Tag Archives: Daisy Coulam

Life through a lens

After working on a pair of adaptations, writer Daisy Coulam is bringing an original story to television in the shape of Deadwater Fell. She tells DQ how a love of true crime shows and the power of social media inspired the series.

Screenwriter Daisy Coulam is perhaps best known as the head writer on ITV detective drama Grantchester, as well as being part of the writing team for Channel 4 sci-fi series Humans. But while Grantchester is based on James Runcie’s short stories and Humans was adapted from Swedish drama Real Humans, Coulam is now stepping out with her own original project – four-part crime drama Deadwater Fell.

Daisy Coulam

Set in the small fictional town of Kirkdarroch in Scotland, the Channel 4 miniseries follows two very different families in the aftermath of a horrific crime. First, there’s the Kendricks, a seemingly perfect and happy family comprising husband Tom, played by David Tennant (Good Omens), wife Kate (Anna Madeley, Patrick Melrose) and their three children.

Then there’s the Campbells, a more dysfunctional family made up of husband Steve (Matthew McNulty, Versailles), wife Jess (Cush Jumbo, The Good Fight) and Steve’s two sons from a previous marriage.

One night, the Kendricks’ house goes up in flames. Kate and the children are found dead, while Tom survives – and it’s soon revealed that Kate and the children weren’t killed in the fire but rather by a terrible crime.

According to Coulam, the series aims to explore the modern-day, social media-inspired desire for the perfect life. “It’s an exploration of the way the world is now that we all seem to be living these perfect, Instagram-type lives. It’s seeing behind that veneer,” she says. “Tom Kendrick is a doctor and Kate is a teacher; they have the lovely house and all the trappings of a perfect life. But we quickly realise that, behind closed doors, things aren’t what they seem.”

It also examines the reasons why people commit certain crimes, through a “forensic examination seen through the eyes of the two couples,” making it more of a ‘whydunnit’ than a ‘whodunnit.’

The idea for the series came from an “obsession” with true crime, reveals Coulam, who admits she and exec producer Emma Kingsman-Lloyd are both addicted to murder documentaries like Making a Murderer and The Staircase. “It started from a love of true crime,” she says. “We wanted to tell a story in that very slow, forensic, visual style, and that’s where the idea originated from. Then we wanted to do something that exploded a community, that was quite big and dramatic and dark.”

David Tennant and Anna Madeley in Deadwater Fell

To find the perfect crime, Coulam talked to criminal psychologists and people working in Scottish law and eventually found something that provided the themes she wanted to explore, namely toxic masculinity, relationships and coercive control.

Writing Deadwater Fell, which is produced by Kudos and distributed by Endemol Shine International, has been very different to writing Grantchester, Coulam says, not just because she now has a writing team alongside her for the latter but also because her latest series takes “a much more cinematic approach.”

“I try to think much more visually and to be much sparser with dialogue [on Deadwater Fell],” she says. “Funnily enough, Grantchester has quite similar themes in that it’s a ‘whydunnit’ and an exploration of what makes people do heinous things, but it’s a different approach. Grantchester is much more traditional and procedural, and we didn’t want to be police-heavy or procedural [in Deadwater Fell]. We wanted to explore it from the side of the community, friends and family.

“We see the crime in the present and we also see it in a flashback, so what we needed to do across the four episodes was storyline the whole thing and then piece it together. It’s almost like a jigsaw puzzle and each piece we’re laying out for the audience to see if they can piece it all together. There are two different timelines, so it was quite a different process [from writing for Grantchester]. We wanted to peel away the layers of the characters to really look at their motives and what triggers them to do what they do.

The series also stars Matthew McNulty (left) and Cush Jumbo (centre)

Coulam was also interested in how criminals and murderers are thought of as ‘monsters,’ whereas “actually, statistically, they’re [more likely to be] within a family or a community

and are somebody you know. So, another element of interest is that evil isn’t ‘something else,’ but human.”

When it comes to her writing process, Coulam sees advantages in working both alone and via a writers room, but admits writing Deadwater Fell on her own has had its difficult moments. “Writing solo, you can go crazy. I’ll sit here banging my head against the wall, but I am lucky that I’ve got Danny [West], the script editor, who I can phone up and rant at,” she says.

“I work very closely with Emma [Kingsman-Lloyd] and Danny. We have this understanding and can quite quickly piece together a story. So, we do work together, although this was purely my project. Writers rooms, by their nature, are much more collaborative. This is the first time I’ve really got to do my own project and that’s felt quite scary but also exciting.”

Coulam wrote the first season of Grantchester on her own, but for the past three seasons, plus the upcoming fifth season, she has had a team of writers alongside her, which she says provides a whole new dimension to the writing experience.

“With Grantchester, there’s a different kind of pleasure, which is that you’re part of a team. We’re really part of a family at Grantchester; we’ve been together so long now. So it’s fun in different ways.”

Deadwater Fell launches on Channel 4 this Friday

Coulam broke into screenwriting on continuing dramas such as the BBC’s EastEnders, Holby City and Casualty and also had a stint as a story/script editor on ITV’s The Bill. She believes these long-running shows provide excellent experience for budding writers, as well as those looking to work in producing or editing. “Continuing dramas are the best training grounds. A lot of people I work with now, including script editors and producers, have come up through that system. The turnaround is so quick, so you need to think on your feet and keep up the quality without slowing the pace. You also get to make mistakes and watch it back, so you can see your work, critique it and then learn from it,” she says.

Coulam made her way into the continuing drama space after earning a place on BBC training course the Writers’ Academy, which she credits for changing her life. The original programme ran from 2005 until 2013 and launched the careers of screenwriters including Rachel Flowerday and Tahsin Guner, the creators of crime drama Father Brown.

After a six-year hiatus, the scheme relaunched this year as the BBC Studios Writers’ Academy. Through the programme, eight successful applicants were picked to receive one year’s paid training with guaranteed commissions on major BBC shows, including Doctors and EastEnders.

“I’m really pleased the Writers’ Academy has come back,” Coulam says. “I did it around 11 years ago and, without a doubt, it changed my life. This year they’ve got seven women writers, which is really exciting. The Royal Court theatre in [London’s] Sloane Square also has some amazing schemes – the more of those, the better,” she adds, pointing out the opportunities they can also offer to budding writers from working-class backgrounds “who otherwise might get overlooked.”

So what advice does Coulam have for budding writers? “Watch other people’s telly,” she says. “There’s a good quote along the lines of, ‘If you don’t know what a good cake looks and tastes like, how do you know how to cook one?’ Watch other telly and think about why it’s good, but don’t compare yourself to others because somebody will always be doing better than you. Comparison is the thief of joy.”

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Fresh face

Grantchester has a new crime-fighting vicar. DQ speaks to executive producers Diederick Santer and Emma Kingsman-Lloyd about the challenge of replacing its leading character, while new star Tom Brittney discusses joining the series.

For any long-running series, its success can also become a curse. For while having a drama return year after year is clearly a sign of its popularity with audiences, those involved — particularly in front of the camera — can often be presented with new opportunities that very success has afforded them.

Emma Kingsman-Lloyd

So it proved with Grantchester, which returned this month for a fourth season on ITV with the unenviable task of introducing a new leading actor to replace the outgoing James Norton, who has become a household name thanks in part to playing Sidney Chambers, a vicar who teams up with a police detective to solve a number of gruesome crimes around his parish.

Since season three aired in the UK on ITV in spring 2017, more than 18 months have passed on screen, during which producers Kudos and US partner Masterpiece on PBS have been tasked with finding a way to give Norton an exit from the show while replacing Sidney with a new character.

“We knew James would come back and do some more but we knew fairly quickly he probably wouldn’t do a whole season,” recalls executive producer Emma Kingsman-Lloyd.

Fellow EP and Kudos CEO Diederick Santer continues: “James loves the show. He’s just got opportunities. He wanted to do right by the show and didn’t want to say, ‘I’m gone, I’m never going to do it again.’ But he was interested in doing an exit and the idea developed from there. I think it was important to both broadcasters for continuity that there would be a passing of the baton — if there was to be a fourth season, that it wouldn’t come back cold with a new vicar and no James Norton.”

The task ahead was for series creator Daisy Coulam and her writing team to find a story, now set in 1956, that brought Norton’s charismatic, jazz-loving clergyman back to the screen, leading to a final farewell, while passing the baton to a new leading character.

“What’s really nice is in storytelling on TV, departures are opportunities,” Santer says. “It’s a great shame James is leaving the show but it provides opportunities for a great story to tell — what is it that finally moves Sidney Chambers on and who’s going to be the new vicar? Knowing that’s how the season would be enables you to tell different stories.”

Robson Green and outgoing James Norton as the crime-fighting clergyman

As it transpired, it was also an opportunity for curate Leonard Finch, played by Al Weaver, to get the chance to lead the church and even audition for the role of Detective Inspector Geordie Keating’s new partner — though he subsequently proves he’s not ready for either role.

But as Sidney prepares for his exit and Leonard takes centre stage, for a while at least, new arrival Will Davenport is eased into the series before his eventual appointment as Sidney’s replacement.

“All those concerns that viewers would have are things we explore through the episodes because we never wanted to just push Will straight into it and say, ‘This is the new character,’” Kingsman-Lloyd says. “Audiences have to come to love him in the way they did with Sidney in season one. With Len having the crux of the story in episode three gives us the chance to play with that.”

Will is initially introduced as the chaplin of Cambridge University’s Corpus Christi College, where he becomes involved in a crime and first encounters Geordie, played by Robson Green. It’s not then until Sidney leaves and there’s a vacancy at the vicarage that viewers see something of the appointment process that leads him to take Sidney’s place on a permanent basis.

Diederick Santer

This won’t be a case of substituting one character for another, however, as Sidney and Will are profoundly different, meaning the new arrival will forge very different relationships with the supporting characters to those they enjoyed with his predecessor.

“It’s really interesting because the main difference with him is age,” Kingsman-Lloyd says. “He’s a few years younger than Sidney, which in the normal way of thinking wouldn’t mean anything, but in that era, it means he didn’t fight. He missed the war. Will’s attitude is very different to Geordie, who is conflicted with this younger man he doesn’t know. Very quickly he’s some use to him in his work and wants to ask him to help him out in the way Sidney did. But it’s not straightforward and Will’s not jumping straight in. As far as he’s concerned, he’s a vicar, not a policeman. We have fun with that and see their journey. We didn’t just want to parachute him in. It’s important we give time to get to know each other.”

Santer says recasting the lead role of Grantchester was not necessarily an opportunity anyone wanted — “I’d have been happy to do seven seasons with James” — but once it presented itself, it’s one they have run with. “If we didn’t have that, maybe we’d be doing an absurd story or the church would have blown up,” he jokes. “It saved us from doing something implausible to refresh the show. You never want a show like this to settle or always be the same, always repetitive, always the same tone, always the same ideas. It brings a different energy to the show.”

The hardest part of making the show, Santer adds, is getting the tone right, with the show described as a cosy, story-of-the-week crime drama, yet one containing some dark plot points and characterisation. “James Norton’s character is essentially consumed by self-hatred. He drinks and does a lot of bad things to take the pain away. It’s about post-war depression on some level and about a country at war with itself. So finding the balance between the warm, nostalgic elements and the murder, bleakness and self-hatred and we walk a line between that,” he says. “Editorially, it’s not always the easiest show to balance or get right, but in execution it tends to work well. We get great directors, great guest cast and it’s a nice place to be.”

Tom Brittney, who plays new vicar Will, didn’t watch Grantchester and made the decision not to before his audition to ensure he didn’t end up mimicking Norton’s performance or struggling under the weight of following him. That meant the actor, whose credits include Outlander and UnReal, was able to take the character as Coulam had written him and bring him to life.

Tom Brittney plays new vicar Will, a keen boxer

A rock ’n’ roll loving, motorcycle riding vicar, Will represents a new era in Grantchester, one removed from the effects of the Second World War and increasingly influenced by 1950s pop culture arriving from the US. His personality also informs his new relationship with Geordie.

“I was obviously terrified,” Brittney says of joining Grantchester, which is based on James Runcie’s The Grantchester Mysteries novels. “Before the show came out, this person asked, ‘Are you playing Sidney? Are you doing the same part?’ It’s like, ‘No it’s another, completely different crime-fighting vicar!’”

Coulam, who is also an executive producer, wrote a three-page backstory for Will ahead of Brittney’s final audition, which he says provided an astonishing level of character detail he’d never had before. But there was still room to inject some of his own personality. “You’ll always try and bring yourself to certain parts but this was one where his fire and his passion and his opinions were things I could relate to,” he says. “It was just written for me. I was connecting to it in a way I hadn’t done before with a character and just going with it. I’d never wanted to play a character as much as this.

The change in cast signifies the start of a new era of 1950s culture in Grantchester

“I think it was probably the fact he had this dark past, he was trying to become a better person and deal with parts of his anger and things like that. There’s probably things like that I relate to. I wasn’t a wonderful teenager and I try to be a better person as I grow older. That was one thing I could put into it.”

Ahead of filming, Brittney had to learn how to ride a motorbike, which he says was “tough” as he had never wanted to ride one before. “I do love riding them now. I didn’t think I would and it took me a while to get over the fear of coming off at 70mph down the motorway,” he admits. “So that was one thing I learned. Will gets stuck in a little bit. He loves to box. There’s some stunts in this, which was my first time of really doing some. The first time, I was like, ‘I want to do a Bourne movie now!’ You do a fight scene and you immediately want to do an action movie.”

On air in more than 130 countries thanks to distributor Endemol Shine International, Grantchester isn’t just a hit in the UK and US but has become an audience favourite around the world, with season four airing in the US later this year. Brittney says its popularity comes down to the fact that while the show is a murder mystery at its core, that element is often overshadowed by the lives of the vibrant cast of characters on screen.

“There aren’t many shows that give their characters that much to work with,” he adds. “There’s so much going on in this lovely little village that it’s not always about the murders but the lives of these people and you feel so invested in them and the relationship between Sidney and Geordie, and now Will and Geordie. They’ve written it so wonderfully, it’s more than just a murder mystery.”

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