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.”
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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?
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.
“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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
International coproductions are nothing new, but as more globally ambitious dramas are emerging, DQ speaks to the producers behind some of these long-distance series to find out how stories spanning multiple countries are made.
The global boom in international coproductions has seen the rise of new cross-border partnerships as technological advances and greater working collaborations mean previously untold stories can now be brought to the small screen.
But when it comes to telling a story set in multiple countries, whether it involves creative talent from across Europe, Asia or on opposite sides of the world, how do the various players involved ensure they are all working to tell the same story?
Retelling myths and legends from numerous different countries, HBO Asia’s original horror series Folklore is surely one of the most imaginative and challenging productions of recent years.
The six-part anthology series sees each episode tell a new story set across six Asian countries – Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand – via a modern adaptation of that country’s folklore, featuring supernatural beings and the occult. Each episode also has a different director.
“I have always seen the series as a celebration of Asia’s diversity. So from the start, I wanted the episodes to be in their native language so that the richness of the different territories can shine,” explains showrunner Eric Khoo (pictured above on set), who also directs episode three, Nobody, which is set in Singapore. “I would have liked to include other countries such as the Philippines and some of the other emerging markets. But as it was our first step into doing a series of this scale, we decided to just do six and not be too greedy.”
Each director worked with their own production team, though several producers from Zhao Wei Films came on board to oversee the production. “We had total trust in the directors to assemble their local team,” Khoo says.
Filming in multiple territories meant collaborating with local producers, with Khoo noting that communication was key. But the biggest challenge? “My producers said the paperwork was a nightmare,” the showrunner reveals.
That Denmark and New Zealand are worlds apart was what appealed to producer Philly de Lacey when Screentime NZ partnered with Copenhagen-based Mastiff for eight-part series Straight Forward. Set in both Copenhagen and Queenstown, the series is described as an intricate and entertaining mix of crime caper and a voyage of discovery as a Danish woman attempts to leave her criminal past behind by moving to a small Kiwi town to start a new life.
“We couldn’t get more polar opposite, and that’s part of the beauty of it,” de Lacey says. “Although we’re culturally similar in a lot of places, there are lots of differences to play on too.” When Screentime revealed its plans for the multi-national drama, fellow Banijay Group-owned firm Mastiff jumped on the idea straight away. Nordic SVoD service Viaplay will screen the series locally, with TVNZ coproducing in association with Acorn Media Enterprises and Acorn TV in the US. Banijay Rights is handling international distribution (excluding New Zealand, Scandinavia, North America, the UK and Australia).
“We don’t think anyone’s done a Danish-New Zealand copro before,” de Lacey says. “It’s challenging because you’re dealing with two different languages, but the story really lends itself to working across two countries, so it’s perfect. It’s exciting for our Danish partners because they get to tell a Danish story that goes out into an English space in a natural way. And it’s exciting for us to be able to tell a New Zealand story that goes out to the world in a natural way as well.”
Filming took place for more than four months, with studio space in Auckland and a second unit in Queenstown, before another unit travelled to Denmark to get the key Copenhagen elements. Though Screentime took the lead on decision-making during production, de Lacey says they were in constant communication with Mastiff.
“We did a lot of script work right through production, particularly once the Danish cast came on board,” she says, revealing how integral they were in ensuring an accurate portrayal of Danish culture. “It was critical for us that, when the show goes out, the Danish audience really believes the authenticity of the Danish elements of the show. Their input was invaluable.”
Across the Tasman Sea separating New Zealand and Australia, Scottish producer Synchronicity Films filmed scenes from BBC four-part drama The Cry in Melbourne before heading to Glasgow to complete the story of a couple’s distress when their baby mysteriously disappears. Jenna Coleman and Ewan Leslie star in the series, which is distributed by DRG.
Having considered using South Africa to double as Australia, executive producer Claire Mundell says the authenticity of the story, which was based on a book itself set in Melbourne, demanded the production head down under. That meant a lot of preparation was needed, as Synchronicity had never filmed in Australia before, meaning reconnaissance work, reaching out to local producers and undertaking a casting search. The decision to film Melbourne first before moving on to Glasgow informed the hiring of Australian director Glendyn Ivin and DOP Sam Chiplin, with December Media becoming the local production partner.
Challenges included overcoming differences in working practices, the fluctuating exchange rate and the higher cost of living in Australia, which makes it an expensive place to shoot compared with the UK. Scottish department heads also travelled to Melbourne so they could work on both sides of the shoot, and Mundell estimates the production spent at least £1m ($1.3m) on travel and accommodation alone.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, and unavoidably, the time difference between the UK and Australia – ranging from nine to 11 hours during the production on account of daylight savings switches – was one of the biggest challenges, with Mundell conferencing with Australian broadcaster the ABC when in Scotland and then with the BBC while on location in Melbourne. “There’s been a fair old amount of times we’ve been working 20 hours round the clock between an early morning call, doing your full day’s shoot and then doing stuff at night,” she says. “It has been really demanding.”
Over in Europe, Swedish producer Anagram headed to Germany for spy thriller West of Liberty. Based on the novel by Thomas Engström, it centres on Ludwig Licht (Wotan Wilke Möhring), a former Stasi agent and CIA informant who is brought back into the game when he is given the chance to investigate the corrupt leader of a WikiLeaks-style whistle-blowing website.
“It’s a natural step for us,” producer Gunnar Carlsson says of making the Berlin-set English-language drama. “We have done Swedish series airing in Scandinavia. It’s the next step – not doing Swedish shows sold abroad, but doing international shows directly for the global market.”
Produced for pubcasters ZDF in Germany and SVT in Sweden, the six-part series is being distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment. The scripts were penned by a Swedish-British writing team of Sara Heldt and Donna Sharpe. Filming took place in the German capital, as well as Cologne, Bonn and Malmö in Sweden, though the story is set in Berlin. Several opening scenes were also shot in Marrakesh, Morocco.
When he first picked up the rights to the book, Carlsson immediately identified a German partner in Network Movie, having previously worked with the company when he was an SVT executive. “They are also owned by ZDF so they have a connection to the channel, which helps with financing,” he says. “We went to them and together we started to plan how to put this together. We found [director] Barbara Eder in Austria, but if you’re going to shoot 50 days in Berlin, you choose a team from Germany. Then when we moved to Sweden, we shot in Malmö and the heads of department we had in Germany followed on to join us.”
Though the distance between Sweden and Germany pales in comparison to those confronted by the producers of The Cry and Straight Forward, Carlsson says the key to a successful production experience is to adopt the culture of the country you are working in, no matter how similar you might think you are. “That’s something you have to have in mind even if you go to Berlin,” he says. “As long as it’s possible, you have to adapt. That’s something you learn very quickly when you work in cultures that are so different from our European traditions. It’s something you can learn even if you’re doing a production with partners in Europe.”
Anagram has previously worked overseas, in Thailand for 30 Degrees in February and India for The Most Beautiful Hands of Delhi. “Then you have problems with the time difference and cultural difference,” Carlsson notes. In comparison, West of Liberty “was easy,” he adds.
Elsewhere, under head of drama Jarmo Lampela, Finnish public broadcaster YLE is expanding the range of drama series it is commissioning by seeking out local stories told on an international scale. Among these is Invisible Heroes, the story of a Finnish diplomat in Chile who decides to hide hundreds of Chilean dissidents during Augusto Pinochet’s coup in 1973. Set in both countries, the show is a copro between Kaiho Republic in Finland and Parox in Chile for YLE and Chilevisión.
Finnish writer Tarja Kylmä spent several weeks in Chile working with local scribe Manuela Infante to set the series outline, which is based on a true story that was only recently uncovered in a book. Lampela gave the book to Kylmä, who immediately set about developing the story for television. “I went to Chile during the outlines, visited all the places in the story and got into the mood of 1970s Chile,” Kylmä says. “Since then, it’s been daily communication with Manuela, and the producer in Chile, Leonora González, has been reading everything and commenting carefully. With the time difference, I work morning and afternoon in Finland and then the day starts in Chile and they start sending questions. When I wake up in the morning, there are more questions.”
The series features the Spanish, Finnish, Swedish and German languages, meaning multiple translations of the script are required. But Liselott Forsman, executive producer of international projects at YLE, says the drama is evidence of two small countries uniting to tell one story: “Of course there are language problems, but nothing major. Things have changed in Latin America, notably the acting. Previously in melodramas, the acting was very different. It was not as naturalistic as we are used to in the Nordics. But now when you put actors from two cultures together, you can find the right approach.”
Another Finnish project set across a vast distance is The Paradise, which is produced by YLE and Spain’s Mediapro. Due to air in autumn 2019, most of the show’s action unfolds in the Spanish town of Fuengirola, the “Finnish capital of Spain,” where a 60-year-old female police officer must uncover how a group of pensioners died amid suspicious circumstances.
Filming will take place in Finland in December, with production moving to Spain at the end of January. Described as “Mediterranean noir,” the show was created by David Troncoso, who sought to take the darker elements of Scandianvian dramas and set them against the warm sunshine of the Costa del Sol. He then partnered with YLE’s Lampela, writer Matti Laine and Mediapro head of international development Ran Tellem to develop the series.
The group spent time together in Fuengirola to study the Finnish community there before beginning to write the series, which revolves around Hilkka Mäntymäki (played by Riitta Havukainen), a senior criminal investigator from Oulu who goes to Spain to find out what happened to a missing family, before becoming embroiled in a potential murder investigation.
Development was split between Spain and Finland, with showrunner and director Marja Pyykkö joining the team. The production will be largely filmed in Fuengirola, where some of the streets have Finnish names, giving rise to the moniker ‘Little Helsinki.’ The story will unfold in Finnish, Spanish and English, with YLE distributing the drama in Scandinavia and Imagina International Sales selling to the rest of the world.
“Coproductions are the best part of the job,” Tellem says. “I have the privilege of working with writers across the world – we are involved in projects in Mexico, Italy, England and many other places. The ability to do creative work with people from other countries and other cultures is the best. There are different styles of storytelling, but everybody’s talking about human beings and the way they deal with things in their lives.
“But I do insist on meeting people. For me, this is essential. Never start the creative process before you spend some quality time with people.”
Through Pyykkö, the series will be told from a Finnish perspective, with most of the crew and the main characters also coming from Finland. Tellem says that, regardless of the partners involved, the viewpoint of the series is most important, as trying to split the creative process 50/50 doesn’t work. “The show needs an anchor in the ground,” he adds. “You need to make a decision: is this a Spanish show with a Finnish touch or a Finnish show with a Spanish touch? Once you decide that and understand who is making the calls, that’s the first step to success.”
Screentime’s de Lacey sums up the trend for multi-national dramas when she says barriers to non-English language series have been pulled down, paving the way for increasingly ambitious stories to be told against an international setting. Her production company is already developing another story with a German partner. “There’s a lot of stuff we’ve learned about the translation of languages,” de Lacey says. “You can’t translate the New Zealand script directly into Danish, because Danes don’t speak the same way. Direct translations don’t work. If we do a season two, we’ll bring in a Danish writer much earlier into the process.”
Synchronicity’s Mundell says the challenges of any coproduction will always be time differences and different working practices and relationships. “That’s a daunting task, but you have to approach it in a professional way,” she adds. “If you choose carefully and do your research into who you’re working with, hopefully things work out well for you, which is what happened with us.”
As London faces increasing demand for studio space, DQ visits Manchester to find out how the UK city and Space Studios are proving to be an attractive filming proposition for high-end television drama productions.
For many television makers and watchers, Manchester will always be known as the home of ITV’s iconic soap Coronation Street. The long-running series, its former home at Granada Studios and its move to MediaCityUK, where the BBC can also now be found, have certainly helped to put the north-west English city on the map when it comes to TV production.
But with the demand for studio space in London at an increasing premium, coupled with the requirement of UK broadcasters to see dramas created and set outside the capital, Manchester is now becoming an attractive destination for high-end drama producers through Space Studios and its partnership with Screen Manchester.
Located on the outskirts of the city centre, Space Studios still looks box fresh, with an array of towering sound stages, workshops, business units and car park space that doubles as room for unit bases. Equipment companies including Panavision and Provision are among those on site.
It was here that upcoming Sky1 street-racing drama Curfew took over three stages for six months of filming, while walking down the numerous corridors reveals that offices have been allocated to ITV crime drama The Bay’s costume department, BBC period series World on Fire’s art department and Amazon and Liberty Global’s psychological drama The Feed’s art department and production office.
Other recent dramas to have been filmed there include Cold Feet and The A Word.
Built on the site of the former West Gorton housing estate, which became synonymous with Channel 4 drama Shameless, Space Studios opened in May 2014 as a purpose-built facility for high-end TV, film and commercial production. Six sound stages offer more than 85,000 sq ft, with the imposing stage six, which opened in February this year as part of a £14m (US$17.9m) expansion, offering 30,000 sq ft alone, with adjacent room for props, set builds and dressing rooms.
The Space project was originally devised by Sue Woodward, a former MD of ITV Granada, founding director of social enterprise Sharp Futures and founder of The Sharp Project, a hub that is home to more than 60 entrepreneurs in the city specialising in digital content production, digital media and film and TV production. Both Space Studios and The Sharp Project are managed by Manchester Creative Digital Assets (MCDA), which was set up by Manchester City Council to oversee the city’s digital, production and creative sectors.
The Sharp Project was opened on the site of a former Sharp electronics distribution warehouse, which was bought by the city after the company vacated the premises. Series such as comedies Fresh Meat and Mount Pleasant have been filmed there and the success of the venture led to the decision to create a dedicated production facility on the site of a former Fujitsu electronics factory.
Colin Johnson, director of screens and facilities at Space Studios, recalls: “We knew that we could make television in the city because we’d done it at The Sharp Project, and we could tell there was going to be a big uplift in demand [for production space] because of OTT and SVoD platforms commissioning drama, tax breaks and people being displaced from London.”
Phase one was completed in 2014 and since then, “we’ve been pretty full ever since,” Johnson adds.
The land where stage six was built was a former Victorian pump factory, which was adopted by Space Studios once it became clear there was sufficient demand for a larger sound stage. Further space on an adjacent site has recently been cleared, with the potential to expand further.
Throughout its development, and beyond, it has also sought to be an anchor in the local community, working with Sharp Futures to offer apprenticeship schemes and keen to plug into the surrounding talent pool through job opportunities and skills days.
“London’s full and we’re here. It’s as simple as that,” Johnson says of Space Studios’ success. “We’ll show producers the space before they get the job and then they pick up the phone to us and say, ‘Have you got availability?’ We’re getting those calls because of the ground work we’ve put in early on. Some of the people bringing jobs in we showed round when stage six wasn’t there or showed round when we were a building site. We’re here – and London seems to be full.”
Rob Page, commercial director of MCDA, continues: “The ecology’s here as well, most importantly, in Manchester, whether it be crews or Screen Manchester assisting you while you’re on location. We’re not just another warehouse in the middle of nowhere without an ecosystem surrounding you.”
Much has been made of new studios planned for London, in particular a £100m proposal to build 12 sound stages as part of a complex in Dagenham, east London. Approval for the plans was received in February this year. But Johnson and Page stress that, in contrast, Space Studios is ready now. “We’re really well placed in that we have the skills, we’re in the centre of the country, we have the stages and these facilities,” Johnson adds.
Beyond Space Studios, Manchester has been home to location shoots for series including Age Before Beauty, No Offence, Our Girl, Snatch and Scott & Bailey. Castles and coastlines are also within reach of the city centre.
But until Screen Manchester launched in July 2017, the city didn’t have a formal film office. Since then, development manager Bobby Cochrane says Sky1’s Curfew has become the biggest drama Manchester has done to date. The office facilitated racing scenes by closing Mancunian Way, an elevated highway linking the east and west of the city.
Streets around Manchester’s viaducts, Northern Quarter and Spring Gardens areas can also double for London and New York, while Hugh Grant’s BBC1 drama A Very English Scandal also spent several days filming inside Manchester Town Hall, which shares similar interior architecture to the Houses of Parliament.
Working in partnership with Space Studios, the aim is to become a one-stop shop where producers can find studio space, locations and seek permissions such as road closures under one roof.
Cochrane adds: “Manchester has got a central hub where everything you can do in the city is under one umbrella. We want it to be a global film-friendly city.”
Six-part thriller Informer explores the relationship between informant and handler against the backdrop of an unfamiliar London. DQ visits the set of the BBC and Amazon series.
Several storeys above the hustle and bustle of Watney Market, one of east London’s biggest and most popular street markets, producer Julian Stevens invites DQ into “the world’s smallest flat.”
With views overlooking the market on one side and vistas across Canary Wharf and the City of London on the other, many of the crew are forced to stand on the walkway outside the front door, unable to all fit inside while filming is taking place for six-part thriller Informer.
It’s a striking location for the series, which tells the story of Raza (played by newcomer Nabhaan Rizwan, pictured above), a second-generation British Pakistani man who is coerced by counter-terrorism officer Gabe (Paddy Considine) to go undercover and inform for him. This is Raza’s family home, where he lives with his mother, father and brother. But it’s a place from which he becomes increasingly distant as the pressures of his new role start to affect his family.
The series, produced by Neal Street Productions (Call the Midwife) for BBC1 and Amazon Prime Video in the US, comes from writers Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani and is directed by Jonny Campbell (The Last Post, Westworld). All3Media International is handling distribution.
Episode one sees Raza come into contact with police on a night out, suddenly being brought to the attention of Gabe and his new partner Holly (Bel Powley). They pressure him into working for them, pushing him into a world of criminal activity – and possibly terrorist activity. From a night out at a local takeaway to staring down the barrel of an AK-47, Raza finds himself getting into darker and deeper situations as the story progresses.
The series, which launched last week, originated from LA-based Haines and Noshirvani’s desire to tell a story about the relationship between handler and informant, one they felt had yet to be explored well on film or television. They also wanted to write about the War on Terror, but avoiding Homeland’s more direct style.
“So Informer is a combination of those two things and of them writing a story from the street and about what happens at that level,” Neal Street executive producer Nicholas Brown says. “What made this so appealing is they approach it through a family and the repercussions for them and their relationships, and also, through Holly and Gabe, the impact of doing those jobs on those people. It felt fresh, relevant and different.”
Behind the camera, Campbell reunited with director of photography Tony Slater Ling and production designer Sami Khan, having worked with both previously on shows including The Casual Vacancy. Campbell wanted to do all six episodes, a move that paid dividends in terms of storytelling and visual continuity. Notably, editors Fiona Colbeck and Gareth Scales also cut each episode together, rather than separately, and have each turned their hand at directing the second unit when pick-ups or new shots are needed to fill the holes in the edits they are piecing together.
But beyond the story, what stands out about Informer is its visual identity. Production on the drama started and ended with filming at the flat, with DQ joining the production team for the penultimate day of shooting. The location is typical of those used throughout the show in that it is recognisably London, with red buses and telephone boxes, as well as some iconic landmarks, visible in the background. However, it’s also a London that will be unfamiliar to many viewers, exemplifying the kind of series director Campbell and his team wanted to make.
“The best dramas have a strong sense of place and this drama has done a really good job of taking on London, which can be quite familiar,” Stevens says. “It’s not grey. Shows set on council estates can have a colourless world, but this is full of life and looks so fresh and new.”
Brown continues: “We talked about that a lot at the start, myself, Julian and Jonny, about where it should be set and the world we wanted to create. You know you’re in London. You never lose that sense, whether it’s Canary Wharf in the background, you’re right by the Thames or it’s way out east. They’re just places you don’t see much.”
The exec describes the series location as “DLR land,” referring to the raised Docklands Light Railway that weaves its way through much of east London. “That’s a motif for the show, the DLR winding though these amazing areas that are relatively undiscovered. From the DLR’s raised tracks, you get to see incredible vistas and contradictory images of glass and steel towers and scrap yards, the river, estates, town blocks and all sorts. It’s a really great world.”
It’s the sort of visual landscape that couldn’t be replicated anywhere else, Stevens argues. “You think, ‘Could we do something like this in Birmingham – shoot there for six weeks and then come back and do exteriors?’ But you don’t get that texture; it’s never the same. You can’t fake it.” Filming elsewhere would have meant the production team wouldn’t have stumbled across Watney Market. They initially though it would be too challenging to film there, with
the hubbub of the shoppers and stalls below, but the location team were able to secure the use of one of the flats overlooking the site.
Location manager Peter-Frank Dewulf (Detectorists, Loaded) says his brief was “very London,” but without the ultra-recognisable landmarks like Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament or Tower Bridge. He subsequently embraced the “urban jungle” of east London and its mixture of diverse communities and old and new buildings.
Some practical challenges did emerge – not everyone wants to be associated with a show about terrorism – so instead of filming entirely on one estate, they used several to create their own setting. Two other key locations were a fast-food outlet and a cafe. The chicken shop was identified on Peckham High Street in South London, an unfamiliar location that dazzled at night under the shops’ neon bulbs and the adjacent streetlights.
The cafe was trickier to find, due to the fact that it would be the setting for a terrorist attack – one that doesn’t define the show but from which we see the fallout that affects Raza and his family. “No Starbucks would allow a terrorist attack or any attack in one of their cafes, they don’t even want to be in the background of anything like that,” Dewulf says. “So we had to find somewhere that would allow us to film that scene in a place we could control, not just inside but outside as well, and where the shops around us would agree to us filming that scene.”
The final location was found on a mini high street full of independent shops on a university campus in north-west London, where the owners were amenable to the production’s needs and, outside of term time, producers were able to control the environment with their own supporting artists and traffic flow.
“That and the chicken shop are chalk and cheese,” Stevens says. “The chicken shop was right on Peckham High Street, where we didn’t have any control over the road outside or people passing by, but it was the right location. We saw a lot of chicken shops and sampled a lot of chicken in the process!”
The show was almost entirely filmed on location, save for scenes at a police station and inside a nightclub, where the camera crew mingled with 2,500 ravers enjoying a night out.
“I hope the aesthetic is something people take away from it,” Stevens adds. “It is a beautiful-looking show. Tony did both the lighting and camera work and it does give a version of London that’s original. Rory and Sohrab, two non-Londoners, managed to write a piece about London that’s so authentic and real. Everyone was buoyed by the chance to live up to that script and find the take on London that showed the life and heart as well as the odd battle scar here and there – and that’s the story of London.”
Rizwan learns the ropes
Informer marks the TV debut of actor Nabhaan Rizwan, who as Raza is drawn into a world of espionage, with damaging results for himself and his family.
Speaking to DQ inside his trailer, Rizwan describes Raza as “very charismatic and quite outspoken” but a man on the edge, too old to feel he belongs at home but not yet sure of the path ahead. “A lot of young Londoners can relate to that. He has a lot of sides to him and that contributes well to the turn the show takes. He’s very well suited to that,” the actor says.
Rizwan was drawn to the role as he could relate to many of Raza’s qualities but then once he landed the part, he faced a crash course in television production.
He was helped in particular by director Jonny Campbell, who arranged a pre-shoot day to walk around east London’s Brick Lane area to ease him into the mood and atmosphere of the show. “I really appreciated that,” Rizwan says. “Just to work with him, he has everything mapped out in his head, even as far as thinking about the edit and how he’s going to put that together. So he’s always a few steps ahead and he knows the script inside and out. He’s really great to work with.”
Despite the show’s serious subject, Rizwan says it’s a disservice to dismiss Informer as simply a thriller or a drama. “This is where the writers have done really well,” he explains. “It reflects life quite well. Life is funny, and not everything that’s funny is light. Serious stuff happens but in that there’s a few moments of humour, and that’s explored really nicely in the script. It’s a show that reflects the nuances of life in London.”
And though the series isn’t action-heavy, Rizwan had to ready himself to master one new skill – motorbike riding. “I had to learn for this and I fell once. I was probably doing 10 miles per hour but it didn’t feel like that,” he says. “There’s not been a single shot that I’ve been on the bike and thought, ‘Yeah, this is easy,’ especially after the fall. It’s tough.”
New parents Jenna Coleman and Ewen Leslie face unthinkable tragedy in four-part BBC psychological drama The Cry – but is all as it seems? Leslie, director Glendyn Ivin and executive producer Claire Mundell reveal the makings of this emotionally complex miniseries.
It all started with a book. Claire Mundell picked up the manuscript for Helen Fitzgerald’s novel The Cry long before it was published in 2013 and immediately recognised its potential to be transformed into a psychologically and emotionally gripping television series.
The story sees Joanna and husband Alistair travel with their newborn baby from Scotland to Australia to see Alistair’s mother Elizabeth and to fight for custody of Alistair’s daughter Chloe against his ex-wife Alexandra. But after they arrive down under, their lives are transformed when their baby goes missing.
Brimming with dilemmas, moral ambiguity and crimes that are relayed through a family setting, it also portrays the intense strain new parents face, with Joanna seemingly struggling with post-natal depression, exhaustion and loneliness while Alistair juggles the demands of his high-flying political career. Mundell was instantly hooked by the “compelling” story. “It takes us behind the scenes of an unthinkable situation and it allows you to vicariously experience how these characters react to it and try to manage the situation they’re in,” she says.
The project was in development with the BBC for several years until last July, when a four-part miniseries was given the greenlight with just one script in place. Now, just over 12 months later, The Cry is launching on BBC1 this Sunday. It will also air in Australia on the ABC, with DRG distributing the drama internationally.
Getting the series on air in such a short timeframe is an impressive achievement by the team behind the production. Not only did writer Jacquelin Perske need to complete the scripts, but producer Synchronicity Films needed to lay out exactly how it would tell this story, which is split between Glasgow in Scotland and Melbourne in Australia, factoring in things such as casting and location scouting down under – a country in which the company had never worked before.
Pre-production began in Australia at the start of 2018, with filming in Melbourne commencing in early February. Shooting shifted to Glasgow from the end of March before wrapping in May.
Executive producer Mundell and producer Brian Kaczynski had flirted with filming in South Africa to save time and money, while working in a country with a timezone much closer to the UK’s. But their desire for authenticity – Fitzgerald’s book was set in Melbourne – meant they pulled out all the stops and headed to Australia.
Their first trip last autumn involved scouting locations, meeting potential production partners and beginning their search for talent, both in front of and behind the camera. December Media came on board as a local partner and, once it was decided that the first leg of filming would take place in Melbourne, it then made sense to hire an Australian director and DOP to steer the project.
Recommended by Perske, director Glendyn Ivin was invited to join the production on the strength of his previous work, most notably SBS drama Safe Harbour. Mundell and Kaczynski watched the miniseries and subsequently picked up a three-for-one deal, with Ivin, his DOP Sam Chiplin and star Ewen Leslie all signing up for The Cry. “They were brilliant,” Mundell says. “Safe Harbour was a really compelling show told in a similar fractured timeline to ours. It had all the hallmarks of our show and it’s the quickest approval I’ve ever had from the BBC. I sent them an exert from that show and they were like, ‘Yes let’s have all three of them.’”
While on the surface Safe Harbour and The Cry are very different stories, Ivin says they are united by the morale ambiguity of their leading characters. In the first episode of The Cry, while you sympathise with Joanna and Alistair’s struggle to cope with their baby’s incessant crying, it’s never made clear whether they are good or bad people.
“What we had to find was where the story starts becoming a relationship drama about a couple with a new baby and where it starts teasing the audience and saying there’s something else going on here,” Ivin says. “It gets darker and more dramatic and it boils down to a scene at the end [of episode one] where Alistair and Joanna go into a supermarket. It’s a good sign a drama’s working when you can watch a couple walk up and down shopping aisles yet you’re not breathing at the same time.”
“The ambiguity of the characters is really interesting,” says Leslie, who plays Alistair. “There’s something with the characters that you can relate to, then all of a sudden they’ll do something or behave in a way that makes you go, ‘Wait, hold on a minute.’ That’s what was really interesting and fun about playing that. You hit bits in the script where you know people will not be on board with you. That can be scary or really empowering and you can play around with it a bit.”
Starring opposite Leslie is Jenna Coleman, best known for her role in Doctor Who and, more recently, for playing the lead in Victoria. Mundell says Coleman was her first choice to play Joanna due to her ability to elicit empathy from the audience and her appeal to a wide cross-section of viewers. “Principally it was the fact we wanted someone who could get to the depths this character needs to go to but still make us care for her and be empathetic,” she says. “We were totally thrilled when she said she wanted to do it.”
Leslie says of his co-star: “We’d never met or worked together before doing this and she was absolutely amazing. She was very good at finding the truth in every scene and also questioning a lot of things in a really great way. She was very supportive, really open and great to work with.”
In Leslie, The Cry found an actor who can play charming and intelligent but with a darkness bubbling beneath the surface. “You have to believe Joanna falls in love with this guy and it’s only gradually over time she begins to realise who he is beneath the charm,” Mundell teases. “Ewen has played that absolutely brilliantly, so much so the novelist herself said she couldn’t imagine anyone else playing that character.”
Aside from the time difference between Australia and the UK, which ranged from nine to 11 hours depending on daylight savings, Mundell says the biggest challenges of the project were differing working practices, Australia’s union system and a fluctuating exchange rate, with Australia proving more expensive than the UK.
“We took some Scottish heads of department out because it’s a four-parter and it’s important we have continuity creatively across those episodes, so we knew the HODs would be across both sides of the shoot,” she says. “We must have spent at least £1m in travel and accommodation alone, just because no one has invented a portal yet to travel between hemispheres. So the only way to do it was the long haul, and that is quite painful.”
Mundell says the first few weeks of shooting took the cast to some deeply emotional places, admitting to crying while watching a cut of episode two, even though she knew the script inside out. “It tells you something about the performances we got from our cast. They’re just extraordinary,” she says. “My passion is to tell stories like this that are thrillers but have depth and a relatability to them, in the sense that this is a domestic setting. It’s a scenario that could happen to anybody and therefore it’s very relatable.”
Across the four episodes, the plot unfolds across multiple timelines, jumping between past and present as it shows how Joanna and Alistair first meet, as well as into the future, where scenes tease Joanna facing an unruly mob as she is put on trial for an as-yet-unknown crime.
“There’s definitely a feeling through the series is that it’s a show that keeps its cards very close and then starts revealing them as the episodes go on,” Leslie says. “So you’re very aware when you’re doing a scene of what information you might have that certain other characters might not have and, on top of that, information that the characters have that the audience doesn’t have.
“The other thing here is, as a father, it’s an unthinkable scenario and absolutely horrifying. But wailing and falling apart for four hours is going to be unwatchable. You’ve got to walk a delicate line and find a balance within that grief and give a lot of variation.”
Ivin admits there’s a fine line between intrigue and confusion, so was careful not to splinter the storytelling too haphazardly, with match cuts often linking two different timeframes. That being said, playing scenes out of order means viewers can immediately sense something will happen later in the story, driving up the tension until those events unfold.
“I really enjoyed that process,” Ivin says. “The editing was taking a pretty complex jigsaw, pulling it apart and finding a different way for all those pieces to come together. It’s still the same story, but from script to the way we shot it to the way it’s being presented, we’re telling the same story but in a very different order. But it’s an order that is based around keeping an audience intrigued. Each scene tightens the drama until the credits roll at the end.”
The Cry won’t be the last time Synchronicity Films pitches up in Australia to make a television drama, with plans already afoot to return to Oz. “We coined a phrase for it,” Mundell adds. “You’ve heard of Scandi noir, this is Scaussi noir – Scotland-Australia – and we tend to do a lot more of it.”
As US espionage thriller Killing Eve lands in the UK, DQ hears from lead writer and executive producer Phoebe Waller-Bridge about refreshing the genre, infusing drama with comedy and the joy of writing.
“She’s utterly unique,” actor Fiona Shaw says of Phoebe Waller-Bridge (pictured above), the actor and writer behind British comedy drama Fleabag and US spy thriller Killing Eve. “It’s fantastic to have someone who is a master of language writing television. It’s wonderful – not just a master of narrative or a master of seeing things, but a master of words. It’s just great fun to read [her scripts] and be allowed to play it.”
Cue an act of faux embarrassment and modesty from Waller-Bridge, as Shaw, who stars in Killing Eve as MI6 head Carolyn Martens, talks about the writer while sitting beside her at a Bafta screening of the British-made US drama, which launched in April this year on BBC America but has now travelled back across the Atlantic to BBC1, where it debuts this Saturday. The full six-episode boxset will be released on BBC VoD service iPlayer immediately after the first episode has aired.
Waller-Bridge should be used to receiving plaudits after her award-winning adaptation of her own stage play, Fleabag, saw her become one of the most in-demand talents in the UK. But it was Sally Woodward Gentle who, after much persistence, managed to secure the writer to adapt Luke Jennings’ Villanelle novellas for television as Killing Eve.
The series, which is now filming its second season, follows Eve (Emmy-nominated Sandra Oh), a bored, whip-smart MI5 security officer whose desk job doesn’t fulfil her fantasies of being a spy. Her life changes, however, when she enters into an epic game of cat and mouse with Villanelle (Jodie Comer), a mercurial, talented killer who clings to the luxuries her violent job affords her. The series sees them go head-to-head in a chase across Europe that is in equal parts funny, smart and action-packed.
Sid Gentle Films produces, with Woodward Gentle, Waller-Bridge and Lee Morris executive producing. Endeavor Content distributes the series internationally, with other buyers including HBO Europe, Israel’s Hot and TVNZ in New Zealand.
In her own words, Waller-Bridge discusses the challenge of refreshing the spy genre, infusing drama with her own brand of comedy and the joy of writing.
Comedy isn’t just about telling jokes but about presenting characters in unexpected situations…
My role in life as well as in writing is to never let it get too heavy. I think people fall in love with characters who make them laugh, and comedy is such a huge part of surprising people. I always want to be surprised and a joke always surprises me, especially in a murderous drama.
The writer was forced to be creative when coming up with insults, with Eve calling MI5 boss Frank Haleton (Darren Boyd) a ‘dickswab’…
I was thinking really hard about what to call Darren Boyd. You write those things because you’re not allowed to say really rude words. BBC America said, ‘Unfortunately you can’t say that,’ but that forces you to be more creative sometimes, and ‘dickswab’ was that. I looked it up and it turns out someone’s name is Dick Swab.
Sandra Oh was destined to play Eve and nothing would stop Waller-Bridge from getting the Grey’s Anatomy star…
Sally [Woodward Gentle] heard from her agent several times that Sandra wasn’t available and I looked at Sally and said, ‘I’m just going to do it one more time.’ It was an operation. I wrote a long email about why it had to be Sandra, and from the moment she came into our imaginations as Eve, it couldn’t be anybody else.
Then we had a Skype call, which was really strange because the moment we pressed video on Skype, we were wearing exactly the same outfit. So it was like, ‘This is happening.’
The series’ heightened take on the spy genre comes more from who Villanelle is than Waller-Bridge’s desire to play with the rules…
It was more about what’s inside Villanelle, that she’s designing her own life. She’d be like, ‘I don’t give a fuck, I’m riding a motorbike.’ It’s not about looking at Villanelle being cool, it’s about her feeling cool and that’s what’s feeding her, or feeling like she’s living the life she wants to live.
She can have sex with anyone she wants and she does; she can have a motorbike and she’ll eat a tiny sandwich on a hillside because she can. She’s kind of in the ‘Villanelle’ movie of her life. She’s not entirely sure who she is and she’s constantly trying to play different people, but without insecurity, which I think is what’s fun about her. She goes, ‘I’m going to climb a drainpipe in a weird see-through blouse,’ not because that makes the show sexy but because Villanelle says, ‘That’s what I’m going to do and nobody’s going to stop me.’ It was mainly through her playing around. She cracks herself up.
But taking on such well-trodden ground as the espionage thriller meant the writer wasn’t afraid to freshen things up…
When I’m trying to write something, there’s a time when I feel like I want to see something, and it comes out as, ‘I want to see Fiona Shaw do that.’ It can be as simple as that – to have these amazing actors do or say something surprisingly funny. It keeps coming back to doing something surprising.
So many of the tropes work and parts of the genre fit together so well for a reason, because they work and they fell good. So it’s not that you completely discard them, it’s about how you freshen them up to feel surprising again.
The source material offered the chance to create a series with two lead characters…
Luke Jennings introduced these characters and their world so vividly that you’ve got two shows in one. You’ve got the office drama with Eve, the accessible character who you think you know, and then all these details come out and you reveal this everywoman to be something more extraordinary.
On the flip side, you have this extraordinary woman [Villanelle] who you’re slowly revealing has a need to be normal, and that feels like two stories that would otherwise have been separate. Suddenly you have two heroines and two villains at the same time.
The series generated a lot of buzz in the US for its LGBT representation, though Waller-Bridge says this was part of the creative process and not a political point…
It’s purely from character point of view – the idea that these two women just became obsessed with each other in every possible way. That was exciting, new, nuanced and real. It was a different kind of passion and it just felt very natural to the characters. The moment Eve knows Villanelle exists, a switch is turned on in her that hasn’t been turned on before. The first time they meet is the moment they fall in love, and that was a very natural, normal story point for us. They’re just women who adore each other, who are attracted to each other. There’s a sexual power play between the two that isn’t for anyone else, it’s just for them. It’s all about what happens between these two and how it effects them.
Waller-Bridge says the joy in writing Killing Eve was the faith shown in her to do it in the first place, and the freedom she was given to write the story she wanted to tell…
When I’d written Fleabag as a play, it was a monologue and it was ostensibly a comedy but then Sally came along and said, ‘Espionage thriller – go!’ [The joy is] that moment when you go, ‘Yeah alright, fuck it, I’ll try that.’ That moment of faith and ‘please break the rules’ coming from the very beginning – and then the challenge is to break the rules. It wasn’t like I was working within parameters, and BBC America was behind that as well.
The real joy comes when you’ve cast it and you’re starting to see these characters come to life. You get the rushes, you see what they’ve filmed that day, you’re on set and see the actors fill in the cracks and then you’re just like, ‘They’re not just in our heads anymore.’
Killing Eve had been in our hearts for so long and then you see the characters walking and talking, and then you get to carry on writing for them and building that relationship. I remember so many plot twists that happened over my kitchen table with Sandra talking about, ‘What if she did this, what if she did that?’ Then you’re completely aligned with everyone like that. It’s the best.
To reach this point in her career, Waller-Bridge found the fun in writing, surrounding herself with people – her “family” – who push and support her.
I went to drama school, left and nothing happened for ages. And in that gap of nothing happening, I met a director called Vicky Jones [The One], who became my best friend, and we just decided we wanted to do stuff for fun on the side of failing as actors and directors.
So we started our theatre company [DryWhite], producing work. And it was stuff we were doing for fun that took on a life of its own. It was Vicky who eventually said, ‘Just write a play,’ and so then I did – that was Fleabag. Then after Fleabag, I said to her, ‘You write a fucking play.’ And that did brilliantly well too.
That has been a huge part for me, finding your people who want to push you and you can push in return and that’s your gift to each other. It’s so lonely, so hard and so competitive comparing yourself to other people. So if you can find people you have fun with, if you crash and burn, you’ve got someone to say, ‘We’re going down together.’ You build your family and start working with the same people again.
I met Jenny Robins, the producer, doing Killing Eve. We bonded and continue to work together. [Director] Harry Bradbear worked on Fleabag and set this show up. Just build your family.
Journalists from two competing newspapers go head-to-head in Doctor Foster creator Mike Bartlett’s latest BBC1 drama, Press. DQ went on set to speak to the writer, executive producer Faith Penhale and the cast about this examination of the fourth estate.
Unusually for a national tabloid newspaper, the floor of The Post is quiet and still. Computer screens are turned off and chairs sit empty beneath large signs displaying the publication’s bright red masthead.
In the next room, however, dozens of extras are lining up, ready to take their places on the set of Mike Bartlett’s new drama, Press. Set in the fast-paced and challenging environment of the British newspaper industry, the series aims to explore the personal lives and constant professional dilemmas facing journalists as they attempt to balance work and play amid the never-ending pressure of the 24-hour global news cycle and an industry in turmoil.
On one side are the employees of The Post, a traditional tabloid newspaper known for entertainment and scandal, while on the other are those working for The Herald, a left-leaning broadsheet. When The Post moves into new offices directly opposite The Herald, these two groups of journalists and the newspapers they represent are thrown into direct conflict.
The six-part series is produced by Lookout Point, BBC Studios and Deep Indigo for BBC1, and coproduced with PBS strand Masterpiece in the US. BBC Studios is handling international distribution.
Bartlett, best known for BBC1 drama Doctor Foster, says he had wanted to write about newspapers and the press for a long time, describing the newsroom as “the ideal place for a drama.” He reveals he first pitched the idea 10 years ago, but since then the phone-hacking scandal and subsequent Leveson Inquiry in the UK have brought the operations of newspapers and journalists into sharper focus. And in the age of Donald Trump and so-called ‘fake news,’ the press is arguably under greater scrutiny than ever.
It was a meeting four years ago with executive producer Faith Penhale, joint CEO and creative director of Lookout Point, that finally put Press into development.
“What is interesting about that is the show was initially about a quite stable industry but, over the course of researching and writing this, it became a story about an industry that is changing rapidly, and no one knows what is going to happen to it,” Bartlett explains, seated one floor above the set built inside a former office block on a north London industrial estate. “As a dramatist, it’s a wonderful world for drama because you have got new people coming in, new ways of doing things, and you have got older people who have been there a long time and are worried about losing a sense of what it used to be.”
During his research, Bartlett visited the offices of UK publications The Guardian, The Sun, The Independent and the London Evening Standard, which he says both matched and confounded his expectations. He then sat down to write.
“I got a real sense of vocation from most people I spoke to, even if it was buried underneath a load of having a hard day and being really busy,” he says. “People on all different desks in the newsroom had a real belief in what it was doing, whether it was for entertainment or revolution and political change. So the show, on one hand, is a workplace drama where people sleep together and fall out and make friends and do all the things you would expect, but I also said from the start that the stories have to come from the world of journalism. If could you tell the same story in a world set in a hairdressers then it wasn’t the right story.”
Bartlett and Penhale go to great lengths to stress that Press is an entirely fictional drama, despite the echoes of real-life publications – The Post could easily be The Sun, while The Herald surely doubles for The Guardian – and say the show doesn’t put their own personal views on the screen, despite Bartlett admitting he’s a “leftie, Guardian-reading writer.”
“We’re telling stories in this world and hopefully showing all the highs and lows and everyday dilemmas and huge, life-changing dilemmas. It’s got everything in there but it’s entirely created,” Penhale says. “We certainly don’t shy away from the emotional drama within the stories and within the characters as they face certain challenges. Emotions run high and things can get quite punchy as a result.”
Ben Chaplin (Apple Tree Yard) plays Duncan Allen, the charismatic editor of The Post. “It was a fun role,” Chaplin says when he’s asked what attracted him to the part. “He’s a little bit amoral, which probably helps in that line of work, if tabloid editors will forgive me. He’s very persistent, he never gives up – like he’s an irresistible force.”
That means Duncan isn’t afraid of employing some “pretty shocking” tactics to get the story he wants. “I don’t think he has a lot of qualms about how you get a story, or any at all actually,” Chaplin says, referring to the ‘dark arts’ used by journalists in search of a scoop.
But to the actor, the vibe of a newsroom is rather like being in a theatre company: “There’s this camaraderie but there’s healthy competition as well. It reminded me a little bit of being shipmates, like you’re on the same ship.”
Duncan also comes under pressure to increase readership – and revenue – from The Post’s owner, George Emmerson, played by Poirot star David Suchet.
Having played a real-life newspaper proprietor before in Maxwell, a 2007 biopic about the late media magnate Robert Maxwell, Suchet was keen to avoid any links to real-life figures this time. “When I was offered the role, I said, ‘I don’t want to play [The Sun owner Rupert] Murdoch, I just want to play the character that is in the script,’ and Mike has trodden a very good line. You are not supposed to link him at all. It doesn’t feel thinly veiled and I was very keen to not put on any accents or anything.”
In the wake of recent movies such as Spotlight and The Post, Suchet believes now is a good time for TV to tackle the newspaper world. “It’s like courtroom drama,” he notes. “There have been great films in Hollywood about the press and journalism; it’s great drama and there are great characters.”
In the hands of Bartlett, that meant Press was a series Suchet couldn’t turn down: “He is the only writer, and Doctor Who [2017 episode Knock Knock, written by Bartlett] was the only programme, I have ever said yes to without reading the script. Mike’s scripts are possibly the finest scripts in media today, whether on television or film.
“When I got this script to do, it was just so good, and the relationship between my character and Duncan is really clever. It’s good dialogue. It’s really zingy. There’s nothing cliched about his writing at all. It’s very good. I think it’s going to be a very classy piece of television.”
On another day, DQ is at Three Mills Studios in east London, home to the set of The Herald, where Charlotte Riley (Peaky Blinders, Close to the Enemy) plays the broadsheet’s deputy news editor Holly Evans. Principled and passionate, she’s dedicated to journalism and it’s through her that viewers will see the personal cost of working in the industry.
“Her career has come at the expense of her personal life. She’s pretty lonely,” Riley says. “She has colleagues that she gets on well with. But the loneliness she experiences is outside the office. She lives to work – being in the office brings her to life. It’s her raison d’être. It’s quite sad that as soon as she walks through those doors, she breathes again. Being on her own she has to deal with her demons.
“What attracted me to the role is that she’s fast-thinking but the cogs turn very slowly emotionally. It’s a very detailed emotional arc for her. That was nice to play – it’s not driven by falling in love.”
Riley previously worked with Bartlett on King Charles III, the writer’s BBC2 adaptation of his successful stage play. “Coming from a theatre background, Mike and I have weekly conversations about the things we’re shooting and what’s coming up,” she admits. “It’s wonderful to have access like that to discuss every character and what’s going on and why.
“Shooting TV these days is so quick; you don’t get to be as immersed as you’d like. For most actors, mainly your training is theatre. We had a two-week rehearsal period, which is unheard of,” Riley adds. “I just really like his work, the way he writes. His characters are great.”
Line of Duty creator Jed Mercurio mixes politics and action in Bodyguard, a six-part thriller starring Richard Madden and Keeley Hawes. The showrunner and executive producer Simon Heath invite DQ to the set.
With the long-awaited fifth season of crime drama Line of Duty not due to air on BBC1 until 2019, two years after the fourth run, fans of the series could be forgiven for getting slightly impatient over the return of what has become one of Britain’s biggest dramas. To whet their appetite, however, series creator and showrunner Jed Mercurio will be back on the same channel this Sunday with a brand new series.
A six-part political thriller set within the corridors of power, Bodyguard tells the fictional story of David Budd, played by Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden, a heroic but volatile war veteran now working as an officer of the Royalty and Specialist Protection Branch (RaSP) of London’s Metropolitan Police.
When he is assigned to protect the ambitious and powerful home secretary Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes), whose politics stand for everything he despises, Budd finds himself torn between his duty and his beliefs. Responsible for her safety, is he actually her biggest threat?
Produced by Line of Duty’s World Productions and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment, Bodyguard also stars Gina McKee, Vincent Franklin, Paul Ready, Sophie Rundle, Ash Tandon, Nicholas Gleaves, Nina Toussaint-White, Pippa Haywood and Stuart Bowman.
Thomas Vincent directed block one of the production, while John Strickland took charge of block two, with Priscilla Parish producing.
It’s a gloomy January evening when DQ pitches up at an opulent apartment block overlooking Battersea Park in south-west London, in the shadow of the former power station currently undergoing an extensive redevelopment as it prepares to house Apple’s UK HQ. A luxury flat on the first floor is home to Hawes’ high-flying politician and, inside, Mercurio is sitting on a sofa in the living room, watching filming on a monitor while safely out of shot.
The cameras are focused on Madden as he climbs the staircase and lets himself into the pitch-black apartment, before making his way towards the bedrooms, clearly looking for someone or something. Owing to the fact this is a scene from episode five, DQ is left in the dark over any further plot details.
Tracing the origins of the series, Mercurio goes back to 2014, when Line of Duty aired its second season, then on BBC2. “We started having a conversation with the BBC about developing a thriller to work on BBC1,” he recalls. “That was the genesis of it, wanting to set something within the world of the police but within an area we hadn’t seen much of recently and possibly also combining it with a political thriller. So those were the initial thoughts. Then development took place on and off while Line of Duty continued. Then it was before season four of Line of Duty went out that this was greenlit into production – the plan was always to do this after season four.”
In the kitchen of the apartment are photos of Hawes’ character next to former British prime minister David Cameron. But with Cameron now out of office for more than two years, Mercurio notes that Bodyguard isn’t aiming to reflect contemporary headlines.
“I don’t think you can make something topical when you’re making a drama that’s not going to go out for six months after the last script is written,” he says. “There are certain things we know will be in place, like our system of government, so you can work around that. But it’s not meant to be topical about anything that’s happening on a week-by-week basis. Some of the themes in the show about a terrorist threat, our foreign policy and the relationship between politicians and how that threat is managed seem to have been present in our political system for a decade or more, so I think we’re on pretty safe ground in terms of it still feeling timely.”
Bodyguard, which packs each episode with stunts and action set pieces, reunites Mercurio with both Madden and Hawes, with whom he previously worked on Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Line of Duty respectively. Madden’s character David is an armed forces veteran turned police protection officer who is still struggling with the burden of his experiences, while Hawes’ Montague is a security-focused politician attempting to push through a bill to beef up security services’ powers to monitor communications.
“She’s a tough, kind of hawkish home secretary,” Mercurio explains. “The basic point of contention between them is he’s got experience of our foreign wars and she’s someone who has supported those ventures politically. His experience has been that those things have had a negative impact on our society.”
Hawes was one of the first names suggested to play the home secretary, according to executive producer Simon Heath, CEO and creative director of World Productions. “Richard I hadn’t worked with before, but Jed had, and I’d seen how good he was. It felt like a good thing to go for a younger actor in that role and create that interesting dynamic with Keeley. I think we’re fortunate to get them both.”
While Line of Duty now has continuing storylines to pick up, Bodyguard afforded Mercurio the chance to start a new story from scratch. “It involves more work in setting up the characters and the world, but it’s completely serial – six hours with a definite conclusion at the end of the six episodes.”
Mercurio was also able to continue the showrunner role he has carved out for himself, a position still rarely seen in British television. “I’m very fortunate to be able to do that,” he admits.
Heath picks up: “I think it is still rare but Jed does it really well and really thoroughly. What it means is if you get locked into directing something you’ve written, it’s very hard to stand back and get an overview. But the position Jed takes is that he gets a fantastic overview of the whole thing taking the scripts to screen. That works brilliantly for Line of Duty and has worked brilliantly for this as well.”
Filming Bodyguard across London has posed the familiar challenges faced by dramas shooting in the English capital. Heath says it’s “not a particularly film-friendly city, in truth,” adding that Wales, Scotland, Birmingham and Belfast – where Line of Duty is made – offer an ease of production not available in London.
“It’s basic things like getting permissions to close roads to do stunts or trying to get access to locations or unit bases,” he explains. “For the general public, it’s dull stuff, but it’s absolutely essential in terms of servicing a production and it does make it incredibly challenging. We’ve been in the very centre of London and did big stunts round the back of Holborn. It looks fantastic on screen but it’s tough because we haven’t got unlimited resources. We haven’t got Hollywood budgets and we have to box clever to get this stuff in the can.”
Mercurio adds: “It’s easy to form the view that if a Hollywood production has got Tom Cruise running around then various London boroughs will roll over and give them the facilities they want, but if the national broadcaster is trying to make something here, it’s a bit harder.”
With the global trend for big-budget coproductions, Bodyguard stands out for using the traditional model of broadcaster, producer and distributor to build its budget. But as Heath admits, Bodyguard is at the “outer reaches” of that model in terms of financing a show with the scale of the BBC1 series.
“But it’s been a good thing because we haven’t had any other voices telling us what the show should be,” he says. “We’ve had a lot of support from the BBC but we’ve been allowed to get on with it. I like to think that model is still viable. Not everything has to be a huge coproduction.”
“We’ve just been really grateful for the BBC support on this,” Mercurio adds. “There’s no need to involve another broadcaster because they’ve backed us to the hilt. I’m not saying anything negative about other broadcasters, but if you’re in the position where you have one broadcaster, you’re delivering to one organisation, one channel, with one ambition in terms of what they want for their audience, it does make it a little bit easier editorially.”
If Bodyguard finds an audience, Mercurio says he would definitely like to return to the series. Until then, he is back in charge of Line of Duty, with season five set to begin production this autumn.
Matthew Hall, writer of Un Bore Mercher (Keeping Faith), tells DQ about his journey to bring the series to air and the importance of intimacy and location in television drama.
If ever proof were needed that water-cooler TV still exists in today’s streamer-dominated television landscape, Un Bore Mercher (Keeping Faith) is it.
The eight-part Welsh-language series debuted on S4C in November last year, before a version combining Welsh and English launched on co-commissioner BBC Wales in February this year.
The series drew 300,000 viewers to its weekly episodes on BBC1 Wales, the highest audience for a non-network drama shown in Wales for more than 20 years. It then went on to become a record-breaker on BBC on-demand service iPlayer, with 9.5 million requests to view the series so far – the highest ever recorded for any non-network show on the BBC – leading the broadcaster to extend the availability of the show online.
Such was the demand that the series was then promoted to BBC1, launching last month to 2.9 million – beating this summer’s other must-watch series, Love Island.
Un Bore Mercher, an eight-part drama set in Carmarthenshire, stars Eve Myles (Torchwood) as lawyer, wife and mother Faith, who fights to find the truth behind the sudden disappearance of her husband. She comes to discover that her idyllic hometown harbours many dark secrets that threaten the lives of her and her family, while her ordeal transforms Faith rom a stay-at-home, fun-loving and carefree mother to detective, action hero and lover.
The show’s shift to BBC1 and its iPlayer statistics are very much a bonus for writer Matthew Hall, who spent more than four years developing Un Bore Mercher for S4C, with producer Vox Productions securing additional financing from BBC Wales, Nevision and distributor About Premium Content (APC).
But throughout the writing and production process, Hall was adamant the show would retain two things: its intimacy and its geographic specificity.
“The US shows I’ve admired the most are all incredibly intimate, in that you’re up close with the protagonist most of the time,” the writer says, highlighting series such as Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, two seminal shows that he describes as being both gangster drama and intimate study of family.
“In Britain our tradition is theatrical, so television is ultimately a descendant of the theatre, and everything is more arms-length and dialogue-driven [than in the US]. I just wanted to get away from that and because I worked with Pip Broughton, the director and producer, from the very beginning, we understood each other exactly. We had a completely joint vision by the time it came to filming.”
Meanwhile, the South Wales location “is very much my part of the world,” Hall says, explaining that setting a drama in a specific place adds credibility and a universality to the storytelling. “So much of television takes place in a generic location, particularly in Britain, and we’ve seen London and Manchester so much. I was just determined it would be in a small town. Some of the drama I’ve admired has that small-town setting, so Fargo was very much on my mind during the writing. And the moment you do that, you’ve got idiosyncratic speech patterns, which adds another layer of authenticity and belief in where you are.”
The series and the character of Faith herself emerged from Hall’s desire to dramatise the conflict many women face when trying to balance their home life and their career. “I’d wanted a character in Faith who had done some of that, who was a professional and capable of achieving a huge amount in the world but was also incredibly maternal,” he explains. “I just felt that was not a dilemma I’d seen much of.
“Mythological stories often end with women living happily ever after – but what if she already is living happily ever after and we take that all away from her? It’s kind of like, what does a woman want from life? That’s one of the questions the series is asking. What does she want from life and what is she capable of? I’m not making a political point, I’m just making a character who’s in the middle of a dilemma.”
Development was a year along when the ambition surfaced to follow Welsh noir drama Hinterland’s two-track production process, producing the series both in Welsh and bilingual Welsh-English versions. But it was a further two years, Hall recalls, before the BBC and APC were secured and the budget was raised to a level to support both ‘home’ and international versions.
The jewel in the crown, however, was Myles herself. The actor – whose other credits include Broadchurch, Victoria and recent miniseries A Very English Scandal – was “an absolutely critical part” of getting the production off the ground. “We have this issue where there’s only a very small pool of Welsh-speaking actors and the commercial reality is you have to have some headline name in the show to sell it abroad,” Hall admits. “Eve was absolutely critical and she completely embodied the spirit of the character. The major obstacle was she didn’t speak Welsh at that point, so she had to learn it.”
Similarly, Hall is not a Welsh speaker, though he is learning too. Anwen Huws oversaw the Welsh translation of the scripts, which Hall had had the luxury of writing all at once, rather than in two or three batches.
“That’s virtually unheard of in television. Normally something gets commissioned on the back of a couple of scripts and the rest get written in a rush,” Hall admits. “But I was able to write eight fairly carefully and plot them through. It was actually quite a rigorous development process. By the time Pip and I had been through that – you’re talking 500 pages of scripts – we had a very close understanding of the tone of the thing. The scripts resemble movie scripts more than traditional TV scripts – there’s fewer words in them but that’s because the surer you are of tone, the fewer words it takes to express it. It should be absolutely effortless to read a screenplay, and that was my objective.”
Such was the popularity of Un Bore Mercher on iPlayer that BBC Wales announced in April that scripts for a second season were in development, with Hall once again overseeing the story. But it’s not the story for a follow-up that he has had in mind since before the first season aired. Rather, it is the characters’ emotional arcs that he has already worked out and will now flesh out before filming restarts this autumn.
“I’ve had emotional arcs for season two and season three, which are more important than story arcs,” the writer adds. “Story is something that facilitates your emotional journey. If you know emotionally what you want your character to go through, where they begin and where they end, then you can strap a story to it to deliver that. There are a few things in my mind where I can see where Faith could go.”