Detective with a difference
Star Nicola Walker and the cast and crew behind Annika reveal the show’s journey from radio drama to TV series and discuss how the title character breaks the fourth wall to create a unique relationship with viewers.
When you first see Nicola Walker speaking directly to camera as she walks along the banks of Scotland’s River Clyde, it initially appears as though she’s starring in one of Alan Bennett’s iconic Talking Heads monologues. In actual fact, the actor is sharing her character’s thoughts and feelings with viewers – one of the unique characteristics that makes her new series, Annika, so intriguing.
The six-part crime show stars Walker (Unforgotten, River) as DI Annika Strandhed, the sharp, witty and enigmatic head of a new specialist Marine Homicide Unit (MHU), working alongside DS Michael McAndrews (Jamie Sives), DC Blair Ferguson (Katie Leung) and DS Tyrone Clarke (Ukweli Roach).
The audience becomes Norwegian Annika’s confidant as the character breaks the fourth wall to share her observations about the often-brutal murders she is tasked with solving, as well as the problems that come with raising a teenage daughter.
The use of this rare narrative device is designed to extend to television the personal relationship Annika had with listeners of Annika Stranded, the BBC Radio 4 drama on which this adaptation – commissioned by UKTV’s Alibi – is based. The title character is also no stranger to Walker, who voiced Annika on the radio show that debuted almost a decade ago.
“Nick Walker, the writer, had always talked about it going onto television and what it would be like,” says the actor, speaking on location in April just hours after wrapping the series. “I never really thought it was going to happen.”
Series producer Black Camel Pictures had other ideas, and pitched the show to Nicola at the start of the first UK coronavirus lockdown. Nick (no relation) wrote the scripts, with filming taking place between December last year and April this year.
“I just kept thinking about the practicalities of it and how we would work again under Covid,” Nicola says. “Then to find ourselves [on set] in December was absolutely surreal. It was quick and very unexpected, and borne out of, ‘There’s a global pandemic, let’s just try to do it,’ as opposed to, ‘There’s a global pandemic, none of us can work.’ It’s a magnificent achievement that Black Camel have got us up to Scotland and we have an astonishing crew. It’s transferred remarkably easily to TV with some changes. But it’s very much Annika, it’s still totally Annika.”
For scenes where Annika is talking to the camera, Nicola jokes that she will just wander away from the other actors. “But it feels very right,” she adds, noting that the character will often quote writers Chauncer, Ibsen, Shakespeare or Melville to describe her feelings at that moment. “It was very normal and right for the character because, in the radio show, she had that personal relationship with the listener. It’s a really great way of translating that onto TV. But the first time we did it, on the first day, it felt so peculiar.
“All actors are trained not to look down the barrel of the lens, so to force yourself to go directly into the camera was really peculiar. You [the viewers] are with her all the time, so it just feels like you’re her unseen partner in her private life or her partner at work. It feels completely normal to me. I’m slightly concerned about the next job I do!”
Nicola has portrayed a police officer before, but she pours cold water on any comparisons between Annika and Cassie, the detective she has played in four seasons of ITV drama Unforgotten. “They’re totally different shows,” the actor says. “If you heard the radio show, they’re not comparable apart from being in the crime genre.”
Each episode of Annika contains a different murder story – a structure that means it is the first procedural on which Sives has worked for many years. But he says the arrival of new cast members to film each new episode “keeps the thing bubbling over quite nicely.”
“You never get tired of it,” the Guilt actor says. “The murders are unlikely, baroque and peculiar. It’s a marine homicide unit, which doesn’t exist in the UK. Strictly speaking, it is a fictitious setting, so the murders and things that happen are quite dramatic.”
A case in point is episode one, in which Annika’s first day in her new role sees her called upon to solve the murder of a man found in the Clyde. Cause of death? A harpoon through his head. But as Nicola and Sives agree, the crime isn’t often central to the story in Annika.
“We bring you in on it being a crime story, but it’s a bit of a Trojan horse. That genre [is there] for you to enter this peculiar and unique world through Annika’s eyes and to get to know the team and everyone’s families through this direct connection with Annika,” Nicola says.
If Nicola and Sives play the mother and father of the MHU’s nuclear family, the ‘children’ are represented by Blair and Tyrone, played by Leung and Roach respectively.
“It’s not a normal crime drama,” Roach (Blindspot) says of the series. “It lets the audience in to hear Annika’s soliloquies. It doesn’t feel like the audience is behind the glass watching this thing play out. They feel like they’re involved. And yet we [the other characters] are never aware of the fact she’s aware of what the audience are aware of. It’s kind of a world within a world, which is a new challenge for me. It will make the programme really interesting to watch and it will separate it from other police procedural dramas.”
“It’s a bit like a dramedy in a way,” adds Leung (The Nest), “because there’s so much humour in it and it’s not really about the crime but the relationships between the team. There’s a lot of humanity in that.”
Nicola and Sives both earned their powerboat licences during the five-month shoot, which took cast and crew from central Glasgow – standing in for the radio show’s Oslo setting – to locations dotted along the Clyde, capturing some of Scotland’s most rugged and beautiful landscapes. Greenock provided the dock for the police station, while Annika’s house is nestled on the banks of nearby Loch Lomond.
“I’ve had scenes walking out of my house along my character’s personal jetty, getting on my boat and sailing out, at which point I’m on a boat – I’m looking at someone with a camera, the poor sound department are hiding – thinking how amazing it is I’m allowed to do it under a global pandemic,” she reveals. “It has been remarkable.”
The journey to making Annika – which is directed by Philip John (The Good Karma Hospital) and Fiona Walton (London Kills) – was no less remarkable for the creative team behind the series, with Nick describing the first time he imagined Annika breaking the fourth wall as the moment he found the blueprint for the TV series.
When Black Camel executive producer Arabella Page Croft contacted Nicola’s agent a few weeks into the first lockdown to gauge her availability to film the series, she discovered time was already running out, with the actor due to film the third season of legal drama The Split this summer.
“As soon as it became a possibility, I thought, ‘I will literally bite the arm off of another actress who tries to take this character away from me, because I’ve been playing her for almost 10 years,” Nicola says, speaking later during an interview for the C21 Digital Screenings premiere of the series ahead of its Alibi launch tomorrow.
“No one else is playing her. I know it’s another detective, and I apologise only for that. No one else was going to be Annika. I would have found that really difficult to let go. She’s been in my life for so long, and when we used to record her in radio, it’s all in here,” the actor continues, pointing to her head. “You put it on camera and suddenly it just completely opens out. It was a real challenge. I enjoyed it.”
With the radio show hinting at the team around Annika, Nick says the adaptation was a very natural process that just needed him to bring to life the world and the people that surround her. Once he “nailed” the fourth wall, “the rest of it pretty much flowed,” says the writer, who penned the scripts alongside Frances Poet (River City) and Lucia Haynes (Casualty). “We had to write it very quickly, which is a very difficult thing, but the immediacy and urgency of having to get all those scripts out just so that we could get our filming window meant it was all written with an enormous amount of passion and speed. There wasn’t too long to overthink it.”
Croft had been working with Nick for a while when she heard Annika Stranded on the radio. Listening to the programme, she says she can remember thinking to herself, ‘Where are all the development executives and why have they not found this show?’ The exec describes the source material as a “gift” and, after learning there was a window in Nicola’s schedule, she knew if it didn’t happen now, it might never happen.
“I thought, ‘I’ve just got to make it work, this is my moment. If I don’t get Nicola now, she’s going to be booked up for the next five years,’” Croft recalls. “I knew I had to wrangle the broadcaster and the financiers together. There was a cut-off date and we had brilliant partners. Masterpiece PBS joined us as our coproducer in the US and then [distributor] All3Media International were absolutely fantastic in terms of going out and talking up Annika to the world – they have done some brilliant pre-sales. There’s a moment where you can get a show made and into production, and [for Annika] it was this little special moment in time.”
That moment, of course, was during a pandemic, with Croft revealing that 3,000 Covid-19 tests were taken during production. The production also went “crazy over” its location budget because finding buildings to use during a national lockdown at the start of this year was near impossible.
“We couldn’t get university buildings or council buildings. We couldn’t get into any flats,” she says. “All day long, people were fighting fires in terms of trying to put that creativity on screen.”
One location the crew did secure was The Beacon Art Centre, which sits on the banks of the Clyde and proved to be the most picturesque police station they could have imagined.
“There is not another police station on television that looks like this one,” Nicola says. “It’s remarkable. On the first day, we all put our heads round the door of the auditorium and there was something very moving about seeing a theatre in the dark, knowing this art centre couldn’t function, but a way had been found for it to be used. I thought that was really clever.”
Another clever decision was investing in a drone. With the cost of hiring them particularly prohibitive, Croft instead bought one and sent a cameraman on a drone-operating course. The resulting aerial shots of the Clyde and the surrounding area give the series an incredibly cinematic feel.
Those shots also link back to the radio show’s Scandi setting. Nick admits to being worried that no visuals could beat how the radio show might be imagined in a listener’s mind, “but the way in which the landscape is – as they say – as much a character in this as everybody else really comes across because of the way the unit is set up and its connection to water and the way that’s played out through all of the aesthetics, even through the title sequences,” he explains. The beautiful environment also stands in contrast to the darkness of the crimes the unit is dealing with.
“Particularly now ‘pandemic time’ is still a thing, there’s this sense as you watch that the show is just this huge breath of air. You feel like you’re out and about. But it’s not just mountains and lochs; it’s urban Glasgow as well, with canals, docks and the heritage of the Glasgow shipbuilding industry. It’s really stunning. It’s just heart-stopping.”
The show’s scenery and the “idiosyncratic and unique” detective at its heart is why Nicola believes Annika will be a hit among viewers. “It’s aware of the genre. It’s aware of you watching,” she says. “It’s unlike any other crime series you’re going to watch.”