Tag Archives: James Norton

Trial by television

The writer and producing team behind The Trial of Christine Keeler tell DQ about dramatising the real-life story behind the woman at the centre of one of British politics’ biggest scandals.

Political dramas possess all the ingredients of must-watch television, from power, sex and double-crossing to emotional themes and ethical and moral dilemmas – and their appeal is heightened further when they are based on real events.

The next instalment of Ryan Murphy’s FX series American Crime Story will analyse the impeachment of former US president Bill Clinton, while last year’s British miniseries A Very English Scandal received widespread acclaim for dramatising the events surrounding MP Jeremy Thorpe’s trial for conspiring to murder his ex-lover in the 1960s/70s.

Arguably better known in the annals of British politics is the scandal known as the Profumo affair, which saw prime minister Harold Macmillan’s government plunged into crisis in 1961 when John Profumo, the secretary of state for war, was discovered to have been having a relationship with 19-year-old model Christine Keeler.

After initially denying the affair, Profumo was later forced to admit the truth. However, attention surrounding the pair grew following claims Keeler may also have been involved with Soviet naval captain Yevgeny Ivanov, creating a possible security risk. Keeler met both men through her friendship with osteopath Stephen Ward, who was later charged with a series of immorality offences.

James Norton as Dr Stephen Ward and Sophie Cookson as Christine Keeler

The chain of events surrounding the Profumo affair is now being dramatised by UK pubcaster BBC, in a show that will go beyond the headlines to tell the story from Keeler’s perspective and explore how this young woman found herself at the centre of a political and media storm, long before the days of social media.

The Trial of Christine Keeler stars Sophie Cookson (Kingsman: The Secret Service) as the titular character, with James Norton (McMafia) as Stephen Ward and Ellie Bamber (War & Peace) as Keeler’s friend Mandy Rice-Davies, who also becomes embroiled in the scandal.

When DQ visits the set during filming, the production is in the historical English city of Bath, where Ward’s court case is being shot. A room in Bath’s grand Guildhall has been transformed into a chamber from London’s Old Bailey courthouse, where barristers wearing traditional robes and wigs take their place. Men in suits fill the seats reserved for the jury, their eyes flicking back and forth between witness Keeler and defence barrister James Burge (Peter Davison) as if they were watching a tennis match.

Noting the presence of Davison, a former Doctor Who star whose daughter, actor Georgia Moffett, is married to another ex-Doctor Who lead in David Tennant, executive producer Kate Triggs quips: “We’re time travelling today.”

Via Great Meadow Productions, the label she runs with Robert Cooper, Triggs has produced a number of shows about real people, particularly women, including the late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. She also produced Room at the Top, a two-part adaptation of John Braine’s post-war novel, written by Amanda Coe.

Triggs was thinking of other women who might make interesting drama subjects when Keeler’s name came to mind. She mentioned the project to Coe and then the BBC came on board, though the show went on hiatus while Coe penned another BBC adaptation, Apple Tree Yard. Triggs then joined Mistresses producer Ecosse Films, which coproduces the six-part series with Great Meadow. Keshet International is the global distributor, with Endeavor Content co-distributing in the US.

The Trial of Christine Keeler used Bath for location shooting

This isn’t the first time the Profumo affair has been dramatised on screen, feature Scandal coming in 1989. But Triggs saw the series as an opportunity to redress the story from Keeler’s position.

“The fact it’s called the ‘Profumo affair’ and not the ‘Christine Keeler affair’ – her name’s hardly mentioned,” she says. “We thought it would be really interesting to see it from her point of view as much as possible and put her and Mandy Rice-Davies at the heart of the story.

“As these things take a long time to develop – we’re talking five or six years to the point of shooting – a number of things have come to the fore, in that the story felt resonant for very different reasons over those five years, which always makes you feel really confident about the story, because there are so many aspects to it. Now, in the post-#MeToo period, what happens in the story and the extent to which it deals with gender, power and sexual politics is really hitting the mark.”

Keeler, who died in 2017, 11 years after Profumo, spoke to the production via an intermediary and was keen to stress that she shouldn’t be portrayed as a victim in the saga. “There still is a feeling that Christine was just a call girl and just a good-time girl who deserved what she got,” says Trigg. “A lot of people don’t even know she later went to jail for perjury, which is a story I’m excited to show because you need to know that to understand the totality of her experience.

“Equally with Stephen Ward, there’s a contingent of people who still think his trial was a miscarriage of justice, but it’s more about understanding who he was to Christine and who Christine was to him, which I think this show and Amanda’s scripts do really beautifully.

“It’s also just a really personal story for young women and young men. And if it were happening today, Christine and certainly Mandy would be on Big Brother or some reality show because it would have been viral and gone everywhere.”

Researching the period, Triggs recalls wondering how Coe would ever be able to distil the events into a coherent set of scripts. “Then I got the first script and I vividly remember reading it and thinking, ‘She’s done it. She’s nailed it.’ It’s just fantastic – Christine is like this wrecking ball going through the script. She’s done an amazing job.”

Cookson and Ellie Bamber, who plays Keeler’s friend Mandy Rice-Davies

Speaking to DQ in a cafe beside the Guildhall, Coe says the scandal immediately struck her as great territory for a TV drama, adding that it cuts through layers of society at the time by touching on issues of class, gender, sexuality and race. “It was a bit of a gift,” the writer says. “It’s arguably something we’d find very trivial now, but it became something that imbibed the national consciousness and brought down the government – and that’s a big deal.”

Producer Rebecca Ferguson (Cold Feet, Next of Kin) believes The Trial of Christine Keeler contains many of the perennial themes of great drama. “There’s corruption, sex, lies, infidelity, friendship, love, politics and a light sprinkling of espionage – all the things that make great drama are present in this story,” she says. “We’ve been quite focused in terms of how we make it, and it isn’t like a classical period drama. Amanda’s writing is so fast-moving and fast-paced, with lots of short scenes. There’s a natural rhythm and modernity to it, so we’ve made sure how we make it isn’t in a stately, reverential way. We’re quite energised.”

Coe says she treats Keeler as a sympathetic figure, though one who will still divide viewers. She also offers a glimpse of her background and home life, revealing how she ended up as a dancer at the club where she would meet Ward and Rice-Davies. Original court and police transcripts heavily inform the scripts, “but it’s all woven in. It’s quite enjoyable dropping in the real dialogue,” she says. “It’s a bit like restoring a painting.”

One notable real-life line comes from Bamber as Rice-Davies, who, in response to Burge asserting that her lover Lord Astor had denied having an affair or even meeting her, famously replied, “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?”

The remark draws laughs from the court’s public gallery when it is recreated on set, with Bamber also letting out a giggle before she remembers where she is and straightens up.

Filming has taken place across the west of England, and particularly in and around Bristol’s Bottle Yard Studios, where the interiors of Ward’s London home and Marylebone Police Station were recreated. Other locations included Bristol Central Library as the police station exterior, the Wills Memorial Building for the House of Commons and the Lord Mayor’s Mansion House, which doubled as a Mayfair restaurant and hotel room. Overall, 17 weeks were spent in Bristol, with eight days at the Guildhall in Bath.

“I was quite worried initially, thinking, ‘How do we get 1960s London in Bristol?’ But lots of shows have done London here,” Ferguson says. “The crews down here are brilliant and the practical side of making the show has been a joy.”

As well as two female directors, Andrea Harkin and Leanne Wellham, most of the department heads are women, with the exception of DOP Joel Devlin, who worked across all six episodes. “It’s always the best person for the job but it’s just generally changing behind the camera,” Ferguson says of the increasing number of women in key roles.

“There’s still quite a long way to go in terms of giving female directors a chance to do the job and herald a quite big series. That decision came from Amanda, Kate and I and it’s just filtered through the whole production – and on a show like this, it felt right. We were doing quite sensitive, difficult things on set, with some abusive scenes and sex scenes. Often crews are predominantly male and a set can feel like quite a male environment, and we wanted to make sure that atmosphere wasn’t created for Ellie, Sophie, James and everyone. It had an ease to it and I definitely think that gender balance helps that.”

Fly-fishing scenes featuring Profumo in Scotland proved difficult when heavy rains saw rivers swell, while removing the furniture and fixtures of modern streets is always a time-consuming process for any period drama. Ferguson says the team also made the “mad but worthwhile” decision to build half of the benches inside the House of Commons, so wide shots could capture extras seated behind the main actors, rather than relying on close-ups.

For Triggs, the appeal of the eries comes down to “that age-old thing of sex and power. That’s what it’s about. It does have both of those things in it and it has young people going through a particular, intense experience, but it also has lots of fun.”

Is Coe worried viewers who know the outcome of the story might not tune in, or that viewers might seek spoilers online? Not at all, it seems, due to the show’s focus on Keeler’s perspective. “There’s that weird thing in TV drama, the ‘what next’ element, but sometimes dramas you really enjoy are ones you just want to hang out with,” she says. “You just like being in that world and seeing those performances.”

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Fresh face

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

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

Emma Kingsman-Lloyd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diederick Santer

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Brittney plays new vicar Will, a keen boxer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Making McMafia

McMafia stars James Norton (War & Peace, Happy Valley) as Alex Godman, the English-raised son of Russian exiles with a mafia history.

Alex has spent his life trying to escape his family’s criminal past, but finds himself forced to confront his values as he struggles against the lure of corruption.

In this DQTV interview, co-creators Hossein Amini (Drive) and James Watkins (The Woman in Black) discuss how they worked together to turn Misha Glenny’s non-fiction book into a global drama set in a world where the mob is no longer confined to one location.

They also talk about casting Norton in the lead role and how they wanted to capture the same authenticity and tone laid out in Glenny’s book.

McMafia is produced by Cuba Pictures for BBC1 and AMC and distributed by BBC Worldwide.

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