Tag Archives: Morven Christie

Word to the wise

Peter Bowker, creator and writer of The A Word, and director Fergus O’Brien discuss making the third season of the BBC family drama and their joy at pushing sidelined characters and stories of disability into the limelight.

Delivered to the BBC at the end of November last year, there was no risk of the third season of family drama The A Word falling foul of the production shutdown that has hampered numerous series around the world as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Other projects for creator and writer Peter Bowker and lead director Fergus O’Brien haven’t been so lucky, however. Bowker is currently writing the second season of ITV’s World on Fire, which was due to start filming in September but he now expects that to be pushed back, with leading actor Jonah Hauer-King currently mid-way through the production of Disney’s live-action movie Little Mermaid.

Fergus O’Brien highlights the importance of the show’s Lake District setting

“It starts to get complicated because they also wanted to film the first block in Spain, which doesn’t help. But I am actually writing,” Bowker tells DQ. “The one bit of certainty they’re trying to cling on to is that they will have all the scripts before they start because they want to schedule it. Availability might mean it will have to be one of those incredible jigsaws.”

Writing World on Fire, which is locked in the past, means he isn’t troubled by questions about whether he should refer to Covid-19. But for crime dramas, “all the alibis for this period of time will stack up because they’ll say, ‘I was in the house for six months.’ So every series will have to factor in a six-month spell where nobody committed crime,” he remarks. “I’m also writing a romantic comedy and there’s references to the past in it all the time and I keep thinking, ‘I’m writing something in the future and I don’t know what it’s going to be.’ Who knows?”

Meanwhile, O’Brien was due to film a block of the second season of another BBC drama, historical series Gentleman Jack, although he is now doubtful that will take place at all this year. He has, instead, returned to his documentary roots to help develop a programme charting the UK’s entire response to the pandemic.

“It’s going to be really interesting,” he says. “There’s quite a lot to keep in your head because it’s quite strict about what you can get out there and film and UGC [user-generated content], which is quite in vogue at the moment, is pretty unsatisfying.”

Peter Bowker

For now, there are no such worries for The A Word, which has won critical and audience acclaim since it first aired in 2016. Based on Israeli drama Yellow Peppers, it follows the Hughes family in the Lake District, where they are struggling to raise youngest son Joe (Max Vento), who is diagnosed with autism. Now, two years on from season two, Joe is 10 and living in two places at once following the divorce of his parents Alison (Morven Christie) and Paul (Lee Ingleby).

“It’s one of the few times the writer says, ‘I’m really glad it’s been such a long gap between seasons’ and actually means it because what it allowed us to do was move the family all into a new phase,” Bowker says of the central family, which has splintered in several directions. “Joe is now that little bit older. His next phase would be puberty, so that creates new challenges and new issues around it. Alison’s in Manchester, Paul’s in the Lakes still. We’ve got a family that’s split into two different places and a child with autism to deal with.”

Produced by Fifty Fathoms and Keshet UK, The A Word doesn’t just focus on the central members of the family but enjoys the company of other figures, such as Alison’s brother Eddie (Greg McHugh), their father Maurice (Christopher Eccleston) and Eddie’s wife Nicola (Vinette Robinson). Bowker says a big change in season three is how the drama has begun to widen its focus further on to these characters and others with disabilities, such as Mark (Travis Smith), the son of Sophie, who works at Paul’s pub.

“The second episode is really Mark’s episode with Paul, which Fergus filmed, where Travis declares his intention to try to join the army and it becomes a story about the responsibility of those trying to encourage somebody with a disability to fulfil their potential and where you draw the line by saying, ‘That’s unrealistic’ and where you say, ‘Let that person try and fail,’ and how you then deal with that. It’s a bit of a road movie, too,” Bowker says.

Max Vento and Molly Wright as Rebecca and Joe Hughes

Distributed by Keshet International, season three sees new cast members including Julie Hesmondhalgh (Broadchurch), David Gyasi (Troy: Fall of a City) and Sarah Gordy (Call The Midwife), with Bowker calling the introduction of Gordy, who has Down’s syndrome, as one of the “joys” of the series as her character, Katie, embarks on a relationship with Ralph (Leon Harrop), who also has Down’s.

“It’s a story about a young couple trying to break away from their parents and make their way in the world,” Bowker explains. “It’s a rite of passage we’ve seen before and it’s doing that through the filter of the fact they have Down’s syndrome. I’ve tried to always flip the expectations so that it’s often about the young people with learning disabilities managing their parents’ expectations, rather than the other way around.

“Chris Eccleston gives a kind of bravura performance throughout the whole thing but his relationship with Leon and his onscreen chemistry with the Ralph character makes them just this great double act.”

Ralph and Katie share just one of the blossoming romances this season, alongside Alison and new character Ben (Gyasi) and between Paul and Sarah (Gemma Paige North), the neurotic parent of Bill, a child who has hearing difficulties. “It’s very sweet,” Bowker notes, “because I created this character of Sarah as the butt of everybody’s jokes in two seasons, so the luxury of having a third season means you can suddenly flip it and Paul sees something in her he hasn’t seen before. It’s that classic one where in the [school] sixth form you’ve spent all this time taking the piss out of this girl and then you end up going out with her.”

Sarah’s evolution through the series is one that Bowker has been able to complete with a third season of The A Word, as he has been able to play with his ensemble of characters and subvert viewers’ expectations of them along the way.

Sarah Gordy and Leon Harrop depict the relationship of a couple with Down’s syndrome

“We know what Morris’s reaction is going to be to something. We expect him to be either blundering or have a use of language that’s incredibly insensitive, and sometimes it’s nice to fight that and he shows himself to be remarkably sensitive, but you know you’re surprising the audience,” he explains. “The joy for me [this season] was running with the Ralph and Morris relationship, which we’d seen something of almost by accident in season two.

“With Joe, he is more verbal than he was, he has more speech, but he often uses that speech in a way to still keep the world at arm’s length, and that’s far more challenging for Max, the actor. When I look now at what a baby he was in the first season, it’s quite a shock to me. Everything was instinctive and you just had to play with that. Fergus is probably the first director who’s been in a director-actor relationship with him. He would ask questions, you would explain things, whereas before it was often a case of working round Max’s instincts. He’s great. He grew as an actor before your very eyes.”

“He’s an extraordinary talent,” agrees O’Brien, who had watched the first two seasons and then rewatched them while preparing to shoot season three. “The difference with him this time was he really responded to being treated like an actor and to being talked to about what he thought his character would do in that situation and giving him that status as somebody who knew his character probably better than a lot of people. He really rose to that. Max just seems to have an instinct. He would know where to be, what to bring to his face and what to do with his hands in a really interesting way and brought truth to what he was doing.”

Coming from a documentary background and fact-based dramas such as Mother’s Day and Against The Law, the director says he was mindful of respecting the style of the series, harnessing the power of the Lake District setting and finding a visual rhythm to Bowker’s writing. “Things would slow down when they needed to slow down and be still so you could really be in an emotional moment, or if it was something that deserved to have more movement and more energy, then we would bring that,” he says. “It was just working to the undulation and the writing. That’s all I wanted to try and amplify a bit more if I could.”

Divorced mum Alison (Morven Christie) and her dad Maurice (Christopher Eccleston)

That rhythm is affected by Joe’s increasing self-empowerment. In season one, he is somebody that things happen to and decisions made about. Now events play out from Joe’s point of view, meaning the show and the show’s “grammar” both moved forward this season.

O’Brien says his aim was to acknowledge Joe and make it clear he was now seeing and hearing what was going on around him, even if he wasn’t responding in the moment. “Even to just let the audience be party to wondering what that might be felt like an extra element I could bring to it.”

Directing the series was “a gift to be able to tell stories that we’re not used to seeing or points of view that we’re not used to seeing on TV,” he adds. “Working with Leon and Sarah and watching their love story, there’s a real richness to that.”

Bowker is rightly proud of writing a mainstream drama that shines a light on people and stories that are usually marginalised on television. “That’s the thing that’s most joyous for me,” he concludes. “And from Lee, Morven, Chris and Pooky [Quesnel, who plays Ralph’s mother Louise], the support the cast lend to this can’t be underestimated. My experience with actors is they’re incredibly hardworking, incredibly accommodating and when they’re responding to work they appreciate, they’re second to none in adjusting and adapting.

“Another joy was having two actors like Julie and David come in, own it and become part of the A Word family, because I like to write about families that are unconventional and find a way of being and are legitimate.”

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Bay watch

A family liaison officer discovers a personal connection to a missing persons case in ITV drama The Bay. DQ speaks to lead director Lee Haven Jones about filming the series, casting Morven Christie and why he believes actors are often neglected.

They are often in the background of a tragedy, offering families and individuals support at the toughest of times. Yet rarely are police family liaison officers and their sensitive role pushed to the forefront of a television drama – a surprising fact considering the range of crime series on air.

Step forward ITV drama The Bay, which stars Morven Christie (The A Word, Ordeal by Innocence) as Detective Sergeant Lisa Armstrong. Described as a fierce and hard-working family liaison officer, she is assigned to a missing persons investigation – but quickly discovers she has a personal connection to this frightened family, one that could compromise her and the investigation.

Set in the English coastal town of Morecambe, the six-part drama comes from writer Daragh Carville (Being Human) and co-creator Richard Clark. It is produced by Tall Story Pictures, with ITV Studios Global Entertainment handling distribution.

It was the location, as well as Carville’s script, that drew lead director Lee Haven Jones (Shetland, Vera) to The Bay. Haven Jones helms the first three episodes, with Robert Quinn (Home Fires) picking up the back three.

The Bay lead director Lee Haven Jones with star Morven Christie

He first read the script in March last year, describing it as a “real page-turner” that finds the balance between believable characters and narrative drive. “That’s not always the case,” he explains. “Sometimes it falls on one or the other. There’s also a fantastic central character. Lisa’s fun, feisty and flawed. There’s a fantastic reveal at the end of part one. Then in part two, there’s a moment where Lisa decides not to reveal the truth. That decision ricochets out and has unbelievable consequences as the story unfolds.”

The drama is particularly personal to Carville, who wanted to set it in Morecambe, a stone’s throw from his home in nearby Lancaster and a town literally on the edge, a classic seaside destination for holidaymakers now struggling against the availability of low-cost holidays abroad.

Haven Jones says there was never any doubt the series would be filmed in Morecambe, with interior scenes shot in Manchester. The director calls it an “under-represented” part of the world – one that he found had a cinematic scale.

Inspired by the depictions of the British seaside in film, television and photography, most notably by artists including Martin Parr and John Hinde, he says The Bay doesn’t have the “technicolour” qualities of series like Broadchurch, but does expel the British cliché that it’s ‘grim up north.’

“We’ve sprinkled it with the broadest of colour. We’re trying to impact the glamour of Morecambe,” Haven Jones says. “It’s just a fantastic place to film – the tidal estuary with the sands and finding glamour at the promenade. It’s what we don’t normally get in a seaside town in the Lake District. It’s an ideal place to film.

Christie plays family liaison officer Lisa Armstrong

“The only frustration, owing to the budget, was we couldn’t film more there. A constant refrain of mine to the producers was it’s called The Bay – we want to see the bay. I pushed to get as much of it in the drama.”

Appearing alongside Christie in the series are Jonas Armstrong (Troy), Tracie Bennett (Scott & Bailey), Lindsey Coulson (Funny Cow) and Chanel Cresswell (This is England 90), among others. Haven Jones says “the great thing” about working on The Bay has been the freedom he has been afforded by executive producer Catherine Oldfield, which included casting the ensemble drama.

“Morven read for it and I pretty much knew from the moment she started reading she was perfect for the role,” he recalls. She’s a consummate actress. I’d known of her for a while. She’s done it all. She was at the Royal Shakespeare Company and is a fantastic stage actress. She has a wealth of stage and screen experience. She’s unflappable.

“I remember a conversation with her early on where she found playing a police officer asking questions very difficult. She’s usually used to being interviewed. I said, ‘Don’t panic, you will get your chance!’”

Christie’s Lisa is the heart of the show, providing an emotional core to a drama that otherwise might seem quite procedural, with detectives attempting to solve the mystery laid out at the beginning of the story.

The drama is set in the town of Morecambe

“A lot of work I have directed has been procedural,” says Haven Jones, who is now working on the next season of Doctor Who. “The key for this project is to find it has more emotion to it; it has more heart. It’s a bit of a hybrid between a police crime procedural and family saga. That’s the USP. The police case unravels and then is solved, and all the characters you meet in the first episode are involved in some way.”

With a background as an actor himself, Haven Jones says part of his approach to directing is to focus not only on the visuals but equally the performance of the cast. “Actors are surprisingly neglected by directors,” he asserts. “The thing I’m really pleased about is the quality of the performances. We have mentioned Morven but we’ve also got Jonas and Chanel. They give emotionally charged performances that feel honest and raw to me.

“We did quite a bit of rehearsal, which is also sometimes neglected because some directors think it’s good to get that rawness of the first take [on camera]. I’m of the opinion it’s fantastic to have rehearsals because it unearths layer upon layer of that performance. You never get as much as you want, but we did have a significant amount of time here. It’s just very useful to help figure out what drives these characters and what they are concealing.”

Nothing about The Bay is high-concept, Haven Jones adds, claiming the story’s strengths are in its believability and the relatability of the characters. “They’re very ordinary folk going about their lives in an awful situation. It’s there to be identified with,” he concludes. “It’s just a cracking good story with really good actors doing their thing in a strikingly beautiful landscape.”

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Bunting and blood

Long-hidden secrets are revealed in Ordeal by Innocence, a murder mystery that shatters the perfect image of a 1950s family. DQ hears from stars Bill Nighy and Morven Christie and writer Sarah Phelps about the latest Agatha Christie adaptation coming to the BBC.

When Ordeal by Innocence airs on the BBC, there’s one person who definitely won’t be watching. “I’m not particularly fond of the sight of myself, or the sound of myself,” reveals actor Bill Nighy. “It’s weird. But it’s the acting, because you know what you had in mind and you know, therefore, how far short it falls from what you had in mind.

“I’m much better now because I realise people just like stuff and if they like it, it’s fine. I used to think it was some conspiracy to make me look stupid. I was a mess and I used to get very paranoid. But now you realise people just want to watch a story. The minutiae of my performance is not really their concern.”

However, there was some concern that nobody would get to see Ordeal by Innocence, the latest Agatha Christie adaptation from writer Sarah Phelps and producers Mammoth Screen and Agatha Christie Ltd, following And Then There Were None and The Witness for the Prosecution.

Originally due to air on BBC1 at Christmas 2017, the three-part miniseries was pulled from the schedules after allegations of sexual assault were made against Ed Westwick, who had been cast as Mickey Argyll. He denies the claims.

Bill Nighy pictured in a break between filming on Ordeal by Innocence

But after director Ridley Scott reshot scenes from All the Money in the World, replacing Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer, the production team decided to follow suit and reshot 35 scenes in 12 days with Christian Cooke replacing Westwick.  Ordeal by Innocence will now debut on April 1.

At the time, the producers said: “While the allegations against Ed Westwick remain under investigation – allegations that he strenuously denies – the producers of Ordeal by Innocence have decided to reshoot parts of the series with another actor.”

The setup of Christie’s story, first published in 1958, remains the same. It opens with the murder of wealthy philanthropist Rachel Argyll (played by Anna Chancellor) at her family estate, Sunny Point. Her adopted son, Jack Argyll (Anthony Boyle), a young delinquent, is then arrested for her murder, despite protesting his innocence.

Eighteen months later, mysterious scientist Dr Arthur Calgary (Luke Treadaway) arrives at Sunny Point claiming to have the alibi that can prove Jack’s innocence. But Jack died in prison before the case could come to trial, and the Argyll family is reluctant to dig up the secrets of the past.

Rachel’s widower, Leo (Bill Nighy), is about to remarry his secretary, Gwenda, and none of Rachel’s other adopted children – Mary, Mickey, Tina and Hester – nor longstanding housekeeper Kirsten, are willing to reopen that most horrendous chapter of their lives. However, if Jack is innocent, then someone else must be guilty.

Morven Christie plays housekeeper Kirsten

With every member of the family fearful of these new revelations, what makes Leo a suspect? “He lives and breathes in an Agatha Christie novel,” Nighy jokes. “You’d have to go some way to invent him as shady; he pretty much behaves impeccably. The only thing about him is – and it’s never specifically stated – I don’t think he’s got any money. The money is his wife’s. Therefore, that might make him suspicious in some way.”

As Kirsten, an adopted daughter who is also the family’s housekeeper, actor Morven Christie (The Replacement, The A Word) stands out as a member of the family who may be the closest thing to an outsider.

“It’s a lot more to do with status,” Christie says. “She’s part of the family but she’s out of the family. They can argue over the breakfast table, she wouldn’t interject, but part of that is just her character. She is holding a lot of things inside her that come out through the story. She’s an incredibly controlled, together woman until she’s not.”

Don’t be fooled into believing the maid did the dastardly deed, however. “When I first read the script, I got two pages in and was like, ‘Clearly this maid did it, because otherwise they wouldn’t cast this face. I have a resting bitch face. They’re trying to deceive you by the casting,” Christie says.

Playing Kirsten also provided the actor with a role different from the more outspoken parts she is used to playing, with the housekeeper largely silent and speaking through expression. But having previously worked with Phelps on Oliver Twist, the actor and writer spent several phone calls talking about Kirsten. “There’s no element of a character’s history she doesn’t know so I always want to check it with her,” Christie says. “So it becomes a proper collaboration, and not every writer’s up for that. Sarah really is. But she’s not prescriptive in the slightest. Sarah’s quite an extraordinary individual. She’s magic.”

Anthony Boyle plays Jack Argyll, who finds himself accused of murder

Despite this being her third Agatha Christie adaptation – and with a fourth, Poirot mystery The ABC Murders, on the way – Phelps has never been a “Christie aficionado,” admitting she had never read the crime novelist’s books or watched one of the countless other adaptations of her work.

But reading And Then There Were None for the first time, her impressions of “nice, safe, queasy nostalgia” were blown away. “It was so brutal, remorseless and so savage and completely unexpected,” she says of the story, which sees 10 people gathered together on a remote island and killed off one by one.

She found more freedom in The Witness for the Prosecution, a short story set in the mid-1920s, while adapting Ordeal by Innocence was a very different prospect.

“It is all about something that happened a very long time ago,” she explains. “Nobody really gets killed. Everybody just sits around in a hiatus talking about things and nothing really happens. Somebody goes to London and goes out for dinner, and that’s about it.

“So it’s much more of a contemplative piece of writing. But with a murder mystery, there’s got to be a murder and there’s got to be a mystery. And there’s got to be something that compels you through. So I just basically took the idea of this really fucked-up family and thought about the 1950s a lot and then – probably to the horror of the [Agatha Christie] devotees – I changed the ending. I’ve changed quite a lot and I’m lucky the [author’s] estate are generous enough to go, ‘You’re mad but we’re just going to let you do it.’”

Sarah Phelps

Phelps began writing the miniseries by thinking about “the bunting and the blood of the 1950s,” a period just a few years removed from the horrors of the Second World War and a time of great tradition but also of motherhood and womanhood, with a young Queen Elizabeth II on the British throne. And at its heart is the story of a ‘perfect’ family, except it isn’t perfect at all.

“For loads of different reasons, it took a great deal of time to burrow away at it and actually find the real spirit of it,” the writer says of Christie’s novel. “I was thinking about the 1950s and street parties and also conspiracy and silence – I wanted those two things to be the mood of the book. I wanted this sense of people smiling but, underneath, just screaming with fury and rage and all the lies that families keep.

“The thing I kept thinking about was perhaps there’s a way of telling the story of the 20th century through murder mysteries that tells us where we are in the 21st. So that’s kind of what I’m into doing – we’ve had the late 1930s [in And Then There Were None] and the mid-20s [for The Witness for the Prosecution] and now we’re having the mid-50s, and the next one [The ABC Murders] will be the early 30s.”

For Phelps, the appeal of a murder mystery is not ‘whodunnit’ by ‘whydunnit.’ “That’s what’s exciting to me, picking away at the characters and going, ‘Why are you doing this?’ Not how you did it with a poker or whatever, but why? What is making you do this?”

Phelps is well versed in family tension, having written dozens of episodes of long-running BBC soap EastEnders. Now in Ordeal by Innocence, distributed worldwide by IMG Global, the residents of Sunny Point find there is no one to trust. “There is a murderer under this roof and they smile and they get away with it,” she adds. “It’s one of those things that puts a shiver up your back.”

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