No Return star Sheridan Smith, writer Danny Brocklehurst and executive producer Nicola Shindler reveal how this four-part series puts an ordinary family in extraordinary circumstances when their teenage son is arrested on holiday.
At the start of the year, actor Sheridan Smith could be seen playing a mother grieving the loss of her murdered son in BBC true crime drama Four Lives. Now she is back on screen as a mum rallying against a foreign justice system as a family getaway turns into a nightmare in ITV’s four-part event series No Return.
Smith stars as Kathy, who flies from the UK to Turkey with her husband Martin (Michael Jibson), their son Noah (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) and daughter Jessica (Lily Sutcliffe) for a sunshine break with Kathy’s sister Megan (Sian Brooke), her husband Steve (David Mumeni) and their son.
But when Noah is arrested by the local police in the middle of the night, Kathy and Martin are left fighting for his freedom when he should be sitting his school exams.
Featuring themes of parental love, guilt and grievances and issues of consent for teenagers, the series is written by Danny Brocklehurst (Ordinary Lives) and produced by Red Production Company. StudioCanal is distributing.
Here, Smith, Brocklehurst and executive producer Nicola Shindler (It’s A Sin) reveal the origins of the project, the challenges of filming overseas during a pandemic and why viewers will be able to relate to the family at the centre of this ordeal.
At its heart, No Return is about ordinary people facing extraordinary challenges.
Brocklehurst: It all started in a very casual way in that I was on a walk and I was chatting away to a friend. They told me something very different from this but about something that had happened to a member of their extended family abroad. It just set me off thinking about families. I’m a parent of two boys; my eldest is nearly 15 and I still feel like I’m the protector, but you have to let them go a little bit as well. The more I thought about it, the more I thought there was a really interesting story here about a crime that happens abroad and we might be able to do something really powerful about how a family, a mother in particular, would respond if their son were accused of something abroad and they couldn’t get them out of a foreign system they don’t understand. When I spoke to Nicola Shindler, she immediately said, ‘That’s a great idea.’ We felt fairly confident of something quite strong, mainstream and universal.
The power of the drama lies in the fact it could happen to anyone.
Brocklehurst: I’ve done quite a bit of this kind of thing over my career, especially with Ordinary Lives, which me and Nicola did together, where you take ordinary people and you push them into a very extreme, extraordinary situation – but hopefully one that’s reasonably recognisable. I wanted to write about ordinary people who want the best for their kids and save up and go on a family holiday once a year. I purposely designed the family to be like people I know and people I recognise. It makes the story very relatable.
Brocklehurst didn’t write the part of Kathy with Sheridan Smith in mind, but she was top of his list when it came to casting.
Brocklehurst: What I tend to do is just write with the characters in mind or perhaps a real person who inspired me. Then we start to draw up the ‘who would be ideal to play this part?’ list. Sheridan was obviously a person who we wanted to play the part. To my absolute amazement and delight, she wanted to play the part, which isn’t always the case. We got the person we wanted.
Smith had wanted to work with Shindler, so knew she would be interested before she read the script. Then when she began wondering what she would do in a situation like Kathy’s, she knew she was gripped by the story.
Smith: I’ve played mums for quite a while but not to this extent, in this specific scenario. I instantly thought this had never been done. I’ve never read anything like this before. It’s intense, high drama and she’s someone I could relate to.
It was so powerful because, with Danny’s writing, it’s all there on the page. Some writers change it as you go along, but Danny’s is perfect when you sit down and read it. There’s a huge pressure to then bring it to life once you get on set. I really wanted to do my best for Nicola and Danny.
Shindler thought Brocklehurst’s pitch was a brilliant story because putting recognisable characters in exceptional circumstances “engages an audience unlike anything else.”
Shindler: I love making big, high-concept things that aren’t necessarily true to life as well. But when people can watch this and go, ‘What would I do?’ that’s the essence of really good drama. I’m hoping that’s what grips an audience, which is that feeling of ‘this could be me.’
A number of young actors auditioned for the role of Noah, but Louis Ashbourne Serkis – son of actors Andy Serkis and Lorraine Ashbourne – immediately impressed.
Shindler: It’s always the hardest getting the children right because you don’t want them to feel like they’re acting in stage school and you don’t want them to feel they’re giving nothing either. Louis just blew us away. He was extraordinary from that first reading. He got the emotion, he felt very convincing, he just feels very real. When you’re looking at working with someone like Sheridan, you can’t put other people around them who are acting in a different way. It has to be really grounded and, thankfully, they got on brilliantly from the off, so it felt like a very convincing family relationship.
Going on holiday gives people the chance to leave their troubles at home. But for Kathy and Martin, Noah’s arrest only makes the cracks in their marriage more apparent.
Brocklehurst: I spent quite a bit of time designing the family, thinking about who they were and what kind of people they were, what the dynamic was, what they’ve been through, all that kind of stuff. There was a certain amount of baggage that each character goes on that holiday with, as anybody does. There’s stuff going on in their life, the cracks, the tensions, the things that are bothering them. But they’re going on holiday hoping the sun will just soothe it all away.
What happens with Noah’s arrest is all those things become heightened and they’re suddenly in a hot-house environment where everything is put under the microscope. It was about building in enough backstory with the two families and the dynamic between the two sisters – Sian Brookes’ character has got more money and has always been their dad’s favourite, which Kathy resents. You build a picture of these two families so that, hopefully, they feel like real living people with real problems and believable dynamics, rather than people just to serve the story of Noah. Nobody will go back from that holiday the person they went, which was the key to the whole drama.
Smith had worked with Brookes on 2017 true crime drama The Moorside and enjoyed recreating the sibling dynamic between their characters.
Smith: Danny writes so well for women. Those things just came off the page. Sian’s an amazing actress and I knew it was going to be great playing opposite her. Megan is the favourite, she’s landed on her feet, she’s got a young, successful husband, a big house, nice cars, whereas Kathy and Martin had kids young and she feels stuck. There’s so much going on underneath, which comes out in the story. It’s a brilliant dynamic that really changes throughout the four episodes.
Filming took place on location in Spain, which doubles for Turkey in the series, while interior scenes were shot in England’s North West.
Smith: We all went [to Spain] as a team, and then I was in most scenes so I didn’t get much downtime, which I don’t mind; I love being on set. But a lot of the cast went sightseeing and got to enjoy the sun a bit.
We filmed all the interiors in Manchester, and things like the prison was a set built in the old BHS store in Bolton, so we’re all [pretending to be] really hot but actually freezing. When we got to Spain, it just brought the whole thing together.
Shindler: With Covid and with budgets, we looked at everything – whether we could film in Turkey, whether we could film abroad at all. There were times last year when it felt like we weren’t going to get abroad. There were times the week before we went that it was a bit dicey – we did put it back and put it back. It was not easy.
We were also being run by John Alexander, the director, who did an extraordinary job. He not only directed it beautifully and got these amazing performances, he also managed that whole nightmare while shooting so fantastically.
When you see how out of place British people look in that burning sunlight, how it’s just too hot a lot the time, it changes behaviour, and that’s what Danny’s written really well. You feel different and you feel alive in a different way. It was essential we got that sunlight, and I’m so pleased we got there. The hotel was just perfect for us; it was exactly as Danny had written. We lost a few scenes on boats and things but, other than that, we mostly managed to get what was written.
Noah’s arrest and the subsequent fallout proved to be the perfect motor for a series and allowed Brocklehurst to “sneak” some “meaty” themes into the story.
Brocklehurst: There’s the theme of consent in here and how people cope in long-term relationships, the confusing way young people confront sex and sexuality now and the easy access to porn, how we lose our children and also have to let them go. There are lots of big things we were just trying to wrestle with, while also keeping the story forward-moving. The good thing is you’ve got a mother trying to get her son out of prison, which is a pretty good motor to drive the four hours.
People may disagree, but I don’t think it’s a grim, depressing drama. It’s tough in places but it doesn’t feel like one of those relentless dramas. There are moments of levity, there are moments of hope. There’s a strange romance in it with Sian. The tone shifts.
Shindler: The holiday brings fun elements as well. It looks different, it feels different and they’re acting different because they’re abroad, and there’s fun and funniness from those characters, like Michael’s character lying on the settee fanning himself because he’s so hot in a freezing cold studio in Bolton.
That’s why having Sheridan is so important too. Sheridan can bring humour and tragedy in the same sentence. Kathy is funny. Kathy is big and bold and funny, and Sheridan doesn’t hold back from that.
Brocklehurst researched the Turkish justice system to ensure his scripts were accurate, before they were checked over by a Turkish legal expert.
Brocklehurst: We were very rigorous in terms of getting everything checked legally about what would happen in those courts, what would happen in those prisons. And even when I, as a dramatist, would say, ‘Maybe we could bend that a bit,’ John Alexander would turn around and say, ‘No, I don’t think we should. We should do it exactly as it would be.’ So we’ve been incredibly truthful and incredibly honest and respectful to what the real experience would be like.
Smith is hopeful viewers will relate to No Return’s characters in the same way she always likes to when watching drama.
Smith: I hope people will relate to all the characters Danny’s written, which I think they will. It gives me jelly belly just thinking about the situations [in the series] but I hope people will be gripped and wondering what they would do [in the same situation].
Shindler: Plus there’s a lot of entertainment, because you don’t know what’s going to happen to this family and, right up to the end, it’s on the line which way it will go. You can never let up, both with how good they are as characters and what fun they have with the drama, but also what is going to happen to them.
Brocklehurst: On a personal level, it’s been a passion piece since the word go. We’ve pulled off a really wonderful four-parter that hopefully has something important to say and is very moving in the end. Hopefully people will enjoy that ride and take something quite powerful from it as a viewing experience.