Lennie James, an actor best known for roles in Line of Duty and The Walking Dead, is also the creator of the latest show in which he stars, Sky Atlantic original drama Save Me. In the six-part thriller, he plays Nelly Rowe, a charmer and a chancer living on a south London council estate.
When Nelly is accused of kidnapping the estranged daughter he hasn’t seen for 10 years, he sets out to find her, saving lives, making enemies and risking his life along the way.
In this DQTV interview, series director Nick Murphy and executive producers Jessica Sykes and Simon Heath reveal how James was wooed by Sky to write the series and how the production was slowly built around his atmospheric scripts.
Murphy also talks about how the key to the show was that everyone involved knew exactly what they were making – something he says is both rare and important.
Save Me is produced by World Productions for Sky Atlantic and distributed by Sky Vision.
Lennie James wrote and stars in Sky Atlantic drama Save Me, about a father’s hunt for his missing daughter. DQ joins him on the set to hear why one of its stars is also its setting – a pub.
They don’t make boozers like this anymore. The Palm Tree in the heart of an east London estate is a classic, old-fashioned pub. The regulars, for all we know, may well have been sitting on the same bar-stool for several years without moving.
The Palm Tree also features a karaoke booth that has very much seen better days, gravy-coloured wallpaper that appears to predate the invention of beer itself and fairy lights desperately clinging to the walls. These decorations are for life, not just for Christmas. “Gentrification” is not a word in this pub’s vocabulary.
For all that, The Palm Tree makes an excellent precinct for Save Me, an absorbing new drama that starts in the UK on Sky Atlantic on February 28. Outside of the soaps, this is not a setting we have witnessed very often before on mainstream British TV.
In this new six-part series written by and starring Lennie James, this is the court where the drama’s central character, Nelson “Nelly” Rowe (played by James), holds sway. Nelly is in the Palm Tree every night regaling his fellow punters with colourful tales of his previous night’s exploits. It may have been amusing 20 years ago, but now that Nelly is pushing 50, it’s bordering on sad. At his age, this is a man who really should know better.
Living hand-to-mouth from a series of cash-in-hand jobs, Nelly never stays long in one place, moving in with whichever woman is foolish enough to tolerate him that week.
Chatting to DQ between scenes, James makes for magnetic company. It is easy to grasp why the actor, who was raised in Tooting, south London, has proven such a mesmerising presence in everything from Line of Duty to The Walking Dead.
“I wanted to write a thriller in a place I really knew well,” says James, when asked why he chose this unlikely pub as the principle locus of his drama. With a winning grin, he adds: “Basically, I didn’t want to do hours of research.”
Researched or not, the Palm Tree is the ideal arena in which the drama can unfold. Random people flit in and out of it, but whatever else is going on, you can guarantee that Nelly will always be there, centre stage, playing to an adoring audience (including characters played by Stephen Graham, Susan Lynch and Kerry Godliman).
James reflects: “The pub is a very important part of the story because you go there both to drown your sorrows and to celebrate. Both things can happen at the same time and over the same pint.”
Crucially, the Palm Tree and its motley crew of regulars also smack of authenticity. James observes: “In any pub, there’ll always be a Nelly. People like that do exist. All the core characters in Save Me are based on real people. They’re not 100% depictions, but they’re versions of people I’ve come across.”
Lynch, who plays barmaid Stace, confirms that when she served in bars to make ends meet early on in her career, she came across many Nellys. “I worked in nearly every pub on the Finchley Road when I was at drama school. Many were just like the Palm Tree. You always had your regulars. You would start your shift by saying, ‘Really, Tommy, I’m sorry to hear she’s not very well.’ By the end of the shift, you’d be thinking, ‘I can’t engage with Tommy tomorrow or else I’m never going to get my glasses washed and get home.’”
The actor, who was also had leading roles in From Hell, Waking Ned and Enduring Love, continues: “A pub is a very good setting for a drama as all the stories can cross over there. All the stories start to merge in The Palm Tree, and by the end, there is a huge collision.”
Nelly’s bibulous ‘we’ve got tonight, who needs tomorrow?’ approach to life is rudely interrupted one morning when the police burst in and arrest him on suspicion of kidnapping Jody, the 13-year-old daughter he hasn’t seen for 10 years.
After Nelly had a brief, summer fling with Claire (played by Suranne Jones) more than a decade ago, Jody was born. But when she reached the age of three, Claire decided to move away from their London estate to a bling mansion in the suburbs to start afresh with her flashy record producer husband. That was the last time Nelly saw Jody. Determined to prove his innocence, Nelly discovers hidden depths within himself. But will it be enough to save him?
It is the very fact that Nelly is so singularly ill-equipped to take on the task of establishing his own innocence that makes Save Me so compelling.
James, who has also starred in Jericho, Critical, Low Winter Sun and Snatch, muses: “This is a thriller, just set in place where no one sets a thriller. And the hero of the piece is completely unqualified to be a hero.
“But in attempting to prove his innocence, Nelly finds some sort of redemption. This is a story about the cost of redemption and what it does to him, his ex-lover, his friends and his community.”
For all that, Save Me is very far from an irredeemably grim ‘woe is me’ drama. It is replete with vibrancy, vim and vigour. Jones, who drew widespread acclaim as the titular character in Doctor Foster, comments: “People love dark stories because they take you to a place you think you don’t want to go, but really you do.
“Having said that, the reason Save Me is so different is because it’s also so full of the humour and the history of these people. It portrays a community you’ve never seen before. It’s so warm.”
The estate depicted in Save Me undoubtedly overturns our expectations. Jones continues: “This world is sometimes painted as depressing. But this is very different. When you watch Save Me, you want to be there. Even if you haven’t grown up on an estate like this, you want to go to that pub and meet these people.”
Writing and starring in Save Me required a lot of effort from James. But it has all been worth it. Made by World Productions and distributed by Sky Vision, this is a riveting drama about a man desperately attempting to rescue himself from a life of self-medication, muddling-through and mediocrity.
James declares: “I’m proud that I’m the first person to get a thriller set on a south-east London estate made. I don’t know if it will spawn a new genre, though.”
Perhaps the best part of Save Me, though, is that its producers evaded the easy option. They avoided the temptation to turn out another Richard Curtis-lite version of London. This is perhaps a more accurate reflection of the capital city most people know. It is not prettified and full of red post boxes and red telephone booths, but red in tooth and claw.
Save Me shows us a London we will never glimpse in a tourist brochure. Simon Heath, head of drama at World Productions and executive producer on this series, concludes: “This is a world we don’t see on our TV screens outside EastEnders, but that’s a very different genre. To set a drama in south-east London feels fresh and surprising. We’ll see a different side to London in Save Me.
“It’s not the London of Notting Hill and red buses and black cabs.”
Channel 4 drama Born to Kill explores the psychotic desires of an seemingly normal teenager. DQ spoke to co-creator Kate Ashfield, with contributions from the cast and director Bruce Goodison.
Most recognisable as the co-star of Edgar Wright’s zombie-filled comedy-horror Shaun of the Dead, Kate Ashfield has also appeared in small-screen hits such as Line of Duty, Collision and the US remake of Australian drama Secrets & Lies.
But for her next project, the first-time writer has partnered with Tracey Malone (Rillington Place) to create an exceedingly dark and sometimes disturbing four-part drama with a teenage psychopath at the centre.
Born to Kill is described as a haunting exploration of the mind of Sam (played by newcomer Jack Rowan, above), a schoolboy on the verge of acting out hidden psychopathic desires.
His mum, Jenny (Romola Garai), a nurse at the local hospital, meets Bill (Daniel Mays), who’s trying to reconnect with his elderly mother Margaret (Elizabeth Counsell). Just as Jenny and Bill start to hit it off, Sam meets Bill’s daughter Chrissy (Lara Peake), to whom he forms an instant attraction.
Meanwhile, Jenny learns that her incarcerated ex, Sam’s dad, a violent man named Peter (Richard Coyle), is nearing his parole date. And having told Sam that his father died in a car crash, she must now face telling her son that not only is his father alive, he’s also a convicted murderer.
The four-part series, which debuts on the UK’s Channel 4 tomorrow, is directed by Bruce Goodison, produced by World Productions, executive produced by Jake Lushington and distributed by BBC Worldwide.
Ashfield and Malone first met while they were both living in LA and their sons attended the same school. Their friendship then developed into a writing partnership when they became intrigued by the story of a teenage psychopath and the question of why people do what they do.
Subsequently, the first episode introduces Sam as a caring schoolboy who reads to patients on his mum’s hospital ward and protects a boy getting bullied on the school bus.
“It’s a coming-of-age story at the same time as Sam’s coming to terms with his feelings and emotions and what he’s drawn to do,” Ashfield explains, pointing to influences such as The Ice Storm and Let the Right One In. “He doesn’t look weird. We wanted him to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He’s a schoolboy, just a kid that would be undetected as he went about his daily life. So it looks like he’s being nice but it’s all a game for him.”
When this caring facade gives way to something decidedly more sinister and Sam’s true nature is revealed, causing him to act on his fascination with death, Ashfield hopes viewers will feel both sympathetic and unsympathetic towards the character.
“There will be moments of both from scene to scene, hopefully,” she says. “That’s the whole point of him being a child – could something stop him? If the stars aligned, would he have done it differently? But then in the end, his personality takes over. Even at the end of it all, you still have some kind of feeling for him because it’s not all within his control – the way he is the way he is, which you get to by the very end.”
Questions over whether Sam’s personality and behaviour is caused by nature or nurture and if he was truly born to kill come increasingly into focus when Jenny receives news that Sam’s father may be released from prison for a horrific crime not entirely detailed in the opening episode.
“He’s fascinated by death, but not in a usual way where you see psychopaths torturing animals,” Ashfield says of Sam. “From the outside, to the other nurses, it looks a bit odd [that he spends so much time at the hospital]. But as a parent, you think it’s quite sweet because he’s reading to these people. It’s good karma that he cares for older people, but it is all about control and that they are weak sitting ducks to him. It’s an environment that makes him feel stronger, not weaker.
“Then, as it goes on, there are questions over what his mum should do and how much you can put down to normal teenage behaviour. You don’t actually call children psychopaths because a lot of teenage behaviour is very similar. At what point do you say they’re definitely a psychopath?”
Through a potential love story, Sam’s character is placed in stark contrast with Chrissy, who on the surface is a brash rebel but in truth is somewhat vulnerable.
Rising star Peake, who plays Chrissy, reveals: “Bruce and I discussed whether she is or she isn’t [a psychopath]. She definitely possesses some traits, but the thing with psychopaths is, from my research, there’s a formula that makes a psychopath. There’s got to be a few factors. She’s just drawn in by Sam, she’s lost and is intoxicated by him and is happy to just have someone to reach out to because her dad is a bit in his own head with Margaret.
“It gets pretty tense [in later episodes]. It all comes to a head and she realises the mess she’s in and how she’s gone too far with trusting her instincts and going with the flow. She goes in a circle of wanting to be with her dad, drifting away from that and being a rebel kid, and then realising what she’s getting herself into.”
Director Goodison adds: “It’s safe to say Chrissy finds her moral compass after being thrown off it by the charms of Sam. Sam’s moral compass never really waivers.”
Rowan watched documentaries and films and read lots of background material when preparing to play Sam, but ultimately decided not to base the character on any particular real-life psychopath.
“I’m creating my own psychopath here so I took something from each of these people and put it in a box, shook it up and came up with something,” the actor says. “There’s a bit where Jenny is talking to his headmaster and they talk about Sam not having any friends. Really that’s a choice by Sam. When he meets Oscar, that’s someone Sam can control, somebody he can make do what he wants them to do, a puppet for him. They’re not properly friends – there’s no emotional involvement there because this is someone Sam can just use.”
As Chrissy’s dad Bill, Mays jokes that he is playing a less fiery character than he is known for, having previously appeared in small-screen dramas including Line of Duty and Ashes to Ashes.
“He’s kind of hapless but is a relatively normal character for me to play – it was refreshing,” he admits. “It was nice to play someone not as explosive for a change. He meets Jenny and that relationship blossoms and it’s the tentative beginnings of a relationship between those two, as it is between the children as well. So as you can imagine, it becomes incredibly complicated.
“The power of Born to Kill is that the main protagonist is going through a coming-of-age story as well as succumbing to these psychopathic tendencies, but it plays out in a very domestic setting. It could be any small town in any part of the country. So that contrast really is what I think is compelling about the piece. It’s the extraordinary happening in a very ordinary environment.”
When it was first conceived, Born to Kill was set in America and intended for a US network, owing to the writers’ desire to set it in an anonymous small town. Following Channel 4’s interest, however, the series was relocated to the UK, with filming taking place near Cardiff in Wales.
“Originally this was 10 seasons in our head. We had all sorts of ideas, such as Sam going into the army,” Ashfield says. “It was a long-running, ongoing drama but now it’s very much a contained piece.
“It was set in America because of those vast spaces where you think anything can happen. You wouldn’t know what was going on, so Sam could get away with things quite easily. The difficulty with setting it here [in Britain] was we didn’t want it to be anywhere specific. If we set it in the Scottish Highlands, for example, it would just be about Scottish people that were crazy and it wouldn’t be as relatable. So the idea of it was it was a commuter town that you wouldn’t really go to unless you lived there, so it was meant to be anywhere.”
Goodison came on board early in pre-production, after Channel 4 had greenlit the series, and Ashfield notes that he bought into the creators’ vision for the show.
“We didn’t want it to look like a TV show, more like an independent film, like something you don’t normally watch,” the writer says. “It’s otherworldly, like a magical fairytale nightmare. It’s our world but also it’s definitely not our world, it’s a darker world.”
For the director, the challenge was bringing an audience to a character who has no empathy for others and ultimately gives in to his desire to kill.
“I was trying to give the audience as much access emotionally to how that happens, even to the point of before he does kill, there’s a point of return,” Goodison observes. “It was just about making sure we edged up every moment we could access to Sam, whether it was observing a dying bird or when there’s a tear off, these are access points where Sam’s character starts to leak and you start to look at his subconscious in a way other people wouldn’t notice.”
Ashfield, who is also an executive producer with Malone, confesses that Born to Kill was a hard piece to cast, owing to the fact that she believes actors can make or break the show through their portrayal of the story.
That’s why she is particularly impressed with Rowan, who she describes as “amazing.” She continues: “There were some other really great contenders and they all had different qualities. But what Jack seemed to have is he can change the quality of his face quite quickly and seems to be able to make his cheeks go red and look quite vulnerable, but then look angry and dislocated the next. That was really impressive.”
Goodison is equally full of admiration for Rowan, who echoes Ashfield’s compliments of the young actor’s ability to change emotions very quickly.
“Being able to sell a line convincingly when you’re a teenager while trying to hide a certain mental illness, let’s say, is a tricky thing to do as an actor because you put on faces and masks all the time,” he says. “But what Jack was able to communicate was a sense of self through that. It was that kind of ability to be able to change very rapidly and emotionally given whatever was thrown at him.
“Plus he has these soft, 1950s matinee idol looks, which play against some of the sharpness of the part. I felt genuinely empathetic for him, even though he was doing and saying some horrible things. It’s a very tricky thing to get right for an actor and Jack’s got it in spades. All of these scenes could be played so many ways and having the ability to be that flexible and open was terrific testament to Jack and the rest of the cast.”
As dark and edgy as you might expect from a Channel 4 drama, Born to Kill is certain to leave viewers gripped as Sam’s story plays out to its conclusion.
Hard-hitting crime drama Line of Duty is back on the beat for what its cast describe as the best season yet. Michael Pickard reports.
It’s been away from screens for almost two years, but British crime drama Line of Duty is set to return for its third season this week.
Continuing the show’s part-anthology format, the new run opens on March 24 with a brand new story that begins with the fatal shooting of a criminal suspect by an armed response unit led by sergeant Danny Waldron (Daniel Mays).
Danny and his team claim they acted in self-defence, but anti-corruption squad AC-12, led by superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar), gathers evidence that suggests the killing was deliberate. DC Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure) is then sent undercover into Danny’s team to find out more.
Ingratiating herself to her new colleagues, Kate is quick to identify tensions and conflict among Danny and his team. But when Kate’s own conduct comes under scrutiny, she finds herself sidelined from an armed drugs raid that goes very badly wrong.
Produced by World Productions for UK pubcaster BBC2, Line of Duty is executive produced by series creator Jed Mercurio (Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Critical), Simon Heath (The Great Train Robbery, The Bletchley Circle) and Stephen Wright. It’s distributed by Content Media.
With more than three million people tuning in to the season two finale, the BBC took the unusual step of ordering two more seasons back to back.
Mercurio says this “incredibly exciting” opportunity was made possible by the fervent support from the show’s fans, adding that he never entertained tinkering with the single-story-arc format, ensuring season three will stand alone from the fourth instalment in the series.
He does, however, promise more of the twists and turns that have so far made Line of Duty stand out from other crime dramas on television. “What makes Line of Duty distinctive is that it’s cops versus cops,” he explains. “Most police shows are about hunting and chasing criminals, whereas we have police officers in a quest to bring other police officers to justice.
“Also, we’re a serial, so we can do six hours of one story. That means we can get deeper into the story and have time to establish its direction, which allows us to produce some big surprises.”
Mercurio reveals that the level of jeopardy in the latest run is taken to new heights, with Mays’ Sgt Waldron showing his violent side in the first episode.
But why has the series been so successful? “I’m excited and flattered by the success of it,” Mercurio admits. “It’s always hard to diagnose what makes something successful but all you can hope is that if you stay true to the characters and stay true to the style of the show, people will keep coming back.”
As a fan of Line of Duty’s first two outings, Mays was keen to sign up for season three, which he believes will keep viewers on the edge of their seats. But he was under no illusion about the amount of dedication Mercurio’s writing demands from his actors, having watched Lenny James and Keeley Hawes in seasons one and two respectively.
“Then when they showed me the actual scripts I was blown away,” he reveals. “The quality of Jed’s writing is so brilliantly detailed and has its grounding in absolute social reality, which is a great combination. I recognised it was a great opportunity to be part of the long-running success of Line of Duty, and it’s certainly one the most complex and exciting characters I’ve taken on in a long time.”
In particular, Mays describes an interrogation scene in episode one as the hardest passage of dialogue he’s ever had to learn – but says it also made for one of his most thrilling days on set.
“Running and chasing suspects wearing all that gear was also a challenge,” he adds. “We went on weapons training for a couple of days, which was really beneficial and also allowed the actors to bond. It’s a great credit to the opening episode that we all look comfortable in the gear and believable as an armed response unit. Another challenge was trying to get into the mindset of a character so damaged, twisted and unpredictable.”
While Mays has joined the cast for the first time, McClure has been ever present alongside Dunbar and Martin Compston (who plays Steve Arnott).
“At the start of the series she’s back undercover with a brand new team,” This is England star McClure says of her character. “Filming that was really different, as it felt like a completely different show at first, with a brand new cast and new firearms.”
Compared with other police dramas, Line of Duty “feels very real” in every way, she says – from the characters’ relationships and the way they dress to the language they use.
“We don’t brush over anything,” she adds. “It is a drama and is dramatised but ultimately it is played as real as possible, which is why it’s so gripping.”
And with season four around the corner, it will have to go some way to beat what McClure says is the best season yet.
“It’s action-packed and has a lot of amazing new characters with great storylines,” she adds. “Also, with the cast and crew, we have such a good relationship that it’s nice to come to work every day. We have such a laugh, which is important when a lot of the show is so intense.”
There are reports this week that UK-based indie producer Drama Republic is developing David Nicholls’ hilarious and poignant novel Us for the BBC. The UK pubcaster is yet to confirm the project but it is likely to be a three- or four-part miniseries, with acclaimed British playwright Nick Payne lined up to write the screenplay. It’s the kind of high-profile book-based project that would sit comfortably in the Sunday evening slot that has been occupied in recent times by The Casual Vacancy and Jonathan Norrell & Mr Strange.
Nicholls has written three previous novels, two of which were adapted as movies (Starter for Ten and One Day). So the fact this one is being lined up as a TV project is another indication of the shift in the balance of power towards small-screen drama.
The switch from film to TV will suit Nicholls’ work, which is narratively and emotionally very rich. In the case of Us, the story is told from the point of view of Douglas, a married man whose wife Connie announces that she plans to leave him when their 17-year-old son Albie goes to college. Douglas takes the two of them on holiday to Europe to try to convince Connie to change her mind, while also hoping it will be an opportunity to emotionally reconnect with his son. Inevitably, the trip doesn’t go to plan.
It’s interesting that Payne will handle scriptwriting duties, given that Nicholls has a good TV screenwriting track record himself. Having first come to prominence as a writer on series such as Cold Feet and Rescue Me, he recently wrote 7.39 for the BBC, about a man who starts an affair with a woman he meets on a commuter train. Aired in 2014, that project drew an audience of 5.7 million across two episodes on consecutive nights, which isn’t too bad. Perhaps, though, the decision has been swayed by the poor reviews that the movie version of One Day received, with the LA Times calling it a “heartbreaking disappointment of a film.” There’s no question that One Day the novel is far superior to the film, so maybe Us will benefit from some outside input, with Nicholls presumably on hand in an executive producer role.
Just last night, I was thinking to myself that there aren’t enough dramas about female serial killers. So imagine my surprise when I saw that World Productions (Line of Duty) is making a two-part drama for ITV about Mary Ann Cotton, a Victorian serial killer who used arsenic to kill three of her husbands so she could claim against their insurance policies. Called Dark Angel, the production is based on David Wilson’s book Mary Ann Cotton: Britain’s First Female Serial Killer and was commissioned by ITV director of drama Steve November and controller of drama Victoria Fea.
As far as anything in this life is a dead cert, this is it. Why? Because it will be directed by Brian Percival (Downton Abbey) and star Joanne Froggatt (also Downton). Anyone familiar with Downton will recall that Froggatt’s character Anna Bates spent some time under suspicion of murder – so there’s a neat link between the two shows.
Fea said of the show: “The combination of a tautly written script, an outstanding cast and great producers in World Productions make this a really exciting addition to the slate.” Dark Angel will start filming in August in Yorkshire and County Durham. It will be supported by Screen Yorkshire’s Yorkshire Content Fund, while Endemol Shine International is distributing it globally.
Still with ITV, the channel has also just commissioned six more episodes of WW2 drama Home Fires. Inspired by Julie Summers’ non-fiction book Jambusters, it follows a group of women in a rural community during the war. It was created and written for TV by Simon Block (Lewis, The Shooting of Thomas Hurndall).
WW2 has inspired a surprising number of drama series in recent years. The UK’s other recent offerings include the BBC’s Land Girls and ITV’s Foyle’s War, while Canada has given us Bomb Girls (set in a munitions factory during WW2) and, more recently, X Company. The latter is a spy thriller that debuted on CBC in February 2015. After the show’s first season generated a good response, CBC quickly took the decision to give the series a second run of 10 episodes.
WW2 has also inspired some good dramas out of continental Europe. The most high profile is Germany’s Generation War, which is one of the few German dramas to have secured sales to the English-speaking market. Another interesting title is Un Village Français (A French Village), a French show created by Frédéric Krivine, Emmanuel Daucé and Philippe Triboit. Set in a fictional village in German-occupied France, the show first aired on France 3 in 2009 and has slowly but surely picked up a loyal international fanbase. With a seventh and final series planned for 2016, the entire oeuvre was sold by 100% Distribution to MHz Networks in the US (and has also sold to MBC in Korea).
Explaining why Un Village Français has found an audience in such diverse markets, Cecilia Rossignol, director of sales & acquisitions at 100% Distribution, said it is because the show is not primarily a story of war. “It is about people who find themselves in extreme situations and must make choices. In this, it is a universal series.”
In recent weeks, we have discussed the success of Jane the Virgin, a Venezuelan telenovela that was remade for The CW in the US. With a second series recently recommissioned by The CW, there are now reports that Mediaset in Spain is to make a local version of the show. The deal underlines the beauty of having a strong formattable scripted franchise. Not only can buyers choose between licensing the Venezuelan or the US format, they can also acquire either of the completed series. With every new completed series the options increase, turning small local successes into globally successful franchises.
On a separate note, SVoD service Netflix announced this week that it will continue its rapid global roll-out with launches in Italy, Portugal and Spain during October. Echoing the recent launch in France, this may result in a new wave of investment in local productions. It might also provide a way for shows from these countries to break into the English-speaking markets (Netflix could, for example, acquire global rights to a local show and then test it in different territories if it performs well in its originating market). Overall, Netflix now has 62.3 million subscribers and is aiming to have services in around 200 countries within two years.