Coming together

Coming together

By Michael Pickard
May 10, 2024

The Writers Room

Ahead of the launch of The Gathering, writer Helen Walsh speaks to DQ about creating the authentic world seen in her first television series, viewing its characters from multiple perspectives and why this story needs to be told today.

When writers hand over a completed script, there might be a sense of nervousness or trepidation about what the completed series could end up looking like.

But from the moment Helen Walsh began to see dailies from the set of her debut television series, The Gathering, she felt a huge sense of relief that “the story, the characters and the world that has been in your head for so long is being realised in the way you had hoped and imagined,” she tells DQ.

Working with lead director Gareth Bryn and World Productions (Line of Duty), she found kindred spirits who shared her ambition to realise an authentic world on screen and pursue a focus on character over plot, “which is not always the case in TV drama,” she notes. There was also a determination to cast only native actors for the Liverpudlian characters in the series – a choice that further accentuates the Merseyside setting of a story that was almost entirely filmed in locations Walsh had identified in her script.

“I’m from Merseyside and my work always starts with place, whether it’s a scrap of wasteland, a street or sometimes a larger geographical demarcation,” she explains. “Most of my stories are set in the North West, and 80% of them are set in Liverpool. Then the characters evolve out of those places, and then the stories come from the characters, and you just hope they fit the demands of TV drama.”

Helen Walsh

The Gathering isn’t novelist Walsh’s first time writing for television, having had several projects in development over the past five or six years. This is just the first one to be greenlit, she notes, with Channel 4 commissioning this six-part drama that explores the simmering tensions between a group of teenagers and the rise of ‘surveillance parenting’ that can boil over into controlling and toxic behaviour.

Newcomer Eva Morgan stars as working-class student Kelly, an accomplished gymnast who is committed to her strict training schedule but finds freedom and liberation in the joyous, unregulated world of free-running.

When she is attacked at an illicit rave on a tidal islet, the story becomes a whodunnit – and a whydunit – with each episode following the perspective of a different character in Kelly’s world, giving an insight into a group of disparate teenagers and their parents, and bringing the circumstances that led to the attack into sharper focus.

These characters include Jessica (Sadie Soverall), Kelly’s friend and elite gymnastics teammate who seemingly has it all; Jessica’s manipulative mother Natalie (Vinette Brown); and Kelly’s hard-working father Paul (Warren Brown), who struggles with his own impulse control.

The cast also features Richard Coyle as successful solicitor Jules, Sonny Walker as Adam, Ryan Quarmby as Charlie and newcomer Luca Kamleh-Chapman as Bazi.

Walsh originally started writing The Gathering as a novel but she soon felt that the “visually arresting” world the characters inhabit – and the inclusion of free-running, parkour and tumbling gymnastics – didn’t land comfortably on the page.

“I thought audiences really needed to see this, rather than read about it,” she says. “I didn’t think the form of the novel could do justice to those worlds. I don’t know how I would go about writing rooftop parkour scenes. It’s something that have to see, and you also need the scope of a series rather than a film to realise a story with all the shifting perspectives.”

The Gathering stars Eva Morgan as Kelly, a student who gets into free-running

Free-running and parkour are a “huge part of the show’s DNA” and were integral to the series from the start, as Walsh wanted to depict this “joyful, liberating space” for young people – one she describes as one of the last remaining bastions of teen spirit.

“It’s a very tight-knit community that is devoid of the restraints, rivalry or structure that you see with competitive sports, and it’s blissfully parent free,” she notes. “Parents can’t participate, even as onlookers, because they can’t get up to the rooftops, so it’s very much a kids’ space. In an age where kids’ leisure has become increasingly structured and optimised towards goals and achievement, these spaces are really necessary.”

In particular, Walsh knows British free-runner Elise Bickley and has watched her progress in the sport since she was 15 years old. Bickley then inspired the character of Kelly, a young woman in a “friendly, fraternal, supportive but male arena” and the moral core of the series.

Other themes in The Gathering include the rise of surveillance parenting, and Walsh highlights a “very internalised yet collective desire for our kids to excel in the achievement society.”

She continues: “That, to me, is a society that privileges success, motivation and ‘Project Self’ above anything else. I was interested in the impact on kids and how kids find their strategies of resistance, and how they outsmart and outfox their parents.”

That’s something all the central teen characters in The Gathering are quite good at, and do frequently, in a bid to find their own slice of freedom and independence away from prying parents.

Each episode of the show unfolds from the perspective of a different character

But Walsh says it wasn’t the case that The Gathering was borne out of a number of issues she wanted to write about. Moreover, it emerged from the characters she had created, and from them the story started to emerge.

She did also want to present each episode from a different character’s perspective. That was the structure she had been using in the novel, and when the series was cast, the producers and Channel 4 allowed Walsh to redraft the scripts to further build out the characters and their worlds with the actors in mind.

“The way the characters are initially presented leans into our own preconceptions, and sometimes prejudices, to form an opinion of them. Then we go into another episode and we pull back, shift focus and reveal a different face to these characters,” she says. “For example, Adam initially presents as reckless, irresponsible and hedonistic, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. He is actually a really responsible, caring young man who is straddling two very different worlds that are often in conflict with one another.

“The drama is less about what brings these teenagers together – shared interests, love, friendship, romance – and more about the things that test their relationships: rivalry, misunderstandings and the problems and complexities of teen love and relationships in the digital age. One of the themes running through all the parent-teen relationships is control, which, again, wasn’t a conscious decision. It was just something that started to emerge naturally as the stories and the characters developed – the control that parents seek to harness over their kids and the way kids resist this.”

As a novelist, Walsh says she has never written to stringent deadlines, having always worked under her own steam. So when The Gathering was commissioned, her initial sense of euphoria was quickly snuffed out by “absolute fear and self-doubt” as she had to face up to the demands of television development.

The rise of ‘surveillance parenting’ is a key theme in the drama

“One of the advantages of development is that you are forced to inhabit the world so intimately for such a long period of time that it’s exactly what you say,” she says. “You don’t have to develop your characters. You don’t have to develop your stories. It’s more about managing and compressing them into 47 pages that connect all the way through. Occasionally there’s a eureka moment where I’ve solved a piece in the puzzle but, more often than not, it was blind despair. It was always worked out over a cup of tea and a Jaffa Cake.”

But with each episode revealing a different piece of the puzzle as a new character offers their own perspective on events, was it a risk asking viewers to watch the whole series before they get the full picture?

“None of the plot has been imposed on the drama. It all stems from the characters themselves,” Walsh says. “For me, as a viewer and as a reader of novels, if I’m invested in the characters from the off then I’m prepared and willing to go on their journeys with them, whatever they are. And it is a very character-driven drama. I hope people fall in love with those characters as much as I loved writing them.”

And was she clear from the outset which character would be responsible for attacking Kelly? “I knew,” the writer says.

Walsh also praises Laura Cotton, the show’s executive producer and World’s head of development for Wales, as her “iron lung,” who would often receive emails in the middle of the night as Walsh worked up her latest draft. Cotton, Walsh adds, was as committed to creating an authentic world for the story as she was.

The Channel 4 series premieres next week

“One thing World are great for is they understand that every single writer has a different process, and I just like to be left alone,” she says. “I don’t even want to be emailed or called or anything until I’m told, ‘Right, you’ve got to share now. You’ve got to hand it over.’

“Then once you get over that initial anxiety, all my notes have been very thoughtful, very considered and have only strengthened and bolstered each episode. You become reliant on notes. From the moment you hand it over, it is an incredibly collaborative process. If you trust your editors then your draft will always emerge stronger and more compelling. That trust is so important.”

Channel 4 will launch the series on linear television and as a digital boxset on Tuesday, May 14, while ITV Studios is handling international distribution of the show. So with its debut now in touching distance, what was it about The Gathering that meant this was the one that finally got over the line, among all the projects Walsh has developed?

“I just absolutely loved all of the characters, and I’d like to think every single one of the characters, teens and parents alike, are all honoured, their journeys are complex and they’re well-rounded characters. They’re flawed, they’re big-hearted,” Walsh says. “The themes that emerged from the story and from the characters feel very current to me. It’s like, I have to tell this story now. It’s not something I can tell in five years or even two years. It feels very now, it feels very current.”

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