Tag Archives: BBC

Pol position

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

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

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

Debbie Horsfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Over the Years

From the team behind Queer as Folk, Linda Green, Bob & Rose and Cucumber comes BBC drama Years and Years, in which the complex lives of one family are followed over the next decade and a half as Britain is rocked by unstable political, economic and technological advances.

Rory Kinnear plays Stephen Lyons, a financial advisor and the family’s peacekeeper who is married to Celeste (T’Nia Miller), an ambitious and opinionated accountant.

Russell Tovey is Daniel Lyons, a hard-working housing officer and Stephen’s brother. Their sisters are Edith (Jessica Hynes), radical, dangerous and calculating with a secret life, and Rosie (Ruth Madeley). Anne Reid presides over the family as Muriel, imperial grandmother to the Lyons.

Emma Thompson also stars as Vivienne Rook, an outspoken celebrity turned political figure whose controversial opinions divide the nation.

In this DQTV interview, writer Russell T Davies and executive producer Nicola Shindler look back at the origins of the project explain how they pulled together its “extraordinary” cast.

Davies also describes how he works with actors and why a family saga is a great foundation for television drama, while Shindler outlines the challenges of making the often horrifying future-gazing series that attempts to stay ahead of real-life events.

Years and Years is produced by Red Production Company for BBC1 in the UK, France’s Canal+ and US premium cablenet HBO, and is distributed by StudioCanal.

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The spy who loved me

As Killing Eve’s second season launches in the UK, star Jodie Comer and exec producer Sally Woodward Gentle extol the contribution of head writer Emerald Fennell, discuss the show’s female perspective and tease the changing relationship between the main characters.

With TV drama occupying an increasingly lofty position in the minds of viewers and talent alike, it’s not uncommon these days for big new shows to be given premieres comparable to those usually reserved for Hollywood blockbusters.

Indeed, an esteemed London location complete with free-flowing wine and delicately assembled canapés is par for the course when it comes to providing the first glimpse of any drama series a major broadcaster gives two hoots about.

So it’s indicative of the reverence in which Killing Eve is held that the UK premiere for the spy thriller’s second season felt like a notch above, even in this landscape. At a preposterously packed Curzon cinema in Soho, the red carpet was quite literally rolled out for the stars of the BBC America hit, with DQ barely able to squeeze through the throng to grab a well-deserved glass of said wine.

Despite mostly comprising journalists and those who worked on the show, the attendees’ excitement at being among the first in the country to see Killing Eve’s return was palpable, with a steady succession of people being told politely but firmly to ‘please wait for the announcement’ as they attempted to get into the auditorium early and secure the best seats.

Writer Emerald Fennell with Damon Thomas, who directed several episodes of season two

High expectations are natural when a show’s debut season performs as well as Killing Eve’s, drawing both critical and audience acclaim and becoming one of VoD platform BBC iPlayer’s most popular shows ever.

For those in the dark, the series stars Sandra Oh as intelligence agent Eve Polastri, who becomes obsessed with the slippery, psychopathic assassin she is attempting to apprehend, Jodie Comer’s Villanelle.

The second season has just finished airing stateside on BBC America ahead of hitting UK screens on BBC1 this Saturday. It will air weekly on the linear network, while all episodes will again be made available simultaneously on iPlayer.

Based on Luke Jennings’ Codename Villanelle novella series, the first season saw Eve and Villanelle’s unique game of cat and mouse unfold across Europe, climaxing with Eve stabbing Villanelle during a tender moment in the trained killer’s Paris apartment. The supporting cast is led by Fiona Shaw as Eve’s boss, Carolyn Martens, and Kim Bodnia as Villanelle’s handler, Konstantin. One notable addition to this year’s cast is The Mighty Boosh star Julian Barratt, as a loner who encounters Villanelle in the first episode.

Off camera, the most significant change for season two is that head writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge, creator and star of the equally critic-pleasing Fleabag, has taken a back seat, remaining an executive producer while Emerald Fennell takes the writing reins.

An author and actor best known for playing nurse Patsy Mount in BBC period drama Call the Midwife and due to play Camilla Parker Bowles in the third season of Netflix’s The Crown, Fennell’s appointment as head writer on Killing Eve represents a significant step up. However, any fears that the switch would impact the show’s singular style evaporate in the opening scene – which takes place just seconds after the end of the first season – with the drama again smoothly combining laugh-out-loud moments with abrupt and sometimes brutal violence.

Jodie Comer returns as Villanelle, who begins season two badly wounded

Exec producer Sally Woodward Gentle of producer Sid Gentle Films says: “We’d worked with Emerald before as an actor and also as a writer – we’ve optioned various books that she’s written. She’s also a very good friend of Phoebe, so it felt like a natural handing-on.

“She’s got an amazingly dark sense of humour and a fearlessness like Phoebe had. But at the same time, she didn’t just want to ‘do a Phoebe.’ She wanted to inhabit it herself, and I think she’s done that brilliantly.

“Emerald’s got a brilliant deadpan, dark sense of humour, and the more deadpan she plays it, the funnier it gets. They are really funny episodes, and Phoebe is just hilarious. So between the two of them, they’re a really good mix.”

Comer, who recently won the best actress Bafta for her performance in the show, adds: “The writing is absolutely different. Phoebe and Emerald are so similar but they’re genius writers in their own right. I feel like Emerald really captured the heart of the show and the characters. We’ve got a really strong star.”

With Woodward Gentle, Waller-Bridge and Fennell steering things off camera and Comer and Oh front and centre on screen, Killing Eve is very much a women-led project, despite being based on a property created by a man. “We read Luke’s books and really liked them and enjoyed this female assassin, enjoyed the fact there were two women [as the main characters],” Woodward Gentle says. “But to give that a female spin, and tell that story via a woman, we felt was a far more interesting way into it and something we hadn’t really seen before.

“We’ve seen female assassins actually behaving in quite a two-dimensional way [in other movies and series]. Having a woman write it and giving all those layers to the women in all of the roles was what excited us and made us think that this was not going to be La Femme Nikita or something else that we’ve seen.

Sandra Oh won a Golden Globe for her performance as Eve in season one

“But we’ve also got some phenomenal men who work on the show, so it’s really a combination of some extraordinary women and some quite sweet, slightly capable men,” the exec producer jokes.

Comer says she feels “extremely lucky” that her past five parts have been written by women, with her recent roles coming in shows such as Starz period drama The White Princess, written by Emma Frost, and Marnie Dickens’ BBC series Thirteen.

“I feel as though a lot of the roles I’ve played have been complex and challenging, and Villanelle is the cherry on the cake,” she says. “As an actress and a human being, you want to be challenged and to push yourself into new depths that you may not have been to before. These scripts and this show definitely give me that.”

As Russian Villanelle, Liverpudlian Comer uses practically every accent other than her own to play the deceptive globe-trotting assassin, effortlessly slipping from native-sounding French to posh English southerner. But rather than any formal training, Comer puts her vocal authenticity down to her childhood. “Growing up, me and my dad, if there was an advert on the telly with someone with a silly voice, we’d always impersonate it around the house, joking around. And I think, through doing that, I’ve now got an ear for it.

“Some are a lot harder than others, don’t get me wrong – I do have to concentrate and work. For me it helps because, when I’m doing my own accent, I find it harder to separate myself from the character for some. But also you don’t see a lot of Scousers on the telly, so maybe we need to change that up a little bit!”

Season two begins with a badly wounded Villanelle fleeing her apartment and evading the authorities on the way to seeking urgently needed medical treatment. Eve, shaken up from the pair’s encounter and unsure of Villanelle’s fate, hurriedly returns to London, where she soon begins working with Carolyn again despite ostensibly being sacked in season one.

Oh alongside Fiona Shaw as spy boss Carolyn Martens

Comer clearly relished returning to the character that has made her a star on both sides of the Atlantic. Discussing the appeal of playing Villanelle, she says: “She’s so free; she has no sense of consequence or fear.”

Turning to Woodward Gentle, the actor adds: “I remember you saying, Sally, ‘What would it be like to wake up and have no fear?’ To be able to play that, it is literally playing. You get to do all this crazy stuff and express all these emotions, or lack of emotions. It’s so much fun to play.”

A large amount of that fun can apparently be found in the scenes where Villanelle kills people. “What I really enjoy about the murders in the show,” says Comer, pausing at the absurdity of her statement, “is that they’re not always what you expect. Honestly, the murders are the best days on set, purely because most of the time they’re outrageous. Nothing’s ever quite what you think. It’s just so much fun.”

The actor admits to being surprised by the direction the story takes in the second run. While Villanelle found herself reciprocating her pursuer’s infatuation with her throughout the first season, it’s reasonable to assume being stabbed would puncture those feelings, with the actor expecting her character to think, “It’s payback time.” But in fact, the opposite is true: in Villanelle’s eyes, Eve – to whom she now refers as her “girlfriend” – stabbed her “to show me that she loves me.”

That seemingly bizarre conclusion is typical of the complex and contradictory relationship that drives the series. Woodward Gentle offers some insight: “We actually talked to a psychologist who is used to working with psychopaths and asked, ‘What would that stabbing mean?’ He said that it could actually mean several things: it could just raise fury and a sense of revenge, or it could confirm everything that [Villanelle] thought, which is that there is this great intimacy between them; that now they’ve bonded and it’s confirmed that they have a very special relationship. We play off both those possibilities as we run through the series.”

Despite their characters’ connection being central to the show, Comer didn’t share a great deal of screen time with Grey’s Anatomy star Oh – whom she beat to the best actress Bafta last month after Oh triumphed at the Golden Globes last year – in season one. “We’re like passing ships really, or we were in season one,” Comer says. “Whenever Sandra was in, I wasn’t, which actually kind of added to the tension when we did get together. It felt so charged.”

However, she teases more interaction between the central duo this time around. “Within season two, they do come into contact a little bit more – under what circumstances that is, I cannot say. Whenever we get together on set, we find another piece of the puzzle. We still don’t have a lot of the answers, which I don’t mind. I find it quite exciting.”

Comer’s sentiment will likely be shared by UK viewers ahead of Killing Eve’s return, after its airing across the pond drew acclaim equal to that for the first season. With a third run already confirmed, it won’t be long before that red carpet has to be rolled out again – hopefully in a more spacious venue this time.

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Ready for lift-off

Espionage thriller Summer of Rockets is the first screen work from acclaimed writer/director Stephen Poliakoff to draw on his own life, set in 1958 at the height of the Cold War. He and executive producer Helen Flint talk to DQ about merging fact and fiction.

As a writer and director for the screen over the past four decades, Stephen Poliakoff has been behind work that has amassed numerous Bafta, Emmy, Golden Globe and Peabody awards. The playwright, who learned his craft in the theatre, counts series and films such as Perfect Strangers, The Lost Prince, Friends & Crocodiles, Gideon’s Daughter, Joe’s Palace and Capturing Mary, as well as recent dramas Dancing on the Edge and Close to the Enemy, among his extensive credits.

Yet for all his fascination with the past – among many examples, Dancing on the Edge trails a black jazz group in 1930s London and Close to the Enemy is set in the aftermath of the Second World War – his latest series is the first to draw on his own family and life experiences.

Written and directed by Poliakoff, Summer of Rockets is a semi-autobiographical drama set during 1958, a year that marked the height of the Cold War as fear and suspicion clashed with the start of the mobile revolution and the Space Race. It was also the last time debutants were presented to the Queen at Buckingham Palace and the year of the Notting Hill riots in West London.

Stephen Poliakoff, writer and director of Summer of Rockets, pictured during filming

Poliakoff says the fact it is partly based on his own life marks Summer of Rockets out as “significantly different” from anything he’s done for the screen before.

“My first real memories are from this time – I was five in 1958 – so I could feel, even as a small child, the apprehension in the air, the feel of nuclear war,” he says. “The Russians were the enemy and yet I was half-Russian, so that made me feel an extraordinary sense isolation as a child. I was also sent to boarding school, as we see in the story, and was the only Jewish boy there. That was why I was drawn to this time.

“There’s a lot of resonance for us now, as Russia again seems to be our enemy and there is also unfortunately, tragically, anti-Semitism in Europe and it’s coming back to the UK. Well, it never goes away. But above all, it was a sense of the absolute epicentre of the Cold War; the fact nobody could be trusted, especially if they were foreigners.”

Another parallel between that period and today, he notes, is the “humiliation” of the Suez Crisis in 1958, which left Britain “a laughing stock” on the world stage. “Things have happened since I’ve written the piece and we’ve become a laughing stock for very different reasons, with people harking back to a sense of our past glories, which also plays a part in the story,” Poliakoff says. “This is not a story about Brexit or a metaphor for it, but nevertheless there are resonances in the piece.”

Toby Stephens (Black Sails) stars as Samuel Petrukhin, a Russian Jewish émigré modelled on Poliakoff’s father Alexander, an inventor and designer of hearing aids, whose clients include former UK prime minister Winston Churchill. The series also focuses on Samuel’s wife, Miriam (Lucy Cohu), and their children, Hannah (Lily Sacofsky) and Sasha (Toby Woolf). In the show, having developed a new paging system for hospitals, Samuel is is approached by the UK’s domestic intelligence agency MI5 to demonstrate his work.

Set in 1958, the series stars Toby Stephens as Samuel, who is based on Poliakoff’s father

However, it’s not his inventions the agency (led by Mark Bonnar’s mysterious Field) is interested in but his fledging friendship with MP Richard Shaw (Linus Roache) and his wife Kathleen (Keeley Hawes), who also introduce him to Lord Arthur Wellington (Timothy Spall). As Samuel’s life becomes intertwined with his mission, he is left to question how far he is willing to let things unravel for his cause and who he can trust.

It was Poliakoff’s discovery that his father had been suspected of bugging Churchill’s hearing aid, a revelation he first heard when a journalist contacted him about newly released government papers in 2007, that sparked the story behind Summer of Rockets,

“It took me a long time to think about writing it because it meant revisiting my youth and a very traumatic time at boarding school,” he says. “I also tend to write slightly away from my immediate family experience because I find it easier to invent like that. But, after quite a considerable while, because the story kept haunting me, I broached it to the BBC.”

His father’s work, he explains, is truthfully reflected in the story by his hearing aids business, the deaf workers he employs in the factory and his invention of the paging system, which he created for St Thomas’ Hospital in London.

“But I always saw that as a jumping-off point for Keeley’s side of the story,” Poliakoff continues. “My father was besotted with everything English; he was a real anglophile. He was a Russian Jew but he wanted to be an English gentleman, so there’s the story of him being involved in this English upper-class family who have their own darkness and trauma hidden away in a magnificent house. They have charm and grace, they entertain people, but this covers a deep unhappiness.

“My father would have loved to have been entertained in such a house, so that was what led me from that jumping-off point for the fictitious side of the story, but it’s based on the sort of things my father loved and was attracted to by English life and aspired to. The story curve shows Samuel learning that he doesn’t want to be the perfect English gentleman.”

Bodyguard and The Durrells star Keeley Hawes plays Samuel’s wife, Miriam

Through the first episode, the story is laid bare against the backdrop of rockets being launched and rising anxiety over what might lie ahead, coupled with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder that stem from the still-raw fallout of the Second World War. Samuel’s technological achievements also shine a light on how industry was set to move forward rapidly over the next decade.

“When you have six hours of television drama, it’s a big canvas. The joy of longform is that you can build a complex world and you can delve deeper into character than you can in a two-hour movie,” Poliakoff says. “It’s great to try to be ambitious when you’re given that length of screen time.”

Helen Flint, MD of Little Island Productions and Poliakoff’s long-time producing partner, admits the writer’s outlines need very little development as they are often fully formed, “very detailed and very ambitious” by the time she becomes involved.

“The thing is to identify where and how you’re actually going to make it happen,” she says. “Both of us have been around far too long. Therefore, between us and the heads of department, we can work out how to put this on the screen, which is our craft.”

With all of Poliakoff’s work filmed on location, the first task on Summer of Rockets was to find the house belonging to Richard and Kathleen Shaw, which is a constant presence during all six episodes. They eventually settled on Benington Lordship, a grand setting close to Stevenage, 35 miles north of London, which is notable for the Norman keep adjoining the 17th century house and expansive gardens.

Catastrophe’s Mark Bonnar plays the head of MI5

“The other important thing was when to film it, because getting lucky with sunshine in this country is not a given – so the schedule is everything,” Flint says.

Finding London streets that could double for the time period also proved problematic, with the slums of Notting Hill in 1958 far removed from the affluent neighbourhood it is today. Another set piece saw a queue of 1950s cars lined up along The Mall, leading to Buckingham Palace, which was filmed early in the morning to avoid the crowds of tourists usually occupying the area.

“It takes a huge amount of work, more work than anybody would imagine, weeks and weeks, and then huge amounts in post-production just to paint out silly lines and stuff like that,” Flint says of filming in London. “After that, it’s all of the countryside, the driving [scenes] and the minutiae. But because we’ve got a cast that is working all the time, we have to try to jigsaw them all in, which is very complicated at certain points. Once you have those actors, the schedule is dictated by that. Then other problems come to the fore because if they’re not available, you can’t do the locations. London exteriors are the hardest, and then piecing it together is a massive jigsaw.”

In some cases, however, the reality on which some of the series is based was too extreme to be dramatised. Poliakoff decided to tone down scenes where Sasha is at boarding school, as his own experiences at school were too “draconian” to be depicted exactly as he remembered.

Summer of Rockets debuts on BBC2 tomorrow

“When I started writing it, I realised it had to be more interesting and more inventive than the actual thing I experienced, which in reality was relentlessly grim,” he says. “A little bit of that was fine, but I didn’t think an audience would stand for that being repeated in each scene. So, oddly enough, the bit that was closest to reality was the most difficult to write.”

The series sees Poliakoff reunited with Stephens, who starred in his 2001 family reunion drama Perfect Strangers, while this was his first time working with Hawes despite having known her since she was just 19. “She starred in my wife Sandy Welch’s adaptation of Our Mutual Friend 20 years ago,” he recalls of the actor, who has recently starred in Line of Duty, The Durrells and Bodyguard. “I’ve known her for some time and we’ve always wanted to work together. She’s phenomenal in her role, which is a really very juicy role, so I’m thrilled. I think she gives one of her greatest performances.”

Following Summer of Rockets’ launch on UK pubcaster BBC2 tomorrow, all six episodes will be made available on the pubcaster’s VoD platform iPlayer. The drama is distributed internationally by BBC Studios. “‘Bingeable’ is not the prettiest word but, actually, I think my work was born to be binged,” Poliakoff notes. “People over the years have always told me they’ve sat down to watch something like Perfect Strangers, which is only four hours long. They tend to watch the first part and then they’re there four hours later.

“So I very much hope the story has that effect. It does have quite a powerful story that gathers and evolves and changes. It’s great for people to watch it in a linear way or in an immersive way. Either way, I hope people will really get into it.”

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Jack and Jones

Sally Wainwright writes and directs Gentleman Jack, which sees Suranne Jones play Anne Lister, a landowner, industrialist, traveller and diarist who is often referred to as the ‘first modern lesbian.’ DQ visits the set of the BBC and HBO period drama.

The entrance to Shibden Hall is marked by imposing black iron gates and stone walls, with a large stone lion making its presence felt. The grand house, which dates back to 1420, is noticeable for its black and white Tudor frontage and large Gothic-style tower.

Generations of residents have seen the building and its grounds undergo an extensive transformation over the years, though its biggest evolution came during the ownership of its most famous resident. Anne Lister added the tower for use as a library where she could write, while also installing terraced gardens and a boating lake, with views from the grounds overlooking the stunning Shibden Valley scenery.

It’s here at the house near the English town of Halifax, West Yorkshire, where the majority of filming took place for an eight-part miniseries about the life of Lister – landowner, industrialist, traveller, diarist and the woman described as the first modern lesbian. The way she dressed and conducted herself saw her given the nickname – and the show’s title – Gentleman Jack.

The BBC1 and HBO series opens in 1832, when Lister (played by Suranne Jones) returns from Hastings to Shibden Hall after discovering that her would-be companion and lover, the aristocratic Vere Hobart (Jodhi May), has accepted a marriage proposal from a man.

Sally Wainwright

Despite her affection for her elderly aunt (Gemma Jones), Anne is frustrated by the shabbiness of her ancestral home and finds her father (Timothy West) and long-suffering sister (Gemma Whelan) difficult to live with.

However, when Anne discovers that her land is rich in coal, her plans to transform the estate provide a welcome distraction from her broken heart. On the neighbouring estate, Crow Nest, shy heiress Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle) is quietly delighted to hear that the charismatic Lister is back.

On a bright but extremely blustery September day last year at Shibden Hall, filming is continuing inside the dark, constricted rooms, presenting a significant task for the lighting crew. Only the small bedrooms have been recreated in a studio, giving Gentleman Jack the remarkable authenticity of filming in Lister’s real-life home.

The historic house is usually open to members of the public, though filming between April and November has seen visitor numbers restricted. Each room has been dressed immaculately for the series, with the kitchen displaying a table laid with cutlery and glasses while pans and tankards hang above the open stove. A shotgun sits above the door.

The series comes from writer and lead director Sally Wainwright (Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax), who has long been fascinated by Lister. “What made me want to write about her primarily was just her character, just what an extraordinarily huge personality she was and the outrageous brilliant bold things she did,” she explains on set.

“I couldn’t imagine who could play Anne Lister because there are so many facets to her personality. She’s so extraordinary. She’s this mass of contradictions, she’s very bold and brilliant and she did so many fantastic, extraordinary things. It was hard to imagine anybody on the planet being able to embody all of that. I think the number of people who could play this part, there’s probably about one of them – we got her.”

Suranne Jones (Doctor Foster) as Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack

The actor in question is Jones, who first teamed up with Wainwright on TV movie Dead Clever in 2007 before they were reunited on dramas Unforgiven and Scott & Bailey.

“I have a vague memory of [Wainwright] talking about this project because she’s written scripts before on this, but it wasn’t this,” says Jones, wearing a dressing gown in between takes but still sporting Lister’s unique hairstyle. She was asked to audition for the role and read the scripts, and admits she was intrigued to work with Wainwright the director, having previously only worked with her as a writer.

“The work started when I got the call to say yes. A year ago, I then said give me everything. So I got five books sent through, I got a dissertation sent through, some of Sally’s notes sent through. Then we came here and walked all the way round Shibden and stomped over to the coal mines. We even fed some pigs on the way.”

Rehearsals started just before Christmas 2017, with Wainwright keen to afford Jones time to allow her performance to “germinate” as the actor tried to soak up the Bafta-winning writer’s years of research into Lister’s life. “It was very thorough and it was really brilliant. We got the right person,” Wainwright notes.

The production also employed an “intimacy director,” Ita O’Brien, to ensure the actors felt comfortable during the sex scenes between Lister and Walker. Jones would run through scenes in full costume so she could practice carrying herself as the top hat-wearing Lister before the cameras started rolling. “If I hadn’t had all of that, I don’t think I’d have been able to do the part,” the actor says.

Some 320,000 words of Lister’s coded diary entries were translated to inform the drama

Jones says playing Lister has been the most demanding role of her career, becoming totally invested in playing the character through painstaking research and preparation with Wainwright. In fact, her work on BBC drama Doctor Foster, in which Jones played the central character, proved to be valuable preparation for Gentleman Jack, as she was already used to working through every beat of a series. “So when I got to this, it wasn’t a shock because I’m in a lot of it,” she says. “If I hadn’t done Doctor Foster, this might have been a shock in a way – going, ‘Oh, is it me again?’ So I was prepared for it.

“There’s so much to love [about Lister]. She is noble, unlikeable, flawed, beautiful, true to herself, and harsh to herself and to others. She’s a perfectionist, she’s a self-educator, she is an amazing lover. There’s a joyfulness about her love of women, yet there’s such a sadness when her heart’s broken – and it gets broken a lot. She is a carer, she is funny, and a bit mean. And she’s very blokeish but very sensitive. I mean, what isn’t she? She is everything. And getting to play all those things yet finding a constant was the difficult thing.”

Wainwright describes Lister as “a mass of contradictions,” which made the character incredibly hard to realise on screen. “As soon as you think of one thing to say about her, you can think of several things that contradict,” she says. “Hopefully that’s part of the excitement of the drama – that there’s a lot of conflict within her – and I hope the kind of choices we made give it an edginess.”

Central to the scriptwriting process has been Wainwright’s use of the extensive diaries Lister wrote throughout her life. Between 1806 and 1840, she filled 7,500-plus pages with around five million words, as well as writing hundreds of letters, account books and other papers that offer a fascinating insight into her life and the 19th century experience in general. But what makes the diaries unique is that her more personal thoughts – ranging from her relationships with other women and financial information to scathing comments about other residents in Halifax – were all written in code, a mixture of symbols, numbers and Greek letters that Lister appeared to switch into effortlessly.

For the series, Wainwright and advisor Anne Choma, who has written a book about Lister, translated 340,000 coded words for the first time.

Gemma Whelan (left) and Gemma Jones (right) also star in the series

“Sections of the diary have been transcribed before but never all of it,” explains Faith Penhale, executive producer on Gentlemen Jack and CEO of producer Lookout Point. “The section we were looking at, we knew elements but we didn’t know the whole thing. One of the joys that Sally’s found with this is every time you transcribe a new section of the diaries, something new arises that you didn’t know, so it does feel like we’re uncovering something. Anne Lister was a natural dramatist. She loved the drama of her own life.”

Choma consulted on the scripts from the beginning of development to help ensure Lister’s authentic voice could be heard through the series. “Sally would say Anne would write far more exciting things than she could ever dramatise,” she recalls. “We had two major themes, the affair with Ann Walker and the business rivalry with the Rawsons.

“Sally’s scripts are so strong. The big challenge was staying true to Anne Lister and making sure we were producing a portrait that Anne would recognise herself. Some bits are very difficult to get your head around, so some of the dialogue had to be adapted for modern audiences.”

Despite her extensive writing credits, Wainwright has only previously helmed episodes of crime series Happy Valley and single drama To Walk Invisible. Here, she directs the  series alongside Sarah Harding and Jennifer Perrott.

Wainwright says her approach behind the camera puts authenticity above everything else in an attempt to reflect the real Lister and the world around her. “We’re trying to make it for a modern audience as well, so people will sufficiently believe the authenticity and accuracy about the amount of research that’s gone in but equally find it entertaining as well,” she says. “It’s finding that balance. It’s finding a way of telling our story that creates a true semblance of going back into the past, but [in a way that] that will entertain people as well in the here and now and has a resonance now and has things to say, which it clearly does.”

Sophie Rundle (Peaky Blinders) plays Lister’s partner, Ann Walker

The director went against standard period drama convention by making extensive use of a steadicam on set, enabling her to capture sweeping shots of the landscape around Shibden Hall while trying to keep up with Jones.

“It’s in the diaries that Anne worked out she walked at four miles an hour. I got the electric bike out and pushed it so I got up to four miles an hour just to see how fast it was, and I was thinking, ‘That’s fucking fast.’ But I think Suranne walks faster than four miles.”

But it’s those moments at Shibden and in the surrounding countryside where Jones says she truly valued being part of the production. “Every day, even when it’s tough and there are long hours and I can’t remember my lines or whatever, you have to take a step back and breathe and go, I can’t actually believe they let us in this house because it’s her house.”

Though ostensibly a period drama, the series is thrilling from the outset, and while there are elements of it being a domestic drama, it is never dull. Lister, as played by Jones, is a whirlwind of energy, charging around the countryside, driving horse-drawn carriages or climbing walls. Most notable is the fact that the character often breaks the fourth wall to look directly into the camera, while Lister’s inner thoughts are sometimes narrated.

“I always aim to entertain, that’s my big thing,” Wainwright adds. “I always want to make people laugh. It’s got to be true and there’s got to be drama but I do find Anne Lister very funny. I think she was funny. That’s one of the things I’ve tried to do.”

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Faith healing

After its record-breaking first season, Welsh drama Un Bore Mercher (Keeping Faith) is set to return. Director Pip Broughton and Gwawr Martha Lloyd, broadcaster S4C’s drama commissioner, talk about its success and what’s in store for season two.

It was a show-stopping cliffhanger that left viewers desperately wanting to know more. After eight episodes of Un Bore Mercher (Keeping Faith) that had seen Faith Howells desperately searching for her missing husband, Evan, becoming involved with gangsters and losing custody of her children along the way, season one closed with the strong and resourceful lawyer embracing another man – only for Evan to suddenly reappear.

The series first aired on Welsh-language channel S4C in 2017, before it ran on BBC1 Wales, where it broke channel records with almost 300,000 viewers.

Keeping Faith also proved enormously popular on OTT platform BBC iPlayer, with more than 17 million requests to watch the series.

A second season, then, was perhaps an easy decision for co-commissioners S4C and BBC Wales, with new episodes beginning this Sunday on S4C (complete with English subtitles) before making the jump straight to BBC1 this summer. But rather than pick up exactly where season one finished, the new season jumps forward 18 months, with Faith (the returning Eve Myles) running around her kitchen with her three children watching on.

The story sees Faith attempt to pick up the pieces of her life and marriage, dealing with the return of Evan (played by Myles’ real-life husband Bradley Freegard) and a love triangle while also becoming embroiled in a murder trial. What’s clear is that while Faith’s iconic yellow raincoat is back, the woman viewers left in season one isn’t the same person we meet now.

L-R: Keeping Faith writer Matthew Hall, director Pip Broughton and star Eve Myles

“What we were interested in were the scars that you carry and how we’re all changed by lies and deceit – and how it changed Faith as a person, a woman, a wife, a mother and a lawyer,” says director, writer and producer Pip Broughton. “How had season one affected her moral centre and her domestic choices? What’s interesting is you see some things that are the same and some things that are shockingly different. It becomes more about survival, endurance and love.

“Because the key quality that I set out to achieve with the series was intimacy, we feel as though we are part of that family, part of this woman’s inner and private life. Making a series about intimacy for a second time is very liberating because everyone knows each other so well. All of them are fundamentally and permanently changed by the lies and the crisis of season one.”

Broughton, who produces the series under her Vox label, directed six of the first season’s eight episodes. She returns behind the camera for four of the second season’s six parts, two of which she also wrote, with creator and lead writer Matthew Hall penning the other four instalments.

Broughton and Hall first partnered with the ambition to create a drama with intimacy, a universal story and a strong female character at its centre – “Erin Brockovich in Wales.” They were also committed to setting it in Wales, where they both live and have raised their families. That close partnership has continued into season two, with the duo sharing story development and writing duties owing to the shorter 12-month timeframe they were given to get season two on air. By comparison, they spent five years working on season one.

“We’ve been very lucky in that we’ve got most of the crew back because we shoot it quite fast and we’ve got a particular way of working on the floor, which has been very influenced by my theatre background,” Broughton says. “It’s a very performance-based show; we don’t rehearse, so I’m shaping the performances on camera. I’ve lived with this series for so long that I feel very free to work in the moment with the actors, and the actors find it so liberating and empowering because we do it all in the moment.

The second season of the drama picks up 18 months on from the end of the first run

“People say it has a freshness, a distinctiveness and a realness that viewers fell in love with, so we’re humbly doing another season and not changing anything and keeping the spirit of the first season.”

Central to the success of season one was Myles’ raw, powerful and emotion-filled performance as Faith. Broughton and Myles (Victoria, Broadchurch) were friends before the series and had sought a project to do together. The fact that project ended up being Keeping Faith meant Myles had to learn Welsh, with the show filmed back-to-back in Welsh and English to produce bilingual versions that are sold internationally by APC Studios.

“There’s nothing I cannot throw at her,” Broughton says of working with the actor, whose performance she describes as magnetic, riveting and brave. “She’s courageous; she’s genuinely fearless. When you find a creative colleague with the same sensibility, you get a special magic on set and it rubs off on everybody else. She’s not afraid of looking ugly or of finding the darkness within herself. It’s a joy working together, it’s not a job.”

Season two will bear a dramatically different visual style, however, not just because of the wounds being carried by many of the characters but also because it was filmed last winter, in contrast to the summer shoot for the first season.

“It really was dark and cold,” Broughton says. “I loved the blue skies and the light of season one, but we accepted the circumstances and tried to make it an advantage. We used the bare trees and brooding skies because it’s quite a spontaneous way of working, going with what you’ve got. And if there’s rain, you put the characters in the car and it’s all about claustrophobia, so there’s a lot of spontaneity on the day.”

While the debut season was five years in the making, season two was completed within 12 months

For S4C, Keeping Faith was notable for being a crime drama that wasn’t overly dark or mysterious and which had a warm, loving lead character who wasn’t afraid to express herself.

“It was really successful for us and the audience really responded to it,” says the broadcaster’s drama commissioner Gwawr Martha Lloyd. “It stood out in our schedule as something that was different but super compelling – that ‘what if’ scenario really appealed. And for the Welsh audience, it’s set in an area we don’t often go to, which is Carmarthenshire, so it also looked very different and the colours and the way it was shot were very different from other shows. There was a certain warmth to the series that appealed.”

Season two, she says, does feel different, as Faith comes to terms with the effects of events so far in the series and faces up to a host of new challenges.

“She is having to juggle a lot of different things at the moment – her family, the aftermath of all the things with the gangsters and the main thing, which is the return of Evan, plus a murder case,” Lloyd explains. “She’s got a lot going on and she’s battling on and being really strong, but she’s very different from the person she was in the first season. The way they filmed it and the visual language really helps deliver that message. The most important thing is that when you had a cliffhanger like you had in season one, you deliver on that in season two, and I think they really have.”

The popularity of the series ahead of its return to S4C means talk has already turned to a potential third season. “These characters can run and run,” Broughton adds. “With season two, we found, strangely, that there’s more story than we expected. You could take Faith anywhere and it would be interesting.”

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Developing Trust

Dan Sefton, creator and writer of BBC miniseries Trust Me, talks about the show’s evolution into an anthology after losing its star and explains how the second season has been inspired by the work of Alfred Hitchcock.

When Jodie Whittaker was unveiled as Doctor Who’s first female lead in July 2017, it proved to be a huge boon for the team behind another BBC series starring the actor, which happened to be launching just a couple of weeks after the announcement.

Dan Sefton

Trust Me went on to draw a consolidated average of six million viewers over its four-episode run, with writer Dan Sefton’s thriller following Whittaker as a nurse who, after losing her job, steals a doctor friend’s identity to start a new life in Edinburgh.

But while Whittaker was swept up in a wave of Whovian anticipation, Sefton was left to work out how a second season of Trust Me might shape up without its lead.

“It’s one of those things that happened,” he says stoically. “Jodie was the standout in the whole of the first season. She’s a brilliant actress. We had ideas of how we could carry it on, but when it was announced she would be playing the Doctor, we realised that would be almost impossible.

“But the BBC were very keen to keep the conversation going because it had been such a big hit. So we pitched them something brand new and, luckily, they thought it was a good idea – and here we are. If this one is popular, we can keep going and dig into the dark side of medicine in lots of different ways.”

That idea of shining a light on medicine’s dark side has become a key building block for the series. Season one saw Whittaker’s Cath work in a hospital, treating patients and performing operations, having presented herself as a different – and more qualified – medic. Season two, which debuted on BBC1 this month, moves to a Glasgow hospital, where Corporal Jamie McCain (played by Harry Potter’s Alfred Enoch) is recovering from a spinal injury that has left him paralysed. When patients on the ward begin to die suddenly, Jamie believes a killer is striking in the hospital – but his injuries make his investigation dangerous and difficult. John Hannah, Ashley Jensen and Richard Rankin also head the cast.

When he looked back at season one to identify a DNA or formula that he could extract and apply to season two, former doctor Sefton says he was drawn to the things people fear in hospitals.

“The whole point is these storylines are edgy and tense and you can’t believe they would actually happen,” he explains. “Season one was the story of an imposter treating you in a hospital, and some people really found it unpleasant. The idea that a healthcare professional could be a murderer and people could be killed in hospital is also a horrible idea, especially when you’re at your most vulnerable. It does happen; it’s not common, but it does happen. So that was the common thread we picked up on.”

Trust Me stars Alfred Enoch as Corporal Jamie McCain

With that in mind, the story quickly became a version of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 classic Rear Window transplanted to a hospital, with an immobile patient trying to snare a suspected killer. John Alexander directs the season, which is again produced by Red Production Company and distributed by StudioCanal.

“I’ve always said it’s two stories at the same time, kind of like two movies,” Sefton continues. “You’ve got the thriller movie of somebody up to no good in this hospital, somebody murdering patients, and the question of who is it and can they be stopped. Then you’ve got a movie about somebody whose life has completely changed after a spinal injury. How are they going to cope, and what challenges do they face psychologically?

“It’s a tricky form because, on the one hand, a thriller is always pushing you to go to the next thing as quickly as possible. That’s a balance you have to try to strike in these shows, because you don’t want the audience to be bored. With four hours, you want to really dig into the character and work out what makes them tick. Through the whole process of writing and editing, you’re trying to keep the pace up and also to have enough time to get into his background and why he is where he is.”

The Hitchcock influence goes beyond just the story, also permeating the gothic set design –Jamie is on the James Stewart wing of the hospital, which shares its name with the frequent Hitchcock collaborator who starred in Rear Window. It can be heard, too, via the use of strings in the music. The drama also bears a touch of horror, with Sefton, who admits he’s a “massive fan” of the seminal British director, hoping to keep viewers feeling uncomfortable throughout the drama.

Paralysed Jamie suspects foul play after a spate of deaths in the hospital where he is staying

“Everybody doing it has just paid a little homage to him in the writing, the directing and the music, but hopefully not to the point where it’s a pastiche but an acknowledgement that Rear Window was there and this idea of somebody stuck trying to remotely sort something out is interesting,” he notes.

The fact that lead character Jamie is either in bed or largely immobile for much of the four-hour running time made the writing process tough for Sefton. Jamie’s journey to recovery is slightly accelerated to make the drama work, but the Sefton was keen to realistically depict the difficulty of overcoming a spinal injury.

“The first episode is [almost entirely] in that hospital room and we found it quite challenging because you’ve got to keep giving him interesting things to do – the idea that just reaching over and getting a glass of water is a massive challenge for someone who’s hardly moved in five or six weeks. If people buy into that small challenge being massive for this character, hopefully you’ve got an interesting thriller set up where crawling across the floor is like walking across a bridge for somebody else, or scaling a mountain. That was the idea, but it was tricky.”

In fact, Sefton highlights one such scene as a standout from the entire show. It takes place towards the end of episode one, when Jamie is forced to crawl across the floor in a desperate attempt to retrieve evidence he thinks could point to the killer.

Ashley Jensen and John Hannah also star

“I think it works really well,” Sefton asserts. “It’s a combination of it being written that way, John directing it brilliantly and Alfie performing it, and then the music has the ‘Hitchcock strings.’ That’s the time I got a tingle – you felt it was playing out like one of those classic thrillers where you’ve got the building crescendo of the music. And even though he’s just crawling across the floor to grab this iPad, it’s the biggest thing. I really like that.”

Sefton says the scene works because of the combination of his script and the vision of Alexander, who directed all four episodes of this season having helmed two for the first run. But he doesn’t think the visual style of a series, which airs episode three tomorrow and is available on BBC iPlayer, is entirely down to the director, believing writers should also be encouraged to think visually.

“That’s the biggest misconception of screenwriting – that you just write the dialogue and the director does everything else,” he adds. “That’s absolutely not true. Screenwriting is all about what happens. It’s about actions, what people are doing – what they’re saying is actually quite peripheral.”

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Victim complex

Creator and writer Rob Williams, executive producer Sarah Brown and star James Harkness talk to DQ about making BBC four-parter The Victim, a thriller that aims to make its viewers ask themselves difficult questions.

“Just remember who the victim is,” John Hannah’s dour Detective Inspector Steven Grover calls out across a quiet police office. It’s a throwaway line, the final sentence in a row between two colleagues. Yet it sums up the riddle at the heart of four-part BBC drama The Victim – just who should have our sympathies?

Should viewers stand by Anna Dean (played by Kelly Macdonald) – a mother who, still grieving the loss of her son who was brutally murdered 15 years ago, stands accused of posting an image and the address of his alleged killer online – or Craig Myers (James Harkness), who is left for dead by a masked attacker after being identified as notorious child murderer Eddie J Turner.

Sarah Brown

The story plays out in the present as Anna stands trial for incitement to murder, while flashbacks recall the aftermath of the attack and how the lives of Craig and his wife Rebecca (Karla Crome) are turned upside down by gossip and rumour, with Anna attempting to prove Craig is not who he says he is.

The drama, which is inspired by real-life cases but is not based on any in particular, comes from creator and writer Rob Williams and is produced by STV Productions. It’s a series that proves to be compelling and thought-provoking in equal measure. While viewers will want to know whether Craig really is Eddie, the bigger question is does that really matter? At every stage, the drama comes back to the question posed by DI Grover. Just who is the victim here?

“The Victim has the potential to be a really talked-about show because of the subject matter and the way Rob has told the story from two points of view,” says exec producer Sarah Brown, STV’s head of drama. “Hopefully, it’s not black and white and there’s a lot of grey in there. It has the potential to get people discussing not just the genre questions – Is Craig really Eddie? – but also the bigger moral questions.”

Williams picks up: “The kind of dramas I love are the ones where I don’t know where I stand and I’ve got to ask questions of myself. That was definitely where I felt we were on to something, because I don’t quite know who I stand with.”

Kelly Macdonald plays Anna, who stands trial for incitement to murder

However, Williams says he always knew how the story would conclude. “I was very up for changing it if the characters and the story demanded it, but it does feel like the only ending for me, which is a really nice place to be. There’s a courtroom verdict, but is that enough? That’s very much part of the question. Hopefully the last episode delivers a series of verdicts but in different ways.”

Williams, whose credits include Killing Eve and The Man in the High Castle, had been talking to Brown about working together when they struck on the idea of how people can become polarised over an issue despite being presented with the same evidence. The writer was also intrigued by a documentary about the Scottish court system, which was presented as a less stuffy, more informal environment than its English counterpart.

Rob Williams

“The idea that you could tell a story in a courtroom but, instead of seeing the evidence presented by lawyers, you could actually see what happened and then twist people’s sympathy for the plaintiff and the accused – that was the beginning,” he recalls. The case at the heart of The Victim then emerged through real-life examples of people being accused of something on social media. “It’s just a fascinating area that the law is struggling to keep up with,” Williams adds. “But this is entirely fictional. There’s any number of cases where people could find parallels with different aspects of the drama, but it’s not based on any one case. It has to be [this way] really, otherwise your characters don’t have freedom to do and say things they need to.”

Williams says it is integral to the show that viewers are able to put themselves in the shoes of both Anna and Craig and imagine what they would do if they were in the same position.

However, the intention was never to make a traditional courtroom drama, with scenes in front of the judge only serving to provide a spine to the series. Over the four episodes, the flashbacks slowly catch up to the present, meaning every strand of the story comes together by the end.

“In the editing process, we stripped away quite a lot of procedure because we felt it became too procedural,” Brown reveals. “What we really wanted the audience to be interested in was the human interactions and the stakes for each character.”

When it came to casting, Macdonald (Trainspotting, Boardwalk Empire) was first through the door, followed by Hannah (Spartacus, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency). But for Craig, the production team decided someone relatively unknown would be best. Harkness (Macbeth, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) auditioned and landed the part.

James Harkness as Craig, who may or may not be a murderer living under a new identity

“I’m in awe of them, particularly James and Kelly,” Williams says. “They have to play these characters with the sense they could be lying. We don’t know. But they play it with such integrity – they’re not moustache-twirling at any point.”

On casting Harkness, Brown notes: “We saw quite a few people but there was something about him. I just find his performance so raw and real. He’s quite extraordinary. He really held his end up, particularly when you see the latter episodes and the two-handers with him and Kelly.

“You want the audience to believe he’s capable of being Eddie J Turner but equally capable of not being him because you don’t want the audience to know the answer until the end. That’s quite a tricky balance.”

For Harkness himself, he describes his first leading role as an “amazing, brilliant learning experience.” As a young father, he says he feels very lucky to be involved in a drama about such a sensitive subject, noting that the theme of whether people should be given a second chance even caused him to stop and think about what he would do in a similar situation.

“It’s definitely a subject that should be talked about, so hopefully people do talk about it,” he says. “It can be a very stigmatised subject. I don’t just mean in a court of law – everybody’s got a past. You’re not defined by who you were, you’re defined by who you are, and you get to decide who you get to be. It’s not for everybody else to define you.”

John Hannah also features in The Victim’s cast

Revealing that many of the plot twists were kept under wraps before filming began, Harkness continues: “For me, it didn’t matter if Craig was Eddie or not. I was just looking to tell this story of a hard-working guy who’s a family man. That’s what I want to be, a hard-working family man. That’s the story I was interested in, rather than the reveal and the drama of it.

“I’d love people to pay attention and try to look at it as a whole and make a judgement at the end, rather than jump straight into a judgement we all make automatically, very easily and very quickly. Give yourself a second chance while watching it.”

Striking the right balance with the series, which is sold internationally by Sky Vision, proved to be the biggest challenge, with Brown and Williams adamant that the story should never be manipulative in any way. In essence, the show had to hold up to repeated viewings, where the audience wouldn’t feel cheated at any point even after they knew the conclusion.

“Everything you’ve witnessed when you look back was true in its moment,” Brown says. “That was a real challenge. There were a couple of scenes in the early drafts that felt like brilliant genre moments but we ended up taking them out because they felt like we were leaning on genre rather than the truth of the characters. There was one cliffhanger in particular we held on to until the bitter end. In the end, we just thought be brave and believe we’re sufficiently invested in these characters now that we want to know what happens to them. That was an interesting process, getting the balance between the genre storytelling and character storytelling. It was a very fine balance all the way through.”

The four-parter comes from STV Productions

Snowstorms in Scotland last March hampered location scouting during pre-production, while the biggest practical challenge came in finding a courtroom. The crew ended up building one that mimicked the size and style of Edinburgh High Court, an old building filled with modern trappings. Shooting also took place on location in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Port Glasgow and Gourock.

Brown says she’s proud of the fact the drama features so many young Scottish actors alongside the well-established Macdonald and Hannah. “You don’t see many dramas with an almost entirely Scottish cast. That showcases what amazing talent we have in Scotland.”

Meanwhile, Brown and Williams both believe they have achieved their ambition of creating an entertaining piece of television that will also cause viewers to stop and think about the events that play out on screen.

“We have delivered something that works as a piece of drama that you want to come back for, and characters you empathise with and want to find out what happens to them, but hopefully, at the end, it’s done more than just fill your time. There is something to chew on,” Williams says. “I’m grateful to have worked with the people I’ve worked with. You write a character on a page called Anna Dean but it’s only when somebody like Kelly comes and inhabits it that you just think, ‘Wow.’”

Their attention is now turning to a potential second season of The Victim. “The plan is for more,” Brown adds. “We’re already thinking about season two. What was designed into the format was the court case and the shape and structure of the storytelling. What I hope the next season would do would be a new cast of characters and a new story but told in the same format and, hopefully, with an equally contemporary, thought-provoking subject.”

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Years in the making

Emma Thompson leads an all-star cast in BBC family saga Years and Years. Writer Russell T Davies and exec producer Nicola Shindler reveal why it was finally time to make the ‘state of the nation’ series and take on the challenge of making a political drama in the age of Trump and Brexit.

Former Doctor Who showrunner Russell T Davies and British producer Nicola Shindler have proven to be formidable partners over the years, teaming up together on series such as the seminal Queer as Folk as well as Bob & Rose, The Second Coming, Casanova and Channel 4 trilogy Cucumber, Banana and Tofu, which explored gay life in Manchester as a drama, youth spin-off and short film collection respectively.

Their latest project together, Years and Years, is, in fact, their ninth collaboration in the past two decades, and this state of-the-nation piece promises to be just as relevant, timely and emotionally charged as those earlier series.

Russell T Davies

Emma Thompson heads the star-studded cast of this unique and ambitious six-parter, which follows one family over the course of 15 years. As Britain is rocked by unstable political, economic and technological advances, viewers will follow the Lyons family as their complex lives converge on one crucial night in 2019. The twists and turns of the family’s everyday life are then explored over the next decade-and-a-half.

“It’s about those clowns and jokers and monsters rising to power. It’s the story of where we’re going – the thing that worries us all day long is, ‘Where are we going?’ We’re more politicised than ever,” says Davies, speaking at Content London late last year. “That’s a very hard thing to look at in terms of a drama, so what it does is go on to an intimate level and tell the story of a family. We all love a family saga, those sagas that take place over decades.”

The writer points to series such as Upstairs Downstairs, Winds of War, Poldark and the “very beautiful” Our Friends in the North, Peter Flannery’s acclaimed drama that followed four friends over 30 years, as inspirations for Years and Years.

“What I wanted to do was take that family saga over decades and push it into the future, so this starts now and goes forward – every week another year, another year, another year. Eventually, we’re 15 years into the future with a family, two brothers, two sisters, their grandmother, their kids, falling in love, falling out of love, falling out of money, forming new families, finding joy, finding heartache. It has all those great stories of family sagas but, in the background, this world of terror is building and building. When do you turn around and do something about it?”

Davies decided the time had come to write Years and Years on the night of the 2016 US presidential election that sent Donald Trump to the White House. “I emailed Nicola and the head of drama at the BBC, Piers Wenger, because I’d been talking about this drama for 10 years, and I said, ‘If ever I’m about to write this drama, if he’s elected tomorrow, I should do it now.’ And so it came to pass. It’s a reaction to that. It’s a very necessary reaction to that.”

Shindler confirms the long gestation of the series, which is produced by her firm Red Production Company, revealing she has seen an outline from the story that Davies wrote 10 years ago. It was first pitched to Wenger when he first arrived at the broadcaster from Channel 4 earlier in the autumn of 2016, and once it was written and greenlit, financing was pulled together with coproducers Canal+ in France and HBO in the US. Studiocanal is the international distributor.

Emma Thompson in Years and Years

“It’s a nightmare, it’s always hard,” she says of piecing together the financial puzzle behind a high-end television drama. “Even with scripts as extraordinary as Russell had written, it’s hard to get people to buy into a vision that’s so unusual. This isn’t sci-fi but it goes into the future, so it’s people getting their head around that. Each episode also jumps time, yet you’re telling very intimate stories about family, so you have to trust Russell’s writing and that the love for his characters is going to carry you through.”

Creator and writer Davies is also an executive producer on the series, alongside Shindler, Red’s Michaela Fereday, the BBC’s Lucy Richer and Simon Cellan Jones (Our Friends in the North), who also directs.

Thompson (The Children Act) plays Vivienne Rook, an outspoken celebrity turned political figure whose controversial opinions divide the nation. She’s described as a new breed of politician – an entertainer, a rebel and a trickster – and her rise to power leads to an unknown future.

Rory Kinnear (Spectre) is Stephen Lyons, a financial advisor and the family peacekeeper, who is married to Celeste (T’Nia Miller), an ambitious and opinionated accountant. Daniel Lyons, played by Russell Tovey (The History Boys), is a hard-working housing officer and Stephen’s brother. Their sister Edith (Jessica Hynes, W1A) is radical, dangerous and calculating, with a secret life. Ruth Madelely completes the siblings as Rosie, while Anne Reid (Last Tango in Halifax) is Muriel, imperial grandmother of the Lyons.

Davies says casting was crucial, as viewers need to love the family at the heart of the drama for them to follow their exploits over the series. And with the right actors in place, he’s satisfied viewers will follow them into the future.

Nicola Shindler

“It’s not a future of jetpacks and monorails,” the writer points out. “If you looked at us 10 years ago, we’d be exactly the same, only our phones would be different. So it’s not about the science-fiction of it. It does engage with stuff like that, but there is also historical research because what we’re seeing now are the waves of history repeating themselves in terrifying fashion and, weirdly, at the beginning there’s tensions between Russia and the Ukraine, which was just in the newspapers. You can’t write this fast enough, because everything we’re writing is happening.”

Shindler picks up: “Virtually everything Russell’s writing, which is made up, has happened since we started filming, so everything looks like we’re behind.”

However, while Davies jokes that “the real world is madder than you can ever imagine,” he admits some scenes in Years and Years were toned down to ensure the series felt realistic. Maintaining a grounded tone was also important to giving the show a sense of intimacy and relatability, he adds. “There are no scenes, for example, in Downing Street or the White House. There are very good dramas that could do that, but [regular people] don’t experience politics that way. We’re not experiencing elections that way, we’re not experiencing the rise of these people that way. It’s also very funny. There’s a scene in which an MP is decapitated by a drone. It’s hilarious!”

The tone of the scripts bleeds into every element of the series. “We’ve sat down with makeup and costume for a long time, saying, ‘Let’s just calm it down.’ We’re not going to start wearing diagonal jumpsuits,” he says of the show’s drive into the future. “So it’s based in Manchester, based on ordinary people. They’re not particularly rich. So in 10 years, they’ll still be wearing shirts and jeans.”

Shindler says that when it comes to tone, Davies knows exactly what it should be, and that is clearly communicated to the rest of the crew. “And as ever with Russell, it’s in the scripts,” she says. “They come in at what other people would consider a fifth or sixth draft because he works so hard and there’s nothing out of place. There’s never anything wrong. But sometimes there are notes – we’ve had big changes, but they have come about from discussion.”

What’s important is that discussion doesn’t compromise the integrity of the show, Shindler adds, particularly when international partners come on board. “But it costs money to do things set in the future, even though we don’t go hugely futuristic. There are props, there are cars, there are all sorts of things, so we needed input from people other than the BBC, and we were lucky to get two partners who totally bought into the vision.”

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Power struggle

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

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

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

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

MotherFatherSon stars Richard Gere as a newspaper owner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Missing link

The Missing star Tchéky Karyo returns as French detective Julien Baptiste in a spin-off from the hit BBC drama. DQ spends a day at the seaside to see the actor on set and find out about the making of eight-part drama Baptiste.

When DQ was first invited to spend a day at the seaside and visit the set of BBC1 drama Baptiste, it briefly conjured optimistic images of enjoying a refreshing ice-cream in the warm autumnal sunshine. As it turns out, that could not have been further from what transpired on a late October day in Kent on England’s south coast.

As a furious sea battered the stony shore, thick, gloomy clouds loomed on the horizon while the wind-worn crew battled on against the unforgiving elements. That this was the penultimate day of shooting after more than three months in production brought little comfort as stars Tchéky Karyo (pictured above), with his arm in a sling, and Tom Hollander repeatedly strolled along the beach in what was the last scene of the series, each time moving further inland to stay clear of the encroaching tide.

Earlier on, a brief respite from the weather saw director Jan Matthys take the opportunity to send up a drone and film the scene overhead, capturing the iconic White Cliffs of Dover in the background – a fortuitous decision considering the wind and rain that came shortly after the craft made its final landing.

Created and written by Harry and Jack Williams, Baptiste is a spin-off from the brothers’ BBC drama The Missing, this time putting stubborn but insightful investigator Julien Baptiste (Karyo) front and centre. When Baptiste and his wife Celia are on a visit to Amsterdam, the chief of police – who also happens to be one of Baptiste’s old girlfriends – seeks out his help due to his renowned and methodical crime-solving skills. He is then rapidly embroiled in a case that looks beyond the beautiful streets, canals and houses of Amsterdam to the seamy underworld beneath.

DirectorJan Matthys pauses for thought during filming on the beach

While both seasons of The Missing centred on a British family in crisis over a missing child, the idea behind Baptiste is to free the story from those restraints, producer John Griffin explains as filming continues on the beach at Walmer. Hence the decision to focus this spin-off, produced by Two Brothers Pictures for BBC1 in association with distributor All3Media International, on the investigator at the heart of both of those stories.

“In the first episode of this series, you meet Edward Stratton [Hollander] and it looks like a classic version of The Missing,” Griffin says. “Here’s a man desperately looking for his niece, who has gone missing. She had turned to drugs and prostitution in Amsterdam and then vanished, and he’s trying to save her. What happens at the end of the first episode is that Julien Baptiste finds her – which is the most unexpected thing you can imagine happening in a show associated with The Missing.”

The discovery leads to two big reveals at the end of the first hour, including a “massive plot twist” and a character revelation that means one person isn’t who they seem. The second episode then sees Baptiste come to the full realisation of what he has become entangled in as viewers learn this isn’t just a missing person case but a story involving people-trafficking and Romanian gangs.

“By the end of the second episode, the whole thing twists again and to some extent vindicates Baptiste’s confusion but opens up a whole other can of stuff,” Griffin continues, adding that Call the Midwife star Jessica Raine appears in episode three as an investigator from European Union law enforcement agency Europol. “She turns up and says, ‘Everybody stop. You’ve just walked all over my case that I’ve been doing very quietly for a long time. And you, sir [Baptiste], get out of my way.’ Then the whole plot spirals out of control because they’ve uncovered a hornets’ nest.

“It’s a fabulous ride. The second episode is one of my favourite things I’ve ever done. It starts on such a high note and it doesn’t stop, and then you hit another high note at the end and you go, ‘Wow, if anybody’s going to turn off now, they’re insane.’”

That the story is set almost entirely in Amsterdam, Griffin explains, is because the Williams brothers wanted to talk about the sex industry in a way viewers might easily recognise and understand. Filming, which began last July, took place in the city for three weeks, particularly around De Wallen’s red-light district where the majority of the “hero exteriors” were shot. The characteristics of the Dutch capital – narrow streets and lots of bicycles – plus the high cost of shooting there made it a tricky location for filming, prompting the majority of production to take place in Antwerp, across the Belgian border.

Tom Hollander as Edward Stratton

“It’s a nightmare. I crossed the road after lunch and caused a bicycle pile-up because I didn’t notice the bike lane,” Griffin admits. “So it’s set in Amsterdam, an expensive place to film, but a little bit of the story is set in Antwerp. There’s a great tax break in Belgium and a lot of Antwerp looks like the back streets of the old town of Amsterdam, so we rebuilt De Wallen there.

“We shot in De Wallen for real but we rebuilt the street in Antwerp so we had full control over it and could do some amazing stuff. We also went to [Belgian port city] Ghent quite a bit, which has canals.”

The decision to give Baptiste a series of his own came down to the fact that audiences “completely responded to him as a character,” Griffin says, describing him as the French version of Columbo, the iconic trenchcoat-wearing detective portrayed by Peter Falk in the long-running US TV series of the same name.

“The thing I love about the way [the Williams brothers] write for Baptiste is they use English idioms but they change them slightly, so he’ll say something like, ‘Don’t put the wrong step forward.’ It’s the wrong foot forward – he’s used the wrong word but it means the same thing, and I love that they write him like that,” Griffin adds. “He has this ability to get people off their guard and find out pieces of information they don’t think are relevant but that actually are terribly relevant, and that’s how he gets them. That’s what Columbo used to do. Julien does a similar trick on people, and he’s very human and a little bit frail.”

Behind the camera, wrapped up against the grim conditions, is director Jan Matthys, who takes charge of the second block, covering episodes four, five and six. A fan of The Missing, he had told his agent he wasn’t interested in any police shows a few months before the production team called to see if he was available for Baptiste.

“She called me and said, ‘I think you have to make an exception for this one,’” he recalls. “When I read it, it was immediately clear it’s not a procedural or classical police show but a human story. I’m very much into humanism and telling those stories, so I immediately wanted to be part of it. I’ve worked with [executive producer] Chris Aird before on [BBC crime drama] Shetland so I knew he was involved and how he takes care of his crews and directors, so that was an important thing as well.”

Taking over from Borkur Sigthorsson, Matthys was able to watch the earlier rushes and get a sense of the material shot for the first three episodes. What he noticed straight away was that Sigthorsson used a more experimental approach than his own, shooting lots of reflections and looking through windows and open doors. “So for me it was a challenge to stay close to my own way of telling stories, but it felt a bit more freeing to develop a new style and get some more stimuli,” the director says. “It took me a bit out of my comfort zone, but in a good way.”

Tchéky Karyo (far right) as Baptiste in The Missing

As the tension builds up towards the story’s resolution, the scripts also ramped up the action. Block two DOP John Lee picks up: “We carried on the style of block one, which was very long lenses, POV shots and a Scandi noir feel to it. But then we had some bigger set pieces. We had a big driving stunt scene and Tom [Hollander] climbing across rooftops, so we’ve had a lot of fun on our block. The car chase was a big challenge because we had Jessica and Tchéky in the car so we had to have three cars, including a stunt car that crashes, so we had to have multiple versions of that. It was quite complicated to work out.”

Lee is also an advocate for filming with drones, but only when they serve a purpose. “It’s a bit odd because you should do a drone shot when it’s a drone shot and you should do a helicopter shot when it’s a helicopter shot – they’re not really interchangeable,” he explains. “But on this, we couldn’t have got a helicopter as close to the actors as we wanted, so it was a drone shot. They’re so temperamental when it comes to the weather – you always worry. A bit of rain, a bit of wind and it won’t fly. But it’s amazing that we can now do a shot like that on a TV drama. We wouldn’t have been able to do it 10 years ago.”

From a producer’s point of view, Griffin says drones are “amazing” because they’re relatively quick to use and inexpensive compared with a helicopter. “The only thing I have to watch is not letting directors have a drone just because they want one,” he says, echoing Lee’s argument. “I see so much television where I think, ‘Why the drone shot?’ Make it mean something, make it worth it.”

Griffin notes that, as well as filming in Amsterdam, one of the other challenges on the series has been the need to cast a high number of international actors, owing to the fact that nearly all of the story takes place outside the UK. The production also required some underwater shooting, which first took place in Amsterdam and then continued in a tank near Brussels.

“We’ve got somebody going into the water and going under. What we couldn’t do was control safety underwater for very long, so we got a tank and did a whole sequence of somebody getting caught up with a rope around their foot and not being able to free themselves, so we had this whole thing of major jeopardy and whether they will survive,” Griffin reveals. “You’ll have to watch to find out what happens.”

Griffin hadn’t previously worked on The Missing, so had no relationship with that world or its characters before joining Baptiste, something he says has been key to helping the show find its own identity.

“That’s been a really brilliant challenge but with a character I absolutely love, who is funny, smart, unusual,” he notes. “New series are always a challenge. For me, the strongest thing that makes it feel like The Missing is what we’re doing with it musically. It has that same feel in the music and that’s having an extraordinary effect on the edit.”

That Baptiste survives the events of this season is apparent by his appearance here on the beach. And as filming concludes, you might think the character would be keen to settle for a quieter life. It’s hard to imagine, however, he would not rise to the challenge should another case – and the BBC – demand his expertise.


Checking in with Tchéky
The title of the series is his character’s name, but Tchéky Karyo is typically sincere when he says Baptiste isn’t just his show. “In the choir, I’m a lead voice but it’s a real ensemble,” he tells DQ inside a minibus that is doubling up as shelter from the unpleasant weather outside.

This drama, he explains, is a story “with great characters going through a very special journey. Baptiste is a link between them and he tries to unthread the twisted and cracked mysteries and stories and explore the dark sides of people. The brothers [writers Harry and Jack Williams] said they still have some skeletons in the closet.”

Baptiste opens six months after the conclusion of The Missing’s second season, with the former detective having undergone surgery for a brain tumour. “He’s alive and happy,” Karyo says, before adding ominously: “When we start, he’s very happy. He’s in Amsterdam with [his wife] Celia to help their daughter and son-in-law to look after their grandchild.” It’s fair to say his mood probably begins to sour when he’s called by an ex-girlfriend, Martha, who wants his help with a new case.

“She knows he’s good at this kind of mission,” the actor says. “He’s reluctant; he doesn’t really want to go back to his old life but Celia knows that it’s going to be good for him and he needs it, so she pushes him out into that investigation. It’s quite complicated. He will also have to deal with the fact his family will be in danger. He wasn’t waiting for this and it becomes really tough.”

The DNA of The Missing is there in the nature of the investigation, with Tom Hollander’s character, Edward, searching for his niece, even though there is a new story and setting. Karyo adds about Edward: “He’s a character with a lot of shadows that Baptiste feels empathy for but at the same time, he doesn’t really understand where he’s coming from, so Baptiste will have to understand what’s at stake for him.”

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Good timing

For years, Neil Gaiman and Sir Terry Pratchett’s cult novel Good Omens was deemed unfilmmable – until now. Gaiman and director Douglas Mackinnon tell DQ how they turned this funny and fantastical story of the end of the world into a six-part TV spectacle.

When Jon Hamm signed up for a miniseries version of Neil Gaiman and Sir Terry Pratchett’s novel Good Omens, the Mad Men star joined a team taking on what many had deemed an impossible task. “I thought it was one of the funniest, coolest books I’d ever read,” he says. “It was also, obviously, unfilmmable.”

For a long time, Gaiman would have been excused for thinking so too. He wrote the book with late fantasy author Pratchett in 1989 and it was published the following year, quickly winning a cult following.

Then came many years of failed attempts to bring about a movie adaptation, either because it was too weird, there were too many characters, or both. But in the summer of 2014, with Pratchett suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, he wrote to Gaiman asking him to make Good Omens himself because he wanted to see it before he died. Sadly, it was a dream he never realised, passing away in March 2015. Gaiman knew then he had to fulfil his dear friend’s last request.

Neil Gaiman

“I feel a little bit like one of those people who manages to do something completely impossible because nobody mentions to me that it’s impossible,” showrunner Gaiman tells DQ. “I should have had a clue in retrospect, because we went to half-a-dozen of the best writers in the world over a period of a few years and asked them to do the adaptation of Good Omens and they all explained that it was probably impossible to do.

“But then Terry asked me if I would do the adaptation. Up until that point, the deal Terry and I had was that we would do something together on Good Omens or not do it at all. Here we were with Terry actually saying, ‘I can’t do it so you have to because I want to see it before I die.’ Then he died – which left me with Good Omens as a thing to see through, and I couldn’t let myself believe at that point that it would be impossible or unfilmmable because I had to give this to Terry. I was fortunate in that, at the end of writing the script, people liked it.”

Gaiman spent 18 months writing six scripts, reinventing the story for television and injecting extra excitement and surprises while trying to stay loyal to the original material – the story of a friendship between an angel and a demon who have been on Earth for too long and now want to stop the apocalypse.

Michael Sheen (Masters of Sex) and David Tennant (Doctor Who, Marvel’s Jessica Jones) star as fussy angel and rare-book dealer Aziraphale and fast-living demon Crowley, respectively, who have lived on Earth since The Beginning and have become fond of the lifestyle and each other. So it’s terrible news for them when they discover that if Heaven and Hell have their way, the world will end next Saturday. Everything appears to be going according to Divine Plan, until it’s discovered that someone seems to have misplaced the Antichrist…

The series was commissioned by Amazon Prime Video and UK pubcaster BBC2, with Amazon set to premiere the six-part fantasy drama this spring before it launches on the BBC. The show is produced by Narrativia, The Blank Corporation and BBC Studios, which also distributes.

“When people are making films, there’s a lot of time spent worrying about things like tone and consistency and telling one story clearly, whereas what Good Omens does is tell multiple stories with multiple characters, albeit with Aziraphale and Crowley at the heart of it all,” explains director and executive producer Douglas Mackinnon. “It wanders off into many different paths and thoroughfares, and yet the main theme – good against evil – glues it together. When I read the script, I felt it wasn’t impossible, just quite a big challenge.”

David Tennant (left) as demon Crowley and Michael Sheen as angel Aziraphale

When it comes to adapting one of his own books for the screen, Gaiman jokes that his writing process is to say, “No, get somebody else to do it.” American Gods and Lucifer are two other series currently on air that are based on Gaiman creations. But with Good Omens, he no longer had the option to pass it on, owing to his promise to Pratchett.

With six episodes to write, he took the novel, cut it into six parts and began to explore what that might look like. Quickly, however, he found if he did it that way, neither Crowley nor Aziraphale would appear in episode three, so he ended up writing additional material featuring them both to insert into the original story. “But actually that wound up becoming incredibly important to what we were doing and encapsulated a lot of the themes and made them feel even more prevalent than they were for the rest of the series,” he says.

Gaiman admits some of his favourite bits in the book didn’t make it into the script because, ultimately, they were unfilmmable. Sequences taking place in people’s heads or conversations between a group of helmet-wearing bikers riding with the roar of their engines, for example. Other bits, however, were added in, such as a role for Mad Men star Jon Hamm as Archangel Gabriel.

“The angels were characters Terry and I had talked about, planned out and thought about a lot after we wrote the book – and had we ever done a sequel, they would have been in that more,” Gaiman says. “So I got to go and steal from the work we did back then and create four angels who aren’t anywhere in the book: Gabriel, played by Jon; Michael, played by Doon Mackichan; Paul Chahidi plays Sandalphon and Gloria Obianyo plays Uriel, and they’re wonderful – these incredible angels in very sharp suits.”

Mackinnon, whose directing credits include Sherlock, Doctor Who and Line of Duty, says working on Good Omens has been a complete collaboration with Gaiman, who has been on set for large parts of the shoot, was involved in casting and choosing every costume and, more recently, has been in the cutting room every day. He didn’t want to impose a particular style on the show, however. Anyone who’s read the book will know it has a unique tone of its own, and it was the script that subsequently informed Mackinnon’s decisions. He would also carry a copy of the book around with him during production.

Mad Men star Jon Hamm (left) plays Archangel Gabriel

“I did one or two episodes of Line of Duty and it’s a very different show, and the style presented itself for that,” he says. “This has a much more epic, cinematic feel that the storytelling in the script deserves.”

But it was the scale of the production on a daily basis that proved to be the biggest challenge for the director. “We’d seldom stay in one location for one or two days,” he says, with filming taking place in London, Oxford and South Africa over 93 days. “We had to come away with all the material each time. With 200 speaking parts, just casting that and organising it has been a massive task, and that’s been the challenge. But it’s been a wonderful challenge, really exciting and a brilliant one as well.”

Gaiman describes Good Omens as a “mammoth, gargantuan project,” but says he loved the fact that no reshoots were needed. “We went in, we got what we needed, we came away and that was amazing,” he adds.

But showrunning won’t be a role he’s likely to repeat in a hurry, if at all. “I’m very much looking forward to becoming a retired showrunner,” he quips, revealing his ambitions to create and write more television, novels, children’s books and poetry. “By the time this goes out, I will have given four years of my life to it and there are lots of other things out there that I want to do. I’ve learned so much from Douglas and from working with everybody about the minutiae of making a show like this. I think I will be much more useful in the future, as I will be able to create things and communicate to showrunners much more successfully.”

Gaiman says that, at its core, Good Omens is a book about humanity and friendship. But what he’s proudest of is that the show doesn’t feel like anything else on television, which is quite a feat considering the 500-plus dramas now on air.

“Normally, if you’re trying to describe something, you do it by comparing it to other things. You’re like, ‘Well, it’s Casablanca in space,’ or whatever,” he says. “With this, it’s not like anything else. It’s Good Omens – and when people see it, that’s what they compare it to. It is the only thing like it, for good or for evil, for success or failure. I don’t care. What I do care about is we’ve made something that feels unique, feels special and, at least to me and Douglas, feels absolutely magical.”


Assembling an ensemble
When it comes to casting, there can be few better ensembles on screen than that collated for Good Omens. With Michael Sheen and David Tennant leading off as angel Aziraphale and demon Crowley, the supporting cast includes Jon Hamm (Archangel Gabriel), Miranda Richardson (Madame Tracy), Mireille Enos (War), Mark Gatiss (Harmony), Derek Jacobi (Metatron), Anna Maxwell Martin (Beelzebub), Daniel Mays (Arthur Young), Sian Brooke (Deirdre Young), Adria Arjonoa (Anathema Device), Nina Sosanya (Sister Mary Loquacious) and David Morrissey (Captain Vincent), as well as many other notable names.

Miranda Richardson alongside fellow cast members Hamm, Sheen and Tennant

Tennant and Sheen had known each other for a while and had even appeared in a film together, 2003’s Bright Young Things, though they never acted together. But playing a pair of unlikely best friends meant they too became extremely close, sharing most of their screen time throughout the long shoot.

“We spent a lot of time sitting on park benches discussing the end of the world, what restaurant we were going to go to next or what else we’ve done that’s just fucked things up even more,” Tennant jokes, speaking at Amazon’s Prime Video Presents event in London in October. “We did know each other but we’d never worked together and you think, ‘This could be awful. What if we rub up against each other the wrong way?’ But mercifully I think we found a rhythm very quickly. If you’ve got two characters that feel completely new and instantly recognisable, that comes from the writing. You know what this really unique, odd, peculiar world is straightaway, the minute you start playing it. It was a joy.”

Sheen continues: “Whenever I think about playing the character, and this is not true of any other part I play, I only think of it in terms of me and David. I don’t think of it as just an individual character, I think of him as ‘us.’”

Richardson plays Madame Tracy, a psychic and part-time courtesan who provides a helping hand to Aziraphale and Crowley as they try to save the world from Armageddon. “Physically embodying her with all the help that any of us always gets on a production in terms of hair and make-up and costume was a lot of fun, but also because it is a performance for her. It’s huge fun and a great thing to do.”

Hamm, best known for playing Mad Men’s Don Draper for seven seasons, had read the book some time ago and was a fan of Gaiman. So when the writer emailed him about playing a character that didn’t exist in the book, he admits “it was a very easy ‘yes.’”

“I knew that whatever direction it was going to take, it was going to be excellent,” Hamm explains. “Then I saw who else was in it and I thought it was going to be fun, too. I love working over here [in the UK]. I got the chance to be over here for five or six weeks and really just play at this exciting, fun job. So it was a no-brainer for me. I was just happy to be asked.”

But how does he respond when people ask him what Good Omens is about? “I say it’s a comedy about the Apocalypse,” he adds. “That usually gets a little head cock and demands further explanation, and that’s the best way in.”

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Cry in the sky

Jacquelin Perske, writer of psychological drama The Cry, reveals how she adapted Helen Fitzgerald’s novel for television and tackled one of the opening episode’s most turbulent scenes. The miniseries was produced by Synchronicity Films for BBC1 and is distributed by DRG.

The Cry is a four-part drama adapted from a novel by Helen Fitzgerald. It is a contemporary story set in both Scotland and Australia. I was drawn to the novel as it was both a nuanced relationship drama and an original thriller. Basically, really terrible things happen to an average couple and this couple deals with these events in ways that are surprising, almost logical and also deeply disturbing. All the things I like about a good story.

Jacquelin Perske

Thematically, the show is about becoming a parent, in particular a mother. As a mother of three children myself this was deeply relevant to me. No matter how prepared you think you may be, how much you read, absorb and observe, the shift from single, childfree woman to wife and mother is seismic, shocking and irreversible. There is no going back. You walk through a door and it shuts behind you.

I found the experience both exhilarating and also frightening. The Cry is a study in parental fear. The fear of not being up to the job, the fear of failing in your duty of care, the fear of losing your child, the fear of not loving this creature that you must love for the rest of your life. These fears and anxieties are usually hard to dramatise, but The Cry had a structure that allowed their full weight to be played out with devastating consequences, within a tight thriller story.

When adapting The Cry, I decided to tease out the thriller elements by playing with time. The four episodes shift from the present to the past to the future as the audience starts to piece together what has happened to new parents Joanna (Jenna Coleman) and Alistair (Ewen Leslie). There is a building tension as we see where this couple has come from, what they are doing now and what they will become. This structure allowed a sense of impending crisis and an uncomfortable tension and looming dread as the story plays out.

One of the early sequences in the novel takes place on a long-haul flight from the UK to Australia. It became a kind of core thematic place I could return to throughout the four episodes. It encapsulated the tension and the thematic concerns of the show. On a long-haul flight, a group of strangers are strapped in and locked in a metal can thousands of feet in the air. The notion of personal space is strained. Passengers politely confine themselves and endure the hours before they arrive at their destination.

Jenna Coleman and Ewen Leslie in The Cry’s aeroplane scene

If you place a crying baby into such a scenario, there is an instant tension. In The Cry, Joanna and Alistair are taking their baby from the UK to Australia to visit family, and it is their baby, Noah, who does not stop crying. He cries for hours and hours. The child himself is distressed and too young to understand why. The passengers’ patience wears thin as the crying continues and there is nowhere to escape. The parents themselves are in a terrible predicament as they bear both the brunt of their fellow passengers’ discomfort and an intense public display of their seeming incompetence as parents.

This sequence works on a thematic level in The Cry because Joanna is privy to the other passengers’ open judgment and criticism of her parenting skills, as they become increasingly angry at the incessant crying. The sequence also shows Joanna struggling to know what to do – isolated and alone – despite being surrounded by other people. It spoke to me of the experience of being a new parent in a unique and yet very real way. In The Cry, Joanna bites back – yelling back at the other passengers for their callous judgement of her and lack of sympathy for her predicament.

The sequence sets off the chain of narrative for the rest of the series, so it is a pivotal moment both thematically and narratively. Its honest brutality set a tone that I carried through the screenplay for all four episodes.

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Easy as ABC

The ABC Murders is the latest Agatha Christie novel to be reinvented for the BBC by writer Sarah Phelps and producer Mammoth Screen. The creative team behind the project gathered at Content London 2018 to discuss the adaptation process and casting John Malkovich as Poirot.

Based on the classic 1936 novel, The ABC Murders is next instalment in the collection of Agatha Christie novels to be adapted for the BBC.

Following in the footsteps of And Then There Were None (2015), The Witness for the Prosecution (2016) and Ordeal by Innocence (2018), the three-part miniseries sees John Malkovich step into the storied shoes of iconic Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.

The cast also includes Rupert Grint as Inspector Crome, Andrew Buchan as Franklin Clarke, Eamon Farren as Cust, Tara Fitzgerald as Lady Hermione Clarke, Bronwyn James as Megan and Freya Mavor as Thora Grey.

Set in 1933, the show sees Poirot face a serial killer known only as ABC. First the killer strikes in Andover, then Bexhill. As the murder count rises, the only clue is the copy of the ABC Railway Guide at each crime scene. If Poirot is to match his nemesis then everything about him will be called into question: his authority, his integrity, his past and his identity.

Directed by Alex Gabassi and produced by Farah Abushwesha, The ABC Murders is a Mammoth Screen and Agatha Christie Limited drama for BBC1 and Amazon, with Endeavour Content distributing. The executive producers are writer Sarah Phelps, plus Damien Timmer and Helen Ziegler for Mammoth Screen, James Prichard and Basi Akpabio for Agatha Christie Limited and Elizabeth Kilgarriff for the BBC. It debuts in the UK on Boxing Day.

The ABC Murders was the subject of a case study at Content London 2018, where Phelps, Prichard, Timmer and Kilgariff discussed making the series.

L-R: James Prichard, Sarah Phelps and Damien Timmer at Content London

Meet Poirot

James Prichard, CEO and chairman of Agatha Christie Limited and great-grandson of Agatha Christie: In terms of Agatha Christie’s full body of work, The ABC Murders is relatively early. We’re in the mid-1930s but, in terms of this story, Poirot is quite well developed. This is a story about Poirot ageing, and there are significant references to the fact his hair is changing colour. Part of the point of the story is Poirot being tested by this serial killer [and we get to see] whether he still has the faculties to solve it. It’s very different in terms of most of the Christie stories in that it plays over the canvas of the whole of the UK. Most of her stories are set in a country home or an enclosed location. The whole point of this is technically the killer could be anyone – it isn’t just a list of 10 suspects you have to work through, and that’s half the fun of it and half the power of it. It is testing Poirot to a level that he probably hasn’t been tested to anywhere else.

Sarah Phelps, writer and executive producer: A confession: I’d never read a Poirot book before I read The ABC Murders. A confession: I’ve never watched a Poirot adaptation all the way through. Obviously I know he has been played by Peter Eustinov, Albert Finney and, most famously, David Suchet. He’s unmissable. I have seen Kenneth Branagh in Murder on the Orient Express. So in much the same way I was familiar with Agatha Christie before I started working on these books but I hadn’t actually read any of the books, I was aware of him. But I didn’t know him at all. So I deep-dived into it to ask all the questions that get asked of Poirot throughout: Who are you? What compels you? Why do you do the things you do? Right down to the fact that I never refer to him as Poirot in my script. He’s always character-headed as Hercule, because I want to know who the private man is behind the famous public persona.

Damien Timmer, executive producer, MD of Mammoth Screen: I grew up with Agatha Christie, read all the books more than once, collected the books, loved the covers. In my weird young Hinterland, Poirot was a huge deal. In later years, I was privileged to work on the later David Suchet adaptations for ITV, which was wonderful. But I was sad because there were certain titles that had already been done, and one of them was The ABC Murders, which I genuinely thought was the most exciting Poirot novel. It has such scale. There was a sense that at some point soon we might be allowed to do a Poirot. There wasn’t a lot of discussion about what the title was. I just think we all instinctively felt The ABC Murders was the one to do.

Elizabeth Kilgariff, senior commissioning editor for drama, BBC: We talked about lots of different options and I agree that as a Poirot and as a standalone Poirot, it is a brilliant story. So it stands on its own merit as a real event piece for us.

Hollywood heavyweight John Malkovich as Hercule Poirot

Playing detective

Phelps: The thing is, I didn’t really want to do a sleuth. I like the Christie mysteries where no one’s going to come along and save you. I really love And Then There Were None – what a brutal, savage book. I really love the short story of The Witness for the Prosecution and Ordeal by Innocence because no one is going to come along and help. No one’s going to come along and explain things. They’re not going to parcel it up and return this sense of security and Englishness back to you and you can carry on playing your game of tennis or whatever it is you were doing before this body so rudely arrived on the carpet. So I really didn’t want to do a sleuth, I didn’t want to do the thing where they come along and they’ve got all the answers. But I liked the story and I thought it was grubby and seedy and you could smell that 1930s world. Then if I’m going to do it, Hercule has to be the mystery, because he’s a mystery to me as I don’t know him. So I just ran with that. There were two mysteries running side by side. That felt to be the right way to go about it, rather than presuming all this knowledge because somebody has always been the way they’ve been just because we think we know them.

Meet Poirot

Phelps: The story was written in 1936 but I’ve set it in 1933, very specifically, which is the date when the British Union of Fascists started to gain real traction in Britain. The language of the British Union of Fascists is exactly the language of Brexit and Trump that we see now. Hercule Poirot is a foreigner. He’s not from Britain, he’s from Belgium and the backlash against people who had arrived as part of the exodus from Europe before the First World War had changed very specifically. Hercule finds himself rather diminished, rather friendless, in this new world. The place he was comfortable in, Scotland Yard, he’s no longer really welcome.

Harry Potter star Rupert Grint plays Inspector Crome

Changing Christie

Phelps: There was a stage adaptation of And Then There Were None after the Second World War in America and the producers of that apparently said, “Look, everyone’s really depressed – we need to have a happy ending and cheer everyone up.” So in this stage adaptation, Philip Lombard and Vera Claytorne escape – because there’s nothing like a multiple murderer and a child killer going off into the sunset hand in hand to really put a zip in your stride. Yes, I made changes. When I was writing The Witness for the Prosecution, I carried on long after that story had left off. I made changes to And Then There Were None. But, in this, I took very seriously what is utterly canonical about this character. Because I was unfamiliar, I could deep-dive into those things and deconstruct it a little bit to find the man beneath it. In many ways I think it’s faithful, but it’s my interpretation; like everybody has an interpretation, this is mine. James and the Christie estate are incredibly generous and trusting.

Prichard: Sarah pushes us to places that make me deeply uncomfortable but the point of it is these are adaptations; they’re not direct translations, and you don’t get someone with the genius of Sarah if you don’t allow them a little bit of licence to interpret the things in the way that she sees them, and that’s the point. With The ABC Murders, the clue is in the title. I thought we’d be safe because it is A, B, C. Little did I know that she’d go a little bit further, to E.

Kilgariff: That this is Sarah’s interpretation is actually very important for us. This is a story that’s been adapted before – why do it if you’re not going to bring something new for the audience? We all know Sarah will always do something brilliant and special to any of the pieces she adapts but, in a way, that always makes them feel new and distinctive, and that’s obviously really important for us. Otherwise, why would we do it?

On location

Timmer: We were filming in different places around Yorkshire. The story is set in London but the first murder is in Andover, the second is in Bexhill-on-Sea – we did film there. But principally we have brilliant locations in and around Yorkshire doubling up for all sorts of different bits of the UK.

Phelps: Bradford has the most beautiful council buildings, and they played the role of Scotland Yard in the 1930s. But they are still council buildings, so you’d have all these people going about their business with clipboards and lanyards, going up and down these stairs past the cameras and every now and again encountering John Malkovich and Rupert Grint in period costume. It was quite surreal.

Brazilian director Alex Gabassi (centre) pictured during filming

Building the cast

Phelps: John said the scripts went to his agent and his agent gave him a call and said, ‘It’s the BBC and it’s Poirot and it’s Christmas, you don’t want to do this.’ He went, ‘Have you read the scripts?’ and his agent said, ‘Yes we read the scripts, you don’t want to do this.’ He said, ‘I’ll take a look anyway.’ He gets the scripts and calls them back and says, ‘You didn’t read these scripts did you? I didn’t think so, because I’m doing it.’ Con Air [in which Malkovich stars] is one of the greatest movies ever made and you just think, ‘What the hell?’ Every now and again I go, ‘John Malkovich is in my show!’

Kilgariff: These pieces do attract an amazing cast but this one is really special, and that’s testament to Sarah’s scripts. Of course, it’s Agatha Christie. Everyone knows what that is, which is very exciting, but I do think it’s the quality of the scripts. More and more, the scripts and the writing speak for themselves and we are getting some amazing casts.

Phelps: We only had one casting disappointment – there’s a pug, and the first pug we had kept peeing on the furniture, so we had to sack it and get a new pug.

Behind the camera

Timmer: Alex Gabassi, our completely magnificent director, is a really extraordinary talent. It was a big deal for him because it’s the first big British show he’s done [Gabassi is Brazilian], but we’ve all been impressed by the skill he has. He’s taken such ownership of every aspect of the show with such a cheerful twinkle.

Phelps: Alex likes to storyboard so he brought in a lot of storyboards and a lot of mood boards and we talked a lot about everything, which means by the time we’re ready to go, I completely and utterly trust him to do what he’s brilliant at.

Reinventing Christie

Prichard: It’s not stretching a point too far to say [the BBC adaptations] were almost the beginning of a change in perception of my great-grandmother, where people began to take her seriously again. I’m not doing down any of the ITV shows, because I think they were brilliant and some of the later Poirots were among the best. But there was a feel to them and they felt of their time. And Then There Were None blew the doors off that, and since then people have realised you can do Agatha Christie in a different way, that she is a serious writer, and it has opened doors for us. We even got nominated for a Bafta, which would never have happened five years ago. There’s a credibility that’s come from the way Sarah has treated these stories that has definitely made an impact.

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Reinventing Javert

An upcoming adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 19th century novel Les Misérables will be the most satisfying version yet, says star David Oyelowo, as he explains why taking the character of Javert beyond his portrayal as a one-one-dimensional villain was his most challenging role to date.

“If there’s something I’ve learned, it is you can never predict how anything you do is going to be received, as Victor Hugo will attest to,” David Oyelowo says with a smile. “But the thing I do know we’ve achieved is filling in a lot of the blanks that inevitably exist because you are trying to boil down a huge novel.”

Oyelowo is deconstructing his latest television role, which will see him tackle Javert, the police inspector and primary antagonist in Victor Hugo’s 19th century epic novel Les Misérables, in the forthcoming adaptation for UK public broadcaster the BBC and Masterpiece on PBS in the US.

The miniseries has been authored by period adaptation maven Andrew Davies (War & Peace, Pride & Prejudice) and sees Oyelowo face off against Dominic West’s protagonist Jean Valjean (pictured top alongside Oyelowo).

The subject of numerous recreations, the novel’s most recognisable reinventions are the long-running musical, which has now been a fixture on London’s West End for 33 years, and the 2012 Hollywood film helmed by The King’s Speech director Tom Hooper.

Oyelowo points out, however, that rather than treading the same ground, Davies’ six-hour series can go deeper into the book. “If it’s a film or a musical you’re distilling it down to, it’s too thin to be as satisfying as the book allows,” he says. “Six hours of television in the hands of Andrew Davies is a far more satisfying way to explore that story and understand these characters who intersect in ways that are genuinely universal – in terms of how we exist in the world now.

David Oyelowo as Javert in Les Misérables, which will air on the BBC this Christmas

“What I love about the book is that at any given time I can identify with Javert, I can identify with Jean Valjean, I can identify with Fantine; and that needs time to not reduce them to archetypes. My hope is that people who see this version are really going to have a far greater context for what this story actually is.”

This is no more relevant than to his character, Javert. Oyelowo says the inspector is often portrayed as a “one-dimensional” villain with the sole function of hunting down the misdirected but ultimately good-at-heart Valjean.

“It became clear to me that there was so much more there than people may recognise from knowing the musical. Let’s face it, not enough people have read the book. That became the challenge and it was basically to understand why he pursues him,” he adds.

“What became apparent is that, at the time in which this thing is set, there’s a lot of friction between the classes, between people on the basis of socioeconomics, politics… and so that time required – and I’m not saying he is in any way what the world needs now – someone who operated in moral absolutes in order to bring any kind of order to that chaos. He’s a by-product of the time he was in. Therefore, hopefully, you don’t necessarily condone his actions but you understand them.”

The contradictions that exist in Javert are such that Oyelowo, who has depicted Martin Luther King Jr (Selma) and former Botswanan president Sir Seretse Goitsebeng Maphiri Khama (A United Kingdom) on the big screen, feels the role has proved “one of the most challenging” in his career, due to “the perception people have going in.”

“By and large, people have an opinion [of the character] – even people who haven’t seen the musical, read the book or know much about it. They have a sense, whether it’s a portrayal they’ve seen in a trailer, or a poster they’ve seen, so it’s a little bit like the challenge you have when you’re playing a historical figure. You know that what you have to do in order to do a portrayal that’s satisfying is to bring something revelatory, something that people didn’t know. If you’re just giving them what they already knew, it’s redundant. That was the challenge.”

Broadchurch star Olivia Colman also features in the period drama

Oyelowo is changing perceptions, and breaking new ground, from a different standpoint too. In casting him as Javert, the BBC is thought to be the first broadcaster to have selected a non-white actor in the joint-lead role. After the backlash Jodie Whittaker received from some quarters after becoming the first female lead in Doctor Who, does Oyelowo wonder if there will be similar grumblings from people who believe Javert should only ever be a white man?

“In my opinion, we take a far greater licence by taking French history and transposing it onto British history than we do by suggesting that people of colour were integral to European life in the 19th century,” he says. “We have transposed this onto English society in order for it to be understood by a broader audience beyond French people.

“And so if we want to make something that is relevant to the world that we actually live in, we should be reflecting that in every sense, not just the actual language we’re translating the show into but the people who get to portray the characters as well.”

And in casting the actor who has played spies, corrupt detectives and a chess coach in his career so far, director Tom Shankland believes Javert has been given new depth. Speaking to DQ earlier this year, Shankland said Oyelowo had done such an effective job of layering the character and providing a perfect foil for Dominic West’s Valjean that “by the end, I’m almost in tears for Javert.”

“David kept on looking and finding, in extraordinary ways, the humanity – however twisted and bitter – in Javert,” Shankland said. “In my wildest dreams I wasn’t sure we’d get to that place with a character like that. David dug so deep, but all the time he’s scary and driven and the person we hope will never succeed.”

Lily Collins as Fantine

Oyelowo himself says he had conversations with Shankland to discuss how best to portray Javert. While the character has previously been played by esteemed actors including Russell Crowe and Geoffrey Rush, Oyelowo says he did not draw on past interpretations because of the very fact the character has been cast as merely the villain of the piece. Moreover, Javert has often been deemed “quite posh” compared with Valjean, something Oyelowo believes is at odds with Hugo’s work.

“This book is about the underclass, and my character was born in a prison to criminal parents. The portrayals I’ve seen thus far I don’t feel suggest that. In many ways, Jean Valjean and Javert are mirror images of each other; they’re both coming from criminality as opposed to what I’ve seen in the past, which is Javert seeming to be quite posh in relation to Valjean, who’s the criminal,” he explains.

“One of the reasons Javert has this inexorable obsession with hunting down Jean Valjean is that he represents what Javert could have been, under different circumstances, and what he hates in terms of his own upbringing, what lies in his own familial past – that his own parents were in exactly the same situation that Jean Valjean finds himself in for having stolen a loaf of bread.

“His hatred of his parents and upbringing is partly why he hates Jean Valjean. I haven’t seen that before. In talking to Tom, it was very clear we were trying to do something quite different and, hopefully without sounding conceited, something far more real in terms of the novel.”

That said, Oyelowo isn’t completely averse to past interpretations of the novel, and laughs when asked if he’s pleased there will be no singing involved in Davies’ adaptation, which comes from producer Lookout Point and BBC Studios, with the later also distributing. “I like singing; I personally enjoyed the musical film,” he concludes. “But if you’re going to tell this story, you don’t want to literally be doing a version of what we’ve seen quite recently. What we’ve set out to do is something quite different, even though it does have that iconic title.”

Though they may not be accompanied by a tune, it is likely Oyelowo will make Hugo’s words sing when Javert returns to the small screen next year.

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Down the rabbit hole

Launching this Christmas on BBC1 in the UK and worldwide on Netflix, the new version of Watership Down is touted as the first primetime animated drama. The creative team behind the project gathered at Content London 2018 to discuss how the series originated and the challenges they faced along the way.

Watership Down is a beloved 1972 novel by Richard Adams that was first translated for the screen six years later as an iconic animated movie famed for the Art Garfunkel song Bright Eyes and with a reputation for terrifying younger viewers.

Now, 40 years after the film was first released, a new adaptation has gone back to Adams’ original text to retell the story for a new generation across four hours of television – one that promises to be much less scary.

Set in the idyllic rural landscape of southern England, this tale of adventure, courage and survival follows a band of rabbits as they face the intrusion of man and the certain destruction of their home. Led by a stout-hearted pair of brothers, they journey forth from their native Sandleford Warren through the harrowing trials posed by predators and adversaries, towards a promised land and a better society.

Stars such as James McAvoy (Hazel), Nicholas Hoult (Fiver), John Boyega (Bigwig), Gemma Arterton (Clover) and Olivia Colman (Strawberry) have leant their voices to the project, which is written by Tom Bidwell, directed by Noam Murro and co-directed by Alan Short and Seamus Malone for BBC1 in the UK and Netflix worldwide. The producers are 42 and Biscuit Entertainment.

Watership Down was the subject of a case study at Content London 2018, where Murro, Bidwell, executive producer Rory Aitken, former BBC commissioning editor Matthew Read and Larry Tanz, VP of global originals at Netflix, discussed the making of the series.

The new version of Watership Down takes its lead from the original book

In the beginning…

Noam Murro, director: I wasn’t one of those kids who read it when I was young. I grew up in Israel and got it fairly late in life. My friend suggested I read it, and I fell in love with it. That started a quest to get the rights for it, and at the start I thought of doing it as a feature. But bringing it to 42, we decided to do it as a four-part series, as the book can be served much better. The idea wasn’t to remake the film but reimagine the book. That’s really what this was all about.

Rory Aitken, executive producer, 42: It’s been a long process, it hasn’t been easy and we ended up pioneering something because it’s the first animated primetime hour-long drama series ever made, which we didn’t know at the time. It was the most extraordinary experience because of the sheer quality [of partners], the brand and the love for the book – and everybody said yes. We rang up Matthew [Read] at the BBC and said, ‘Watership Down.’ I think he just said one word, which was ‘yes.’ We talked about writers and our first choice was Tom [Bidwell]. He said it was one of his favourite books of all time and, further down the process, it was the same with the actors. Everybody just responded like that, which was extraordinary. If it wasn’t Watership Down, it might have been almost impossible to make.

Matthew Read, former BBC drama commissioning editor: When I was a kid, everyone was into Star Wars, but Watership Down was like Star Wars to me. I went to see it at the cinema 12 times and I was really obsessed with the film. I didn’t see it as a kids’ film, I saw it as an action movie. Years later, I read the book and realised there was a very different version of Watership Down. I love the film and still do, but the book is much more about nature and solidarity. Were the BBC sitting around waiting for a big animated show? Definitely not – but the idea was if you have something good enough, we’d figure out a way. I had a genuine heartfelt enthusiasm and just tried to back them in whatever shape or form I could.

Larry Tanz, VP of global originals, Netflix: It was a bit of a leap for us as well. The project came to us in early 2015 and Noam had designs and storyboards and Rory came in with the script. But Netflix had just launched in Germany and France, and was not yet in Italy, Spain, India or the rest of Asia. It was a very different time in the company. We had never engaged in an animation project of this scope but we were thinking, ‘In a year from now, we hope to be global so what opportunities are there for global brands?’ This book is beloved not just in the UK but all over the world. I read it with my kids and, if you can execute it well, it has huge potential. The creative team, partnering with the BBC and knowing there probably would be no better place to see this show developed than at the BBC gave us confidence to go in on this multi-year journey so we have a show that will work for the service we hope to be when it comes out.

Tom Bidwell, writer: It’s one of my favourite books and favourite worlds. There’s a discrepancy between Watership Down the film and Watership Down the book, and my job is the book. It’s Richard Adams – one of the great world-builders along with JRR Tolkien and Lewis Carroll. My work was focused on how to build the myth of this world and really embrace the story, the narrative and the characters. When they offered me the project and I knew who was attached, it was an honour to work on it. It really pushes and challenges you.

The voice cast includes Star Wars actor John Boyega

Adapting the novel…

Bidwell: The structures are already evident in the novel. It’s broken into four distinct chapters, so we used those as the basis of our four episodes [screened in two parts on the BBC on December 22 and 23]. We did make a few changes: we reduced the number of characters for clarity and added more female characters [Strawberry was changed from a buck to a doe]. If I added something to the script that wasn’t in the novels and people think they remember that from the book, that’s the win of adaptation for me.

Aitken: We were making television drama and also making animation. They’re two completely distinct worlds and being television drama, there was a huge focus on getting the script absolutely right before we started anything. On an animated movie, you’d have the beginnings of the script and then you’d start on the visuals. Although we talk about how long it’s taken, including two-and-a-half years in production, people in animation would be amazed how quick that is. We’re looking at it through the prism of TV drama and there’s a completely different prism to look at it through, which is animation. They can’t believe how quickly and cheaply we did it, but in TV, everyone’s like, ‘That took a long time and was expensive.’ We sat on the divide but it served us well.

Read: I don’t know if it’s a general trend in drama or television that if you find something specific and brilliant, an audience really wants that. Ten years ago, everyone was trying to think about what the audience wants and give them something for everyone. Now, because of the way we can reach audiences, if you give people a specific version of something, they’ll come to that. We all felt we had to make the best possible version and that people would respond to that. That’s good for the book and hopefully good for the audience.

The show took two-and-a-half years to make

Pioneering ‘animated drama’…

Murro: None of us approached it, oddly, as animation. That’s the most important part. Yes, there’s a huge difference in the process but, at the end of the day, it’s a piece of entertainment. Part of watching the series is you forget these are bunnies very quickly and it becomes like any other movie. You sit on the edge of your seat or you cry.

Aitken: Having made films and now TV, it’s basically the opposite way round. You edit first and shoot later. It’s so expensive – any second you have of animation on the cutting room floor is just a massive waste of money. So we’ve delivered four 50-minute episodes and there’s not one second on the floor. Every tiny thing has to be created from scratch, so there’s a vast amount of work initially to decide on the universe you’re building – what is the tone, the fear, the look – and hundreds of people then have to build that in all different ways, from production design to lighting. Essentially, you get to the point where you’re two years in and you can’t see the show but you feel the drama’s working and you say ‘go’ on the animation. Then every week you get two more scenes and you probably get to change one or two things in each of them.

Murro: Part of what made this possible is we had an unbelievable cast. We had arguably the greatest of English actors, and it makes life a lot easier when you have that talent. If it wasn’t at that level, I don’t think we’d have got this far or this deep.

Much thought went into how the rabbits would be differentiated

Creating the world – and the rabbits…

Murro: We felt there’s a huge canvas that’s been untouched between Pixar and DreamWorks and the [Japanese director Hayao] Miyazaki and the Watership Down film itself. There were two things: one was to block it as if I was shooting in live action – the lenses and camera were very specific – but the overall look is like a diorama. You have an animal that is 3D and real in the front but, as it goes back, it becomes more painted. That, for me, was a clear direction. I don’t remember seeing it done that way.

Aitken: Animation costs are coming down and TV budgets are going up, so we caught ourselves on the nexus of the two. But we realised we couldn’t create a Pixar world because we didn’t have the money. So all of the deep backgrounds are paintings. That worked really well because we’re set in the British countryside, so a painted sky and backdrop works really well for it. We have about seven rabbits; normally in animation, you make one pink and blue and viewers know which one is which. If you want to make it realistic, the danger is you don’t know which one is which. Noam and the team did a great job because it’s just on the line. They’re such strong characters, the voices are different and they’re sufficiently different visually that you just pick them up without having to resort to making them different colours. Also, rabbits’ eyes are on the sides of their heads, and if you bring them too far to the front, they start to look like dogs or weird animals. In drama, you find emotion in characters mostly through the eyes, but rabbits’ real eyes are completely black. They don’t have pupils, so in almost any animation with animals, you get human eyes because that’s how we understand eye line and emotion.

Gemma Arterton voices Clover

The music of Watership Down…

Murro: It’s huge, it’s everything. Federico Jusid, who wrote the music for this, is a genius. [He completed the music] with very little time, about three months. This is a 1,000-page score! It really is a supportive emotional base and I feel incredibly fortunate to have him and this music. What we tried to do with this series is make it timeless.

Tanz: It’s also an important through line for us because a lot of people will watch the show in different languages – probably 10 different dubbed languages. One of the fun things for me on the project was localising the title and the artwork for all these different places. It’s a reminder that we have this incredible cast and a lot of people will watch that show with that cast, but a lot of people will watch in Italian or Spanish. The score is the spine that is consistent throughout that. The score is the audio layer everybody will experience around the world.

The  show sparking a new trend for animated drama…

Aitken: I genuinely think it could be. Animation costs are coming down, TV budgets have gone up. I feel like we maybe accidentally pioneered something and now we’ve made all the mistakes, it would be nice to do it where we know what we’re doing!

Tanz: I would love to do more projects like this. For us, it fits in the category of it’s not a kids’ show, it’s about families watching it together and having truly a global property that already has fans around the world. The storytelling will allow millions of people to access it for the first time.

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Life of crime

Idris Elba returns as iconic detective Luther for a fifth season of BBC1’s flagship crime drama. DQ visits the set to meet the cast and discover what new horrors writer Neil Cross has in store.

With so much of Luther set in and filmed around east London, the BBC1 crime drama has left an indelible mark on me. Not least because season two, first screened in the UK in 2011, saw a psychotic serial killer select his targets at random, leading to a particularly barbaric sequence involving multiple deaths in and around Liverpool Street train station and a final showdown in nearby Appold Street – my exact commute to the office. Walking to work has never been the same since.

Seven years later – and eight since Luther first aired – I’m standing on the office floor of the Metropolitan Police’s serious and serial crime unit where DCI John Luther, played by Idris Elba, and his team are getting their heads around another series of grisly murders.

Bafta-winning Wunmi Mosaku (Damilola, Our Loved Boy), who has joined the cast as Luther’s new partner DS Catherine Halliday, is standing in front of some large boards covered with maps and photos of locations, bloodied bodies and mugshots. Desks and computers fill the office, a drab space complemented by dark blue walls and matching carpet – standard police station decor.

Across the room, Dermot Crowley’s DSU Martin Shenk is watching her before approaching. “Isn’t it time you went home, Catherine?” he asks. Something’s not right, she says, and they leave together to see Luther.

“Cut,” calls director Jamie Payne, seated in front of a monitor around a corner from where the actors are stood. He resets the shot and, after another rehearsal, the scene is recorded to film. The cameras are then shifted, this time close up on Mosaku, and Payne is nodding his head along to the dialogue. When he’s happy, Payne shouts, “That’s the one.”

It’s a grey March day at a former telephone exchange in Watford, on the outskirts of north-west London, where the team behind Luther is hitting the final stretch of production on the series’ fifth season – a single story playing out across four episodes that will run on consecutive nights on BBC1 between January 1 and 4, 2019.

Luther creator and writer Neil Cross (left) on set with star Idris Elba

If viewers have come to expect anything from Luther, it’s a good fright, with notable scenes from previous seasons including a killer hiding under a bed. “I’m having nightmares,” admits Mosaku, with this season set to bring new horrors to the London night-bus experience. “There have been some dark scenes. There is one scene in episode one that gave me absolute chills reading it, so having to be on set with the aftermath, I was like, ‘This is exactly what I imagined and it’s just as harrowing.’”

Fast-tracked through the police, Halliday arrives as Luther’s latest partner. Mosaku says there’s warmth in their relationship, with some added spice to keep her on her toes.

“She trusts him. She looks up to him and thinks he’s brilliant,” says the actor, who first auditioned for the show way back in season one. “She will say, ‘Is this ethically correct?’ and he’ll say, ‘It’s legal.’ So she knows there’s a difference between their ethics. She does trust him, but she’s wary of the fact this isn’t necessarily what she would do or Schenk would do.”

This isn’t the first time Mosaku has portrayed a police officer, and being a fan of Luther and of writer Neil Cross meant she was keen to return to the beat to play Halliday. “She is sweet. She’s just not your typical cop. She’s smart and she’s good but there’s a lightness to her, and I feel like that’s a character I’ve not played much,” the actor explains. “Luther is a tough show but Halliday has a bounce in her step and everything she’s seeing is affecting her for the first time.”

But why does Luther, produced and distributed by BBC Studios, stand out among the crowd of crime dramas? “Number one, there’s a black British African man as the lead. When it first came out, I don’t think I’d ever seen that before. So when season one came out, that’s why I was watching it and I loved it,” Mosaku explains.

One character who has featured in every season since the beginning, playing an increasingly important role, is Benny Silver, Luther’s loyal, go-to computer mastermind, played by Michael Smiley.

Joining the cast for season five is Wunmi Mosaku as Luther’s partner, DS Catherine Halliday

“I love the fact Benny has, in increments, come more into the drama and storylines,” the actor says. “He was just a one-off character in a couple of scenes in the first season and was Luther’s hacker. Now he’s in the bullpen, he’s one of the main characters and in this season he features quite heavily, so it’s really exciting.”

Smiley describes Elba and Cross’s relationship as a “perfect storm” of brilliant acting and superb writing, and says Luther wouldn’t be the same show without its gruesome deaths and shocking scares. He promises more of the same in season five, likening the show to a gothic fable, but says it isn’t quite the same on set.

“When you’re on the inside, you don’t really see the scary parts,” he says. “What you see is the fake blood and you get to see how the art department works, which is really fantastic. I really enjoy watching people bring their A-game, because Luther’s one of the top British dramas and certainly a flagship drama for BBC1. The people who are on it are there because they’re the best in their trade, so watching those people is great.”

Back on set, the office is now busy with extras sitting at their desks. Two cast members walk out through double doors and in comes Luther, wearing his trademark coat, grey shirt and red tie, to meet Halliday and Schenk. Only it’s not Elba, it’s his body double.

A couple of weeks later, Elba himself joins us at the Langham Hotel, opposite BBC Broadcasting House in central London. And while much of the season’s plot is under wraps, what has been revealed is that, as a series of monstrous killings becomes increasingly audacious, Luther and Halliday are confounded by a tangle of leads and misdirection that seems designed to protect an unspeakable horror.

But as the case brings him closer than ever to the nature of true evil, a reluctant Luther must also face the ghosts of his own past.

DQ visited the Luther set ahead of the new season

Following the success of previous seasons, Elba says the challenge this time around is not to beat previous efforts but match the things the audience find compelling and then make them more complex.

“The comforting thing about Luther from season one to season two is the DNA doesn’t change,” he says. “You see the murder, you even know who it is or you see the clues, and then you watch John go for it – and I don’t think we’ve ever tried to deviate from that. But each time, we’ve made it slightly more complex, which means we start to dissect his timelines.

“This one is the most complex; there are so many things going on. And the great thing about Neil is he’s a great writer. Of course, we want complex storylines, but how does it make it still compelling? How do we fit it into an hour? How do we do it over four episodes and not exhaust the audience? That’s what I think Neil has done a really incredible job of this year.”

The actor admits to going to great lengths to make Luther compelling and dark. “That means for us as a film crew, we film at night, we spend lots of time in the cold, we kill a lot of people and we all watch that and all go, ‘Jesus Christ, what are we doing?’ Then we go home, we dream about it and come back the next day,” he says. “In my first season, I used to spend a lot of time in the bars, straightaway after work, me and the cast, and now I don’t do that. I’ve grown older but I do have to have some sort of therapeutic outlet, which tends to be music for me – making music. When you do Luther in the winter months for 10 or 12 weeks, it’s a dark time.”

Elba is also heavily involved off screen, having first been an associate producer to ensure he had a voice behind the scenes. “We were quite heavily criticised in the early stages that female characters were always the first to go. Having a voice under a producer’s title allowed me to implement some thoughts and bring in teams that helped change some things a little bit,” he says.

Now an executive producer, he was part of the early team that met Payne and consulted with Cross and the department heads about the direction of this season. “This one’s very particular because I think it’s one of our last TV instalments – I shouldn’t say that as a matter of fact, but it was designed in the sense that Neil’s and my ambition is to take it to a larger screen,” he reveals. “We paid attention to what we were writing in this show. If we are to make a movie, this show is essentially a segue to that.”

Idris Elba receives a touch-up between takes on location in London

For now, season five boasts a new character in Halliday, who challenges Luther more than most of his other partners. “He has a sense of protection [over her] because she’s a black female detective and he wants her to climb [up the ranks],” he adds. “But of course things happen within the show. It’s quite a compelling storyline.”

Elba likens Luther’s London to Batman’s Gotham City, a place where societal issues can be transposed onto a unique setting. Crowley, as Luther’s boss Schenk, agrees that the location is another character in the drama, adding to the foreboding and uneasy atmosphere that runs through the series.

“It’s a very frightening programme to be in,” he says. “It feels uber-real when you’re making it because I suppose it has to. This is definitely the scariest yet.”

Since the start of the show, Schenk has evolved from essentially Luther’s bureaucratic nemesis to a character who admires the detective and is equally willing to play with morality and the law to get the job done.

“He always acts with an admiration for Luther because he thinks he’s an extraordinary copper and he does things where Schenk doesn’t himself have that particular skill or facility,” Crowley says. “But at the same time, I think Schenk is very puritanical about himself and the police and morality generally. He always gives Luther enough leeway to act but, at the same time, in an almost paternal way, he keeps an eye on him as well.”

The Irish actor praises Cross’s scripts as being “raw, exciting. His use of language is excellent.” He continues: “When you get a Neil script, the words come off the page. They always sound like you’re saying them for the first time, which is the secret of good writing. They don’t sound stagey.

“He’s got great balls as a writer. He’s not afraid to suddenly give an actor an aria, a 10-page speech, and there’s always something underneath it that pushes the story forward.”

With all the excitement surrounding the return of Luther, plus its international popularity thanks to its availability on Netflix, a big-screen outing seems inevitable for Elba and this larger-than-life character. One can only imagine what horrors he and Cross will dream up next.

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Wilson on Wilson

BBC miniseries Mrs Wilson sees actor Ruth Wilson (The Affair, Luther) lead the cast in a story based on the life of her own grandmother.

Set between the 1940s and the 1960s in London, the series follows Alison Wilson (Wilson), who thinks she is happily married until her husband dies and a woman turns up on her doorstep claiming that she is the real Mrs Wilson. Alison is determined to prove the validity of her own marriage – and Alec (Iain Glen)’s love for her – but is instead led into a world of disturbing secrets.

Alexander Wilson was a writer, spy and secret service officer who served in the First World War before moving to India to teach as a professor of English Literature, where he began writing spy novels. In the 1930s he enjoyed great success with his novels being reviewed in The Telegraph, Observer and the Times Literary Supplement, among others. He passed away in 1963.

In this DQTV interview, Wilson and fellow executive producer Ruth Kenley-Letts discuss bringing this extraordinary true story to the screen and how screenwriter Anna Symon used Alison’s own memoir as the basis for the script.

Wilson also talks about balancing acting and exec producing the drama, which is both a mystery and a thriller as Alison comes to terms with her husband’s secrets.

Coproduced with Masterpiece for PBS, Mrs Wilson also stars Keeley Hawes, Anupam Kher and Fiona Shaw. It is directed by Richard Laxton (Mum) and produced by Jackie Larkin (Strike). Also among the exec producers are Neil Blair (Strike) and Lucy Richer for the BBC and Rebecca Eaton for Masterpiece at WGBH Boston.

Mrs Wilson is a production by Snowed-In Productions for the BBC and Masterpiece. All3Media International is handling the international rights.

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No singing allowed

Victor Hugo’s epic novel Les Misérables might be best known for its musical adaptations, but a new small-screen adaptation produced for the BBC and Masterpiece on PBS feels more like a western, as exec producer Bethan Jones and director Tom Shankland explain.

Tom Shankland

When Victor Hugo sat down to write his epic 19th century novel Les Misérables, including in it a searing indictment of the divide between rich and poor and the travails of revolutionary political movements, he was probably considering a more distinguished legacy than an often-derided musical in London’s West End.

For when one thinks about Les Misérables, it is the bathetic tones of I Dreamed a Dream and carefully choreographed dance-acting that spring to mind. And although Anne Hathaway’s rendition of I Dreamed… in the 2012 Hollywood film did give a sense of the pain and despair her character Fantine was supposed to be feeling, the fact remains that this ambitious novel is often reduced to a collection of show tunes and the diminutive appellation ‘Les Mis.’

This is one of the reasons adaptation supremo Andrew Davies (Bleak House, Pride & Prejudice, Middlemarch) has taken on the project for UK pubcaster the BBC and Masterpiece on PBS in the US, alongside producers Lookout Point and BBC Studios, which is also distributing. When discussing the adaptation a few years back at the Hay Festival, Davies called the musical a “shoddy farrago” of Hugo’s original work, adding that he hoped his take would champion the book for its depth.

“Andrew loves being contentious, that’s his thing,” says Bethan Jones, exec producer on the series for BBC Studios. “For me, you take a big book like this and you adapt it to the form you are servicing. Inevitably, the musical has to have its baddies, its goodies, its romantic interests – it has to follow that journey. It has a certain amount of hours to fill and you have to tell a musical story. A film adaptation will be a very different thing again. What we’ve got in six hours is the opportunity to dig down a little bit more into those characters than potentially shorter adaptations have time to do; to explore the relationships and themes between the characters and their particular journeys.”

David Oyelowo as Javert in Les Misérables, which will air on the BBC this Christmas

Part of this sharper focus on the source material is a strict ‘no singing’ policy, with Davies pointedly declaring at Hay that his cast would not “yell great things like they do in the musical.” Jones diplomatically says the musical and the BBC series – which lands on screens in early 2019 – are “two very different, but equally valid” ways of representing the book.

Pared down, Les Misérables tells the story of prisoner Jean Valjean and his continuous battle with police inspector Javert following his release from prison for stealing bread. After further run-ins with the law, Valjean attempts to change his ways and live life as a decent man. Interspersed with his long road to redemption are stories of family, love, rebellion and commentary on the social and political class system of post-revolutionary France. Its intricate plot has spawned – beyond the aforementioned takes – more than 60 adaptations across film and television, which raises another question about the BBC’s forthcoming production – do we need another?

Bethan Jones

Jones reiterates Davies’ desire to go back to Hugo’s original text and “draw out more of the real stories, themes and characters” and the book’s timelessness as justification. “We also felt it was timely in as much as while there is still poverty, hardship and degradation in the world, books like this will still be relevant. It feels timely to be looking at a classic text that deals with a complicated period and the division of rich and poor but through the eyes of brilliant characters.”

Director Tom Shankland (The City & The City, The Missing, Ripper Street) admits he hadn’t seen a single adaptation of the book before he took the helm, and thus hopes his is a fresh perspective. “For me, it felt like an epic western,” he says. “I’ve always loved westerns. There are all these fantastic characters – the bad sheriff, the wanted man, the hunted fugitive. It was everything I loved about that genre – the adventure and emotion of that.”
Simply being thrilled by the plot isn’t enough to hook a director completely, Shankland points out, but he was snagged “emotionally and thematically” by Valjean’s quest for redemption and a “simple desire to be good in a bad world.”

The BBC has assembled a premium cast for the series, with The Affair star Dominic West taking on Valjean, Selma’s David Oyelowo playing Javert, Lily Collins as destitute young mother Fantine and Adeel Akhtar and Olivia Colman as petty criminals the Thénardiers.
“David absolutely felt there was something around Javert’s role as a bit of a thwarted outsider with frustrations and drive to move up in the world, as well as being this person with a real ideological commitment to the belief that people are either born wicked or good,” Shankland says. “He kept on looking and finding, in extraordinary ways, the humanity – however twisted and bitter – in Javert. By the end, I’m almost in tears for him. In my wildest dreams, I wasn’t sure we’d get to that place with a character like that. David dug so deep.

Dominic West (The Affair) as Jean Valjean

“When I watch what Dominic does to take Valjean to this unbelievably brutalised place, which is almost a wordless, inhuman place, to where he ends, he makes me believe every part of that journey.”

Davies has a knack of turning a classic literary work into a TV drama that resonates cinematically and does not seem anachronistic. In 2016, he received universal acclaim for his BBC adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s epic historical novel War & Peace, in which he successfully brought chaotic battle scenes, aristocratic opulence and sweeping landscapes of 19th century Russia to the small screen. Furthermore, within that epic scope, Jones says Davies has a rare ability to portray relatable characters that “speak to” a contemporary audience.

“Andrew’s scripts made these characters feel modern. That was nothing to do with having them speak in a very modern way or changing their behaviour, he just found the humanity and earthiness of it,” Shankland says, recalling a scene in which Fantine and her companions urinate in a Paris park. “I thought, ‘Oh god, they’re going to pee in Les Misérables, that’s exciting.’ It was these little things that Andrew did to make these people feel real and have an immediate presence that made me think that it wouldn’t be like doing a conventional, polite period piece. We’d be doing something that had a real connection with today.”

Broadchurch star Olivia Colman also features in the period drama

Filming has taken the production to far-flung areas of the French-speaking parts of Europe, from southern Belgium to Sedan in the Ardennes region of north-eastern France. In Sedan, Shankland says, they found back streets acutely reminiscent of the period Hugo was writing about. Jones and Shankland both note that the filming of key scenes, such as the political uprising, where students revolt and erect barricades in the narrow streets of Paris, were inspired by contemporary riots such as those that took place in London in 2011 and in Northern Ireland during the Troubles in the 1960s.

“I wanted the images to resonate with the audience, so they’d be thinking, ‘Oh hang about, that doesn’t feel like [post-revolutionary France] even if they might have guns that are somewhat 19th century,’” Shankland says. “Actually, what happened in a street battle – the energy, fear and chaos of that – is very modern. I tried to let modern events into the imagery. In some ways, we never thought of it as a period piece.”

“It does speak to that modern world. It’s not the French revolution; it’s a small, failed skirmish. That’s the tragedy of it. It’s a group of people desperately trying to assert themselves in a situation where the state is so much bigger than them. That’s still very relevant,” Jones adds.

Considering Les Misérables’ hard-hitting topics, one might expect the series to comprise six hours of unremitting tension and misery. But Shankland is quick to reassure this isn’t the case. “For all that the story is full of these epic, intense themes, there’s so much humour in it, and not in a way that I felt was ever crowbarred in. However dark times are, there’s always room for lightness and romance. It’s just a beautifully textured piece.”
And all without a songbook in sight.

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Mrs Wilson’s war

The Affair star Ruth Wilson opens up about starring in three-part drama Mrs Wilson, which is based on the true story of her own grandmother who discovered her late husband lived a life full of secrets.

Every time she spotted the clapperboard on her latest drama, Ruth Wilson admits she got a little shiver. Part excitement, part terror. The award-winning star of The Affair and Luther has never appeared in a drama quite like this.

The board said ‘Mrs Wilson.’ The story is that of Wilson’s own family; in particular her grandmother Alison and her enigmatic and fascinating grandfather Alexander Wilson, who married four times without ever divorcing and led several lives all at once. A successful novelist, an MI6 spy and Indian colonel, he was also in prison several times, permanently broke and clearly something of a womaniser. Even today MI6 won’t release some of his files because they are too sensitive.

Wilson plays Alison who, while she was suspicious about her husband’s activities, could never have imagined quite how many secrets he was hiding from her. Many of them only emerged after her death. The actor also coproduced the three-part drama, made by Snowed-In Productions for the BBC and Masterpiece for PBS. All3Media International is distributing.

Wilson admits that when she first took the project on, she underestimated just how hard it would be to work so closely on a drama about her own family.

“It has been the toughest thing I have done and I am very glad it is almost over,” the actor admits when she talks to DQ on a set at Blythe House in South Kensington, London, for a scene where a suspicious Alison follows Alexander. “It is personally very close so there is this pressure. Also, it is a very demanding part. She is being snapped this way and that, constantly overloaded with more bad information. I’ve found it exhausting and deeply emotional. Sometimes I wish someone else was playing it to give me some distance. But, at the same time, I had to play it.”

Mrs Wilson stars Ruth Wilson as her own grandmother in a remarkable true story

Wilson’s connection to the story starts when she was 15 and her grandmother, who she remembers as an emotionally closed-off but kind woman, revealed to her two sons and grandchildren a memoir she had written. In it, she explained that her husband Alexander, who died before Ruth was born, had another wife and three other children. She described how she had only learned the awful truth about his bigamy after he died and how it meant there were even two funerals – one for her and one for his other wife.

It was the first time either of her sons had heard anything about their father’s past and their mother’s torment. But when she died seven years later, more, much more, was to emerge. Unknown to Wilson’s father Nigel and his big brother Gordon, there were two more wives and two more sons. Both these other children had been interested in finding out more about their father – Michael, the son of his second wife Dorothy, had been told he’d died in the Battle of El Alamein – and were shocked to find out about his other wives and children.

Alison was actually Alexander’s third wife. He married Gladys in 1916, had three children and they ran a theatre troupe together. Then in 1925, in what appears to have been his first job for the secret service, he was appointed a professor of English literature at the University of Punjab. It was while in India that he married second wife Dorothy, an actress (played by Keeley Hawes in the drama), and they had a son, Michael.

He returned to England with Dorothy in 1933 and for a short time lived with Gladys. Eighteen months later he returned to Dorothy and they lived together from 1935 to 1940.

By then he was in love with Alison, a secretary at MI6. Dorothy told her son his father was dead, but Alexander continued to see his first family, who presumed he lived in London for work. Alison knew he had been married before but he showed her fake divorce papers.

Alexander is played by Iain Glen, aka Game of Thrones’ Jorah

In 1955 he married for the last time after meeting nurse Elizabeth, who was just 26. Alexander was 62 but told her he was 10 years younger. They had a son, Douglas, but she obviously felt something wasn’t right. He was still living in Alison’s family home, and Elizabeth moved to Scotland when their son was just two.

In 2007 all of the family met for the first time – a now regular occurrence that is highlighted in the drama. “It has actually become an amazing unification,” says Wilson. “They all had different experiences of him. A lot of them felt they didn’t really have a family so in a way they are connecting the dots. For me it has been incredible meeting them. Michael was an actor and two of the family have set up acting troupes. My creative streak comes from that side of the family; Alexander was the biggest actor out of all of us.”

Wilson would often tell people the strange tale of her mysterious grandfather who was, according to his children, a fantastic father. A practising Catholic, he instilled in them all faith in the church and a fierce patriotism – but he was also a serial bigamist and a liar.

“My family all told me I should turn it into a drama but it was only when I met Neil Blair [JK Rowling’s agent and founder of The Blair Partnership] that it happened,” she recalls. “Seeing the clapperboard saying ‘Mrs Wilson’ is a bit scary. I get a little shiver and I think ‘Oh God, we are actually making it.’ It is such an extraordinary story. It is better than fiction because it is real life.”

Scriptwriter Anna Symon spoke to all of Alexander’s remaining children to get their memories of both him and their mothers, with the series set in 1963, the year of Alexander’s death. All the family were shown the scripts and offered comments on everything from what medals Alexander, played by Iain Glen (Game of Thrones) before his death and then in flashbacks, would wear to what scenes should be put in.

Making the drama was a highly emotional experience for The Affair star Wilson

From the start, the idea was to tell the story from Alison’s point of view, even though they had to use dramatic licence to ensure the stories of all four wives were told. In real life Alison probably only ever found out about one other wife.

“My grandmother burned all of his papers,” adds Wilson. “This was her side of the narrative and the one she wanted to leave behind. I think in some way she probably did want this story to be told. She probably could never have imagined it being dramatised but I felt her with me as I was making it.”

When DQ catches up with Wilson five months later, after an emotional screening of the first episode of the drama that left both her father and uncle close to tears, the actor admits she is still struggling with the whole idea of it.

“It really was quite an odd experience and one I am still in,” she says of making the drama, which begins on BBC1 tomorrow. “It has made me understand my grandmother in a much deeper and emotional way because that is the thing about drama – it digs much deeper than a documentary or a memoir would because you are acting out scenes that happened. She had the rug pulled away from her and felt she had to construct this fake reality.

“There was some weirdness, like giving birth to my father, but my connection was more than that. The whole time I was playing her, I felt this string of anxiety pulling me – almost as if she was passing through me. Sometimes I felt overcome by powerful feelings. The crew and cast were so amazing, and everyone dealt with it so sympathetically that I felt someone, somewhere was really looking after it. Maybe it was her. I’d like to think she would be proud of what I’ve done.”

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