Tag Archives: Francesca Annis

In the Flesh

Francesca Annis, Imelda Staunton, Stephen Rea and Russell Tovey discuss starring in ITV drama Flesh & Blood, a family drama about modern relationships in which three siblings come to terms with their mother’s new love interest.

The opening moments of Flesh & Blood are illuminated by flashing police lights, with officers trudging across a shingle beach and into a pretty seafront house. A destroyed balcony and bloodied floor reveal signs of a struggle as what appears to be dead body, wrapped up and tied to a trolley, is wheeled away.

It’s an ominous start for this four-part family drama, commissioned by ITV, as long-buried secrets and lies threaten to tear apart the relationship between widowed mother Vivien and her three grown-up children, Helen, Jake and Natalie. The catalyst is Vivien’s blossoming relationship with Mark, whose increasing presence raises suspicion among the siblings as he turns Vivien’s attention and priorities away from them.

As they begin to question their mother’s 45-year marriage to their late father, Terry, and attempt to find out more about Mark, the trio try to pull together amid long-held grudges and their own complicated personal lives as they spiral towards tragedy.

Francesca Annis (Cranford) stars as Vivien, with Mark played by Stephen Rea (The Honourable Woman). Claudie Blakley (Manhunt) is Helen, whose high-powered job causes her to neglect her marriage; Russell Tovey (Years & Years) plays Jake, a gambling addict trying to reunite with his estranged wife while sleeping with his personal training client for money; and Lydia Leonard (Gentleman Jack) completes the family as Natalie, who is sleeping with her married boss.

Francesca Annis as Vivien alongside Stephen Rea as Mark in Flesh & Blood

“I loved it from when I read it,” Annis says of her interest in the project. “It opens up with quite a classic scene – the body being carried out. I like the ease of it all and also it’s two daughters and a son – no acting required there. It was really nice to be offered a script that seemed quite light and then it gradually slips into what it is, which is a thriller.”

Annis says Vivien is too busy having a good time with romantic new beau Mark to notice any upset among her children, but must eventually confront their unease. “She’s a very bright woman and she can see what’s going on,” she says. “Her children, like all children, have got issues and she’s not party to that. But she is very aware that there’s something going on with each one of them.

“Her husband died 18 months before, which gives her the platform to just move on without a sense of guilt, I would imagine. I don’t think she feels guilty. Why should she? It’s not deeply complicated, it’s quite clear she wants to live in the moment and get hold of life now.”

Rea was also intrigued by his “great role” in a show that goes inside “the hell that is family.” He adds: “It’s a nice way for people to think about their own families as they are watching and seeing how fucked up they are. I never know how the family remains as an item. All it does is drive people insane.”

As for Mark’s reception when he arrives unannounced at the family home, “I just thought the girls were horrible to me,” he says of Helen and Natalie’s reaction. “They really were, the way Claudie looked at me. They could have been warmer!”

Years & Years star Russell Tovey plays Jake

Having built a successful business with her late husband, Vivien is not short of money, and thus the siblings are immediately suspicious of Mark’s intentions towards their mother. Rea’s ambiguous performance, meanwhile, means viewers are equally unsure of his motives.

“It was difficult because there had to be an ambiguity and a lot about him was much less presentational than some parts that you get,” the actor explains. “I thought that was quite interesting. He’s a man who’s trying to live a new life.

“The writing is very, very good,” Rea adds of Sarah Williams‘ scripts.  “It’s very easy to inhabit, and that’s all you ever look for when you get a script. You know within two pages if it’s got a structure and a sense of itself, and this is particularly good. She’s really considered how she wants to approach the whole notion of family.”

Chief among those struggling with Mark’s arrival is Jake, who finds himself drifting through life after being dumped by his wife and sleeping with one of his personal training clients for money, which he then spends on his kids.

“Jake is like the most popular boy at school, who didn’t do well academically but just sailed through on charm and being cheeky, had loads of mates, was really sporty, left school and never really grew up,” Tovey says of his character.

The ITV drama also stars Lydia Leonard as Natalie

“I feel like he’s one of these people that would say your school years are the best years of your life. When people say that now, I’m like, ‘You left there when you were 16. What the fuck have you been doing since?’ I find it so strange.

“He’s an example of when men get to their 30s and they just drift too far away from the shore and can’t find their way back and don’t really know who they are. He’s led a quite a charmed life with his family. Now he’s definitely got this alpha-male toxic agenda, which he’s never really dealt with.”

Things come to a head when Jake discovers his mother is in a new relationship and doesn’t need to turn to her son for support in the aftermath of Terry’s death. “That’s the role [Jake] should have taken when his dad died and it’s holding a mirror up to him and saying, ‘You failed at life, you’ve nearly sent your kids out onto the street because you’re a gambling addict, you broke up with your wife. You’re failing,’” Tovey notes.

“He’s a man trying to blame someone for where he’s got to in his life, and then Mark turns up and he’s like, ‘Bingo, it’s him – that’s the reason it’s all screwed up for me.’”

Through Jake, Flesh & Blood shines a light on mental health issues, focusing on a character struggling to turn his life around. “He says at one point he got into gambling because he wanted more money for his kids, and that’s so tragic to me because it’s that paradox,” Tovey says. “I love him. I love playing him. I love the nuances in him. I love how proud he is, how arrogant he is.”

Blakley, Tovey and Leonard would often improvise on set to hone their sibling dynamic, but their relationship is in stark contrast to Tovey’s recent series, Years & Years, in which his character Daniel had a close bond with brother Stephen (Rory Kinnear).

L-R: Imelda Staunton, Claudie Blakley and Lydia Leonard pictured during filming

“When you go to other people’s families and you spend time with them, they always feel quite alien to your own,” Tovey says. “I find that fascinating. In Years & Years, Stephen and Daniel felt like they were best mates and they talked. In this one, they are with each other all the time but they know fuck all about each other. They’d be there for each other, but they wouldn’t know what was going on or why they’re there.

“I thought that was really fascinating in what Sarah’s written, and it’s good for the thriller because it means that so much stuff can be bedded and hidden and obscure and kept away from the truth.”

Complicating matters further for the family is neighbour Mary (Imelda Staunton), who has lived next door to Vivien for 40 years. Despite not being family, Mary appears unhealthily attached to Vivien and her family’s unfolding drama.

It’s through Mary that the drama opens up, with her voice offering early narration as she recalls events from her perspective, with each subsequent episode featuring a different voiceover.

The Oscar-nominated actor, known for film roles in Vera Drake and the Harry Potter franchise, says she was drawn to project through the page-turning script, the characters’ messy lives and the fact she hadn’t ever done anything quite like it. “She’s a pretty ordinary woman, she’s a bit weird,” she says of Mary.

“She’s just a good mate next door, but a little bit protective, one might think. It wasn’t what I thought it would be, and then it was, and then it changed again so it really kept me guessing. You don’t know where it’s going and it didn’t have a logical arc, which is quite nice.”

Filming took place on the south coast of England in Sussex, on location at real beachfront houses. An uncharacteristically unbroken spell of beautiful weather accompanied the 10-week shoot, evident on screen, meaning all the actors relished their time on set. They also praise director Louise Hooper’s relaxed approach and willingness to empower her cast’s creativity, hence the aforementioned improvisation.

“It really didn’t matter if you emailed her in the middle of the night, she always got back to you,” Annis recalls. “She was great and she always listened to everybody.”

“These guys are at the top of their game, they’re fantastic,” says Hooper (Cheat). “They’re bringing tonnes to it and, because they’re so experienced and relaxed, and I’m pretty relaxed about everything, we can enjoy it and talk about it and discuss things.”

There’s nothing relaxing about this story, however, as the family face up to a multitude of problems, while the prospect of a murder taking place is likely to keep viewers intrigued through the four-hour running time.

But rather than being the main pull of the series, produced by Silverprint Pictures and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment, the thriller element “just gives it another layer than just a family dynamic,” adds the director. “It works really well, and also what I like about it is it’s not pushed too much. The family is the main thing and the thriller’s the little tease.”

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Killer cop

After a season one conclusion that left the Twittersphere outraged, Bancroft writer Kate Brooke tells DQ what’s in store for the eponymous rogue cop in season two and why there’s no character like her on TV.

Kate Brooke

When it comes to crime drama, viewers have an expectation that by the time the credits roll, the culprit has been discovered and justice has been served, with the investigating police officer rightly celebrated for a job well done.

But when ITV miniseries Bancroft concluded in December 2017, the audience was left fuming that DCI Elizabeth Bancroft was not only the villain of the story but that she had also got away with her crimes.

“People wanted resolution,” says creator and writer Kate Brooke about the reaction to the show’s climax. “I felt like it was an end. It wasn’t justice, but not everything is about justice. We’re in a world where bad people get away with things and I really wanted to do a show that didn’t have an obvious redemption at the end of it.”

The story introduced ambitious and respected Bancroft, played by Sarah Parish, who is targeting a violent gang suspected of illegal arms dealings. But when a cold case being reinvestigated by DS Katherine Stevens (Faye Marsay) threatens to bring buried secrets to the surface, Bancroft does everything she can to stop the truth from emerging.

By the end, Bancroft has earned a promotion despite being revealed to the audience as a killer, with DS Stevens left in a hospital bed. Twitter lit up with unhappy comments.

Crime boss Daanish Kamara (Ryan McKen)

“I just wanted to hit an audience with an immoral female because there’s still not many of them around,” Brooke says. “I had the idea six years ago. It took so long to get onto the screen because commissioners would go, ‘So the twist is that she didn’t do it?’ I’d say, ‘No, the twist is that she did do it.’ and then they’d say it was not for them.

“I felt it had an ending – it just didn’t have an ending people wanted. But that’s ok.”

Brooke was in India when, jet lagged in the early hours, she tuned into social media to see the reaction unfold in real time. “I thought, ‘Oh shit, they hate my show.’ Everyone was so furious about it but actually that’s what they need,” she says. “The truth is, people are furious because they’re being moved in some capacity. In a world of television where it’s hard to break through, we broke through. We did really well.”

Produced by Tall Story Pictures and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment, the show proved to be one of ITV’s best-performing dramas of that year with a series average of 6.7 million viewers and a 25.1% audience share. Season two was announced in February 2018 and the three-parter will debut in the UK on New Year’s Day with all three episodes airing on consecutive nights.

Picking up some time after the end of season one, Bancroft is riding a professional high after heading up a newly merged police force and delivering extraordinarily low crime figures. But isolated from her estranged son Joe (Adam Long), she is facing increasing pressure from her pact with crime boss Daanish Kamara (Ryan McKen).

When a disturbing double murder causes her professional and personal lives to collide, she is forced to confront a new enemy while suffering the repercussions of her past actions.

“Everything she thought she wanted she’s got, but actually she’s a very lonely person,” Brooke says of Bancroft. “We really make her suffer in season two. There’s a desire [from viewers] for justice, especially justice for women, but look at Peaky Blinders. Tommy Shelby [played by Cillian Murphy] is constantly killing people but people don’t mind. A woman killing someone and getting away with it – we’re not allowed that. That’s why I wanted to do it.

“She’s not Villanelle from Killing Eve, she’s not a psychopath. She can feel things. But the key thing is she lives within society. She walks and breathes amongst us, and she’s a really good policewoman. She’s bloody good at her job. She just happens to be a little bit bad on the side. We just haven’t ever had someone like her. What was hilarious was people thinking this was going to be another ITV crime thriller and then it was like, ‘Oh shit, she killed someone.’ That was quite funny. By the time it got to episode three, people could see something interesting happening, so it will be interesting to see how they react to season two.”

DCI Bancroft (Sarah Parish) with onscreen mother Carol (Francesca Annis)

Bancroft’s world is explored in more detail this time around with the introduction of her mother Carol, played by Francesca Annis, and the opportunity to drill down into her psychology and discover what made her the person she is.

“I don’t think she should be excused, but we can begin to try to understand her,” Brooke continues. “There’s no sob story. That’s not the point. We know the show a bit better, we know the pace, but it still has these massive twists and turns, which is what an audience wants.”

Season two also sees Bancroft in a more grounded world, with Brooke admitting season one crossing into melodrama at times. Though she wanted the series to be more heightened than the average television crime drama, building the rules of the procedural also gives the character some boundaries to push against.

“The thing about Villanelle is she’s in a fantasy world. She can sort of do anything,” says Brooke, who herself has worked in fantasy when adapting Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches for Sky1. “Bancroft couldn’t just put on a disguise and shoot someone. She’d get caught. She lives in the real world. What is important and what we’ve learned from season one is you have to earn all the deaths. She can’t just go and kill someone. That’s why it’s a difficult show to write because if she was just killing everyone like Dexter, it’s just Dexter. If it was a story of the week, there’s no grounding to it, so we really try to earn the kills – and there are kills. We earn the kills and that’s the way to ground it. She’s basically a survivor.

Bancroft’s estranged son Joe (Adam Long)

“There are some very clear rules for her. She doesn’t enjoy killing. She’s not a psychopath who finds it fun. But she will do it if she has to. She will do it if someone comes up against her and either she or someone she loves is threatened. Then she will do anything.”

Brooke wrote the series with co-writer Ben Morris, who first worked with Brooke as a researcher on period drama Mr Selfridge. They start with Brooke’s story outline before breaking down the episodes in an American-style writers room with script editor Kathryn Shrubb.

“I started in theatre so I’m a collaborative writer – I like talking to other people and there’s lots of young writers who don’t get an opportunity,” Brooke explains. “I could have written all the episodes, but he’s fantastic in a room so we write very collaboratively. It’s great to be working with young writers.”

However, she admits that unlike in the US where the showrunner system is prevalent, the UK industry is still producer-led. “Here, it was very useful that I really knew the show. It’s quite high risk and I had to fight to keep the vision,” she says. “It’s been a very happy production but the UK traditionally has creative producers who like to hold the reins very tight and they’re not letting go without a fight.”

Bancroft with superintendent Cliff Walker, played by Adrian Edmondson

In particular, she says she had to battle to keep Bancroft’s mother Carol in the show “because it’s not plot. There was a lot of ‘cut the mother’ and then they got Francesca Annis to play her and suddenly everyone loved the mother! But she holds her place, it’s character and we’re a very plot-driven show. We want to open up those questions about Bancroft.”

Another key influence on season two of Bancroft has been Sarah Parish, who stars as the eponymous detective. Brooke spoke to her before putting pen to paper and then gives her a first look at the scripts.

“Sarah has inhabited her so fantastically,” she says of her leading actor. “We get on like a house on fire. She’s magnificent. She’s done such a great job. She just gets Bancroft. She’s a great ally for the show.”

Like season one, this new run of three episodes promises to pack in plenty of drama, with Bancroft left reeling as her professional and personal lives crash into one another in spectacular fashion. It’s a rollercoaster ride that Brooke hopes will start the new year with a bang and keep viewers hooked until the end.

“There’s lots of twists and turns and I hope it will deliver like season one delivered those massive surprises, and I hope that psychologically it will be more grounded,” she adds. “That’s the plan.”

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