Being diplomatic

Being diplomatic

By Michael Pickard
January 6, 2023

In production

Writer Ben Richards and executive producer Simon Heath recall their decade-long journey to make The Diplomat, a series set in Barcelona that follows the work of a consul called upon to help British nationals in trouble in Catalonia.

More than 10 years ago, writer Ben Richards and executive producer Simon Heath were developing a series revolving around a consulate on the fictional island of Assalia, following its staff as they dealt with the trials and tribulations of British nationals who had suffered tragedy or fallen foul of local laws.

The idea had emerged from conversations between the pair after they first worked together on Channel 4 comedy-drama No Angels and then on BBC Two series Party Animals, which starred Matt Smith and Andrea Riseborough as parliamentary workers at the heart of the UK government and subsequently became a cult classic.

When Party Animals failed to land a recommission, they began throwing around ideas with a similar setup – young people in an institutional setting – and found some parallels with a story set among the staff of a consulate in an international location. “Then we thought it would be a good excuse to go and shoot somewhere,” Heath tells DQ at the offices of World Productions, where he is CEO and creative director.

Their concept, set on an island pitched as a blend of Cyprus and Ibiza and housing a British army base, was kicked around at the BBC but failed to take off until about four years ago, when they found a home for the series at UKTV-owned Alibi, which at that time was just beginning its originals push. UKTV loved the pitch, but made one suggestion: move the location from an island to a city. Then it was just a question choosing the right city.

“Once we started looking at the real-life consulate in Barcelona, we realised there was a raft of different stories you wouldn’t have been able to tell in the original format. And Barcelona is a great city – the more you look at it, the more you go, ‘It’s fantastic,’” Heath says.

Sophie Rundle as consul Laura alongside Isak Férriz, who plays Inspector Castels

Now set to debut on Alibi next month, The Diplomat stars Sophie Rundle (Peaky Blinders, Gentleman Jack) as Laura Simmonds, who together with her Barcelona Consul colleague and friend Alba Ortiz (Serena Manteghi of Mrs Wilson) must fight to protect British nationals who find themselves in trouble in the Catalan city.

While there are new stories in each episode of the six-part show, a season-long serialised storyline follows an investigation into the unexplained death of a young British barman working on a yacht in the marina. The Spanish police believe his death was a tragic accident, but Laura backs the boy’s grieving father, Colin (Danny Sapani), who is convinced something more sinister took place. As new evidence emerges and a murder inquiry is opened, Laura and Alba find links between the barman’s death, organised crime and the British security services.

Throughout development, Laura has always been at the heart of The Diplomat – a young female consul who works with a small team dealing with casework while butting heads with her superior. Richards and Heath met with real-life retired consuls during the show’s development, and even became friends with the current consul in Barcelona, who came to visit the set.

“Each episode has a standalone case they have to deal with, something that’s happened to a British national in Barcelona, but there’s this strong thread going through it, which is the story of what happened to this boy who died at a party on a yacht,” Heath says. “By the end of the first episode, you know there’s something amiss. You don’t get the full picture until the last couple of episodes, when it all comes together. But it’s been quite nice to revisit that story-of-the-week format alongside the more typical serialised format.”

Richards started his writing career on BBC spy drama Spooks, whose story structure is similar to the one employed by The Diplomat. “But even though those were BBC hours [with no time deducted by ad breaks], it was quite hard to keep the serial story going,” he says. “The Diplomat is a massive challenge because there are only 44 minutes of actual TV time [on commercial network Alibi]. To do a ‘story of the week’ that works and keep a serial story going is a real balancing act.

Serena Manteghi (right) is Laura’s colleague and friend Alba Ortiz

“I do quite like that challenge and like the time restraint – you really have to be economical and inventive in finding ways to make a story feel like it has enough weight to stand alone. In episode one, the standalone case is about the father, and that generates the serial story.”

There’s also the promise of plenty of comedic touches too, with Heath revealing that episode one also sees some local thieves fall foul of a Welsh hen party. “What we were trying to do in episode one was to show two sides of this immensely difficult job. Laura meeting a grieving father is the hard and heavy side of the job, while on the other side you’ve got this much more light and comedic story about what happens when the muggers who’ve been terrorising Barcelona meet a bunch of hens from Merthyr Tydfil.”

Other episodes feature trouble between an English couple when one is assaulted and the other goes missing, while Esther Hall and Lindsey Coulson play two women on a birthday trip when one becomes a blackmail victim.

With a multinational cast that includes Laia Costa (Soulmates, Devils) as Mariana and Isak Férriz (Libertad) as Inspector Castels, the series also features scenes entirely in Spanish – a thought that might not have been as palatable back when The Diplomat was first being developed. “We didn’t want a situation where we had two Spanish characters in a scene talking in English,” Heath says.

“That is just awful. You’d be laughed off the screen. We’ve been lucky with some very good Spanish casting. Laia is a bit of a star and Isak is brilliant. Then we were always like, ‘Who’s going to play Laura?’”

As it happened, the actor playing Laura in the series is the very person Richards and Heath first imagined in the role all those years ago. Heath had worked with Rundle on The Bletchley Circle in 2012, but felt she would have been too young for the part at that time. However, when the project was finally ready to start casting, Rundle was an international star, and the question wasn’t whether she was old enough but if she was available.

Steven Cree portrays the consul general, who comes into regular conflict with Laura

“She wasn’t for our original filming dates in April 2020,” Heath says. “But by the time Covid had cleared enough for us to think about going over to Barcelona – an added difficulty on top of filming with Covid in the UK and visa problems once Brexit kicked in – we could only confidently say we would start filming in April this year, by which time Sophie was available and loved the part and being the lead in a show.”

Richards adds: “What’s great about Sophie is she has enormous comedic talent as an actor, which is not the thing you think instinctively about her. But she’s a brilliant comic actor and has a repertoire of reactions. It’s amazing how much in Britain we sometimes neglect visual comedy. Just in terms of acting, reaction shots to somebody saying something stupid or controversial are worth their weight in gold.”

The writer was also drawn to Rundle’s ability to bring out the extraordinary characteristics of a character who is, by design, quite ordinary. “Laura was obviously very bright, did well in university and got fast-tracked by the Civil Service – she makes a joke about that – but there’s nothing particularly standout about her background,” Richards says. “Sophie was really able to convey that. She’s absolutely how I imagined Laura to be: composed and dignified. It always sounds pejorative, but my point is it shouldn’t be pejorative to have hardworking parents and go to a school where she worked hard, did well, got into university and got into the Foreign Office. That’s her distinctiveness – she’s really good at her job and that’s what marks her out. Sophie was really able to bring that quality to it.”

Casting Alba was an entirely different prospect owing to the character’s specific description – a woman who was born to Spanish parents but had spent enough time growing up in London to have developed a London accent.

It was then a “relief” to discover Manteghi. “It’s lovely on screen – she sounds like a
typical West London girl and then she glides straight into Spanish in certain scenes and does it effortlessly. They’re a good double act,” Heath says.

Made by the company best known for Line of Duty and Bodyguard, The Diplomat is the first World Productions series to be shot entirely outside the UK. Heath jokes that it was easier to film in Barcelona than in some British locations, though certain settings were difficult to find. A high-end restaurant was created out of a disused venue by the marina, while the production team’s search for a real building to act as the consulate resulted in them taking over the whole floor of a semi-deserted apartment block that offered panoramic views of the city.

The Diplomat will debut on UKTV channel Alibi next month

Scenes set in less well-known areas of Barcelona are complemented by more recognisable landmarks, such as Antoni Gaudi’s iconic church La Sagrada Familia. FC Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium also appears in the background of several scenes.

With filming taking place between April and July this year, the schedule was front-loaded with night shoots to avoid the light Spanish summer evenings, while the action was kept firmly on the ground in an attempt to grasp the city’s unique atmosphere at street level. Jill Robertson (Dalgleish, Harlots, Pennyworth) and Jennie Paddon (Sanditon) are the directors.

“I tend to think that the big drone shots, which a lot of people would favour, are actually probably wrong for the show,” Richards says. “They’re just a bit generic. When you get down onto the street in Barcelona, you feel the sense of its individuality much more, whether you’re in the old city or in El Born. You feel like you couldn’t be anywhere else.”

Richards, whose other credits include last year’s Showtrial plus The Tunnel and Cobra, normally writes series alone. This time, however, he partnered with Lauren Klee (Tina & Bobby), who wrote the middle two episodes. “A lamentable trend in British drama is that writers get precious about having to be the auteur and having to do it all. It wasn’t like that when I started,” he says. “I love working with another writer in a team. It’s really enjoyable. Obviously it’s not so great if you don’t like the other writer, but Lauren was really good. We’ve all had fun and we’ve had some trips out to Barcelona.”

The writers aimed to make the show distinctive by ensuring the weekly stories and Laura’s consular work constantly crashed into the serialised arc. “The fundamental premise of the show is that one of the stories of the week brings her into conflict with the consul general, played brilliantly by Steven Cree. That’s a really important element,” Richards says.

Heath adds: “Steven’s character stands in for the establishment, the institution of the Foreign Office and the playbook. But Sophie’s much more about the human angle and how to make things better for people, rather than just saying ‘computer says no’ or ‘sorry, that’s outside our jurisdiction.’ She goes the extra mile.”

Richards says he tried hard to avoid clichéd depictions of the local Spanish police force, ensuring Castels is a good officer and does his job properly, while he also wanted to avoid stereotypical stories of Brits abroad. “Our depiction of Brits abroad is fairly affectionate, even when there is, as Laura calls one of them, ‘a complete wanker.’ It’s a kind of affectionate realism,” he notes.

Thoughts are already turning to where a second season might take Laura – but the show seems likely to return to Barcelona if it does win a recommission. “There are a lot more stories to tell and Sophie loved filming out there,” Heath says. “It’s a show where you might do two or three seasons in one city and then she gets a posting somewhere else.”

As for The Diplomat’s global appeal – BBC Studios is handling worldwide distribution – the vast melting pot of cultures within Barcelona means it carries some of the city’s international sensibilities. “The nature of the story is one that would be very recognisable for lots of international viewers,” Heath says. “Within the stories, we’ve got German, Dutch and Spanish people, reflecting the international quality of the city. One thing we said we would do in season two is have Laura interact with the consulate of another nation, because that happens quite a lot. We could have fun with that.”

“What makes it original is we didn’t make Laura a diplomat who does a bit of detective work in her spare time – I would find that so cringey,” Richards says. “There’s a bit of that, but we never forget her mission is to use her diplomatic skills to change the outcome of a case, because her fundamental job is to protect distressed British nationals, and that’s what she does. They may be British, but they could be anyone abroad.”

Don’t I know you from somewhere? Rundle’s other roles

Peaky Blinders
For six seasons, Rundle starred as Ada Shelby in Steven Knight’s smash-hit drama about the exploits of the titular criminal gang. Set between the end of the First World War and the 1930s, the BBC series debuted in 2013.

Gentleman Jack
Rundle plays Ann Walker, the love interest of Suranne Jones’ Anne Lister in Sally Wainwright’s acclaimed period drama about Lister, a landowner, industrialist, traveller and diarist described as the first modern lesbian in the early 1900s.

Set in the early 17th century, Jamestown starred Rundle, Naomi Battrick and Niamh Walsh as three courageous women who leave their dark pasts behind in England and set sail across the ocean for a new life in America and the colony of Jamestown, where drama awaits – as do the men they are duty-bound to marry.

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