Tag Archives: Manda Levin

Back with a Vengeance

Ahead of the launch of Anglo-French drama The Tunnel’s third and final season next week, DQ visits the set to find stars Stephen Dillane and Clémence Poésy in an optimistic mood and a new lead writer taking the show back to its roots.

The Tunnel has never been a series to take the easy path. Its Anglo-French take on the beloved Scandinavian culture-clash police drama Bron/Broen (The Bridge) risked charges of mere imitation, while filming in the Channel Tunnel represented a logistical high-wire act.

Most recently, external factors – Brexit, the withdrawal of original coproducer Canal+ and showrunner Ben Richards standing down – have combined to make the third and final season, subtitled Vengeance, another tricky proposition.

Yet when DQ meets cast and crew in a terraced house above Dover train station on a baking hot May day, optimism abounds. Much has changed for the leading pair of coppers, Karl Roebuck and Elise Wassermann, in the eight months since they brought down a ring of international terrorists. The perpetually careworn Karl (Stephen Dillane) is in an uncharacteristically happy place, reconciled with wife and family.

“Part of the difficulty of the second season,” recalls Dillane, reclining in the front garden in an uncomfortable-looking tweed suit, “was that this awful thing had happened [the murder of Karl’s teenage son], but it was important not to become morose or depressed. That was hard to pull off. You could decide this man was utterly floored by his son’s death, which would be a reasonable character choice, but here, he’s not. We’ve had to move things on now, and he’s in good shape: still a detective, happy enough with work. Family life has changed, but he seems alright.”

The Tunnel stars Stephen Dillane and Clémence Poésy

Similarly, Elise was left in disarray, betrayed by her lover and almost blinded by a pathogen that was injected into her eye. “I was up for having a scar,” laughs Clémence Poésy in the back garden, wearing Elise’s de facto uniform of shapeless jumper and black skinny jeans, “but she’s made a full recovery.”

Physically, if not psychologically? “Yeah, she starts Vengeance in denial. She’s made lots of very rational changes to put the events of the last series behind her, but something’s not quite right: she grinds her teeth a lot and breaks a tooth in her sleep. If it seems to be under control, it probably isn’t, and Karl coming back breaks that cycle.

“Season one felt like Elise opening up to someone then trying to protect that person, season two was the opposite, with Karl seeing her vulnerable and trying to protect her. Season three has them both going through a lot without sharing everything. Karl is worried about Elise and Elise is unsettled by decisions Karl is making.”

With former showrunner Richards stepping aside to work on the BBC’s adaptations of JK Rowling’s Cormoran Strike books, Emilia Di Girolamo, lead writer on Law and Order: UK, came on board. “Ben looked at complex geopolitics with [second season] Sabotage,” she says. “It would have been easier to go bigger and more epic, but I wanted to take it back to its roots and have an intensely personal, emotional story. I worked in prisons for eight years and have a PhD in offender rehabilitation, so it mattered to me that the killers’ motives are rooted in their experience. In this case, that’s trauma and loss. I get excited by how horrifying human nature can be when a person has been so damaged that they have nothing left to lose.”

Dillane’s Karl Roebuck is in a happier place at the start of season three

The Tunnel’s final season, which begins on Sky Atlantic on December 14, revolves around crimes fuelled by the refugee crisis. “We were writing as the refugee camps in Calais were being dismantled,” says Di Girolamo. “I remembered reading these articles about 10,000 unaccompanied refugee children who were missing in Europe. As a writer and a parent, I couldn’t ignore this startling statistic, so I asked the question behind the story: how can one child’s life be worth more than another’s?”

And then there is the spectre of Brexit hanging over a show that pivots on the fragility of cross-Channel relations. “Nobody in the writers room really believed it would happen,” recalls Di Girolamo of the UK’s vote to leave the European Union. “But while we’ve got a few Brexit gags and have ramped up the unease between our French and British characters, we wanted to focus on the case and the characters. It wouldn’t have massively affected the drama if we’d voted Remain.”

The Tunnel itself experienced something of a ‘Frexit’ with the withdrawal of coproducer Canal+ (which, it is anticipated, will be airing the series in France as an acquisition), yet this decision was, in reality, neither a huge surprise nor unduly problematic, says executive producer Karen Wilson.

“Sky were clear they wanted a final season, whereas it was a big thing for Canal+ to even come back for a second. Their involvement would have been a bonus rather than something we were anticipating, because historically they haven’t done returning series. They also have a different way of working: they expect to have all their shooting scripts before going into production, but no one in Britain works like that. The European aesthetic and English-French coproduction are what have made this show unique, so rather than running away from it, we decided to embrace the challenges and the differences. We’d reached an entente cordiale by the end of season one!”

French actor Poésy returns as Elise Wassermann

In some ways, it was even a positive development. “It’s a lot simpler working for one broadcaster than two,” says fellow exec producer Manda Levin. “We had a story meeting where all the British people were thinking the audience would never forgive Karl for his fling, but the French people didn’t get that at all – he’s just shagged a really sexy woman! We came at stories really differently, but we do miss their robust script notes that pushed and challenged us. They forced us to involve the French perspective even when that was difficult from the start, and that’s what made the show feel a bit different and made us work in a different way. By season three, we knew how to do that, so I hope Vengeance won’t feel any less French.”

Logistics were easier this season, with French sequences shot in one six-week block, sandwiched between English shoots of similar lengths. The active participation of [Channel Tunnel operator] Eurotunnel further smoothed things, and also of course afforded enormous creative opportunities. The Tunnel remains the only TV series to shoot inside the Channel Tunnel itself, although documentaries and commercials have been given access on occasion. Producer Toby Welch has nothing but praise for the Eurotunnel team, especially in meeting some of the final season’s more challenging briefs, which included rats swarming over one character.

“We can’t compromise their security or disrupt their business, so the challenges they faced to make it work for us were huge. While we did use some CGI, a member of our art department still had to count in and count out 200 dead rats meticulously while a member of Eurotunnel oversaw it. There was as much attention paid to the number of dead rats going in and out of the tunnel as there was to crew members [three Eurotunnel staff were required to be in attendance for every member of The Tunnel’s cast and crew], and rightly so! We also had access to some phenomenal properties outside the tunnel: at the beginning of season three, [Eurotunnel’s director of public affairs] John Keefe took us on a tour of cool things that hadn’t been in the show yet, so Samphire Hoe in Kent features prominently in the final season.”

Six-episode Vengeance is the concluding season of The Tunnel

Perhaps appropriately, having invoked a plague of rats, the biggest challenges were presented by some pretty Biblical weather on Samphire Hoe itself, a nature reserve created from almost five million cubic metres of chalk marl excavated during the tunnel’s construction.

“Samphire Hoe is quite exposed to the elements,” Wilson explains, “so prior to filming a big sequence there, the production team looked at the weather for the last eight years and identified the week that has always had kind weather. Inevitably, it was awful! They closed the road from Dover and some people couldn’t even get to the location. We lost a day but it all came together in the end.”

Many of the off-camera team members from previous seasons have returned, among them director Gilles Bannier, a veteran of French crime thriller Spiral, who filmed the second half of the season; the first three episodes were helmed by Taboo and Jordskott director Anders Engstrom. The show gave Bannier the platform to realise his ambition of working in British television – he has since directed both Tin Star and In the Dark – and it remains a unique proposition on his CV.

“My trademark style is based on documentaries, where I began my career – I used to be very handheld. I wanted to keep [The Tunnel] simple, to look after the beauty and cinematic side of it and to make sure the police work felt real, but also to hold the characters at the centre and foster the dark, baroque feeling that is part of The Tunnel. It’s totally different to all the crime shows I’ve done. In France, the idea of the auteur is still very strong, while on UK television the writer is the most important. For The Tunnel, it was a true collaboration between the writers, directors, producers and execs, which I loved.”

In the absence of Canal+, Bannier and French adapter Eric Forestier (who also directed Poésy in 2008 feature La Troisième Partie du Monde) helped ensure the accuracy of the French aspects. “We would ask whether we’ve done the equivalent of getting a 19-year-old into Wetherspoons and asking for a cherry brandy,” laughs Welch. “They told us what smelled French, even down to the names of characters.”

This final season, produced by Kudos and distributed by Endemol Shine International, will be leaner than ever, running for just six episodes – a decision, the team insists, that was driven by creative rather than financial reasons. “With six episodes, there’s something exciting about being so near the end, even at the start,” says Welch. “It’s nice to have a new format, because there’s no point in repeating ourselves, and there’s something very satisfying about having a trilogy.”

And a trilogy it will remain, Levin confirms. “Knowing we won’t see Stephen and Clémence on screen together again makes me sad, but we do them justice. We started The Tunnel with a man losing his son. Emilia loves writing about parents, children, love and loss, so there was a real circularity to the series. Going out on a high is the way to go.”

For Wilson, the series’ legacy is significant. “I started at the BBC and every story we developed had to be completely British. The idea of subtitles on BBC1 was anathema, and the world has evolved so much since then – in terms of stories we can tell, there are no holds barred.”

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Pick of the bunch

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.

Apple Tree Yard follows a passionate but destructive affair

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

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

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 casting of talent of the calibre of Emily Watson was key says Coe

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.

Louise Doughty’s novel sold more than 250,000 copies in the UK alone

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.

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