Burning ambition

Burning ambition

By Emma Cox
October 18, 2023


DQ goes on location to meet the cast and creative team behind Paramount+ series The Burning Girls, a horror series, whodunit and character drama wrapped in one.

In an abandoned school in a village in Buckinghamshire, north-west of London, electric heaters are at a premium. If you’re lucky enough to find one to huddle next to, you don’t give up your place easily.

Some of the walls are mouldy with damp; floorboards creak and the wind rattles loose windowpanes on this chilly November 2022 day. There’s a distinctly spooky feel about the building, as if it’s been abandoned in a hurry. It’s not somewhere you’d want to find yourself alone.

So far, so unglamorous – but it’s the perfect set for The Burning Girls, a Paramount+ six-parter based on the best-selling novel by CJ Tudor, which premieres tomorrow in the UK. It’s also coming to Canada, Australia, Latin America, Italy, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and South Korea.

The story follows Reverend Jack Brookes, who is tasked with overseeing new parish Chapel Croft after the previous vicar took his own life. It’s a small village still affected by two past tragedies: the burning of twin eight-year-old girls in 1556 during Queen Mary’s purge of Protestants, and the disappearance of two teenagers, Merry Joanne Lane and Joy Harris, in 1992.

For Samantha Morton, who plays Jack, the discomfort of working in this location has been more than worth it for the chance to portray a complex character in such a twisty, exciting drama. The actor apologises repeatedly for being so tired as she ushers DQ into her dressing room, which she has managed to make much cosier than the rest of the school.

Samantha Morton in The Burning Girls

“It’s been intense every day,” Morton says. “You look at the script and you go, ‘This is a scene where she’s just walking to the vicarage,’ but actually Jack is carrying the weight of a lot of secrets, and that’s really heavy, so I found every day pretty tough.

“But the crew have been the nicest, most supportive team. I’ve lucked out with the directors Charles [Martin], who was very dynamic and has great vision, and Kieron [Hawkes], who came on later and took me into his arms – not literally, but emotionally – and carried me through to the finish line, which is really rare. I’ve had that only a few times in my career. So, I’m very proud of everyone but I’m absolutely shattered!”

The first episode opens as widow Jack arrives in Chapel Croft with her 15-year-old daughter Flo. The pair have left Sheffield under traumatic circumstances, and Flo in particular is not keen to move to their new home, especially when she sees creepy twig effigies paying tribute to the “burning girls” of the title, who are said to haunt the village. Then things take even more of a turn when Jack is left a terrifying gift on her doorstep: an exorcism kit.

As Jack gets to know her parishioners – played by actors including Rupert Graves as brash landlord Simon Harper and Paul Bradley as the benign Reverend Brian Rushton – she realises that the historic murders still hang heavy over the village, along with the mysterious disappearance of the teenage girls who vanished 30 years ago.

The series plays out over the three different timelines, which was one of the reasons Morton took the job, along with the intrigue of playing a vicar, and the horror tropes that The Burning Girls plays to.

The Paramount+ series plays out across three different timelines

“Jack’s a very modern vicar,” she says, “not unlike The Vicar of Dibley, or Kate Bottley from Gogglebox. She’s not one of the old fuddy-duddy blokes who have been there forever, she’s new blood. I’ve never played a vicar before and there was something really interesting about that.

“I really cared about the 90s material and wanted to make sure that was as authentic as possible, especially having been the same age [as missing girls Merry Joanne and Joy] in 1992. I did a playlist that we shared among ourselves – Nirvana is on there, REM, Pearl Jam, Massive Attack, Suzanne Vega.

“But I also had the John Carpenter soundtrack for The Thing, [classic David Lynch series] Twin Peaks.”

The actor also describes herself as a cinephile, and grew up watching films like The Omen, The Exorcist and The Turn of the Screw. “This is a genre I love,” she continues. “People were really surprised when I went into The Walking Dead, but I love zombie films!

“What I’ve loved about working with Kieran is that you’ve got all that, but he focuses on the realism of those characters rather than everything being ‘dur dur dur…’ You have to know it’s there and then forget about it because if every shot’s about being spooky, it’s just like… This is about character and not just about melting faces.”

Director Charles Martin on location during filming

Another added interest for Morton was the relationship between Jack and headstrong Flo (Ruby Stokes), who quickly forms a strong bond with local misfit Wrigley (Conrad Khan).

She says: “I’ve played mums, but Jack and Flo have a close bond, and I thought it was a gorgeous relationship and one that I wanted to explore. I was a single mum up until my daughter was about five, and I remember that the bond between mother and child is really intense, so I was fascinated by that.”

Behind the scenes, Hans Rosenfeldt (The Bridge) was asked to adapt The Burning Girls script from Tudor’s book by production company Buccaneer, with whom he had worked on ITV drama Marcella. He says that structurally, he kept the story much as it is in the book, and wanted to keep the humour of the way many of the characters – particularly Jack and Flo – speak to each other: a light touch amid the darkness.

But the biggest challenge was to add in the element of fear – the book pays homage to lots of tropes recognisable from films like The Exorcist and The Shining – without making it an out-and-out horror.

“It’s not a super-clever serial killer,” he says. “It’s not very violent. It’s a mystery, more than anything. It should give you that feeling of being uncomfortable. I would like it if people felt, ‘Oh, there’s so much wrong in that village. Nobody is happy. I have to know how it’s all linked together.’ To feel a little bit on the edge of your seat would be good. It’s about character, but with suspense and horror.”

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