“You’re also not going to turn up anything unexpected or interesting for the audience if you’re going into these things knowing as much as they are. You’ve got to know more than they know to write something exciting.”

The three main characters’ problems go beyond the central surrogacy plotline, with the story also highlighting a murder investigation, criminal links to Dan’s business, and Kaya’s mysterious past and her life growing up in the care system.

Taylor sought to invite the audience to sympathise with all three people at various points in the show. “If, in one act, your sympathies were all with Kaya, I was trying to turn that so, in the next act, your sympathies would be with Dan,” she explains.

“Each of them had a valid point of view I tried to render in the round, so that was really important to me. But I don’t look at my work and think, ‘Yeah, what I’m writing about is young women.’ People have said that to me, but I find all of their points of view just as valid as each other and I was just as interested in each of them.

“You’re not allowed to do it here but if you commercialise surrogacy, who is going to be offering surrogacy services? It’s going to be women who need the money. Surrogacy also offers self-esteem and real affirmation, so a vulnerable young woman like Kaya might be attracted as much by that, and by the fellowship offered and by the sense of family, as the money.

“Dan is more from Kaya’s background but Emily is dead suspicious of her motives from the get-go. I’m constantly trying to play with all these people and get you to really invest in one, only to bin them off and invest in another and then bin them off and invest in another. With Kaya, I was inviting the audience to judge her, only to wrong-foot them and get them to reflect on their earlier judgements.”

Line of Duty’s Martin Compston also stars

Though the relationship between the central trio remains at the heart of the series, Taylor also includes stories and themes of wealth, poverty, criminality, social mobility and family relationships. It all adds up to a fast-paced series bursting at the seams with story and character developments, and means viewers don’t know which way it will turn next.

“I just love a fast-burning story and I think the audience deserved it,” she says. “I’m sick of seeing things eked out over eight or 12 episodes. It’s completely unnecessary in lots of cases and, especially in a thriller, you can hint at things without spending a whole episode plodding through it.

“I have no problem with burning through story. I love doing that and I think you need to do it for a BBC hour. I felt like the audience deserves to rattle through it. You don’t have to show everything. Little threads you leave loose can give people something to think about. It makes for a richer drama as well as a pacier drama.”

Distributed by All3Media International, The Nest saw Taylor reunite with Three Girls executive producer Sue Hogg and production company Studio Lambert, who shepherded the project from script to screen. Andy de Emmony (Lucky Man) directed three episodes and Simen Alsvik (Lilyhammer) helmed the final two. Now enjoying maternity leave following the birth of her second child, Taylor remembers writing the series during her pregnancy and suffering serious illness as she hit episode four.

“I couldn’t finish the bloody thing because I was so sick. I’d got three episodes written and episode four just took months and months, so getting the thing finished was awful,” she says. “But Sue is brilliant; we’ve known each other for so long and worked together on everything. She didn’t put any pressure on me. She didn’t act like she was panicking, although she said to me retrospectively that it was pretty tense because they couldn’t schedule [filming] as they didn’t have the last two scripts.

Rundle plays a wealthy woman who turns to a surrogate after being unable to conceive

“But I got there, I finished it and then there was a new deadline of finishing episode five before giving birth! It was slightly hairy in that sense, but I always knew, in quite a lot of depth, what the story was. It had been in my head for years and years before I’d pitched it and started to write. And it’s a world I know super-well, being from Glasgow myself.”

To the surprise of fans of crime drama Line of Duty who have become used to Compston playing an English police officer, the Scottish actor uses his natural accent in The Nest, which meant he could also advise Taylor on some of the Glaswegian slang Dan might use. Similarly, Shirley Henderson, who plays Kaya’s estranged mother Siobhan, also influenced how her character appeared on screen.

“The forensic way she read the script meant she was finding details that I didn’t notice were there,” the writer says of Happy Valley star Henderson. “She was lifting things out of my subconscious because she’d read them on the page and nobody else had noticed, including me. That’s the best bet. You’re sat alone in your pyjamas for years and then, suddenly, you’re on the phone to Shirley Henderson who’s got even better ideas for the character.”

The series concludes with extremely satisfying endings for Emily, Dan and Kaya, but Taylor certainly keeps their futures and that of the newborn baby at the centre of the story in doubt right until the last few scenes. The writer says she didn’t know what that ending would be when she began writing, but she did know where she wanted to leave them emotionally.

“I knew it would be a positive outcome for Kaya. The ending isn’t necessarily what people would expect and I’m pleased to leave people with quite a happy ending,” she says. “It’s all too easy to sign off bleakly – the child goes to no one and the whole thing has been a pointless waste of time.

Mack is Kaya, the young woman paid to carry the baby

“As well as wanting to be accurate, this is television and I did want quite an emotionally engaging, satisfying, uplifting ending. And thank God it was uplifting, given when it went out. Imagine if people had invested five weeks of their early lockdown time only for the child to be lost in the system. It would have been so crap.”

Taylor admits there is plenty of scope to return to the world of The Nest, though she is not currently planning a second season. Instead, she has a new, unannounced BBC project in the works, and is writing a musical and “changing lots of nappies.”

Looking back on the show, Taylor jokes “it’s bonkers. I went for it with the story,” pointing to her previous preference for naturalistic storytelling. “I’ve never gone near anything that’s a thriller before. It’s totally beyond my realm of experience but, once I got into it, I loved it. If you’ve got these people, take them for a ride. Just go for it. If you can be truthful to the characters and keep people constantly guessing, that’s just really satisfying to watch.

“If it’s a bit bonkers, that means you’re being unpredictable. As long as it’s not at the expense of truth, I’m good with it. The whole thing was an experiment for me, and I thoroughly enjoyed trying to write that kind of material.”

tagged in: , , , ,

Dramatic truth

Two years after a deadly poisoning involving a nerve agent in the UK, the cast and creative team behind BBC miniseries The Salisbury Poisonings reveal how they dramatised this real-life national emergency.

When it came to bringing to television the true story of how a father and daughter were poisoned in the English cathedral city of Salisbury, executive producer Laurence Bowen knew exactly how it should be told.

“We decided to approach this as a factual drama rather than a documentary because we felt drama would give us more freedom to explore the emotional reality of what happened to people — showing the audience how it felt to suddenly find yourself with personal responsibility for protecting the lives of Salisbury’s 60,000 inhabitants, or the reality of how it felt to be poisoned, or to be a neighbour and best friend of the Skripals and find yourself catapulted into the middle of a counter-terrorism enquiry,” he tells DQ.

“We wanted the piece to be experiential and to show the truth of how the chemical nerve attack was experienced on the ground by ordinary people, and to show how many of them responded heroically to the challenge.”

Just two years have passed since former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were targeted with the deadly Novichok nerve agent. But if you think you know what happened, Bowen and the cast and creative team behind three-part BBC miniseries The Salisbury Poisonings are asking viewers to think again as they tell the story of what happened in March 2018 from the perspective of those tasked with protecting the community.

Turning the spotlight on the ordinary people and public services who displayed extraordinary heroism during a national emergency, writers and former BBC journalists Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson say they didn’t want to do “the obvious thing,” which would have been to make an espionage drama.

“We were more drawn to the stories of the people who had to clean up this mess rather than the people who made it,” says Lawn. “All of the action takes place in the shadow of a spy drama, with spooks and secret agents. But it’s not about that. It’s about ordinary people who have to pick up the pieces – the people who have to clean up Salisbury and also the people who are directly affected by the attack. That’s where the drama was, that’s where the emotion was, and we were instantly drawn to it.”

The Salisbury Poisonings dramatises real events of two years ago, when an assassination attempt on a former Russian intelligence officer in the UK went awry

Patterson admits that building trust with the real-life characters in the drama is not easy. “The first thing I would say is that factual drama is not a game. If you take on a factual drama, especially one that represents such recent events, you take on a massive responsibility to do those people justice and to tell their stories with authenticity and sensitivity,” he explains.

“We started much like we did when we made documentaries, walking around on rainy nights in Salisbury. It took a lot of time and many meetings over many months. Trust is the key word because, without trust, this project would not have happened.

“If people don’t don’t see your vision, if they don’t trust what you’re going to do with their testimony, they’re not going to talk to you. That consultation with the real people continued through the whole drama, from restarts, through scripting and through production. That’s why it is now an authentic and powerful piece of work.”

At the centre of the drama is Anne-Marie Duff as Tracy Daszkiewicz, the director of public health for Wiltshire County Council, who is called in by the police to ensure the community is protected from the deadly threat presented by the Novichok agent. It marks the first time Duff (Sex Education, His Dark Materials) has played a real-life figure on screen who is still alive.

“It’s kind of surreal, glorious, terrifying and a privilege all that same time to actually sit beside somebody [you’re playing],” the actor says. “It’s a challenge in terms of performance, because the requirements could be that you do an impersonation, and I wanted to avoid all of that nonsense. I just wanted to try and get the spirit of her. But what it also means is that you have to be so authentic and so true, because there’s someone who can testify against every moment. So you have to do the best job you can possibly do.”

Daszkiewicz was largely absent from the extensive media coverage that followed the incident, a fact that intrigued Duff about the person she would be playing. “When I was sent the script, I Googled her because I didn’t even remember her. There was very little to be found so, for the actor’s inner detective, it immediately whets your appetite. And as a woman, I can’t help but think lots of men in suits were recognised and she wasn’t. Adam and Declan’s scripts… the way they swell her with so much integrity was just amazing and a real gift.”

Anne Marie Duff stars as Tracy Daszkiewicz, who led efforts to protect citizens from the nerve agent used in the attack

Duff describes Daszkiewicz’s role in the events as “unimaginable.” Knowing she would be the fall guy if anything went wrong – with the potential for thousands of victims if other people came into contact with the nerve agent – “she just felt an insane amount of responsibility,” the actor continues.

“It’s joked about in the script – the whole imposter syndrome issue – because she felt that she didn’t have the smarts. People might think she didn’t come from a world in which she was a problem solver on a grand scale, and she had lots of demons, which we all understand.”

Alongside the Skripals, who both recovered from their exposure to the Novichok agent, three other people were affected by the poisoning. Police officer Nick Bailey (Rafe Spall, The War of the Worlds) and Charlie Rowley (Johnny Harris, This is England ‘86) both recovered after spells in hospital, but Rowley’s partner Dawn Sturgess sadly died. Myanna Buring (The Witcher, Ripper Street), who plays her, says she wanted to remind people that Sturgess was a “real human being.”

“A lot of us remember that, in the news. she was described as homeless and a drug addict, [which meant people] dismissed her death as inevitable because of her life choices,” the actor says.

“That simply was not true. Dawn was not homeless. She was not a drug addict. She was a woman who had experienced mental health issues and knocks in life, which I think all of us can relate to. She did struggle with alcohol, but she was working really hard to turn her life around. She had a loving family, a loving partner, children and friends, and her death left this gaping wound in all of their lives.

“She was an innocent person who died because of a failed assassination attempt that was carried out in such a way that thousands of innocent lives were put at risk. What happened to Dawn, it could have been any one of us.”

Rafe Spall plays police officer Nick Bailey, who was hospitalised after exposure to the Novichok agent

Behind the camera, Saul Dibb was able to blend his experience of a decade spent making documentaries with his recent fiction work, including The Duchess, NW and Journey’s End. Describing making The Salisbury Poisonings as “the perfect marriage” and a project that is part domestic drama, part thriller, Dibb says: “All of us felt it had the potential to be more than a straightforward docudrama. It’s just extraordinarily surreal.

“It was this amazing, weird thing happening in the middle of this small British cathedral city, where, whether you were directly poisoned or not, everybody became ‘contaminated’ by this poison.”

The production was based in Bristol and the South West of England, with some scenes also filmed in Salisbury. “We did shoot some things there but we drew a line. There was not going to be a recreation of things like hazmat suits or the army on the streets of Salisbury,” Dibb says. “We set a lot of the early, pre-poisoning stuff in Salisbury and then we meticulously looked for matches [elsewhere].” Archive material from contemporary news reports was used to add another layer of authenticity.

Bowen, CEO of producer Dancing Ledge Productions, also admits there were discussions about when to release the miniseries, which foreshadows many of the changes brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, with shops and restaurants having to close and people being told to wash their clothes and hands and wear protective equipment to minimise the risk of exposure.

The Salisbury Poisoning’s final scenes were filmed the week before the UK went into lockdown in March, before post-production work was completed remotely to deliver the show, which debuted on BBC1 last night and continues tonight and tomorrow.

“There are definite parallels between what happened in Salisbury – with the poisoning, the invisible threat, the contagion and the sense of lockdown – and today,” Bowen says. “We were extremely careful, but we felt that, with the story of Salisbury, there’s such catharsis in watching it. In the end, it’s a story about resilience and bravery and, apart from one awful tragedy with Dawn, it’s about people pulling through and coming out the other side. We felt, for all those reasons, it was timely to show it.”

That the real-life incident drew attention outside the UK means distributor Fremantle is confident the miniseries will also interest international audiences. “This series is based on true events that made headlines around the globe. While audiences will remember these headlines, they will learn a completely new side: the story of ordinary people who became heroes overnight,” says Jens Richter, Fremantle CEO of international.

“International broadcasters have been incredibly impressed by the series, which has been told with upmost care by our partners Laurence and Chris [Carey] at Dancing Ledge.”

Filled with tension as Daszkiewicz tries to contain the threat while other characters are unknowingly contaminated by the poison, the drama’s main objective is to “get under the skin of a group of people who were collateral damage to this extraordinary event,” says Dibb. “The key thing is this is a story that I don’t think can be easily pigeonholed into one thing or another. That’s one of its great strengths.”

tagged in: , , , , , ,

Dramatising Windrush

Sitting in Limbo director Stella Corradi explains how she brought to television the true story of one man’s fight to remain in the UK against the backdrop of the Windrush immigration scandal.

At one point during BBC single drama Sitting in Limbo, an immigration official tells Anthony Bryan: “It’s just routine.” Yet there is nothing routine about his story, or those of many people like him, who became caught up in the Windrush immigration scandal.

After coming to the UK when he was eight years old, Anthony decides to visit his elderly mother in Jamaica. But after filling out a passport application, he is stunned to discover there is no record of him as a British citizen, despite living and working in the country since 1965.

Faced with the uphill task of proving his British citizenship to the Immigration Office, he is forced to leave his job and unable to claim benefits. Then in the early hours of one morning, he is forcibly removed from his home and sent to a detention centre to await possible deportation.

Anthony’s experience, a true story, put him at the centre of what became known as the Windrush scandal, which takes its name from a reference to the ship that brought the first workers from Caribbean countries to the UK following the Second World War. An estimated 500,000 people arrived between 1948 and 1971.

Granted indefinite leave to remain, the new arrivals included thousands of children travelling with their parents and without documents of their own. But changes to UK immigration laws in 2012 meant those without papers were asked for evidence of their citizenship to continue working and even remain in the country.

Some were subsequently detained or deported, prompting huge criticism of the government’s “hostile environment” measures to tackle illegal immigration.

Sitting in Limbo tells the true story of Anthony Bryan, played by Patrick Robinson (second from left)

The TV retelling of Anthony’s struggle to be accepted as a British citizen, which debuts tonight, was written by his brother, Stephen S Thompson, and directed by Stella Corradi (Trigonometry). Casualty star Patrick Robinson plays Anthony, opposite Nadine Marshall (Save Me) as his partner Janet McKay-Williams.

“If you’ve been living here for 50 years and you have your whole life here, when someone tells you that you don’t, that you have no right to be here, that just has to be a mistake,” Corradi tells DQ.

“It was put to them that if they provided enough documentation to prove that his whole life was in the UK, it would somehow be resolved. But what they were asked for was almost impossible to get, like tenancy agreements from the 1970s or school records that are destroyed every few years. They targeted a certain generation that didn’t have the abilities that we might have in terms of computer research or online information, even bank account statements. Not everyone that age is online. All these things were used to take advantage of the Windrush generation.”

The director can relate to Anthony’s story through her own similar experience. Corradi was born in Italy and came to live with her grandmother in the UK when she was five.

“As I was pitching for the project, I was sorting out my Settled Status as a European citizen here [after Brexit],” she reveals. “Even though I’d been here 28 years, I had to have documentation for every month of the past five years. My daughter was born here but, because both me and my husband are European citizens, she didn’t have UK status. So until we had our Settled Status, she was basically stateless.

“When I came here as a child, I lived in Hackney [in East London] and my grandma was a musician, so I was supported by a West Indian family. I had a grandfather figure who came on the Windrush and he basically raised me. We were very close. He died a year before I started this project, but that was another thing that really connected me to it in the sense that he would have probably gone through the same thing, because I knew he didn’t have his passport. So Anthony’s story felt very close, like this could be someone from my family, or this could be any of us, really.”

The single drama is directed by Stella Corradi

The real Anthony was raised in the same area as Corradi, and they shared stories together of growing up there. “When I came over here, the Caribbean community was as British as you could get,” she remembers. “That’s the community that opened their doors for my friends, and I’d eat at their houses. For me, it was a parallel to being British. You couldn’t be more British. Everyone was shocked about the Windrush generation specifically being targeted in this hostile environment.”

Throughout the film, which is produced by Left Bank Pictures (The Crown) and distributed by Sony Pictures Television, Sitting in Limbo asks questions of identity, what it means to be British and whether that notion is something more than a piece of paper.

“It’s not about who has the right, legal or illegal. It’s how you feel. It’s your identity,” Corradi says. “If you identify as British, then it’s a betrayal when you’re told you’re not. I feel British. Yes, I’m Italian. I was born in Italy, I speak Italian and I have family there, but I wouldn’t be able to have a life there. It’s a scary thought that someone thinks I should go back there, and that’s the same thing with a lot of people.

“It doesn’t matter where you’re born, there are some people who were here as children, raised here as British and are expected to go back to Jamaica where they have no connections and are just expected to fix themselves up and live a life there. It’s not only a betrayal, it’s inhumane.”

Corradi met with executive producer Lila Rawlings, who had developed the project with Thompson, and landed the directing job by demonstrating her passion for telling Anthony’s story and her vision to dramatise it in a cinematic way. “Visually, it’s quite different from other BBC1 dramas. It’s not your like typical social realist drama,” says the director, who reunited with cinematographer Rina Yang after they worked together for Channel 4 drama anthology On the Edge. Together, they agreed this wasn’t just Anthony’s story but also that of his partner Janet, who supports the family when he is unable to work and while he is detained.

Anthony’s partner Janet (played by Nadine Marshall, right) also has a key role in the story

“She has to take up the helm and she has to become very legally savvy. She gets lawyers and gets injunction against his deportation and builds this case herself,” Corradi says. “The Windrush generation are not allowed to work. They don’t have the right to claim any benefits and they don’t have rights to legal aid, so they can’t build a case to defend themselves. It’s quite a horrible system to find yourself in, but Janet managed to get it sorted. Anthony wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Janet fighting on the outside. So the film becomes a two-hander.

“Nadine Marshall, who plays Janet, is just amazing. She is phenomenal. Every single take she did was just fantastic and you can’t take your eyes off her. She’s just one of those phenomenal actresses I don’t think has been valued enough on British TV.”

As viewers follow Anthony through the immigration system, the camera successfully conveys the stress and frustration caused by the constant demand for more paperwork and a lack of answers or resolution. Corradi says series such as Mindhunter and Mr Robot inspired the numerous bleak interview and meeting scenes between Anthony and the various officials he meets, which also stand in stark contrast to the warmth and colour of the family gatherings that bookend the film.

“You get a sense of the warmth and the closeness of the family, so when he’s ripped out of that, you’re taken with him and thrown into the cold world of the detention centre,” Corradi says.

“There’s not much handheld camerawork, it’s not gritty. It’s quite smooth and cinematic, with high angles over him. It creeps in; it’s very calculated. That sounds manipulative, but it’s how we work. You [come up with a] shot list, you plan it and then you see if it works. We changed things around a lot in the edit. It was more or less a jigsaw – we were just moving bits and bobs about. You always tell the story the third time in the edit.”

Sitting in Limbo debuts on BBC1 tonight

Filming was “stressful,” the director recalls, owing to a short schedule that sometimes called for seven-and-a-half pages of the script to be completed in a single day. The drama was largely filmed on location across North London, while prison scenes were recorded at the disused Canterbury Prison in Kent and clifftop scenes outside the detention centre were filmed at island prison The Verne, in Dorset, where Anthony was actually detained.

One of the biggest challenges of producing a single drama is balancing character development with plot, with only the opening scenes to introduce Anthony and his family before he is pulled into the immigration system.

“We want to get to know them and see what normal life is like. But there is so much that happens that we did drop a few scenes from that initial 20 minutes we had to get into the drama,” Corradi explains.

“Now you get to know Anthony and the family through the struggle. You’ve got this lovely party scene first, and you feel the warmth and get a sense of the relationship and the romance. Another thing I really love about this film is the relationship between Janet and Anthony. They’re of a certain age, and you don’t see that kind of sexy romance with people of that age on TV, so it starts with them. They have gone through something difficult but they will always be close and will always be together. Not a lot of families were so lucky.”

Corradi hopes viewers will come away from the film with a connection to the family, seeing something of themselves in them and empathising with their struggle. “I want to them to put themselves in someone’s shoes and step out of that way of thinking, ‘This would never happen to me because I’m British or because I’m white.’ I want everybody to connect and say, ‘Well, what if this was our family, would we stand by this? Would we be outraged?’”

She adds: “It’s about asking ourselves those questions, but also enjoying it as a drama and being on the emotional roller coaster with them.”

tagged in: , , , ,

The new Normal

Normal People executive producer Emma Norton and producer Catherine Magee tell DQ why the adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel strikes a chord with viewers and reveal the challenges of casting the drama and creating its intimate moments.

Since its launch on BBC3 in the UK last month, Normal People has been nothing less than a smash hit, with captivating writing, directing, acting, cinematography and music making the series the standout drama of the year so far.

It has drawn five-star reviews, broken BBC iPlayer ratings, its title and characters have trended on social media, and fan accounts celebrating more minor elements of the series have also sprung up.

Success has similarly followed in the US on coproducer Hulu and on RTÉ in Ireland, where the 30-minute drama based on Sally Rooney’s bestselling novel is set and was produced. Viewers around the world will soon be able to tune in too, with distributor Endeavor Content having sold the show into Australia (Stan), Canada (CBC Gem), Denmark (DR), Finland (YLE), Iceland (Siminn), New Zealand (TVNZ), Norway (NRK), Russia and the CIS (Kinopoisk) and Sweden (SVT).

Starzplay will also carry the series in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy, Spain, Benelux, Latin America and Japan.

Emma Norton

Produced by Element Pictures, Normal People follows the relationship between Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal, in his first television role) from the end of their school days in a small town west of Ireland to their undergraduate years at Trinity College. Through the 12 episodes, directed by Lenny Abrahamson (Room) and Hettie Macdonald (Howards End), the pair weave in and out of each other’s lives, with the series exploring the beauty and complications of intimacy and young love.

The success of the show is testament to the way the production team has translated the style and tone of Rooney’s novel to the screen, helped in part by the author’s own involvement as a co-writer on six episodes and as an executive producer.

“People really connect to it – not only with Sally’s work, but people are fascinated by her,” says Element exec producer Emma Norton. “Her contribution to the show does mean there’s a really strong line between the show and the book. And beyond the writing, having her as an exec watching the episodes, it’s nice to have that reassurance from someone who’s thought about these characters for years and years.”

“It worked like a seal of approval all the way along,” producer Catherine Magee says of having Rooney present throughout production. “As soon as people knew Sally was involved, it gave us access, particularly to places like Trinity [College, where Rooney was a student] because they’re so proud of her, and of Lenny, who also went there. Trinity is often a difficult place to film in, but they were incredibly cooperative and eager for us to use Trinity and not cheat the location, so it was great at every level.”

Based in Dublin, Element had been tracking Irish writer Rooney’s work before picking up rights to Normal People with the support of the BBC, which greenlit the project as part of the original option deal.

“We did see an early version of the book, which we were thrilled to read,” Norton says. “From the beginning, we were all really drawn into this relationship between Connell and Marianne, the delicacy of how that story was told and the intimacy and the attention to detail around their emotions.

“The opportunity to tell a story which, in essence, is a love story but in an Irish setting, and in a world we knew we could tell very truthfully and authentically, was what drew us in – and Sally’s writing is inseparable from that. There’s something about how she writes that makes you feel like it’s quite simple, these little short sentences or these unadorned moments of writing. The more you dig into those, you realise just how rich the writing is, and it was a joy to adapt.”

Normal People’s central couple are played by Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal

Norton says the adaptation process was “quite straightforward,” with the decision to chop the story into 12 bitesize chunks, rather than half-a-dozen hour-long episodes, coming early in development.

“The only thing that was challenging within that was the little ellipses of time and story that Sally uses in the book, which are harder to translate into adaptation,” she continues. “We had fun with that, so we didn’t give ourselves any rules about how the episodes should work. Sometimes they’re linear, sometimes they’re not. It’s quite fun. We see a lot of comedies in the half-hour format, so to do a drama [like that] felt quite fresh to us, and the BBC and Hulu were very supportive in allowing us to tell the story in whatever shape was best.”

Magee had similarly read the book and had previously worked with Abrahamson on Garage, Adam & Paul and Prosperity. “I was a huge Sally fan, and Lenny and I go a long way back, So for me, it was a dream collaboration,” says the producer, who boarded the project during pre-production in December 2018.

She says the biggest consideration making the series was casting, with the scripts making her acutely aware of how Rooney’s novel is really only about two characters with some small supporting roles, most notably Connell’s mother, Lorraine (played by Sarah Greene).

Catherine Magee

“We were keen to cast not necessarily very well-known actors, and you have to feel that whoever is cast in those roles can carry it and sustain it,” she explains. “We cast Paul very quickly, actually. He was an immediate fit. He’d done no TV previously – he was just out of drama school in Dublin – but we knew as soon as we saw him that he was right. He was immediately Connell. He’s not from Dublin, which helped, and he has an emotional depth to him.”

Norton picks up: “There’s a physical strength that also fits to Connell as a sportsperson whose popularity has come through a different side to his personality; it’s not purely intellectual. Some of the people who auditioned for Connell were quite bookish, which is one side of Connell, but Paul inhabited all of it.

“He’s a very charismatic actor who immediately pulls the camera, so we were really confident about casting him. The search for Marianne was trickier; that took us quite a while. The casting director saw about 1,000 self-taped auditions – we had actors coming from the US, the UK and obviously a lot of Irish actors, so that was a tricky one. Eventually, we found Daisy and we did some chemistry reads with her and Paul. As soon as we put the two of them together, we instantly knew we had our characters.”

Magee adds: “Catherine and I virtually started crying but had to reinstate our poker faces before giving the game away completely.”

Other considerations included the drama’s locations, with Rooney’s novel set in the particular locales of Sligo, in north-western Ireland, and around Dublin and Trinity College.

But with only two major characters, Norton says part of the appeal of the story is watching Connell and Marianne realise they share a profound connection, but don’t quite know how to handle it. “It’s so interesting watching people making mistakes with something very precious but not being able to stay away from each other,” she explains.

“There’s this really compelling thing at the heart of it, which is they found something really special and they have to live their way through it to understand what it is. That’s what makes this a love story particularly deep. They don’t just fall in love and then they’re happy.”

The casting team immediately knew first-time TV actor Mescal was right for the role of Connell

In the scriptwriting process, which saw Rooney collaborate with Alice Birch (Succession) and Mark O’Rowe (Boy A), extra care was given to translating the interior aspect of the novel and how Marianne and Connell’s inner thoughts could be dramatised. Abrahamson employs a handheld style that delivers a sense of closeness and intimacy, particularly in the many silent, contemplative moments where the characters – and viewers – are allowed to pause in between dialogue scenes.

“But at the same time, he wanted to create some production value and see some of the locations like Sligo’s beaches, Trinity and Italy where it opens up,” Magee says. “Both Lenny and Hettie set out to find the intimacy in it.

“The show attracts very subtle emotional shifts with the characters, so we have to be able to really read them and observe what’s going on when often not much other than their eyes shifting is happening. The actors are both incredibly skilled in this very understated performance. The camera style is designed to get you close enough to be able to experience what they’re experiencing.”

Normal People is also notable for the numerous sex scenes that take place between Connell and Marianne, with intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien working on the series to bring an authenticity to the portrayal of sex without placing any pressure or discomfort on the cast.

“It was the first time Lenny, Hattie or myself had worked with an intimacy coordinator, and it was really successful,” Magee says. “It just feels like a very mature, responsible way of approaching sex scenes. I would never do it without the coordinator again. We met Ita in the early stages of prep and discussed with her what we wanted emotionally from the scenes and what they meant. It went from that to a very practical conversation about what we wanted to happen in those scenes mechanically.

Edgar-Jones pictured during filming for the Sally Rooney adaptation

“By the time you turn up on set on the day, everybody knows exactly what’s going on. And in many ways, those days become almost the most organised days you can have. It’s very, very clear. She’s there on set with the cast and with Lenny or Hettie, and she checks in with them all the time. Sometimes she’ll speak to them on their own to make sure they’re comfortable, and she also checks in with them afterwards. It’s a very good way to work.”

For Norton, Normal People is special because of how it takes young love seriously, in a simple and understated style she describes as “really beautiful and cinematic.” So far, viewers seem to agree.

“It’s told carefully and thoughtfully and has the anxiety, the stresses, the isolation, the loneliness, the uncertainty of knowing what you want or what you should want that is so key to contemporary young experience,” she adds.

“It really shows two characters who are experiencing all of those challenges and not absolving themselves or resolving anything, in a way that means you can watch and go, ‘I know how that feels.’ That’s what that it has.”

With Element now adapting Rooney’s first novel, Conversations With Friends, the creative team will be hoping to recapture the magic that has made Normal People so popular.

tagged in: , , ,

Word to the wise

Peter Bowker, creator and writer of The A Word, and director Fergus O’Brien discuss making the third season of the BBC family drama and their joy at pushing sidelined characters and stories of disability into the limelight.

Delivered to the BBC at the end of November last year, there was no risk of the third season of family drama The A Word falling foul of the production shutdown that has hampered numerous series around the world as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Other projects for creator and writer Peter Bowker and lead director Fergus O’Brien haven’t been so lucky, however. Bowker is currently writing the second season of ITV’s World on Fire, which was due to start filming in September but he now expects that to be pushed back, with leading actor Jonah Hauer-King currently mid-way through the production of Disney’s live-action movie Little Mermaid.

Fergus O’Brien highlights the importance of the show’s Lake District setting

“It starts to get complicated because they also wanted to film the first block in Spain, which doesn’t help. But I am actually writing,” Bowker tells DQ. “The one bit of certainty they’re trying to cling on to is that they will have all the scripts before they start because they want to schedule it. Availability might mean it will have to be one of those incredible jigsaws.”

Writing World on Fire, which is locked in the past, means he isn’t troubled by questions about whether he should refer to Covid-19. But for crime dramas, “all the alibis for this period of time will stack up because they’ll say, ‘I was in the house for six months.’ So every series will have to factor in a six-month spell where nobody committed crime,” he remarks. “I’m also writing a romantic comedy and there’s references to the past in it all the time and I keep thinking, ‘I’m writing something in the future and I don’t know what it’s going to be.’ Who knows?”

Meanwhile, O’Brien was due to film a block of the second season of another BBC drama, historical series Gentleman Jack, although he is now doubtful that will take place at all this year. He has, instead, returned to his documentary roots to help develop a programme charting the UK’s entire response to the pandemic.

“It’s going to be really interesting,” he says. “There’s quite a lot to keep in your head because it’s quite strict about what you can get out there and film and UGC [user-generated content], which is quite in vogue at the moment, is pretty unsatisfying.”

Peter Bowker

For now, there are no such worries for The A Word, which has won critical and audience acclaim since it first aired in 2016. Based on Israeli drama Yellow Peppers, it follows the Hughes family in the Lake District, where they are struggling to raise youngest son Joe (Max Vento), who is diagnosed with autism. Now, two years on from season two, Joe is 10 and living in two places at once following the divorce of his parents Alison (Morven Christie) and Paul (Lee Ingleby).

“It’s one of the few times the writer says, ‘I’m really glad it’s been such a long gap between seasons’ and actually means it because what it allowed us to do was move the family all into a new phase,” Bowker says of the central family, which has splintered in several directions. “Joe is now that little bit older. His next phase would be puberty, so that creates new challenges and new issues around it. Alison’s in Manchester, Paul’s in the Lakes still. We’ve got a family that’s split into two different places and a child with autism to deal with.”

Produced by Fifty Fathoms and Keshet UK, The A Word doesn’t just focus on the central members of the family but enjoys the company of other figures, such as Alison’s brother Eddie (Greg McHugh), their father Maurice (Christopher Eccleston) and Eddie’s wife Nicola (Vinette Robinson). Bowker says a big change in season three is how the drama has begun to widen its focus further on to these characters and others with disabilities, such as Mark (Travis Smith), the son of Sophie, who works at Paul’s pub.

“The second episode is really Mark’s episode with Paul, which Fergus filmed, where Travis declares his intention to try to join the army and it becomes a story about the responsibility of those trying to encourage somebody with a disability to fulfil their potential and where you draw the line by saying, ‘That’s unrealistic’ and where you say, ‘Let that person try and fail,’ and how you then deal with that. It’s a bit of a road movie, too,” Bowker says.

Max Vento and Molly Wright as Rebecca and Joe Hughes

Distributed by Keshet International, season three sees new cast members including Julie Hesmondhalgh (Broadchurch), David Gyasi (Troy: Fall of a City) and Sarah Gordy (Call The Midwife), with Bowker calling the introduction of Gordy, who has Down’s syndrome, as one of the “joys” of the series as her character, Katie, embarks on a relationship with Ralph (Leon Harrop), who also has Down’s.

“It’s a story about a young couple trying to break away from their parents and make their way in the world,” Bowker explains. “It’s a rite of passage we’ve seen before and it’s doing that through the filter of the fact they have Down’s syndrome. I’ve tried to always flip the expectations so that it’s often about the young people with learning disabilities managing their parents’ expectations, rather than the other way around.

“Chris Eccleston gives a kind of bravura performance throughout the whole thing but his relationship with Leon and his onscreen chemistry with the Ralph character makes them just this great double act.”

Ralph and Katie share just one of the blossoming romances this season, alongside Alison and new character Ben (Gyasi) and between Paul and Sarah (Gemma Paige North), the neurotic parent of Bill, a child who has hearing difficulties. “It’s very sweet,” Bowker notes, “because I created this character of Sarah as the butt of everybody’s jokes in two seasons, so the luxury of having a third season means you can suddenly flip it and Paul sees something in her he hasn’t seen before. It’s that classic one where in the [school] sixth form you’ve spent all this time taking the piss out of this girl and then you end up going out with her.”

Sarah’s evolution through the series is one that Bowker has been able to complete with a third season of The A Word, as he has been able to play with his ensemble of characters and subvert viewers’ expectations of them along the way.

Sarah Gordy and Leon Harrop depict the relationship of a couple with Down’s syndrome

“We know what Morris’s reaction is going to be to something. We expect him to be either blundering or have a use of language that’s incredibly insensitive, and sometimes it’s nice to fight that and he shows himself to be remarkably sensitive, but you know you’re surprising the audience,” he explains. “The joy for me [this season] was running with the Ralph and Morris relationship, which we’d seen something of almost by accident in season two.

“With Joe, he is more verbal than he was, he has more speech, but he often uses that speech in a way to still keep the world at arm’s length, and that’s far more challenging for Max, the actor. When I look now at what a baby he was in the first season, it’s quite a shock to me. Everything was instinctive and you just had to play with that. Fergus is probably the first director who’s been in a director-actor relationship with him. He would ask questions, you would explain things, whereas before it was often a case of working round Max’s instincts. He’s great. He grew as an actor before your very eyes.”

“He’s an extraordinary talent,” agrees O’Brien, who had watched the first two seasons and then rewatched them while preparing to shoot season three. “The difference with him this time was he really responded to being treated like an actor and to being talked to about what he thought his character would do in that situation and giving him that status as somebody who knew his character probably better than a lot of people. He really rose to that. Max just seems to have an instinct. He would know where to be, what to bring to his face and what to do with his hands in a really interesting way and brought truth to what he was doing.”

Coming from a documentary background and fact-based dramas such as Mother’s Day and Against The Law, the director says he was mindful of respecting the style of the series, harnessing the power of the Lake District setting and finding a visual rhythm to Bowker’s writing. “Things would slow down when they needed to slow down and be still so you could really be in an emotional moment, or if it was something that deserved to have more movement and more energy, then we would bring that,” he says. “It was just working to the undulation and the writing. That’s all I wanted to try and amplify a bit more if I could.”

Divorced mum Alison (Morven Christie) and her dad Maurice (Christopher Eccleston)

That rhythm is affected by Joe’s increasing self-empowerment. In season one, he is somebody that things happen to and decisions made about. Now events play out from Joe’s point of view, meaning the show and the show’s “grammar” both moved forward this season.

O’Brien says his aim was to acknowledge Joe and make it clear he was now seeing and hearing what was going on around him, even if he wasn’t responding in the moment. “Even to just let the audience be party to wondering what that might be felt like an extra element I could bring to it.”

Directing the series was “a gift to be able to tell stories that we’re not used to seeing or points of view that we’re not used to seeing on TV,” he adds. “Working with Leon and Sarah and watching their love story, there’s a real richness to that.”

Bowker is rightly proud of writing a mainstream drama that shines a light on people and stories that are usually marginalised on television. “That’s the thing that’s most joyous for me,” he concludes. “And from Lee, Morven, Chris and Pooky [Quesnel, who plays Ralph’s mother Louise], the support the cast lend to this can’t be underestimated. My experience with actors is they’re incredibly hardworking, incredibly accommodating and when they’re responding to work they appreciate, they’re second to none in adjusting and adapting.

“Another joy was having two actors like Julie and David come in, own it and become part of the A Word family, because I like to write about families that are unconventional and find a way of being and are legitimate.”

tagged in: , , , , , , , , ,

About a boy

Executive producers Faith Penhale and Mona Qureshi open the book on the BBC’s adaptation of Vikram Seth’s 1,300-page novel A Suitable Boy, a coming-of-age story set in North India in the 1950s.

“The journey starts with your belief in something – your story, your project,” says Faith Penhale of beginning development for a TV series. “Your passion for it is the thing that drives you through, and your partners come on at different stages at the right point in time. Everything has to begin with ‘I really want to tell that story.’ For us, that journey began with Vikram’s book.”

Running to more than 1,300 pages, Vikram Seth’s 1993 novel A Suitable Boy is one of the longest books written in the English language. It centres on the coming of age of spirited university student Lata (Tanya Maniktala), unfolding in North India in 1951 as the country is carving out its own identity as an independent nation and is about to stage its first democratic general election.

Lata (Tanya Maniktala) and Mrs Rupa Mehra (Mahira Kakkar) in A Suitable Boy

Lata’s mother is determined to find her a husband – a suitable boy – but Lata, torn between family duty and the excitement of romance, embarks on her own epic journey of love and self-discovery.

Connected to Lata through their siblings’ marriage, the wayward Maan (Bollywood star Ishaan Khatter) is determined to enjoy life to the full whatever the consequences, much to the concern of his politician father. But could his infatuation with beautiful courtesan Saaeda Bai (Tabu) be one step too far?

Charting the fortunes of four large families, the vast story explores India and its rich culture at a crucial point in its history as the election looms and the country decides its destiny.

But there’s also another story: the tale of how A Suitable Boy came to be adapted for the BBC. “It was published more than 25 years ago and, in the last 10 years of my career, I have been regularly phoning Vikram’s agent to try to wrinkle out the rights,” explains Penhale, CEO of producer Lookout Point. “Vikram was notoriously cautious about who he might let adapt his book. It’s an expansive novel that tells the story of a young woman searching for her identity at a time when India, newly post-partition, was also searching for its identity.

“It’s a great story for our time today but it’s also quite particular. It speaks to that moment in mid-20th century India, so it’s got a great aesthetic to it. Ultimately, it’s a big family drama about the tensions that pull through us as a girl decides her own fate and her own life choices.”

Faith Penhale

Penhale says that although Seth wrote the novel from his own experiences, the story is easily accessible for a global audience, hence her determination to secure rights to the book. “Every six months, I was speaking to his agent. And in one conversation, his agent let slip that the only person Vikram would want to adapt his novel is Andrew Davies,” she reveals. “He had spoken many times about how the novel is greatly influenced by Leo Tolstoy and Jane Austen and that what he’d really love to do is find a screenwriter with a proven track record in adapting these epic classics.”

Having reworked Tolstoy’s War & Peace and Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables for the BBC and Austen’s Emma for ITV, Davies was sought to bring the same approach to A Suitable Boy. Penhale’s existing relationship with Davies brought him and Seth together, creating a partnership that “unlocked” the project. Award-winning Indian filmmaker Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) then came on board to direct all six episodes of her first TV series.

“After securing Andrew, we went straight to the BBC and – this is quite unusual – within 24 hours Piers [Wenger, controller of drama] and Charlotte [Moore, director of content] greenlit it. And 24 hours after that, Mira was on board,” Penhale recalls. “This had been a passion for Mira, unbeknown to us. We were huge fans of her, and within 24 hours Mira called us up and said, ‘So I’ve got to do this.’ Who were we to argue with that?”

Mona Qureshi, who executive produces A Suitable Boy for the BBC, says Wenger also loved the book and that everyone in the industry had been keeping tabs on the screen rights.

“We had these fantastic scripts and Mira came to it and brought her own layer of reinvention because it’s my history, my dad’s, but [Lata is] also a child born at the time of partition,” Qureshi says. “The things she spoke about, the experiences she had, the lookbook she came to us with, all the locations she knew that visually speak to that story – it’s about finding the story on a domestic level and then its resonance on an international level.

Optimistic that viewers will “engage and identify” with A Suitable Boy as much as they have with Amazon Prime series The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, which focuses on a female stand-up comic in the 1950s, Qureshi notes: “It’s a similar story of somebody trying to decide how to be happy without making anyone else happy, and dealing with conflicts of keeping your family happy while trying to do your own thing in an independent way and departing from tradition.”

L-R: Vikram Seth, Ishaan Khatter, Mira Nair, Tabu, Tanya Maniktala and Andrew Davies

Filming for the BBC Studios-distributed series was completed at the end of last year, having taken in a number of locations across India, including Lucknow and Maheshwar, and it will air later this year. “We have been really fortunate to find the most extraordinary locations,” Penhale says. “It hopefully has that flavour, that real sense of place that feels so critical to the experience when you read the book. We want to capture that feeling.”

The effort to fully realise the book on screen has been enhanced further by Seth’s close involvement with Davies and Nair behind the scenes. “It’s a triumvirate because we have had Mira, Vikram and Andrew working very closely together throughout the adaptation,” Penhale says. “There have been multiple, lengthy, very open, collaborative and discursive sessions using Andrew’s scripts.

“What’s so wonderful about the result, we hope, is it feels it has all the skill of a very well-crafted story. Andrew’s there as a screenwriter but it’s absolutely rooted in the authenticity of Vikram’s story and where it came from. Mira talks a lot about authenticity but she says it’s not authentic in a dreary or worthy way but in a way where truth is more wonderful than fiction, more magical and magnificent. That’s what she’s really brought out – the magnificent.”

India has become a hotbed of international drama series in recent years, on the heels of Netflix and Amazon’s expansion into the country with original series such as Delhi Crime and Sacred Games. UK broadcaster ITV, meanwhile, recently aired India-set period drama Beecham House. The show came from Bend It Like Beckham director Gurinder Chadha, who is now developing a series called The God Man, which centres on the charismatic leader of a religious sect.

“The really key thing [in India] is understanding and respecting the world,” Penhale says about filming in the country. “Your story is the reason for being there, but it’s not just about reversing in with your own techniques, styles and approaches. The thing we’ve really learned is we are working in a totally different system and style. We’re the ones who have to adapt to that. You adapt to it, you find fantastic teams with real experience and you go with that system. You don’t bring your own. It’s a totally new way of working.”

So, is she planning a return visit? “It’s been amazing. We would go back in a heartbeat,” Penhale adds. “We all hope Vikram might write a sequel.”

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , ,

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.”

tagged in: , , , , , , , ,

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.”

tagged in: , , , , , , ,

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.”

tagged in: , , , , ,

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.”

tagged in: , , ,

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.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.”

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , ,

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.”

tagged in: , ,

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?”

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , ,

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.”

tagged in: , , , ,

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.”

tagged in: , , , ,

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.

tagged in: , , , , ,