Off the leash
Writer Megan Gallagher tells DQ how she “swung for the fences” with Wolf, a BBC series that promises to be unlike any other crime drama on television.
While television tends to favour a gritty, grounded and realistic approach to crime dramas and the grisly, world-weary detectives tasked with catching criminals, BBC drama Wolf might be the show to break the genre’s conventions.
Based on author Mo Hayder’s Jack Caffrey novels, Wolf stars Ukweli Roach (The Midwich Cuckoos) as Caffrey – a detective who tries to right the wrongs of others while obsessively believing his neighbour murdered his 10-year-old brother in the 90s. When the wealthy Anchor-Ferrers family become the victims of a psychopath’s cruel games while trapped in their isolated mansion, Caffrey finds himself in a disturbing race against time.
Sacha Dhawan (Doctor Who) and Iwan Rheon (Game of Thrones) also star as Honey and Molina, a pair of mismatched professionals forced together on a job, and Sian Reese-Williams (Hidden) plays DI Maia Lincoln, a woman with a case to prove. Meanwhile, Juliet Stevenson (Out of Her Mind) is Matilda Anchor-Ferrers, an intelligent yet neurotic housewife, and Owen Teale (Line of Duty) is Oliver Anchor-Ferrers, Matilda’s wealthy and well-connected husband.
“We go out there,” says writer Megan Gallagher. “’Grounded’ is not the key word to describe this show at all. I understand that it’s a good thing to be grounded, but that was not what we were reaching for with this show. We go whack-a-doodle on this one – there are musical performances and crazy stunts. We get a bit bananas. That’s really what we had fun with.”
Having gone to film school and worked in television development in LA, Oslo-based American Gallagher got her big break at the same time as Nordic noir was hitting the international stage in a big way. She created Netflix’s Norwegian original Grenseland and Viaplay’s supernatural series Seizure, and has also written on comedy-drama Grand Hotel and Apple TV+ thriller Suspicion.
Gallagher jokes that she’s happy to now be writing in her own language after Laurent Boissel, co-CEO and founder of APC Studios, approached her with a view to bringing Hayder’s DI Caffrey to the screen. He had seen some of her previous work and they then began developing the series together with Elaine Cameron from fellow producer Hartswood Films (Sherlock, Dracula).
Gallagher was drawn to the project because Hayder’s books are “proper thrillers,” rather than traditional detective-led whodunnits. “Thrillers are set up in a way that you’re waiting for the bad thing to happen, and that’s the fun part,” she explains. “It’s rare that you get crime stories and crime books that really are thrillers. There’s the whole setup of what’s going on in this house with the Anchor-Ferrers family, and it’s pretty clear at the end of the pilot that bad things are happening inside the house and the question is whether Jack is going to make it there.”
Hayder, who died in 2021, also knew how to plot and keep events moving forwards, and therefore her novels lend themselves well to TV adaptation, Gallagher says.
“But honestly, she’s just bold. All her material is dark, but it’s bold and interesting,” she continues. “It just feels like the right time for us to just do something a little darker with a big BBC One detective show. My understanding is that writers have tried before to get Mo Hayder on screen. It hasn’t quite happened yet, and I think now might be the right time.”
To achieve that goal, Gallagher decided to bring together elements of two different books to form the basis of Wolf, blending Caffrey’s origin story from the first book in the series, called Birdman, with the Anchor-Ferrers plot from the seventh and final book, which lends its title to the BBC series.
“Wolf has this absolutely fantastic plot of what happens inside the Anchor-Ferrers house. There are so many twists and turns, and Mo’s setup of that plot is utterly fabulous, so we wanted to start with that one – tradition be damned,” Gallagher says. “So it was a matter of how do we take the origin story of who Jack is and his world, and marry that with book number seven? That was a bit of the process for the pilot.”
Among a sea of police officer characters on TV, Caffrey stands apart because he’s a millennial, Gallagher notes. “We’re so used to meeting detectives who have made a series of poor choices in their lives, and we meet them when they’re dealing with that fallout. They have broken marriages, strained relationships with their children, substance abuse issues, difficulty with communication, all these poor choices.
“I absolutely love the fact that we meet Jack when he’s 32 years old and he hasn’t made any of these decisions yet. He doesn’t completely know what kind of detective he’s going to be. He isn’t in a relationship, let alone one that’s fallen apart yet. So we get to watch him make all those choices as a very young man, as opposed to entering in the story when all those choices have already been made. It’s time we had a young detective where they’re tech-savvy and were raised with social media. I think he stands out quite a lot. I hope so.”
After the BBC greenlit the show at the end of 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, Gallagher, Boissel and Cameron would frequently host Zoom meetings. The writer says she is a thorough planner, completing research in good time, mapping out scene-by-scene outlines and building a vision for the series before a single line of dialogue is written.
“Then I write a draft, which takes about three weeks. I usually do one or two polishes and then we’re good,” she says. “That’s my method, as opposed to writers who sit down and say, ‘I’m not really sure what’s going to happen in act three, but let me start and feel it out.’ That’s a fine method and there’s nothing wrong with it, but it doesn’t work for me.”
With her background in Scandinavian noir, there might be some expectation that Wolf would fall into a similar category – particularly with The Killing’s Kristoffer Nyholm taking on lead directing duties here. Lee Haven Jones directs the back three episodes.
But Gallagher says Wolf, which is filmed in Wales, doesn’t feel like anything produced in the Nordics. “It also gets more and more absurd, outlandish, over-the-top and comical as things go on in the series, in a way that I feel like is much more English humour,” she says. “We definitely leaned into a heightened, fun, over-the-top, ‘let’s push boundaries’ tone in our scenes and execution.”
Beyond her writing role, Gallagher was able to oversee the series as an executive producer, the first time she has been credited as such, and says she was invited by Cameron and Boissel to be involved in every aspect of the production. “But you don’t have to interject a lot because the crew and the heads of departments were so good,” she says. “You’re consulted on everything from what shoes a character is wearing to the set design, but your response is almost always, ‘That’s amazing. I love it.’”
Owing to the pandemic, Gallagher was given the “luxury” of a year to complete all six scripts. That’s one of the reasons she believes episode six is the strongest of the whole series, as each part builds towards the finale. Getting to that point was not easy, however, with the writer facing the challenge of integrating the Anchor-Ferrers plot with Caffrey’s own story.
“In book number seven, Mo very smartly let everything happening in the Anchor-Ferrer household really take precedence, and what Jack is doing is taken back, because she’s got a readership. They know Jack and it’s OK to let the Anchor-Ferrers plot, which is a doozy, really come to the forefront,” she explains. “But this is season one for an audience, so we can’t let our protagonist have the smaller role.
“It was all about his character, his emotions and digging into his own past, which I thought would bring it up to par with the other story and equal them out without putting them in direct competition. Mo does this incredible job of bringing him to life in the opening books. By book number seven, it was the right choice to let him be a little bit more the quiet part of the book. But that doesn’t work for the first season of a television show.”
With more books in Hayder’s Caffrey series to adapt, Gallagher has already started thinking about where a second season might take the detective, while distributor APC Studios has found international homes for the series with SBS in Australia and HBO Max in Iberia, the Nordics and Central and Eastern Europe.
“We swung for the fences, to use an American expression,” Gallagher says of the series, which debuts on BBC One and iPlayer later this year. “We’re having some big fun. It’s not your average detective show – I can say that with absolute confidence – so come check it out and see if it’s your cup of tea. It’s certainly mine.”