The centrepiece of BBC3’s online launch is psychological drama Thirteen, in which writer Marnie Dickens sought to explore what happens when a person held captive against their will finally recovers their freedom. Michael Pickard reports.
When the BBC first commissioned Thirteen in January 2015, controversial plans to move BBC3 online were still up in the air as campaigners fought to save the youth-skewing free-to-air channel amid the pubcaster’s ambitions to slash millions of pounds from its budget.
But when it debuted little more than a year later, on Sunday February 28, the five-part series became the centrepiece of BBC3’s relaunch after the network became the first in the world to switch from linear to online-only.
“It’s very exciting to be the trailblazer. It’s a brave new world,” admits Thirteen writer Marnie Dickens.
“It didn’t affect the way I wrote at all. When Liz (Kilgarriff, executive producer) called me and said we had been greenlit, it was a brilliant day. I instantly asked if we needed to change the drama to fit BBC3 but she said no. The great thing about BBC3 was there was total freedom to write the scripts the way I wanted. It didn’t feel different from writing for BBC1, or any other channel.”
Described as a psychological mystery drama, Thirteen sees Ivy Moxam return home after being held captive for 13 years. She’s the only one who can help the police catch her kidnapper, but they begin to suspect she’s not telling the whole truth as her family struggle to pick up the pieces of their life together.
From BBC’s in-house drama production department, Thirteen is produced by Hugh Warren and directed by Vanessa Caswill and China Moo-Young. New episodes become available online each week, while the series will also get a linear broadcast when it airs in the US on BBC America.
Dickens says the drama was inspired by her interest in what happens after someone is freed after being imprisoned – though there are few comparisons between Thirteen and Netflix original comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which sees the title character adjusting to life in New York after being freed from an underground bunker where she had lived for 15 years with a doomsday cult.
“A lot of focus is put on periods of imprisonment and I wondered what happens when someone does miraculously escape, and how it can’t possibly be happily ever after,” the first-time writer says. “Once I had that idea, I focused on the character of Ivy.”
Dickens says she felt a “massive burden” to make the series faithful to the experiences of people who have found themselves in similar situations.
“I did my own research and read memoirs. We also had a police advisor and a psychologist attached to the show, to explain how someone might act in that situation, and it was incredibly useful to understand the reality behind it,” she says.
“The thing about this story is that it hasn’t happened, certainly not in the UK. While we need to make truthful experiences, we also need to make good drama. It felt quite liberating that there wasn’t one case study I could follow, but there was enough to get a good sense from the research.”
In terms of casting, the writer notes that Ivy was always going to be a tricky role to fill due to the complexity of the part, but says Jodie Comer (recently seen in BBC drama Doctor Foster) was “the perfect Ivy.”
Dickens adds: “Often in development we thought, ‘Are we asking this actress to do too much, playing so many different levels of truth and memory?’ When Jodie auditioned, I got sent the casting tape and I thought she was fantastic. I think we have been incredibly lucky with the cast. They all fill their roles really well.”
The cast also includes Anuerin Barnard (War & Peace), Richard Rankin (From Darkness), Valene Kane (The Fall) and Natasha Little (Wolf Hall), but it is Comer who takes centre stage as a 26-year-old who has spent half her life in captivity. Now reunited with her family and friends, she must try to fit back into her old life and find a sense of normality when she’s not sure who to trust and, more importantly, whether she can trust herself.
In preparation for the role, the actress says she read a book about real-life abductee Natascha Kampusch, who was held prisoner in an Austrian cellar for eight years until she escaped in 2006.
“Even though we were making a drama, it’s crazy to think things such as this have actually happened to people,” Comer says. “Before we started filming, we made a timeline of all the events during the time that Ivy would have been held in captivity and we bullet-pointed when certain incidents would have happened, including her big birthday milestones, which helped me get into the mindset.”
Having starred in teen drama My Mad Fat Diary and 2015 hit Doctor Foster, Comer admits Thirteen is unlike any series she has previously appeared in, describing the shoot as a tough but rewarding challenge.
“When you get scripts and you really enjoy reading them, you know it’s a good project,” she says. “I was so keen to read more of them after the first script we auditioned with. Playing Ivy, I had to imagine the unimaginable – it pushed me to my limits as an actress and it’s been a real challenge.”
And of Thirteen’s place at the centre of BBC Three’s relaunch? Comer says the decision to move the channel was a “massive step.” But she adds: “I believe in change – we should embrace it.”