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.”
New Zealand-born director Jessica Hobbs discusses her big break on Australian teen drama Heartbreak High and her subsequent work on fellow Oz series The Slap, which brought her to the attention of UK producers, leading to credits on shows including Broadchurch, River and Apple Tree Yard.
She talks about her story-focused and emotion-based method of directing, as well as the way she likes to work with writers to develop the visual style of a series.
Hobbs also speaks about the merits of rehearsing scenes before the cameras roll and the differences between launching a new series and working as an episodic or block director on an established drama.
Writer Amanda Coe and executive producer Manda Levin reveal how they won the battle to turn Louise Doughty’s best-selling novel Apple Tree Yard into a four-part BBC drama starring Emily Watson and Ben Chaplin.
It’s described as a provocative, audacious thriller that has won legions of fans around the world. Louise Doughty’s novel Apple Tree Yard has sold more than 250,000 copies in the UK alone, and has been translated into dozens of languages since it was first published in 2013.
Now this gripping story is coming to television, after BBC1 in the UK commissioned a four-part adaptation from Kudos, the makers of Broadchurch, River and Utopia.
Married with two grown-up children, Yvonne Carmichael (played by Emily Watson) lives a contented, conventional suburban life. But her world spirals into chaos when a chance encounter leads to an impulsive and passionate affair with a charismatic stranger (Ben Chaplin).
Despite all her careful plans to keep her home life and career safe and separate from her affair, fantasy and reality soon begin to overlap and everything she values is put at risk, as a life-changing act of violence leads to a trial.
Written by Amanda Coe and directed by Jessica Hobbs, the executive producers are Manda Levin and Lucy Richer. Due to launch on BBC1 on January 22, it is distributed by FremantleMedia International.
Here, Amanda Coe and Manda Levin reveal how they brought Apple Tree Yard to television after being captivated by Doughty’s original novel.
Manda Levin: Kudos has a head of literary acquisitions, Sue Swift, who pans for gold, and when she is as excited about something as she was about Apple Tree Yard, we sit up and take notice. Apple Tree Yard was literary catnip to the women in Kudos. Here was a compelling page-turner which was about so many other things that matter to us deeply; our self control versus our most atavistic impulses, nature and nurture, the stories we tell ourselves, the mystery of the ‘other,’ the sheer hard work of being ‘good’…
Part of its cleverness is how the story segues between the visceral excitement of an affair into a shocking act of violence, and then the intensity of a great courtroom drama, giving all its rich themes a gripping narrative musculature. We took it straight to one of our favourite screenwriters, Bafta-winning Amanda Coe (Room at the Top), whose elegant, grown-up approach seemed perfect for this most precious prize. She was extremely patient with our hagiographical excitement about the prospect of an adaptation. But we certainly weren’t the only TV producers in town who had their heart set on optioning Louise’s incredible novel.
Amanda Coe: I read the book in a day, as gripped as its many other fans. I get sent a lot of books with a view to adaptation, and the ones that I’m least seduced by tend to be thrillers. Not because I don’t enjoy reading them, but because I’m loth to commit to spending months of writing time on a piece that is purely plot-led or sensationalist. It’s a bit like spending days in the kitchen to produce a packet of crisps — why not just pop out to the shop? Also, I find the violence against women in TV thrillers problematic, to say the least. But Apple Tree Yard so clearly uses the tricks and pleasures of the genre to sophisticated and thought-provoking ends, while never losing its grip on the narrative. It’s a rare beast. Less high-mindedly, I was also excited by the opportunity to explore such different registers: sexy affair! Crime! Court room! Family drama!
I’d never been involved in a pitch to an author, but Louise was generously responsive to our approach, as well as unusually understanding of the need for me to take on the book and turn it into something that stands alone in a different medium. A lot of the book’s power resides in its tight first-person identification with Yvonne, who is an unreliable but compelling narrator. On the page, we experience every moment through her eyes and soul. The great challenge in making the transition to screen is to retain that audience sympathy with her character, given a much more external aesthetic. Crucially, apart from a few tiny moments, every scene has Yvonne in it. Clearly we were hoping to attract an actor of Emily Watson’s calibre to take us on the journey, and how lucky we are that she agreed to do it.
The story felt like it had the legs for four parts, giving each episode a different pace and texture, while shading in the complexities and contradictions of Yvonne’s character. Back-story, so organic to prose, clogs up the flow of a screen narrative, so I took the decision to run the unfolding crisis in Yvonne’s marriage to Gary alongside her affair with Costley. On screen, it makes the question of marital loyalty, as opposed to purely sexual fidelity, even more morally crunchy than in the book. For me, it tips the TV Apple Tree Yard towards a drama that asks questions about the mysteries of marriage and family life as much as a thriller about a woman’s sexuality on trial.
While writing the scripts I had the luxury and pleasure of proper time with Jess Hobbs, the director, so that every nook and cranny of the world and the story had been interrogated and explored before a single frame was shot. I think this attention to detail, both material and emotional, shines through in every moment Jess has put on screen. She has a wonderful mixture of rigour and empathy.
Levin: Something we hope feels pioneering in Apple Tree Yard is the portrayal of a middle-aged woman enjoying her sexuality. At the beginning of the story Yvonne is at a moment of transition, when women evolve from being extremely visible to virtually invisible, but crucially, she’s captured at the moment just before she accepts that fact. Having done everything so very right for so very long, on some level Yvonne believes she deserves this last fling. Before everything goes wrong, she’s lit up by her affair with Mark Costley in a way we’re not used to seeing on screen.
Unfortunately, something we fear may also feel pioneering is having a middle-aged woman as the protagonist at all, the person to whom things happen and who makes things happen in their turn. Yvonne isn’t just a mother, or a daughter, or a wife, or a ‘career woman,’ but all of those and a lover to boot – a complex, contradictory leading lady, portrayed with courage and passion by the extraordinary Emily Watson.
Our aspiration for the show is that the audience will walk in Yvonne Carmichael’s shoes for four gripping episodes. And along with judging her – whose transgression has such catastrophic and punitive repercussions – they might flip the mirror to reflect on our society’s rush to judgement of all women, and in particular those who own their sexuality.