Just add water

Just add water

By James Rampton
August 7, 2023


DQ heads to Scotland to hear about the importance of crime drama Annika’s riverside setting and why star Nicola Walker was left feeling queasy during production.

Looking out from the quay beside the Beacon Arts Centre in Greenock, which doubles as the fictional headquarters of the Marine Homicide Unit in UK broadcaster Alibi’s police drama Annika, a famous line from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner springs to mind: “Water, water, everywhere.”

The mighty Firth of Clyde – the brooding, broiling, awe-inspiring river that flows through Glasgow to the sea – stretches out as far as the eye can see. It is an immensely impressive, altogether humbling sight.

It is also the perfect location for this drama about an inspired, if quirky, detective, DI Annika Strandhed (Nicola Walker), who investigates waterborne crime.

Nick Walker (no relation), the creator of the show, which begins its second series UKTV’s Alibi on Wednesday, explains the importance of the Clyde to his drama: “You get so much for free from this backdrop. Because the Clyde is the seam that runs through the whole series, it means that every time the unit do their police work, you’ve got the massive metaphor of the show flowing behind it. You don’t realise quite how much work that does.

“On the page, you don’t see it. But then when it’s all put together, the idea that the plot somehow drifts or washes up on the Clyde, which you see almost all the time, is so helpful. It’s like another 10 pages of script for us.”

Nicola Walker on set filming the second season of Annika

But it’s not just the River Clyde that is a vital and ever-present element of Annika, which co-stars Jamie Sives as the lead character’s colleague Michael. All forms of water play an enormous part in the drama, which started life as a popular audio series on BBC Radio 4.

“Water is the heart of our show,” says Nicole Fitzpatrick, an executive producer on the UKTV drama, which is a co-commission with Masterpiece in the US. It is produced by Black Camel Pictures and distributed by All3Media International.

“It just gives it such an energy. We’re always really wary if there’s not enough water at the early script stages, because water just takes you with your characters. We love having our RIBs [rigid inflatable boats] tearing up and down the river.”

In this season, “we’ve also got lochs, we’ve got canals, we’ve even got seaplanes landing on the water,” she continues. “It really is such a flavour of the show. We’re so lucky to have all these beautiful waterways in Scotland. We would be mad not to use them.”

Filming on water does not come cheap, as anyone familiar with the disastrous overspend on Kevin Costner’s ill-fated 1995 movie Waterworld will remember. But the producers of Annika – a series notable for the way the title character breaks the fourth wall – say it is definitely worth it.

Exec producer Arabella Page Croft observes: “We are always saying to our series producer, ‘Get back on the boats. We need more boats. Get the RIBs going!’ And the series producer is always going, ‘Oh my God, Arabella, it’s just so expensive every time you make us go on the water!’

Rigid inflatable boats feature prominently in the series…

“Shooting on water is ambitious, it is costly and it comes with a huge responsibility on the production side. But it has definitely elevated the show.”

Fully aware of that responsibility, the production has made sure all the actors in Annika are properly trained in operating the boats. They have all passed Level II of the powerboat licence test.

Page Croft says: “The cast were up for learning how to pilot those RIBs. That has been an important thing. Nicola actually did a refresher course this season.”

But the actors clearly also derive great pleasure from working on water. Page Croft reveals: “Nicola has actually bought her own powerboat! I think her husband and son have done the course as well. So everybody’s just caught the bug.”

Nick Walker emphasises the degree to which the cast have relished the RIBs. “There’s the energy you get from learning a new skill and from that feeling where you’ve got the water a few inches away and you’ve got the wind blasting you in the face.

“The actors find it very liberating because once you’re out and you’ve set a course, it’s very different from being surrounded by the first ADs and the directors and all the makeup artists hovering nearby to make sure that you look right. There’s a moment of freedom in getting those shots on the water.

…but RIBs’ noisy engines make them unsuitable for scenes with soft dialogue

“That’s one of the things I think they find incredibly energising. They’re in a show but, in the moment, it feels like these are just two people tearing down the Clyde or across Loch Lomond or under the Forth Rail Bridge.

“There’s a little exciting moment of, ‘We could do anything, we could just keep going’. And it feels like some of that thrill comes across.”

But one unforeseen test for the producers of Annika was the fact that when the RIBs are speeding across the water, they make so much noise it is impossible to hear dialogue spoken at a normal volume.

Nick Walker says: “We found out that intimate disclosures on boats have to be reserved for the very, very slow ones. There’s a scene later on in episode three, where there have to be some very heavy conversations between Annika and Michael. And the only way of doing that on a boat was to put them on a pedalo!”

Other problems arose during filming on the water. Nicola Walker is talking to DQ near Annika’s desk at MHU HQ. It is covered in family photos and a hairy troll doll. “She’s very attractive, isn’t she?” jokes the actor.

“Everything about driving the RIB is amazing,” she says. “But I’d also like to add that there’s a top note of terror. If you ask me to get in or out of a RIB, I just get panicked. I don’t want to crash a very expensive boat that isn’t mine. It’s a level of anxiety that you don’t need on top of remembering your words. It’s too much for me.”

Annika started out as an audio series on BBC Radio 4

With a laugh, the actor adds: “I think I’m disengaging a large part of my brain when I’m acting. All your blood goes to just pretending to be somebody else and remembering your words. And that can be worrying when you’re in charge of heavy machinery!”

Another challenge production faced was the sheer unpredictability of the natural world. Nick Walker recalls a sequence where nature revealed itself in all its intimidating majesty. “A seaplane was tethered up on an extremely choppy Loch Lomond outside Annika’s house. Nicola glanced out of the window to see most of the crew frantically holding on to ropes to stop the seaplane from flying off on its accord. I think there was a moment where she thought, ‘Yeah, maybe this is more precarious than I thought.'”

However, “that’s the water for you,” he notes. “It’s an untameable phenomenon. I think all of the cast have spent two seasons learning a deep respect for how the water can turn on you.”

As if that weren’t scary enough, the new season of Annika also features a scene in a shark tank. “I cannot believe we sat in the writers’ room and went, “Yeah, let’s have a shark tank!’” says Page Croft. “And then suddenly, we’re filming this shark tank at the Sea Life Aquarium, which is meant to be in a billionaire’s house. So that was quite a fun day out for everybody!”

The series producer, Kieran Parker, nobly volunteered to play the dead body floating in the tank. But there was a snag. “We couldn’t put a real person in the tank because the honeycomb stingray that had just been imported from Barbados was too expensive and, crucially, too dangerous,” he says. “So even though I was happy to go in the tank with the sharks, the honeycomb stingray caused issues.”

The Forth Bridge is a regular sight in the Alibi show

Nick Walker jokes: “We’re happy to let the actors potentially drive a RIB all the way to the Pacific Ocean, but we’re reluctant to have them eaten by a shark or attacked by a stingray.”

The lead actor had a rather different problem at Sea Life. “It was amazing. It’s a great privilege to be in places like that. It’s an empty aquarium and, as a group of actors, you’re allowed to walk about after hours,” she says.

“Strangely, though, I got motion sickness from standing in a dark aquarium looking at sharks and fish and stingrays with incredible leopard skin. After a while, the motion started to make me feel very, very sick – which I thought was really ironic because we were standing still.”

However, “that was the issue. You’re still, but everything’s moving around you. I have never had seasickness in my life. But I had to go outside and stick my head between my legs. What are the chances? Getting seasick on dry land!”

It just goes to show that the old showbiz maxim is correct: never work with children or animals. Especially sharks and stingrays.

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