Falling for The Lovers

Falling for The Lovers

September 18, 2023


Writing for DQ, The Lovers creator and writer David Ireland reveals how he adapted his own play for Sky and picks out a key scene in which the two central characters consummate their relationship – but not before a theological debate.

David Ireland

Sky Atlantic’s six-part darkly comic romantic drama The Lovers sees Janet (Roisin Gallacher), a Belfast supermarket worker, clash with political broadcaster Seamus (Johnny Flynn) – before they find themselves inexplicably drawn together. It is produced by Drama Republic in association with Sky Studios.

The Lovers is based on a play of mine that I wrote in 2012. I don’t really know anything about screenwriting. Like everyone else, I’ve seen a million movies and TV shows and I’ve read all the screenwriting books – Save the Cat, McKee, Syd Field. All very enjoyable, but I’ve never really found a way I could apply them practically.

Through the whole process of writing the series, I found it really hard to stop thinking like a playwright. My tendency is to write long scenes with two characters in one location. It’s almost impossible for me to think in terms of short scenes and multiple characters. So I always assumed screenwriting wasn’t for me.

But then when I was commissioned to write this, I looked at stuff like The Trip and Before Sunset and thought, ‘I’ll just write it like that.’ Really, I approached every episode like it was a play and then just cut it down and moved it around so it felt more like a TV show.

Justin Martin, the director, comes from theatre too. But he also worked on The Crown, and he told me [creator] Peter Morgan did a similar thing – he approaches every episode structurally like he’s writing a play. So that was encouraging. I just hoped Justin and everyone else involved could make it visually appealing and not static the way so many adaptations from stage to screen are.

In episode four, there’s a scene where Janet and Seamus walk through the streets of East Belfast, on their way to Janet’s house to consummate their affair. I wanted to hold off the sex for as long as possible – the original idea was that they never got to have sex the whole series and that more and more obstacles kept popping up. But that wasn’t realistic and would be denying the audience catharsis.

I did, however, want one more obstacle between them just before they get into bed together for the first time. Initially I wondered if they could have an argument about politics – Brexit, or Jeremy Corbyn – but I wanted something deeper and more universal. So they ended up talking about the existence of God. It ended up being one of my favourite scenes in the whole series.

Janet (Roisin Gallacher) and Seamus (Johnny Flynn) walk through East Belfast on their way to Janet’s house

I never really spent much time on set. I suppose I imagined when you had your own TV series it would be very glamorous, and you could sit in a chair behind the camera and whisper instructions to the director while runners brought you coffee. But really I found it boring and intimidating being on set. I just felt like I was in the way of people doing more important jobs. I’m sure if I’d asked for coffee and a chair, someone would have brought them to me, but I didn’t want to make a nuisance of myself.

One of my favourite movies is Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway and there’s a scene where John Cusack, as the playwright, quits and storms out of the theatre. And the general reaction is, ‘Who cares if you quit? You’re just the writer.’ It felt a bit like that. The scene was already written. What was I needed for?

But I was there the day they filmed that scene (because I appeared in the previous scene as Charlie the shopkeeper) and it was a pleasure to watch Justin, Johnny Flynn and Roisin Gallagher bring the scene to life.

Justin had the idea of filling the streets with members of the local community preparing for the celebrations of July 12th, when the Battle of the Boyne is commemorated in Northern Ireland. It’s just there in the background; it’s not really what the scene is about but it works so well in the midst of this conversation about God – the sense of a vibrant community, preparing for a street party. Too often, working-class loyalists are represented as inarticulate bigots on screen, so I’m glad our show undercut that stereotype.

Roisin and Johnny play the scene so well and brought so much to it. I love how they challenge each other and are open to new possibilities – they could easily dismiss each other’s arguments but they’re falling in love and they both really want to get into bed together so they’re forced to consider each other’s arguments seriously. Roisin plays it wonderfully – this brittle woman falling in love and trying to hide it. The way she disguises her hurt when Seamus says he’ll marry his girlfriend eventually is so truthful and subtle. And I love how Johnny plays Seamus’s sincere humanism – with vulnerability and self-effacing humour – against the backdrop of a grand Protestant church on the Newtownards Road.

The scene in question features the two leads discussing the existence of God

The series is full of homages to my favourite romantic comedies, and this scene has one of my favourites – where Janet simulates an orgasm, like the diner scene in When Harry Met Sally. I honestly can’t remember if this was Roisin’s idea, or Justin’s, or if it was in the script originally, but I think it was Roisin’s idea to go full Meg Ryan. I love how Johnny plays Seamus’s reaction of arousal and embarrassment, and then the way they both act so nonchalant afterwards.

I also love the teenage girl shouting “Get ‘er bucked!” at Seamus, almost like a kind of deus ex machina. It’s a great Belfast phrase and it might be a joke that only Northern Irish people get, but it’s all the better for that. I wanted people in Belfast to feel this was a show just for them. The way Johnny plays Seamus’s confusion at this moment is so funny. We were blessed to have two actors with such great chemistry but, beyond that, they both know their way around a joke.

One of the challenges with writing anything for me is to let the characters speak for themselves and to keep your own views out of it. As a Christian writer, the temptation for me was to make Seamus’s atheism kneejerk and idiotic and for Janet to demolish all his arguments like she was GK Chesterton. But that wouldn’t be true for the characters and it would be patronising towards the audience. It’s not really about theism vs atheism, anyway. It’s about two people trying to find connection and love across the many divides between them.

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