Just looking

Just looking

Michael Pickard
By Michael Pickard
April 23, 2021

IN FOCUS

Writer Ed Whitmore, producer Clare Shepherd and executive producer Lucy Bedford unwrap the psychology behind five-part surveillance thriller Viewpoint, the first ITV drama that began filming during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the opening episode of ITV drama Viewpoint, one particular scene sees surveillance detective Martin (played by Noel Clarke) start his observation of Greg (Fehinti Balogun), the prime suspect in the disappearance of the latter’s schoolteacher girlfriend Gemma (Amy Wren).

From his vantage point in a neighbouring flat across the road, Martin quietly watches as Greg cooks a microwave meal in his kitchen before breaking down and crying. But are they tears of grief or tears of guilt?

It’s that tension between what Martin – and the audience – sees and doesn’t see, and what he knows and doesn’t know, that underpins this five-part series, which asks whether it’s ever possible to observe the lives of others with true objectivity.

Finding inspiration in films such as Rear Window, The Conversation and The Lives of Others, the idea for the series came from Fleabag director Harry Bradbeer, who was intrigued by the experience of a friend whose home was used by a police surveillance unit. In particular, he wanted to explore the potential for a relationship drama that would feed into a crime story in which the host of the surveillance team may or may not be involved. In the case of Viewpoint, Martin moves in with Zoe Sterling (Alexandra Roach), whose flat in the fictional Westbury Square provides a view directly into Greg’s home.

“Harry was always really clear that the first thing we should do is to figure out who Martin and Zoe were and build it out from there, rather than create an elaborate plot and then slot the characters in afterwards,” co-creator and writer Ed Whitmore tells DQ. “We liked the idea that Zoe’s partner has left her, she’s bringing up her daughter on her own and, for very different reasons, is also a bit of a voyeur, so she became as important as Martin as a character through which to explore the act of looking.”

Noel Clarke plays surveillance detective Martin in Viewpoint

Bradbeer and Whitmore were both drawn to the idea of setting a police story in a domestic environment and building the tension between the odd couple of Martin and Zoe, with one working in the other’s home. Whitmore’s challenge was to marry their relationship with the crime story, as the police spotlight quickly falls on Greg but then also brings other residents of Westbury Square into focus.

“The task we set ourselves was to figure out what had really happened and make that psychologically real, and then you can put the onion skin layers back from the first episode,” says Whitmore, who has previously written episodes of Waking the Dead, Silent Witness and US procedural CSI. “More specifically with Greg and Gemma, what was important to us was that their relationship was real. It’s a relationship that’s run its course, it’s soured and the pressures of things like money have come into play. Whether or not he ultimately did it, we wanted the police to have genuine cause to watch this person and for Greg psychologically to have aspects of his character that made him a credible suspect.”

Having Martin as a traditional detective was also considered but, informed by his research, Whitmore turned the character into a specialist surveillance officer who is somewhat removed from the criminal investigation. This means he is left to form his own opinions about who he is watching and why.

“As Martin watches Greg initially, he inevitably sees Greg interacting and engaging with other people who live on the street. Then Martin has to widen his lens, so the story widens its lens to take in the other characters in the street, even Zoe,” he says. “There’s this tricky question of what is relevant to the disappearance to Gemma and what is just happenstance. There are all these opportunities to go down rabbit holes, which ultimately may or may not be relevant. That really fed into the way we open up the story, bring in other suspects and essentially tell a whodunit story through the lens of a surveillance officer.”

Martin has his sights trained on Fehinti Balogun’s Greg, who may be a killer

Writing the scripts proved to be a complicated process, as Whitmore often had two or three different events playing out at once – most notably what is happening in Zoe’s flat and what Martin is watching. This required “an awful lot of precision,” he says, necessitating more conversations or notes on how he envisioned events playing out than for anything else he has worked on.

“There’s a learning curve for all of us because we’d all done crime drama before but nothing quite like this,” he says. “Initially, my scripts intercut too quickly from Martin to describe what was happening, and then went back to Martin. The rhythm was too busy but the mood that watching it evokes is quite slow and still, so we had to embrace that and not worry if nothing was happening for a period. That’s why we started with a premise that’s relatively simple: has this man killed or abducted his girlfriend? Yes or no? Then, alongside Martin, the audience can make up their mind and summon the puzzle pieces they need to slot together to arrive at the truth.”

Bradbeer took his initial pitch to Tiger Aspect Productions (Peaky Blinders), which produces the series in association with Clarke’s Unstoppable Film and Television (The Drowning). He was then matched with Whitmore to develop his idea further and marry crime procedural to character-led drama.

“For Harry, the starting point was to do with the relationship between the woman who lived in the flat and the police officer carrying out the surveillance,” says executive producer and head of drama Lucy Bedford. “For me, that evolved into a show that had one foot in the domestic world and the characters’ lives and then another foot in something procedural. It was about uniting those two forms of storytelling.

The surveillance is carried out from Zoe (Alexandra Roach)’s flat

“Ed came in and talked very early to me about this phenomenon, the observer effect, which states that the act of watching changes the person doing the watching. That was really interesting. We were all really curious about this idea of what’s being seen, what do the characters actually see and then what does the act of seeing that do to them?”

However, development on the series took a dramatic turn when, on the day ITV gave Viewpoint the greenlight, Bradbeer was offered the chance to direct Enola Holmes, the Netflix original film written by Jack Thorne (His Dark Materials) and starring Millie Bobby Brown (Stranger Things) as the titular teenage sister of Sherlock Holmes. It was an offer he couldn’t refuse, and Ashley Way (White Lines) subsequently came on board to shoot the series.

“I was talking to Harry very recently about what Viewpoint would have been like if he had been the one behind the camera and we both agreed it would probably be quite different,” says Bedford. “But that said, he also said he really recognises the integrity and the core DNA of the show he would have made. It’s been a really interesting, evolving process with many unexpected twists in the road – not least that, six months later, we were dealing with a Covid situation where, having fully prepped the show and issued the first call sheet, we then had to pull our shoot the day before principal photography was due to commence.”

After the first UK lockdown, filming was eventually able to start in August last year. It was completed in November after a 15-week shoot on location around Manchester and at Space Studios.

The interiors of Zoe and Greg’s flats were built at Space Studios

Producer Clare Shepherd (The A Word, Bancroft) describes the process as “one of the toughest things I’ve done in a long time,” with Viewpoint being the first ITV drama to begin production since the pandemic began. Unable to follow the path laid down by other shows in this new working environment, Shepherd says the main challenge was to ensure they told the same story Whitmore had written while also creating safe working conditions for cast and crew.

“We had to rethink a lot of things that ordinarily we would take for granted, like making sure all the locations and sets were workable and practical,” she explains. “If we were going to have a lot of supporting artists in interior scenes, we might move the scene outside, and [there were also] extra precautions if we were shooting intimate scenes. It was just a lot of planning, a lot of conversations and a hell of a lot of testing as well. As an industry, we’re pretty good at problem solving and adapting. It was hard, but very satisfying when we got to the end of the show.”

The schedule was extended to allow more time for filming, while the number of people on set at any one time was minimised. Extras also isolated, and only a small number were allowed to go near the central cast.

“We’d all been in lockdown before we started working so it wasn’t just in the workplace, it was also in your life that things had changed in a big way,” Shepherd says. “Everyone had got used to that before they came back to work, and the sentiment of the crew was that we really wanted to achieve this. With our testing regime and the way we planned things, the cast broke social distancing in a safe way. When you watch the show, it doesn’t look like it was filmed in a pandemic. It was really important to us that we told the story as truthfully as we could but, simultaneously, we all felt the health and safety was extremely important too.”

The show’s main sets were built at Space Studios, including the interiors of Zoe and Greg’s flats, while filming moved onto a real street in Manchester for exterior shots. The demands of the story then meant VFX was used to match Martin looking out of Zoe’s window to what he could see outside.

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“Whenever our characters are looking out of the windows, they’re looking onto that street, but when we were shooting the characters in their environment, that was in the studio, so we had to fuse those two locations, which is quite seamless when you watch it,” Shepherd says. “There were a lot of green screens but the joy when you watch it is you don’t notice any of those things.”

“We always knew it was going to be complicated, but it was very complex,” says Bedford. “The number-one challenge became finding a location where we could realise the world of the story and where we could logistically control a whole street. It took a huge amount of legwork from our location manager, our production designer, Ashley, Clare and everyone else.

“There was no room for it not to work because, if it didn’t work, the whole show was not going to work. We aren’t a show with a huge budget so we had to be quite specific and focused about what we were trying to achieve. Through that whole journey, I absolutely feel we ended up achieving what we set out to do at the beginning, and that was just because we had a great team.”

Whitmore highlights Clarke’s performance as Martin as one of the reasons he would love to revisit the character should Viewpoint prove to be a hit with viewers when it debuts on Monday, with all five episodes airing across consecutive nights.

“Martin is damaged but functioning. He isn’t the classic alpha male in a leather jacket standing in the rain,” the writer says. “Right from the beginning, we thought, ‘What if you had a cop who has more the personality traits of an academic, who is almost monastic?’ and Noel inhabited that. This idea that they are told to go and watch someone is something that’s inherently tense and interesting, and something you could apply to any specific story. It could take you to organised crime or drugs; it could take you to lots of different places. There are any number of reasons for the police to want to watch someone.”

But it’s the fact that Viewpoint, which is distributed by Banijay Rights, deals with a crime stemming from a domestic setting that means the story serves the show’s premise of how people change watching other people.

“Initially, we talked about a more elaborate premise for the crime. But the more elaborate it was, the more it chopped up the mood,” Whitmore says. “Hopefully, what the audience feel once Martin is set up in Zoe’s daughters’s bedroom is that they are looking down the telescope with Martin. It was really important to us to come up with something that was simple enough that it had room to breathe.”

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