After 13 years held captive, Ivy Moxam (played by Jodie Comer) finally escapes – but how does she readjust to her old life as her family struggles with her return and the police lead a desperate attempt to catch her kidnapper?
Creator Marnie Dickens reveals how her first major drama series, Thirteen, became online network BBC3’s first original drama, why she enjoys the collaborative aspect of developing a TV series and, after coming through the BBC Writers Room scheme, what more can be done to develop new writing talent.
Thirteen is produced by BBC In-House Drama Production and distributed by BBC Worldwide.
Irish public broadcaster RTÉ is making its biggest investment in drama for six years.
Explaining why, acting MD of RTÉ Television Dermot Horan said: “We know that Irish people want to see their stories on screen and that’s why this year we [have] three new series in production in the coming months. Our role is to deliver programming that captivates and inspires the broader population and I believe this new line-up delivers on that promise.”
In writing terms, RTÉ’s investment is a boost for James Phelan, creator of Striking Out, a four-part comedy drama that is being touted as Ireland’s answer to Ally McBeal. Produced by Blinder Films, it features Amy Huberman as a solicitor who sets up her own practice after her fiancé and colleague cheats on her.
RTÉ head of television drama Jane Gogan described the show, which was called Cheaters during development, as “a series that reflects a modern world and stories of family and emotional relationships – the flux, the chaos and the ridiculous – and how such stories end up in the legal system. This is a good time to explore this subject but, then, when isn’t?”
After some success in screenwriting schemes, theatre and short films, Phelan’s introduction to the TV business came in 2009 with Galway Races, a well-received comedy drama for Gaelic-language channel TG4.
More recently, he attracted attention for Wrecking the Rising, a three-part comedy drama, also for TG4. The latter, which was produced in a mix of English and Gaelic, is a time-travel show in which three historical re-enactors are propelled back in time to the 1916 Easter Risings. In a year that has seen plenty of serious coverage of that landmark political event, Phelan’s story was an interesting dramatic diversion.
In an interview with Film Ireland earlier this year, Phelan was asked whether he was afraid that viewer fatigue would kill the show’s chances. His response was: “Of course. I’m afraid of everything. Afraid we’ll be lost in the flood; afraid that we won’t get a chance to connect. But we hope people give us a chance because we really are something radically different in relation to 1916. It’s not just marketing rhetoric, we are genuinely the antidote to all the solemn stuff. We rip through history and though we are not ripping the piss, we provide something original, outrageous, extreme but also extremely funny and thought-provoking. There’s been a lot of classical treatments of 1916 knocking around — this is more punk rock.”
Fortunately, the Irish media bought into Phelan’s approach, which augurs well for his new series. The Irish Times said: “Despite having roughly the production budget of a bag of cans, Wrecking the Rising is for the most part delightful, with a sold foundation from James Phelan’s script, which nimbly supplements its more broad and silly moments with some self-aware, snappy insights.”
Incidentally, Phelan wasn’t the only writer to come at the Easter Risings centenary from an unusual angle this year.
Another of Ireland’s rising stars, Mike O’Leary (who wrote an episode of Misfits), penned EIPIC, a six-part Irish language drama series for TG4. In this show, a group of five rural teenagers take over their local abandoned post office to start a musical revolution in 2016.
TG4 called it “a bold story about escape, empowerment and what it means to be a teenage ‘hero’ in contemporary rural Ireland set against the backdrop of the 1916 centenary celebrations.”
Back to RTÉ’s new tranche of drama investment, another beneficiary is Colin Teevan, who wrote RTÉ’s Rebellion – a serious dramatic look at the Easter Risings. There were reports at the start of the year that Teevan was working on a second season, though at the time he said a greenlight depended on Rebellion’s ratings performance. The show, perhaps not surprisingly, caused a heated debate about the accuracy of its history. However, RTÉ has now confirmed there will be a follow-up series entitled Resistance.
Teevan is a literary powerhouse whose entrance into the TV business came after he had established himself as a highly regarded theatre writer. Aside from writing acclaimed plays such as Kingdom, he is a collaborator with the likes of Kathryn Hunter, Sir Peter Hall, Hideki Noda, Walter Meirjohann and Dalia Ibelhauptaite. In addition, he is also professor of playwriting and screenwriting at Birkbeck College, London University.
Teevan clocked up a few TV credits at the start of this decade but it was his three-part miniseries Charlie that really announced his arrival as a leading Irish TV writer. Produced for RTÉ in 2015, it told the story of charismatic Irish taoiseach (prime minister) Charles Haughey – using his extended career at the top as a way of exploring the emergence of the modern Irish state.
Another drama coming to RTÉ’s autumn schedule is My Mother and Other Strangers, which is also due to air on the BBC in the UK. Set in Northern Ireland, the show follows the fortunes of the Coyne family and their neighbours as they struggle to maintain a normal life after a huge US Air Force airfield, populated by 4,000 service men and women, lands in the middle of their rural parish in 1943. Written by Barry Devlin (Ballykissangel), it was first reported on back in summer 2015.
Meanwhile, in the UK, there were reports this week that the transformation of BBC3 from a conventional TV channel into an online service had contributed to an 18% fall in 16- to 34-year-olds viewing BBC content. However, one positive outcome of the BBC’s reinvention of BBC3 is that it appears to be doing well on the BBC’s on-demand platform, BBC iPlayer.
Figures released last week show that seven of the top 20 most requested programmes of the year on iPlayer came from BBC3. Most requested of all was the contemporary drama Thirteen, with three million requests.
The show stars the impressive Jodie Comer as a 26-year-old woman trying to put her life back together after escaping from a cellar where she has been imprisoned for 13 years. It was written by newcomer Marnie Dickens, a 30-year-old Oxford graduate whose breakthrough success follows a few years of hard graft as a floor runner and assistant director.
In a recent interview with the scribe, The Oxford Mail reported that “this year is looking even busier than the last for Dickens – her new series Forty Elephants, about a 1920s criminal gang of women, is currently being developed by the BBC, and she is also teaming up with Doctor Foster star Suranne Jones on a new project called Kit and Nim.”
Also in the news this week is Kay Mellor, whose many credits include Band of Gold, Fat Friends and The Syndicate. Now she is writing Love, Lies and Records, a six-part series about a registrar trying to juggle her personal life with the daily dramas of births, marriages and deaths, and the impact they have on her.
Mellor said: “This has been cooking in my brain for quite a while and it feels like the right time to put it on the screen. The idea came to me when I was registering my mother’s death at Leeds Town Hall, closely followed by a friend’s wedding in the very same place. I remembered registering the birth of both of my daughters there too, and I realised that the register office and registrars really are at the very heart of life. It’s a place of laughter, tears and great drama.”
The six-hour series has been commissioned by Charlotte Moore, director of BBC Content, and Lucy Richer, acting controller of drama. It will be produced by Rollem Productions and filmed in and around Leeds. The executive producers are Kay Mellor for Rollem Productions and Elizabeth Kilgarriff for the BBC.
The centrepiece of BBC3’s online launch is psychological drama Thirteen, in which writer Marnie Dickens sought to explore what happens when a person held captive against their will finally recovers their freedom. Michael Pickard reports.
When the BBC first commissioned Thirteen in January 2015, controversial plans to move BBC3 online were still up in the air as campaigners fought to save the youth-skewing free-to-air channel amid the pubcaster’s ambitions to slash millions of pounds from its budget.
But when it debuted little more than a year later, on Sunday February 28, the five-part series became the centrepiece of BBC3’s relaunch after the network became the first in the world to switch from linear to online-only.
“It’s very exciting to be the trailblazer. It’s a brave new world,” admits Thirteen writer Marnie Dickens.
“It didn’t affect the way I wrote at all. When Liz (Kilgarriff, executive producer) called me and said we had been greenlit, it was a brilliant day. I instantly asked if we needed to change the drama to fit BBC3 but she said no. The great thing about BBC3 was there was total freedom to write the scripts the way I wanted. It didn’t feel different from writing for BBC1, or any other channel.”
Described as a psychological mystery drama, Thirteen sees Ivy Moxam return home after being held captive for 13 years. She’s the only one who can help the police catch her kidnapper, but they begin to suspect she’s not telling the whole truth as her family struggle to pick up the pieces of their life together.
From BBC’s in-house drama production department, Thirteen is produced by Hugh Warren and directed by Vanessa Caswill and China Moo-Young. New episodes become available online each week, while the series will also get a linear broadcast when it airs in the US on BBC America.
Dickens says the drama was inspired by her interest in what happens after someone is freed after being imprisoned – though there are few comparisons between Thirteen and Netflix original comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which sees the title character adjusting to life in New York after being freed from an underground bunker where she had lived for 15 years with a doomsday cult.
“A lot of focus is put on periods of imprisonment and I wondered what happens when someone does miraculously escape, and how it can’t possibly be happily ever after,” the first-time writer says. “Once I had that idea, I focused on the character of Ivy.”
Dickens says she felt a “massive burden” to make the series faithful to the experiences of people who have found themselves in similar situations.
“I did my own research and read memoirs. We also had a police advisor and a psychologist attached to the show, to explain how someone might act in that situation, and it was incredibly useful to understand the reality behind it,” she says.
“The thing about this story is that it hasn’t happened, certainly not in the UK. While we need to make truthful experiences, we also need to make good drama. It felt quite liberating that there wasn’t one case study I could follow, but there was enough to get a good sense from the research.”
In terms of casting, the writer notes that Ivy was always going to be a tricky role to fill due to the complexity of the part, but says Jodie Comer (recently seen in BBC drama Doctor Foster) was “the perfect Ivy.”
Dickens adds: “Often in development we thought, ‘Are we asking this actress to do too much, playing so many different levels of truth and memory?’ When Jodie auditioned, I got sent the casting tape and I thought she was fantastic. I think we have been incredibly lucky with the cast. They all fill their roles really well.”
The cast also includes Anuerin Barnard (War & Peace), Richard Rankin (From Darkness), Valene Kane (The Fall) and Natasha Little (Wolf Hall), but it is Comer who takes centre stage as a 26-year-old who has spent half her life in captivity. Now reunited with her family and friends, she must try to fit back into her old life and find a sense of normality when she’s not sure who to trust and, more importantly, whether she can trust herself.
In preparation for the role, the actress says she read a book about real-life abductee Natascha Kampusch, who was held prisoner in an Austrian cellar for eight years until she escaped in 2006.
“Even though we were making a drama, it’s crazy to think things such as this have actually happened to people,” Comer says. “Before we started filming, we made a timeline of all the events during the time that Ivy would have been held in captivity and we bullet-pointed when certain incidents would have happened, including her big birthday milestones, which helped me get into the mindset.”
Having starred in teen drama My Mad Fat Diary and 2015 hit Doctor Foster, Comer admits Thirteen is unlike any series she has previously appeared in, describing the shoot as a tough but rewarding challenge.
“When you get scripts and you really enjoy reading them, you know it’s a good project,” she says. “I was so keen to read more of them after the first script we auditioned with. Playing Ivy, I had to imagine the unimaginable – it pushed me to my limits as an actress and it’s been a real challenge.”
And of Thirteen’s place at the centre of BBC Three’s relaunch? Comer says the decision to move the channel was a “massive step.” But she adds: “I believe in change – we should embrace it.”