Bafta- and Emmy-winning writer Abi Morgan’s drama The Split is described as an authentic multi-layered exploration of modern marriage and the legacy of divorce.
The story plays out through the lens of the Defoes – a family of female lawyers at the heart of London’s emotionally charged divorce circuit.
Leading divorce lawyer Hannah Stern (Nicola Walker) has walked out on the family firm to join a rival company, and she now faces her sister Nina (Annabel Scholey) and mother Ruth (Deborah Findlay), also successful family lawyers, on the opposing side of high-profile divorce cases.
When their father Oscar (Anthony Head) returns after a 30-year absence, Hannah, Nina and youngest sister Rose (Fiona Button) are thrown further into turmoil.
Speaking to DQTV, executive producer Jane Featherstone and director Jessica Hobbs reveal how the six-part series balances the demands of episodic and serialised storytelling, and discuss the importance of casting.
They also talk about making the series with both BBC1 and US cable channel SundanceTV, and the buoyant TV business in which Featherstone’s recently established production company Sister Pictures is finding its feet.
The Split is produced by Sister Pictures for BBC1 and SundanceTV and distributed by BBC Studios (formerly BBC Worldwide).
Award-winning writer Abi Morgan explores the highly charged world of divorce lawyers for her latest BBC drama, The Split. DQ visits the set to hear how the female-led series was influenced by US legal dramas – and Sex & the City.
Abi Morgan was chatting to another mum while watching her daughter playing hockey when she was hit by inspiration for her newest television series. The woman, dressed in jeans and a jumper, was frantically responding to calls and texts on her phone while trying to also concentrate on the fiercely contested school match. Intrigued, Morgan asked her what she did. She was a divorce lawyer.
“I loved the contradiction of this woman, who was very dressed down to watch the game, dealing with all these acrimonious exchanges all while she was trying to keep an eye on the match,” recalls Morgan, the Bafta- and Emmy-winning writer of Suffragette, The Iron Lady and The Hour. “We got talking about her job and one of the key things she said to me was that it’s an area of the law that, unusually, is predominantly populated by women. It is regarded as the unsexy end of law but its about so much more than being in a courtroom. And immediately this incredible landscape unfolded.”
A year later, with Sister Pictures producer Jane Featherstone (who the writer worked with on River and The Hour) on board, Morgan is chatting with DQ in what used to be the Holborn office for one of London’s top law firms. This is the wonderfully apt set of The Split, a sexy, glamorous, romantic and entertaining six-part drama set in the world of female divorce lawyers for the rich and famous.
“I had just come from writing Suffragette, which featured this incredible, diverse group of female soldiers,” Morgan says. “I wanted to do another very strong group of women but also women who could look incredibly sexy and powerful and hold their own in what would have traditionally been a male domain.
“And I loved the idea that it meant we could really look at modern marriage. I am always fascinated by the truths we tell each other, particularly when you are just a few women alone at a book club or mums’ night out.”
Morgan doesn’t mind admitting The Split was influenced by hit US legal dramas The Good Wife, Suits and Law & Order. It’s a British show but it’s unusually, and surprisingly, glossy. The series is set in a monied world of billionaire businessmen divorcing their first wives for a younger model and young footballers organising their pre-nups before they marry. Each episode will feature a case of the week, while stories about the lawyers and one particular divorcing couple will arc the series.
The star of the show is Unforgiven, Spooks and River actor Nicola Walker, who is almost unrecognisable in her glossy lawyer uniform. “The interesting thing about this show is that everyone is incredibly well dressed,” continues Morgan. “When we were researching, I was chatting to one lawyer and I asked whether her handbag was from Marks & Spencer – I got that a bit wrong: it was a £25,000 tote from Bottega Veneta.
“There is a bit of a Sex & the City vibe with the clothes. That is not something we normally do on British television but it is totally authentic to this world. They all wear heels, even if they kick them off the moment they sit at their desks. They are groomed and glammed up because they have to be. Their female clients are rich women who should be able to recognise their handbags, while they are also dealing with successful men. They need the men to find them attractive but also to know that they can do their job.”
Walker plays top divorce lawyer Hannah as her life is about to turn upside down. After 20 years of working for family law firm Defoe, she quits when her formidable mother Ruth (Deborah Findlay), who runs the company, refuses her a promotion. So she moves to Noble and Hale, a very different, more corporate company, working alongside former lover Christie, played by Barry Atsma. Their flirty friendship leads to her questioning her long marriage with Nathan, portrayed by Episodes star Stephen Mangan.
Meanwhile, 30 years after leaving the family for the nanny, her father (Anthony Head) returns to their lives wanting his slice of the firm Ruth has spent so long building up. It shakes the world of Hannah and her sisters Nina (Annabel Scholey), who is also a divorce lawyer, and millennial Rose (Fiona Button), who has eschewed the high-pressure world to be a nanny.
“I loved the idea of this intergenerational piece,” says producer Featherstone. “It is definitely about modern marriage but it is also about relationships between mothers, daughters, siblings, husbands, brothers and all of those things. It is not just about sexual relationships but also the responsibilities you have within a family. Ruth, the matriarch, has trained her girls to be as independent, strong and fiery as her, but that creates its own problems.”
Morgan, a child of divorce herself who has never married her long-term partner, actor Jacob Krichefski, says the impact of such a significant life event as divorce is examined in terms of both the lawyers and their clients.
“I’ve had divorces within my own family and seen it happen to friends, and I know how complex and difficult and painful it is,” she says. “This also came out of a desire to look at the legacy we give our children when we bring them up and also the ideas about marriage that we inherit.”
Fittingly for such a female-centric drama, it has an all-female creative team. As well as Featherstone and Morgan, Lucy Richer and Lucy Dyke are coproducers, while Jessica Hobbs (Broadchurch, Apple Tree Yard, The Slap) directs the show, which launches on BBC1 tonight. It is distributed by BBC Studios.
The incredible office that doubles for the glossy and modern Noble and Hale was until recently the London headquarters for Olswang, which happened to represent Featherstone when it came to signing her work agreements. The Split’s research team came to talk to solicitors in the office and, when they heard the company was moving out (after a merger), they asked to lease it, having already spent a year trying and failing to find the right spot for their fictional company. The details of the law firm have been copied down to the smallest item, from the trainers under the desks and different-coloured files (to intimidate the opposition) to Olswang-branded sweets. A bowlful of Nobel and Hale sweets sits in the impressive reception that overlooks Holborn.
London is officially the divorce capital of the world and Morgan and the producers have drawn on rich research with real-life lawyers; there were also two legal advisors to ensure all the events in the show could really happen.
“The whole thing is fascinating and we’ve looked at some real cases of when a private fight goes public,” says Morgan. “You see how emotional everyone gets and think, ‘Oh so that’s why Fiona Shackleton came out of court with her hair soaking wet’ [when Heather Mills doused the lawyer in water during her divorce hearing with former Beatle Paul McCartney].”
Featherstone adds: “And it is astonishing hearing what some of the judges say in front of them. They are incredibly opinionated and basically tell them they are damaging their children, damaging themselves and are stupid people who shouldn’t be wasting their time. That’s not to say we are going to mock people who are going through this. The tone of the piece has a light touch but the emotions are all there.”
It’s the beginning of the end for Broadchurch as the third and final season debuts on ITV. Stars David Tennant and Olivia Colman and creator Chris Chibnall reflect on the show’s success.
It’s an increasingly common trend in television drama that viewers head into a new season of their favourite show knowing it will be the last time they will visit this set of characters. Fans of the past two seasons of Broadchurch will know, however, that the show’s third and final season is unlikely to be a happy occasion for many of the residents of the coastal town.
Still picking up the pieces from the events of season one and two, in which – spoiler alert – Joe Miller killed schoolboy Danny Latimer but was subsequently found not guilty in court, season three sees DI Alec Hardy (David Tennant) and DS Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman), pictured above, investigating a serious sexual assault in the community.
Jodie Whittaker and Andrew Buchan return to play Beth and Mark Latimer. They are joined by Julie Hesmondhalgh, Lenny Henry and Georgina Campbell along with Sarah Parish, Charlie Higson and Mark Bazeley.
Arthur Darvill also returns as local vicar Paul Coates, Carolyn Pickles as newspaper editor Maggie Radcliffe and Adam Wilson as Ellie’s son Tom.
All eight episodes have once again been written by series creator Chris Chibnall. Broadchurch is produced by Kudos, Imaginary Friends and Sister Pictures for ITV, and distributed by Endemol Shine Distribution, which has sold it to 180 countries worldwide. Remakes have been produced in the US (Gracepoint) and France (Malaterra).
“When Chris first sent me the script for the opening episode of Broadchurch six years ago, I was struck by one defining element,” says executive producer Jane Featherstone. “I loved the characters, I loved the beauty of the world, I loved the powerful whodunit narrative, but above all I loved the way it explored a small-town community in such depth. Chris’s intention was always to inhabit a space that meant we could stay with our characters and our town after the crime had happened, to really examine the long-term effects of a tragic incident on a community. Our characters had lives before we joined them and they will continue to exist after we have gone.
“The great privilege of longform storytelling is building a meaningful relationship between our characters and the audience, and I am excited for the audience to see how Ellie, Hardy and the Latimers have fared in the last few years. It is a fond farewell for those of us involved in the series for so many years but, as far as I am concerned, the community of Broadchurch will carry on living long after we’ve gone.”
Chibnall describes the series as an “extraordinary journey” that now comes to an end with a new investigation into a serious sexual assault. Since second season finished in 2015, he has been working with script executive Samantha Hoyle and support organisations, police and survivors to research the storyline.
“I wanted to tell this story because these crimes are increasing,” he says. “Representations of, and attitudes to, sex have become more oppositional and confrontational. Sexualised images are all around, access to porn is easier and seemingly more common. It’s an issue for couples, for parents and families, for individuals and for communities. And, amid all this, the gender divide often feels more polarised than it has in decades.
“To explore this, I needed to call on DS Ellie Miller and DI Alec Hardy one last time. This story begins three years after we were last in Broadchurch. Lives have moved on. Some people have left, some have arrived – and there’s a new case to test this old partnership. There are new suspects, new revelations and fresh truths to be confronted in the lives of Broadchurch’s residents.”
Former Doctor Who star Tennant admits he will miss Broadchurch, playing DI Hardy and working alongside his co-stars.
“It is sad to think we will never return to this world and to these characters because I feel so fondly towards them, but I will always feel proud to be associated with this show,” he says.
“There is a massive personal legacy having worked on this show. We all feel like we have been doing something very special and that we are all a part of each other’s lives now, so I’ll miss seeing people every day but hopefully I will see them fairly regularly. I will certainly miss Chris’s scripts but I look forward to watching them elsewhere and I hope it won’t be the last time we will work together.”
Season three sees Tennant’s police officer more settled in Broadchurch, with more focus on his relationship with his daughter Daisy as he rallies against the attacker he is hunting down.
“His focus becomes trying to understand the person who would commit this crime, trying to get inside their skin, and that is something he struggles with initially,” Tennant adds. “That has been an interesting conflict to play, Hardy trying to come to terms with what sort of man would do this and almost feeling ashamed for his own gender, which has been a very interesting take that Chris has afforded him this series.”
Part of the charm of watching Broadchurch has been the chemistry between DI Hardy and Colman’s DS Miller – and Colman says this is purely down to her being such good friends with Tennant.
“Chris Chibnall has written them brilliantly,” she says. “They are really good mates – possibly each other’s only mate. It feels like they have been friends for longer than they have, the way they bicker but they clearly deeply respect each other and would staunchly defend each other against other people.
“It really helps that David and I get on so well. You can sort of tell that Hardy and Ellie like being together because David and I like spending time together. It makes it much easier. I will miss working with David – if we could stand next to each other on set every day, I would be so happy. We giggle, he is never late, knows all of his lines… He is a dream person to work with.”
The topics raised in season three also struck a chord with Colman, who has experience with the subject of sexual violence from previous roles.
“So I have become passionate about all of these issues – violence against each other, and that ties in with sexual assault obviously,” she explains. “I’m really pleased to be a part of this story and it’s amazing how people don’t know how common this is. People need to know, I think.”
From the chilling opening of season one, where the body of a young boy is found on the beach, to the nail-biting court case of season two, Broadchurch has always kept viewers on the edge of their seats and, with more shocking revelations to come in season three, it looks like it will do so once more.
Chibnall adds: “It’s been a strange, mad honour to experience the passion of audiences for this story and these characters. But all good stories come to an end. I hope this one has enough twists and turns, laughter and tears to go out in style.”