It’s all about You & Me
DQ hits the park and the pub in London to join the cast and crew on location for You & Me, a new three-part ITVX drama that asks whether the power of love is worth the risk of heartbreak.
Few places look more seductive than a London park on a warm summer’s day. DQ is strolling through Brockwell Park in the south-east of the capital, where The End of the F***ing World star Jessica Barden has just finished taking a dip in the lido for ITVX three-parter You & Me. “When you wrote it, it said ‘warm water,’” says Barden, shivering as she walks past Jamie Davis, the former Casualty actor.
“We’re telling a story about summer in London,” Davis later says of his screenwriting debut, in a genuinely warm pub. “We’re so lucky with this weather, it’s like Ibiza, but we’ve set it in London because you couldn’t tell this story with this diverse group of people anywhere else. It isn’t about huge houses in Notting Hill or the roughest part you can think of, it’s a London we recognise and live and love in every day. I hope this is a show that makes you want to go out after you’ve finished watching it, see friends and be in your favourite places, wherever you live.”
“I went in the lido yesterday,” adds Industry star Harry Lawtey, sitting next to Davis on the banquette. “I felt like Wim Hof! Hopefully everything in the show will have a nice summery glow to it.”
You & Me is drenched in warmth and romance, but also loss and pain, with (500) Days of Summer, Notting Hill and Truly, Madly, Deeply among the influences cited by cast and crew. Lawtey plays Ben, a working-class northerner just about making a living as a broadsheet columnist. A coup de foudre at a bus stop with Jess (Sophia Brown, The Witcher: Blood Origin) quickly – “ten years too early,” in Ben’s words – leads to marriage and children and the prospect of a blissful future.
Some years later, we find Ben interviewing up-and-coming actress Emma (Barden); the spark is obvious, but both are dealing with unspoken trauma. Juggling and eventually dovetailing the narratives across “Now” and “Then” has been a challenge Davis embraced.
“There is a big difference between sitting on set and pointing out the problems after reading a few William Goldman books, and being able to actually do it,” he laughs. “That was exciting and terrifying, because you’re trying to keep the audience guessing all the time – it has the heart of a romcom, but the concept of a thriller.”
“I wrote this at a time in my life when things were going really well for me,” he continues. “I catastrophised that, and thought, ‘What’s the worst thing that could happen? And can somebody ever come back from that?’ It’s a love story but, more than that, it’s a story about love: the love between a boy and girl, a parent and child, a girl and their sister. It’s about what that love costs you. I met my wife when I was 17 and I’m aware that at any point it could have gone terribly wrong and I would have been lost. But we did it anyway. That’s the risk you take when you love someone.”
Having penned a screenplay centred on Ben that lasted about an hour, Davis sent it to Russell T Davies (with whom he had worked briefly on The Sarah Jane Adventures). “I said, ‘I know it’s highly unlikely you’ll have the time to read this, but if I don’t send it, it’s impossible. So I’m going to choose highly unlikely over impossible and send it.’”
Two weeks later, Davies replied and proposed a meeting, later becoming an executive producer on the show. “My whole life has changed from that email on that Friday night,” says Davis. “For me, he is the cultural tastemaker. I will never forget that moment – my wife can give that email to you verbatim…”
Davies then contacted Dominic Treadwell-Collins, creative director at ITV Studios’ label Happy Prince, who recalls: “Russell said, ‘I’ve read this script and this writer’s got something. I don’t normally do this, but would you meet him?’ When Russell T Davies recommends someone, you listen. There was magic there and a great naughty, funny, clever voice, so we took it on and eventually took it to Polly Hill at ITV.”
Davis and exec producers Davies, Treadwell-Collins and the latter’s Happy Prince colleague Alex Lamb began tightening and rewriting during the Covid lockdowns, ensuring Emma’s story bore the same emotional weight and agency as Ben’s. The results wowed the soon-to-be leads.
“I got quite attached to Jess,” says Brown. “She’s very self-assured, but she also doesn’t really know what she wants to do in life. Coming-of-age stories usually happen in your teens – by your 20s, you’re supposed to have things sorted out, but Jess’s character defied that. It was an acceptance of not having the answers that I wish I’d had at her age. It also really captured those small moments that change your life forever.”
“Jamie looks at that notion of life being full of surprises, and the sterling test of someone’s character and kindness is how they meet those surprises,” muses Lawtey. “Ben is almost burdened by the idea of being a good father and a good person; it governs his every choice in the ‘Now’. The more we make stories about how it’s OK to change your mind and go in a new direction, the better.”
In Lawtey, Davis had a leading man he almost never believed he’d find. “Polly Hill told me that, in Ben, I’d written somebody who is working class, from outside London, funny and sexy yet with the capability to make you love him and be heart-breaking, but also be believably intelligent enough to write for broadsheet newspaper. Essentially I’d written a unicorn! With Harry, I believe that person exists.”
Barden was cast once Treadwell-Collins and Lamb began to look beyond “real-life Emmas” and realised that “Jess Barden is quite weird, in a great way – it made Emma more idiosyncratic.” For her part, Barden relished the chance to play someone normal. She even enjoyed filming with a seven-month-old in tow as the shoot started: “I found that I could compartmentalise in a way that I never had been able to do before, because I knew I should really enjoy my time at work.”
“Emma lives with her family, she’s got a life and you see her doing her job, getting coffee and so on,” Barden continues. “All her strength is under the surface. She’s a good girl, probably seen as being on the conventional side – wanting to be an actress is the craziest thing about her. She doesn’t think she’s the coolest person or that everybody’s staring at her when she walks into a room. She’s not Alyssa in The End of the F***ing World or someone in the Rust Belt in America – she’s not an angry person, and that was really lovely.”
Filming in London came with its challenges, concedes Treadwell-Collins. “As we were developing the show, we were considering filming it in Leeds, then our director Tom Vaughan [Press, The Singapore Grip] and our locations scout started coming back with places in South London that felt exciting and fresh. Greenwich gave us a slightly posher world for Emma and her family, Ben was in the middle and then we went out to Orpington for Jess and her family, for a more suburban feel.”
The rewards of shooting on location are just one more thing to have Davis shaking his head in wonderment. “Closing down Deptford High Street for a day to film two pages? Filming at the Bridge Theatre, at Tower Bridge, at The Trafalgar Tavern, on the Thames? Looking back, it’s bold of us to even attempt that stuff.”
Boldness has underpinned a project that could have easily have taken the lazier route and conformed to genre. Instead, You & Me – which launches tomorrow and is distributed by ITV Studios – aims high, its success indicated by a second season already being in the works, applying the same setting and premise to new characters and stories. “This is a show that asks a very big but very simple question,” says Davis. “Is the power of love worth the risk of heartbreak? And we answer it with a resounding yes.”