Tag Archives: Neil Morrissey

Let the wrong one in

Julie Graham leads the cast of Penance, a three-part psychological miniseries about one woman’s grief and what happens when she befriends a potentially deadly stranger.

UK broadcaster Channel 5’s drive to become a major player in the drama stakes continues apace with this week’s psychological thriller Penance.

Adapted by Kate O’Riordan from her 2016 novel, it’s the story of a bereaved middle-aged woman who gets caught up in a dangerous love triangle.

Penance also marks the debut project from West Road Pictures, the All3Media-backed scripted production label launched last year by executive producer Jonathan Fisher. His credits include Blood, an Irish drama acquired by Channel 5 (season two is on its way) and the 20th anniversary season of ITV’s Midsomer Murders, which Fisher exec produced.

C5’s aim to produce mainstream-quality drama on a budget has resulted in productions like last autumn’s nail-biting Cold Call with Sally Lindsay, and Agatha & the Curse of Ishtar at Christmas. This year, we’ll see the rejuvenated All Creatures Great & Small and The Deceived, written by Derry Girls’ Lisa McKee and produced by All3Media-owned New Pictures.

“I was incredibly excited to pick up a new commission from Channel 5 so soon after launching,” explains Fisher. “For many years, Big Brother and Celebrity Big Brother were key features of the Channel 5 slate, so they decided after cancelling Big Brother to explore other genres, and one thing they hadn’t done was produce original drama.”

Penance stars Julie Graham as grieving mother Rosalie

Fisher says he viewed the modest finance available for Penance as an exciting challenge. “If you know from the outset that your drama is going to be made on a relatively low budget, there are many things you can do to maximise the money you do have on screen.”

Keeping the main cast to just five characters helps keep costs in check. Julie Graham stars as Rosalie Douglas, a mum grieving the death of her son, Rob, who drowned in Thailand on his gap year. With her marriage to Luke (Neil Morrissey) already floundering after he had an affair, she and her teen daughter Maddie (Tallulah Greive) attend grief counselling sessions run by their priest, played by Art Malik. There they are befriended – and ultimately beguiled – by another attendee, Jed (Nico Mirallegro, pictured top alongside Graham).

Suffering under the weight of his own grief, Jed rekindles a hope for the future within the Douglas household. But underneath, a deadly and morally corrupt triangle is taking shape.

“One of Penance’s real strengths is that it feels intense and claustrophobic and like you’re very much in that compact world of characters,” explains Fisher. “It’s a domestic drama, so it doesn’t require a huge number of locations and is rooted in the family home.”

Casting well-known actors also attracts viewers. Morrissey has been a household name for decades as a star of Boon, Line of Duty and Men Behaving Badly, and says he found it easy to connect with Graham in this three-part series.

“I’m old friends with Julie, since the late 80s, when she filmed an episode of the ITV drama Boon alongside me, so there’s a shorthand between us,” explains Morrissey. “And coincidentally, Luke’s a brewer, which I also am! I provide the beer for my beloved Crystal Palace FC. I can tap into the kind of experience he has gone through [losing a son]. You can bring things to mind – in my case, the loss of my brother and my mother. At the age of 57, there’s enough I can call on.”

Neil Morrissey plays Rosalie’s husband Luke

Lead actor Graham has a diverse CV that includes At Home with the Braithwaites (2000-03), William & Mary (2003-05), The Bletchley Circle (2012-14 and 2018) and Benidorm (2016-19).

Graham also worked on another O’Riordan adaptation, 2006’s The Kindness of Strangers. “Julie has such a relatable and endearing quality,” says Fisher. “Viewers can watch her and totally understand her emotions. That’s integral to this story of Penance, because the character does make what you could call alarming decisions along the way. But because Julie puts in such a terrific, grounded performance, I totally find all her motivations entirely credible.”

Graham justifies Rosalie’s dubious decision-making, which sees her welcome near-stranger Jed into the family unit, with potentially devastating consequences.

“Grief is the shadow that falls over the whole piece,” explains the actor. “Rosalie makes very, very bad decisions because of grief, because she’s extremely vulnerable and easy to fool, and that’s what hooked me. It wasn’t just about a woman dissatisfied with her life and her marriage. That’s why she allows this man into her home and ultimately opens them up to the most awful situation.”

She adds that landing a meaty lead role at her age (54) was a delightful surprise. “When they offered it, I bit their hand off!” she laughs. “Ordinarily, for every four or five or even six parts for older actors, maybe there’s one for an actress over 40. I’d say it’s still 75/25 in terms of casting. That’s why ERA 50:50 [a campaign group for gender balance for actresses] is trying to get broadcasters to redress the balance.”

The series will air across three consecutive nights, beginning this evening

Costs on Penance were further contained by filming over five-and-a-half weeks near Dublin, even though the drama is set in an unidentified English town. “Ireland is attractive if you’re on a low budget because they have a really appealing tax credit,” explains Fisher. “I also film Blood in Ireland, and we have such a fantastic talented crew on that that I moved them all over to Penance.”

Even the lamentable Irish weather cooperated in helping Fisher keep within budget. “The climax of Penance leans into the tradition of the psychological thriller,” he explains. “It all takes place in pitch black in a woodland. We were shooting in November and it was absolutely freezing and the rain was pelting down, which from a production point of view was absolutely fantastic because we couldn’t have afforded that number of rain machines.”

Graham says a “Blitz spirit” helped everyone through the long evening’s filming. “We were all soaked to the skin and Nico and I were bruised and battered by the end of it, but everybody looked after each other,” she adds.

Due to debut tonight and air across three consecutive evenings in a bid to build tension and encourage binge-watching, Penance is yet more proof that C5’s bid to compete with established networks in the drama sphere is paying dividends.

“You don’t need millions of pounds per episode to make quality TV drama,” says Fisher. “What we found on Blood and what we’ll find on Penance is that viewers respond to a quality story. It doesn’t always need big flashes and bangs and stunts and expensive sets in order to be an accessible and relatable piece of TV drama for the viewer.

“Penance is made on a modest budget, but it has high production values and punches above its weight.”

tagged in: , , , , , ,

A dose of Karma

British India-set medical drama The Good Karma Hospital returns for a second season as the eclectic cast of characters face new challenges in their professional and personal lives. DQ goes behind the scenes on location in Sri Lanka.

Setting a feel-good drama in a sun-soaked paradise has proven a fruitful formula for British TV makers. It’s been deployed with success in series from Death in Paradise and The Durrells to Wild at Heart, The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and even Doc Martin.

Most recently it’s been a winner for ITV’s The Good Karma Hospital, which is back this month for a second season. Good Karma’s USP is that it’s a medical drama that offsets its palm-fringed backdrop with emotional stories from a run-down rural Indian hospital. There’s added comfort for viewers in finding familiar faces stationed in this exotic destination, including Amanda Redman and Neil Morrissey.

Set in Kerala in southern India, Good Karma is actually filmed in Unawatuna on Sri Lanka’s west coast to avoid India’s monsoon season. It’s based on the experiences of writer Dan Sefton, who also pens Sky 1’s Delicious and was the man behind last year’s Trust Me with Jodie Whittaker, recently renewed for a second season by BBC1. Accident and emergency doctor Sefton – currently taking a hiatus from medicine due to his writing workload – got the idea from working in a cash-strapped cottage hospital in South Africa after qualifying as a doctor.

The Good Karma Hospital stars Amanda Redman (left) and Amrita Acharia

DQ is visiting the stiflingly hot set of the drama at the dilapidated Amarasooriya Teachers Training College, which has been taken over for filming. Though set on a busy main road, it’s surrounded by large gardens that bring a blast of colour to the screen, and on which sits a charming open-air shack that serves as the doctors’ café. Off-camera, it’s a different story: dozens of extras mill about, crew members carry cables and lights, and there’s a queue for the food service truck’s fresh coconuts. Ask for one and the man behind the counter takes a machete, whacks the top off a coconut and sticks a straw in it – not a common sight at British craft service tables.

Redman is a regular customer. “I find the best way to deal with the heat and humidity is to keep still and drink coconut water,” says the actor, who works inside the college in temperatures that regularly reach 40°C. “Between scenes I’ll just sit with my coconut water and a fan on my face.”

Redman is Good Karma’s biggest name, playing the outspoken Dr Lydia Fonseca, an ex-pat surgeon with a big heart and brusque manner. Redman is a fixture of British TV, having starred in At Home with the Braithwaites, Mike Bassett: England Manager and New Tricks, and the no-nonsense Fonseca is a character close to her heart. “I love her passion and her warmth,” says Redman. “She says it like it is, which, in an increasingly PC world, is very refreshing.”

Rounding out Fonseca’s staff is handsome-but-surly Dr Gabriel Varma (James Krishna Floyd), Nurse Mari Rodriguez (Nimmi Harasgama) and Anglo-Indian Dr Ruby Walker (Amrita Acharia).

Neil Morrissey plays Greg, who owns the local beach bar

As Greg McConnell, Fonseca’s long-term boyfriend, Morrissey has lucked out – his character owns the local beach bar, which means the bulk of his scenes are played out in an open-air set cooled by Indian Ocean breezes.

Season one dealt with Walker’s impetuous decision to leave her NHS job and emigrate to India, only to find herself at Fonseca’s cash-strapped hospital. To avoid a sophomore slump, Sefton and producers Tiger Aspect had to find new storylines for season two, which begins in the UK this Sunday. Adding to the difficulty of their task was the fact that a major character, Maggie Smart (played by Downton Abbey’s Phyllis Logan), died at the end of season one.

“One of the big decisions we made was not to bring in any new regulars,” explains executive producer Lucy Bedford. “What we felt when reflecting on season one is that we had this amazing core cast, and that the nature of show meant we didn’t get to know them as well as we should have.

“So, along with our robust stories of the week, we also wanted to give a bit of space to the serial elements of the show, with all the characters going on big journeys.” Dr Walker will explore her Indian heritage and Dr Fonseca her inability to commit, while McConnell helps Maggie’s widower, Paul (Phillip Jackson), through his grief.

To ensure the exotic setting remains eye-catching, new filming locations were found for the series, which is distributed globally by Endemol Shine International. Dr Walker has been moved away from her cottage in the rice fields into an urban flat in fictional Barco – filmed in Weligama, a half-hour drive down the coast. “We did it to keep evolving the visual palette of the show and to give Ruby a different connection to the world, because she’s not a tourist anymore,” explains Bedford.

James Krishna Floyd as Dr Gabriel Varma

Episodes three and four are set on a lush tea plantation (three different plantations were used) and the final episode features a full-scale Indian wedding with all the regulars in traditional dress. Another big set piece sees Dr Fonseca visit her former medical mentor (played by British stalwart Sue Johnston) on her houseboat, built on a private jetty on nearby Koggala Lake.

The benefit of shooting in Sri Lanka is the low cost of labour and materials that enabled the production to mount big set pieces. For starters, up to 300 extras per day could be hired and clothed, as opposed to 20 to 30 per day in the UK. “The production side is one of the great gifts about shooting out there,” explains Bedford. “Because construction is cheap, we were able to mount these sets we wouldn’t normally be able to. The art department built a full-sized replica Keralan houseboat for the finale, so we could tell an emotional story but in a stunning setting.”

The downsides to filming in the country, says Bedford, are that vehicle hire can be expensive and certain equipment is unavailable – a portable ultrasound machine had to be flown from in the UK. A few actors went down with stomach troubles, and a serious outbreak of dengue fever – a potentially fatal mosquito-borne disease – in Sri Lanka saw two crew members admitted to hospital.

But the benefits of filming in such an alien locale outweigh the drawbacks. Over drinks at their hotel, the actors enthuse and laugh about their encounters with Sri Lanka’s wildlife. Morrissey flashes photos he took of a snake that slithered into his hotel’s lounge and Acharia recounts how she found a scorpion nestled inside her yoga mat. Redman spotted a crocodile in Koggala Lake, though from a safe distance – the houseboat she filmed in had safety nets around it.

Bedford, Sefton and their team are busy working on storylines for Good Karma’s third season, should it be recommissioned. Along with developing the characters’ personal lives, they conduct meticulous research into relevant medical storylines reflecting Indian culture in a bid to provide an engrossing hour of television that has a satisfying emotional payoff but remains upbeat.

Morrissey describes his take on Good Karma’s selling point: “When you’ve got those vistas of Sri Lanka on your 55-inch Samsung, there’s a feelgood factor. At the same time, we show people having serious issues, and it’s good to know that people in far-flung places are having the same problems as you are having at home.”

tagged in: , , , , , , ,