Living room nightmare
Writer Simon Ashdown, director Sheree Folkson and executive producer Belinda Campbell invite DQ into Our House, a four-part series that blends thriller and love story to imagine what happens when your home is taken from you.
Confusion and bewilderment make way for anger and despair when Fi Lawson returns home one day to inexplicably find a family moving their furniture into her home. On closer inspection, all her own possessions have been cleared out, while the strangers in her kitchen appear to have proof they have just bought the property.
So what is going on, and more importantly, where is Fi’s estranged husband Bram? With this opening scene, ITV drama Our House entices viewers to follow the four-part series, which blends a thriller with a love story told over two timelines as Fi struggles to understand what has happened in the present, while the knots and complexities of her life with Bram – as well as their new relationships with Toby and Wendy – are explored through numerous flashbacks.
Based on the book by Louise Candlish, the series stars Tuppence Middleton (Shadowplay) as Fi and Martin Compston (Line of Duty) as Bram, with Rupert Penry-Jones (The Drowning) as enigmatic Toby, Weruche Opia (I May Destroy You) as Fi’s best friend Merle and Buket Komur (Honour) as the alluring and mysterious Wendy.
While executive producer Belinda Campbell is used to being sent books for potential adaptation, it was while browsing the shelves of a bookshop in 2019 that she stumbled upon Candlish’s novel and its “captivating cover.” Immediately hooked by the project, she partnered with screenwriter Simon Ashdown (Funhouse) before they made their pitch to the author for the chance to adapt it for television. After winning the rights, ITV ordered a script and then greenlit the series in 2020, with filming taking place last year.
“I read tons of books and it just has such a clear premise,” Campbell, joint MD of producer Red Planet Pictures, tells DQ. “Coming home and finding strangers moving into your house is everybody’s worst nightmare, and that can often be a good starting point to a drama. It was an endlessly satisfying thriller, with twists and turns, but it also had a strong emotional core to it. It just felt like a really compelling proposition.”
Ashdown read just 10 pages of the book before he thought, “This is a show,” one with “a really interesting mixture of thriller that gets incrementally darker and more twisted as it goes on, with some really good tentpole plot moments, and then a story of a marriage, an emotional story.”
He adds: “I always like writing emotional scenes and so intertwining the thriller and the tragic love story of this couple, I just really liked that combination.”
Bram, says Campbell, is a “roguish everyman,” someone who is not bad or evil but who makes terrible choices and eventually finds the consequences catch up with him.
“You just want him to do the right thing and to tell the truth about what’s going on. Then none of this would have happened,” she says. “In a way, that makes him relatable because he’s not the perfect protagonist, nor is he the evil antagonist. He is just a man who has made some very bad decisions. Within that, Martin brings just enormous charm and truth.”
Meanwhile, Fi is trapped in a nightmare but throughout the series, she is portrayed as a strong, modern woman who loves Bram but doesn’t put up with his behaviour. “We wanted an actor who could just convey strength and vulnerability, who could be aspirational and yet down-to-earth,” the exec continues. “That’s what Tuppence does so effortlessly, whether that’s being a doting mum, the strident protagonist trying to figure out what’s happened to her house or the young loving wife. It’s a really multifaceted role that she just does wonderfully.”
Thematically, the series is also about people’s obsession with property and what happens when you invest your efforts and energies in things that don’t matter. “This home is Fi’s castle, but it has also leached her attention away from Bram, which ultimately led to this disconnect within which this tragedy can occur,” Campbell says.
Ashdown was also drawn to that theme. “Making the house perfect is sometimes easier than actually having conversations about difficult aspects of the relationship. You put that off for a day or two and before you know it, you’ve put it off for five years. That’s really truthful, and we all do that in different ways.”
Adapting Candlish’s novel for the screen, Ashdown jotted down his own thoughts about the story before holding two long conversations with the author herself where he asked questions about the world of the characters. His task was then to map out all four episodes and work out where the twists and cliffhangers would land.
“It’s really quite complex in the book. There’s two timelines, two points of view, a podcast narration, a document that Bram is writing, so there’s all these multiple things going on,” the writer says. “In drama, you want to as feel close and intimate to the characters as possible. You want to feel like this could be you really, so part of it was just simplifying it.”
He also found the book’s use of birdnesting – where separated parents take turns to live in the family home – was a “fantastic” plot device. “That gives you so much drama because people are moving in and out, making all these rules and they have to get another flat,” the writer says. “As I wrote it, I kept going back to the book, re-reading it and making notes. You’re looking for those key nuggets you want to extract and build the show around. Then at some point you have to put the book to one side and just write it.”
But as the series reaches its conclusion – the series debuted on ITV on Monday and will finish tomorrow – Ashdown hopes he has found a balance between surprise and truthfulness that will leave viewers satisfied.
“There was a slight change [from the book] but in my head, the ending was always really clear,” he says. “You’re cutting between two scenes and I could absolutely see what they were. They’re very different in tone and mood. It feels surprising but also truthful, and that’s the trick. ‘I didn’t see that coming but it is the right ending.’ That’s what we’re aiming for.”
Behind the camera is Sheree Folkson (Bridgerton, Another Life), who immediately saw parallels between Our House and the type of stories told by her favourite director, Alfred Hitchcock.
“I would describe it as a really tragic love story with a thriller attached,” she says. “I liked the idea of the house almost being this malevolent actor that was standing back and watching what was going on. I ended up doing this shot right from the top of the stairs where I looked down, as if the house is standing there watching. I also liked the idea from the very first time you see the house, the camera moves slowly towards it, like people were being lured into it. It had this power over you.”
Finding the right house for the series was “absolutely crucial,” Ashdown says, and proved to be one of the biggest challenges of the series as location scouts hunted across London for the right property. The show’s double-fronted Edwardian end-of-terrace house was eventually discovered near Dulwich, South London.
“The look of the house is a glimpse inside Fi’s head, because she just controlled every aspect of it,” Ashdown explains. “You really get a sense of who she feels she is and what her ambitions are. There were lots of discussions about every aspect of that between the core group of people working on the show. That was a really important part of the process.”
Not everything was filmed on location, however, with the downstairs interiors of the house recreated in a studio.
“All we could do in the real house was the actual hallway and the upstairs. I shot the kids’ bedroom in the house, but that was it,” Folkson says. “Fi and Bram’s bedroom was in the studio. It was very complicated when you had to link these other rooms to the hall. You think, ‘Oh, this is going to be quite simple, it’s just a house.’ Oh my God, it makes your brain fry.”
The director also spent several days with the cast before shooting began to ensure Middleton and Compston in particular could plot their way through the series, which was shot out of order. In particular, the director spoke with Middleton about that opening scene, where Fi’s shock needed to be raised slowly as the impact of what has happened begins to dawn on her.
“She couldn’t start completely shocked. We had to build it up from a level of disbelief, thinking, ‘This isn’t true, I’m going to sort this out.’ And then building up through all these different levels of anxiety, anger and then, ultimately, getting to the absolute shock and horror she really has lost her house,” Folkson says. “It’s a real journey to go on.”
She also wanted to keep the handheld camera as close to Fi as possible in those early stages so viewers could see the character’s point of view. “I wanted you to feel like you’re really in her head. I wanted to heighten her own discombobulation and you’re being jarred like she’s being jarred. Her world is being turned upside down.”
By creating characters that audiences are sufficiently invested in, “they will want to see what happens next,” Campbell says of the drama, which is distributed by ITV Studios. “First and foremost, it is about the characters, and we’re very lucky to have this extraordinary cast. Then in terms of ‘talk about’ TV, it definitely has that element of ‘we didn’t see that coming.’ It’s the rug pulls that will get people talking and will get people wanting to see what’s going to happen next.”
“It does plug into something that’s a primal fear for lots of people about family and home and what it would be like to lose that,” Ashdown adds. “In fact, it’s that combination of the thriller and an emotional story where you really care about these characters that’s the interesting contrast, rather than it just being a thriller with lots of twists and turns alone. It’s the combination of the two that is particularly interesting in this.”
tagged in: Belinda Campbell, Buket Komur, ITV Studios, Louise Candlish, Martin Compston, Our House, Red Planet Pictures, Rupert Penry-Jones, Sheree Folkson, Simon Ashdown, Tuppence Middleton, Weruche Opia