Six-part thriller Informer explores the relationship between informant and handler against the backdrop of an unfamiliar London. DQ visits the set of the BBC and Amazon series.
Several storeys above the hustle and bustle of Watney Market, one of east London’s biggest and most popular street markets, producer Julian Stevens invites DQ into “the world’s smallest flat.”
With views overlooking the market on one side and vistas across Canary Wharf and the City of London on the other, many of the crew are forced to stand on the walkway outside the front door, unable to all fit inside while filming is taking place for six-part thriller Informer.
It’s a striking location for the series, which tells the story of Raza (played by newcomer Nabhaan Rizwan, pictured above), a second-generation British Pakistani man who is coerced by counter-terrorism officer Gabe (Paddy Considine) to go undercover and inform for him. This is Raza’s family home, where he lives with his mother, father and brother. But it’s a place from which he becomes increasingly distant as the pressures of his new role start to affect his family.
The series, produced by Neal Street Productions (Call the Midwife) for BBC1 and Amazon Prime Video in the US, comes from writers Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani and is directed by Jonny Campbell (The Last Post, Westworld). All3Media International is handling distribution.
Episode one sees Raza come into contact with police on a night out, suddenly being brought to the attention of Gabe and his new partner Holly (Bel Powley). They pressure him into working for them, pushing him into a world of criminal activity – and possibly terrorist activity. From a night out at a local takeaway to staring down the barrel of an AK-47, Raza finds himself getting into darker and deeper situations as the story progresses.
The series, which launched last week, originated from LA-based Haines and Noshirvani’s desire to tell a story about the relationship between handler and informant, one they felt had yet to be explored well on film or television. They also wanted to write about the War on Terror, but avoiding Homeland’s more direct style.
“So Informer is a combination of those two things and of them writing a story from the street and about what happens at that level,” Neal Street executive producer Nicholas Brown says. “What made this so appealing is they approach it through a family and the repercussions for them and their relationships, and also, through Holly and Gabe, the impact of doing those jobs on those people. It felt fresh, relevant and different.”
Behind the camera, Campbell reunited with director of photography Tony Slater Ling and production designer Sami Khan, having worked with both previously on shows including The Casual Vacancy. Campbell wanted to do all six episodes, a move that paid dividends in terms of storytelling and visual continuity. Notably, editors Fiona Colbeck and Gareth Scales also cut each episode together, rather than separately, and have each turned their hand at directing the second unit when pick-ups or new shots are needed to fill the holes in the edits they are piecing together.
But beyond the story, what stands out about Informer is its visual identity. Production on the drama started and ended with filming at the flat, with DQ joining the production team for the penultimate day of shooting. The location is typical of those used throughout the show in that it is recognisably London, with red buses and telephone boxes, as well as some iconic landmarks, visible in the background. However, it’s also a London that will be unfamiliar to many viewers, exemplifying the kind of series director Campbell and his team wanted to make.
“The best dramas have a strong sense of place and this drama has done a really good job of taking on London, which can be quite familiar,” Stevens says. “It’s not grey. Shows set on council estates can have a colourless world, but this is full of life and looks so fresh and new.”
Brown continues: “We talked about that a lot at the start, myself, Julian and Jonny, about where it should be set and the world we wanted to create. You know you’re in London. You never lose that sense, whether it’s Canary Wharf in the background, you’re right by the Thames or it’s way out east. They’re just places you don’t see much.”
The exec describes the series location as “DLR land,” referring to the raised Docklands Light Railway that weaves its way through much of east London. “That’s a motif for the show, the DLR winding though these amazing areas that are relatively undiscovered. From the DLR’s raised tracks, you get to see incredible vistas and contradictory images of glass and steel towers and scrap yards, the river, estates, town blocks and all sorts. It’s a really great world.”
It’s the sort of visual landscape that couldn’t be replicated anywhere else, Stevens argues. “You think, ‘Could we do something like this in Birmingham – shoot there for six weeks and then come back and do exteriors?’ But you don’t get that texture; it’s never the same. You can’t fake it.” Filming elsewhere would have meant the production team wouldn’t have stumbled across Watney Market. They initially though it would be too challenging to film there, with
the hubbub of the shoppers and stalls below, but the location team were able to secure the use of one of the flats overlooking the site.
Location manager Peter-Frank Dewulf (Detectorists, Loaded) says his brief was “very London,” but without the ultra-recognisable landmarks like Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament or Tower Bridge. He subsequently embraced the “urban jungle” of east London and its mixture of diverse communities and old and new buildings.
Some practical challenges did emerge – not everyone wants to be associated with a show about terrorism – so instead of filming entirely on one estate, they used several to create their own setting. Two other key locations were a fast-food outlet and a cafe. The chicken shop was identified on Peckham High Street in South London, an unfamiliar location that dazzled at night under the shops’ neon bulbs and the adjacent streetlights.
The cafe was trickier to find, due to the fact that it would be the setting for a terrorist attack – one that doesn’t define the show but from which we see the fallout that affects Raza and his family. “No Starbucks would allow a terrorist attack or any attack in one of their cafes, they don’t even want to be in the background of anything like that,” Dewulf says. “So we had to find somewhere that would allow us to film that scene in a place we could control, not just inside but outside as well, and where the shops around us would agree to us filming that scene.”
The final location was found on a mini high street full of independent shops on a university campus in north-west London, where the owners were amenable to the production’s needs and, outside of term time, producers were able to control the environment with their own supporting artists and traffic flow.
“That and the chicken shop are chalk and cheese,” Stevens says. “The chicken shop was right on Peckham High Street, where we didn’t have any control over the road outside or people passing by, but it was the right location. We saw a lot of chicken shops and sampled a lot of chicken in the process!”
The show was almost entirely filmed on location, save for scenes at a police station and inside a nightclub, where the camera crew mingled with 2,500 ravers enjoying a night out.
“I hope the aesthetic is something people take away from it,” Stevens adds. “It is a beautiful-looking show. Tony did both the lighting and camera work and it does give a version of London that’s original. Rory and Sohrab, two non-Londoners, managed to write a piece about London that’s so authentic and real. Everyone was buoyed by the chance to live up to that script and find the take on London that showed the life and heart as well as the odd battle scar here and there – and that’s the story of London.”
Rizwan learns the ropes
Informer marks the TV debut of actor Nabhaan Rizwan, who as Raza is drawn into a world of espionage, with damaging results for himself and his family.
Speaking to DQ inside his trailer, Rizwan describes Raza as “very charismatic and quite outspoken” but a man on the edge, too old to feel he belongs at home but not yet sure of the path ahead. “A lot of young Londoners can relate to that. He has a lot of sides to him and that contributes well to the turn the show takes. He’s very well suited to that,” the actor says.
Rizwan was drawn to the role as he could relate to many of Raza’s qualities but then once he landed the part, he faced a crash course in television production.
He was helped in particular by director Jonny Campbell, who arranged a pre-shoot day to walk around east London’s Brick Lane area to ease him into the mood and atmosphere of the show. “I really appreciated that,” Rizwan says. “Just to work with him, he has everything mapped out in his head, even as far as thinking about the edit and how he’s going to put that together. So he’s always a few steps ahead and he knows the script inside and out. He’s really great to work with.”
Despite the show’s serious subject, Rizwan says it’s a disservice to dismiss Informer as simply a thriller or a drama. “This is where the writers have done really well,” he explains. “It reflects life quite well. Life is funny, and not everything that’s funny is light. Serious stuff happens but in that there’s a few moments of humour, and that’s explored really nicely in the script. It’s a show that reflects the nuances of life in London.”
And though the series isn’t action-heavy, Rizwan had to ready himself to master one new skill – motorbike riding. “I had to learn for this and I fell once. I was probably doing 10 miles per hour but it didn’t feel like that,” he says. “There’s not been a single shot that I’ve been on the bike and thought, ‘Yeah, this is easy,’ especially after the fall. It’s tough.”