Writer Debbie O’Malley, director Jennie Darnell and executive producer Madonna Baptiste tell DQ how they flipped the script on crime thrillers by putting an ordinary woman at the heart of ITV drama Payback.
When it comes to crime drama, Jed Mercurio is known for thrilling, action-packed storytelling featuring law enforcement professionals, whether it’s police officers (Line of Duty), close protection officers (Bodyguard) or bomb disposal experts (Trigger Point).
But the latest series from his HTM Television production company focuses on a seemingly ordinary wife and mother who inadvertently finds herself caught up in a police operation to bring down a local crime lord.
Payback stars Morven Christie as Lexie Noble, who lives an idyllic life in Edinburgh, unaware that her husband Jared has been laundering money for Cal Morris (Peter Mullan)’s illegal enterprise. Watching Jared’s every move are DC Jibran Khan (Prasanna Puwanarajah) and DCI Adam Guthrie (Derek Riddell), who want to use the Noble family to bring Cal to justice.
But when Lexie is hit by tragedy and is forced to start working for Cal, she soon finds her own life in grave danger.
The ITV series, which begins tonight, comes from writer Debbie O’Malley (The Game, Call the Midwife), who together with Mercurio developed the idea for a drama about a character getting caught up in a world they know nothing about.
“It felt like a little bit of a departure for him,” O’Malley tells DQ. “It was certainly something I got quite excited about quite quickly. We were looking around at different areas of crime we were interested in, and financial crime and the people who are involved on the periphery of that – who are not necessarily criminals themselves but who end up being either unwitting or intentional facilitators of some slightly nefarious practices – seemed like really fertile territory.”
HTM executive producer Madonna Baptiste (DI Ray) then came on board to steer the project, while Jennie Darnell joined as lead director. Darnell has previously shot episodes of Trigger Point and Line of Duty, but she says Payback is a more intimate thriller than those earlier Mercurio collaborations.
“At the heart of the story is a woman you want the audience to connect with,” she says. “But for all of the characters, you’re hopefully intrigued by the choices they’re making. The visual style came out of wanting that personal connection with the characters, so there’s a closeness between the actor and the lens.
“We were also interested in themes of paranoia and anxiety that come through, and a lot of that comes from the fact the characters are watched or watching, and how that makes one feel. Of course, you want to make sure you’re honouring the propulsive elements of the thriller, and that leads to certain music choices and certain editing choices. But the very heart of the story is connecting to Lexie. That’s what comes first.”
With Lexie front and centre, Payback has police officers in it but “it doesn’t feel like a cop show,” Baptiste adds. “It’s very much a crime thriller about a woman whose life completely falls apart. OK, there is a dead body, and usually it’s all about that. But Lexie is presented with a problem she has to solve. Ultimately it’s a really emotional crime drama.”
From the early stages of storylining the series, O’Malley wasn’t interested in Payback telling a story about a woman who becomes a victim. “She’s not a damsel in distress,” she says of Lexie. Instead, it was key to her the writer that the character has the ability and courage to try to save herself.
“She’s in an incredibly pressured, vulnerable position, but she’s an incredibly resourceful woman who, despite, or actually because of, the pressure she’s under, finds reserves of strength,” the writer explains. “She’s not expecting someone else to save her. Morven wanted to play an active role, not some passive suffering misery porn, which none of us were interested in, but while keeping the truthfulness of a woman who’s suffered a terrible loss.”
Across the six-part series, which is distributed by Hat Trick International, O’Malley draws together a story that weaves together Lexie, Cal and the police officers and delves into the murky waters of financial crime.
Combining somebody becoming the unwitting cog in a huge police investigation with an increasingly topical story of “dirty money” really appealed to the writer, and the different elements came together “quite naturally,” she says. “That’s not to say juggling a murder investigation, a financial investigation and a woman’s emotional journey is the easiest thing to do.”
Coproduced by BritBox International, which will carry the series in the US, Canada, Australia, South Africa, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway, Payback is O’Malley’s first “pure thriller.” She says developing it was a “huge education” led by Mercurio, during which she learned how important it is for a show to retain a certain level of tension throughout each episode. That lesson then became her “guiding light” as the series took shape, with many story elements that the writer loved subsequently falling by the wayside in order to retain the sharp focus.
“Then it’s just a lot of very long hours on your own in a room, really,” she says of writing the scripts, “and then coming up for air, asking for feedback and being given notes and thoughts, and then going back into the bunker again to keep going.”
Keeping that tension doesn’t just happen on the page – it was also achieved in the edit. “Things that seem as though they will be thrilling sequences on the page [sometimes aren’t] and you start to realise you can strip an awful lot out and still convey the crucial information in a way that’s much more exciting than what you originally had,” O’Malley notes.
The actors also have a big impact on the atmosphere of the series. Darnell describes Mullen and co-star Steven Mackintosh’s double act as “very exciting.” “When you put Morven into that mix, you find there’s tension in dialogue scenes that you might not have imagined would be the most tense moments,” she says.
Unlike in the theatre, where Darnell started directing, television doesn’t afford a lot of time for rehearsals. So when making a series, she believes her main role is to consider what the actors need to give their best performances.
“Different actors require different things from you, from the script and from the environment, so you want to try and work out what it is that will best support their performance,” she states. “It is a process of discovery, and I see how I can facilitate that, whether that be some rehearsal, or conversations.
“Some actors like to talk about the backstory of the characters; some don’t. Some are interested in the visual processes; some don’t want to know the camera’s there. So you find out what that is and then my job is to step back, check there’s a cohesive performance style and convey to the actor what I’m seeing through the lens and whether that’s giving us what we think we want. But it is led by what that actor needs.”
On set, Darnell worked with a ‘steady rake,’ which allowed the camera operator to move fluidly around the actors – and also gave the actors more freedom to move within the space.
“That was a deliberate choice because we were centring the performances,” she explains. “We wanted it look beautiful as well. We wanted to entice audiences into watching these characters. It’s hard to show money on screen, especially as we don’t really use money anymore. Money is a digital prospect, and that’s quite difficult. Therefore, you want to show the luxuries they’re living among, and that was an important backdrop for them.”
Chief among Baptiste’s ambitions for the drama, which is set in Edinburgh but was largely filmed in Glasgow, was that its characters feel authentic. The Scottish setting was part of the show’s DNA from an early stage, as the story leans into some of the intricacies of Scotland’s criminal justice system. But the “accessibility” of the drama came down to whether viewers have empathy with the characters.
“There was a lot of research done to make sure the financial crime storyline was correct. But it’s just about having great characters, and I think we’ve achieved that,” the exec says. “Debbie’s scripts are really compulsive. Every scene moves the story forward and, at the end of the first one, I just wanted to know more. Lexie’s in so many situations where you just think, ‘Oh my God,’ and to see her character grow across the series is a really thrilling ride.
“If people say, ‘Oh, that’s just so far-fetched,’ you lose an audience. You have to believe every scene, and our actors are all very authentic.”
O’Malley was still writing the second block when filming began so wasn’t able to be on set as much as she would have liked, meaning she missed out on experiencing the changeable Scottish weather that played havoc with Payback’s continuity when shooting outdoor scenes. But the chance to catch up with the show in the edit was an “absolute education.”
Editing was taking place as filming continued, allowing the production team to start to see the series take shape and adjust any later scenes as they saw fit. But fitting to ITV’s commercial hour structure, the writer had naturally built in cliffhangers to land before ad breaks, which come every 12 minutes.
“They have to come thick and fast,” O’Malley says of those shocking moments, “but what you don’t want is everything becoming so heightened that you end up with nothing being exciting. We played around with the fact that sometimes a cliffhanger will be an exciting revelation, sometimes it will be an emotional beat, and you try to find light and shade within those. It’s not always an A-Team action-drama moment. But certainly that is the joy and the difficulty of an ITV show, having to find those moments. It’s a great discipline.”
“Debbie did it well because it’s character driven, so all the action and the thrills come from the characters in the sense of what they’re doing and what motivated their plans and their next steps,” Baptiste says. “If you don’t have that solid base then it does just feel like empty thrills.”
But with ‘everywoman’ Lexie at the heart of the action, the team certainly hope viewers will put themselves in her shoes as they watch the drama – and the consequences of her decisions – unfold.
“I would love for them to be willing her to do certain things or dreading that she’s doing certain other things,” the director says.
O’Malley adds: “Having that ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ sense of identifying with it would be brilliant. It shouldn’t feel like some high-concept thing that could never happen to anyone in a million years. It’s more that sort of, ‘Oh my God, I could be a step away from that being my life,’ which I think is really interesting.”