Creator and writer Rob Williams, executive producer Sarah Brown and star James Harkness talk to DQ about making BBC four-parter The Victim, a thriller that aims to make its viewers ask themselves difficult questions.
“Just remember who the victim is,” John Hannah’s dour Detective Inspector Steven Grover calls out across a quiet police office. It’s a throwaway line, the final sentence in a row between two colleagues. Yet it sums up the riddle at the heart of four-part BBC drama The Victim – just who should have our sympathies?
Should viewers stand by Anna Dean (played by Kelly Macdonald) – a mother who, still grieving the loss of her son who was brutally murdered 15 years ago, stands accused of posting an image and the address of his alleged killer online – or Craig Myers (James Harkness), who is left for dead by a masked attacker after being identified as notorious child murderer Eddie J Turner.
The story plays out in the present as Anna stands trial for incitement to murder, while flashbacks recall the aftermath of the attack and how the lives of Craig and his wife Rebecca (Karla Crome) are turned upside down by gossip and rumour, with Anna attempting to prove Craig is not who he says he is.
The drama, which is inspired by real-life cases but is not based on any in particular, comes from creator and writer Rob Williams and is produced by STV Productions. It’s a series that proves to be compelling and thought-provoking in equal measure. While viewers will want to know whether Craig really is Eddie, the bigger question is does that really matter? At every stage, the drama comes back to the question posed by DI Grover. Just who is the victim here?
“The Victim has the potential to be a really talked-about show because of the subject matter and the way Rob has told the story from two points of view,” says exec producer Sarah Brown, STV’s head of drama. “Hopefully, it’s not black and white and there’s a lot of grey in there. It has the potential to get people discussing not just the genre questions – Is Craig really Eddie? – but also the bigger moral questions.”
Williams picks up: “The kind of dramas I love are the ones where I don’t know where I stand and I’ve got to ask questions of myself. That was definitely where I felt we were on to something, because I don’t quite know who I stand with.”
However, Williams says he always knew how the story would conclude. “I was very up for changing it if the characters and the story demanded it, but it does feel like the only ending for me, which is a really nice place to be. There’s a courtroom verdict, but is that enough? That’s very much part of the question. Hopefully the last episode delivers a series of verdicts but in different ways.”
Williams, whose credits include Killing Eve and The Man in the High Castle, had been talking to Brown about working together when they struck on the idea of how people can become polarised over an issue despite being presented with the same evidence. The writer was also intrigued by a documentary about the Scottish court system, which was presented as a less stuffy, more informal environment than its English counterpart.
“The idea that you could tell a story in a courtroom but, instead of seeing the evidence presented by lawyers, you could actually see what happened and then twist people’s sympathy for the plaintiff and the accused – that was the beginning,” he recalls. The case at the heart of The Victim then emerged through real-life examples of people being accused of something on social media. “It’s just a fascinating area that the law is struggling to keep up with,” Williams adds. “But this is entirely fictional. There’s any number of cases where people could find parallels with different aspects of the drama, but it’s not based on any one case. It has to be [this way] really, otherwise your characters don’t have freedom to do and say things they need to.”
Williams says it is integral to the show that viewers are able to put themselves in the shoes of both Anna and Craig and imagine what they would do if they were in the same position.
However, the intention was never to make a traditional courtroom drama, with scenes in front of the judge only serving to provide a spine to the series. Over the four episodes, the flashbacks slowly catch up to the present, meaning every strand of the story comes together by the end.
“In the editing process, we stripped away quite a lot of procedure because we felt it became too procedural,” Brown reveals. “What we really wanted the audience to be interested in was the human interactions and the stakes for each character.”
When it came to casting, Macdonald (Trainspotting, Boardwalk Empire) was first through the door, followed by Hannah (Spartacus, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency). But for Craig, the production team decided someone relatively unknown would be best. Harkness (Macbeth, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) auditioned and landed the part.
“I’m in awe of them, particularly James and Kelly,” Williams says. “They have to play these characters with the sense they could be lying. We don’t know. But they play it with such integrity – they’re not moustache-twirling at any point.”
On casting Harkness, Brown notes: “We saw quite a few people but there was something about him. I just find his performance so raw and real. He’s quite extraordinary. He really held his end up, particularly when you see the latter episodes and the two-handers with him and Kelly.
“You want the audience to believe he’s capable of being Eddie J Turner but equally capable of not being him because you don’t want the audience to know the answer until the end. That’s quite a tricky balance.”
For Harkness himself, he describes his first leading role as an “amazing, brilliant learning experience.” As a young father, he says he feels very lucky to be involved in a drama about such a sensitive subject, noting that the theme of whether people should be given a second chance even caused him to stop and think about what he would do in a similar situation.
“It’s definitely a subject that should be talked about, so hopefully people do talk about it,” he says. “It can be a very stigmatised subject. I don’t just mean in a court of law – everybody’s got a past. You’re not defined by who you were, you’re defined by who you are, and you get to decide who you get to be. It’s not for everybody else to define you.”
Revealing that many of the plot twists were kept under wraps before filming began, Harkness continues: “For me, it didn’t matter if Craig was Eddie or not. I was just looking to tell this story of a hard-working guy who’s a family man. That’s what I want to be, a hard-working family man. That’s the story I was interested in, rather than the reveal and the drama of it.
“I’d love people to pay attention and try to look at it as a whole and make a judgement at the end, rather than jump straight into a judgement we all make automatically, very easily and very quickly. Give yourself a second chance while watching it.”
Striking the right balance with the series, which is sold internationally by Sky Vision, proved to be the biggest challenge, with Brown and Williams adamant that the story should never be manipulative in any way. In essence, the show had to hold up to repeated viewings, where the audience wouldn’t feel cheated at any point even after they knew the conclusion.
“Everything you’ve witnessed when you look back was true in its moment,” Brown says. “That was a real challenge. There were a couple of scenes in the early drafts that felt like brilliant genre moments but we ended up taking them out because they felt like we were leaning on genre rather than the truth of the characters. There was one cliffhanger in particular we held on to until the bitter end. In the end, we just thought be brave and believe we’re sufficiently invested in these characters now that we want to know what happens to them. That was an interesting process, getting the balance between the genre storytelling and character storytelling. It was a very fine balance all the way through.”
Snowstorms in Scotland last March hampered location scouting during pre-production, while the biggest practical challenge came in finding a courtroom. The crew ended up building one that mimicked the size and style of Edinburgh High Court, an old building filled with modern trappings. Shooting also took place on location in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Port Glasgow and Gourock.
Brown says she’s proud of the fact the drama features so many young Scottish actors alongside the well-established Macdonald and Hannah. “You don’t see many dramas with an almost entirely Scottish cast. That showcases what amazing talent we have in Scotland.”
Meanwhile, Brown and Williams both believe they have achieved their ambition of creating an entertaining piece of television that will also cause viewers to stop and think about the events that play out on screen.
“We have delivered something that works as a piece of drama that you want to come back for, and characters you empathise with and want to find out what happens to them, but hopefully, at the end, it’s done more than just fill your time. There is something to chew on,” Williams says. “I’m grateful to have worked with the people I’ve worked with. You write a character on a page called Anna Dean but it’s only when somebody like Kelly comes and inhabits it that you just think, ‘Wow.’”
Their attention is now turning to a potential second season of The Victim. “The plan is for more,” Brown adds. “We’re already thinking about season two. What was designed into the format was the court case and the shape and structure of the storytelling. What I hope the next season would do would be a new cast of characters and a new story but told in the same format and, hopefully, with an equally contemporary, thought-provoking subject.”