Secrets and lies are exposed in ITV drama Flesh & Blood, which introduces widowed mother Vivien and her three grown-up children, Helen, Jake and Natalie.
When Vivien introduces her new relationship with Mark, the siblings start to question his intentions towards their mother, while also facing up to their own long-held grudges and complicated personal lives as they head towards tragedy.
The series stars Francesca Annis as Vivien, with Mark played by Stephen Rea. Claudie Blakley (Manhunt) is Helen, Russell Tovey (Years & Years) plays Jake and Lydia Leonard (Gentleman Jack) is Natalie.
In this DQTV interview, executive producer Kate Bartlett, writer and executive producer Sarah Williams and director Louise Hooper discuss making the series and describe how they injected a thriller plot into this family drama.
They also talk about the themes of trust at the heart of the story, how Imelda Staunton’s character Mary grew from minor character to an integral piece of the puzzle, and their search for the perfect filming locations.
Flesh & Blood is produced by Silverprint Pictures for ITV and distributed by ITV Studios.
Executive producers Faith Penhale and Mona Qureshi open the book on the BBC’s adaptation of Vikram Seth’s 1,300-page novel A Suitable Boy, a coming-of-age story set in North India in the 1950s.
“The journey starts with your belief in something – your story, your project,” says Faith Penhale of beginning development for a TV series. “Your passion for it is the thing that drives you through, and your partners come on at different stages at the right point in time. Everything has to begin with ‘I really want to tell that story.’ For us, that journey began with Vikram’s book.”
Running to more than 1,300 pages, Vikram Seth’s 1993 novel A Suitable Boy is one of the longest books written in the English language. It centres on the coming of age of spirited university student Lata (Tanya Maniktala), unfolding in North India in 1951 as the country is carving out its own identity as an independent nation and is about to stage its first democratic general election.
Lata’s mother is determined to find her a husband – a suitable boy – but Lata, torn between family duty and the excitement of romance, embarks on her own epic journey of love and self-discovery.
Connected to Lata through their siblings’ marriage, the wayward Maan (Bollywood star Ishaan Khatter) is determined to enjoy life to the full whatever the consequences, much to the concern of his politician father. But could his infatuation with beautiful courtesan Saaeda Bai (Tabu) be one step too far?
Charting the fortunes of four large families, the vast story explores India and its rich culture at a crucial point in its history as the election looms and the country decides its destiny.
But there’s also another story: the tale of how A Suitable Boy came to be adapted for the BBC. “It was published more than 25 years ago and, in the last 10 years of my career, I have been regularly phoning Vikram’s agent to try to wrinkle out the rights,” explains Penhale, CEO of producer Lookout Point. “Vikram was notoriously cautious about who he might let adapt his book. It’s an expansive novel that tells the story of a young woman searching for her identity at a time when India, newly post-partition, was also searching for its identity.
“It’s a great story for our time today but it’s also quite particular. It speaks to that moment in mid-20th century India, so it’s got a great aesthetic to it. Ultimately, it’s a big family drama about the tensions that pull through us as a girl decides her own fate and her own life choices.”
Penhale says that although Seth wrote the novel from his own experiences, the story is easily accessible for a global audience, hence her determination to secure rights to the book. “Every six months, I was speaking to his agent. And in one conversation, his agent let slip that the only person Vikram would want to adapt his novel is Andrew Davies,” she reveals. “He had spoken many times about how the novel is greatly influenced by Leo Tolstoy and Jane Austen and that what he’d really love to do is find a screenwriter with a proven track record in adapting these epic classics.”
Having reworked Tolstoy’s War & Peace and Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables for the BBC and Austen’s Emma for ITV, Davies was sought to bring the same approach to A Suitable Boy. Penhale’s existing relationship with Davies brought him and Seth together, creating a partnership that “unlocked” the project. Award-winning Indian filmmaker Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) then came on board to direct all six episodes of her first TV series.
“After securing Andrew, we went straight to the BBC and – this is quite unusual – within 24 hours Piers [Wenger, controller of drama] and Charlotte [Moore, director of content] greenlit it. And 24 hours after that, Mira was on board,” Penhale recalls. “This had been a passion for Mira, unbeknown to us. We were huge fans of her, and within 24 hours Mira called us up and said, ‘So I’ve got to do this.’ Who were we to argue with that?”
Mona Qureshi, who executive produces A Suitable Boy for the BBC, says Wenger also loved the book and that everyone in the industry had been keeping tabs on the screen rights.
“We had these fantastic scripts and Mira came to it and brought her own layer of reinvention because it’s my history, my dad’s, but [Lata is] also a child born at the time of partition,” Qureshi says. “The things she spoke about, the experiences she had, the lookbook she came to us with, all the locations she knew that visually speak to that story – it’s about finding the story on a domestic level and then its resonance on an international level.
Optimistic that viewers will “engage and identify” with A Suitable Boy as much as they have with Amazon Prime series The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, which focuses on a female stand-up comic in the 1950s, Qureshi notes: “It’s a similar story of somebody trying to decide how to be happy without making anyone else happy, and dealing with conflicts of keeping your family happy while trying to do your own thing in an independent way and departing from tradition.”
Filming for the BBC Studios-distributed series was completed at the end of last year, having taken in a number of locations across India, including Lucknow and Maheshwar, and it will air later this year. “We have been really fortunate to find the most extraordinary locations,” Penhale says. “It hopefully has that flavour, that real sense of place that feels so critical to the experience when you read the book. We want to capture that feeling.”
The effort to fully realise the book on screen has been enhanced further by Seth’s close involvement with Davies and Nair behind the scenes. “It’s a triumvirate because we have had Mira, Vikram and Andrew working very closely together throughout the adaptation,” Penhale says. “There have been multiple, lengthy, very open, collaborative and discursive sessions using Andrew’s scripts.
“What’s so wonderful about the result, we hope, is it feels it has all the skill of a very well-crafted story. Andrew’s there as a screenwriter but it’s absolutely rooted in the authenticity of Vikram’s story and where it came from. Mira talks a lot about authenticity but she says it’s not authentic in a dreary or worthy way but in a way where truth is more wonderful than fiction, more magical and magnificent. That’s what she’s really brought out – the magnificent.”
India has become a hotbed of international drama series in recent years, on the heels of Netflix and Amazon’s expansion into the country with original series such as Delhi Crime and Sacred Games. UK broadcaster ITV, meanwhile, recently aired India-set period drama Beecham House. The show came from Bend It Like Beckham director Gurinder Chadha, who is now developing a series called The God Man, which centres on the charismatic leader of a religious sect.
“The really key thing [in India] is understanding and respecting the world,” Penhale says about filming in the country. “Your story is the reason for being there, but it’s not just about reversing in with your own techniques, styles and approaches. The thing we’ve really learned is we are working in a totally different system and style. We’re the ones who have to adapt to that. You adapt to it, you find fantastic teams with real experience and you go with that system. You don’t bring your own. It’s a totally new way of working.”
So, is she planning a return visit? “It’s been amazing. We would go back in a heartbeat,” Penhale adds. “We all hope Vikram might write a sequel.”
ITV and S4C are both using drama to tell some of the unique stories that are emerging from life under lockdown. Producers Jeff Pope and Pip Broughton tell DQ about making Isolation Stories and Cyswllt (Lifeline).
While documentaries, news and current-affairs programming can be produced quickly to respond to seismic human, environmental or political events, the time it takes to write, film and edit drama series means they are rarely called upon to reflect events as they are happening.
Yet at a time when the UK remains under lockdown, commercial broadcaster ITV and Welsh-language pubcaster S4C have both commissioned so-called ‘fast-turnaround’ dramas that aim to depict life during the coronavirus-related restrictions.
Launching tonight and running across four consecutive evenings, each 15-minute episode of ITV’s Isolation Stories will reflect what families are going through after weeks of isolation.
Produced by Jeff Pope and his ITV Studios-owned factual drama label, the series has been assembled under lockdown conditions, with actors and their families filming the scenes themselves. Each of the directors – Paul Whittington, Paul Andrew Williams, Louise Hooper and David Blair – watched the footage via their mobile phones and gave advice about camera positioning, scene composition and lighting as scenes were recorded. ITV Studios Global Entertainment holds international distribution rights.
The first story in the series – whose episodes are named after their main characters – stars Sheridan Smith as Mel. Alone, heavily pregnant and fed up with life, Mel faces giving birth without the married father of her child – who has chosen to stay with his wife and family – and without her own family, who have given her the cold shoulder.
Ron & Russell, the second instalment, stars Robert Glenister as Ron, who is ill with the virus and is confused about where he is and what’s happening to him, while one of his sons, Russell (Glenister’s real-life son Tom), is trapped and isolating with him, leading to the reopening of old wounds.
The third story, Mike & Rochelle, stars Darren Boyd and Angela Griffin. The worst fears of paranoid, self-absorbed hypochondriac Mike (Boyd) have come true and he insists on an online session with his psychiatrist, Rochelle (Griffin), who must try to talk him down from the precipice.
Finally, Karen stars Eddie Marsan, his sons Blue and Bodie, and David Threlfall. The latter plays a grandfather who passes his son-in-law Stephen (Marsan)’s house on the way to the shops and stops to lark about outside and amuse his grandchildren. But Stephen, still suffering after being left by wife Karen, doesn’t welcome these daily visits.
Executive producer Pope (A Confession, Little Boy Blue) is known for producing fact-based drama, but perhaps none quite as topical or immediate as Isolation Stories – a project made particularly personal by the fact his wife fell ill with Covid-19.
Pope says that isolating with his unwell wife gave him a lot of time to reflect, and he began thinking about the fact that, under lockdown, everybody is in their own homes having their own small experience of this global pandemic.
“What formed in my mind was short stories,” he tells DQ. “They’re not something you see much on television, but they work because we’re not trying to tell the whole story of the coronavirus pandemic. We’re just trying to paint a fragmented picture of what’s going on. My inspiration was, if we made a short story, we had a chance to write it, shoot it and transmit very quickly.
“Uniquely, I thought there was a chance for scripted content to have something to say about what was going on. Normally it’s the news, current affairs, reality programmes – they can all reflect instantly what’s happening, and there’s been some wonderful stuff. But I thought there was an opportunity here for drama to say something as well, to try to reflect what’s going on.”
In particular, Pope was keen to highlight the emotional journeys people might be taking as they isolate at home alone or with other family members. ITV director of television Kevin Lygo and head of drama Polly Hill were immediately receptive to the idea, and were prepared for the fact the finished product wouldn’t be as polished as a high-end drama filmed with a full crew.
Pope then got in touch with three other writers – Gaby Chiappe (Mel), William Ivory (Mike & Rochelle) and Neil McKay (Karen) – and invited them to submit potential stories. He wrote the other episode, Ron & Russell, himself.
“All of us wrote our story in five or six days. I tried not to be too prescriptive, I just said it should reflect something they have come across either themselves or through their friends and family, so it should be inspired by real events and we shouldn’t be afraid of making people laugh or cry,” Pope explains. “But it should be a mirror. We should be saying to people out there, ‘In a small way, this will connect with you – this is what you’re going through.’ The scripts were written very quickly.”
While actors have become used to filming auditions on their phone and submitting them via email, casting Isolation Stories proved to be the biggest challenge for Pope, owing to the fact he needed to find specific actors who were isolating together and were with family members who would be able to assist with filming.
“If we take my story, initially it was about a mother and son, so you needed an older actor and a younger actor living in the same house. Both needed to be actors, and we needed someone else in the house who could operate the camera, because none of our crew could go into their house.” he says.
“We discovered Robert Glenister, an actor I really admire, was isolating with his son Tom, who’d done some actin work, and also with Celia, Robert’s wife and Tom’s mum, who was going to be our camera person. She did the most amazing job. We had to work with what we were presented with, so I had to change the script slightly to suit exactly what we knew was there, and off we went.”
The Karen episode proved even more complex, requiring an actor isolating with two children who could act plus someone else to film. Marsan and his sons Blue and Bodie took the on-screen roles, with Marsan’s wife Janine working behind the scenes.
“It was a really stressful, intense and difficult casting process because there were all sorts of factors you don’t normally have to deal with,” Pope says. “We got really lucky. To a man and woman, the performances are fantastic, and the backup from other members of the family has just been extraordinary.”
Sterilised camera equipment was delivered to each actor’s home. A technician would then give them a crash course in operating the kit – from a safe distance – and production began from there. On the day of the shoot, the director, cinematographer, assistants and lighting technicians could all tune in to watch remotely, speaking to the camera operator via an earpiece about framing and apertures.
“It was the most wonderful adventure. There was some brilliant work done technically to get us to a point where we could shoot, but then it was such a rewarding experience,” Pope says. “It was wonderful to see DOPs talk through a complete novice, someone who’d never done it before, and try to explain the best way to achieve a move without it shaking. It was really heartening, wonderful stuff.”
Beating Isolation Stories to air by a handful of days was Welsh drama Cyswllt (Lifeline), which also aims to capture a snapshot of life during a pandemic, showing the effect of lockdown on individuals and families.
Launching last Wednesday, the three-part series was filmed only using laptops and phones. It weaves stories of families and friends over several weeks, bringing tension, split loyalties and surprises.
Producer Vox Pictures had been in the middle of filming the third season of breakout Welsh drama Un Bore Mercher (Keeping Faith) when production was suspended. “We were in a car park in [South Welsh coastal town] Laugharne, with the scene set up on the beach, and had to tell the crew we were stopping shooting,” remembers director and Vox producer Pip Broughton.
“Everyone had travelled down there for the week’s shoot, everyone had packed their bags for a week away and we had to say we’re stopping shooting immediately and we have no idea when we’ll be getting back. I just felt this strange, overwhelming grief.”
With six unfinished episodes of Keeping Faith in the cutting room and seven more weeks of shooting to come once production can resume, Broughton sought a way to reflect the world today through drama. She pitched Cyswllt to S4C with a plan to film and air the series immediately, hoping to explore how people’s emotions and behaviour are changing under lockdown.
“A lot of documentary footage has been made, a lot of self-shooting footage has been made but I wanted to work within the genre I live and breathe,” she says of making a drama. Laptops and iPhones were delivered to the actors along with costumes and props, while Broughton directed over video-conferencing service Zoom. The finished series follows the story as characters have video calls with each other, including two nurses working on Covid-19 wards and a grandmother and granddaughter.
“It’s not perfect, it’s rough-edged, but we did it as a gesture, rather than as something that has been nourished for years and years before it’s shared,” continues Broughton, who also praises the cast, including Mark Lewis Jones, Suzanne Packer, Hannah Daniel, Catherine Ayers and Aneirin Hughes, many of whom come from Un Bore Mercher.
“It’s a bit nerve-racking because none of us have done it before, and there were quite a lot of problems, technically, in the edit.
“It’s been an incredibly steep learning curve, but what we’ve achieved is an intimacy because it’s like we’re a fly on the wall at both ends of the conversations. In drama, you’re always in a dilemma: do you cut on the person speaking or the person listening? In this, you have both. That sense of intimacy and authenticity is important. It feels very real that we’re in both kitchens listening to people; we’re listening in on the conversation.”
Through the three half-hour episodes, a thriller story is combined with issues including homelessness, domestic abuse and mental health. Broughton says the scripts have changed as her feelings about the lockdown have evolved. “As I felt differently, I had to write differently for it to be current. It’s been very fast but very freeing at the same time, because you’re not worrying about the mistakes and the imperfections,” she notes.
The director says she hopes to resume filming Un Bore Mercher as soon as it is safe and practical to do so, though she says the way Vox is now developing other projects is changing as a result of Covid-19.
“The questions you ask yourself at the beginning on the editorial side are different, and then there’s the practical side – how long are the physical restrictions going to be enforced, and will we need to be creative again?
“This is our solution for now, to shoot on iPhones over three weeks. I don’t know what our next solution will be if we’re not able to shoot in a traditional way. It may be adapting how we work. It’s one day at a time, as it is for everybody. The main thing about this project is it’s about the human condition and what makes us human, and how being human has been changed by Covid.”
Pope says that as Isolation Stories was made and will air “in the teeth of the crisis,” it has been important to reflect how people are feeling and living at this time. Once the industry returns to a state of normality, escapism will be the order of the day.
“People will want to watch not necessarily fluffy dramas, but they’ll want to get a handle on some kind of normality,” he adds. “The best drama takes you out of the moment and make you think. So once this is over, we’ll want to go back to the kind of drama we were watching six months ago. But while we’re right in the middle of it, it will be fascinating to hold a mirror up and for people to say, ‘That resonates in me.’”
Dutch detective Van der Valk is coming out of retirement, with a new version of crime drama Van Der Valk coming to ITV. DQ visits Amsterdam to see how the show is embracing its location.
Visiting television sets often leads to some strange locations – standing next to Daniel Craig waist-deep in a snow drift outside a Soviet-era tower block in a cheerless suburb of Riga in the bleak midwinter, anyone? But surely nowhere quite a strange as this.
We are on a jetty in the West Docks area of Amsterdam beside what looks like a floating, decommissioned three-storey oil rig. It is, in fact, the former broadcast platform of illegal television station TV Noordzee, which has been dragged in from the North Sea and converted into an up-scale restaurant called REM Eiland.
You can have a very pleasant dinner on the former helipad on the top of the structure, which is flanked on one side by cranes the size of the Empire State Building and on the other by an enormous estuary along which gigantic cargo ships chug. You can also make a swift exit in the lifeboat that hangs from the lowest deck of the REM Eiland.
As we stand there admiring one of the world’s most unusual restaurants, a car suddenly screeches to a halt on the jetty and a troop of gun-toting baddies – all dressed in black, just in case you didn’t realise they were villains – leap out and charge towards the restaurant in pursuit of a detective. That detective is none other than Piet Van der Valk.
Nearly half a century after the character debuted on our screens, ITV is bringing the venerable Dutch cop out of retirement. Van Der Valk originally ran for five seasons on the UK broadcaster between 1972 and 1992, with Barry Foster in the title role. But he is a very different vase of tulips this time round.
As played by Marc Warren, the popular star of such shows as Hustle, Mad Dogs, The Musketeers and The Good Wife, Van der Valk is a moody loner. In this iteration, his loyal wife Arlette has been replaced by a disparate team of fellow detectives played by actors such as Maimie McCoy (The Musketeers), Luke Allen-Gale (Captain America: The First Avenger) and Elliot Barnes-Worrell (Ready Player One).
“People would be quite right to ask, ‘Why not make something new?’” says Chris Murray, the creator of this rebooted version. “But rebooting something that is already familiar and popular gives you confidence as a writer. The world, the brand and the character exist. Trying to bring it to life again is less frightening than starting a show about a Dutch detective with a different name.”
For her part, McCoy believes audiences will very soon see this interpretation is quite distinct from the original, which was much more closely based on Nicolas Freeling’s bestselling novels. “People who might remember the old show will forget it very quickly because this is so different,” she explains. “Once they grasp that this Van der Valk has no wife and a new team, viewers will immediately immerse themselves in this new version.”
Producer Keith Thompson adds that this is a much more modern take on the streetwise detective. “What Chris Murray has done is completely reimagine Van Der Valk. It’s in no way a homage to the original. The character, the tone and the team are all very different. We went back to the drawing board and have created something 21st century. We have completely modernised it,” he says.
“It’s pacy and deals with more off-the-wall material. Look around the skyline and see how many cranes there are. They’re building like absolute crazy and creating a whole new world here. Our version of Van Der Valk is about that new Amsterdam.”
The other point of difference is this interpretation of Van Der Valk – which is produced for ITV by Company Pictures in coproduction with Masterpiece in the US, Germany’s ARD Degeto, NL Film in the Netherlands and distributor All3Media International – steers clear of any clichés about the Dutch capital.
Murray, who has previously written for crime dramas such as Agatha Raisin, Midsomer Murders, Lewis, New Tricks and Missing, stresses: “We try not to go down the stereotypical Amsterdam route because that’s a false perception of the city.
“The red-light district full of stag and hen parties does exist, but it’s such a small part of the city. We made a conscious decision to show the real Amsterdam away from the tourist hotspots. We were eager to avoid drunk Brits!”
The city certainly makes for a terrifically distinctive setting for the series, which comprises three feature-length episodes beginning in the UK this Sunday. Thompson, who has also produced Vikings, New Tricks and Foyle’s War, remarks: “Amsterdam is a great character to have in a drama because it has a personality all of its own.
“Morse and Lewis had Oxford and Van der Valk has Amsterdam. It’s difficult not to use the term ‘laid back’ to describe the city. It has a very embracing culture with a multicultural society. You don’t feel any racial tension here. They had gay pride here last weekend and the police, the fire brigade and the post office all had their own barges. The Dutch are very open-minded and liberal people.”
The production is certainly taking advantage of every opportunity afforded by the city, with the show being produced entirely on location in Amsterdam. “We are shooting everything here. The locations are amazing,” Thompson continues. “For instance, Van der Valk’s police station is one of the best cop sets I’ve ever seen. It’s an old bank building on a canal – where isn’t on a canal?
“Also, everywhere is so convenient in Amsterdam. Someone just said to me, ‘Our next location is 10 minutes on a bike.’ Everywhere is 10 minutes on a bike here!”
Van Der Valk also conjures up the atmosphere of tolerance that distinguishes Amsterdam. Murray observes: “The second episode is set in a heroin-addiction clinic that is funded by the government. You’d be hard-pushed to find a government-funded heroin clinic in the UK. Van der Valk is very non-judgemental because he has been brought up in that tolerant environment.”
Murray emphasises the fact that the central character mirrors his city. “Van der Valk reflects the seen-it-all, done-it-all nature of Amsterdam. It’s his city. If a crime happens, something is out of kilter and he has to fix it.
“He is an everyman who can hang out with judges and criminals. If he has a mission statement, it is that he is there for the common man or woman. In the first episode, two bystanders are caught up in something bigger. Van der Valk wants justice for them because he looks out for the common person.”
In one scene, a villain proclaims, ‘Innocent bystanders are not my problem,’ leading Van der Valk to reply: “’They are mine and always will be.’
“That’s the benchmark for Van der Valk,” Murray says. “He always goes the extra mile for the Regular Joe or Joanna.”
Murray also highlights the fact Van Der Valk is a very European show. “I really like the European element of it. The timing did seem right. At a time when Britain is arguably ceasing to be European, I thought it was a good idea to set the series in a city that epitomises the best of Europe.
“Amsterdam has always been a melting pot and has a long tradition of liberalism. You can feel the energy and the confidence here. We may not be in a position to enjoy that for much longer – except perhaps with an expensive visa!”
Looking ahead, Murray doesn’t feel like he is done with Van Der Valk yet. “Amsterdam is a city full of great stories. There are so many more that I would love to tell,” he adds.
McCoy hopes audiences will be as taken by the world of Van Der Valk as she has been. “We’ve got the best lighting cameramen in the country. The show will look very cinematic,” she notes. “If I were in the audience, I’d want to watch this, just like you’d want to watch a drama set in Copenhagen, Malmo or Prague. Van Der Valk offers viewers a whole new landscape, and that’s really exciting.”
The actor has just one caveat: “After watching Van Der Valk, everyone will want to come and hang out in Amsterdam. But we don’t want too many people coming here because it has a lot of tourists already and we love it as it is!”
DQ travels back to the 19th century to the set of Belgravia, a six-part drama that sees families tested and secrets revealed, created and produced by the team behind Downton Abbey.
A stone’s throw from Dorney Lake, the home of the 2012 Olympic rowing event on the outskirts of Windsor, sits Dorney Court, one of England’s finest Tudor homes.
Dating back more than 500 years, it’s a great deal smaller than Highclere Castle, which doubled as Downton Abbey in the series of the same name. But it’s just as picturesque, which perhaps explains why it’s one of the settings used in Belgravia, the latest period drama from Downton creator Julian Fellowes.
Based on the novel by Fellowes, Belgravia is described as a story of secrets and scandals among the upper echelons of London society. It begins in 1815 with a class clash between the old money Brockenhursts and nouveau riche Trenchards. Edmund Bellasis, son of the Earl and Countess of Brockenhurst, had an affair and was possibly married to Sophia, daughter of James and Anne Trenchard. He dies in battle, before she discovers she is pregnant and then dies in childbirth.
Fast-forward to 1841 and their son, Charles Pope (Jack Bardoe), begins to cause a stir as the two families discover they have a grandson – and a potential heir who not everyone is delighted to meet. Other characters, such as John Bellasis and Oliver Trenchard, are keen to stand in Charles’s way.
The ensemble cast features Tamsin Greig (Anne Trenchard), Philip Glenister (James Trenchard), Harriet Walter (Lady Brockenhurst), Tom Wilkinson (the Earl of Brockenhurst), James Fleet (Stephen Bellasis), Alice Eve (Susan Trenchard), Tara Fitzgerald (Lady Templemore), Ella Purnell (Lady Maria Grey), Richard Goulding (Oliver Trenchard), Adam James (John Bellasis), Paul Ritter (Turton) and Saskia Reeves (Ellis).
On set, extras dressed in bonnets and top hats are preparing to film scenes from episode four outside the 12th century Church of St James the Less, its tower looming over Dorney Court. Proceedings are led by the uninterested and uninspiring Reverend Bellasis (Fleet), the younger brother of the Earl of Brockenhurst who spends most of his time gambling and losing the family’s money.
“He’s a very poor vicar; he’s a snob and he’s lazy,” Fleet jokes. “I feel so sorry for his poor wife [played by Diana Hardcastle], who is one of the tragic stories of the whole series. He’s not very nice at all. He gets worse, if anything. He abandons morality completely by episode six.”
Best known for comedic roles in 1994 film Four Weddings & a Funeral and TV sitcom The Vicar of Dibley, Fleet says the Belgravia script was a “page-turner,” comparing the story to something from Charles Dickens. “It’s like all the great stories – it’s the lost child, the two lovers denied. It’s got romance. Stephen has a difficult relationship with his brother – I’m very jealous of him and I can’t get my hands on the money. Because he’s the elder brother, he gets everything and I get nothing,” the actor says of his character.
Walter admits she wasn’t “yearning” to get back into a corset, having previously starred in period dramas The Spanish Princess, Downton Abbey and films such as The Young Victoria. But the chance to reunite with Fellowes, and the strength of the characters that populate Belgravia, meant she was drawn towards the series.
As Lady Caroline Brockenhurst, she plays a character suffering terrible grief that has brought her closer to her husband. But the discovery that she has a grandson also brings her together with Anne Trenchard, and their rivalry epitomises many of the themes of the series, including wealth, class and inequality.
“To a modern audience, it’s going to be very hard to perceive any difference between Tamsin’s character and mine,” Walter says, referring to their differing statuses. “The indications have got to come from the way we behave to one another, rather than in an obvious thing like she’s got a garish colour dress. Because Tamsin and I are getting along very well, I keep having to kick myself and remember to be snooty towards her, because we have an obvious companionship in many ways in the story.”
Walter says the story will be very recognisable to modern audiences. “They’re essentially in love, in hate, in desperation. They’re all human emotions busting out of all these restrictions.”
Meanwhile, if there is a villain of the piece, it might just be John Bellasis, a man who is out to protect his inheritance from a stranger who could be the true heir to the Brockenhurst estate. But things aren’t quite that simple, according to James, who plays the character.
“I’m often attracted to these characters because they’re sort of conflicted,” he says. “From his point of view, I understand fully his instinctive self-preservation. The life that he imagines he’s going to live is suddenly jeopardised quite dramatically, and he goes to all the lengths available to try to maintain his trajectory to his entitled future.
“Throughout the series, he begins to piece the the jigsaw together and work out exactly who this Charles Pope is. It’s a huge inheritance he’s set to lose.”
Love also confuses matters for John, as he is arranged to be married to Lady Maria Grey (Purnell) but has an affair with Susan Trenchard (Eve). “I don’t want to say that he’s ruthless and callous; he’s just a gentleman of a certain entitlement and was behaving in the way men of his class and education and upbringing would,” says James. “People also love a baddie, don’t they? He’s certainly the cad of the piece.”
While Belgravia will inevitably draw comparisons to Downton, producer Colin Wratten (Killing Eve) is keen to put clear water between the two series, which are set some 100 years apart.
“Julian writes about class, but here, for the first time, we have aristocracy and industrialists living side by side,” he says. “Unlike Downton, which has a precinct of the house and the family, we have different families. It’s a big ensemble of 65 cast members. As the story ebbs and flows, we go to all those different places, from Manchester and the cotton mills to London’s East End docks.”
Belgravia sees Fellowes reunite with Downton executive producer Gareth Neame, the executive chairman of production company Carnival Films (Jamestown, The Last Kingdom), which is producing the series for both ITV in the UK and US cable channel Epix, with NBCUniversal Global Distribution shopping the series overseas.
“He writes quite traditional romantic stories that have really not been fashionable for a long time,” Neame says of Oscar-winning screenwriter Fellowes. “I don’t think many other people are doing those, and what we found with Downton is that people around the world absolutely love those quite simple ‘will they/won’t they?’ stories. The more quintessentially English something is – British class, snobbism or the comedy of manners that he writes about – it really does travel and people understand it.
“Wherever human beings are, they have always organised themselves in hierarchical structures. So going into this, the Downtown movie and then doing [Fellowes and Neame’s forthcoming HBO show] The Gilded Age, we realised that a lot of the things that really interest him as a writer are much more commercial and more clearly understood by people than perhaps we would have imagined.
“The other thing about it is this is an adaptation but it’s an adaptation of a modern novel [set in the past]. A lot of adaptations are still made of novels of period, which are perhaps constricted by a plot that was laid down 250 years ago. But we have free rein to tell quite contemporary stories within a period setting.”
Fellowes had written all six scripts by the time pre-production started, giving the crew a generous head start before filming began last April. In addition to its huge cast, Belgravia features 107 different sets and was filmed across 75 shooting days over 15 weeks. Locations include the Bath Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, Hampton Court, Chatham Royal Naval Docks and the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, as well as Somerset House in central London.
Production designer Donal Woods, whose credits include Cranford, Downton and Jamestown, immediately found he was not allowed to film in the real Belgravia, an area of London that is home to a dozen embassies and borders Buckingham Palace and Hyde Park. As such, the production team decided to recreate Belgravia through a mixture of set builds and other locations.
“We’ve recreated a lot of rooms – 107 location sets in 15 weeks [of prep], which is longer than they normally give you for a TV series,” he says. “We’ve got some sets at Twickenham Studios, but the search was really finding those locations, making it work within the schedule and still fitting the story, the characters and the period. We are moving around the country.
“This Georgian and early Victorian period was much sparer [than Downton]. There was less clutter and fewer ornaments. Rooms were simpler but still had a very stylish kind of interior decoration. We’re very lucky in this country that we still have beautiful country houses and rooms that are protected and still look the part.”
Similarly, costume designer James Keast (The House of Elliot, Mr Selfridge) had his work cut out, with the unenviable task of dressing 65 main cast members and more than 2,000 extras, who shared and reused around 900 outfits to ensure as much money as possible was available to spend on the principals.
“There’s at least 1,000 costumes across everybody. For the top 25 [characters], I’ve made as much as possible because, when you read the script, if it’s a specific scene, they need a specific costume that will fit in with what the set looks like. One of the interesting things is if it is a period production, you know we will be using a lot of houses like Dorney Court. So from the colours of those houses, you’ll know the tones and fabrics to use.
“The biggest challenge is that in real life, a lot of these characters wouldn’t have had a huge wardrobe. But in terms of TV and film, you have to see passage of time, you have to see it’s a different day, so you have to change people and find enough costumes for everybody.”
Another challenge is differentiating the locations enough so viewers can recognise what they are watching, instead of moving from one room with gilt frames to another. Director John Alexander and cinematographer Dale Elena McCready chose to shoot locations with varying styles to help that process.
“In the Brockenhurst house, we shoot that much wider and get more scale from that as opposed to the Trenchards,” Wratten says. “When you’re telling the story, you don’t want to get lost in where you are, or the costumes either. James and Donal are constantly making sure we don’t have someone going into a room or getting into a carriage with a costume that’s either going to clash terribly with the fabrics or the upholstery.”
Unlike the long-running Downton, Belgravia was conceived as a “finely plotted” limited series, with Neame echoing Wratten’s belief that it stands apart from his previous hits. “There are elements of Downton in it because it’s period and it’s Fellowes writing and the themes that interest him, but it’s very different,” he adds. “I don’t see why Downton fans wouldn’t like this, but I wouldn’t want to make too much of a claim that it’s another Downton. It isn’t, it is quite different.”
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.
“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!”
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.
“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).
“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.”
Six-part factual drama White House Farm revolves around a night in August 1985 when five members of the same family were murdered at the titular farmhouse.
Sheila Caffell, her twin six-year-old sons Daniel and Nicholas, and her parents, Nevill and June Bamber, were all discovered dead. Police officers originally believed Sheila, who suffered with mental health problems, had murdered her family before turning the gun on herself.
But Jeremy Bamber was eventually charged and convicted of murdering his parents, sister and nephews. He remains in prison and maintains his innocence.
In this DQTV interview, stars Freddie Fox and Mark Addy discuss their roles in the series, playing Jeremy Bamber and DS Stan Jones, respectively. They talk about their own memories of the murders and how they were covered at the time by the media, and remark on how the series serves as a study of 1980s society in terms of police procedure and the support available for people suffering mental health issues.
They also discuss the weight of responsibility playing real people and Fox’s decision not to meet Jeremy Bamber.
White House Farm is produced by New Pictures for ITV and distributed by All3Media International.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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.”
Following appearances on screen this year in Sanditon and A Confession, Kate Ashfield tells DQ about continuing her burgeoning writing career by penning Finnish psychological drama Huone 301 (Man in Room 301).
Two years after her first writing project debuted, Kate Ashfield has found time between acting roles to pick up her pen once again. But while Channel 4’s Born to Kill, co-written with Tracey Malone, was the study of an apparently model teenager with hidden psychopathic tendencies, her latest project is entirely a family affair.
Produced for Finnish SVoD platform Elisa Viihde, psychological drama Huone 301 (Man in Room 301) tells the story of the Kurtti family, whose lives change irrevocably one fateful night. Years later, the secrets of that night start to unravel on a family vacation in Greece, pushing their family ties to the limit.
Ashfield, best known for her role opposite Simon Pegg in comedy-horror film Shaun of the Dead, was recently seen on screen in ITV period drama Sanditon and the same broadcaster’s true crime drama A Confession. But although she considers acting and writing on a level par, she says she is enjoying the creative freedom that comes with writing.
She began work on Man in Room 301 shortly after Born to Kill aired in 2017, when UK producer Wall to Wall Media approached her with a one-page outline for a drama about a British family that goes on holiday to Spain, only to suspect a man staying in the same apartment building is the grown-up killer of their three-year-old nephew.
After meeting with Elisa, Ashfield wrote a treatment for the show, turning it into a six-part series about a Finnish family that travels to Greece, with the action set across two timelines. The platform gave the green light after reading the first script, with the series now set to launch on December 19.
“The starting point was if someone was 12 when they did it [the crime] and were now 24, would you recognise them? Would it even be them?” the writer tells DQ, acknowledging the show’s similarities to the Jamie Bulger case in the UK, in which two 10-year-old boys were convicted of abducting and killing two-year-old Jamie in 1993. “But it’s very different in Finland because they don’t criminalise children like we do.” (The age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales is 10 and in Scotland it’s 12, having been raised from eight this year.)
“When the story was reset in Finland, it became more attractive to me as an idea because we’re such a small country and we have such black and white views, whereas in another country it’s not that clear cut. The criminal age in Finland is 15, so if something like that did happen, they would just stay at home. They’d probably get counselling, they might move school but they might not. It would just be treated in a whole different way, so that makes it a slightly greyer subject matter, which is always interesting.”
The story introduces a multi-generational family who go on holiday to Greece, only for the grandfather to suspect the man staying in room 301 is the killer. The two timelines, set 12 years apart, then slowly reveal how the events in the past and the present day collide.
For Ashfield, writing Man in Room 301 offered her the chance to delve into another culture and write about universal themes involving a family and its secrets. But the slow, brooding thriller, which is directed by Mikko Kuparinen, posed several challenges for her, not least the cultural differences between Finland and the UK.
“They tend to not want anything to be too dark,” she explains. “The death of a child is terrible and they don’t want to focus on that in the way some UK television series might do. We’re also a lot more emotional and physical with each other than they are. They don’t say a lot; it all has to be pared down. Watching Nordic series, it’s less expressive. If you wrote a scene where they greet and hug each other, it just isn’t Finnish. They’d say, ‘We’d never do that.’ So it’s mainly in the way they relate to each other that’s different.”
Ashfield would regularly travel to Helsinki for meetings with Elisa, Wall to Wall and production partner Warner Bros International Television Production Finland. Scripts were initially written in English before the shooting versions were translated into Finnish.
“Because it’s about relationships, all those things are universal, so that was easy to negotiate in a different language,” the writer says. “It was just learning about the landscape and the culture, which was different. Because we were doing it with Warner Bros Finland, they were in script meetings and talked to anything they felt would be more appropriate or ring more true to people in Finland. I had one character house-sitting for somebody and they said, ‘We just don’t have any reference of that.’ It’s just the smallest things, you could never know what [the notes] were going to be when you sent the scripts across. That made it an interesting experience.”
In between script meetings, Ashfield would explore Helsinki and the surrounding area to build a picture of the landscape, the types of properties and the lifestyles of the people who live there to better inform her writing. One example is when she wrote that a character would break into the post box of another character in an apartment building lobby, only to discover mail is delivered to each individual apartment and lobby-set post boxes don’t exist.
“It’s really strange little things like that that you keep coming up against. You just wouldn’t guess it. You can’t break a door down in Finland; because of the weather, they’re much stronger. Also, the Finns, because they have such a strong welfare system and have universal basic income, they don’t have homelessness and they’re just inherently better people in terms of not breaking the law. If their child was drink driving and hit another car, they would take them to the police station to confess. Here we might say, ‘Well no one got hurt and we won’t tell anyone.’ But they wouldn’t do that because it’s just wrong. All that stuff is quite interesting and you end up looking at your own culture in a different way.”
Unlike on Born to Kill, Ashfield wrote all six scripts herself, comparing the process to completing a “massive jigsaw” as she contemplated how the story would play out across the different timelines and use the juxtaposition between the scenic Finnish countryside and the sun-drenched Greek landscape, where Athens-based Inkas Film and TV Productions provided coproduction support. Warner Bros holds international remake rights while APC Studios is distributing the original series.
“You also have to put story hooks in,” she continues. “This has no ad breaks [in each episode] so it’s not like Born to Kill where you have to have a hook every act out. That in itself becomes slightly different storytelling. It’s very much character-led, especially as Finns are more contained emotionally so you need to really get into their minds. It becomes more psychological in that sense.”
An actor now embarking on a writing career, Ashfield says she wants every part to be good, from the grandma to the young girl, with scenes viewers won’t expect and the ability to shock and challenge the audience. The series stars Antti Virmavirta (The Other Side of Hope) and Kaija Pakarinen (Devil’s Bride) as the parents, Jussi Vatanen (The Unknown Soldier) and Andrei Alén (Rig 45) as the grown-up children and Leena Pöysti (Laugh or Die) and Kreeta Salminen (All The Sins) as their wives.
“It’s also about the dialogue,” she notes. “I’ve been acting for years and you just want everything you get your characters to do and say to be authentic and not expositional or contradictory emotionally. I get a real feeling of the characters, and that’s the joy. That happens when I write with other people as well. I know those people, I know what they’re like. That’s part of it for me.”
With Man in Room 301, she hopes to entertain viewers with a story that takes them out of their own lives, while also prompting them to imagine what they might do in a similar situation to the characters on screen.
“Hopefully you relate to all of the characters and think, in that circumstance, ‘I could have done that,’” she adds. “Who knows how one will react. I wanted to make them all as likeable as possible in that scenario.”
Anna Friel, Sinead Keenan and Rosalind Eleazar star in ITV’s emotional thriller Deep Water. Writer Anna Symon introduces the series, produced by Kudos and distributed by Endemol Shine International, and discusses a key scene in the first episode that lays the groundwork for events to come.
Deep Water tells the story of three ordinary mothers who each go on an extraordinary, emotionally compelling journey. Told through a female lens, it places modern women and their needs and desires at the centre of the drama.
The series is based on two books by Paula Daly: Just What Kind of Mother Are You? and The Mistake I Made. So often in TV drama, the family, and the home in particular, are a place of safety and retreat from where the real story is going on, be it a police investigation, the world of intelligence or a business setting. But in these books, as in most of our real lives, the highest stakes surround the families themselves. The question each woman is being asked throughout the series is: how far would she go to protect her family? It’s a question that, to me, feels highly relatable but also surprisingly under-examined in TV drama.
Paula was born and bred in the Lake District, and when you read her page-turning novels, you really feel you’re being taken to Lake Windermere by someone who understands it from the inside out. By placing our women in this beautiful but, at times, harsh landscape, we hope to have further added to the epic scale of their stories – even if that meant filming the show was often hindered by rain, hail and snow.
Just What Kind of Mother Are You? tells the story of two mothers, Lisa and Kate, while The Mistake I Made is about Roz. In developing the series, I put all three characters in the same world by placing all their younger children in the same class at school. It’s quite a departure from the books, but I have kept the brilliant characters Paula invented and her very authentic vision of the Lake Windermere and the surrounding villages.
One line from Paula’s books that really struck me is: ‘The Lakes have always been littered with two extremes of women – the ones who never work and the ones who never stop.’ That class divide in the Lakes is one of the key themes of the series. Kate (played by Rosalind Eleazar) is one of the women who doesn’t work, whose family own lots of property in the Lake District.
Lisa (Anna Friel) runs the local kennels, so her life is about servicing the moneyed class who leave their dogs with her while they go on holiday. Her husband is a taxi driver, so he’s also in the service industry. Together, they’re busy parents who both work really long hours. In other words, they are very different from Kate, although we soon discover she has real challenges of her own. Roz (Sinead Keenan), a physiotherapist, is in serious financial trouble, so she is also working every hour she can to make ends meet.
In the first episode, Kate invites Lisa and her husband round for dinner. There is already an uncomfortable undercurrent to the invitation because Kate has accused Lisa’s 10-year-old son of bullying her own boy. Intimidated and wanting to please, Lisa accepts the invite. As soon as she and her husband arrive, Lisa gets whisked into the kitchen by Kate. Kate’s sister Alexa is also there, who’s as polished and impressive as Kate – at least in Lisa’s eyes.
Lisa soon feels completely out of her depth, amazed that Alexa can afford to send her four children to boarding school. A very awkward conversation ensues between the three women about how they bring up their kids. It’s the sort of conversation to which many of us have been party in one form or another. As women, we often compare and judge each other’s choices, at least in my experience.
This is a pivotal scene because it’s about who has money, who doesn’t, who works, who doesn’t and how that impacts on your family. As the evening progresses, the scene moves to the dinner table.
Here, Kate and her sister argue about whether you should stay together for the sake of your children if your marriage is in trouble. Kate storms out, and there’s a sense that something very strange has happened in her life. It’s the first clue we give the audience for them to try to work out what has happened to Kate in her past, and what secrets there are within her household.
At the same time, we notice Lisa starts to flirt gently with Adam, Kate’s brother-in-law, and this leads to a major transgression. This kicks off one of our main storylines, examining female desire.
Overall, in this scene, I’m laying down all the themes that are going to emerge throughout the series: class, marriage, parenting and sex, all told through a female lens.
Rob Lowe, the US actor best known for turns in The West Wing and Parks & Recreation, discusses his move to the UK to lead the cast of crime drama Wild Bill, his role as an executive producer and his passion for directing.
Writers often have their ideal star in mind when putting the finishing touches to their latest screenplay. In many cases, this is simply a pipe dream – but when Wild Bill co-creators and scribes Jim Keeble and Dudi Appleton say they wrote the lead role specifically for US actor Rob Lowe, it was more than just fantasy.
“Wild Bill gives us a chance to write about modern Britain and modern crime through unique eyes,” they say. “We wrote this for Rob, for his smart-talking, anarchic, soulful voice. Displacing Rob in Britain and specifically in Boston, Lincolnshire allows us to tell stories that are left-field and unexpected. We wanted to write something that couldn’t take place anywhere else, or at any other time.”
It was fortuitous then that Lowe, best known for starring in Aaron Sorkin’s political classic The West Wing, was looking for a project set outside of the US.
“I just needed a break from network television,” admits Lowe, speaking to DQ at the Monte Carlo Television Festival. “I’ve had a show on the schedule every year since 1999. I’m really proud of that. I don’t know if any other actor has ever done that. But I wanted to do [the type of] storytelling you just can’t do on a traditional American network. The pace is different, the stories are different, how it’s shot is different. I wanted a geographical change and, as I was looking for that, Wild Bill came to me. The character was undeniable.”
The ITV drama, produced by 42, MultiStory Media and Anonymous Content, sees Lowe play high-flying US cop Bill Hixon, who is parachuted into the UK as the new chief constable of the East Lincolnshire Police Force, with a targeted brief to tackle rising crime figures while making budget cuts.
Initially derided by his new colleagues as a clueless fish-out-of-water, he comes armed with a range of statistics and algorithms he hopes will help him finish the job and return to the US as quickly as possible. However, he soon finds the locals are just as smart-mouthed and cynical as they are back home, while a return to frontline policing makes him question whether Boston needs him or he needs Boston.
Executive producer Rory Aitken describes the series as “Happy Valley with a touch of Fargo,” while the Lincolnshire countryside provides a refreshing alternative to the cityscapes more commonly associated with crime dramas. It is distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.
Lowe is quick to agree that there’s also a touch of Moneyball about the series, a reference to the book of the same name about the Oakland Athletics baseball team’s attempt to build a competitive team using analytics and statistics. Michael Lewis’ non-fiction work was later turned into a 2011 film starring Brad Pitt.
“That’s exactly what I thought of when I read it,” he says. “Analytics have taken over the world, they really and truly have. They’ve changed everything and they really, truly have changed law enforcement. It makes perfect sense. You have X number of men or women on the force; run it through a computer and the computer will tell you where they need to be. It’s not up to their intuition. It actually makes more sense for law enforcement than it does for sports. But I’ve never really seen that [in television], so it was nice. It’s the perfect way to come into an old, traditional doing-it-the-same-way-for-decades-and-decades story, and then throwing a character in like Bill is a brilliant, original concept.”
Lowe heads a cast that also includes Bronwyn James as DC Yeardsley, an eager detective who proves to be an early ally for Bill; Tony Pitts, whose chief commissioner Keith Metcalfe has hidden reasons for bringing Bill from the US; and Aloreia Spencer, who as Bill’s 14-year-old daughter Kelsey shares his grief at the sudden loss of his wife and her mother.
The cast is rounded out by Anjli Mohindra, Rachael Stirling, Anthony Flanagan, Angela Griffin, Aleksander Jovanovic, Divian Ladwa and Vicki Pepperdine.
Lowe’s role on Wild Bill isn’t confined to the screen, however, as he also takes up an executive producer position behind the scenes alongside Aitken, Eleanor Moran and Tim Carter. He says he was on board the project a year-and-a-half before filming began, offering notes during the scriptwriting stage and becoming an integral part of the casting process.
“The EP job as an actor/star is different on different shows,” he says. “When I go from this to work with Ryan Murphy on 911: Lone Star, my job there will be, ‘Good idea, Ryan!’ That’s my job. Here, it’s more of an unknown for me. I didn’t know a lot of the players involved, so it’s kind of like a quality-control position where I step in when needed. I’ll give notes on scripts. Jim and Dudi are English, so their notion of how an American speaks sometimes needed some help to make sense, so I’m there to do that. But now the show is up and running, if we were ever to do a second season of it, I kind of feel like my work is done.”
It’s his experience across a screen career spanning four decades that means at this stage, Lowe feels he has to be involved beyond just saying his lines. “You’ve got to,” he adds. “At this point, I’m usually by far the most experienced person involved in anything, anywhere, so you want to bring what you’ve learned to bear and bring what you can.”
Appearing in Wild Bill still offered Lowe a chance to find new experiences on set, not least in the more relaxed working conditions on a UK set compared to those in the US. “Oh my God, it’s so different,” he exclaims, recalling his time on CBS medical drama Code Black as an example.
“We would close down an eight-lane freeway, have a fiery tanker inferno and a multi-car pile-up. Then there would be a helicopter rescue and back at the hospital there would be 700 extras and a blackout or 14 multiple storylines – and we’d shoot that in eight days. Wild Bill is me running around in a car in the countryside in 17 days. So there’s definitely not a sense of urgency making TV in Britain!”
On the set of Wild Bill, Lowe recalls the emotional demands of playing Bill in a cold and often wet location on the English east coast. “But that’s what I signed up for,” he says stoically. “That’s what you want. Why go to Boston, Lincolnshire if you don’t want that? So every day where I was cold and wet and lonely, I was like, ‘Yeah, but it’s all going to be on screen.’ What you don’t want to be is cold, wet and miserable and have none of that on screen. That’s a nightmare. So I knew what it was.”
Beyond its Hollywood star lead and unfamiliar setting, Wild Bill is also notable for its shift in tone away from the fast-paced nature of many other crime dramas. It is filled with human drama and emotion, with episode one focusing on the effort to solve the murder of a woman who disappeared many years earlier, while fans of Lowe’s turn in off-beat comedy Parks & Recreation will be pleased to find the show also has touches of humour.
The actor says the Wild Bill’s mash-up of genres isn’t something you see on television very often, and while some reviews have been critical of Wild Bill’s uneven tone, the actor says that’s exactly what they were trying to do.
“I happen to be really down with the mash-up,” he says. “But here’s the thing that made me laugh too – the thing about the internet, Twitter and social media is the noisy five people can make it seem like everyone feels a certain way. I’ve seen people really upset about the lack of authentic accents in the show. As an American, I can’t tell the difference anyway! But I love that we’re watching Chernobyl and falling all over ourselves, even though it’s in Ukraine and everyone has a British accent, and nobody says one fucking word about it.”
For his next project, Lowe will return to US network television to lead Fox crime drama 911: Lone Star. The actor says that while much of the plot is still in the minds of creators and executive producers Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Tim Minear (American Horror Story), he does know he will play a fire chief with a grown-up son, living in Austin, Texas.
“He comes to deal with this firehouse that has had a tragedy and there’s a very specific reason why he’s there to deal with it,” he reveals. “Above and beyond that, honestly I don’t know! It airs after the NFC Championship Game [in January 2020], which is a big deal, and we start shooting right after Labor Day, so we’re literally in the process of writing.”
Beyond acting, Lowe has uncovered a passion for directing. After helming a short story two decades ago, his first experiencing directing a major project came last year in the shape of Lifetime movie The Bad Seed, in which he also starred. A remake of the 1956 thriller movie of the same name, it saw Lowe play a widowed father who, after helping his daughter cope with the tragic drowning of one of her classmates, begins to suspect she might have been involved.
“I love directing. It’s the most fulfilling thing I can do,” he says, adding that he prefers it to acting, performing his one-man show and writing books because “I get to use every club in my bag and I love it.”
The problem, he notes, is that he’s attracted to a very specific type of material. “It’s elevated genre pieces,” he continues. “I did The Bad Seed, which is a homage to The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. But it just took so much time and I literally don’t have the time.
“The other thing is, like everything else, to be a movie director today means something different than it did when I was a kid. There are very few Quentin Tarantinos [Pulp Fiction], Paul Thomas Andersons [There Will Be Blood], Steve McQueens [12 Years A Slave] or Damien Chazelles [La La Land]. Those are my heroes. But now it’s tough even for them. The notion of a writer/director/auteur, that’s not the era we’re living in right now. Those types of people are now the David Simons [The Wire], the David Milches [Deadwood] and the Aaron Sorkins. They’re all creating television, which is a whole other thing.”
To many viewers, however, Lowe will always be Sam Seaborn, the intelligent and charming White House deputy communications director in Sorkin’s The West Wing. In today’s divisive and polarised political climate, particularly in the US, it’s unsurprising that the series’ idealistic liberalism under Martin Sheen’s President Josiah Bartlet continues to be a touchstone for fans of the actor and the series alike.
Lowe agrees that the show is “more valuable than ever. I just know because of the people who come up to me all the time,” he says. “It used to be, ‘I love The West Wing’ or ‘I still love The West Wing.’ Now, honestly, it’s ‘My husband and I are working our way through the series for the fifth time.’ It’s unreal. It is more relevant – people are more into it today than they were when it was out. It’s crazy.”
If an often-mooted West Wing reunion or reboot ever comes to fruition, Lowe might yet find himself back in the White House. But whether he’s in front of or behind the camera, he’s set to remain a fixture in the television world for some time to come.
After starring in Gurinder Chadha’s latest feature film, Viveik Kalra reunites with the writer/director for her new TV series, Beecham House. He tells DQ about the upstairs-downstairs drama, set in India in 1795.
In Blinded by the Light, the latest movie from Gurinder Chadha, Viveik Kalra plays a British Pakistani teenager whose life is uniquely inspired by the music of Bruce Springsteen.
Kalra’s star turn in the coming-of-age film led him to immediately reunite with the acclaimed writer/director on her next project, Beecham House, which also marks her return to TV drama.
“We did the film a couple of months into 2018,” the actor recalls. “I’d auditioned two or three times for it, got it and then filmed it for eight weeks. Then, right near the end, she went, ‘I think you’d be right for a part in this show I’m doing.’
“I forgot about it but she came back in, which was rather exciting. It was good because I guess, in some ways, because I’d just led a film of hers, she knew she could rely on me in that part, which is lovely.”
Kalra describes Beecham House as a “very special project,” owing to the fact it takes place in India in 1795. “It’s not a time period you usually see, it’s just amazing,” he says. “It’s an incredible time period, very culturally uplifting, at a time when the British and French are visitors and aren’t ruling over Indian people, so you have a lovely view of India untouched and untainted.”
The six-part ITV series sees John Beecham, a former soldier in the East India Company, arrive in Delhi determined to leave his past behind him and start a new life as an independent trader, taking up residence in the titular mansion. However, the staff soon harbour questions over their secretive new master, who arrives with his infant son August.
One of the first people he meets at his new home is Kalra’s Baadal, the head of the property’s staff, who helps John (Tom Bateman) settle into his new life. It’s this dynamic in the home that has seen Beecham House dubbed ‘Delhi Downton,’ drawing comparisons with ITV mega-hit Downton Abbey, which charted the fortunes of the aristocratic members of the Grantham family and their servants.
“Baadal is the initial link to John when he comes to the palace for the first time,” Kalra explains. “It was an interesting character for me to look at because it’s this upstairs-downstairs drama and I’m the link between the upstairs and downstairs, so it was a great opportunity.
“Due to the nature of the character and the family who stay in the house, it’s uplifting for the servants because they can do things in the house that typically weren’t allowed. When someone enables you and uplifts you, you can be more of a person with them rather than just a servant, so I think that makes the dynamic of Beecham very interesting.”
Baadal’s loyalty to his job and his master is challenged, however, when he falls for Chanchal (Shriya Pilgaonkar), which puts him at odds with Daniel Beecham (Leo Suter) and Ram Lal (Amer Chadha-Patel), forcing him to choose between duty and passion.
“It’s a catch-22 because when the Beecham family comes, they enable the servants to relax and not be on edge,” he adds. “Baadal has time to think about other things in his life, so it’s interesting to see whether he follows his head or his heart.”
Kalra says his relationship with Chadha while filming Beecham House was different from that during Blinded by the Light. On the feature film, as the lead actor, he kept his head down and got on with the job. But on Beecham House, he felt less of a burden, with the weight of the series placed on Vanity Fair star Bateman.
“I was able to relax a bit more. I was chilling out on set, which was amazing,” he says. “But although I had a smaller part, it didn’t feel like a smaller part, which I think is quite a lovely thing about a director and how they make you feel. Gurinder talks to everyone with the same sort of vibe and decency, regardless of whether they are an SA [supporting artist] on set or whether they’re the lead actor. I found that throughout the movie and throughout Beecham.”
Describing writer, director and producer Chadha as “a force of nature” on set, Kalra continues: “She will always have more energy than you, no matter how young you are. I’m 20 years old – every day she would have more energy than me! She’d be singing, dancing, she’d be the life of the party. She’s one of those people who knows what she wants, which is lovely, and she’s not afraid to say it. If you’re doing something she doesn’t like, she just says, ‘Don’t do that, do this.’ Then when you do do it, you take the note and she’s lovely and warm and sees that you’ve done something right.”
Interior scenes for Beecham House, produced by Chadha’s Bend It TV and distributed by Fremantle, were shot at Ealing Studios in London, while the exteriors and landscapes were filmed on location across the Indian state of Rajasthan.
“It’s crazy because if you saw the set in Ealing, it didn’t feel fake at all,” Kalra says. “You’re standing there and thinking it doesn’t look completely real to the eye but then you look at it on camera and it looks exactly like the real thing, which is a credit to everyone who worked on it. Then when you start filming in India, it is totally different in terms of the number of people on set, the talent. It was amazing to be able to film there. We were there for a good two months and a lot of the cast hadn’t been to India before.”
Filming in old palaces and then staying in them as well meant Kalra began to feel like his moustached character. But by the end, “I was very pleased to shave my face,” he jokes. “It wasn’t quite as good as another actor called Amer’s. His moustache was amazing and he could curl it up. Mine wasn’t quite at that level.”
British television dramas to have explored India before or during the time known as the British Raj include The Jewel in the Crown, set during and after the Second World War, and Indian Summers, which follows members of the British government and trading community in 1932. But Kalra believes it’s more than just the fact Beecham House is set over a century earlier than these two shows that sets it apart from similar dramas.
“Just the dynamic between the characters is something that won’t have been seen before,” he says. “John is an uplifting character as opposed to one who is downbeat with the servants around him. He’s a mysterious character at the beginning. When it gets down to it, it’s incredibly interesting to see how someone uplifting and incredibly warm deals with pricklier situations in which people are slightly evil and conniving. It’s exciting to see a nice person get around those things, someone nice and human, and how they battle those circumstances as opposed to someone who is mean and evil trying to battle evil.”
Beecham House, Kalra adds, is “a very human story within that world. It’s a period piece, so it would be very easy to act to the period, but a wonderful cast has been assembled with some fantastic Indian actors, some from India, some from the UK. With that wonderful cast, it’s amazing to see people in the time period as opposed to them playing up to it.”
Writer brothers Harry and Jack Williams discuss the origins of The Widow, the globetrotting ITV drama starring Kate Beckinsale in her first TV role in more than two decades.
As is par for the course for a Hollywood actress, much of the media attention around Kate Beckinsale focuses on her romantic relationships.
But in the Underworld star’s new TV drama – her first small-screen project in more than 20 years – it’s the absence of a partner that drives the action.
The Widow focuses on Beckinsale’s Georgia Wells, who has been living as a recluse in the Welsh countryside for three years since her husband Will’s death in a plane crash in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Everything changes for Georgia when she spots a man with a remarkable resemblance to Will (Matt Le Nevez) in the background of a news report about the troubled African country. Convinced that, somehow, Will is still alive, she returns to DRC capital Kinshasa for the first time since the plane crash, embarking on a quest for truth that takes her down a dangerous and difficult path.
So begins the latest series from Harry and Jack Williams, the writing brothers behind acclaimed dramas such as The Missing (BBC1), Liar (ITV) and, most recently, Baptiste, a spin-off from The Missing. The show is produced by the writers’ prodco Two Brothers Pictures and distributed by All3Media International.
Making its UK debut on ITV last week after being released in its entirety on Amazon elsewhere in March, The Widow first began to take shape following conversations Harry had with his then girlfriend (now his fiancée), herself a widow. “She had actually written a blog about it, and being in that emotional place was something we’d been talking about – so naturally I ended up coming up with a TV drama with that at the heart of it,” he says wryly.
“We thought it was intriguing to start with a character who’s lost someone. And then, putting our mystery and thriller hats on, we thought, ‘What happens if you see that person again, and what does that do to you?’ It felt like there were a lot of stories there and a lot of ideas, which we were keen to embrace.”
The writers had hoped from the off that Beckinsale could be secured as their lead – something that must have seemed a tall order given it had been two decades since her last dabble with TV, in 1998 telemovie Alice Through the Looking Glass. Sam Donovan, a director on The Widow alongside Olly Blackburn, says: “She was nervous about doing eight hours. It’s a lot of work – four feature films back-to-back, essentially.
“We had a lot of rehearsals, we worked with all the other actors together, we did big page-turns, we had chats on the phone. It was the whole kind of skirting round each other before she agreed, before we agreed. We checked each other out, essentially, before we all said yes. But she got it – she got the character, she got the loss and the determination that Georgia has, and she was super excited to get stuck into the eight hours.”
Donovan was one of several members of the team behind Liar who reunited for The Widow, alongside the Williams brothers and producer Eliza Mellor. “Sam directed the second block of Liar,” says Jack. “There are some scenes that you write and you go, ‘This could be awful’ – it’s a good scene but it could, in the wrong hands, be shit. There was a scene where Joanne Froggatt’s character drugs Ioan Gruffudd’s character and kidnaps him, and it was one of those that could have been awful. But it was amazing when we watched it, so we were like, ‘He’s good – let’s get him again.’”
Harry adds: “It looked fantastic, everything he did in Liar, and we were on the same page in this one as well.”
Beckinsale was undoubtedly encouraged by the continuing success other movie actors have found by migrating to the small screen, offering them the opportunity to flesh out a character across several hours of drama. The latest include Richard Gere in BBC series MotherFatherSon and Julia Roberts in Amazon’s Homecoming.
“You can tell proper character stories over a longer period of time,” Harry says of TV drama. “You can really dig into character. For us as writers, we love having eight hours to dig into a story and tell loads of stories, so I suppose the same must apply to actors when they’re looking at roles. People don’t see it as a step down to go and do a TV show.”
Jack adds: “Everyone’s getting spoilt by the amount of good TV. Actors want something to get their teeth into, a proper role to get stuck into.”
Georgia is the latest in a long line of strong, believable female characters written by Jack and Harry Williams. “With her character in particular, it was quite interesting. You see her in Wales, very closed off, very shut off emotionally. Over the first hour, it’s interesting to watch someone face the challenges that she goes through,” says Jack.
“It was a very good character to write but a very hard one to play,” says Harry, praising Beckinsale for both her performance and her stunt work throughout the show, with Donovan describing her as a “one-take wonder” when it comes to action scenes.
The brothers decided to marry their widow starting point with a longstanding aim to place a drama in Africa. “We’d been talking about something set in Africa for a while, something about the Congo,” says Jack. “It’s just a very interesting place to set something. It was lots of different ideas coming together at the right time.”
While the series is fictitious, it touches on many real-life issues facing countries like the DRC, including child soldiers and corruption. Jack also admits true events helped feed the story, but adds: “I can’t fully say what. A lot of it was informed by the Congo as a place – historically why it’s important, why it’s interesting and why the country faces challenges. Some of that has been in the news recently and I think that’s reflected here. There are some specific things that I won’t spoil.
“This story couldn’t happen anywhere else; by the time you get to the end, this is not a story that could have happened in any other country. It’s not an issue-led show, but that’s there and it’s part of the tapestry. Hopefully it’s accurate.”
Harry adds: “There was a lot of research. A lot goes into it.”
Unfortunately, it proved too complicated to actually film in the DRC, so much of the action was shot in South Africa instead, with the globetrotting production also spending time in Wales and the Dutch city of Rotterdam. The latter plays host to a subplot involving experimental treatment for the blind, which promises to tie into The Widow’s complex narrative as the plot develops.
“We’ve done a lot of shows that are very intricate and involved, but this one more than anything. It’s one of those that, when you get to the end, it would bear re-watching,” says Jack, revealing that the writing process for the series took around 18 months.
“Quite often, we’re working it out as we go, but with this one we kind of knew the shape and the arc of the whole thing a little bit more,” adds Harry. “It took a long time, but I really enjoyed it.”
Despite their impressive hit list, the brothers say the way they write together is far from a fine science. “There’s no process or anything,” says Jack. “It’s like making sausages – no one wants to see that; you just want to eat them.”
Harry picks up: “It’s struggling through ideas and thoughts for a really long time and talking about what the story might be, what we want to say, and then interrogating it as much as we can. Once we’ve figured out what the story is, we divide it in half and go away and not look at each other. Then we write our own halves and swap them over. You can kind of rewrite over the other person’s as much as you want.”
The approach often leads to confusion in terms of who has written what in the final script, with Jack admitting he has found himself praising his brother for his own work on more than one occasion. “I turned to Harry after watching something the other day and I was like, ‘That’s so good, that was a great scene,’ and he said, ‘Well, you wrote it,’” he explains. “I did feel quite ashamed but also quite proud of myself, like, ‘Good on me!’”
A family liaison officer discovers a personal connection to a missing persons case in ITV drama The Bay. DQ speaks to lead director Lee Haven Jones about filming the series, casting Morven Christie and why he believes actors are often neglected.
They are often in the background of a tragedy, offering families and individuals support at the toughest of times. Yet rarely are police family liaison officers and their sensitive role pushed to the forefront of a television drama – a surprising fact considering the range of crime series on air.
Step forward ITV drama The Bay, which stars Morven Christie (The A Word, Ordeal by Innocence) as Detective Sergeant Lisa Armstrong. Described as a fierce and hard-working family liaison officer, she is assigned to a missing persons investigation – but quickly discovers she has a personal connection to this frightened family, one that could compromise her and the investigation.
Set in the English coastal town of Morecambe, the six-part drama comes from writer Daragh Carville (Being Human) and co-creator Richard Clark. It is produced by Tall Story Pictures, with ITV Studios Global Entertainment handling distribution.
It was the location, as well as Carville’s script, that drew lead director Lee Haven Jones (Shetland, Vera) to The Bay. Haven Jones helms the first three episodes, with Robert Quinn (Home Fires) picking up the back three.
He first read the script in March last year, describing it as a “real page-turner” that finds the balance between believable characters and narrative drive. “That’s not always the case,” he explains. “Sometimes it falls on one or the other. There’s also a fantastic central character. Lisa’s fun, feisty and flawed. There’s a fantastic reveal at the end of part one. Then in part two, there’s a moment where Lisa decides not to reveal the truth. That decision ricochets out and has unbelievable consequences as the story unfolds.”
The drama is particularly personal to Carville, who wanted to set it in Morecambe, a stone’s throw from his home in nearby Lancaster and a town literally on the edge, a classic seaside destination for holidaymakers now struggling against the availability of low-cost holidays abroad.
Haven Jones says there was never any doubt the series would be filmed in Morecambe, with interior scenes shot in Manchester. The director calls it an “under-represented” part of the world – one that he found had a cinematic scale.
Inspired by the depictions of the British seaside in film, television and photography, most notably by artists including Martin Parr and John Hinde, he says The Bay doesn’t have the “technicolour” qualities of series like Broadchurch, but does expel the British cliché that it’s ‘grim up north.’
“We’ve sprinkled it with the broadest of colour. We’re trying to impact the glamour of Morecambe,” Haven Jones says. “It’s just a fantastic place to film – the tidal estuary with the sands and finding glamour at the promenade. It’s what we don’t normally get in a seaside town in the Lake District. It’s an ideal place to film.
“The only frustration, owing to the budget, was we couldn’t film more there. A constant refrain of mine to the producers was it’s called The Bay – we want to see the bay. I pushed to get as much of it in the drama.”
Appearing alongside Christie in the series are Jonas Armstrong (Troy), Tracie Bennett (Scott & Bailey), Lindsey Coulson (Funny Cow) and Chanel Cresswell (This is England 90), among others. Haven Jones says “the great thing” about working on The Bay has been the freedom he has been afforded by executive producer Catherine Oldfield, which included casting the ensemble drama.
“Morven read for it and I pretty much knew from the moment she started reading she was perfect for the role,” he recalls. She’s a consummate actress. I’d known of her for a while. She’s done it all. She was at the Royal Shakespeare Company and is a fantastic stage actress. She has a wealth of stage and screen experience. She’s unflappable.
“I remember a conversation with her early on where she found playing a police officer asking questions very difficult. She’s usually used to being interviewed. I said, ‘Don’t panic, you will get your chance!’”
Christie’s Lisa is the heart of the show, providing an emotional core to a drama that otherwise might seem quite procedural, with detectives attempting to solve the mystery laid out at the beginning of the story.
“A lot of work I have directed has been procedural,” says Haven Jones, who is now working on the next season of Doctor Who. “The key for this project is to find it has more emotion to it; it has more heart. It’s a bit of a hybrid between a police crime procedural and family saga. That’s the USP. The police case unravels and then is solved, and all the characters you meet in the first episode are involved in some way.”
With a background as an actor himself, Haven Jones says part of his approach to directing is to focus not only on the visuals but equally the performance of the cast. “Actors are surprisingly neglected by directors,” he asserts. “The thing I’m really pleased about is the quality of the performances. We have mentioned Morven but we’ve also got Jonas and Chanel. They give emotionally charged performances that feel honest and raw to me.
“We did quite a bit of rehearsal, which is also sometimes neglected because some directors think it’s good to get that rawness of the first take [on camera]. I’m of the opinion it’s fantastic to have rehearsals because it unearths layer upon layer of that performance. You never get as much as you want, but we did have a significant amount of time here. It’s just very useful to help figure out what drives these characters and what they are concealing.”
Nothing about The Bay is high-concept, Haven Jones adds, claiming the story’s strengths are in its believability and the relatability of the characters. “They’re very ordinary folk going about their lives in an awful situation. It’s there to be identified with,” he concludes. “It’s just a cracking good story with really good actors doing their thing in a strikingly beautiful landscape.”
Katherine Kelly and Molly Windsor star in a ‘cat and cat’ struggle triggered when a lecturer suspects a student of cheating. The actors, director Louise Hooper and writer Gaby Hull reveal how they keep viewers on edge in this four-part thriller.
In the opening scenes of ITV’s new thriller Cheat, sociology lecturer Dr Leah Dale (Katherine Kelly) is giving a definition of power, power dynamics and coercion from the pre-eminent philosopher Bertrand Russell. Apart from setting up one of the central themes of the ensuing drama, it remains one of the only things that is definitive in the rest of the episode.
Cheat twists and turns and jumps around in time from the opening minute and doesn’t ever really allow the audience to settle. Light relief and levity is in short supply, and when it does come, it is quickly supplanted by more tension.
Ostensibly, the four-part series is about an open-and-shut case of academic deception. Average university student Rose Vaughan, played by Three Girls’ Bafta-winning star Molly Windsor, pops up with a first-class dissertation, setting off alarm bells in the head of academic integrity advocate Leah. While department head Harriet (Neve McIntosh) is won over by Rose’s charm and plea of innocence, Leah is spurred on to expose her as a cheat, setting off a malevolent competition for supremacy between the pair. Meanwhile, Leah seems to be caught in a loveless marriage with her academic husband Adam (Tom Goodman-Hill) who is desperate for a baby and has also been won over by Rose.
Cutting to the present, Adam’s cold and lifeless body is lying on the pathologist’s table while Rose and Leah face off either side of the partition glass in a police visitor room. Detectives are seen questioning whether they have apprehended the real killer, while the audience is left thinking, ‘What the hell has gone on here?’
It comes as no surprise that Cheat is the product of fraternal writing and producing duo Jack and Harry Williams and their prodco Two Brothers Pictures, with distribution handled by All3Media International. Fresh off the back of relationship/crime thriller Liar, also for ITV, and time-shifting Rellik for the BBC, Cheat has all the hallmarks of a tension-filled Two Brothers romp, with many questions unanswered as the audience struggles to work out who to trust. That’s just episode one.
“We’ve left it purposefully open. It’s not the on-the-nose show where you are told where your sympathies should lie,” Kelly (Strike Back) tells DQ after a press screening of the first episode. “Especially by this stage in watching and in lesser hands and with safer choices, you would think your sympathies would lie with me. And the fact they don’t is testament to how hard we worked at that. We were brave enough for the audience to not like us. I don’t want to watch dull certainty, I want to feel an emotion. I want a bit of the audience’s soul, whether it’s with utter detestation and repulsion or total affection and understanding.”
Director Louise Hooper (Vera, Stan Lee’s Lucky Man) says the creative team was intent on making Cheat stand out from other crime dramas with its dichotomies and layers. “We didn’t want to put our flag in the sand and say, ‘It’s this.’ It should be mercurial. It shifts, it pulls and it shifts again, and that’s how it should be,” she explains. The whole point is you don’t know what it is. You’re thinking, ‘Is Rose being a sarcastic bitch or is she being genuine?’
“It’s about all the dark, slippery and wrong emotions that you pretend you don’t have, but everyone does, and they’re the ones that get you into trouble. It’s not a normal thriller/cop show where police cars come in and there’s a dead body; it’s about normal people in this rarefied world of academia and all those feelings about not quite fitting in, feeling jealous, frustrated, and they start to build and build.
“I like that idea of being slightly counter-intuitive with thriller. It feels hot and hazy [at the start], but the underbelly of it is dark and dangerous with all those horrible emotions bubbling.”
The duel between Leah and Rose is chivvied along by an impressive performance from Goodman-Hill as the supercilious, fractious, exasperated and occasionally caring Adam. And in keeping with Cheat’s plan to confound viewer loyalties, you don’t feel the utmost sympathy for the character when you see his corpse lying in the morgue. Peter Firth (Spooks) and Lorraine Ashbourne (Jericho) add to the ensemble with typically divergent parental advice as Leah’s academic mum and dad.
However, it is Kelly and Windsor who are the focal points, their characters’ interactions laced with menace and throwing up signals of sexual allure, obsession, jealousy and certainly some mutual respect.
According to Hooper, director of photography Ed Rutherford wanted to make sure it was a real “cat and cat” relationship, rather than cat and mouse, pitching the main actors against each other, with both “tough as nails, like two boxers in the ring.” Windsor says her portrayal of Rose, therefore, had to be instinctive in places to feel as authentic as possible.
“People are so complex. You have to go into their thoughts and beliefs, because as humans we have thoughts and opinions about everything. So the research never really ends. In terms of doing the job and shooting it, you have to learn your lines. They’re a bit like bullets in a gun that you can’t fire until you’re doing the scene, and you don’t know if that’s going to work or it’s going to misfire. Going in with good writing, directing and great actors, it’s more fun to stay open-minded and work with each other than to work with a set ‘this is what I’m doing.’”
Kelly agrees, adding: “You can’t really go into this with a mindset of how it’s going to play out because both characters are challenged in every single scene. All I did was do my homework in terms of I didn’t go to university, I just wanted to check in – not just with that world, but what that world’s like now – and make sure she looks right and her home feels real and feels authentic.”
Dramas set in the world of academia often find themselves facing criticism, with scholars quick to take to social media to vocalise any unrealistic televisual portrayals. That Leah does not have a permanent role at her university but lives in a palatial detached house will likely raise a few eyebrows, as might Adam’s casual attitude towards a multimillion-pound research grant proposal. Hooper acknowledges she wanted to make Cheat feel “slick and cinematic” but also to maintain as many true-to-life elements as possible.
“When we shot it, I wanted something that felt heightened. It’s a bit wanky, but I love it. [However], it was really important to me that everything felt authentic. I’m not a big fan of things like house porn – ‘oh look, there’s beautiful flowers’ – I’m always breaking things and putting a bit of pollen on the floor. In the house of Adam and Leah, we wanted loads of washing, and piles of stuff, and in Rose’s room there’s eyedrops, so it looks real.”
Additionally, the inspiration for the story sprung from a similar case of real-life cheating brought to writer Gaby Hull (Benidorm) by an academic acquaintance. Although this was originally used as a guiding light for the series, Hull says it became more of a springboard into interpersonal relationships.
“Originally the script was based in academia and university politics, but we pulled back on that because we wanted to up the personal/thriller genres. The themes on the surface are of integrity and standing up for what you believe in, but there’s lovelessness and the destructive power of it. No one wants to hear four hours about an essay,” he jokes. “But I didn’t consider the academics. Hopefully there aren’t enough of them to cause a real fuss!”
As Hull indicates, academia is a handy launchpad for the twists that follow in Cheat, which was screened at Berlinale last month ahead of its ITV launch next Monday. By the time episode one ends, audiences quickly realise that the answers they’re seeking can’t be found in a textbook.
Cleaning Up stars Sheridan Smith as an office cleaner who attempts to clear her gambling debts by entering the murky world of insider trading. Smith, her fellow cast members, writer Mark Marlow and executive producer Jane Featherstone discuss making the six-part ITV drama.
During a screen career spanning more than 20 years, Sheridan Smith has won acclaim for her portrayal of real people in biopics such as The Moorside, Mrs Biggs, The C Word and Cilla. So it’s surprising to hear her reveal that the most stressful part of appearing in ITV drama Cleaning Up was playing Sam, the fictional lead character.
“My own thing is losing myself in Cilla or Mrs Biggs. You have so much research and you focus on their mannerisms. But you hide behind it in a weird way and it’s like, I didn’t know what to do with Sam really,” the actor admits. “That was the most challenging thing for me. You do end up getting angsty with it, because Sam’s living on her nerves. But I have learned to leave it there now and not take it home, if I can. I still go to my own personal stuff to get that emotion, so it’s always going to be hard to switch that on and off.”
In the six-part series, created and written by first-time writer Mark Marlow, Sam is part of an invisible army of minimum-wage cleaners who sweep, polish and dust the offices of a financial firm whose offices look out across London from the city’s towering Canary Wharf district. But struggling with an online gambling addiction and drowning in debt, the mother-of-two begins to use valuable inside information to bet big on the stock market in the hope of changing her fortunes.
After taking some time out of the limelight, stage and screen actor and singer Smith returned with an album last year and an acclaimed performance in BBC one-off drama Care, in which she plays a struggling single mum who finds herself having to care for her elderly mother when the local health authorities refuse to take responsibility.
“She is very vulnerable. I do love playing characters like that,” Smith says of playing Sam. “I also love that she’s such a good mum. [Having children] is something I haven’t done yet, or might not do, but at the heart of it she hasn’t had opportunities that maybe other people got. So I love that she’s got that fire in her belly. Also, the scripts were kind of written on the go because we did it in two blocks. So I didn’t even know what was coming later, which was kind of fun as well because when I was finding stuff out, it was like, ‘Oooh.’ I’ve never had that before. That was quite fun. It has been the longest job I’ve ever done, filming-wise. It was a long shoot, but it’s been fun.”
Cleaning Up completed filming a year ago but the timing of the six-part drama couldn’t be more topical, with gambling and, in particular, mobile gambling apps, being key to the story. It also highlights the plight of the thousands of office cleaners on controversial zero-hour contracts whose work often goes unrecognised or unnoticed.
Smith and co-stars Jade Anouka (Jess) and Branka Katic (Mina) went on a cleaning course to ensure their on-screen performances met the standard of real-life workers, while Smith says she also learned about the stock market and insider trading in a similar fashion to her character, who at one point reads a book called Investing in Shares for Dummies.
“It was confusing to me and completely went over my head when I first started reading about it all. But the great thing is it’s new to Sam as well, so it makes it easier to play because she’s figuring it out as well,” Smith says. “It’s fascinating to learn about it all. I didn’t know anything about that world.”
As Sam’s best friend and fellow cleaner, Jess also becomes drawn into her money-making scheme, hoping to provide a cash injection to her family’s struggling cafe. Anouka, whose previous credits include ITV thriller Trauma, says all the characters are relatable. “I can see people I know who could easily be in these situations. What drew me was these are real people, these are real situations – ordinary people getting themselves into extraordinary situations.”
But while Sam’s cleaning job means no one would suspect her involvement in illicit economic activity, financial trader Blake (Ben Bailey Smith), who unwittingly becomes Sam’s initial source of information, doesn’t quite have the same protection as he picks up stocks for a mysterious buyer whose identity remains a secret through the first episode.
“Blake is playing with high stakes. That’s not lost on him. But to counteract that, there’s also a disturbing sense of nonchalance about what he’s doing, which should tell the audience he’s done it many times,” Bailey Smith says. “If you keep the amount small and the number of times you do it disparate, it will probably fall by the wayside rather than go under the microscope. Blake in that first episode is worried about the microscope, and what’s fascinating about Sam is she feels she’s so far away from that microscope, so why not do it? So I guess you’re seeing, in a funny way, where you can be in terms of tension, panic, worry, concern and fear deeper into the game in Blake, but you’re also seeing what it’s like to start [in Sam].”
Cleaning Up was created by Marlow, who teamed up with lead director Lewis Arnold and prodco Sister Pictures to bring the series to ITV after conceiving the story while watching big-screen blockbuster The Wolf of Wall Street. A former video editor, Marlow had been “trying to be a writer” for five years until Arnold introduced him to Sister founder Jane Featherstone (Broadchurch, Humans).
“Lewis and Mark sent me the first draft and I read it and loved it. I was like, ‘But you’re a brand new writer, so this is great but can you do a rewrite?’” Featherstone recalls. “I said, ‘Here are my thoughts on it, if you can do a rewrite, I’ll take it on, because if you can’t there’s no point in being a TV writer.’ That’s the process of scriptwriting, that’s normal. We do that on every single script, but I didn’t know if Mark could do that – and it turned out he could. So I took it on and we did 15 more drafts and then took it to ITV when it was this very beautiful thing Mark had really honed. They greenlit it within about a week.”
Marlow then faced the “daunting” challenge of writing the remaining five episodes, having only ever written a handful of pilot spec scripts. Thankfully, he had an idea of how episode two might begin and that kickstarted the process, which he describes as a huge learning curve.
Key to the script was getting the character of Sam right – an exercise the writer completed with the help of input from Arnold. “I knew the idea of the show was big but it would fall down if you didn’t believe the character would do something,” Marlow explains. “So I spent many weeks talking to Lewis about what we needed to get Sam correct, particularly in the first half of the first episode, so when we see her going down this criminal path, you totally buy that this person is going to do this. Lewis was helpful in getting that right. Then, once we were happy we had a character that worked, that was the version Jane saw.”
Filming was largely split between London’s iconic Canary Wharf district and a housing estate in the shadow of tower blocks, where Sam lives with her two daughters. A suitable home was found on the Isle of Dogs, with Featherstone admitting it was important to get the location right.
“I’m really fussy about that sort of thing and getting it right, so we built the interior of the house in a studio and used the exterior on the Isle of Dogs,” she says, revealing that cameras weren’t allowed to film on land owned by the Canary Wharf management company due to the subject of the drama. “But there’s a patch of land in front of Canary Wharf Tube station, not owned by Canary Wharf, so all the scenes in Canary Wharf have to be there, all on private land.
“All the banks also said no to filming but there’s a floor owned by an office rental company in one of those very tall buildings and we rented that, so we were there.”
While broadcasters can be nervous about commissioning scripts from fresh writers, Sister Pictures’ involvement put ITV at ease, giving Marlow the space and support he needed to write the drama, which is distributed internationally by ITV Studios Global Entertainment. Featherstone says the story was “irresistible” to her, though the fact it isn’t strictly a ‘genre’ piece was one of the most difficult elements of the project.
“Everyone’s desperate for stories but it’s difficult to make things that don’t have a genre underpinning them,” she explains. “It’s the hardest thing of all, because there’s no body. What we did have was a criminal element in terms of the jeopardy, and the stakes are there because of what Sam’s getting involved with. But really it’s a family drama.”
Featherstone and Marlow have discussed storylines for possible second and third seasons, though they admit Cleaning Up’s future rests with viewers and whether they follow Sam’s morally dubious journey into the murky world of insider trading.
For her part, Smith says she would also be keen to come back to the show, which begins on ITV on January 9. And as a keen observer of the creative process through production, she is now developing plans to set up her own prodco and build a future off-screen.
“There are a lot of exciting things [I’d like to produce],” she says. “There are lots of things I’m planning to do this year, a lot of great acting roles, so I’ve still got that. But, going forward, that’s the next dream – being creatively involved and maybe doing some more behind the scenes. Who knows, I might direct; I don’t know. That might be 20 years down the line. I’m just exploring the whole thing of being able to develop things with people and have much more say in it all.”
A feature-length drama explores how British ice skaters Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean overcame humble beginnings to win gold at the 1984 Winter Olympics. DQ speaks to writer William Ivory and skating consultants Nick Buckland and Penny Coomes about making the ITV film.
Such is the fame and unrivalled legacy of British ice skaters Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean that few who watch a new ITV film based on their rise to fame will not know the result of the 1984 Winter Olympics that saw them perform their iconic Bolero routine in Sarajevo.
Yet it’s a sign of the emotional tension in Torvill & Dean that you’re still willing them to grab first place as if you were watching the real thing for the first time.
Torvill & Dean stars Poppy Lee Friar (Ackley Bridge) and Will Tudor (Game of Thrones) in the respective lead roles as writer William Ivory (Made in Dagenham) charts the pair’s early years, from the first time they ventured onto the ice to those final moments that saw them clinch Olympic gold.
The Darlow Smithson production’s cast also includes Anita Dobson, Stephen Tomkinson, Jo Hartley, Dean Andrews, Christine Bottomley, Jaime Winston and Susan Earl. The executive producers are Ivory and Emily Dalton, the producer is Emma Burge and the director is Gillies MacKinnon. International distribution is handled by Endemol Shine International.
The biopic, which is described as a fictionalised account of true events, opens in Nottingham in 1968 with Jayne and Chris as children in their family homes. Jayne is introduced to skating on a school trip, while Chris, following his parents’ separation, is given a pair of skates by his new stepmother.
Both begin to train with different partners, before they are brought together and are soon taking part in competitions. But with both having full-time jobs and commitments beyond the rink, they face an uphill battle to achieve their dreams.
Ivory has form as a screenwriter of one-off biopics, penning 2012’s rowing-focused Bert & Dickie to tie in with that year’s London Olympics. He also wrote Burton & Taylor, about the relationship between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, the following year.
“I’m a bit down on so many shows that are either procedurals or there are dead bodies lying around. It gets harder and harder to write dramas that aren’t like that, truthfully,” he says of the appeal of Torvill & Dean. “So to be able to write something that is an exploration of two people and how they came to be the successes they were is wonderful.”
The writer says he approaches all fact-based dramas in the same way – by finding a personal connection to the material. When he was first approached to write Torvill & Dean four years ago, he turned the project down because he didn’t think he could add any value to their story. Then he met exec producer Dalton, and the figure skaters themselves, and became interested in their creative process and how they work together as artists.
Torvill and Dean read various drafts of the script and gave notes, but all the time understood Ivory was keen to get under their skin and explore certain themes and moments in their lives that they may not have considered significant. Some lines were cut, other bits were kept in, while some scenes were transplanted from one location or time to another to meet the practicalities of the script.
As a result, “I believe this film is part of their iconography now,” Ivory says. “It might sound ridiculously overblown but I think they’ve been doing something really interesting right through their careers and they are still exploring something, they are trying to push themselves creatively all the time and I admire that.
“There’s one bit in the film that’s a denouement and is a speech I’d entirely made up, but Chris read it and said, ‘That’s me.’ That’s really gratifying. It’s hard because you don’t want to mess up somebody’s life.”
In the film, the contrasting personalities of Torvill and Dean become clear, with the latter more abrasive and abrupt while Torvill appears gentler and more accommodating.
“Sometimes I think with Chris it’s almost like he can’t articulate what he’s feeling, yet he’s feeling it with such great passion and force and sometimes that can be quite frustrating for him. And Jayne has just got this incredible ability to take that raw, unfettered emotion and kind of convert it into movement and dance on the ice,” Ivory explains. “At times, she had to be the more accommodating to achieve what they wanted, otherwise they could have combusted. I think they were just incredible.”
With biopics often focusing on one particular event, it’s interesting that Ivory chose to write a broad take on Torvill and Dean, from their childhood to the Bolero in 1984. When he wrote Bert & Dickie, he recalls, he cut the first 90 pages of the script, as it was all backstory, to give the show a singular focus on Dickie Burnell and Bert Bushnell’s bid for gold at the 1948 Olympics.
In this case, Ivory was keen to show where Torvill and Dean had come from and, in particular, the fact that they didn’t receive any help on their journey to becoming world-class skaters. Dean, in particular, had an unsettled childhood, which features in the film, and the writer believes this informed his demand for precision and the stories in their dances, which were often about love or unrequited love.
And though Ivory was given a lot of creative freedom – he relocated one skating competition from Bristol to Sheffield – there is only one character he made up, Mark Benton’s ice rink worker Ted. “Bizarrely, that was the one I had the most problems with because we had to make sure there was nobody around at the time who could be mistaken for that character, because I made it all up about him and his role,” he says. “He’s this anchor to the world they came from and to which they never quite left. He also represents the pride Nottingham has for Jayne and Chris – we take great joy and reflected glory in their success.”
Unsurprisingly, the challenges of making Torvill & Dean centred on scenes filmed on the ice, which Ivory describes as a “very hostile environment” for a film crew. Not only was it tough to light correctly, but recreating the skaters’ extremely difficult routines also proved tricky.
That was where Nick Buckland and Penny Coomes, five-time British ice skating champions and three-time Olympians, came in, acting as consultants, skating doubles and mentors on the drama. The couple also trained in Nottingham, with Dean among their coaching team, and cited Torvill and Dean as their main inspirations.
Filming took place in Belfast, where they felt “huge” responsibility to ensure the skating was accurate and authentic.
“Our world is a funny one because you just get to see the end product – you get to see the sparkles, the make-up, the music, the lights. And you don’t really get to see what it takes to get to that point,” Coomes explains. “I for one have been through more than my fair share of injuries, and you see that [in the film] too. It’s nice to give our sport this exposure to show that, yes, it’s an amazing thing to be an athlete, but it’s hard too. I think it’s honest and real; that’s what I love about it.”
Leading actors Friar and Tudor didn’t get too much time to train before the shoot, but Buckland and Coomes say they both fell in love with skating. “They wanted to do as much as they could possibly do within the movie, so it was great to work with people who were enthusiastic and wanted to get it right and take the time,” Coomes says. “It’s hard because they had such a tall order to skate and be Jayne and Chris. It was something that was quite daunting for us but they definitely did well.”
Buckland reveals they started a WhatsApp group where they would share pictures of movements and poses they wanted the actors to learn, communicating with them around the clock.
Then on the ice, Friar and Tudor would skate together, and for any complex moves, Buckland and Coomes would step onto the rink. Sometimes Tudor would dance with Coomes, and Friar with Buckland, depending on the shot required by the director.
“They were very clever in the way they filmed it,” Buckland says. “We got a variety of all sorts of different routines Torvill and Dean did the whole way through. But it’s about the story, really, and the story is about them and their relationship on and off the ice. The skating is just one part of their journey.”
“The challenge was mainly having enough time to give each scene everything and making sure we went through everything properly,” Coomes adds. “It did add a different dynamic to what the film crew and the director were used to. It took some time to get things going, and certain scenes took longer than others. Like anything, you always wish you had a little more time.”
With Torvill & Dean airing as the centrepiece of ITV’s Christmas Day schedule, Ivory hopes viewers will be left with a greater appreciation of the sacrifices the duo made to reach the top.
“I think they made sacrifices for their art, rather than their sport. For me, that’s an even more noble thing to do,” he says. “We see where they come from and we see their circumstances. They had no money, no help. They came from really simple backgrounds, and to achieve what they did, I think it’s really worth celebrating. We’re not great at celebrating our heroes in this country, and we should do with them.”
As London faces increasing demand for studio space, DQ visits Manchester to find out how the UK city and Space Studios are proving to be an attractive filming proposition for high-end television drama productions.
For many television makers and watchers, Manchester will always be known as the home of ITV’s iconic soap Coronation Street. The long-running series, its former home at Granada Studios and its move to MediaCityUK, where the BBC can also now be found, have certainly helped to put the north-west English city on the map when it comes to TV production.
But with the demand for studio space in London at an increasing premium, coupled with the requirement of UK broadcasters to see dramas created and set outside the capital, Manchester is now becoming an attractive destination for high-end drama producers through Space Studios and its partnership with Screen Manchester.
Located on the outskirts of the city centre, Space Studios still looks box fresh, with an array of towering sound stages, workshops, business units and car park space that doubles as room for unit bases. Equipment companies including Panavision and Provision are among those on site.
It was here that upcoming Sky1 street-racing drama Curfew took over three stages for six months of filming, while walking down the numerous corridors reveals that offices have been allocated to ITV crime drama The Bay’s costume department, BBC period series World on Fire’s art department and Amazon and Liberty Global’s psychological drama The Feed’s art department and production office.
Other recent dramas to have been filmed there include Cold Feet and The A Word.
Built on the site of the former West Gorton housing estate, which became synonymous with Channel 4 drama Shameless, Space Studios opened in May 2014 as a purpose-built facility for high-end TV, film and commercial production. Six sound stages offer more than 85,000 sq ft, with the imposing stage six, which opened in February this year as part of a £14m (US$17.9m) expansion, offering 30,000 sq ft alone, with adjacent room for props, set builds and dressing rooms.
The Space project was originally devised by Sue Woodward, a former MD of ITV Granada, founding director of social enterprise Sharp Futures and founder of The Sharp Project, a hub that is home to more than 60 entrepreneurs in the city specialising in digital content production, digital media and film and TV production. Both Space Studios and The Sharp Project are managed by Manchester Creative Digital Assets (MCDA), which was set up by Manchester City Council to oversee the city’s digital, production and creative sectors.
The Sharp Project was opened on the site of a former Sharp electronics distribution warehouse, which was bought by the city after the company vacated the premises. Series such as comedies Fresh Meat and Mount Pleasant have been filmed there and the success of the venture led to the decision to create a dedicated production facility on the site of a former Fujitsu electronics factory.
Colin Johnson, director of screens and facilities at Space Studios, recalls: “We knew that we could make television in the city because we’d done it at The Sharp Project, and we could tell there was going to be a big uplift in demand [for production space] because of OTT and SVoD platforms commissioning drama, tax breaks and people being displaced from London.”
Phase one was completed in 2014 and since then, “we’ve been pretty full ever since,” Johnson adds.
The land where stage six was built was a former Victorian pump factory, which was adopted by Space Studios once it became clear there was sufficient demand for a larger sound stage. Further space on an adjacent site has recently been cleared, with the potential to expand further.
Throughout its development, and beyond, it has also sought to be an anchor in the local community, working with Sharp Futures to offer apprenticeship schemes and keen to plug into the surrounding talent pool through job opportunities and skills days.
“London’s full and we’re here. It’s as simple as that,” Johnson says of Space Studios’ success. “We’ll show producers the space before they get the job and then they pick up the phone to us and say, ‘Have you got availability?’ We’re getting those calls because of the ground work we’ve put in early on. Some of the people bringing jobs in we showed round when stage six wasn’t there or showed round when we were a building site. We’re here – and London seems to be full.”
Rob Page, commercial director of MCDA, continues: “The ecology’s here as well, most importantly, in Manchester, whether it be crews or Screen Manchester assisting you while you’re on location. We’re not just another warehouse in the middle of nowhere without an ecosystem surrounding you.”
Much has been made of new studios planned for London, in particular a £100m proposal to build 12 sound stages as part of a complex in Dagenham, east London. Approval for the plans was received in February this year. But Johnson and Page stress that, in contrast, Space Studios is ready now. “We’re really well placed in that we have the skills, we’re in the centre of the country, we have the stages and these facilities,” Johnson adds.
Beyond Space Studios, Manchester has been home to location shoots for series including Age Before Beauty, No Offence, Our Girl, Snatch and Scott & Bailey. Castles and coastlines are also within reach of the city centre.
But until Screen Manchester launched in July 2017, the city didn’t have a formal film office. Since then, development manager Bobby Cochrane says Sky1’s Curfew has become the biggest drama Manchester has done to date. The office facilitated racing scenes by closing Mancunian Way, an elevated highway linking the east and west of the city.
Streets around Manchester’s viaducts, Northern Quarter and Spring Gardens areas can also double for London and New York, while Hugh Grant’s BBC1 drama A Very English Scandal also spent several days filming inside Manchester Town Hall, which shares similar interior architecture to the Houses of Parliament.
Working in partnership with Space Studios, the aim is to become a one-stop shop where producers can find studio space, locations and seek permissions such as road closures under one roof.
Cochrane adds: “Manchester has got a central hub where everything you can do in the city is under one umbrella. We want it to be a global film-friendly city.”
William Makepeace Thackeray’s classic novel Vanity Fair has been adapted for UK broadcaster ITV and streamer Amazon. DQ speaks to the writer and some of the key creative talent behind the camera to find out how this strikingly contemporary series was made.
Ten years ago, Gwyneth Hughes began writing an adaptation of Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray’s 19th century novel long considered a classic of English literature. Her modern update of the story never made it to screen, however, and her work was left unfinished.
Fast-forward a decade and Hughes (Dark Angel, Remember Me) has penned a new version, this time keeping its period setting, which will premiere in the UK on ITV on September 2 and on Amazon Prime Video in the US later this year.
Set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, the story follows Becky Sharp as she attempts to claw her way out of poverty and scale the heights of English society.
Hughes describes the source material as “an absolute romp” that bounces between extremes, from light comedy to terrible tragedy. She has sought to keep that variation in her adaptation, but says large parts of the second half of the book have been trimmed, when the pace of events becomes decidedly slower. As a result, the Battle of Waterloo, which happens halfway through Thackeray’s tome, takes place in episode five of the seven-part series.
In relation to the story’s heroine, “all the other characters have money, they’ve all got family and middle-class incomes, but she’s alone in the world,” the writer says. “She thinks she deserves better, and her sense of entitlement that drives her all the way through the story is a really modern theme, in bad ways as well as good. In the end, you love her without liking her because she behaves so badly at times – but that also makes her extremely relatable.”
Despite making some cuts, the production sought to be as faithful to the source material as possible. On set, producer Julia Stannard would carry copies of Thackeray’s novel as well as Hughes’ scripts so the subtext of the author’s work was never lost in adaptation.
“With seven hours of drama, you’re asking people to make a big investment in terms of their time to keep coming back and watching, so you have to care about the characters,” Stannard says. “That is a big challenge for Vanity Fair because it is a world inhabited by flawed characters. So how do you make it emotionally engaging without dumbing it down or changing the original text? Thackeray cared a lot about these characters and I think we’ve created a world in which our audience will care about those characters too.”
After working on several contemporary series such as Broadchurch and Liar, director James Strong found the new challenge he was looking for in Vanity Fair, revealing that he was drawn towards the variety and scale of the story as well as the team he would be working with. The series comes from Mammoth Screen and is distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.
“Gwyneth had done an amazing adaptation; she distilled the essence of the book into the story so, for me, it was about finding a visual language that made it feel relevant, exciting and interesting,” Strong says of his approach behind the camera. “Some period dramas can be quite reverential and respectful. This one I wanted to feel very much like it was a period drama shot in a contemporary manner.”
In practice, Strong used zooms, steadicam and handheld cameras to shoot the series, mixed with wide-angle lenses that could convey huge scale. “Then you’re up close with the characters in an intimate and personal way, always with Becky at the heart of it,” he explains. “Her vision, her perspective of the world around her, also dictates the camera pattern and style, so we look at it though her eyes quite literally in many ways.”
Becky is played by up-and-coming actor Olivia Cooke (Bates Motel), who heads a cast that also includes Johnny Flynn as Dobbin, Martin Clunes (Sir Pitt Crawley), Frances de La Tour (Miss Matilda Crawley) and Suranne Jones (Miss Pinkerton), while Michael Palin appears as Thackeray himself. The series also features Claudia Jessie as Becky’s confidante, Amelia Sedley, plus Simon Russell Beale and Claire Skinner as Amelia’s parents and David Fynn as her brother, Joss.
By the time Vanity Fair airs, Cooke will be a huge Hollywood star, thanks to her role in Steven Spielberg’s futuristic nostalgia trip Ready Player One. “Our little Olivia is going to be Steven Spielberg’s latest heroine and then she’s going to pop up as Becky Sharp. It’s great,” muses Hughes. “She’s very talented; she’s going to go far. We were very lucky to catch her on the way up.”
Stannard picks up: “We wanted to put together a cast that felt surprising, so Olivia was not a TV name, she’s a movie star. Martin Clunes is in his first big period drama, Frances de La Tour is a national treasure. And our young cast, I can guarantee, will be household names in a couple of years. Johnny Flynn, Charlie Rowe, Tom Bateman, Claudia Jessie, they’re all incredibly talented young actors.”
Shooting began in September 2017 and finished at the beginning of February, with most filming taking place in London. The crew also spent time in Budapest, which doubled for scenes set in Brussels and Pumpernickel, a small Germany principality featured in the novel.
“A lot of them have to be period-correct so it was a big challenge to find the right locations,” Strong says. “A lot of settings [such as characters’ houses] are composites so we do the drawing room and the bedrooms in one place, then you do the exterior in one place and the kitchen or the garden somewhere else.”
All in all, Vanity Fair was shot on 120 sets across 12 weeks. And while the series was filmed entirely on location, visual effects played their part in bringing the sets to life.
“The job has definitely changed over the years and I’m embracing it because we can’t physically do everything,” says production designer Anna Pritchard (Broadchurch, Top Boy). “The time pressure of building streets and covering roads, especially when you go back in time and do 1815, there might be one Georgian building but it’s changed so many times… You could build from scratch but you know you’re spending thousands and thousands of pounds and it doesn’t ever look 100%. So what VFX can do for us is absolutely amazing.
“It was such a beautiful project to work on because it was so varied – we got to build streets and all the characters’ houses. I loved every single one of them. Even going to Budapest was fantastic. We made good use of their period architecture.”
With location logistics and actor availability complicating proceedings, the production schedule was akin to a military exercise – quite literally when it came to filming sequences recreating the Battle of Waterloo, the centrepiece of the show. “We had 300 men playing Napoleonic soldiers living in camp. We had 50 horses, plus armourers, explosions. We had VFX, drones and sometimes two or three shooting crews, costume and make-up,” reveals Strong. “All of that is a massive undertaking and, at the centre of it, you’ve got to keep the vision going and deal with the weather and whatever it throws at you.”
Strong is no stranger to televisual set pieces, having assassinated JFK in Hulu drama 11.22.63 and overseen multiple alien invasions in Doctor Who. But he hadn’t orchestrated a Napoleonic battle before. Likewise, Hughes had previously never written a war scene.
“There’s actually more of it [in the script] than Thackeray wrote in the book,” she says. “And never in my whole writing life have I been asked to write a scene that began ‘Ext – Battlefield – Day.’ You write that and then think, ‘Now what?’ I learned to write a battle, so that was fun.”
“Day one and, oh my gosh, it’s war – and how are we going to do it?” says Pritchard, recalling the first time she read the script. “It’s all about the cavalry, the horses, the cannons and the weapons, the artillery and the armoury. But the wonderful thing about battles is it’s all set in a field. So for me, it’s not so much about what I’m going to build but the art of war and how we make it look good. A lot of fine detail and research went into that.”
Stannard, however, is well versed in battle scenes, having previously produced War & Peace for the BBC. So when she joined Vanity Fair early in its development, she was quick to call in military adviser Paul Biddiss and horsemasters The Devil’s Horsemen, having worked with both on the Tolstoy adaptation.
“Thackeray doesn’t go into a great amount of detail about the battle but what was important was these are very privileged young men and they have never really faced any challenges in life,” she says. “Suddenly they’re thrown onto a battlefield, young men in their early 20s, and they literally don’t know what’s about to hit them. It’s about the shock and the contrast between their very privileged lives in London and the reality of suddenly becoming soldiers. That felt like a massive journey for those characters and it felt like it would be a cheat if we didn’t show the audience that and let them share that experience.”
Hughes has form when it comes to television adaptations, having penned a version of Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood. She also wrote the biographical Miss Austen Regrets, based on the life of novelist Jane Austen, known for works such as Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility.
“You don’t have to read Vanity Fair. It’s alright, I read it for you,” Hughes says, echoing the words of fellow writer Andrew Davies when he spoke about adapting Tolstoy’s War & Peace in 2016. “So for people who never pick up a book, they can still enjoy this wonderful story. We always come back to these stories because they are the best stories ever written. That’s why they’ve lasted.”
That timelessness is also why Stannard believes classic works of literature continue to be remade for the small screen. “I’m not really interested in making drama that just feels locked in that time,” she says. “What I’m interested in is looking at the key themes of the book and what’s happening for those characters and relating it to the here and now.
“It’s a great challenge to adapt a book that’s been adapted before. The biggest challenge for us was probably making it feel fresh and different. I hope and believe we’ve done that.”