DQ heads to Wales to watch filming of the second season of The Pact, in which new secrets are unearthed as a mysterious stranger visits a family and claims to be a previously unknown sibling, with seismic consequences.
Outside an imposing grey-brick detached house in the idyllic Welsh countryside, the scene is one of tranquillity and calmness. Only the floodlights directed at the large windows betray the fact that a BBC drama series is being filmed here.
Inside, it’s something of a different story. In between takes, members of the crew flood in and out of the numerous rooms and corridors of the house in Llantwit Major, a stone’s throw from the country’s south coast, while Bafta-winning actor Rakie Ayola (Anthony) is running her lines and preparing for the next scene.
It’s here that a large portion of footage from season two of The Pact is being filmed. Season one of the anthology series concerned a group of factory workers who agree not to reveal their involvement in a suspicious death. Ayola played the police detective brought in to solve the case.
She is now the only member of the cast to return for S2, which once again tells a story about secrets and their consequences – and this time she plays the lead. This new story centres around Ayola’s character, Christine Rees, and her adult children – Megan (Mali Ann Rees), Will (Lloyd Everitt) and Jamie (Aaron Anthony) – whose lives are changed forever when they are contacted by a young man claiming to be a previously unknown Rees sibling.
As the family debate whether to engage with this outsider, the siblings ultimately decide to meet Connor (Jordan Wilks), a strange loner from London who is the spitting image of their long-dead brother Liam. As Christine realises her hold over her precious but dysfunctional family is under threat, she seeks to keep Connor at bay, denying his claims. It’s clear to Connor that Christine is keeping a dark secret, and he’s determined to uncover the truth. But is Connor telling the truth? And if not, why is he lying?
When DQ arrives on set, Ayola is in the middle of filming an incredibly emotional scene. Christine is given some bad news and slaps herself across the face before breaking down in tears. The shocking moment will be repeated numerous times before director Christiana Ebohon-Green has all the coverage she needs and moves on.
“I had deep respect for the emotional depth she was willing to dive into and churn up for us, and I made sure there was space for her to do that,” Ebohon-Green says of the star. “It was a relationship of trust. Because she had space, when I then asked for it to be different, she responded to that as well. It felt like a really good collaboration. I was in awe of what she was able to do on this show.”
Every room in the house has been redecorated for the shoot, which took four weeks to complete before the crew moved in. Each of the bedrooms was tailored to a character, while numerous paintings and artworks were specially commissioned for the series. Mantlepieces, tables and sideboards are topped with children’s paintings and photos of the fictional family.
The series comes from Little Door Productions, which was co-founded by Elwen Rowlands and Hayley Manning in 2019 with a view to developing scripted series for UK and international audiences. Though The Pact had always been designed as an anthology series, Rowlands admits there were second thoughts on the back of the well-received first season and its “brilliant” cast, which included Laura Fraser, Julie Hesmondhalgh, Eiry Thomas and Heledd Gwynn.
“But we talked it through and Pete [McTighe, writer] was always very clear that the most interesting part of those characters’ stories had been told in season one, so it was the right decision,” she says. “The intention was to explore a family dynamic this time around. Thematically, we are exploring truth again – our relationship with truth and the absence of truth sometimes. But season two leans into the gothic a bit more, as you’ll see from the house. There’s slightly darker storytelling and darker hues in the design, and a bit more shadow and silhouette in the shooting style.”
Rowlands had been talking to Ayola about a different show when it came to casting The Pact S2, and the actor “felt like the obvious fit for Christine,” she continues. “Luckily she loved the role and accepted.”
Looking back on what worked in the first run, the producer says it was important this new story also revolved around a central mystery. While S1 asked ‘How did Jack Evans die?’ now it’s ‘Who is Connor Bates?’
“Pete’s scripts are brilliant and they always hang around that central mystery. He teases and takes you off in different directions, but the core question is always really important,” she says. “The other thing from a production point of view it’s about having a team of people who can work magic on a relatively tight budget and schedule, and the importance of locations and a brilliant cast.”
Playing Christine’s only daughter, Rees says her character Megan’s relationship with her mother is particularly complicated and evolves across the show’s six episodes. “It begins with her loving her mother, but she is also controlled by her mother. Her awareness of that changes throughout,” she says. “Megan is definitely a strong member of the family. She’s the only one who really stands up to her older brother, Will. She doesn’t shy away from having her say when it comes to family matters. She knows how to stand up for herself and what she thinks. She does stand up to Christine as well.”
When Connor first appears, Megan is sceptical to begin with but is quickly won over by his charm, despite the fractures in the family that his arrival causes. “There are major differences in who believes in Connor and who doesn’t. However, they’ve all got to hold a secret together, and later on we find there are lies within it, so they’re not even being honest with each other, which is interesting and adds to the drama,” Rees says.
The actor was a fan of The Pact S1 before she was invited to audition for the follow-up, and found she could relate to Megan, who she says has a similar “chaotic energy.” Now starring in the show, she found the experience “quite draining” but took every opportunity to lighten the mood between takes. “We’ve managed to pull each other through and everyone’s been really supportive of each other if anyone’s been having a hard day,” she says.
Similarly, Wilks says the show’s “heavy” themes have brought the cast together. “It feels like everybody knows what journey their character is going on and how to get there, and you know you’ll be able to play safely with other people who are willing to play safely. It’s been really cool to let the starting gun go and watch people do what they do.”
Everitt adds: “In the first week we were doing graveyard scenes, finishing at 4am. Naturally, that’s a tough one, but we’re doing a job we love and that’s always the thing we remember.”
He describes his character Will, the older sibling of the family, as the man of the house, but someone who is simultaneously an outsider who doesn’t feel a connection to his siblings. “He appears on the outside to be doing well, and he is, but he’s also going through some inner turmoil and he’s got some wounds from his past that he doesn’t know how to deal with,” explains the actor, who spoke to psychologists to get a better understanding of Will.
“He’s a bit of an old-school patriarchy model of masculinity, where what it means to be a man is to be a protector. But we’re also talking about a man who lives with deep vulnerabilities. You wouldn’t have given me this role four years ago; I would never have been able to do it justice because I didn’t understand my own vulnerabilities, so part of it is just living life to play this role.”
As Connor, the catalyst driving the story, Wilks plays a character who isn’t part of the Rees family but believes he is. “He’s on a mission to prove he’s part of this family and that they’ve been living a lie,” the actor notes. His relationship with Christine then becomes a game of cat and mouse as he continually tries to confront her. “It’s a constant back and forth between them where one of them has to move. It’s an immovable object meeting an unstoppable force. That’s their relationship, and it’s a constant butting of heads.”
To become more acquainted with each other, the actors playing the Rees family spent two days of rehearsals together before filming began. “That was cool to meet the other actors and understand who we are and talk through the script before any filming started,” Wilks says. “Just being able to go through it and chat was very helpful because I was very nervous before we came into this.”
Helping to settle their nerves was Ebohon-Green, who helmed the second block of filming. The director, whose credits include Outlander, Call the Midwife and upcoming BBC drama Champion, was immediately drawn to the script after identifying with Christine and the diverse family at the centre of the story. “I’ve done some work in the community and I have some social worker friends, so I had a good understanding of her life and the family, and also what it was like for some of those children experiencing loss,” she says. “I related to that and it was part of the attraction to doing it.”
Taking her visual approach from the scripts and locations, Ebohon-Green says her biggest task was to humanise the characters and make sure they would be relatable to the audience. “We don’t often see complex stories about diverse characters, so it was important to me that everyone could step into each one of those characters’ shoes and feel what the world was like from their point of view,” she says. “That was the big draw, as well as pushing the visual style, with big wide shots, letting the camera develop and not cutting in too often.”
The director initially thought the family home would be built in a studio and was then concerned there wouldn’t be enough room to film inside a real location. But when it came to shooting in the house, “there was so much space and choice that I rarely felt compromised in any way,” she says. “The long hallway upstairs, the fantastic stairway and being able to look down and see the front door and the rooms off it – it felt like a bit of a maze and it seemed to work well for what was going on for those characters and the fact they’re all a bit lost but bound together in this space and trying to make the best of it.”
In fact, the toughest part of making the series was the “brutal” schedule, which featured many different locations. “Every day we were all over the place, moving and still trying to shoot at a very high standard in not much time. The biggest challenge was getting it all in,” she adds.
While the first season was largely set around woods and lakes, S2 promises a more coastal setting to differentiate the two stories. “Our production office is based in Barry [on the south coast of Wales] so we’ve explored in each direction out of Barry town centre and found some amazing locations and variety,” says Rowlands. “There’s the house here, we’ve used Penarth Pier, which is a real hero location for the show, the esplanade there, and we’ve got some spectacular cliffs and beaches, showcasing what’s on offer. It’s relatively low budget for a BBC One 9pm show, so that production value you get from locations is hugely important.”
The Rees house proved to be tricky to find, with a brief for a gothic-looking house big enough for a crew to film in for four weeks of the 16-week schedule. “Story-wise, it’s a home that has been inherited from paternal grandparents, and Christine’s husband left when the kids were younger so she hasn’t had the funds to spend a lot of money on it,” Rowlands says. “We also wanted something that didn’t feel modern or have a new kitchen in the past 10 years. It was quite a tricky brief, but the house we found is amazing and our production designer Keith Dunne has done a brilliant job transforming it.”
Locations manager Hannah James-Johnson joined the project midway through the shoot in April and oversaw the search for locations including sand dunes, terraced houses, a police station and a quarry. When it came to finding the family house, “the script initially states it’s a remote house on a cliff near the sea. There were talks of a studio build, but one of our scouts saw this and immediately loved it,” James-Johnson says. “Then when I joined, we had to work out the logistics of it, so we accommodated the family [who live in the house] in an Airbnb locally. The owners have had lots of walk-arounds and come back every weekend to stay the night or just have a look around, and they’re considering changing the layout of the house because of what we’ve done.”
Those works have included painting the whole house, putting down a false floor and removing the owners’ furniture. There are also new light fixtures. “It’s been a huge job for the art department and a lot of co-operation between us both,” says James-Johnson, who notes that the ‘Doctor Who effect’ and numerous film studios opening their doors in the region mean it’s now difficult to find unfilmed properties in South Wales.
“It’s going to look amazing. From coast to quarry, to houses on hills and woodland, we’ve been to it all,” she adds. “It’s going to have a very coastal vibe to it because we’ve been to a lot of beaches, and Penarth plays such a big part with the café and the sea in the background the entire time, so it’s going to be really nice.”
The Pact S2 isn’t just highlighting the diversity of Welsh locations, however, but also the array of diverse talent in front and behind the screen. “There’s a whole heap of talent there, but we’re not necessarily associated with black talent,” Everitt says. “When I went to places like Manchester or London, people would be like, ‘I didn’t even know there were black people in Wales.’ That was a genuine thing.”
Rees adds: “I hope Welsh families can see themselves in this family in some way. We’re quite a problematic family, so maybe it’s not the best case, but just to see Welsh actors of colour in such a big show on such a big platform will hopefully inspire some people to get into acting and show what we’ve got.”
Rakie Ayola discusses taking the lead in season two of The Pact, becoming an executive producer and showcasing Welsh talent.
At first, Rakie Ayola was confused as to why she had been sent scripts for season two of The Pact when her season one character, police investigator DS Holland, wasn’t in it.
She had been speaking to writer Pete McTighe about a different project, but that was put on pause when S2 was commissioned. Then in autumn 2021, he asked her to read the first two scripts.
“I did, and I thought it was great, and he said, ‘What do you think about being in it?’ I said, ‘I didn’t see Detective Holland?’ Maybe at the time he had an idea like American Horror Story, where lots of the cast would come back, so I thought, ‘Well, OK, if everyone’s up for that.”
It wasn’t until January this year, when Ayola’s agent told her she had been offered the part of Christine – and the chance to be an executive producer on the series – that she learned she would be the only member of the original cast to return.
“I was absolutely up for it because Christine’s such a terrific part and she’s so complicated,” she says. “But I did say to Pete on the last day of shooting, ‘You’ve started something now. If you get a third season, you’ll have to decide whether I just appear in each season as somebody different or if the detective from season two goes on to be a different character in season three. What is the formula you’re following?’ I don’t think he’s decided yet. Matthew Gravelle, who plays the detective in season two, is quite excited by the idea he could be a farmer or something in season three. We’ll see how that goes.”
At the heart of the story is her character Christine, who Ayola says will do whatever she needs to protect her family. The events of the story then push her into some extreme situations, as old pacts are revealed and new ones are forged.
“It’s really dark, it’s gripping and it’s weird at times. We’ve gone proper Twin Peaks in this show,” she says. “It was a joy, but when we started filming, we didn’t have the shooting scripts for episodes four, five and six, so Christine was unfolding in front of me as we were filming episodes one, two and three. That keeps you on your toes as an actor and it’s actually really exciting.”
Having watched Ayola slap herself on set and repeat the same emotionally charged scene again and again, it’s interesting to hear the actor reveal later that those actions were all her own ideas. In fact, if she reads script directions for her character that say ‘she is devastated’ or ‘she cries,’ Ayola says she’s likely to ignore them altogether.
“I will decide if she cries and I will work out how devastated she is. I’ll take the words you’ve given me and I might decide instead that her reaction is one of hysterical laughter, like she’s lost her mind, so I ignore them,” the actor explains.
“What I wasn’t quite ready for were the times where Christine gets really emotional, which weren’t written in the script but just happened. Hair and make-up would say, ‘Will there be tears today?’ and I’d say no, and then there would be tears and they’d need to make my face up again. When I left for work that morning, I had no idea I’d be crying by the end of that day. That’s the job at its best.”
Ayola’s role was further expanded by her involvement behind the camera. “I’m sure I got on everyone’s nerves though because my nose was in all the pies all the time,” she jokes, noting how aware she became of how the set was run. “As an exec producer, I could say things I probably could also have said as an actor, but nobody told me not to say them. Nobody told me it wasn’t my business,” she says. “It was quite a useful position because I am quite nosey. We had a lot of trainees on the set so I would go up to them and say, ‘Have we taught you anything today?’
“The next time I exec produce a big project, I want to be involved a level further back, in the hiring of the HODs. I’d like to be there from the very beginning to ensure all our creative sensibilities [are the same]. But it was a revelation. I’m a natural executive producer, but before I’d have just been called an annoying actor. I’ve never had permission to say what I was saying before.”
Thanks to its array of stunning backdrops, Ayola likens The Pact to a travelogue across the Vale of Glamorgan. She also highlights the diversity of the central Rees family and the show’s depiction of Wales as a multicultural country.
“I know so many mixed-race Welsh speakers, usually in their teens and 20s, so there’s a generation like Mali [Ann Rees, who plays Christine’s daughter Megan] where you cannot take that language away from them,” she says. “We’re saying here’s a black and mixed-race family from Wales, you don’t have to have a connection with Wales, you don’t have to be interested in Wales, but if you like to see a modern family and a single parent doing the best for their children, if you want to see a family that works together, here they are.”
Ayola also notes the significance of the fact she and fellow cast members Elizabeth Berrington and Lisa Palfrey are all women in their 50s playing prominent roles in a TV drama. “We’re right up front and centre in this show – thank you Pete McTighe – so we’re representing those women too,” she adds. “We’re a flagship for midlife menopausal women carrying a TV show. We’re waving a lot of flags and we’re waving them loud and proud.”