Tag Archives: Keeley Hawes

Uncovering Traitors

Channel 4’s stylish new spy thriller Traitors, starring Keeley Hawes and Michael Stuhlbarg, looks at the communist threat to Britain just after the Second World War through the eyes of a young woman. DQ joined the cast on set in London.

Imagine a Britain deeply divided over political matters, with well-founded fears of Russian government interference and its ‘special relationship’ with the US seemingly on shaky ground.

While that may be a perfect description of today’s UK, in this case it applies to a period three-quarters of a century ago in the fledgling days of the Cold War. It’s that correlation that makes Channel 4’s new thriller, Traitors, even more relevant in its portrayal of international turbulence and murky government goings-on.

Eleanor Moran

Created and executive produced by playwright Bash Doran, who wrote four of its six episodes, Traitors is set during the pivotal time from the end of the Second World War up until 1948.

“The series is extremely timely as it tackles an extraordinary moment in British history that has continued to play out across the years,” explains Emma Willis, MD of Twenty Twenty Productions (part of Warner Bros International Television Production), which is producing alongside 42 for Channel 4 and Netflix, in a deal negotiated by All3Media International. “At the end of the Second World War, as is true today, the nation was divided with deeply opposing views on what Britain’s place in the world should be.

“Many of the series’ key themes are extremely relevant to today – race, gender, class inequality, the role of the welfare state, the special relationship with the US and a distrust of Russia. I’m sure this is one of the reasons why C4 commissioned the project – together with the fact it had a fantastic creator in Bash Doran and strong female leads.”

On the surface, Traitors is a young woman’s coming-of-age story. Clique’s Emma Appleton plays Feef Symonds, a naive young aristocrat who lands a job in the civil service immediately after the war, eager to make her mark rather than be married off to an earl. Actress-of-the-moment Keeley Hawes (Bodyguard, The Durrells) plays her influential boss, Priscilla Garrick, and Call Me By Your Name’s Michael Stuhlbarg plays a US agent, Rowe. He quickly tries to turn Feef into a double agent, eager to root out Soviet operatives in the British government.

Executive producer Eleanor Moran laughs about the moment she approached Doran with the idea for Traitors. “It was 2013 and I was thinking politics was in a really depressing place, which is hilarious to think of now,” she says.

Emma Appleton as civil servant Feef alongside Luke Treadaway’s MP in Traitors

She’d had an idea about a female-centric period political drama with an international feel – and she had a particular female in mind. “My grandmother had this incredible experience during the war where she had a great deal of freedom,” explains Moran. “She worked in the spying business and was a codebreaker. And after the war, all of that ambition was shut down when she got married.

“I thought that moment in 1945 was incredible for women in that there was this incredible push to go back into the home, but also with the Labour [Party’s landslide general election victory] and beginning of the welfare state, the civil service offered these huge opportunities for women.” However, the ban on married women working for the service forced females to resign their jobs upon tying the knot.

On set at one of Traitors’ many London locations last summer, a church in a leafy Georgian square in Islington, Hawes is looking business-like in Priscilla Garrick’s utilitarian work suit. Sitting down for a chat in a church hall – she’s here to film a scene with Stuhlbarg in the churchyard – Hawes explains her dismay at learning of the marriage ban.

Keeley Hawes as Feef’s boss, Priscilla

“I knew nothing about that,” she says. “The women in the civil service are being asked to go back to being housewives after spending the war being ambulance drivers. Suddenly being given the sack! It’s just terrible.

“Priscilla campaigns against the marriage ban, even though she’s not married. She is a real champion of women and really modern in that way. And when Feef comes in, Priscilla sees she’s bright.”

Traitors, which is distributed globally by All3Media International, weaves John le Carré-style spy plots into a story about women’s social struggles. It’s 1945 and the Soviet Union has replaced the Nazis as the biggest threat to global stability and democracy. But just at that moment, in September, President Truman decides to close America’s wartime spying agency, the OSS (Office of Strategic Services).

“We’re capturing that moment when the Soviets were trying to influence the whole of Europe and did manage to get people within British secret service to great effect,” explains Moran. “Michael Stuhlbarg’s character, Rowe, who is an OSS agent, is ahead of the game and realises there is infiltration, and his job is find out how much.” It’s the era of the Cambridge Spy Ring, which would come to light several years later.

Stuhlbarg was lured to British shores by the prospect of working again with Doran – he’d been in episodes of Boardwalk Empire and The Looming Tower that she’d written – and Dearbhla Walsh, who directed him in the third season of Fargo.

Rowe, explains Stuhlbarg, becomes a rogue agent after Truman’s disbanding of the OSS. The actor’s research impressed upon him the complexity of real-life OSS agents.

“Some of these men of the OSS balance a kind of integrity with an ability to lie, cheat, steal and murder,” explains Stuhlbarg. “So there’s this great juxtaposition of and being able to live with all that stuff – these are people fighting for the survival of democracy and are willing to do anything for it.

Michael Stuhlbarg plays US agent Rowe

“Rowe thinks it’s essential that America has an operational intelligence agency to compete with all the other spies.”

The 17-week shoot took place last summer in studios in Cardiff, in Morocco (doubling for Egypt) and in various picturesque London spots in which real spies surely operated – the Inns of Court, Whitehall and St James’s Park. Innovation was required, too – a replica House of Commons was built at University College School in Hampstead for scenes featuring a newly elected Labour MP played by Luke Treadaway.

Ultimately, Traitors chimes with what’s going on in the world today and also delivers a period thriller about a time not often depicted in spy stories.

“It’s very much about the kind of global fight for hearts and minds, much like the way we’re going at the moment, with Russians infiltrating the US election and Brexit,” says Moran. “This is a call back to that and also a depiction of a very specific moment in British social politics.”

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Family matters

British period drama The Durrells returns for its third season with more fun in store for the eponymous family. DQ caught up with star Keeley Hawes and the production team on the set at the world-famous Ealing Studios.

In the green room at Ealing Studios, we are surrounded by the most unusual props: vintage bird cages, ancient posters of beetles and butterflies, old hamster cages, lots of pressed flowers, distressed wooden shutters, an antique garden bench covered in ‘lived-in’ throws and cushions, and a period microscope.

You do not have to be Sherlock Holmes’ long-lost Hellenic cousin to work out that we are on the set of The Durrells, ITV’s enormously popular adaptation of Gerald Durrell’s bestselling memoir, My Family and Other Animals.

Scripted by Simon Nye (Men Behaving Badly), this easy-going series set in the 1930s follows the trials and tribulations of the Durrell family – long-suffering widowed mother Louisa (Keeley Hawes), struggling novelist Larry (Josh O’Connor), awkward, gun-obsessed Leslie (Callum Woodhouse), embryonic feminist Margo (Daisy Waterstone) and budding naturalist Gerry (Milo Parker) – as they move from stuffy Bournemouth and strive to carve out a new life for themselves in Corfu.

In the third season, which begins on March 18, Louisa has resolved to renounce her quest for romance and instead concentrate on her family. But with Larry battling to complete his third novel, Margo desperate to find a new vocation, Leslie careering between three different girlfriends and Gerry continuing to expand his menagerie, Louisa has an awful lot on her plate.

The Durrells stars Keeley Hawes as Louisa

Ealing Studios is a place redolent of filmmaking history. It has been home not only to such recent productions as Downton Abbey and Beauty & the Beast, but also such timeless Ealing Comedies as The Lavender Hill Mob, The Ladykillers and The Man in the White Suit.

But just why has Britain gone daft for The Durrells? Hawes, who has also starred in such acclaimed dramas as The Missing, Line of Duty and Spooks, believes the series has struck a chord because it appeals to a very wide audience: “I had an email from a woman recently. She told me that she sits down every Sunday night to watch The Durrells with her grandson, who is nine, her daughter, who is in her 40s, her mother, who is 94, and her husband, who she couldn’t get to watch anything else.”

The actress adds: “From the age of nine to 94, all these generations sit down together for this show. It’s something the whole family can watch together. That’s very rare these days because it’s very difficult to make it work. I can’t think of anything else that does that. This has captured everyone’s imagination.”

That impression is reinforced by the sense that Nye’s scripts have a dual effect. Hawes continues: “What Simon does so well is that fabulous Pixar thing of making jokes that work on two levels. He writes jokes which will go over children’s heads, but which make us adults laugh at the same time. So when children are invited in to these cheeky jokes, they feel very excited about it. It’s the same reason why we can all watch The Simpsons together.”

The Durrells, which is made for ITV by Sid Gentle Films as a coproduction with PBS strand Masterpiece and distributed by BBC Worldwide, also taps into a deep communal yearning for a mythical, more gentle and less threatening past. This instinct is perhaps fuelled by a desire to lose ourselves in a realm far removed from the horrors of the real world.

The show follows a British family who have relocated to the Greek island of Corfu

The scheduling also helps a great deal. As Britain is battered by storms and snow, what could be more relaxing than luxuriating in the flawless blue skies of Corfu? It is classic escapist Sunday evening drama.

Hawes affirms that theory: “The Durrells is one of those feel-good nostalgia shows that people want to watch on Sunday night before getting ready for the week ahead.”

But it is not just in this country that The Durrells has had an impact. It has also caused a stir in Corfu. Producer Christopher Hall observes: “The series has had a huge effect. British tourism [in Corfu] has gone up 15% since we first went out. There is a big spike every year just after transmission. On the easyJet flight from Gatwick to Corfu, pretty much everyone has watched The Durrells.”

It has not all been positive for the production, however. Hall notes: “Some tourist operators have been selling tickets to The Durrells Experience and promise a visit to the house where it’s filmed. One day, coach-loads of people turned up to look at our location. We had to tell them, ‘Sorry, this is a private house. You can’t come and look at our set!’

“Two years ago, we had signs up everywhere in Corfu saying, ‘The Durrells’, but we had to take them down because people kept stealing them and putting them on their own house!”

For the producers, there is one other problematic by-product of the show’s popularity. Hall, who also produced Critical, Dracula and Trial & Retribution, says: “The local hotels in Corfu are also doing very well – much to our cost. We say to the hotels, ‘We do a lot of work on the island – can you give us a discount?’ And they reply, ‘No, we can’t give you a discount because we’re full!’”

The Durrells returns to ITV this Sunday

In addition, The Durrells bears out that old filmmaking maxim: never work with animals. The creatures that make up Gerry’s substantial and ever-increasing menagerie are generally very well behaved, but inevitably there are still rogue elements.

Liz Thornton, who works as the animal coordinator on the production, reveals that the most difficult animals she has had to deal with on The Durrells are – quite surprisingly – pelicans. “Out of all the animals, you really don’t know what they’re going to do.

“They’re characters. They will suddenly take a dislike to someone, and that’s it – they’re off. All the animal handlers are standing just off camera. They try to persuade pelicans to do things with fish, but it doesn’t always work!”

The show has also thrown up some intriguing tests for production designer Stevie Herbert. She says her most demanding task is sometimes working out precisely what things are. “The agricultural equipment on Corfu is fascinating,” she says. “There is a guy in the village whose house is like an agricultural museum. You look at an implement and think, ‘What is that?’ They’re uniquely Corfu.

“A lot of it is to do with collecting olives. There are many strange tools you wouldn’t even think of. There are specific baskets that taper down according to the size of the donkey carrying it. Greece was built by donkeys.”

For all the challenges, the cast and crew have clearly relished working on the Greek island. Herbert speaks for everyone on The Durrells when she declares: “Corfu is so beautiful. The sun and the sea and the scenery are all amazing.

“Scrape back the modern world and the old Corfu is still there, just beneath the surface. Terrapins leap in the river, bask in the sun and cross the road at their own pace – they even have road signs warning drivers about that.”

She concludes: “On Corfu, we have a breakfast club where we eat sandwiches, watch the sunrise and think, ‘Yup, another day in paradise.’”

It’s a feeling no doubt shared by the millions of viewers who tune in to The Durrells every week.

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