Based on Michael Robotham’s novel, The Secrets She Keeps stars Laura Carmichael (Downton Abbey) as Agatha, a supermarket worker who becomes obsessed by ‘mummy blogger’ Meghan’s idyllic lifestyle.
When she discovers both are pregnant and due at the same time, Agatha strikes up the courage to talk to Meghan (Jessica De Gouw, Underground). But while they share much in common, it soon emerges that Meghan’s life isn’t as happy as it seems, while both are harbouring explosive secrets.
In this DQTV interview, Carmichael talks about moving on from period drama Downton Abbey, her first role in television, and how she relished the chance to play a character poles apart from Lady Edith – someone quick to anger, impatient and complex.
She also talks about her research process for the role and the intensive work demanded of actors in high-stakes drama series.
The Secrets She Keeps is produced by Lingo Pictures for Network Ten, and distributed by DCD Rights.
Downton Abbey star Laura Carmichael heads down under to star in psychological thriller The Secrets She Keeps. The actor and Helen Bowden, producer, tell DQ about adapting Michael Rowbotham’s novel and filming in Sydney.
After six seasons starring as Lady Edith in the global phenomenon that is Downton Abbey, Laura Carmichael recently returned to the character she first played in 2010 when writer Julian Fellowes transplanted the period drama to the big screen.
But in her next role, she’s leaving the Crawley family far behind by travelling down under to star in domestic noir The Secrets She Keeps, based on Michael Robotham’s bestselling novel.
The six-part thriller sees Carmichael play a pregnant woman called Agatha, who believes Meghan Shaughnessy (Jessica De Gouw, Underground), a mother whose parenting blog Agatha reads obsessively, has the perfect life. When she discovers Meghan is pregnant again and they are both due at similar times, Agatha builds up the courage to speak to her.
While these two women are very different – Meghan lives a comfortable life, Agatha less so – they do have one thing in common: they each hold explosive secrets.
Made by Lingo Pictures for Australia’s Network Ten, The Secrets She Keeps is produced by Helen Bowden and Paul Watters, with Rick Maier and Jason Stephens exec producing. DCD Rights is the international distributor of the show.
Sarah Walker and Jonathan Gavin partnered on the scripts, while Catherine Millar and Jennifer Leacey shared directing duties.
Here, Carmichael and then Bowden talk about the central characters and the relationship between them, adapting Robotham’s book and filming in Sydney.
Laura, what drew you to the project?
I loved the script and I was instantly intrigued by Agatha. It felt unlike anything I had seen before.
Had you been interested in working in Australia and how did the experience differ from working in the UK?
I had just been on holiday to Sydney around Christmas time and had fallen in love with the city. I felt like I must have sent out some vibes of wanting to return, as a few months later the project came to my agent. I loved how it didn’t feel that different being on an Aussie set compared with the UK; it’s a sort of universal language, I guess. Although the catering in Oz is another level – absolutely delicious every day – which can’t always be said of the UK!
Were you familiar with Robotham’s novel?
I hadn’t read the book before doing the project but read it when I got the part. He’s a wonderful writer, I couldn’t put it down.
Why did Sarah Walker and Jonathan Gavin’s scripts stand out to you?
They were such page-turners. I loved that they felt so truthful, which makes the show at times terrifying and the next moment heartbreaking.
How would you describe Agatha?
She is tough, volatile, headstrong, burdened and impulsive.
Why does she idealise Meghan’s life?
To Agatha, Meghan has it all – the perfect life with the perfect family. She wants what Meghan has.
How did you prepare for the role?
The main thing for me was to piece together Agatha’s past, to timeline her life and experiences and sort of spend time in that headspace.
What was life like on set?
We did have rehearsals, which is always so helpful. It was a busy shoot with lots to contend with, so it was good to have some time set aside to talk things through. Both our brilliant directors, Catherine and Jennifer, were so wonderful at preparing us for the shoot.
Why do you think are audiences drawn to psychological thrillers?
They’re exhilarating. To be kept guessing as an audience is always more interesting than having things spelled out for you, and I love trying to find those thriller beats.
How does the series keep viewers on edge through the six episodes?
I hope the feeling you’ll get is that you’re never sure what Agatha is going to do next.
Helen, how did you acquire the rights to the novel?
Lingo’s literary scout, Shona Martyn [formerly of Harper Collins Australia], mentioned during a conversation one day that Michael Robotham, whose wildly successful books are all set in the UK, was Australian. She said that despite the gritty settings of his thrillers, he lived and worked on Sydney’s sunny Northern Beaches. I needed no further encouragement to read all his books and go up there to meet him.
I had no doubt we could re-set The Secrets She Keeps in Sydney, and Michael agreed. He was flattered by my enthusiasm but wary of handing the rights over to someone he didn’t know. He’d been a bit burned over one of his earlier novels. Fortunately, he is a close friend of both Christos Tsiolkas, who wrote The Slap, and Marele Day who wrote Lambs of God, two books I have produced for the screen. They each gave me a great rap, having loved the process and the resulting shows, so we were quickly in business.
How did you conceive it as a TV drama?
Honestly, it didn’t take a huge amount of work to conceive Secrets as a drama series. The book is superbly plotted. Once you start reading, you really can’t put it down; and it’s complex, so the six episodes just seemed to fall out of the pages. The characters, particularly Agatha, are also deeply compelling. I’ve done lots of adaptations and this one lent itself to the process very easily.
What are the keys to adapting a psychological thriller for TV?
In making a thriller, you enter into a pact with the viewers to keep them on the edge of their seats, to dish out the adrenaline, the voyeurism, the paranoia. We have definitely tried to do that, but you also want the viewers to be embedded in the worlds and the worries of the characters, to care for them and believe in them.
The challenge is to toggle between those two modes in a way that can’t be seen or felt but which draws you ever more deeply into the story. In The Secrets She Keeps, we are trying to also talk about the social fabric and the corrosive effect narcissism and greed are having on our lives.
We are trying to draw out the real connection between these two women, these two mothers, who seem on the surface to be inhabiting different universes. For me, that is the key – to say something worthwhile at the same time as completely surprising and entertaining your audience.
Have any plot points or characters been added or removed in the adaptation process?
Class is central to this story, yet Australia likes to think of itself as a relatively classless society. The truth is a lot more complicated. Social class might be more disguised than it is in the UK, but it is certainly there. Setting Secrets in Sydney meant making a myriad of subtle but important changes to reflect this authentically.
In addition, the novel is perhaps more interested in Agatha and her actions than in ‘yummy mummy’ Meghan. We wanted a true dual narrative, so we built more complexity into Meghan’s work and marriage to give her more of an inner life.
We also wanted the two women to have some key things in common, despite the class divide, so we made Meghan the product of a blended family as well. Meghan and Agatha were both unhappy growing up with stepfathers. This fuels their willingness to take drastic action to protect their own children.
What makes the series stand out as a domestic noir and how did you achieve this?
Based on a true story, the crime at the heart of The Secrets She Keeps is not the standard thriller fare of murder or rape. The story is set almost entirely in two very distinct domestic spheres and tells of an unlikely friendship, how each woman has a secret and the lengths to which she will go to keep it. We hope the audience will be totally carried along by the twists and turns of the story, and there are many nods to the thriller genre, but there is also a truthful exploration of these worlds, these marriages and the protagonists’ hopes for the future.
How did you identify the writers and what do they bring to the project?
Sarah Walker [lead writer] and Jonathan Gavin were obvious choices for us. They have both written smart, accessible, female-skewing dramas. We thought they’d make a terrific combination. It was also fascinating to have Michael Robotham in the writers room while two such able writers dissected the novel and rebuilt it for television. He found it surprisingly thrilling.
Where was the series filmed and how did you use locations in the story?
We filmed in Sydney, where trains run from one side of the city to the other, taking Agatha from her grimy flat in the down-at-heel western suburbs, across the glittering harbour, to Meghan’s world of the spacious, leafy Northern suburbs.
They meet in the local supermarket where Agatha works, a remnant of gentrification, barely hanging on in the face of competition from the big supermarket chains up the road. Meghan’s mothers’ group meets in the gorgeous local park for lattes and yoga, their prams like an expensive flock of enormous birds. It’s where Agatha, newly confident of Meghan’s friendship, tries awkwardly to join in.
Agatha has a consolation place in a deep green glen in Tunks Park, dominated by a post-war bridge high above it, while her mother lives in Katoomba in a modest house that backs onto the spectacular escarpment of the Blue Mountains.
We are trying to show the myriad aspects of Sydney, not just the ridiculous beauty the world usually sees.
What challenges did you face in production and how did you overcome them?
In Australia, we shoot about seven minutes of drama a day to meet our budgets. Trying to make world-class fiction at that speed is terrifying – there’s no room for error. Our best weapon is preparation. Lingo believes in resourcing development as well as possible, supporting our writers and directors ahead of the shoot, to ensure we can all make the most of every precious minute once production begins. I think Laura was shocked at the pace to begin with, but she got into the swing of it and went on the ride.
As Downton Abbey enters its sixth and final season, those to have played their part in the wildly successful period drama, both behind and in front of the camera, bid an emotional farewell. Michael Pickard reports.
As the emotion-tinged trailers playing on ITV declare, it’s time to say goodbye to one of the biggest successes of recent television history.
When Downton Abbey returns for its sixth season, it starts the countdown to the period drama’s last ever episode, which will air in the UK on Christmas Day.
Viewers will return to the country estate of Downton Abbey in 1925, when secrets and rifts threaten the unity of its primary inhabitants – the aristocratic Crawley family – while their servants below stairs navigate social changes that put their futures in jeopardy.
After six years on air and with a possible movie in the works, it’s fair to say the show is a worldwide phenomenon. Airing in more than 250 countries, Downton is the highest rating UK drama of the past decade across any channel, according to ITV, with an average of 11 million viewers over the course of the last five seasons (including Christmas specials).
In the US, where Downton airs on Masterpiece on PBS, season five had a weekly average audience of 12.9 million viewers and was watched by 25.5 million people.
ITV director of television Peter Fincham says that while commissioners can never tell if a show will be a success, he loved Downton from the beginning.
“We loved the script. We heard filming was going very well. We thought it was wonderfully cast,” he says. “If I were in the business of teaching television drama and I wanted to choose the best first episode in terms of exposition and introduction of characters, it would be the very first episode of Downton Abbey.
“Of course, Downton Abbey has an image as a posh series about posh people but one of its great achievements is its even-handedness between upstairs and downstairs. The lives of the characters downstairs are as richly drawn as those upstairs. We are now getting to the end and we absolutely respect Julian (Fellowes, creator and writer) and Gareth (Neame, executive producer)’s feeling that this is the right time to bring it to an end – to leave the audience wanting more. We’re very grateful for Downton Abbey. It’s been a wonderful series on ITV.”
Neame, MD of Downton producer Carnival Films, recalls taking the project to ITV with Fellowes, and says they never once approached the BBC: “It was always destined for ITV. We always saw it on Sunday nights at 21.00 in a very broad entertainment channel because it was about telling a new story and rebooting this much-loved genre.
“It’s been part of a real golden age of drama at ITV and we’re also thrilled that this has been a truly British representative in this golden age of drama around the world, where a British show can really punch above its weight alongside those shows we all revere from the US.”
Fellowes admits he toyed with ending Downton Abbey after season five but felt he needed one more season (eight episodes, plus the Christmas special) to resolve the numerous storylines.
Not everything will be wrapped up, however. “You always leave slightly open-ended stories because life is an open-ended story until you die and you can’t kill the entire cast,” he says. “We haven’t plugged everything but we’ve shown what the next chunk of everyone’s life would be. I think it’s satisfactory; I hope it is.
“There’s always a concern that with any show, you don’t want it to go on, fall away and start to dwindle. We can all name favourite shows we adored for the first three or four seasons and then gradually lost interest in. We wanted to go out when people were still sorry. It seems the right time to go when we’re still firing.”
While Fellowes created the series, he says the writing process has often been a collaborative process between himself and the cast. In particular, he says Mrs Patmore – the cook portrayed by Lesley Nicol – wasn’t supposed to be funny to begin with. But when he realised how funny Nicol was, he started writing humour into her lines.
He adds: “You do feel sorry to say goodbye to these people because I’ve enjoyed their creation. The actors, what they bring to them, is a huge part of why these people are interesting and I’m sorry to see them go. I’m very unlikely to be involved in anything as successful again, so I say goodbye to these golden years with a slight pang.”
Many among the cast admit working on a show as successful as Downton is likely a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Maggie Smith, who plays the Dowager Countess, says: “I’m just surprised I got to the end because, just before Downton, I’d done 10 years with Harry Potter, so I felt very old indeed by the time I got to the Dowager. I’m just surprised I got through it.”
Joanne Froggatt (Anna Bates) admits that none of the cast thought they’d remain on the show for six years: “I never imagined Anna would go through so much, so as an actor I’ve been extremely fortunate to have such fantastic scenes to play and have Brendan (Coyle, who plays Anna’s husband John Bates) to play with. We’re all proud we’ve got Downton on our CV.”
Echoing a sentiment shared by many of the cast, Froggatt adds: “We are a true ensemble. Downton is a show in which, as characters, we’re either supporting a scene or leading a scene. We all have our share in both roles. That’s what makes it so nice. I had the most amazing support when I was leading scenes and you do it for your fellow actors.”
Filming on Downton finished in mid-August, with weeks of goodbyes as cast and crew said farewell to locations and each other until the final scenes were filmed.
“When we wrapped up filming at Highclere Castle (which stands in for Downton Abbey), that’s when it started,” says Michelle Dockery, who plays Lady Mary Crawley. “It felt like we were giving the house back to the owners. It’s an emotional time but it’s also exciting because we’re just celebrating all the time. It’s changed all our lives and opened up opportunities. We never imagined it would have become this much of a success, so I feel very fortunate to have been part of the Downton family.”
Dockery praises Fellowes’ writing as a key reason for the show’s success and says that while other cast members left mid-series and moved on to other projects, she couldn’t have made the same decision.
“After season three, when we were all in negotiations to do four and five, there was certainly a moment where I thought, ‘This may be my time to go.’ But I couldn’t bear the idea of watching the show and not being a part of it. In the end, the decision was made for me because I wouldn’t have liked that.”
For Hugh Bonneville (Robert, Earl of Grantham), the final days of filming Downton were a time for reflection. “I didn’t have grey hair in season one,” he says, “so you look back on six years and realise we’ve been on quite a rollercoaster together. I’ve never had an experience like this before and I probably won’t again. I doubt any of us will – to have something where every department on set has worked to the top of its game and to have been embraced by an audience to this extent.
“We’re in the middle of the hurricane, so we don’t really realise the impact it’s had and it will take a few years to realise what it’s meant for all of us. It has been a uniquely happy experience. The fact we’re all still pals after six years is surprising and a testament to something. It is a genuine ensemble – the only lynchpin is the house. None of us is indispensable and it’s been a great lesson for all of us.”
The final group scene to be filmed featured the servants in the downstairs quarters. Once wrapped, it fell to Jim Carter, who plays Carson the butler, to say a few words. However, as he recalls, it all became very emotional.
“We filmed the last scene of the series in a candle-lit servants’ hall with all the servants,” he says. “The producers came in and said thank you, and I thought I’d say a few words about the crew, and then I just filled up completely. I turned round and a big rigger was in floods of tears. Phyllis Logan (Mrs Hughes) was a dreadful mess on the floor.”
But after six years in the same role, Carter is relishing the chance to play different characters.
“In reality, it’s job done and you move on,” he explains. “I’m not being cynical when I say that, that’s just what we do. But it has been a lovely job and an unprecedented success – something none of us have experienced before or probably will again.
“For some of the youngsters, this is the first job they’ve done. Well, kids, life isn’t going to be like that forever – you’re not always going to be turning left on the plane! I want to do new things and different things, but I’m incredibly grateful to Downton. We’re not creatures of routine, generally speaking.”
Carter, who believes TV commissioners should be braver in backing writing talent, also speaks fondly of his character’s endearing relationship with Mrs Hughes, who at the start of season six are setting a date for their wedding: “We’ve moved together with all the haste of a glacier, but I think the will is there for the people who watch it for us to get together. It’s realistic that people with that close working relationship become friends and become fond of each other.”
The last word, however, falls to Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith), who filmed her last lines several days after that final servants’ scene that caused so many emotions to bubble to the surface.
“It’s been such a joy, all of the goodbyes, as much as it’s been sad,” she says. “It’s an alchemy of everything coming together perfectly. All departments are so strong; the look of the show is so mega and it coincides with this incredible script. You can’t underestimate how each department is responsible for the success. People are so kind about the show. It sits in a really nice place for families of all generations. People love to love it, it’s an infectious feeling and I feel so proud to be a part of it.”
Downton could receive more accolades after winning nominations for this month’s Emmy Awards, while there is promise of further prizes next year after the series’ conclusion. For cast and crew, the close of the show represents the end of a unique chapter of their careers, while ITV will hope its recently announced eight-part drama Victoria, starring Doctor Who’s Jenna Coleman as the young Queen Victoria, can recreate in some part the global success of this iconic British drama.