Flood for thought

Flood for thought

By James Rampton
January 11, 2024


On the set of ITV drama After the Flood, DQ learns how this six-part drama blends a murder mystery with a discussion about climate change, and why the cast and crew sought to make its dramatic water sequences as believable as possible.

The scene couldn’t be more distressing – or more topical. Knee-deep in water, we are wading down a devastated street, picking our way through the aftermath of a flood that can only be described as biblical.

The thoroughfare – Colliery Road – is strewn with random everyday objects destroyed by the floodwater: an armchair, sofa and fitness bike here, a washing machine, microwave and roll of carpet there. A discarded guitar bobs forlornly in the dirty water.

A yellow skip is piled high with mangled furniture. A Mini is marooned on an island of driftwood. The door of the hardware store, Something, Everything, Anything, is jammed open with silt. Residents in Marigolds make a brave but futile attempt to brush the street clean. Everything smells and feels wet, wet, wet.

Officials in blue hi-vis jackets with the words ‘Flood Warden’ emblazoned in red letters across the back try their best to comfort distraught locals. The silence of the mournful clean-up is broken only by a furious resident remonstrating with two police officers: “The people who should take responsibility don’t and never will!”

These chilling scenes could have been taken from any news report on the destruction wrought by the apocalyptic flooding that has ravaged the UK in recent weeks. But in fact, it is a case of art imitating life. This harrowing sequence is actually from After the Flood, a riveting new ITV drama.

Sophie Rundle as PC Joanna Marshall in After the Flood

Written by Mick Ford (Stay Close, The Stranger, The Boy with the Topknot), this six-part series charts the after-effects of a cataclysmic flood that washes away lives and livelihoods in a fictional West Yorkshire town.

When the floodwaters finally drain away, they reveal the body of an unidentified man trapped in a lift in an underground car park. The police initially make the assumption that he became stuck as the waters overwhelmed the car park.

As the investigation progresses, however, the pregnant PC Joanna Marshall, played by Sophie Rundle, becomes fixated by the idea that there is more to his death than meets the eye.

The central mystery plays out across the series, and only increases as the floods soon start to give up the secrets influential people would prefer to keep hidden. But what lengths are they prepared to go to in order to cover themselves?

Running in parallel to the mystery, After the Flood also exposes the shocking impact of climate change on the lives of real people. It could scarcely be more timely.

The drama, which is made for ITV and ITVX by Quay Street Productions in association with ITV Studios and BritBox International, opens with an extremely dramatic flash flood. In an act of outstanding courage, Jo plunges into the treacherous waters to rescue a baby.

In the drama, a man’s body is found in an underground car park following a flood

Critics are already comparing it to the iconic 1995 ER episode Hell and High Water, which netted an eye-watering 48 million viewers in the US and helped propel George Clooney to movie stardom.

Ford, who is also an executive producer on After the Flood, was determined to emphasise the horrific reality of flooding by making this scene as believably alarming as possible. “I found this picture of a town in Yorkshire, which was in a flash flood, and it was just this rage of water coming between houses. It was important to get that impact,” he says.

“We are talking about things that can’t be denied. Even though we see all the news feeds from around the world, we still believe that we live in a certain world, that we can make plans. But with nature and flash floods, that is out the window. It doesn’t give a toss about you, and what you have left is just the community and those around you.”

To make this scene as credible as possible, director Azhur Saleem insisted on using real water rather than special effects. “It was to do with having seen news footage of flooding in parts of England. People are seeing it more in the news cycle and many have experienced it as well,” he explains.

“If we made a Hollywood version of the opening sequence, with flying cameras everywhere, it would pull our audience out of it. It was very important to get it right. We needed to be in there with the characters feeling the water, which I think we do, and it’s terrifying. So real water was paramount.”

Philip Glenister and Lorraine Ashbourne also feature in the ITV series

The gripping nature of this opening sequence was what first appealed to Rundle, previously best known for period dramas. “I opened the front page [of the script] and started reading and I kept going, ‘Is that me? Is that my character? Do I get to do that? That is so cool.'”

The actor found the action scenes especially attractive “for someone in my casting bracket,” she continues. “I’ve done a lot of corsets and a lot of holding babies and mooning after someone in the background.

“To be doing the stunt and not just witnessing it was so exciting. I think it is so clever of Mick Ford to write that as the introduction for your protagonist. This is the world. These are the stakes. Here she is. She’s in the water. She’s saved the baby and she’s pregnant. Boom. You’re in. How could you not watch that?”

Rundle recalls how thrilling it was to shoot the flash flood. “We were up in Stockton-on-Tees for a week, and it was like being on a school trip. We were all giddy and excited. It is the place where they train all the emergency services. There’s this water course and they have control of the speed and the scale of the water.

“They had all these big, strapping six-foot lifeguards in all their emergency gear stationed along the water course who were lovely. They said, ‘If you fall, the water is going to take you, but don’t worry, we’re going to save you.’ Luckily, I didn’t ever stack it, so they didn’t have to save me.”

The issue of climate change features prominently in After the Flood

She adds: “It was a really exciting moment as an actress and as a woman in this industry to be the hero dressed in all my police gear with the rain going, reaching out for the baby.”

The action then shifts to the consequences of the flood and the astoundingly convincing set that has been built in an enormous water tank on a giant concrete plain in Trafford, Manchester, where the now-defunct EventCity used to stand.

The crew move about the set in chest-high waders. The camera operators travel around in boats, using a form of high-tech Steadicam that has only ever been employed before on HBO’s The Last of Us.

Rundle, who is the mother of a young son, praises the set designers and builders who have created such an authentic-looking backdrop for After the Flood. “I’ve never seen them build something on that scale in the British TV that I’ve worked on. It was real commitment,” says the star, who has also starred in Gentleman JackThe Diplomat and The Nest.

“They added all these incredible little details like it was people’s real lives and their houses – all the curtains in the windows and the shop front and little kiddies’ toys floating or a shoe. After the flood water has receded, people are looking at the damage to their houses. That was quite startling because you were really confronted with the reality of flood damage and the reality of climate change. This is a real threat to people. It was an extraordinary set, and it really represents a lot of what the show is about.”

The ITV drama comes from Quay Street Productions

Climate change is the overarching theme in After the Flood. Matt Stokoe, Rundle’s real-life partner who portrays Jo’s husband in the drama, says: “The reality of climate change is an undeniable reality. Just look at the news. The naysayers are running out of excuses now. The world’s on fire. To put that into the context of a small community feels very universal. This is quite literally how it translates.”

All the same, Ford stresses that you cannot hit viewers over the head with climate-change slogans. The issue has to be an organic part of the script.

“The idea of a body found after a flood came first,” he says. “That was early on, so we then felt we could write about climate change. It’s great if you can write about important things, but if you are too worthy about it, no one will make it. It must be just part of the fabric of the story.”

For all that, the team behind this drama – which began last night – hope it might lead to a change in official thinking about flooding. Nicola Shindler (Happy Valley, It’s a Sin), executive producer on the show, says: “It hints at the fact that a lot of these communities are ignored and have been ignored for the last 14 years by a government that doesn’t seem interested in helping people who are flooded again and again. Nothing is really changing there. I hope it will put that in people’s minds and push for some kind of change.

“If viewers are thinking, ‘It is awful that towns have to suffer like this, and why weren’t there enough sandbags to build the wall? Why weren’t there people helping them when it was clear it was going to flood again?’ – if you raise those questions in people’s minds, then that’s only a good thing”.

Rundle considers what one thing she would rescue if her own house was flooded. “I would probably save my little boy’s favourite stuffed toy. It’s a little dog, and he can’t sleep without it. So actually, it’s a selfish choice.

“I just want him to have a full night’s sleep!”

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