Award-winning playwright Tim Crouch has teamed up with actor and longtime friend Toby Jones to write Don’t Forget the Driver, a dark comedy-drama starring Jones as a coach driver whose mundane life is thrown into chaos.
While the future of the traditional British booze cruise – day trips from Dover to Calais in France to pick up alcohol and cigarettes – may be uncertain as Brexit negotiations continue, it’s a trip across the English Channel that provides the narrative spark for dark comedy-drama Don’t Forget the Driver.
Toby Jones (Detectorists, Marvellous) plays Peter Green, a single father and a coach driver struggling to find meaning in life while coping with his disaffected daughter Kayla and caring for his mum Audrey.
Yet the discovery of a dead body on the beach at Bognor Regis in episode one, coupled with finding a stowaway onboard his coach as he returns from a Calais trip in episode one, spins Peter’s world out of control.
The six-part BBC2 series comes from producer Sister Pictures (Chernobyl, The Split) and distributor BBC Studios. Crouch created and co-wrote the series with longtime friend Jones, marking the award-winning playwright’s first TV project.
“I think I’ve had a lucky, charmed journey into it. The idea has been around with me for a while and then with Toby, but I’ve known colleagues who’ve been knocking on the door of TV for a long, long time so I feel pretty charmed by the experience,” Crouch says.
Living in Brighton, a stone’s throw from Bognor on England’s south coast, he had been thinking of a story involving coach drivers for several years, having watched them pick up and drop off passengers in the popular tourist city. “You see them just hanging out, cleaning their vehicles, reading the papers. I always got imaginatively involved in their lives and it started to develop,” he says.
Crouch then took some coach trips himself, purely in the name of research, visiting a donkey sanctuary and Dover Castle as well as heading to France, taking notes of his experiences and observations. The subject then arose in a meeting with Sister Pictures exec producer Naomi De Pear, before Jones joined the project.
“We wrote very long treatments – four to six pages for six episodes – not really knowing how the industry standard is, but it enabled us to write the story,” Crouch remembers of the project’s early development. “Much of it still stands from that document and much has changed. But from that document we wrote the first episode for Sister. And with that script and document, that’s when the BBC came on board.”
The writing process saw Crouch sitting in front of a laptop while Jones “strode around the room and improvised.” They would discuss characters and storylines through a shared humour and a sense of Englishness – something that would come to define a drama in which the main character is looking for a sense of identity at a time when the UK is questioning its place in the world. However, it’s purely coincidence that a series four years in the making is coming to air when the country is in the grip of uncertainty surrounding its exit from the European Union.
“We started writing this before Brexit but, inevitably, if you place any story anywhere at the moment, the influence of what’s happening currently will be felt,” Crouch notes. “You could talk about what a character like that means in the contemporary climate, but we haven’t set out to write a political drama. We’ve written a drama about a man stuck in a world, and that world is connecting with the wider world. It happens with great force when, at the end of episode one, he realises he’s been involved in bringing someone into the country. At the beginning of episode two, he kind of involuntarily commits an act of kindness and the rest of the series is him dealing with the consequences of that act of care. That was our focus, always.”
Crouch is known in the theatre world as someone who is not afraid to play with structure or form, an approach that also applied to Don’t Forget the Driver, though it was more through inexperience than design. “We didn’t have a predetermined idea of how TV is written, so there are aspects of this series that are fresh and unusual,” he explains. “That’s not because we set out to break or reinvent it. As we have gone along, we’ve discovered what we can do. And now, having written the series, we feel we know a lot more about the medium from the writer’s point of view. We intend to write together again because it was such an enjoyable experience.”
Appearing alongside coach driver Peter are a band of regular characters, including Peter’s identical twin from Australia, also played by Jones. The actor was always in line to play the lead character, and even learned to drive a coach for the part.
“He’s an incredible actor,” says Crouch, who first met Jones in theatre 20 years ago. “But there’s just something that is both funny and heartbreaking about Toby’s work. There’s something quite innately English – a little lost, perhaps – in the characters he plays. Toby is the least lost person I know but he has a brilliant facility to play those kinds of characters.”
Meetings and conversations are already underway about a potential second season, though Crouch admits an impending stage play is currently his priority. “My theatre career will not end; it’s not like I’ve dumped theatre to join TV, even though in TV they buy you lunch!” he jokes. “In theatre you make your own sandwiches. Theatre is the root of where I come from but I’ve really enjoyed this experience and would love to do more of it.”
Crouch is just latest example of the continuing trend of theatre writers moving across to TV. He remembers seeing the stage version of Fleabag at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival years before creator, writer and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge brought it to the small screen.
“She’s come from a different medium and is now totally rocking TV,” he says. “The theatre writers I know who do work in TV don’t do it exclusively – they try to balance two things. The live form is very different from the recorded form and they both have their strengths. The ideal is to combine both those things. It’s different writing for telly compared with theatre, and I’ve really enjoyed exploring what those differences might be. I’m no expert – it’s the beginning of a journey for me.”
London’s Royal Festival Hall hosted the most prestigious night of the year for British television as prizes were handed out to dramas including Peaky Blinders, Three Girls and The Handmaid’s Tale. DQ went behind the scenes at the Bafta Television Awards 2018.
Crowds were hanging over balconies, hoping to catch a glimpse of their favourite TV stars as dozens of plush cars lined up to drop off their A-list cargo at London’s Royal Festival Hall. The red carpet outside was a scene of organised chaos as guests made their way past photographers and fans cheering their name before they arrived inside the venue for this year’s Bafta Television Awards.
Inside the grand building, which sits on the city’s Southbank beside the River Thames, the atmosphere was one of relative calm as the auditorium’s seats slowly filled up ahead of the start of the show, this year presented by former Great British Bake-Off host Sue Perkins.
BBC comedy This Country and drama Three Girls, which was based on real events, each scooped two prizes, while Molly Windsor (Three Girls) and Sean Bean (Broken) scooped the gongs for leading actress and actor. In the best drama category, Peaky Blinders beat competition from Line of Duty, The Crown and The End of the F****** World, while US series The Handmaid’s Tale triumphed over scripted rivals Big Little Lies and Feud: Bette and Joan to be named best international drama.
After the winners were escorted off stage, DQ was on hand to hear some of their reactions.
Drama Series: Peaky Blinders (Caryn Mandabach Productions, Tiger Aspect Productions, BBC2) This was Peaky Blinders‘ first Bafta award for best drama since the period drama set in 1920s Birmingham debuted on BBC2 in 2013. Season four aired last year, with a fifth commissioned by BBC2. Steven Knight, creator and writer: “I’m shocked. I think it took that long just for people to get the idea of what it’s all about. Some things do take time. I’m really pleased. I’m hoping that next year it will be [actors] Helen [McCrory], Paul [Anderson] and Cillian [Murphy]. They are the Peaky Blinders. My ambition was to make it a story of family between two wars. I’ve always wanted to end it with first air-raid siren in Birmingham in 1939 – three more seasons. Now we’re getting approached to do all kinds of things – ballet, musical, a movie would be great. I wouldn’t want to do it at the very end but maybe between two of the seasons.” Caryn Mandabach, executive producer: “I’m gobsmacked. What Steve’s not saying is many people were saying, ‘It’s not for me, it’s too northern, it’s too violent.’ What people didn’t understand was what he was really writing about was the effect of violence on people and the importance of respect for the family. Now finally everyone’s catching up with an honest depiction of people everywhere after some giant thing like the First World War. I don’t know how he actually writes them, personally. I think he’s got writer fairies that visit occasionally.”
International: The Handmaid’s Tale (MGM, Channel 4) After claiming victory at the Golden Globes and Emmys, Hulu’s adaptation of Margret Atwood’s dystopian novel – a timely and often challenging watch – was a sure thing to continue its award-winning run following its UK broadcast on Channel 4. O-T Fagbenle, who plays Luke, Offred (Elisabeth Moss)’s husband before Gilead: “The source material, Margaret’s book, is just a phenomenal piece of literature. Also we live in scary times, changing times, with populist governments on the rise and a greater awareness of the way patriarchy affects women’s rights in the world.
“What’s been really interesting about it is how so many people from so many walks of life related to it. When it first came out, Donald Trump had just been elected and everyone related it to Trump. Then there was the great #MeToo movement and people related it to that. Also people around the world are relating to the different ways, large and small, that men have oppressed women.
“Elisabeth is the greatest actress I’ve ever had the chance to work with, in so many ways. She’s phenomenal and she carries such a load with her. The material is so challenging and she’s just charming and generous on set. You couldn’t wish to work with a better partner in a scene.”
Supporting Actor: Brían F O’Byrne, Little Boy Blue (ITV Studios, ITV) O’Byrne and Sinead Keenan starred as parents Steve and Melanie Jones in the four-part ITV series, which dramatises the real-life killing of 11-year-old Rhys Jones in Liverpool in 2007. “Jeff [Pope]’s script is so good and Paul [Whittington]’s such a wonderful director, you know you’re going to be in safe hands but also worried they may have actually called the wrong guy – there must be a mistake. I was living in LA at the time and I had just decided to move back to Ireland after being over there for three decades. I hadn’t worked in the UK before and got a call to go to Liverpool. I didn’t have the fear of getting a job until I met Mel and Steve, and then there was the realisation I could really fuck this up really badly and it would be terrible. It’s too sensitive a material.
“You’re not really thinking about it from an acting point of view as much as you’re invited into [the Jones family’s] home, and I got to meet two people who are grieving a decade later and are processing something we could all have empathy with and identify with. It would be our horror that your child, just coming back from football practice, could be indiscriminately killed.
“This award is Sinead’s really. I got to witness an incredible performance take after take. Actresses are the ones who really have to go from 0-100 right now and it’s expected take after take. She was living in grief for those several months. It was a really tough job for her.
“The odd thing was going to work on a set like that because everybody thought of it as we’re not just making a shit TV show. If you go and work on something like that, everybody there had care for the piece. There was great care and attention taken because we all met [the family at the heart of the story] and we didn’t want to lessen the loss they had in any way.
“They obviously wanted their story told because of their love for Rhys. I know they were happy about how the show ended up. [The existence of the show means] Rhys’s memory is still out there. I think ultimately that’s what they wanted. They want to show their grief continues and the senseless act of his murder is not just nightly news thing, it goes on and it stays with them.
Miniseries: Three Girls (BBC Drama Studios, Studio Lambert, BBC1) The BBC three-parter retold the true stories of victims of grooming and sexual abuse in the English town of Rochdale between 2008 and 2012. The series also won writing, editing and directing prizes at the Bafta Television Craft Awards last month. Nicole Taylor, writer: “The first thing I did was turn it down repeatedly because I was scared to do it. I thought I had good reasons for turning it down but actually I was just scared – and what I was really doing was turning away from the girls because I didn’t want to look, like everyone else. They didn’t want it to be true. I didn’t want it to be true. I was scared of approaching it, and that was actually an appropriate place to start from. Once I went up to Rochdale and met the girls and their mums and dads, I was so stunned myself at the gap between the idea of Girl A and Girl B and Girl C and these anonymous people, and getting to know them was so enormous. I was so shocked by that; I thought, ‘Right, I’m definitely going to do this – I can’t not do this.’ I didn’t really do anything else for three years.” Philippa Lowthorpe, director: “The really urgent thing for me as a director was to get inside those girls’ heads and see their experiences from their point of view, not on the outside, but to really try to understand from the inside what they might be experiencing and to be really truthful to their experience and honour their experience and to not walk away. It was very emotional. We had a brilliant casting director in Shaheen Baig and we chose very carefully girls not only for their talent, but also their maturity to be able to deal with this kind of subject matter.” Simon Lewis, producer: “Before the programme could be broadcast, we showed it to [the real-life victims]. They came and watched it individually because we were obviously nervous and because we knew it would be emotional. One by one, sometimes with a family member or a friend, they all came in to watch. We were expecting them to say, ‘That’s not quite right,’ or ‘I didn’t go in that door’ or ‘I was never in that car,’ but actually the essence, the big stuff, they all said that’s how it was. When we showed it to them, there were a lot of tears. But there were a lot of tears all the way through making it.” Susan Hogg, executive producer: “One of the girls said, which has really made me proud, that until she watched the programme, she didn’t realise she was a victim. Watching the programme, because we’d interviewed her and then put her character on the screen, she could see she was absolutely a victim, and that meant a huge amount to her. It’s not just about the three girls on screen, it’s about the thousands of others who have been abused and those trials keep coming up and more and more victims come to light. It’s for all them really that we made this programme, for them to be heard, because, for a long time, even when they went to the police, they weren’t being heard and weren’t being believed. Now we know that is changing. For the BBC to support a programme like this and for [director of content] Charlotte Moore to put her weight behind it and have the confidence to commission it is massive. With the way funding now works and we have a lot of money coming in from America and the SVoD channels, we’re doing a lot of coproductions, this really important domestic drama is very hard to fund, and the BBC absolutely does that. Long may that continue.”
Supporting Actress: Vanessa Kirby, The Crown (Left Bank Pictures, Netflix) Kirby stars in the epic British royal drama as Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy)’s younger sister. The award marked the first major Bafta for Netflix, following craft prizes for photography & lighting and sound.
“I just felt like the luckiest person in the world to play someone so colourful, vivid, brave and strong, so actually this is for Margaret, wherever she is.”
Single Drama: Murdered for Being Different (BBC Studios Documentary Unit, BBC3) This film, from the award-winning team behind Murdered by my Boyfriend, retold the brutal 2007 killing of 20-year-old Sophie Lancaster, who was kicked to death by a gang of teenagers. Her boyfriend Robert Maltby was also severely beaten and ended up in a coma. Both were targeted because they were goths. Aysha Rafaele, the former creative director of BBC Studios Documentary Unit who is now setting up a drama hub within the organisation: “A big thank you to Robert Maltby and Sylvia Lancaster, Sophie’s mum, for their bravery and courage in allowing us to tell this devastating story. Sadly since Sophie’s death, hate crime in this country has continued to rise. It’s our duty and our privilege as filmmakers to not look away from the dark corners in our society.”
Scripted Comedy: This Country (BBC Studios, BBC3) Female Performance in a Comedy Programme: Daisy May Cooper, This Country The BBC3 mockumentary, about two young people living in a small village in the Cotswolds, also earned its stars and co-creators (and siblings) writing accolades at the Bafta TV Craft Awards last month. Charlie Cooper, writer and actor: “We had an idea in our head that we thought might be funny but we were never intelligent enough to articulate it. As soon as we met these guys [producers Tom George and Simon Mayhew-Archer], they knew immediately what we were on about and transformed what was a seed of an idea into something that’s good and funny. It’s amazing.” Daisy May Cooper, writer and actor: “What we were worried about when the first season came out was that people might not be able to find it [on online network BBC3]. Now with a second season coming out, people are really talking about it and I get stopped a lot more, which is brilliant. I absolutely love it.”
Male Performance in a Comedy Programme: Toby Jones, Detectorists (Channel X North, Treasure Trove Productions, Lola Entertainment, BBC4) The comedy series, written and directed by Mackenzie Crook, saw Crook and Jones play a pair of metal-detecting enthusiasts. It previously won the 2015 Bafta for scripted comedy. Jones won the award for its third and final season. “I think it’s fantastic writing. It’s a strange thing in world of TV now that I was cycling through New Orleans making a film last October and these guys came out of a bar and just went, ‘Man we love the Detectorists.’ It’s so extraordinary that a show made in a village in Suffolk is big in America and Canada. It’s a testament to how Mackenzie’s created characters that are archetypal. It’s about friendships, maybe about a life a lot of people want, where they can go to the pub with their mates and they have time.
“Mackenzie and I have worked on the same things before but never worked in a scene together. Then we were in Muppets Most Wanted as a double act and he said to me, ‘I’ve written this thing with you in mind. You don’t have to do it. I know it’s a nightmare when people tell you they’ve written something for you but, if you don’t mind, I’ll email it to you. You probably won’t like it and you don’t want to do a comedy show, do you?’ He emailed it to me and it was just the most amazing dialogue. It’s not comedy in the sense of gags, it’s about humane characters. That’s what appealed to me.
“I always think the most glamorous thing about our job is the contrast. You get to move medium, you get to move where you’re working, the scale you’re working at and the people you’re working with. That always feels to me like the most glamorous thing you can possibly do. So to work on Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and then go and stay in a pub and make Detectorists, it just feels fantastic. Neither one is better. It’s just a huge contrast.
“Mackenzie was pretty clear that he didn’t want to say goodbye in a big way, but there’s a challenge in the show that you find treasure. You can’t keep finding treasure. It felt great that he’d found a third season because it felt like the second one, where we found treasure at the end, that was a good place to stop. Nut he said, ‘What if the treasure was up in the sky?’ So it actually feels good and appropriate to finish it. I really miss those actors because it was such a chilled-out job. You stroll to work in a field in the sunshine every day. The scripts are immaculate. It’s very rare you don’t have to change anything.”
Soap & Continuing Drama: Casualty (BBC Studios Continuing Drama, BBC1) The long-running BBC drama follows the staff and patients at the fictional Holby City Hospital’s emergency department. George Rainsford, who plays Ethan Hardy: “Casualty has been around for 30 years. It keeps challenging itself and keeps challenging the viewers, keeps producing big stories people can relate to, hopefully, and it keeps championing the NHS. I’m really speechless. I genuinely didn’t think we’d be here.” Chelsea Halfpenny, who plays Alicia Munroe: “I think it shows authentically the realities of the NHS. The business, the lack of funding… I get a lot of tweets and messages from nurses and doctors saying thank you for showing the struggles.” Simon Harper, executive producer: “There isn’t particularly a gender pay gap on Casualty, I wouldn’t say. One thing that came to light in the [BBC] pay publication thing last summer was just how hard our artists work, and every single one of them deserves every single penny that they earn. I would agree in the industry wide there’s still a lot of work to be done but I think we can hold our heads high on that issue.”
Leading Actor: Sean Bean, Broken (LA Productions, BBC1) Former Game of Thrones star Bean won the award for his portrayal of Father Michael Kerrigan, a Roman Catholic priest who tries to be a confidant, counsellor and confessor for a congregation struggling with its beliefs amid the challenges of daily life in contemporary Britain. The series was written by Jimmy McGovern. “It kind of developed with Jimmy as an idea. I’ve worked with Jimmy before on a thing called Tracie’s Story, where I played a transvestite, so I knew it would be something unusual. It was kind of semi-autobiographical for Jimmy; it was based on his experiences but it stemmed from scratch really. There was no script, no story, it was just his ideas and he was very passionate about that. I got on board very early and said I’d love to work with him again and let’s see what you come up with. I wasn’t really taking a gamble because I love him – and whatever he comes up with, it’s going to be interesting. But it was very exciting for me. It was a nucleus that developed.
“We got the first episode and that was brilliant. It started off well and it was great to work with Anna [who played Christina Fitzsimmons], who was someone I’d wanted to work with for a long time. She was so perfect for the role, she was so fragile and vulnerable and yet a very strong woman, a woman with great self-belief but who has been battered around by her circumstances.
“I like looking at who the characters are, how they’re written and how they develop. That’s always been the case. When you read a script, if there’s detail that’s great but, in terms of characters, there are not a great deal of scripts that have characters that develop and we can relate to. There are quite a few one-dimensional characters you can play but you’re trying to supplement it with whatever you do to improve the character, whereas something like Broken, Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, the characters are there and you live up to their expectations. It’s up to you to reach that peak of characterisation. I’m just a bit more selective [now] and I like to know the directors and producers. Fortunately I’ve worked a few years and got to know quite a few people. I look forward to playing characters like Father Michael Kerrigan again.
“I worked as a producer on Broken. I’d like to spend some time looking at other things and maybe books I’ve read or ideas people have and become a producer. I wouldn’t say I’d like to direct, I can’t see myself doing that at the moment, but I’d like to be involved in the process of starting something from scratch and developing it and finding interesting characters to play. I don’t want to play something extreme. I think often the very simple stories as in Broken are the most powerful.”
Leading Actress: Molly Windsor, Three Girls Windsor plays Holly, a young girl new to Rochdale who is keen to make friends and fit in, but soon finds herself drawn into a world she cannot escape, despite her pleas for help.
“It’s surreal, absolutely bizarre. Philippa [Lowthorpe, director], Nicole [Taylor, writer] and Simon [Lewis, producer] were working on Three Girls for a long time before I came on board. They’d done so much research that they were my first port of call and they introduced me to Sara [Rowbotham, an NHS health worker] and Maggie [Oliver, a police officer who investigated the real case] and some of the real girls. Any questions or bits of research or bits of things I wanted to know, they were so great and kept us all in the loop and told us everything. The biggest challenge was the responsibility, the weight of knowing, because you want to do it right. If you look at it as a big mountain, that becomes a bit scary. So for me it was taking it scene by scene and taking it each day as it came and just committing to it – because if you look at it as a big project, that’s a big challenge.”
Hear from the winners of the Bafta Television Craft Awards 2018 here.
Toby Jones turns spy in thriller The Secret Agent, adapted from Joseph Conrad’s novel by screenwriter Tony Marchant.
Is 2016 the year of the spy? From the continuing international popularity of German hit Deutschland 83, break-out US series Quantico and BBC series London Spy to Emmy nominations for John le Carré adaptation The Night Manager and Cold War thriller The Americans, there’s no shortage of covert operations on the small screen.
Fans of espionage thrillers can also look forward to Epix’s first original drama Berlin Station, CBS’s MacGyver and Fox reboot 24: Legacy all airing this autumn, as well as the return of long-running Showtime series Homeland; and, looking further ahead, forthcoming series SS-GB and The Same Sky, both due in early 2017 in the UK and Germany respectively.
“In some ways it’s a coincidence there have been quite a few spy stories this year but they are just manifestations of the bigger genre thriller,” says television writer Tony Marchant. “Toby Jones once said the great attraction of spy dramas is we all feel we’re being watched these days. That’s maybe why they’re so popular.
“They’re also about identity and concealing identities and we’re all pretty conscious of that because when we’re online, we can be different things. Maybe it’s in tune with some idea of the fluidity of identity these days, who knows!”
Another new entry to the genre is Marchant’s latest project, The Secret Agent, which is currently airing in the UK on BBC1.
Based on the Joseph Conrad book of the same name, the aforementioned Jones stars as Verloc, whose seedy Soho shop is a front for his role as an agent working for the Russian Embassy, spying on a group of London anarchists.
Under pressure to create a bomb outrage that the Russians hope will lead the British government to crack down on violent extremists, Verloc drags his unsuspecting family into a tragic terror plot.
It was executive producer Simon Heath who suggested Marchant adapt Conrad’s book, which by coincidence the writer had been reading only weeks earlier.
“You’re just struck by its prescience and the fact that it’s not just about geopolitical manipulations,” Marchant says of the 1907 text. “At the heart of it is a domestic tragedy, which in the end is probably the best reason for me doing it. You have to get past Conrad’s scorn, and the tone of the book is beset with irony, but the one person he does care about in the book is Winnie [Verloc’s wife, played in the series by This Is England’s Vicky McClure], so it was important to make her absolutely the bedrock of the piece. Although most people think it’s about Verloc, in the end, once you’ve seen all three episodes or read the book, you realise the person to whom the biggest tragedy befalls is Winnie.”
Marchant is no stranger to adaptations. His previous television credits include Great Expectations, Crime & Punishment and Canterbury Tales.
The Secret Agent was a trickier proposition, he reveals, as he faced multiple points of view, a non-chronological storyline and important events that are reported by Conrad’s characters but not seen first-hand by readers of the book.
“The general rule with adaptations is you try to find something that personally appeals, that chimes with your own preoccupations and obsessions,” Marchant explains. “That should be your first response or impulse with an adaptation, but with the others I’ve done, they have been more structurally straightforward. The difficulty with Great Expectations is the familiarity of it, Crime & Punishment was difficult but again not structurally, it’s more about [the character] Raskolnikov than anything. This was difficult because it was a modernist novel. But also it wasn’t just the structure that was tricky, it was the tone as well, which is quite scornful of most of the characters.”
Marchant initially developed the three-part series with producer World Productions’ Heath and Priscilla Parish, with an emphasis to build a plot that continually drove its characters forward through the story. This meant creating further scenes not mentioned by Conrad, such as the professor sitting on a bus with a bomb, leading to an encounter with Stephen Graham’s Inspector Heat.
“With adaptations, you have to love the book and you have to have a healthy disrespect for it at the same time,” admits Marchant, who has also written series including Garrow’s Law, Public Enemies and Leaving. “You have to tell yourself there’s something missing or that something doesn’t work. But if you do decide to embrace it as a thriller, you must make sure the characterisation and the complexity of the characterisation isn’t being compromised.
“You don’t make it a vacuous hell-for-leather thriller; you’ve got to make it full of tension and jeopardy and intrigue. The novel is called The Secret Agent so I think you’re entitled to a bit of licence in terms of the genre.”
On the Edinburgh set, which doubled for 1886 London, that licence extended to the actors, who were welcome to speak to Marchant about the script or individual lines they wanted to tweak or, in Jones’s case, omit altogether.
“That’s all fine,” the writer says. “If you’re working with really good actors, you have to respect the fact that if they’re playing it, they’ve got a great instinct for what’s right and what doesn’t convince. So I did plenty of tweaking as we were shooting it.”
Above all, it was important for Marchant and director Charles McDougall that the cast, which also includes Vicky McClure, gave completely naturalistic performances and “were not all bonnet and bodice or caught up in the fetish of period dramas.”
He continues: “If you take an adaptation like this, the great thing about this is it’s so contemporary so we’re doing it in a really modern way. That goes for the performances as well. In the end, Charles explicitly told the actors to be as natural and contemporary as you can be without it being anachronistic.”
Marchant’s writing career began in the theatre, which he credits with giving him a sense of his own voice – an influence becoming less common with the increasing scarcity of one-offs and three-parters and the popularity of genre series.
“It’s very hard for writers coming into television wherever they come from, to feel like their voice is being heard and they’re not being co-opted into writing some sort of genre show,” Marchant argues. “But I think you’ve got people like Jez Butterworth [Edge of Tomorrow] who went straight from theatre into film. Equally, you’ve got Nick Payne [The Sense of an Ending] and Mike Bartlett [Doctor Foster] who are now writing TV. That’s been quite a common trajectory for writers.
“It’s a paradox that you get bolder, bigger storytelling but that doesn’t mean the author’s voice is more clearly heard. In some ways, it can be done at the expense of authorship. If you think of TV in the past year and what’s the most authored thing you’ve seen, for me it’s Toby Jones in Marvellous [written by Peter Bowker]. That just seemed to be utterly unique, personal and authored – something that bigger dramas could never be.”
There are exceptions, however, and proof that writers can be heard, though they are found in the US – an industry Marchant adds is more advanced than British television.
“The momentum is really in big shows but if people are going to invest amounts of money into certain kinds of dramas, they want to take fewer risks and it’s more likely a show is going to be in a genre than be singular or perverse,” he says. “There are exceptions – something like Mr Robot is a great show but you’d have to say US TV has evolved a bit more in how to be big and authored. You’d say they’re in a slightly more advanced place than us.”
Airing at the end of 2015, Capital told the story of residents living on a single London street transformed by soaring property prices. DQ finds out how the BBC drama was adapted from novel to screen.
When it was first published in 2012, John Lanchester’s novel Capital was described as an astute observation of London during the 2008 financial crash.
Set in a single south London street, it tells the story of the residents of Pepys Road, which has been transformed by rising property prices. They include an investment banker and his shopaholic wife, a Polish builder, a Zimbabwean refugee illegally working as a traffic warden and a pensioner who has lived her entire life in the same house.
Lanchester’s novel has since been adapted for television by Peter Bowker and production company Kudos Film & Television (Humans, Broadchurch), with an all-star cast including Toby Jones (Roger), Rachael Stirling (Arabella) and Radoslaw Kaim (Bogdan). Also appearing are Wunmi Mosaku (Quentina), Adeel Aktar (Ahmed) and Gemma Jones (Petunia).
Bowker and Kudos’s Derek Wax executive produced the three-part miniseries with the BBC’s Lucy Richer. It was produced by Matt Strevens (Cucumber) and directed by Euros Lyn (Happy Valley).
DQ spoke to Lanchester, Wax and Strevens to discuss how the show was brought to life for BBC1, which began airing the series in November last year.
John, how would you describe your book, and did you ever think it would be made into a TV series? Lanchester: No, I didn’t. It never crossed my mind. I set out to write what I thought of privately as my big fat London novel, as I was very interested in the condition of London and the way it has changed. I’m very interested in the way people live private parallel lives in London and have neighbours who don’t really know each other. So it’s a novel about a community that isn’t really a community – people living in close proximity who have separate lives, separate agendas and separate concerns, and there’s a plot that brings them together when they start getting anonymous postcards through their doors saying, ‘We want what you have.’ That’s the trigger for the story.
It’s been described as a ‘state of the nation’ story. What was it that you wanted to say about society? Lanchester: George Orwell once said the hardest thing to write about is the thing that’s immediately in front of your face. I became very interested in what was immediately in front of my face – the extent, the speed and the scale of the change in London. I’ve lived in London nearly 30 years and it’s changed astonishingly. That struck me as a really interesting thing – not to sermonise about or have a theory about, but just to describe. That was the plan.
How did Kudos win the rights to the book? Lanchester: A number of people were interested in it. I talked to some people but I knew it would always be Derek. I particularly liked that he saw the book in the same way I did, and I trusted his sense of tone. Tone is the most important thing in some respects – if you get that wrong then nothing else really matters. I had a strong sense that we saw it the same way; that was the crucial thing.
Derek, what did you see in the book that would make a good TV show? Wax: The book captured my imagination straight away. John has an extraordinary insight into people, which makes his work very real and authentic. Many novels with a sociopolitical dimension seem like they’re trying to illustrate some political point, whereas there was an ambiguity and ambivalence about Capital’s characters that made you feel there was something much richer and more complex going on. The fact we live these parallel lives with people who are often our neighbours felt very true to life. There are some people living on the same street who don’t even know what’s happening next door. And it’s not just about the neighbours, there’s an unbridgeable gulf at some level within families as well.
What were some of the challenges you faced bringing the book to the screen? Lanchester: The main omission compared with the book is a narrative strand about an African footballer called Freddy Kamo who comes to London aged 17 and has just started to play first-team football. There’s a whole story and set of characters around him but within 30 seconds of saying hello for the first time, Peter (Bowker) and I agreed it couldn’t be done on TV. The fact is, you put football on television and for some reason it always looks a bit shit. So that was a very thorough and painless surgical incision that happened right at the start.
Did you work alongside Bowker in the script phase? Lanchester: It’s Pete’s baby. There were various points at which we had talks, particularly at the beginning when we discussed structure and shape, and then there were a couple of specific points to do with the City of London that Pete wanted to talk through.
Was it always destined to be a three-parter? Wax: The person we should mention is Lucy Richer at the BBC because she’d read the book at the same time as I had and also loved it. Whether these things are discussed in internal meetings at the BBC as to how much they can stretch episodically for literary adaptations, they’d decided three was the number. I think we could have stretched it to four or maybe more. We did have to reduce some of the characters a little bit more. Losing the footballer was a very good decision because he’s coming to play at a Premier League football team so you’d have had a completely fictional football team with all these extras playing football. If it’s supposed to be Chelsea, how could you possibly make it feel real? The ambition was always to make it feel completely authentic and real.
How was the show put together considering it’s set on a street that doesn’t exist in real life? Strevens: The terrifying thing was maintaining the authenticity of it – it’s multi-stranded and we had only seven weeks to shoot it, so we had to work out how you service all those stories and afford to shoot in London. London is hugely expensive and you can’t move around it. Wherever you put your base, it can take half an hour to move a few streets. We did look very briefly at the idea of using general views of London and then filming somewhere else, but we scotched that straight away. It was very important to us that London was the central character. Trying to double anywhere else as London wouldn’t quite cut it, so we went looking for places in London. Where John had set it, even though he wasn’t specific, it felt like Clapham (a district in south-west London). There were two or three streets John had in his mind when writing, but even he had ‘cut and shut’ Pepys Road – it was an amalgamation of a few streets. That’s what we had to find. But we couldn’t find a street with the right mix of gentrification that also had a corner shop. We also didn’t want to be on one street for too long because there’s a lot of noise and vehicles, and we didn’t want to disturb the locals too much. In the end, we used three streets for Pepys Road. The gift was Petunia’s house. The exterior you see has the same interior as that on screen and the way it’s dressed in real life is pretty much the way you see it on screen. We found a lady whose story matched Petunia’s – she had lived there since the 1950s. We were really lucky. The difficulty was the amount of story that had to be told in such a short schedule.
Wax: We should pay huge tribute to Pete Bowker. He was confronted with eight different strands and it would have been very stylised to have introduced the different characters via captions on screen. But in one of the first scenes, you see the characters on the Tube and the baton being passed from one to the other, allowing viewers to get to know them slowly and gradually but very organically – that was a mixture of Pete’s writing and Euros’s direction. You gradually start to absorb these characters into your bloodstream.
Lanchester: In a novel you can just say, ‘here’s another character,’ but it was very interesting, from a novelist’s point of view, to see how rigorous purely visual storytelling is. If you don’t see it, it didn’t happen.
Was it a risk to introduce so many characters right at the start and hope the viewers stuck around to find out about their individual stories? Wax: It was a challenge because you want to have enough depth to allow viewers to get into those characters and to feel you’re offering a substantial meal, not just a snack. We only had three or four stabs at Roger in the first episode because of the challenge of all the other stories.
Lanchester: With just three episodes, you do leave a lot out. The novel is 175,000 words, so the actors knew more than they let on. The actors knew quite a lot about the characters and their back stories and I definitely feel they brought something to it. They inhabited them.
Wax: We were very lucky with casting. Some actors were quite well known and some were discoveries to us. The novel had this wonderful Dickensian opening chapter and we probably thought more about that opening chapter than anything else, because it describes this world in which this street was once full of detached homes that were not worth very much money but that have become gentrified houses over generations. They’ve become characters in their own right. We showed that partly through a three-minute backstory on Petunia , telling her life story at the beginning of episode one, which I think was a way of trying to visually do what John described in the book. For me, that opening chapter rivals Bleak House as a piece about where we live now and how things have changed, but through the lens of just one street.
How was the money put together to produce the show? Was it a complicated process? Wax: It was a licence fee deal from the BBC, essentially. It wasn’t a big coproduction, we didn’t have a coproducer on it. Miniseries are quite hard to fund these days, and this one was especially as it’s a three-parter. There was also a question over whether the show was just about London and Britain (and therefore lacked international appeal). But I didn’t think it was. You always have to challenge that limited thinking. When you make something location-specific, that’s when you make it universal – shows that are set in general, non-descript places that could be anywhere, they actually create a sense of unreality for me. It was just a straightforward BBC deal and FremantleMedia International has distributed it.
There was some comment about Toby Jones being physically different from his character in the book. How did you change the character for the series? Wax: It was a genuine choice, a choice we all stand by. We’re all thrilled. The fact Roger is written as 6’3″ in the book allows you to envisage him in a particular way. But in essence, this is a man who is adrift in life, he’s not happy despite all his apparent wealth, he’s searching for something and he can’t quite articulate what that is, even to himself. You need a really brilliant actor to find those depths and it’s about casting the right person, not just the physical type, and Toby is just one of the best actors in the country.
Lanchester: He’s a different person from Roger in the book but he’s a very real person. I had more people wondering about the casting before they’d seen it than afterwards.
John, would you want another of your books adapted in the future? Lanchester: I’d happily have it done by Derek, Peter and Matt again. Writers love complaining but I’ve had an entirely positive experience. If there were a writers union, I’d be expelled for saying that!
Will adaptations continue to make up a lot of worldwide drama? Wax: Drama is always about great stories, great characters and original insights into the world. As long as producers want to option and adapt books they really love, that’s the best reason to do it. When you see someone doing Jane Eyre again just because it hasn’t been done for a while, that sort of reason is never great and you feel it’s about the bottom line and getting business going. It should be about how much you feel for the book, and you should really want to spend a lot of time investigating it.