Rocking the Boat

Rocking the Boat

By Michael Pickard
December 13, 2023


Boat Story stars Tchéky Karyo and Joanna Scanlan reflect on their partnership in the BBC drama as a mob boss and a pasty shop owner who fall for each other, changing the fates of each character.

Across six thrilling, funny and surprising episodes, BBC drama Boat Story features workplace accidents, separated families, drug deals, addiction, gangs and lots of violence. With so many themes and topics explored to various degrees in the series, it is hard to pinpoint exactly what the show is about, except to say it’s a story about telling stories – whether through narration from Icelandic star Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, the old cinema-style intertitles that break up the action, or the stage play that is performed depicting what is happening while it is still happening.

One character also writes a book about the events in the series, while a black-and-white French film called Les Enfants goes on to influence events involving the central characters.

Joanna Scanlan and Tchéky Karyo costar in Boat Story

For stars Tchéky Karyo and Joanna Scanlan, it is all part of being involved in a show created and written by Harry and Jack Williams, the siblings behind Two Brothers Pictures, which is best known for The Missing, Baptiste, Liar and The Tourist. All3Media International is the distributor.

“The way that Jack and Harry work is quite a layered process,” explains Scanlan (No Offence), who plays former paramedic turned pasty chef Pat Tooh. “It is quite unusual. When I first read the scripts, I thought they were brilliant and really complete. But then as we filmed, as the dialogue went on between what we were doing on the floor through to the rushes, that really got them rewriting and putting in new things.

“There were big things like the French film – I don’t think the French film was in the script I read. That came from nowhere. The voiceover also came in post-production as well. They keep layering and adding new angles on the main event of what we’ve shot or how we shoot it. Usually when you get script amends, it’s to sort out locations or cast changes, something practical. But these were genuinely, massively creative new elements that went in. I feel like I’m serving a big beast, which to me is very good fun. I quite like not being in charge of the overall story arc.”

“They keep putting themselves on the edge. They keep provoking each other,” continues Karyo, a regular Two Brothers collaborator here playing a finely dressed but ruthless gangland boss known as The Tailor. “It’s like a mosaic. It’s super not to be stuck in one thing. It’s really exciting. It’s very sensual also. It’s fun.”

Janet (Daisy Haggard) and Samuel (Paterson Joseph) discover a haul of drugs

Central to Boat Story is a boat, upon which Janet (Daisy Haggard) and Samuel (Paterson Joseph) discover an enormous haul of illegal drugs. As two people struggling in life, they decide to sell the drugs and split the cash – but they soon find themselves entangled with the police, hitmen and Karyo’s The Tailor, who is looking for his missing cargo.

The Tailor’s introduction is particularly shocking, as he is shown cutting out the tongue of a man who has “said too much” before learning of the fate of the boat. With orders out to his ‘gun for hire’ Guy (Craig Fairbrass) to find the missing drugs, he then learns a woman may have seen Janet and Samuel on the beach where the vessel washed up, leading him to visit Scanlan’s Pat.

“I knew she was going to go on a journey of some kind,” Scanlan says of her character. “I knew she was a counterpoint to a lot of the other characters. She’s like the still norm, if you like. I just wanted to be of use to the Brothers, I just wanted to present them with possibilities that I was prepared to go anywhere and do anything – and they make use of that. They make use of your willingness as an actor.

Tchéky Karyo, menacing as The Tailor

“This particular show, it starts with all the violence, but it goes on a very different kind of journey and what they [the writers] are looking at is the stories we tell ourselves. Where do we have our beginnings? Where do we put our endings? Are we the hero of our own stories, or are we standing on the sidelines? There’s meta levels of story, but underneath that there is some emotional truth. And the love affair between The Tailor and Pat has quite a lot of moments of sincerity on both sides.”

While Janet and Samuel are dealing with numerous threats brought about by their newfound wealth, the show’s second major storyline concerns The Tailor and Pat, who fall head over heels for each other, despite Pat’s initial reluctance. Their blossoming relationship then goes a long way to shaping the outcome of the story, with The Tailor’s ruinous childhood and future destiny tied to Les Enfants – which features Scanlan as a character called Madame Béthune.

“We’d done episodes one and two by the time that came along,” Scanlan reveals. “So it was like, ‘What? Ok.’ Originally I did do the voice as well. I worked really hard to get the voice exactly right. But they had to use a different one.”

The Tailor’s infatuation with Madame Béthune means that when he meets Pat – who he finds shares a striking resemblance with Madame Béthune – his personality shifts from sadistic gang boss to lovesick puppy as they bond over a plate of “fucking delicious” banana bread and have sex “one-and-a-half” times.

The chemistry between Scanlan and Karyo was instant

“We had one rehearsal with Jack and Harry in their offices, for them to see if there was going to be any chemistry between Tchéky and me or if was it just going to fall apart immediately?” Scanlan says. “And it was just instant. It was immediately a beautiful acting relationship. Everything Tchéky was doing was tickling me so much. I felt so ebullient in my relationship with him, and I felt like we could go anywhere. If the director had said, ‘Take it darker or take it lighter or take it wherever you want,’ there was loads to play with. He’s a wonderful actor to play with, and I always believed he loved me. That made everything possible.”

“It was superb,” Karyo says of filming that initial encounter. “It was a lot of fun to play because we have so many layers – every line we say, every silence, the way we look at each other. I was laughing inside myself at the situation we were going through.”

Though Pat initially turns him down for a proper date, believing they come from “two different universes,” The Tailor determines to win her over and takes her to a local pub, where the couple laugh like schoolchildren while sitting on some swings and are later given a ride home in a police car like naughty teenagers, courtesy of Pat’s son PC Ben Tooh (Ethan Lawrence).

“That was so lovely,” Scanlan says. “When we did the scene in the pub and Tcheky played Tombe La Niege [on the piano] and sang it, it was so gorgeous. It was so, so lovely and such a lovely tune and so well sung. Pat didn’t have a problem falling for that.

“I think she thinks that for a moment, maybe she is worthy of all the trappings of great romance, to be serenaded, to be dressed and whisked away. She dares to hope that that fantasy version of the world still is possible for her, for a tiny moment. But it’s more complicated than that.”

“And how much fun we have with her son in the car, it was so much fun,” Karyo says. “They are complete adolescents at that moment.”

The Tailor and Pat’s romance  goes a long way to shaping the outcome of the story

Though seemingly happy in her life running her pasty shop and keen to avoid adventure, Scanlan notes that Pat’s role in the series is more than being just a mother to Ben, an enthusiastic police officer who is ignored and dismissed by his colleagues.

“She has her own autonomy that is separate from a definition of being a mother. In the end, the romance comes before the motherhood,” the actor explains. “For me, what happens is that the moment that The Tailor knocks on Pat’s door, both of their fates are sealed. That’s really important.”

For The Tailor, love also conquers his no nonsense approach to his business affairs, which usually leaves his enemies in a bloody mess.

“He has no emotion. Then suddenly something happens when he meets Pat,” Karyo notes. “Meeting her makes a difference, and suddenly what was stuck inside him slowly comes out.”

“The way the story takes you into The Tailor’s character is almost like a psychoanalytic process,” Scanlan adds. “You get into layers of him. There’s the business layer, and then there’s this romantic layer – and there’s still another layer to come. He’s like a lotus flower, there are many petals to his personality, character, motivation and history. All of that is revealed by the conclusion.”

Having now finished its run on BBC One following its November launch, where it was also released as a box set on the BBC iPlayer, Scanlan describes the show as “one beautiful story” full of surprises that mean events will play out in unexpected ways, as The Tailor and Pat’s love affair reaches a climax – and the story comes full circle – aboard a boat.

“When you find the last bits of the jigsaw, they’re tremendously good fun,” she says. “I don’t think anyone will see them coming.”

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