Northern exposure

Northern exposure

By James Rampton
March 22, 2024


DQ heads to the fictional Chadder Vale, the setting for the ‘otherworldy’ ITV drama Passenger, in which a detective investigates the disappearance of young people in mysterious circumstances.

It’s all kicking off in the restaurant in the small Northern England town of Chadder Vale. A row has broken out, and the waitress is trying to calm everyone down. “Can we stop arguing?” she exclaims. “People are trying to eat their eggs!”

This particular scene – part impassioned, part humorous – from Passenger, the new, darkly comedic ITV thriller, exemplifies the Northern soul at the heart of the drama.

Writer Andrew Buchan, better known as an actor in Broadchurch, The Crown, Better, The Honourable Woman and All the Money in the World, hails from Bolton, the Lancashire town that has also given the world Peter Kay, Paddy McGuinness, Sara Cox and Vernon Kay. And his script is suffused with a very particular Lancastrian sensibility.

The fictional Chadder Vale is the kind of nondescript place Morrissey, another poet of the North West, might have been referring to when he sang, “Every day is like Sunday.”

Having arrived in Chadder Vale from London’s Metropolitan Police five years ago, DI Riya Ajunwa (Loki’s Wunmi Mosaku) is yearning for a big case to get her mojo back. She is fed up with her mundane life in this rural backwater, dealing with petty crimes by day and caring for her troubled mother-in-law by night.

So when Katie Wells (Rowan Robinson, A Haunting in Venice) disappears in the forest one night, Riya believes this could be the career-changing case she has been longing for. However, Katie re-materialises at home, completely unharmed, just 24 hours after going missing. But Riya smells a rat, especially as Katie won’t tell her what went on in the forest.

Wunmi Mosaku plays a former Met detective who moves to a small town in the North

The detective’s suspicions grow as other young people start vanishing in mysterious circumstances. What does it have to do with the eco-warriors at the local fracking site, the spooky tree on the edge of town and the mutilated stag on the forest road? Something wicked this way comes…

Produced by Northern Sister, part of the Sister (Chernobyl) group, the six-part drama is coproduced by BritBox International and Germany’s ARD Degeto, with All3Media International distributing.

Daniel Ryan, who comes from Culcheth in the North West and plays Derek Jackson, the local bread factory owner who carries around a basket full of secrets, underlines the authenticity of the show’s Northern flavour – even comparing Buchan with the patron saint of Lancastrian humour: Victoria Wood.

“To me, a Lancastrian, born and bred, his dialogue really rings true,” he says. “Words that you don’t often see written, but are part of the vernacular in the North West – Andy’s brought those into the script.”

The actor, who has also starred in The Bay, Mount Pleasant and Litvenenko, adds: “There’s something about his writing that is so Northern, that is so of the world of Victoria Wood. It’s that kind of dialogue. There are just some brilliant turns of phrase in it that Andy’s brought because he is a born and bred Northerner himself.”

From actor-turned-writer Andrew Buchan, the show is set in the fictional town of Chadder Vale

For his part, Buchan says he was eager to imbue his debut script with a characteristically Northern wryness. “I grew up in Bolton, and obviously there’s a rich vein of humour running through a lot of Northern towns,” he says. “Having grown up in and amongst that, the way people react specifically to extremes with humour has always fascinated me. I thought if I could write something about a small, tight-knit community and use some kind of extreme event to detonate that humour, that might be interesting.”

The writer continues: “That Northern dialogue that I’ve heard and loved all my life, and the way people approach and react to huge events in a Northern way, has always made me laugh and interested me in equal measure.

“I just wanted to get it down on paper and hopefully create characters that feel real and true, that people can relate to, and use that to explore these bigger things.”

The tone of Passenger – which begins this Sunday on ITV – is offbeat, and that is reflected in the drama’s location, the unusual Lancastrian town of Cornholme, which doubles as Chadder Vale.

Executive producer Lucy Dyke (The Split, Eric) explains: “We found our town of Chadder Vale just to the north of Manchester, near a place called Todmorden, which is allegedly the place where the most UFOs have ever been seen in the UK.

“Cornholme has this eerie quality to it. It’s a really sweet little village, but it doesn’t get sunlight for four months of the year. Between November and February, the sun never rises above the hills, which gives it this kind of slightly ‘other’ quality, which is really important for Chadder Vale.

Rowan Robinson plays Katie, who briefly disappears in the forest

“The idea of the show was that it should feel really grounded and should feel real. But there is also a sense of it being something ‘other.’ It’s lifted slightly off the ground, one step to the left, so it feels like a real place, but there’s something that’s not quite right about it.”

Many residents of Chadder Vale are marooned there by their resistance to change. “I’d say one of the big themes isn’t just about being an outsider, it’s fear,” Buchan says. “I’ve grown up with it. I’ve seen it in lads and lasses I’ve been to school with. Fear of change, fear of being different, fear of daring to do something they’re good at.

“In life, particularly if you’re a guy from a certain environment, you act in the way you’re meant to act. There’s a pressure on you to act and speak in a certain way and be tough. And that’s your lot. So it’s about fear, the fear of change, growth, failure.”

There is also a grey uniformity about the inhabitants of the town. “Riya describes them as all the same,” says Mosaku. “‘We talk the same, we dress the same, we play the same basic game.’ That’s one of her lines. There is something really unified and homogenous about them. She has a need not to perpetuate the ‘Chadderness’ of it all.”

As a result, Riya feels driven to fight against the inertia that has settled on Chadder Vale. Buchan observes: “Riya’s just this restless force, this hurricane trapped in this sleepy village who’s wanting to push against the limits, push against the walls and wake people up from their apathy.”

Despite his successful career as an actor, Buchan admits he has always harboured a desire to become a writer. “Acting’s where my heart is,” he says. “But I would say writing is a close second and something that I’ve always done in little fragments throughout the years, be it writing on the back of bus tickets or in coffee shops, asking the waitress for a pad and a pen so I could quickly jot down an idea.

Shameless star David Threlfall also has a role in the ITV drama

“There’s always been a pining to do it, and it has been brilliant and flattering as well, having actors audition and learn their lines. It’s such a small thing, but I feel so thrilled that they’ve taken the time over a weekend to learn lines I’ve written and given it their all in an audition. Then they have gone into production and seen it all blossom.”

Buchan does confess, though, that the writing process has been more challenging than he imagined. “There are demands, definitely! Not just deadlines for when the scripts are needed, but also within the production whirlwind, things fall through or you can’t get a certain location or an actor is no longer available or they’re poorly, so you have to rewrite stuff.

“But you’ve got a lot of people around you going, ‘Well, hold on, don’t panic about that. What if we made it this?’ It’s been a real collaboration. When someone’s asking you to write a few scenes on a character you’ve come up with in your head, it’s like, ‘Oh, this isn’t daunting. This isn’t climbing Kilimanjaro. I can do this.’”

And so, the writer adds, “I’ve tried to not let myself be scared or daunted by it. I’m in a privileged position. People are doing some very hard jobs on the planet, like doctors, nurses, firemen. But, you know, this is fun.”

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