Kit Harington and Liv Tyler travel back in time as the stars of historical thriller Gunpowder. Production designer Grant Montgomery tells DQ how he recreated 17th century England for the three-part miniseries.
It’s one of the best-known stories in the UK – but a three-part drama aims to shed new light on the people and the politics behind the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.
Every year on November 5, Guy Fawkes Night is marked with bonfires and fireworks to celebrate the discovery of the conspiracy to kill King James I by blowing up the House of Lords during the state opening of parliament in 1605.
The festivities take their name from the man who, having been caught red-handed guarding the gunpowder, became most strongly associated with the plot. But as forthcoming BBC1 drama Gunpowder depicts, Robert Catesby was actually the lead conspirator.
Kit Harington takes the lead as Catesby – of whom the Game of Thrones star is a direct descendant – in a cast that also includes Peter Mullan, Mark Gatiss and Liv Tyler.
But long before the cameras began rolling, it was production designer Grant Montgomery who was tasked with recreating 17th century England.
The series was filmed predominantly at Dalton Mill in Keighley, Yorkshire, where Montgomery also recently recreated Victorian London for horror film The Limehouse Golem.
“The problem with a lot of Elizabethan or Jacobean properties is you can’t recreate them, there aren’t many streets left,” he says. “They don’t really exist. We looked at The Shambles [a period street] in York but to close that down and physically take it over on the budget we had was probably nigh on impossible.
“So essentially we built a backlot at Dalton Mill. Then we built the Tower of London set inside that as well, a cavern where they plot, houses, plus a section of the Palace of Westminster, which is what they were trying to destroy. That was all built in there, we took it over.”
The seven-week shoot took place between February and April this year, but Montgomery estimates just seven or eight days were spent filming on location during that period. The reason, he reveals, was somewhat unusual: “We found that at a lot of locations, we couldn’t burn enough candles. There are a lot of restrictions on a lot of these properties, especially [those owned by the] National Trust. We went to one and we were told we could only light 25 candles, and we wanted to light 150.”
That meant sets were built for Baddersley Clinton, a manor house that served as a refuge for Jesuit priests at the height of Catholic persecution, the king’s bedchamber and spymaster Robert Cecil’s (Gatiss) war room. In total, about 80% of the shoot was filmed on set, which was first built to represent London and was later redesigned as Warwick, where the plot began.
Locations used included Fountains Abbey, in North Yorkshire, which served as both the undercroft beneath the House of Lords where the gunpowder was stored and the exterior for Baddersley. Hadham Hall in Hertfordshire was used for Catesby’s family home.
Location scout Nick Marshall had scoured great swathes of northern England looking for suitable filming sites, but when few possible places turned up, Montgomery and producers Kudos and Thriker Films decided to build the sets instead. That convenient and cost-effective decision also turned out to be a creative masterstroke.
“The more research I did, the more I realised that a lot of the panel work [inside these houses] had been decorated. If you were rich, you painted your panels,” he explains. “So while we didn’t necessarily colour-code them, we started to paint the interiors. It gives it such a distinctive look and the audience also knows where it is at any one point. That’s really important because it’s quite a convoluted plot – it feels like a John le Carré spy story.”
Some sets couldn’t be built, however. The River Thames, for example, was recreated by adding CGI to a section of water in York. “We cheated a bit,” admits Montgomery, whose other small-screen credits include Peaky Blinders, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, Jamaica Inn and Brontë sisters drama To Walk Invisible. “I like to do everything I’m able to [on camera] but as long as you blend live with CGI, you get something that looks interesting. It’s complete CGI shots that have to be really well done [if they are to look believable].”
Throughout the project, authenticity was a keyword for the design team. Montgomery even joined a tour of the Tower of London to ensure the show was as true to its period as possible – even if the truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.
“It has an authenticity because it was there in the language and embedded in the script when I first read it,” the designer says of the show, which is distributed by Endemol Shine International. “It was great to be able to get that muddy London look and to try to keep away from it being super clean. You even see a scene where the king is at his toilet and you just think this must be a really filthy world, even at the court. No wonder they didn’t live long!”
Despite the BBC series, which launches on October 21, not falling on a particularly notable anniversary, Montgomery says the ever-present threat of terrorism in modern-day Europe means this 400-year-old story remains hugely relevant.
“It’s still contemporary,” he concludes. “The questions it asks you are still pertinent – what does the government do to control you? How does it rule? Does it take away people’s liberties? All those questions are bound up within the script.
“I don’t think it’s black and white; it’s much more complex than that, and that makes it a very relevant piece of television. Even though it’s a period piece, it still has something to tell us from the past.”
Politics, humour and strong female characters lead the pack for the creator of some of Britain’s best-loved dramas, from Fat Friends to Band of Gold, who also has two new series on the horizon – Love, Lies & Records for the BBC and ITV’s Girlfriends.
Boys from the Blackstuff
I absolutely loved it. Written by Alan Bleasdale, it looked at the stories of a group of men who have lost their jobs. I just thought it was amazing, and it made me want to write Band of Gold. It was about five men and I remember thinking, ‘I’d like to write about five women,’ although it became four. I also realised each episode could be a play for today. Each one could be about a particular character, with a beginning, middle and end, but looking at the collective as well. You could also tell a really dark story in a funny way – that’s a theme through all my work.
This taught me that it was possible to be political and funny simultaneously. It was more overtly political than Boys from the Blackstuff – it looked at corruption and power – but was similar in that it had dark humour and made me laugh hysterically in places. GBH is also by Alan Bleasdale, who I think has probably influenced me the most among English writers, because he’s also from the North and he’s not afraid of humour, of feelings and emotion, or of having something to say. He doesn’t write about just cops or doctors; he writes about people, and that’s what I think inspired me.
I Love Lucy
This was probably the first show I saw. I used to go to stay with my aunt on Friday nights when I was a little girl, and one of my earliest recollections of television was sitting watching in her front room. I’d watched things like Bonanza, all about men, but I Love Lucy was my first with a female lead. My mother was one of four sisters so, for me, life was all about women talking and being central. So when I watched Lucille Ball playing Lucy, it was a big influence on me to know that women could have lead roles.
I found this Danish series by accident when flicking through Netflix, and within about two minutes I was hooked. I was really intrigued by this woman – flaws, warts and all. In England we sometimes think our leads can’t do anything bad, because then viewers won’t like them – but Rita’s creators flaunted that in our face. I loved the dare of it, and Mille Dinesen [who plays the eponymous teacher] was amazing. You’d see a shot of her sashaying down the corridor and they’d linger on her. They’d never do that in England because it would be sexist, but they don’t care. It’s all about attitude and what she thinks. She expresses herself in the way she moves and I loved that about her.
An American Rita. This show looks at a woman [played by Téa Leoni] who is jettisoned into the position of Secretary of State, and I just loved the way her family life often echoes what’s going on in her work life. It’s a masterclass in writing. Some might say it’s a bit formulaic, but it’s formula at its very best. It’s got a lot to say about global issues and dares to do things with which I wouldn’t know where to begin. It’s a woman centre stage again, looking at her team of people and her home life. It probably inspired [registry office-set] Love, Lies & Records.
The Sopranos was one of the first US shows I just could not stop watching. I loved it because it was so dark and so funny and the production values were incredible. [Series creator] David Chase was doing things I was jealous of. You’d go from quite a domestic episode to one set entirely in a forest. It was quite violent, not my usual cup of tea, but it also had dark humour. There wasn’t one actor who was miscast, there wasn’t one duff episode and it was watercooler television as well. Often writers are told you can’t do certain things because people won’t like the character, but viewers forgive anything as long as the character is truthful and interesting. That’s what I’ve learned from series like The Sopranos.
Go behind the scenes on Top of the Lake: China Girl, which sees Nicole Kidman and Gwendoline Christie join director Jane Campion and star Elisabeth Moss for the sequel to the 2013 original crime mystery.
It seems more likely that casting directors would be beating a path to Nicole Kidman’s door, as opposed to the Oscar-winning actor pitching for roles herself. But such was her desire to play a role in Top of the Lake: China Girl that she visited co-creator Jane Campion and requested a part in the show a whole year before production was due to begin.
The director was keen to accommodate Kidman, with whom she had first worked on 1996 romantic drama The Portrait of a Lady, but there was a problem: the character she had in mind was a side player.
Kidman, who admits she was a huge fan of the first season of Top of the Lake, accepted nonetheless but then Campion and Gerard Lee, the co-writer of the six-part sequel, decided to expand her character, Julia Edwards, who in the story adopted the daughter of the central character, Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss).
As revealed in the 2013 original, Robin gave up her daughter Mary after being the victim of a rape at the age of 16. The set-up sees a battle of the mothers between Robin and Julia, who is having an affair with a female French teacher.
Swedish actor David Dencik plays Mary’s much older boyfriend Puss, who owns a building in the Kings Cross red light district that houses a brothel.
Speaking in the Bondi Pavilion overlooking Sydney’s Bondi Beach, Campion says of Kidman: “It’s really fun for her to play a character when she can really stretch herself emotionally and humorously. When you are tall and good-looking like she is, you can get trapped in that beauty. It was lovely to work with her again because she is so damned good, an extraordinary actor.”
Campion directed the first and fifth episodes of the drama, produced by See-Saw Films’ Libby Sharpe and Philippa Campbell for the UK’s BBC2, SundanceTV and Australia’s Foxtel and BBC First, while Ariel Kleiman handled the other four instalments. The series has already launched in the UK and down under but will debut on September 10 in the US.
The main plot follows Robin as she investigates the murder of an Asian girl whose body washes up inside a suitcase on Bondi Beach – an investigation that takes her into the city’s darkest recesses and to the secrets of her own heart. British actor Gwendoline Christie plays Constable Miranda Hilmarson, who has an uneasy relationship with Griffin.
For the role of Mary, Campion cast her daughter Alice Englert, who has an impressive list of credits including the BBC’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Channel 4’s New Worlds and the movies Ginger & Rosa and Beautiful Creatures. Campion explains: “The character is a little bit younger than she is but Alice has the depth and the experience to carry off quite a difficult role.”
However, she asked Kleiman to direct most of the scenes involving Mary. Englert suspects that’s because those were the times when she had to wear fewer clothes and her character faced difficult, complicated situations. “I viewed the first season as a fan,” says the 22-year-old actor. “The women’s camp [in season one] was huge because, prior to the making the series, the producers were nervous as they didn’t know if viewers would like it; people really liked it. It meant a lot to me to be able to feel so emotional and not feel manipulated by a drama.
“Season two is very romantic in a way. There are some great and complicated love stories and there is the true romance of human connection.”
Englert relished the chance to work with Kidman – praising her generosity, kindness and engaging presence – as well as Moss and Christie. “Lizzie [Moss] is inspiring as a leading lady,” she says. “You feel confident when she is there, and Gwendoline is such a beautiful, adorable human being.”
Campion cast Christie after receiving an email from the actor explaining that she had been a fan of the director since she saw An Angel at My Table on television when she was 12, adding that she had watched the first season of Top of the Lake four times. Christie also emphasised she is very tall, pale-skinned and has whitish hair – the very characteristics Campion needed for her character.
Christie had initially sent the email to a friend to gain her advice, asking her not to forward it to the director if she thought it made her look foolish. The friend promptly sent it to Campion nevertheless, with Christie doubtful it would result in her getting the role.
But when Christie and Campion met, the deal was sealed. “She has so much humanity, it’s like a baby elephant coming into the room,” Campion says of the actor.
Englert has an interesting perspective on why her mother has shifted her focus to TV drama after a lengthy career directing features including The Piano, Bright Star, Holy Smoke and In the Cut. “She found doing the press for films so difficult and she wanted the opportunity to tell a story like a novel and to have freedom in doing that,” she explains. “TV is giving people that freedom.”
Campion, Moss and Emile Sherman, the co-founder of See-Saw Films who executive produces with Campion, first discussed the idea of a sequel to Top of the Lake when they dined in a Japanese restaurant during filming of the first season in Queenstown, New Zealand.
“We started talking about a lot of what-ifs, like what if they moved to Thailand?” Campion recalls. “It’s such hard work that you don’t want to do it to yourself again, but I started to think [of a follow-up]. We did not know the show would be as successful as it has been. There seemed to be an appetite for a boutique, event-type series like that, so that was really encouraging.
“There are a lot of people who are not going out to see films but they are enjoying more challenging television or wanting smart television. Every now and again a film will break through, but that’s so rare for mid-budget or low-budget features. It’s more relaxing doing TV series.”
After Top of the Lake screened to critical acclaim at the Sundance and Berlin festivals and was nominated for seven primetime Emmys (it won the gong for Outstanding Cinematography) and for Bafta, Screen Actors Guild and Producers Guild of America awards, financing the sequel proved relatively easy.
BBC2, SundanceTV, BBC First and Foxtel were all keen for a sequel and Arte again took the French and German rights. As the primary commissioner, the BBC financed the development. SundanceTV brought in Hulu to replace Netflix, which had the second-window rights to the original in the US. Hulu’s contribution enabled the producers to slightly raise the budget and thus to pay higher fees to the talent.
As happened with the first season, Lucy Richer, senior BBC commissioning editor for drama, and Sundance reps met with the creative team before production started for a week-long brainstorming session, reviewing the scripts and discussing ways to improve them.
Sherman says: “What allows shows like these to be made is to have broadcasters that want to be involved in something that gets the highest level of publicity and awards focus, rather than doing things that are necessarily just going to appeal to the largest number of people. That different focus results in different sorts of shows being made.
“The series was always intended as a one-season show. But we all fell in love with the characters and started thinking, ‘What next for them? Is there a future?’ Some ideas were thrown around at the end of making the first season. We all went back to our lives, but we kept needling Jane slowly but surely over the years, and getting Jane and Gerard [Lee, co-writer] together to see if creative sparks would fly and stories would emerge.
“Philippa [Campbell] spent some time with them in Jane’s hut in New Zealand and thankfully they engaged. It all comes from the creative centre. This series is the tableau that allows Jane and Gerard to paint and really explore what they find fascinating about contemporary society.”
Moss is currently one of TV’s hottest talents, having starred in AMC’s Mad Men and, most recently, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, for which she has been nominated for an Emmy. But she had to be convinced that the sequel would be even more challenging than the original, observing: “When Jane asked me to do this season, I said, ‘Yes, but it has to be more challenging than the first’ – otherwise why do it and why watch it? I told Jane, ‘Go deeper, go darker.’ I wanted Robin to be really fucked up. Everything is ratcheted up from 10 to 100.
“It was slightly less scary than the first season but this one is so much more challenging for Robin and for me, material-wise and emotionally. This is a classic example of expecting the audience to be intelligent and not dumbing something down for them, as well as allowing the show to have its own tone and mood, which are unlike anything else.
“That bloomed fully in the first season and the audience loved it. In season two it goes deeper into that tone and those directions. It’s that Jane Campion thing where it’s dark and creepy but also grossly hilarious at times.”
Campion told Christie she had written the role of Miranda for her, but Moss doubted she would be available. Moss only discovered Christie had signed on after they met by chance in London one month before production was due to start. At the time, both felt too awkward to ask each other if she was on board, so Moss emailed Campion, who confirmed they would work together.
In a clear case of mutual admiration, Moss says of her co-star: “She is a spectacular actress. She is so great for the role and I knew she would bring something that nobody else could. It’s been an eye-opening, illuminating and inspiring performance that I have had the pleasure of watching for the past four-and-a-half months.”
Christie said of her first experience of working in Australia: “We have moved out of traditional comfort zones to get the best out of each other and to achieve something a little less ordinary.”
The Game of Thrones star, who also plays Captain Phasma in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the forthcoming Star Wars: The Last Jedi, enjoyed the opportunity to work on a contemporary, real-world story, noting: “The show gives us a very interesting perception of the realities of human behaviour and a very piercing and profound look at what it is to be human in all of its strangeness and banality.
“Jane’s work is so much about reality. Something they achieved so brilliantly in season one was dealing with the extraordinary in terms of subject matter, drama and relationships, but in a way that felt so real. That was magical to me and that’s what I wanted to explore.”
Both Moss and Christie were full of praise for Kleiman, who makes his TV debut after directing several shorts and the 2015 feature Partisan, a bleak thriller that starred Vincent Cassel and Jeremy Chabriel.
“What he might lack in experience he makes up for in vision, passion, his precision of what he wants and his willingness to communicate with you and for you to take it in turns of where you push it,” Christie says. “Also, he shares a similar kind of sense of humour to Jane, which is why this relationship works in terms of directing styles.”
On the differences between the original Top of the Lake and the sequel, Sherman says: “It has the same DNA underneath, with a different expression. The second season is more internal, a really sophisticated character and relationship story with a great crime story pulled through it. Having a new cinematographer in Germain McMicking gives it a distinctive feel, elegance and a lit quality that is different to the first season.”
Lee and Campion first met at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in the early 1980s, going on to co-write her first feature, Sweetie, in 1989. Lee likens their relationship to that between brother and sister.
Campion clearly enjoyed filming at the beach, Sydney’s nightclubs, red-light district Kings Cross and other locations in the Eastern suburbs. Pointing to the Pacific Ocean, she says: “Forget the lake, we’ve got a whole ocean here.”
Asked if she and Lee have left the door open for a third edition, Campion is unequivocal: “We have.”
Dinner parties will never be the same after BBC drama Doctor Foster became the surprise hit of 2015. DQ hears from stars Suranne Jones and Bertie Carvel and writer Mike Bartlett about what’s in store for season two.
When the BBC first announced Doctor Foster way back in 2014, you could have been forgiven for thinking it was the pubcaster’s answer to ITV’s light-hearted hit Doc Martin.
After all, both shows are about local GPs serving close-knit communities in fictional English locales – the town of Parminster in Doctor Foster’s case and Portwenn village in the Martin Clunes-fronted series.
However, any similarities end there, with medicine playing only the smallest of parts in BBC1’s dark, sexually charged and thrilling drama about a woman scorned.
Starring Suranne Jones in the titular role, Doctor Foster was a surprise smash hit for the channel in 2015, thanks to a combination of terrific writing from playwright-turned-TV scribe Mike Bartlett and a stellar performance from Jones.
It became the BBC’s highest-rated drama of the year, attracting an average of nine-and-a-half million viewers and securing top gongs at the National Television Awards (NTAs).
Doctor Foster’s first season saw GP Gemma’s seemingly perfect life begin to unravel after she discovered her husband, Simon (played by Bertie Carvel), was having an affair with a much younger woman and had also secretly jeopardised the family’s finances.
Unfolding across five episodes, the show followed Gemma’s journey from despair to rage and revenge as she uncovered the full extent of Simon’s betrayal, culminating in an excruciatingly uncomfortable dinner party scene in the finale as everything is laid bare.
Yet despite the show’s success, news of a second five-part season took many by surprise, with the story seemingly having reached a natural conclusion at the end of the first run.
“I didn’t know when we started season one that it would go further,” admits Bartlett. “But when we were shooting it, I started to realise that there could be more, that there could be another story.
“The more I looked at the last scene, the more I thought that while it looks like a happy ending, there are lots of threads untied. And then when it went out, people said, ‘Did Gemma really get justice?’ That showed that the audience was feeling what I do – that it doesn’t end there and there’s more to tell.”
Details of exactly how that story advances are scarce, but what we do know is that it picks up two years on from the events of season one. Simon, who had moved away, drops a double bombshell by simultaneously announcing his return to Parminster and his impending marriage to Kate (Jodie Comer), the young woman at the centre of his breakup with Gemma.
As if that weren’t bad enough for Gemma, who has been trying to get on with her life, her now ex-husband appears no worse off despite all his bad behaviour – in fact, he’s better than ever. And then there’s the impact of their acrimonious split on their son, Tom (Tom Taylor), who finds himself caught up in his parents’ animosity as he enters his teenage years.
Jones, who won Best Drama Performance at last year’s NTAs for her portrayal of Gemma, says she couldn’t wait to put on Doctor Foster’s stethoscope once again when she found out about the second season. She describes her character as being “embalmed,” highlighting the decision to have Gemma wear some of the same items of clothing as in season one to illustrate her failure to move on from the turmoil of two years ago.
“She’s put up her walls,” the actor continues. “She would have been comfortable, but [Simon] has come back and he’s put a mirror up.
“As well as it being exciting, thrilling, sexy and dark and all those things, I looked at them both and thought, ‘You’re both really hurt,’ and I hadn’t seen that before. Now it makes even more sense where we go [in this season], because you’re looking at vulnerable, damaged people.”
Revealing that the show takes a darker turn this year, Jones believes her character has different motivations in the new episodes. “Gemma doesn’t behave well,” she says with a smirk. “Before, she did that through hurt; now she has channeled her anger. It becomes dark and twisted.”
The actor is full of praise for Bartlett, whose other TV work includes 2012 series The Town for ITV and the upcoming Trauma for the same network. “We’re all very lucky to be working on a Mike Bartlett project – he’s a brilliant writer. When you read one of his scripts, you can’t wait to jump in. Without being rude, there are a lot of scripts that don’t do that to you.
“It feels different and exciting, and at times bizarre, unusual and bonkers – yet you understand it in your gut and you know how you’re going to express that.”
The softly spoken Bertie Carvel, meanwhile, comes across as worlds apart from scheming love rat Simon, a character that saw him become arguably the most hated man on British TV for a few weeks in autumn 2015.
“I hope no one recognises me,” he jokes ahead of tonight’s season two premiere. “Or that maybe they’ll have a more nuanced understanding of the character I play!”
Echoing Jones’s praise for Bartlett, Carvel says: “He gives us incredibly three-dimensional characters. What’s really fun as an actor is even though you’re playing a character who is apparently very Machiavellian, whose objective might be dark and quite cruel, there’s enough space and recognisable humanity.”
The actor refers to the show as the “moral equivalent of a hand-held camera,” explaining: “It’s not comfortably tracking along; there’s a sort of wobble to it. We catch things in the frame, in the characters, that aren’t necessarily what the steady shot is tracking towards. Often you find that, half-an-hour later, you’re looking at something from a really different point of view. That’s what’s so exciting about the series as a whole.”
Bartlett is coy over whether the series, produced by Drama Republic and distributed by BBC Worldwide, could continue into a third season. “It depends what happens in this series really – you’ll have to wait and see,” he teases.
But no matter how it ends this time around, don’t be surprised if the writer manages to come up with a fresh set of twists and turns to ensure further appointments with Doctor Foster.
DQ meets stars Tom Burke and Holliday Grainger on the set of Strike, which introduces JK Rowling’s dogged detective Cormoran Strike in three new crime dramas produced for the BBC and HBO.
When it comes to iconic television fashion, there are few better examples than Sherlock’s deerstalker hat and the knitted jumpers donned by The Killing’s Sarah Lund, while every incarnation of the Time Lord in Doctor Who has their own unique and memorable style.
Next to join TV drama’s sartorial wall of fame could well be Cormoran Strike’s thick grey woollen coat, which is likely to become the must-have garment this winter following the launch of Strike, BBC1’s adaptations of the three crime novels written by Harry Potter creator JK Rowling, famously published under the guise of her pen name Robert Galbraith.
The Cuckoo’s Calling, a three-part miniseries that launched in UK last Sunday, introduces private detective Strike, a war veteran with both physical and psychological wounds. When a young model falls to her death from a Mayfair balcony, her brother asks Strike to investigate, unconvinced that she took her own life.
Two-parter The Silkworm will follow, with Strike set to explore the death of a novelist who is found brutally murdered, apparently to silence him from publishing a tell-all book about everyone he knows.
Then later this year comes Career of Evil, a grittier, darker two-parter that opens when a woman’s severed leg is delivered to Strike’s assistant, Robin Ellacott. With the police investigating a suspect who Strike is sure is not the perpetrator, he and Robin take matters into their own hands as more horrendous acts occur.
When DQ visits the set of The Silkworm in March this year, Strike and Robin are inside their shared office as the former returns from a gruesome crime scene. A packet of Yorkshire Tea can be found in the kitchen area, while a map and notes are pinned up on one wall. There are business cards scattered about, an old filing system in another corner and an ashtray filled with cigarette ends on a table.
Two cameras are rolling, one focused on Holliday Grainger sitting behind a desk as Robin, when Tom Burke’s Strike comes in, wearing that soon-to-be iconic grey coat. There are plants on the nearby windowsill, while a desk lamp is on next to the computer. The scene is repeated several times and, after a short break, filming resumes with new angles and a tighter focus on the stars’ faces.
The office set, with an authentic backdrop of London’s Denmark Street lit up outside the windows, is the only one that is shared across all three adaptations, while the production took great effort to film on location – and in the exact places Rowling describes in the novels.
It’s also that sense of place that helps to give each story its own identity, with producer Jackie Larkin explaining that each story is set in a different world.
“The first one is the fashion world – Mayfair and Chelsea,” she says. “The second is about the publishing and literary world. That’s a lot around west London. For book three, we did manage to have a very interesting chase sequence all over Soho one Sunday evening, locking off Frith Street and Old Compton Road.
“The shoot has been 80% location, 20% studio. It’s been great – we have had very good access. In book three, some of that happens up north so we really felt we had to go to Barrow-in-Furness. And the third book is a road movie; it’s very much about trying to find who delivered the severed leg. So that brought us to Catford, to Bow, to Whitechapel.”
Another key landmark is The Tottenham pub, a staple of London’s bustling Oxford Street but recently renamed after a change of ownership. That meant finding another location for Strike’s preferred watering hole, in this case The Duke of York in nearby Fitzrovia, and redressing it as The Tottenham. “It’s a small, intimate pub. It feels exactly like the place Strike would be. It feels like The Tottenham in the book,” Larkin says.
Sold globally by Warner Bros International Television Distribution, Strike is produced by Rowling’s Brontë Film & Television in coproduction with HBO-owned cablenet Cinemax, and the author, who is an executive producer, has been extremely involved in the development of the series and can often be found on set during key scenes.
“She’s actually amazing,” Larkin enthuses about the author. “She comes to our read-throughs and feeds into the script. She’s so supportive of the writers and her notes are so insightful for all of us. She has the most amazing notes on character – it’s wonderful for us because she’s created them and we want to get them right.”
That’s not to say the scriptwriters – Ben Richards on The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm and Tom Edge for Career of Evil – haven’t made some departures from the stories Rowling first put on the page. “There are times when, simply because of the sheer volume of the books, to get it into two hours you have to make some trims or simplify some plot stuff. But I don’t think you would ever look at it and say, ‘I don’t recognise the book in this,’” Larkin says. “The books are such great source material that you want to try and fit as much of them into that two or three hours as you can.”
When Strike and Robin first meet in The Cuckoo’s Calling, there’s an awkwardness in the air. He’s forgotten he’d hired a temp, while she arrives at the worst possible moment. But very quickly she makes herself indispensable – and the pair become inseparable by the end of the first story.
“They’re the heart and soul of the show, such wonderful, intelligent actors,” Larkin says of Burke and Grainger, who also won the approval of Rowling. “Tom was cast before I came on board and he fits the character so well. Then we cast Holliday a couple of weeks later. She is Robin. Ruth [Kenley-Letts], our executive producer, had an idea of who would play Strike and her instinct was absolutely right. The broadcasters loved him. And we didn’t see many people for Robin.”
War & Peace star Burke says that while reading the books, he was struck by how Strike is always eating, putting this down to the character being a fragile man looking for comfort in curries and beer. That need for comfort also comes through in his clothing, particularly his ever-present coat, which also reflects the fact Strike is constantly on the move through the three stories.
Being hidden beneath the large coat gave Burke extra time to bulk up for the role, with the actor taking up weightlifting and increasing his food intake. “I wanted to look like somebody who did drink pints regularly,” he jokes.
Besides his look, Burke had to perfect Strike’s voice, settling on a London accent with some added Cornish notes in a nod to where the character grew up. “That’s how most people sound nowadays – a lot of people just sound London and then you hear a tiny little thing [that hints at their background],” he says. “He has moved all around. It wouldn’t have been right to make him properly Cornish or properly London.”
Then there’s the prosthetic leg Strike was fitted with after losing half his right leg in a bomb explosion, which led to him being discharged from the army. “I was not stressing about it initially but I did think, ‘I need to get that right,’” Burke says of perfecting Strike’s walking pattern. “I spent a good day with this chap who was also military and has the same thing. Sometimes I just put on the sock they use on the stump, this rubbery kind of thing, and the tightness of it slightly slows your knee. That’s what you see [in Strike’s walk].”
In contrast, Grainger (The Borgias) didn’t have to look far for her inspiration to play Robin. “It’s funny, I have heard someone say there’s a lot of Jo [Rowling] in Robin – and when I read the book, I thought she was just like me, and every woman I speak to thinks Robin’s just like her,” the actor says. “I think that’s the great thing about Robin – she’s got all the likeable qualities you want to have. She’s compassionate, brave, practical, intelligent. Nice girl! I was a massive Harry Potter geek but I’d never read them until I got the part. Then I read them all in a week.
“It’s an interesting journey, as Robin’s just a layman when she starts and so she’s learning on the job, but there’s not a sense that Strike patronises her. There’s mutual respect. It’s not the usual competition you get because it’s a different balance from most detective dramas.”
While Strike and Robin share a close working partnership, there’s also a deeper connection that threatens to spill over into romance – though the actors decline to reveal whether viewers will see them hook up on screen.
“In a lot of shows like this, there’s an ‘are they/aren’t they’ thing, and I just think they are,” Burke admits. “There’s something there from the beginning and it’s a permanent blur in their periphery. It’s not like Mulder and Scully [in The X-Files], where you think they’re not but then maybe they are. It’s always there. I don’t know [whether they will]. You surrender to whatever she’s [Rowling] going to do.”
The show’s stars also share a lot of trust on the set of Strike, something they say is down to the fact they have lifted the characters they play directly from the page. “Tom feels like he’s on the same page as Jo on Strike and I feel like I was with Robin and, therefore, you are with each other because I know my idea of Strike is his idea of Strike,” Grainger explains. “When you trust you’re both thinking along the same lines, it makes decisions on set very easy. There isn’t really one to be made most of the time.”
Whether Strike and Robin do finally get together will be down to Rowling, who is currently working on the fourth book in the series, Lethal White. Until then, Burke and Grainger are left to contemplate viewers’ reactions to a show that Rowling fans will have been looking forward to with as much anticipation as a new Harry Potter novel.
New Doctor Who star Jodie Whittaker plays a medical imposter in Trust Me, a thriller penned by real-life doctor Dan Sefton. DQ hears from the duo about making the show.
Doctorates appear to be arriving like buses for actress Jodie Whittaker, who will become a doctor not once but twice over the next few months.
The actor was recently announced as the 13th incarnation of the BBC’s famous Time Lord in Doctor Who – the first woman to take the prestigious primetime title in the show’s 54-year history. The star, best known for her role in Broadchurch, will replace the outgoing Peter Capaldi when he regenerates during the upcoming Christmas special.
Before then, however, she’ll be seen on BBC1 as another medic as she takes the lead role in gripping drama Trust Me. She plays Cath Hardacre, who, after being suspended from her job as a nurse for whistleblowing, steals the identity of a doctor friend who has emigrated to New Zealand.
She moves from Sheffield to Edinburgh to work as an A&E doctor, but it’s not easy to shake off her past. Not only is she unqualified but her bitter ex Karl (played by Blake Harrison) and a hungry investigative journalist Sam Kelly (Nathan Walsh) are both on her case.
Written by Dan Sefton, best known for ITV’s The Good Karma Hospital and Sky1’s Delicious, Trust Me plunges viewers into a world the writer knows well, as he also works part time as an A&E doctor. StudioCanal is distributing the series internationally.
“As a doctor, I’ve encountered imposters in real life. There was actually one in the department where I worked,” he says. “Often they are well liked and competent; I’ve also met qualified doctors who are frankly dangerous. For me there’s a delicious irony in the idea that the imposter doctor is better than the real thing, both clinically and with patients.”
It took him seven years from first reading a book about imposters to getting his drama made. “My first thought was making it about a pair of identical twins. The story changed in various ways until I came up with the idea of a nurse impersonating a doctor,” he recalls. “The problem was a lot of people didn’t believe it was credible, even though I, as a doctor, was telling them it was credible – there have been so many stories of people doing it.
“It was really frustrating because I knew it was a good idea and I was worried that someone else would get there first. It wasn’t until Red Production Company came on board that they really listened to the story and immediately saw the potential in it.”
Whittaker says she was hooked from the moment she read the first script. “It really fascinated me because it went in a completely different direction to how I thought it was going to go,” she says of the series, which launches on BBC1 on August 8. “At the beginning, when she’s suspended for whistleblowing and loses her job, it could have gone in so many ways. The fact she takes on a new identity isn’t the way I thought it would go. I love the fact that her choices are quite morally dubious; they certainly aren’t black and white.”
Sefton says he looked at US shows where the lead is often an anti-hero. No one walking into an NHS hospital would like to think they are being treated by an unqualified doctor, yet at the same time Cath is good at her job. The story is told from her point of view and the viewer is on her side – at least at first.
“I enjoyed the push-and-pull feel of playing with the audience’s sympathies,” the writer explains. “She is a good person but she shouldn’t be doing this. She’s an honest woman who has done one dishonest thing; there will be consequences. I read a lot about the different types of imposters; there are far more men than women. Men always do it for egotistical reasons; they want to be something impressive. But the women generally do it for a way of getting on in life.
“In this show Cath is giving herself the opportunities she’d never had. But once she’s made that choice, that changes who she is. She begins to like her new life and that’s where it becomes complicated.”
Whittaker agrees: “It’s really interesting to play flawed characters. I would be terrified by the choice this protagonist has made – I’m a crap secret-keeper. Often we are surrounded by people who do things that we don’t agree with. For the audience not to agree with her but still be emotionally behind her is an interesting thing to play.”
Sefton worked as a medical consultant on the Glasgow and Edinburgh set (the show was co-executive produced by Gaynor Holmes for BBC Scotland), helping the cast find their way around a busy emergency department. He also allowed the actors to experiment on him with minor procedures – up to a point where the producers had to step in because they were worried he could sue them for health and safety breaches.
“I kept volunteering to be a guinea pig,” he admits. “But the producers were worried I would get hurt and sue them. I still encouraged the actors to stick needles in me. The only way you understand the tension of doing something like that – of crossing a line – is when you do something like that to another human.”
Although Sefton has scripted medical dramas including Doctors, Casualty and Holby City, he says he deliberately made the medical stories in Trust Me different. “There is a horror show element to it,” he says. “A lot of things Cath has to tackle are the things that still scare doctors. She sees some very nasty cases; they all do.
“In episode two, you see Sharon Small’s character, Dr Brigitte McAdams, talk about the patients she has killed and how much that has affected her. People know about medical mistakes but don’t see how it can also hurt the doctors.
“Because this drama isn’t about the medical stuff, there is a nihilism which you don’t normally get as you don’t need to resolve the medical stories. In real life there is often no easy answer, there is no meaning to the problems people come in with. They aren’t resolved. I want this to be a tough watch because even though she is doing a bad thing, she is still turning up there every day to help people.”
In his first screen drama, novelist Patrick Gale tells two gay love stories set 60 years apart. DQ speaks to the writer and actors Vanessa Redgrave and Joanna Vanderham about starring in Man in an Orange Shirt .
From the sidelines, it looks like a cosy scene. Stepping down from Battersea Park’s picturesque bandstand, arm in arm, in immaculate 1940s dresses, Joanna Vanderham and Laura Carmichael are deep in conversation.
While extras in period costume walk behind them (and assistant directors, also in period costume, shoo away curious dog walkers) they are seemingly oblivious as their characters swap the closest of intimacies. The pair play sisters Flora and Daphne and the scene is at the heart of an ambitious new BBC2 drama, Man in an Orange Shirt, chronicling the modern history of gay lives in one family, set 60 years apart.
Vanderham, complete with a huge prosthetic pregnant bump, plays Flora, who just hours earlier discovered something that would change her life, the life of her unborn child, and his child too, forever.
Cleaning a desk belonging to her husband Michael (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), she finds letters from his lover Thomas (James McArdle), an artist who had been her husband’s best man at their wedding. She’d burned them and hastily arranged this meeting with her sister. But as she muses the reality of her husband being a gay man, she finds that she can’t even tell her big sister this dark, dark secret. The possible consequences – divorce and even jail – are too tough to contemplate.
“The way this scene is described in the script is ‘the women meet for lunch and everything is perfect’ with lots of exclamation marks,” says Vanderham. “But of course, the opposite is true. There are all of these things going on underneath the surface but Flora swallows it down. It’s a very British thing to do. She never says anything, she never says how she feels.
“From this moment she moves forward in a way that means outwardly it looks like things are fine. But what we see is the cost and how much keeping everything bottled up costs her. At the start of the film she’s full of life and vitality; excited about her marriage and becoming pregnant. By the end she’s a tight-lipped, close-mouthed, unhappy and lonely woman.”
The two-part story of The Man in an Orange Shirt has been written by novelist Patrick Gale, whose original commission was the rather open-ended idea of doing something about the experience of gay men in the 20th century. He decided to turn the tale inward; in some ways it is his own story.
“It was the most terrifying commission I’ve ever had,” admits Gale, who is making his screen debut with the project. “The gem of this whole story comes from when I tried to come out to my mother when I was 22. I had written my first book about being gay and it was my way of coming out to her. But instead of talking about it, she revealed to me that my father had had an affair with another man when she was pregnant with me. She had found some letters and had burned them. The amazing scene that is in the first film actually happened to my mother but in real life she never confronted my father. She never told him.
“She just waited until I grew up and told me. Thanks mum! To my dying shame I never had a conversation with my father about it. He knew I was gay and was very sweet about my lovers but – being so British – we never really had a conversation about it. I wonder, I still wonder, what he thought of it all.”
The second of the films brings the action into the present day. Flora, now played by Vanessa Redgrave (who also played an older version of Vanderham in Richard III at London’s Almeida Theatre recently), is bringing up her grandson Adam (Julian Morris) after both his parents were killed in a car crash. He is gay but his grandmother’s attitude towards homosexuality means he can’t confide in her, and he’s filled with self-hatred over his own sexuality, spending his time meeting up with strangers for meaningless sex without even bothering to find out their names.
When he meets a man he genuinely likes, an architect called Steve (David Gyasi), he is frightened by his feelings and jeopardises the relationship.
“For me, the first storyline was about the enemy without and the second one is about the enemy within,” says Gale. “The core of gay shame is one we learn very young. My parents were very Christian and supportive but they passed on gay shame to me. Mine came out in appalling eczema I experienced in my teens; my shame came out in my skin.
“We are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality [in the UK] but I think the problem of gay shame is one that won’t go away, however much legislation you pass. We will always be a minority, we will never apply to that Disney model of gender roles.”
Appearing in the drama, which is produced by Kudos and distributed by FremantleMedia International, also made Redgrave think about her own experiences. One of Britain’s most famously liberal stars, whose husband and father were both bisexual, she took some convincing to play the part of the embittered Flora. Gale wrote her a three-page letter explaining why Flora acts as she does in an attempt to win over the veteran actor – and it clearly worked.
“I had to start with the thought that she wasn’t always brusque and difficult,” says Vanessa. “She was somebody very nice who has had to fabricate a whole denial system in her life. The impact of that has built and built throughout her life.
“It has made me think a lot about my father’s generation. He was bisexual and a lot of his friends were totally gay; there were quite a few lesbians too. To protect themselves, they protected each other. How could we have called ourselves a democracy up until 1967 when this was illegal? The cruelty! What a cruel, harsh attitude of you can do this, but you can’t do that. Total stupid rubbish!”
The Man in an Orange Shirt, which debuts on BBC2 on July 31, is one of the cornerstone dramas commissioned by the BBC to celebrate the decriminalisation of homosexuality and it shows the legacy of draconian laws that meant it was impossible to live as an openly gay person. “It’s a drama about some people who are gay and some who are not,” adds Vanderham. “Flora is the female protagonist and she suffered just as much as the men in her life. More than a gay story, it is a human story which needs to be told.”
The biggest hit at this year’s Cannes Film Festival wasn’t a film at all. Now, ahead of the show’s television debut, Top of the Lake: China Girl producer Emile Sherman tells DQ about reuniting with writer Jane Campion.
Emile Sherman and Jane Campion were pretty confident they had a winner in the sequel to Top of the Lake when they got the thumbs up at the first screening for its commissioning broadcasters, which include the BBC, SundanceTV and Foxtel.
But it wasn’t until Top of the Lake: China Girl had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival to wide acclaim, alongside the first two hours of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks series for Showtime, that they knew for sure.
“It was a gamble because Cannes is that prestige-level festival and as a TV series you are an outsider to all those films,” says Sherman, the co-founder of See-Saw Films, which co-executive produced the six-hour miniseries with Campion.
“We just didn’t know how it was going to be received. It is always incredibly exciting and nerve-wracking to launch your baby into the world. We felt Cannes was a wonderful opportunity and platform to position the TV series as the highest quality and to differentiate it from so many of the TV series around the world.”
Typifying the rave reviews, The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy said the sequel co-scripted by Campion and Gerard Lee “bristles with the same kind of sexual, psychological and sociopolitical frankness that the original served up, but with a different feel based on the often grungy urban Sydney settings.”
Variety’s Brett Lang hailed a twisty mystery that will keep audiences guessing until the final credits roll, another knockout turn by Elisabeth Moss as Detective Robin Griffin and stellar work from Nicole Kidman as a mother dealing with a volatile teenage daughter.
Campion directed episodes one and five and, in his TV debut, Aussie Ariel Kleiman directed the other four. The producers hired Kleiman after being impressed with his short films and his first feature, Partisan.
Sherman describes deciding on the co-director as the show’s biggest creative choice, involving a search for likely prospects in Australia, the US, the UK and parts of Europe.
“We needed a director who respected and understood the tone of the series. It is slightly heightened in some ways but for Jane it is not heightened because that is how she views the world. Ariel understands that and he also brings out the humour in the story; he has that Australian/European sense of the absurd but always grounding everything in the truth.”
Sherman was keen to do a follow-up while the first season was shooting in Queenstown, New Zealand, in 2012. But Campion decided she would only revisit Top of the Lake if she and Lee could come up with a compelling idea. That emerged from brainstorming sessions at the director’s holiday home in New Zealand, also attended by producer Philippa Campbell.
BBC2 in the UK, US cable channel SundanceTV and BBC First/Foxtel in Australia were all keen for a sequel and Arte again took the French and German rights. As the primary commissioner, the BBC financed the development, with BBC Worldwide again distributing. SundanceTV then brought in Hulu, which will start streaming the show the day after its Sundance premiere, replacing Netflix, which had the second window to the 2013 original in the US. Hulu’s contribution enabled the producers to slightly raise the budget and thus to pay higher fees to the talent.
“Broadcasters want to be involved in shows that get the highest level of publicity and awards focus rather than doing things that are necessarily just going to appeal to the largest number of people,” Sherman says.
The plot follows Moss’s Griffin as she returns to Sydney and tries to rebuild her life after the events of season one. When the body of an Asian girl washes up on Bondi Beach, there appears little hope of finding the killer – until she discovers “China Girl” didn’t die alone.
Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie (pictured top alongside Moss) plays Miranda, a fellow cop who has an uneasy relationship with Griffin. Kidman plays Julia Edwards, who adopted Griffin’s daughter Mary (Alice Englert), whom she gave up at birth after being the victim of a gang rape when she was 15, as chronicled in the first season. Swedish actor David Dencik plays Mary’s much older boyfriend Puss, who owns a building in Kings Cross that houses a brothel.
Sherman rates the length of the shoot (16 weeks), the number of takes, the cinematography, the lighting and design as comparable to the highest levels of the movies he’s worked on.
Campion adds: “The attraction for Gerard and me was to make something entertaining and enjoyable, which is also the way we see the world and the things that scare us and the things we find moving. It’s about our lives, parenting, reproduction, IVF, kids, being mothers and fathers…”
Lee interjects: “And we’re passing it off as a detective story so people will watch it.”
Would Sherman like to do a third chapter? “I would, but I am being patient,” he says. “Jane always toys with a range of ideas and, at a certain point, she and Gerard decide if there is something they are really excited about telling.”
With starring roles in Guerrilla and Born to Kill, Daniel Mays has already had a busy year. He tells DQ about his next show, Against the Law, in which he plays a character who was instrumental in the UK’s decision to decriminalise homosexuality in the 1960s.
Once best known for playing a variety of spivs, Daniel Mays is one of those actors who is only getting better with age. But even he admits his latest job was a challenge he wasn’t sure he would be up to.
The 39-year-old has had quite a year, from his Bafta nomination for Line of Duty to roles in two of the last few months’ most exciting dramas: as a widowed father in Born to Kill (Channel 4) and Inspector Liam Cullen in Guerrilla (Sky Atlantic/Showtime). Mays may have first made his name portraying a variety of slightly dodgy womanisers – from train robber Ronnie Biggs in Mrs Biggs to Private Walker in the 2016 Dad’s Army film – but he has long been keen to show there is much, much more to him.
So now for something completely different: in Against The Law, which will air on BBC2 next Wednesday (July 26), he plays Oxford-educated, upper-middle-class journalist Peter Wildeblood – one of the first people to admit they were homosexual in court after being caught up in what became known as The Montagu Trial in 1954.
Wildeblood was at the centre of the case, which saw the establishment determined to stamp out homosexuality by going after Lord Montagu of Beaulieu (played by Mark Edel-Hunt) and his friends. But the high-profile action, during which Wildeblood’s former lover gave evidence against him to save his own skin, backfired. The case, which was followed by Wildeblood’s hard-hitting book Against the Law, provoked such a sympathetic outcry that it led to a public inquiry that in turn paved the way for the UK to decriminalise homosexuality in 1967.
The one-off drama, produced by BBC Studios and distributed by FremantleMedia International, is at the centre of the BBC’s season exploring the 50th anniversary of the change in the law. “When I read it, I was a bit nervous,” Mays says of Brian Fillis’s script. “I knew I was going to be stepping out of my comfort zone, but the opportunity to highlight this story and all the good Peter Wildeblood did for his community was too difficult to pass up. In my career I want to be involved in projects that not only entertain but also that enlighten our minds, so I was thrilled to be part of this.
“There will be lots of people who don’t know who Peter Wildeblood was, what he endured and what he eventually achieved. He is such a hugely important figure in the gay rights movement but he’s an unsung hero. I was so pleased to be offered this role as it is an extraordinary story.”
Unusually, the factual drama is interspersed with real-life testimony from gay men who endured all sorts – prison, beatings, turning evidence against lovers – at a time when it was illegal to be with another man.
“The first time I saw those testimonies put into the drama, I was completely moved and astounded at how honest and courageous all those men were,” says Mays. “It adds a really interesting element to the whole piece and actually really deepens the drama.”
A heterosexual married father-of-two, Mays admits his first gay sex scene, which shows Wildeblood with his lover Edward McNally, played by Richard Gadd, terrified him. “This was an example of feeling the fear and then going for it; I knew I had to take a risk,” he says. “Sex scenes are always embarrassing to film. They are meant to be closed sets, but basically there are always people standing around watching you.
“We knew that no one wanted to have two self-conscious actors rolling around. I think it helped that we filmed the scene towards the end of the shoot so we already had a lot of trust between us and we opened a bottle of champagne to give us both a bit of Dutch courage.
“Peter Wildeblood isn’t a character that people would associate me with, and that made the role all the more appealing. I feel honoured that the BBC would trust me with telling the story of such an inspirational man.”
While there is plenty of debate in the industry about whether success is skewed towards chisel-faced, floppy-haired, upper middle-class actors who went to private school and Oxbridge, Mays, with his hang-dog looks and mop of unruly curls is quietly making his own way and is even taking the posh roles.
As the third of four boys in his family, the Essex-born son of an electrician and factory worker was naturally an attention-seeker who preferred dancing to football. He won scholarships to the Italia Conti Stage School and to Rada (The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) where they tried to knock out his accent, but he remains a proud Essex boy.
“I see ‘posh’ as a dialect, the same as Northern or Irish, but it’s not one I speak with in my normal life,” Mays says. “I know there are some actors who have changed the way they speak but the idea of that has never sat well with me. I would feel like I was betraying myself.”
A self-confessed workaholic, his can-do attitude has made him a favourite with casting directors, which means he is always busy.
“I know it might feel like I am never off the box at the moment,” Mays laughs. “I apologise. It’s funny being in the position where I am now. It’s a balancing act; you’ve got to pay the mortgage but you want to be creative in the choices you make. Sometimes it’s about being brave and turning stuff down; other times it’s about challenging yourself.”
And there are plenty more challenges ahead. Mays can next be seen in horror movie The Limehouse Golem, alongside Bill Nighy, which will hit cinemas in August. After that, he will be in a comedy film called Swimming with Men, alongside Rob Brydon (Gavin & Stacey), which is due to be released next spring. Based loosely on a Swedish documentary called Men Who Swim, it’s about a group of mid-life crisis men who take up synchronised swimming.
The actor also recently recorded an episode of BBC2 comedy Inside No9 with Steve Pemberton and Rhys Shearsmith – there’s a Sex Pistols theme – and is currently filming HBO movie My Dinner With Herve, about French actor and The Man With The Golden Gun star Herve Villechaize, alongside Peter Dinklage and Jamie Dornan.
“And then I think I am going on holiday,” sighs Mays. “It’s been a non-stop 12 months but it’s hard to say no to all these exciting jobs. The more left field it has been, the more I see the merit in it. I’m a year off 40 now and I still have more ambitions; there is other stuff I feel capable of and I just hope I get even more opportunities. I don’t want to stop now.”
Eleventh Hour Films executive producer and head of talent Eve Gutierrez reveals why one scene from BBC drama New Blood gave her cause to hold her breath.
There’s one on every production – that one scene that embodies the spirit of the entire show. A moment so key that it will often dictate the selection of director and HoDs [heads of departments], and set a precedent for how the whole shoot will be executed. A scene that starts with meticulous planning and preparation, allocated just the right amount of money and time in the production schedule, soon inspires an unexpected determination, a bloody-mindedness and finally a full-blown obsession in the entire cast and crew.
On New Blood, our investigative series for BBC1, the scene in question acted as the climax of the characters’ first case. It sealed the friendship between the two lead characters and (literally) pushed our two relatively inexperienced actors into free fall.
On the page, creator Anthony Horowitz made the scene feel simple: just two characters, a few lines of dialogue – and a jump. As the action played out on the rooftop of a London hotel, it was clear this scene was anything but simple, requiring the characters to jump into the hotel’s swimming pool more than a dozen floors below.
It’s surprising how few outdoor pools there are. Even fewer of which are anywhere that would visually feel like London and fewer still that are next to high-rise buildings. In fact, it turned out there is only one – the pool at the Oasis Sports Centre on Tottenham Court Road. And, luckily for us, they were open to the idea of us shooting in their pool at night.
Obviously we would not be asking stunt performers or actors to actually jump off an incredibly tall building and free-fall in to a pool below, so it was clear from the outset that we would need not one location but two. The pool would provide the landing moment but the rooftop and POV of the pool would need to be achieved somewhere else.
Our production base in Dagenham, at LondonEast Business Park, provided a rooftop of the right height and shape to shoot the dialogue part of the scene against a green screen and for our stunt team, helmed by stunt coordinator Tony Lucken, to cheat an impressive jump over the side of the building onto a mountain of boxes. And with the magic of visual effects from VFX supervisor Sascha Fromeyer, we were well on our way to building an impressive sequence.
All that was left was the need to shoot our two actors plunging into the pool with enough force that it was believable they had jumped from a great height – to achieve the ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ moment that encapsulated the relationship between our characters.
Just two things lay between us and the successful completion of our scene, and neither were elements that we could control or influence. The first was the weather. Rain would most definitely stop play. The folk at the Oasis Sports Centre were very clear about that – and the forecast was for intermittent showers all day and all night.
The second was the fact we would be shooting in a location right next to Waterloo Bridge in the afternoon before moving over to Tottenham Court Road to access the pool after it had closed to the public, on the same evening of the Million Mask March when supporters of hacking collective Anonymous were due to march from Trafalgar Square to Westminster. At the very least, gridlock was predicted, with the media speculating on whether there would be chaos and violence on the streets.
For most of the afternoon, I paced about in the rain, alternating between the weather app on my iPhone and Twitter for news of what was happening on the march.
Finally it was time to move the unit, and it was here that transport captain Andy Blackburn and his team of drivers came into their element. I’m a born-and-bred Londoner, but their pre-planned route of back roads managed to make even me dizzy. It got us clear of the march, across the river and through Soho in 20 minutes – just as the clouds parted and the rain stopped.
Our director, Anthony Philipson, and the camera team headed up by DoP Rasmus Arrildt were prepped and set in record time. The grip department had built a tower for the actors to safely jump from, the underwater camera was in place and we all collectively held our breath as our actors were counted down to jump from what felt like a great height…
There was a big splash but, to our horror, they both immediately floated to the surface. On camera it looked like they had barely broken the line of the water, let alone plunged to the depths that would sell a jump from an impossible height. It turned out that both the wetsuits the actors were wearing under their costumes and the costumes themselves floated.
The actors immediately shed the wetsuits (luckily it was a freakishly mild November night) whilst the costume department hacked into their clothing to try and remove anywhere that pockets of air could gather. And with just moments to spare, we were reset to achieve the all-important shot – and it was miraculously ‘scene complete.’
With TNT’s Will and ABC’s Romeo & Juliet sequel Still Star-Crossed airing this summer, Stephen Arnell looks at William Shakespeare’s record as a drama character in his own right.
From the BBC’s recent The Hollow Crown and Russell T Davies’ Midsummer Night’s Dream (pictured top) to Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, Michael Fassbender’s Macbeth and Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus, TV or movie adaptations of the William Shakespeare’s work always seem to be in production.
And, of course, spoofs (Gnomeo & Juliet, Hamlet Goes Business, Strange Brew), present-day versions using Shakespeare’s plotlines but ditching the verse (My Kingdom/King Lear and My Own Private Idaho/Henry IV and V) and teen comedies based on his work but similarly verse-free, such as 10 Things I Hate About You (The Taming of The Shrew), Get Over It (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and She’s The Man (Twelfth Night) have become cottage industries in themselves.
Movie classics Forbidden Planet, West Side Story, Akira Kurosawa’s Ran and The Lion King were not-so-thinly veiled takes on The Tempest, Romeo & Juliet, King Lear and Hamlet respectively.
But recent years have seen a new twist, with Shakespeare the man making increasing appearances as a character on TV and in movies.
This month will see US cable channel TNT debut the ‘young Shakespeare’ series Will, which launches on July 10. Originally intended for the now defunct Pivot, Will is part of TNT’s ongoing transformational drama drive, led by ex-Fox boss Kevin Reilly.
Apparently presenting the feisty iconoclastic ‘rock ’n’ roll’ side of the Bard, the tone of the series looks set to mirror writer and creator Craig Pearce’s previous work as the scribe on fellow Australian Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby.
Echoing these movies and other period dramas such as Peaky Blinders, Will boasts a contemporary soundtrack, although veteran composer Stephen Warbeck will be handling the score.
Coincidentally, Warbeck was responsible for the score to Shakespeare in Love, as well as the Henry IV section of The Hollow Crown.
Back in January, Pearce was quoted at the TCA Winter Press Tour as saying that his models in the show for the playwriting fraternity of Elizabethan England were rock stars Mick Jagger and David Bowie, adding: “Theatre back then was like punk rock.”
The show boasts an excellent pedigree behind the camera, with the renowned Shekhar Kapur both directing and executive-producing Will. Having helmed both Elizabeth (1998) and its sequel The Golden Age (2007), Kapur obviously has a feel for the era.
To some, Kapur’s statement that: “If today Shakespeare was around he would’ve been a rapper on the streets,” may ring alarm bells for those who prefer their historical drama straighter than the likes of Reign (The CW) and Casanova (BBC3).
Looking at the acting talent on display, Will has balanced the casting of the largely unknown young British stage actor Laurie Davidson as the lead with a strong supporting company grounded in period drama.
This includes Colm Meany (Hell on Wheels), Ewan Bremner (T2 Trainspotting, Elizabeth I) and Jamie Campbell Bower (Anonymous, Camelot) as Shakespeare’s rival playwright Christopher Marlowe.
ABC’s Still Star-Crossed, the ‘sequel’ to Romeo & Juliet based on the popular Melinda Taub novel, made its debut in May. Produced by one-woman production powerhouse Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder), the show’s Brit-skewed cast includes relative newcomers Lashana Lynch (Death in Paradise) and Wade Briggs (Please Like Me), together with old hands Anthony Head (Buffy The Vampire Slayer) and Grant Bowler (Ugly Betty).
The role of Count Paris falls to doublet and hose go-to guy Torrance Coombs, familiar to viewers as Thomas Culpepper in The Tudors (Showtime) and as Sebastian (Bash) in Reign (The CW). Reviews have been mixed, whilst audiences have declined from a soft 2.29 million launch, necessitating a schedule move from Monday to Saturday, typically the sign of imminent cancellation.
Variety commented: “While there’s pageantry aplenty, the dialogue is littered with too many lumpy Shakespeare-lite lines and some jarring uses of slang.” The Los Angeles Times wasn’t any kinder: “Parting with Still Star-Crossed after one episode isn’t likely to bring sweet sorrow, but rather the relief of a tragedy averted.”
Shakespeare has featured as a character in a fair few movies over the years, including Roland Emmerich’s Was Shakespeare a Fraud?, drama Anonymous (2011) and the Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love (1998), the popularity of which tempted the French to try their hand with less success in 2007 with the similar Moliere.
On television, Shakespeare is currently the subject of Ben Elton’s sitcom Upstart Crow (BBC2), a show which has gone some way to restoring the writer’s reputation, harking back to his fondly remembered Blackadder – interestingly, the millennium special Blackadder Back & Forth featured Colin Firth as The Bard of Avon. And, of course, the period-drama-friendly Firth played Lord Wessex in the aforementioned Shakespeare in Love.
Recent comedy shows that have featured the playwright as a character include Comedy Central’s Drunk History (where he was played by John Cho) and The History Channel’s Great Minds with Dan Harmon, where in a bar conversation Shakespeare (Thomas Middleditch) praises the reviled De Niro/Efron comedy Dirty Grandpa at the expense of Harmon’s own Community.
In April 2016, Tom Stourton (Loaded) played Shakespeare in the popular BBC children’s history sketch series Horrible Histories. Prior to this, the Horrible Histories team were behind the little-seen 2015 comedy movie Bill, with Mathew Baynton (You Me & The Apocalypse) as the titular character, together with support turns from Damien Lewis (Billions) and Helen McCory (Peaky Blinders).
Shakespeare has also featured as a character in the long-running sci-fi series Dr Who, notably in 2007’s The Shakespeare Code, an episode that spoofed The Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown and the Back to the Future and Harry Potter movies.
The episode sees the Doctor suggesting some of the playwright’s most famous lines, including “All the world’s a stage” and “The play’s the thing” – which, to some, consciously mirrors Back to the Future’s controversial scene where Marty McFly’s guitar riffs ‘inspire’ a young Chuck Berry.
One has to go back to 1978 for the last fully fledged series with the Bard as the main character, ITV’s Will Shakespeare, a six-part series starring Tim Curry (The Rocky Horror Picture Show, It) in the lead role and Ian McShane (American Gods, Deadwood) as his peer ‘Kit’ Marlowe.
Writer John Mortimer (A Voyage Around My Father) based each episode on the creation of a particular play, with Shakespeare often introducing autobiographical details, such as ‘The Dark Lady’ and a supposedly homoerotic relationship with the Earl of Southampton (played by Nicholas Clay).
Possessing the handsome production values typical of Lew Grade’s ATV (Jesus of Nazareth, Moses the Lawgiver), the series may gain a second life if Will proves a hit.
As technology continues its assault on traditional television models, success is no longer just about overnight viewing figures. So in today’s crowded drama marketplace, what defines a hit – and how are our views of success changing?
When the BBC and FX announced there would be a second season of Tom Hardy’s extraordinary period drama Taboo (pictured above), the UK pubcaster took the unusual step of spelling out exactly why the series would return.
Taboo was a solid, if not spectacular, performer on BBC1, drawing three million viewers to its Saturday night debut and staying above 2.5 million for subsequent episodes.
Yet it earned its recommission by becoming one of the most successful dramas ever in terms of views on iPlayer, the broadcaster’s digital catch-up service, a result credited to word of mouth and social network mentions that led new viewers to seek out the series.
Within seven days, episode one’s audience rose to 5.8 million and episodes averaged seven million at the 28-day cut-off. The first episode achieved iPlayer’s third highest audience ever, following Sherlock and docudrama Murdered By My Boyfriend.
Announcing the recommission in March this year, Charlotte Moore, director of BBC Content, said: “Taboo has been a phenomenal success and proves overnight ratings are not the only measure of success, as the series continues to grow beyond live viewing. Launching in a new Saturday night slot on BBC1 provided us with an opportunity to take risks and showcase distinctive drama, and the growing talkability of Taboo has engaged younger audiences, seeing record numbers coming to BBC iPlayer, with the availability of the box set maximising audiences even further.”
The BBC went further, suggesting BARB audience data underestimated the final audience for Taboo as it only recognised iPlayer viewers using the service via a connected television and not through laptops, mobiles and tablets.
Sue Gray, the pubcaster’s head of audiences, added: “The live broadcast audience remains important and we know audiences highly value collective viewing experiences. However, an emerging younger audience group is increasingly influenced by social recommendation and will come when the ‘noise’ around a series becomes compelling. The broadcast moment can fan this flame, with BBC1 and iPlayer providing a virtuous circle which maximises audience opportunity to engage. Broadcasters and commentators increasingly need to play the long game in their quest to understand audience behaviour.”
In truth, the emphasis on viewing figures has been waning for several years as box set binges have become a worldwide phenomenon. Ratings for a single episode no longer provide a clear picture of how many people have watched – and will watch – a programme over the days and weeks after it airs, while digital platforms ensure programmes can be watched and rewatched long after their initial debuts. So how do those in the industry now define a successful series?
Despite putting less focus on overnights, writers, producers and commissioners will admit to still keeping an eye on the ratings just to see whether they have an instant hit on their hands – unless you happen to ask people at Fox, the US broadcaster that decided overnights were “no longer relevant” in November 2015.
In a letter to staff, co-CEOs Dana Walden and Gary Newman explained why the network would no longer be publishing Live + Same Day ratings. “The connections between viewers and our shows today are more complex and, in many ways, deeper than ever – but they no longer only happen overnight,” they wrote. “So why do we, as an industry, wake up every morning and talk about those Live + Same Day numbers?
“This has to stop. It’s time for us to ‘walk the walk’ and change the conversation. The Live + Same Day rating does not reflect the way people are watching our series. It leaves out the vast majority of fans who choose to watch on DVRs, and virtually ignores those who stream our shows or watch on-demand.”
Though they might not admit it quite as openly, other US broadcast networks are clearly taking less notice of overnights, if the decline of early cancellations of freshmen scripted series is anything to go by. Once upon a time, it would only have been a matter of weeks, or a handful of episodes, before the first series would be cancelled each fall as a result of low ratings. But for the past two seasons, shows that have received a lukewarm reception have been allowed to play out their first-season orders to try to generate the catch-up numbers that are now such an important part of the business.
Only those dramas seemingly without any hope – see 2016/17 examples Doubt (CBS) and Time After Time (ABC) – are unceremoniously pulled from the schedules.
The Walking Dead aside, most cable shows would be happy to have the ratings scored by cancelled network series, as pay TV provides a supportive model for dramas tackling niche genres – particularly science fiction.
That’s why IDW Entertainment, producer of Wynonna Earp and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, defines a ‘hit’ on a case-by-case basis. “It’s looking beyond the ratings, as the audience varies widely from network to network and digital,” says president David Ozer.
“IDW plays in the genre space, so the fandom plays such a huge role in determining a ‘hit’ for us. What’s happening on social media? What’s the audience saying? Are they trending? Who’s showing up to cast promotional events? We obviously need to deliver as large an audience as possible for the network and/or streaming platform, but there are other factors definitely involved now beyond traditional ratings.”
These days, actors can often be found live-tweeting along to their show as it airs, speaking directly to fans, while events like Comic-Con can propel a drama’s popularity, often before it has begun airing.
“Wynonna Earp is fascinating to watch,” Ozer says. “Week after week, we saw ratings growth [on Syfy], but also social media growth where we were trending weekly. The series gained a large LGBTQ audience because of one of the storylines, and you felt momentum. When it came to time for a renewal, Syfy was inundated with fan responses, and not just the usual letters but genuine notes about how important the series was to them.
“With Dirk Gently, BBC America saw immediate time-period growth and, again, a lot of activity across social media, and a second season was ordered. There was a buzz about the show that continued to grow, and reviews were very positive. While we don’t see actual results with Netflix [where both shows are available in certain territories], we were able to see success based on the social media conversations internationally.”
At Irish broadcaster RTÉ, acting MD of television Dermot Horan describes a hit show as one that “delivers more than its timeslot’s average consolidated audience, but which also delivers well on the RTÉ Player and gets positive social media and press coverage.”
That definition has emerged because much drama is now consumed via DVRs or VoD services, due to “the increase in linear channel competition, the rise of SVoD players in Ireland, the numbers of homes with PVRs and the increase in homes without TVs,” Horan adds.
For Piv Bernth, head of drama at Danish pubcaster DR, a successful drama is one that both attracts a strong audience and stands out from the crowd. “Of course, the enormous competition makes you look more over your shoulder, but I think the conclusion so far is not to get confused by the oceans of TV series and instead to keep the focus on what kind of content you think will make a difference,” she says.
“From a public service point of view, the choice of story and the way it is told is as important as the obligation to tell stories that reflect the lives of the audience and create a debate. At DR, we try to do original stories, like Avingerne (The Legacy), Bedrag (Follow the Money) and, coming soon, Herrens Veje (Ride Upon the Storm) – all series with complex stories told through relatable characters and, therefore, entertaining and understandable. That is still the way to measure a success – get good viewing figures on series that makes a difference.”
Jakob Mejlhede Andersen, broadcast group MTG’s exec VP of programming and content development for the Nordic region, found success this year with comedy-drama Swedish Dicks, which set viewing records on MTG’s Nordic streaming service Viaplay. “We believe a hit happens every time a viewer is engaged by our content,” he says. “That’s why we’re doing everything we can to create an inclusive portfolio that speaks to everybody while raising important questions. We’re on a journey to become the Nordic region’s leading producer of original content, and today we have more than 50 projects in the pipeline.”
MTG is reaching viewers across streaming, free TV and pay TV services, and Mejlhede Andersen says the multi-platform approach allows the broadcaster to differentiate its content depending on where it is being made available. For example, Viaplay’s latest original series, Veni Vidi Vici, explores the descent of a struggling Danish movie director into the adult film business – a story the exec says “works much better on-demand through a streaming service than on primetime linear TV.”
Beyond ratings, MTG is now also using international distribution deals to measure success, with Swedish Dicks being picked up for global sales by Lionsgate. “Of course, we’ll keep listening to our audiences to ensure our stories always entertain and engage,” Mejlhede Andersen adds.
Christophe Riandee, vice-CEO of Gaumont, which produces Pablo Escobar drama Narcos for Netflix, says that while the way people watch TV today means it is harder than ever to define a hit, “one way that speaks the loudest is when you have volumes of fans engaged with your shows.”
He continues: “From social media engagement to consumer products, fans across the world let you know that you have a hit. Netflix does a great job activating fans, developing extensive campaigns that are unique to different platforms, creating hundreds of original assets for social media channels and engaging directly with fans.
“Within the first three months of the launch of Narcos, Netflix had amassed a social following of two million fans [of the show] across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and, over the course of the campaign, afforded Narcos the title of the most mentioned Netflix original series on social in 2015.”
Gaumont was also behind another Netflix drama, horror series Hemlock Grove – and while the streamer famously keeps even its own suppliers in the dark about viewing figures, Riandee highlights one surefire way you can judge ‘success’ online: “I would say by the number of seasons a media partner is ordering. Netflix ordered two additional seasons of Narcos at the same time; we are currently in production on season three.”
Despite their reluctance to release ratings, SVoD services are now key to building audiences, often long after a drama has debuted, and later seasons can see a bump in live ratings after viewers have caught up online. AMC’s Breaking Bad was one of the first to enjoy that kind of success in a world where TV shows are finding it harder and harder to break through.
“First and foremost, a show has to be good.It needs compelling storytelling and quality production with a best-in-class team and talent,” IDW’s Ozer says when asked what it takes for a show to be deemed a success in today’s crowded market. “We are spending quite a bit of time ensuring we’re bringing unique properties to the market, with major elements attached. Our recently announced Locke & Key deal with Hulu is a great example, where we have bestselling author Joe Hill, Carlton Cuse as our showrunner and Scott Derrickson as our director.
“With so much programming in the market now, it has to stand out. There are shows that are perceived as hits now based on outside influences, series that have catapulted through word of mouth. There is also the ‘hang around theory,’ meaning if a show is around for multiple seasons, because of content distribution platforms like EST [electronic sell-through] and SVoD, more people can find it later in its run, creating value for the networks.”
In an ideal world, RTÉ’s Horan would like to see a single rating – combining live and non-live views – used to judge the success of series, but that may be several years away.
“The other point to make is that less can be more these days,” he notes. “For free-to-air channels, it is all about cutting through and having programmes in your schedule that make an immediate impact. Thus short-run series like Doctor Foster, Happy Valley and The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story can work better than the longer-running US network dramas.”
For now, though, Riandee believes success will continue to be measured through a combination of ratings and social media. “But to have that success, now more than ever we have to provide the market with shows that are compelling,” he says, “with novelistic and addictive storylines, AAA showrunners to deliver highly visual cinematic programming and, of course, relatable actors.”
Tony Jordan, CEO of Red Planet Pictures, got his break writing for BBC soap EastEnders before creating shows including Life on Mars, Echo Beach/Moving Wallpaper, Hustle, The Passing Bells, Dickensian, Hooten & The Lady and Babs.
In this video, the showrunner offers his views on the drama boom, why the genre continues to define television networks and why there will always be an appetite for scripted series.
He also talks about the challenges of balancing broadcaster ambitions with strict budgets, how he learnt his craft on EastEnders and why he’s most excited about merging genres.
As historical drama The Last Kingdom charges towards the end of its second season, read DQ’s report from the Budapest set, where stars Alexander Dreymon and David Dawson were preparing to do battle once again.
It’s a cold, wet, November day – the perfect conditions in which to experience a slice of ninth century English life, albeit on the outskirts of Budapest.
It’s here that production designer Martyn John is dodging muddy puddles and piles of dung on the remarkable set he has overseen for the second season of BBC2’s
The Last Kingdom, adapted by Stephen Butchard (Good Cop) from Bernard Cornwell’s bestselling Saxon Stories novels.
The first season followed young warrior Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon), born a Saxon but raised a Dane and wrestling both with his dual heritage and the bitter warfare splitting England apart. Now, allied with King Alfred (David Dawson), he hopes to reclaim the lands in the north that are his ancestral birthright. It’s not a journey without its difficulties.
“Uhtred has to make quite a few sacrifices,” says Dreymon, looking impressively energised near the end of a seven-month shoot. “He pays a high price to achieve his objectives. It’s a rocky road. It’s important to keep the moments where he’s playful and still a little boy, but there’s a lot less messing about this year. It’s more political and serious and dramatic.”
Most notably, Uhtred is enslaved and chained to the oar of a Viking longship – a terrifying experience for a man who believes he will only reach Valhalla by dying with sword in hand. “Going through that emotional arc, you have to dig quite deep,” says Dreymon. “I was very disappointed I wasn’t able to go through the journey physically because we didn’t have time. To get to that point of emaciation wasn’t possible, but with prosthetics and baggy clothes and sleep deprivation, I think we got away with it.”
If Uhtred is the hero, then Alfred is the anti-hero, and one who fades into the background of the books adapted in this second season, which debuted in March. Butchard was keen to rectify this: “I tried to keep Alfred and Uhtred tied together as much as possible by having Alfred use Uhtred for his own ends, to spread his influence in the north. England is a game of chess for him, and Uhtred is his key piece on the board. In a period of violence and conflict, Alfred is trying to build something substantial, because it’s only in periods of peace where cultures grow.”
“You’ll really find out why he goes down in history as Alfred the Great,” says wiry, self-confessed “history geek” Dawson. “It’s not just about him taking land, but about him trying to create an identity for his kingdom. He was militarily smart, building forts around Wessex to secure it from any more Viking invasions. He’s clever with his court, which is full of people wanting to take his place. But he also translated books into English to promote learning and signed a peace treaty with the Danes when they would have expected a ruthless response. He’s a frail intellectual who achieves so much, and as a skinny lad I appreciate that!”
Dawson is speaking just outside Alfred’s Wessex stronghold of Winchester, as recreated by John. Not quite as regal or majestic as you might expect, it’s a network of dwellings and stables, official rooms and religious buildings. There are loose straw roofs for the poor and thatched for the more wealthy. With authenticity the watchword, timber was used where possible.
What becomes rapidly clear is John’s ingenuity. A TV veteran with the likes The White Queen and Foyle’s War under his belt, he may ostensibly be showing us around Winchester but, from a different angle and with a bit of redressing, the same space has represented York, Northampton, Leeds and assorted other settlements in East Anglia and Wessex.
Here is a network of staircases inspired by the famous Escher lithograph; there, a pagan meeting hall that had doubled as a cathedral in an earlier scene. The architectural design incorporates Saxon and Viking influences, but with elements of ancient Roman mural and filigree for the eagle-eyed. Truly, anything goes if it enhances the show.
“I’ve got to use all my sets four or five different times,” says John, who looks exhausted but justifiably proud of his achievements. If this does indeed prove to be his last run on The Last Kingdom (“Two seasons is enough for me!”), then he has left quite the legacy for his successors.
Continuity has been key to the smooth running of the shoot. Most of the cast and, perhaps unusually, most of the crew returned for the second season, including producer Chrissy Skins and director of photography Chas Bain. The directors, though, continued to rotate – a policy with pros and cons.
“It’s a great learning curve,” Dreymon says. “The whole crew and most of the cast have a shorthand now, but the one person with the ultimate decision is the one who changes every two episodes. Everyone’s nerves get tested sometimes, but the best directors are the ones who are open to suggestions, whether it’s from me or a runner on their first day.”
Jon East, who directs the second block of episodes in this second season, has both originated series (The Last Weekend, Critical) and stepped onto moving vehicles (New Tricks, Whitechapel). For him, too, it was a challenge: “You’re trying to create a reasonably seamless next chapter – you don’t want you to create this odd, ungainly shape in front of an elegant wall of bricks, but you have to bring some distinctiveness to it. You can either ask the audience to observe the characters and scenario, or ask them to step inside it and immerse themselves. I’m in the latter camp – I like to take an audience right alongside the character for a more visceral experience.”
Those visceral experiences are most arresting in the epic battles that were a hallmark of season one, climaxing in the bloodbath of Ethandun that saw Alfred defeat the Viking hordes. While season two doesn’t have anything on quite that scale, there are still some impressive set pieces. For East, though, the priority was always narrative over spectacle.
“Those long action sequences can make it feel as if time is standing still,” he argues. “You think, at some point, they’ll stop clashing swords and someone will win, when what the audience is really watching is what happens to individual characters. You need story milestones worked into those set pieces, and characters need to go on an emotional journey as well as a physical one.”
East talks with audible excitement about filming the slave sequences and a fortress siege featuring “stuntmen who had to dress in layers of fire-resistant clothing, set themselves on fire and hurl themselves off battlements in 34 degree heat.” His most enjoyable moments, however, tend to be lower key.
“My favourite scene is a very quiet one between Uhtred and Hild, a warrior who becomes one of his coterie. They just sit in a field and talk, shot in a ‘magic hour’ light. There was a delicacy, honesty and truthfulness about their performances that was very touching.”
On the whole, however, The Last Kingdom’s team had to work hard to avoid scenes looking too idyllic and thus clashing with the dour, angst-ridden nature of much of the narrative. Unlike season one, the bulk of filming was done over the sweltering Hungarian summer rather than the bitterly cold winter. Plenty of post-production work was carried out to ensure that ninth century life looked every bit as nasty, brutish and short as it really was.
Oddly, the actors missed the wintry chill. “I think you benefit from seeing people’s breath, being cold, miserable and in the mud,” grins Dreymon. “The make-up artist has kept putting on dirt all the time because you couldn’t see it in the sunlight. It’s been easier this season to not suffer those conditions, but I would gladly do it again in the winter just for the look.”
Yes, winter will come again to Winchester as surely as there will always be a Westeros-shaped shadow over any series involving swearing, sex, men with mullets and frequently wielded swords. The comparison to HBO’s Game of Thrones is one everyone acknowledges but few seem to mind (although perhaps tellingly, no one will admit to having watched The Last Kingdom’s nearest equivalent, History’s Vikings). Dawson even concedes that The Last Kingdom would probably not have been made without the success of Game of Thrones.
“It’s incumbent upon any team working within this genre to try and put clear blue water between themselves and that giant of a show,” says East. “But The Last Kingdom has as its basis those fantastic novels and a drive towards historical and visual authenticity that differentiates it.”
The Last Kingdom, produced by Carnival Films and distributed by NBCUniversal International Television Distribution, has a new US partner for season two, with Netflix taking rights stateside, replacing BBC America. And though the drama has yet to be recommissioned for a third season, given the rich history and with 10 Cornwall books to plunder (each season has so far covered two each), there’s scope for at least another three outings. Dreymon, however, must be hoping the divergence from the source novels is complete by that stage, as by book 10, Uhtred is in his 50s – a leap of the imagination surely beyond even the most gifted make-up artist.
The central theme, however, will never age and, if anything, feels more pertinent now than ever: the clash of cultures personified by the one-man melting pot at its heart. Can such apparently opposed perspectives ever be reconciled? “There’s a bit more gravitas this year,” says Butchard. “Saxons and Danes are living together and becoming more integrated, so it’s harder to say who the enemy is and who’s fighting for who.”
Dreymon believes that, however nightmarish his era may appear, Uhtred has attributes that many significant 21st century figures might do well to heed: “He’ll look beyond what religion people are from or where they’re from, which is a beautiful thing – he’s really ahead of his time.”
Andy Fry casts his eye over this year’s selection for the MipTV Drama Screenings and finds an eclectic mix vying for the awards on offer.
In 2016, MipTV organiser Reed Midem decided to celebrate the global boom in scripted TV by launching its own drama awards. Dubbed the MipDrama Screenings, the first year was such a hit with buyers that the event has been brought back for 2017.
Just like last year, 12 finalists have been pre-selected for the awards in Cannes by an advisory board made up of experienced buyers. These shows will now compete for three awards – one decided by a jury of producers, another by critics and a third by buyers, who get to vote for their favourite show after screenings.
There are a couple of points about the MipDrama Screenings that make them particularly interesting. The first is that they focus on non-US titles, meaning that producers from less high-profile markets get a better chance to stand out from the crowd.
This year’s 12 comprise dramas from the UK (three), Germany (two), Russia (two), Canada, France, Denmark, Norway and Brazil. This echoes the story last year when Public Enemy, a drama from Belgium, was selected as the event’s top drama.
The second is that they are all new titles, which means many of them haven’t had much market exposure until now. A couple, like Babylon Berlin and Ride Upon the Storm, have been flagged up for a while – but this is not an awards programme for endlessly returning series like Game of Thrones or American Horror Story. In fact, around half the series being showcased are still in the middle of production.
So what can we learn from the 12 finalists? Well, in terms of subject matter, several deal with themes that have been pretty prominent in film and TV drama recently. Federation Entertainment’s Bad Banks, for example, is a new look at the world of big finance, while Sky Vision’s Bad Blood is a gangster series based on a true story.
All Media Company’s Russian drama Better Than Us (pictured top) is an exploration of AI’s role in our lives, while TV Globo’s Jailers is a new take on prison drama – this time from the point of view of guards, rather than inmates.
There are also a couple of cop shows, though perhaps not the kind we’re used to. The Territory, for example, is an eight-part drama from Sreda Production in Russia. The story is set in a town where a series of ritualistic murders take place. As a result, a pugnacious detective is called in to deal with the situation.
There is also Germany’s Babylon Berlin, a high-end drama series based on the thrillers by Volker Kutscher. Set in 1920s Berlin with Tom Tykwer as showrunner, this could be one of the landmark series of the year if it lives up to the hype.
The rest of the finalists tackle an eclectic and unusual range of subjects. For example, Missions, distributed by AB International, is a futuristic thriller focused on a Mars mission that goes wrong. While we’ve seen Mars as the focus of films and documentary series, this is the first recent TV drama to come to market (though others are in the pipeline).
Ride Upon the Storm is another leftfield drama. From Borgen creator Adam Price and produced by DR Drama in coproduction with Arte France and SAM le Francais, this is a story about faith, both in the traditional religious sense and in the wider context of what it is that guides us through our existence. It centres on an alcoholic, abusive priest and his two sons.
Faith may seem like a tough subject for a TV drama, but after Borgen (politics) and Follow the Money (finance), DR Drama is as likely as any to pull it off. Speaking about the series, Price says: “Despite the fact the Danes might not see themselves as a religious nation, we are surrounded by faith in our daily life. Faith fills the public debate – when atheists encourage people to leave the church, when we discuss integration, the refugee crisis, terrorism or the US presidential election. But also when we nurture mindfulness, ‘hipster Buddhism’ or the familiar blend of superstition and spirituality.”
Interestingly, the other Scandi finalist goes to the other end of the moral spectrum. Produced by HandsUp Stockholm for Viaplay Nordic, Veni Vidi Vici tells the story of a failing movie director who attempts to revive his career by working in the adult entertainment industry. However, this suspect career move forces him into a double life that threatens his family.
The show is part of Viaplay’s push into original drama. Explaining why his company backed the show, Viaplay CEO Jonas Karlén says: “We are convinced combining acquired TV dramas such as Empire and Blacklist with original Nordic drama is our future. Viaplay will take the lead on original productions in the Nordics, with 50 projects in the pipeline until 2020 with great stories that also have the potential to travel.”
A strong UK pool consists of ITV’s Fearless, Channel 4’s Gap Year and the BBC’s Clique – projects that all benefit from having strong writers at the tiller. Fearless, for example, is from Patrick Harbinson (Homeland). Starring Helen McCrory (Peaky Blinders), it tells the story of a solicitor who gets caught up in a political mystery while investigating the killing of a schoolgirl.
“Fearless is a legal thriller, but one that’s written in the crash zone where law and politics collide,” says Harbinson. “The so-called War on Terror has put serious stress on the workings of the law. National security justifies all sorts of police and state over-reach, and the majority of us accept this. So I wanted to create a character who challenges these assumptions.”
The other two UK entries are novel attempts to appeal to a younger audience – something TV drama desperately needs to do. Gap Year, written by Tom Basden (Fresh Meat) and distributed by Entertainment One, tells the story of a group of young travellers heading off on a three-month trip around Asia.
All3Media International’s Clique, created by Jess Brittain (Skins), is about two best friends drawn into an elite circle of alpha girls led by lecturer Jude McDermid in their first few weeks at university in Edinburgh. “It is about the different ways ambition plays out in young women at university,” says Brittain. “It’s a heightened version of a certain type of uni experience, pulled from my time at uni, then ramped up a few notches into a psychological thriller.”
In terms of the mechanics of the above shows, a few have been set up as coproductions, but for the most part they are centred around a strong central vision that originates in one territory. The impression is that the advisory board favoured shows that seek to tell local stories with universal themes. It’s also noticeable that most of them have a limited series feel to them. While this doesn’t preclude them from returning, it confirms the impression that the scripted sector outside the US is most comfortable in the six-to-10-episode range, working with season-long narratives rather than story-of-the-week projects.
Some of the talent involved is well established: Tykwer, Harbinson, Basden and Price, for example. But the overall list looks like a serious attempt to give buyers some interesting new angles,rather than simply showcasing big MipTV clients.
Public Enemy’s victory last year proves it’s hard to predict which show will come out on top. But the three-pronged winner selection process means the shows will be scrutinised pretty rigorously. Expert judges include Filmlance International MD Lars Blomgren (The Bridge), showrunner Simon Mirren (Versailles), screenwriter Virginie Brac (Cannabis, Spiral), Mediapro head of international content development Ran Tellem (Prisoners of War) and Big Light Productions founder Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files). That’s an impressive line-up of global drama talent with a good eye for spotting winning projects.
Finally, of course, it’s worth asking: is entering worth the effort? Well, the experience of Public Enemy would suggest so. Barely known before MipTV last year, the show was later sold by Banijay Rights to a wide range of broadcasters including TF1 and Sky Atlantic. So the message seems to be that creative recognition at the awards can have a financial pay-off.
DQ hears from stars Thandie Newton and Vicky McClure and creator Jed Mercurio as Line of Duty returns for a fourth season.
Guest stars have a habit of getting a raw deal on BBC crime drama Line of Duty. Lennie James, Keeley Hawes and Daniel Mays have all suffered at the hands of creator and showrunner Jed Mercurio, whose series follows police officers under investigation by fictitious anti-corruption team AC-12.
That didn’t put off new cast member Thandie Newton (Westworld), however, who takes centre stage in the fourth season of the nail-biting series.
Newton (pictured above) plays DCI Roz Huntley, whose capture of a serial killer comes under AC-12 scrutiny when forensic co-ordinator Tim Ifield (Jason Watkins) believes there may have been a miscarriage of justice. A married mother-of-two, Huntley will do anything to stop her life unravelling.
Vicky McClure, Martin Compston and Adrian Dunbar return to play the trio at the heart of AC-12. Line of Duty is produced by Cait Collins and executive produced by Mercurio and Simon Heath for World Productions and Stephen Wright for BBC Northern Ireland. Content Media sells the show worldwide.
Newton admits she hadn’t seen Line of Duty before her agent suggested that if she wanted work in British television, “this is the best thing you could ever do.” And after binge-watching season three, she signed on with just a few hints from Mercurio about what might be in store for her character.
“I wanted to be a part of this,” she says. “I’d seen the third season and I had a sense from Jed of what it was going to be about. And also, I must say, I’d never seen Vicky McClure before and I thought she was completely spellbinding. Martin Compston is fantastic and Adrian Dunbar’s a national treasure. Jed just told me the facts, very simply, and that it would be great. I said, ‘Yes, OK, let’s go’ – and I’m so glad I did.”
More specifically, Newton points to the tight balance between real life and fiction that drew her into Mercurio’s world.
“What happens in life, you just can’t believe some of the shit that goes down, some of the crap that people get up to, and you couldn’t put that on television as fiction,” she continues. “You just couldn’t. It would be ridiculous. But Jed just manages to push it further than fiction, to a place where it really feels possible and that ‘possible’ is just nuts. But it’s still in the context of fiction.”
Newton recalls offering Mercurio some advice on how her character might have a low-key dress style with “tracksuit bottoms with high-tops – she’s a working mum. Jed was like, ‘No, that’s not what you’re going to look like. You’re going to wear suits and bad shoes.’ And I just got it. I realised we were going to try to do something terribly, horribly, diabolically real. The truth is Line of Duty just takes you into a place of realism.”
For his part, Mercurio describes hiring Newton as “one of the best casting processes we’ve ever had.” He continues: “We had an initial conversation with the casting director, Kate Rhodes-James, and her name came up. Immediately, it was, ‘Really? Do you think she’d be interested? Do you think she’d do it?’ And she was. Then we had a meeting, Thandie was lovely and so enthusiastic and really obviously not nuts, so great! It was honestly as simple as that.”
Episode one, which airs on BBC1 this Sunday, opens with DCI Huntley about to crack a long-running case as she edges closer to capturing a serial killer. But viewers soon discover that after coming back to work after a period raising her family, she’s under huge pressure to close the investigation, leading to a decision that could make or break her career.
“Every woman recognises the frustrations here that in every role, every job, every line of work, you have to be twice as good [as men] – and then if you’re black, you have to be twice as good on top of that. So this woman is under a hell of a lot of pressure,” Newton says. “And the audience sees the pressure she’s under, so it allows the viewer to be judge and jury, which I think is fantastic because it’s forcing them to have an opinion about this. There’s sexism, of course there is, but one of the things that’s wonderful about these characters – both Vicky’s and mine – is that we manage to ride those waves and still do a brilliant job.”
McClure, who plays detective sergeant Kate Fleming, says of her role: “Playing undercover every time, I always get found out – so I’ve started to get the idea I’m not very good at it! It makes for great drama, though, so that’s good. People ask whether my character has ever tried to use her womanly ways to stay undercover, but it’s never been that kind of show. There’s definitely moments with the promotion [at the end of season three] and how that may play out, and there’s that competition with Martin [who plays DS Steve Arnott], but also the characters really care about each other, they’re hugely supportive.
“It’s just real life. They both want to get on, they’re both fiercely ambitious. Kate does have a family, she’s not put it to one side, but she’s so passionate about her job and the good it brings to the people and the police that she’s not the main carer for her child. I’ve spoken to Jed a lot about that over the series because it’s a big part in my head for my character. It’s not seen very much, but it means a lot to me to play it.”
Line of Duty has built a reputation for the layers of police process and procedure contained in each episode that other dramas would prefer to rush past. So it’s fitting that season four’s focus falls on the role of forensics in criminal investigations, in terms of both the show’s fondness for minute details and also what Mercurio perceives as changing interpretations of truth and facts in a post-Brexit and Donald Trump world.
“The scripts were written a couple of years ago and the phenomenon we’re seeing now is probably an extension of things that I think had been creeping in for a long time,” Mercurio says. “There is sometimes a lack of respect for facts and objective reality. A lot of what we’re saying in this is where is objective reality and how do you test it? And the criminal justice system is obviously a very good way of exploring that.
“One of the higher aims of this season is to look at this theme of what is truth, what is objective reality? I feel very fortunate that something that was important to me is becoming important to other people. Over the years I’ve been getting more and more exasperated at the lack of respect for facts, proper research and accuracy in people arriving at an opinion, and being unable to tell the difference between opinion and fact. So that’s just something that, unfortunately for the world, has become a bigger issue now than it was.”
On the subject of the amount of police procedure in Line of Duty, Mercurio says he has to find a balance between authenticity and pace, particularly during the trademark interrogation scenes, which can account for up to 20 minutes of an hour-long episode.
“We’re so accustomed to watching police series that don’t delve into that, and it gives Line of Duty its identity,” the showrunner says. “If you want a firearm, you have to go through a whole process to sign one out. If you want to present a piece of evidence, it has to be logged, identified and presented in the right way. You can’t just bang the table and say, ‘You did it! Confess!’ I kind of got more and more into that. Obviously I’m very grateful to our police advisors for that as well.”
McClure jokes that she calls the show “Lines of Duty” due to the amount of dialogue the actors must remember during those tense interview scenes.
Newton picks up: “I have a 14-page scene with big chunks of dialogue on every page. Then I’d have a 25-page scene. I felt very old, I thought my memory was failing! It’s so frustrating because you want to be so good. There’s some characters sitting around the table and they’re so fantastically natural and I just want to be as good as them. Then you fluff [your lines] and fuck it all up! Then you come back in like a prizefighter and you do it and get through it and you just feel like the dopest actor in the world! It’s the most challenging but the most rewarding, it really is.
“That one 14-page scene is half an hour, and you’re nervous. It’s anxiety-making but it just adds to the drama and the tension. Apparently Lennie James [who played DCI Gates in season one] was the one who wanted to do them all in one take. Bastard! I’ll call him about that!”
The silences are just as important as the dialogue, however, with pauses specifically scripted to allow the actors the chance to speak with their body language instead of their words.
Mercurio says: “In a drama like Line of Duty, that moment when a character pauses after saying something creates a gap for the audience to think, ‘Did they mean that, or did they mean something else?’ That’s something we work on and a lot of it is in the script. If I put in a gap where someone thinks about something before or after, that’s something I learned a few years ago about how you show a character lying. You give an indication to the actor and you allow them to perform the lie in the most truthful way possible.”
Filming in Belfast since season two, Line of Duty will undergo another move this season when it switches from BBC2 to BBC1, having become the former channel’s best performing drama series ever. With several serial storylines wrapped up at the end of season three, now is also the perfect time for new viewers to join the series.
A fifth season is already confirmed for 2018, and the only question is whether Newton will be back as well. With he actor remaining tight-lipped on potential spoilers, viewers will have to watch to discover her character’s fate.
Social media is having an increasing impact on the success or failure of television drama, as Stephen Arnell discovers.
For many broadcasters, the advent of social media has been a decidedly mixed blessing, especially in the world of TV drama.
A flurry of positive tweets can increase a new show’s profile – and viewership – but heavily negative reactions can have the effect of strangling it at birth.
Back in 2013, comedy writer Ben Elton’s comeback vehicle The Wright Way was effectively cancelled before the end of the first episode, such was the overwhelmingly poor social media response from critics and viewers alike.
BBC Comedy chief Shane Allen complained that instant social media criticism put paid to any chance of the show bedding in and improving, but those, as they say, are the breaks.
An apparently ‘bruised’ Elton (Blackadder, The Young Ones) returned to the fray with his Shakespeare comedy Upstart Crow (BBC2), so all’s well that ends well.
But with the exception of longer-running US dramas and soaps that are in production as the show is transmitted, there is little broadcasters can do after the event to combat social media flak until the next season.
The BBC in particular has come in for heavy criticism over recent years for what viewers perceive as ‘mumbling’ from actors and generally poor sound levels.
Back in 2014, BBC1’s two-part adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn made the front pages and caused a Twitter blowout due to ‘Mumblegate’ – viewers complaining in their droves about some of the actors’ unintelligible dialogue, particularly that of lead Sean Harris (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation), and inferior sound quality.
Viewer numbers fell from 6.1 million for the first episode to 4.5 million for the second and the BBC swung into action with a Mumblegate inquiry, finding that “technical issues,” combined with overloud incidental music and Harris’s performance, rendered that drama a less than ideal experience for many viewers.
Du Maurier’s son Christian ‘Kits’ Browning commented: “Thank God Sean Harris’ character gets killed. I blame the director and the sound man – and an actor who just mumbled. If anyone else feels the same way I just suggest you go and read the book. In the end I had to resort to subtitles.”
After this debacle, one would have thought the BBC would be alert to these kind of issues, but recent weeks have seen more Twitter meltdowns and tabloid headlines over mumbling – the culprits this time being serial murmurer Tom Hardy (Taboo, BBC1) and Sam Riley (SS-GB, BBC1).
Twitter reaction to the shows from viewers included: “I wish Tom Hardy would speak up a bit sometimes #Taboo,” “SS-GB – The subtitle department should have kept it up for all the dialogue. Head melted trying to understand this,” and “Why is Sam Riley playing Archer of the Yard with a voice like Patty and Selma?” – the latter referring the famously gravelly voiced Simpsons characters.
Taboo’s viewing figures decreased steadily over much of the show’s run, but it may be overstating the case to solely blame negative social media reaction for this.
SS-GB (pictured top) has also seen a decline in viewing levels, with episode two falling by two million to record an audience of 3.9 million as complaints about Riley’s intonation continue.
After other complaints about dialogue clarity in the dramas Happy Valley, Rillington Place and Poldark last year, BBC director general Tony Hall told his chiefs to sort out “audibility issues.”
And good luck to the BBC executive assigned to tell Tom Hardy to speak up.
That said, there are more positive ways for social media reaction to actually benefit shows – for instance in the groundswell of support that caused Amazon to pick up the BBC’s Ripper Street and Netflix to revive cult comedy hit Arrested Development.
Studies show that positive Twitter buzz can boost viewership, which is said to have aided shows including Empire (Fox) and Modern Family (ABC).
Live twitter conversations during dramas such as Game of Thrones, Lucifer, The Walking Dead and Vikings are known to increase engagement with dramas.
On the other hand, negative social media feedback was felt to be a contributory factor in the cancellation of ABC’s The Muppets revival last year. High opening ratings declined precipitously as viewers thought early episodes unfunny or mean-spirited. Despite a talked-up midseason revamp, audiences continued to fall.
The deaths of popular characters Glen (Steven Yen) and Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) at the beginning of season seven of The Walking Dead, meanwhile, saw adverse Twitter reaction, followed by a viewing decline for the following episodes. But now, after its mid-season break, the drama is taking on a much more redemptive tone, which looks to be reflected in a ratings bump.
Episode 10’s reunion of fan favourites Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Carol (Melissa McBride) saw an outpouring of emotion in social media.
In hit legal drama The Good Wife (CBS), adverse reaction to character Kalinda’s storyline in the season four premiere saw showrunners Robert and Michelle King prematurely discontinue the arc.
Talking to TV Guide, Robert King said of the decision: “I do think the audience teaches the storyteller and this is a case of the audience teaching the storyteller.”
Viewers have also successfully changed show content in other instances, including Lena Dunham accepting criticism of her drama Girls’ all-white cast and adding a minority character to the HBO series in response.
Some writers are playful with social media, with Doctor Who and Sherlock showrunner Stephen Moffat actively responsive to fan reaction.
Doctor Who episode The Time of the Doctor included a plot device that gave the Time Lord another dozen ‘regenerations,’ resolving the problem, much discussed on fan sites, that the Doctor was permitted only 12 incarnations according to the original canons of the show.
Sherlock co-writer Mark Gatiss also included a continuing gag in the script for The Empty Hearse, teasing online speculation about how Holmes may have been able to fake his death at the end of the second season.
Social media is a double-edged sword for broadcasters, where the benefits of instant feedback in boosting some dramas are balanced by the premature deaths of others, which means there’s no real hiding place for either mediocre or just plain bad shows.
James Bond screenwriters Robert Wade and Neal Purvis imagine a world in which the Nazis occupy Britain in the BBC’s adaptation of Len Deighton’s alternative-history novel SS-GB. DQ visits the set.
At first glance, the set of the 1940s-era London police station looks unassuming and inconspicuous. A map of the River Thames hangs on one wall, beside a board displaying the details of ongoing murder investigations. A telephone switchboard stands in another part of the office, while adjacent tables are laden with an assortment of maps, newspaper cuttings, mugshots and used ashtrays.
‘Wanted’ posters show the faces and details of eight people sought for a train robbery, while a steam train calendar displays the dates of November 1941.
Yet look a little closer and unusual details start to emerge – notepaper headed with the word ‘Metropolitanpolizei’ sticks out from the top of a typewriter sitting on one desk, next to notebooks embossed with Nazi insignia.
Stepping outside the office belonging to Detective Superintendent Douglas Archer, ‘Metropolitanpolizei’ appears again, this time on a sign hanging over the doorway, while Nazi banners hang in the stairwell of a nearby spiral staircase. The scene is jarred further by the sight of soldiers standing in khaki SS uniforms.
This is the setting for SS-GB, the forthcoming BBC1 drama based on Len Deighton’s 1976 alternative-history novel that imagines the Nazis won the Battle of Britain in 1940.
Set in Nazi-occupied London, the story follows DS Archer (Sam Riley) who is working under the brutal SS regime. But while investigating what appears to be a simple black market murder, he is dragged into a much darker and treacherous world where the stakes are as high as they were during the war.
US actress Kate Bosworth stars alongside Riley as American journalist Barbara Barga, who becomes inextricably linked with the murder case Archer is investigating. The cast also includes Jason Flemyng, James Cosmo, Aneurin Barnard, Maeve Dermody and Rainer Bock.
The five-part series, produced by Sid Gentle Films, has been adapted from Deighton’s novel by Bafta-winning writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade – most famous for writing five James Bond features, including Spectre, Skyfall and Casino Royale.
The drama received its world premiere this week at the Berlin Film Festival, ahead of its UK debut on Sunday February 19. Distributor BBC Worldwide has also sold the series to broadcasters in Germany (RTL), Croatia (Pickbox), Sweden (SVT), Greece (Cosmote), Israel (HOT/Cellcom), Iceland (RUV) and Poland (Showmax), while it will also air on BBC First channels in Africa, Australia, Benelux and the Middle East, as well as UKTV in New Zealand.
It is directed by German director Philipp Kadelbach, whose credits include Naked Among Wolves and Generation War. Sally Woodward Gentle, Lee Morris, Purvis, Wade and Lucy Richer are executive producers. The series is produced by Patrick Schweitzer.
As fans of Deighton, Purvis and Wade were instantly drawn to the series, which marks their first move into television, when they were approached about the project by Woodward Gentle.
“It’s a pretty faithful adaptation,” says Purvis of the screen version. “The biggest challenge was [in the book] we were following Archer from his point of view. The fact he can’t trust people means it’s very difficult to talk to other people about what he’s thinking, so it was all about making it comprehensible because it’s quite a complex plot and nothing’s straightforward. The Resistance has got in-fighting and the German army and SS are opposed to each other, so it’s just finding a way to navigate through the story in an intriguing but understandable way.”
Wade picks up: “I think I understand it now – but we had to simplify it. Since Len wrote the book, there’s a bit more now known about what was going on in Britain to prepare for an invasion, so we were able to access those sources and that gave us background for the British Resistance and the real mechanisms that were set up in event of an invasion. But really our main job was to make the most of the drama within the story and, for that reason, we made a few changes that kept certain characters alive longer than they were in the book.”
Already an established genre in the world of fiction, alternative history is becoming a hot topic in television, with SS-GB following hot on the heels of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, which plays out in a world where the Axis powers won the Second World War and America has been split between Japanese and Nazi rule, with a buffer zone separating the two.
Wade draws a distinction between the two series, in particular describing the Amazon drama as closer to science-fiction because the events it portrays weren’t ever close to happening. SS-GB, however, was within the realms of possibility.
“With The Man in the High Castle, which is set in 1962, you’re talking about the consequences [of the Second World War]. But in this you are actually living through the Occupation and the game isn’t necessarily over. It’s not a historical result, history is alive.”
Wade and Purvis co-wrote films Let Him Have It (1991) and Plunkett & Macleane (1999) before being asked to write Bond movies The World Is Not Enough, Die Another Day and the super-spy’s four most recent outings starring Daniel Craig. Other credits include 2003’s Johnny English, a spoof of the espionage genre starring Rowan Atkinson.
“We’ve written together for a very long time,” Purvis says. “We do that because we enjoy it. There’s more to it than just writing; you’ve got to go abroad and it can be quite pressured. So having two people has always been good because when things are going well, you can always go down the pub together – and when things are going badly, you can go down the pub together! It gets the job done well to be able to discuss things.”
With scripts approved by Deighton, the writers say they haven’t felt the need to be on set every day, but have kept in touch by watching the daily rushes. They were also consulted during casting and say they were very pleased by the decision to put Riley in the lead role. “We wanted someone who was a film actor – this is his first television job so it’s just that thing of trying to keep it like a big movie,” Purvis notes. “It gave it a bit more oomph to have someone like Sam.”
If Riley’s DS Archer is akin to Sam Spade, the protagonist of Dashiell Hammett’s noir thriller The Maltese Falcon, then US actress Kate Bosworth is firmly in the femme fatale role.
“She’s an American journalist who has just arrived on the inaugural New York-London Lufthansa flight, which is one of Len’s nice touches,” Wade offers. “She’s a femme fatale. She might be working for the Resistance, she might be a spy for the Germans, she might be an agent for the Americans – you don’t know. She’s someone who’s attractive to Archer and attracted by Archer. So it’s a dance. He’s trying to figure out whether she’s involved in this murder and she’s trying to figure out what she can get out of this guy.
“We balance her with Maeve Dermody, who plays a girl caught up in the Resistance and who is quite messed up. She’s an English girl and her parents were killed during the invasion. But she’s actually spying on Archer.”
But how did their experience on SS-GB compare to scripting a Bond movie? “It’s easier in the sense that there’s a book and you don’t have massive expectations,” Wade admits. “We’re very proud of this but we were able to write it in a free way. Hopefully there are some real surprises in this.
“With a Bond film, people are expecting certain things. The other aspect for us, as it’s our first TV series, was that having that large canvas to be able to tell a story with twists and turns over five hours is great fun, and you get the freedom you don’t have in an hour-and-a-half movie.”
Purvis adds: “We have been approached by TV a lot but we’ve always said no to everything. This was the first time we said yes. It’s a genre one can feel comfortable with. Len’s a great writer. It just seemed to be appealing and something we could do.”
For locations manager Antonia Grant, the toughest part of her job on SS-GB was finding appropriate exteriors around London for the show’s wartime setting. “It’s always a challenge for a locations department to remove the modern world,” she says. “We rely on the art department as well to help us so it’s very much a combined effort.
“There will be some things that are quite obvious [locations] as per the script that you have to go and look for. But then otherwise it’s coming up with different options to put to the director and designer and it’s a lot of driving around, photographing different places, chatting to people, persuading people to let us film.
“It’s always lovely looking for new locations but, on period dramas, there’s a limited amount because more things are changing and being modernised. I’ve shot on several new locations in this. Also, the nature of SS-GB, being alternative history, means you’re looking for quite different locations compared with those used for The Hour and certainly Call the Midwife [both also period dramas on which Grant has worked].”
After piecing together a 300-page script and bringing Deighton’s story to the screen, Wade and Purvis have one eye on their next big-screen feature – but tease that this might not be the end of the story for SS-GB.
“History is still in play, it’s not ended,” adds Wade. “Some characters have died, some have grown. I’m very pleased with the way it ends and there could be more.”
With Peter Capaldi revealing he plans to leave the Tardis at the same time as showrunner Steven Moffatt also departs Doctor Who, Stephen Arnell considers the future for the long-running sci-fi drama.
The old adage ‘be careful what you wish for’ may strike Doctor Who star Peter Capaldi (above) as particularly pertinent in the light of his decision to leave the show later this year.
Especially so since Capaldi was a devotee of the series in his youth, even going to the extent of writing a fan letter to the Radio Times way back in 1974 when he was just 15.
When he landed the role in 2013, it must have been something of a dream come true for the actor, hitherto best known in the UK playing the foul-mouthed spin doctor Malcolm Tucker in the BBC comedy The Thick of It (2005-2012).
Since Capaldi became the 12th incarnation of the Doctor after the exit of Matt Smith (The Crown), the show has suffered a noticeable decline in ratings and sniping from both critics and fans concerning the quality of scripting – and occasionally the acting.
Back in November 2015, Capaldi blamed declining viewing figures on what he felt was erratic scheduling by the BBC, for what is still essentially a family show. The series was moved from its previous family-friendly teatime slot and frequently finished after the 21.00 watershed. “I feel it’s slightly used as a pawn in a Saturday night warfare,” he said. “I feel as if it should go out at 19.30 or around that time.”
“And once you get past 20.15, you’re getting yourself into adult territory and although a lot of adults really like it, at its heart, it’s designed to do a lot of entertaining of children as well.”
Also departing with Capaldi following the 2017 Christmas special is showrunner Steven Moffat, who suffered flak for what was seen by some as overcomplicated plotting, subpar effects, pointless gimmicks, shouted dialogue and weak attempts at humour – criticisms that also dogged him across the Matt Smith era.
Even Doctor Who’s music came under fire, with the score at times tipping into parody with its recurrent intrusive bombast.
Stunt casting of guest stars also drew criticism, harking back to the dying days of the original series when comedians such as Ken Dodd, pop stars like Leee John from Imagination and light-entertainment hosts including Nicholas Parsons all made appearances in the show.
The revived Doctor Who has also seen some distracting guest stars, including soap actress Barbara Windsor (in character as EastEnders’ Peggy Mitchell), James Corden and comedian Frank Skinner.
It’s possible that in acting as showrunner to both Doctor Who and Sherlock, Moffat had taken on too much – to the detriment of both shows.
Older fans dubbed Capaldi the Colin Baker (the sixth doctor) of the rebooted Doctor Who – a capable actor felt to have been let down by the creative team.
But as long as the series is a relative cash cow for distributor BBC Worldwide, the corporation will continue with the show, hoping that incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall can breathe new life into the ailing franchise.
Chibnall has a resumé that mainly comprises sci-fi and fantasy, although it does include the hit crime drama Broadchurch (and its failed US counterpart Gracepoint), plus a UK version of Dick Wolf’s Law & Order, Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood, and episodes of Doctor Who itself.
Back in 2011, alongside Vikings’ Michael Hirst, he co-created the shortlived Starz series Camelot, which chimed with his earlier unsuccessful attempt to get his 2005 take on Merlin commissioned by the BBC.
The BBC will no doubt ramp up expectations around the casting of The 13th (unlucky for some?) Doctor.
The betting seems to be going in the direction of either a female or non-white (or both) actor for the role, representing a clean break from the white male casting of the role to date, although conversely Ben Wishaw (Spectre, London Spy) is currently the favourite in terms of odds.
It’s difficult to see Wishaw giving up his varied and successful career in film and TV for the part, but stranger things have happened.
Both David Tennant (Broadchurch, Jessica Jones) and Matt Smith (The Crown) have by and large managed to escape being pigeon-holed by the role of The Doctor, which tended to be the case for previous leads in original 1963 to 1989 run of the show.
So far, other names in the frame include Olivia Colman (The Night Manager, Broadchurch), Hayley Atwell (Conviction, Agent Carter), Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd), David Harewood (Homeland, Supergirl), Rory Kinnear (Penny Dreadful), Miranda Hart (Spy, Miranda) and Sophie Okonedo (Undercover).
Going by previous casting for the role, it’s probably unlikely to be an actor who is too familiar to viewers. The only real exception to this was Christopher Eccleston, who launched the rebooted show for one season back in 2005, when the BBC presumably felt a ‘name’ was necessary to give Doctor Who a fighting chance against the competition.
Which indeed it did, as an average audience of eight million viewers tuned into the series, with strong audience appreciation figures of 80-plus throughout the 13-episode season.
Eccleston left soon after the conclusion of his sole season, with a number of conflicting rumours continuing to this day as to exactly why – depending on which member of the production team one talks to.
So how will Chibnall approach the task of kickstarting the franchise? Will he re-invent the character and bring the Doctor down to earth, as happened literally in the original series, when the third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) was exiled to Earth and denied use of the Tardis by his fellow Time Lords for his first 25-episode season in the role?
There may be further tie-ins with the BBC3 spin-off Class, or possibly the return of Torchwood in some form.
Resurrecting old villains is also a way of igniting the fan base, so perhaps we can expect some of the lesser-known baddies to return – the Quatermass-influenced Daemons (season eight of the original series, with the third Doctor) being a particular favourite among Who aficionados.
Whatever happens, there will always be the challenge of pleasing a family audience – keeping it exciting and scary for the kids but maintaining enough character, humour and knowingness for the adults.
Whatever happens, expect some radical changes – going by the usual trends in TV drama, Doctor Who’s waning ratings will herald steeper falls in the not-too-distant future if unchecked.