Saved by the Nell

Saved by the Nell

By Michael Pickard
March 28, 2024


Renegade Nell is the swashbuckling Disney+ series from Happy Valley and Gentleman Jack creator Sally Wainwright. Star Louisa Harland and director Ben Taylor lift the lid on teaming up for a show that blends action and drama with humour and a sprinkling of magic.

From crime dramas Happy Valley and Scott & Bailey to period series Gentleman Jack and comedy-tinged Last Tango in Halifax, award-winning writer Sally Wainwright isn’t afraid to jump between genres. But for her latest series, Renegade Nell, she’s breaking the boundaries of action, drama, comedy and fantasy to tell the story of an 18th century highwaywoman.

“I am a long-standing Sally Wainwright mega-fan, so when I got pitched this project with a top-line elevator pitch of ‘period highwaywoman with superpowers, action-fantasy for Disney,’ and it’s written by Sally Wainwright, that combination of words was so extraordinary that I was just desperate to read it,” lead director Ben Taylor tells DQ. “It isn’t a genre or really a tone you’d imagine her exploring.

“But at the same time, there are elements within it and how these characters speak and operate that is quintessential Sally Wainwright. Nell as a hero is the logical next extension from Catherine Cawood in Happy Valley and Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack. It’s amazing how it’s several centuries apart from Happy Valley, but it feels like it’s from the same voice.”

The eight-part series blends a murder mystery and family drama with a historical setting and Wainwright’s familiar sense of humour. It’s also a “swashbuckling romp,” says Louisa Harland, who plays Nell, while a fantastical element appears in the shape of Nick Mohammed’s magical spirit Billy Blind.

“It’s largely about family and family responsibility, and love and pressure with siblings,” says Taylor. “It is a fairly clear feminist piece in terms of how Nell is challenging and pushing and pulling at institutions and the patriarchy. It’s also anarchic, which I think Sally writes well. There’s an anarchic punk quality to Nell that is potentially out of place in this time period but, because of that, it feels incredibly fresh and new.”

Derry Girls’ Louisa Harland plays the title character in Renegade Nell

Debuting tomorrow on Disney+ worldwide, the Lookout Point-produced show stars Harland as Nell Jackson, a quick-witted and courageous young woman who finds herself framed for murder and unexpectedly becomes the most notorious highwaywoman in 18th century England. But when Billy appears – giving her seemingly superhuman powers – Nell realises her destiny is bigger than she ever imagined.

Frank Dillane also stars as Nell’s fickle friend and sometime adversary Charles Debereux, a charming rogue with a dangerous alter ego, while Adrian Lester plays the Earl of Poynton, a master political schemer and manipulator who joins forces against Nell with Sofia Wilmot (Alice Kremelberg), a young widow who wants power and independence at any cost.

Joely Richardson plays eccentric newspaper magnate Lady Eularia Moggerhanger, while Pip Torrens is Lord Blancheford, the father of Sofia and her feckless, bullying brother Thomas (Jake Dunn). Ényì Okoronkwo is Rasselas, a spirited stable boy who joins Nell and her sisters on the run in his own bid for freedom, with Bo Bragason and Florence Keen as Nell’s two younger sisters Roxy and George. Craig Parkinson plays Nell’s kind-hearted father Sam, the owner of The Talbot inn.

The series marks the first leading role for Irish actor Harland, who is best known for her appearances in comedies such as Derry Girls, Big Boys and drama The Deceived. “Louisa has been such a trooper,” Taylor says of the star. “Like me, she’s come from a background where this feels like a departure for her, but she was a north star to the cast and crew around her because she got it and she was a brilliant partner with me in terms of finding the tone and maintaining it.

“The character of Nell was on the page, but she was like a bag of contradictions. She had to be tough and brusque, empathetic and physical but vulnerable. When you’re the titular character like this, you need to find somebody who embodies that – and she embodies the spirit of it. She’s gifted comically, very gifted dramatically, and people haven’t seen that before. And then in terms of physicality, she got put through the wringer on it.”

Harland’s Nell Jackson is a highwaywoman with superpowers, while Ényì Okoronkwo plays Rasselas

Before the cameras were rolling, Harland endured three months of training that involved-wire work, conditioning, horse riding and sword fighting. “And she just threw herself into it,” Taylor says. “She didn’t have many days off during shooting, but the stunt crew really took her in. She was one of their gang, and that really paid dividends because then you got another family on set that really had your back.”

Harland was filming the final season of Derry Girls when she auditioned, and jokes that being unable to fly to London for a recall “made me look unavailable.” But she was delighted to land the role, even though she might not have seemed the obvious choice.

“I couldn’t ride a horse. I’m not from Tottenham. You won’t find me in a gym,” she says. “My parents were like, ‘What a random choice. They went for you?’ I’m so pleased they did. And it was even more fun because it was such a challenge but yet, in that same breath, even more terrifying. I was terrified, I cried every day, but I loved every second. I don’t think I had a bad day on set.”

In a series blending folklore with elements of “Pirates of the Caribbean, The Favourite and The Goonies,” Harland says Nell is “absolutely a force,” a stubborn and flawed woman who is hungry to provide a better life for herself and her sisters. “Sally writes such real, raw, flawed women and adding the fantasy element on top of that is just magic.

“She goes through a series of unfortunate events, but all in pursuit of justice. Class is at the centre of this, and Sally’s written that so beautifully. Then towards the end of the series, the press is being introduced and it’s just a fascinating comment on all things in society. Obviously it’s a period piece, 1704, but it comments a lot on today.”

Adrian Lester is the Earl of Poynton

During rehearsals, Harland worked closely with stunt coordinators James Embree, Abbi Collins and her stunt double Melissa Humler, honing her conditioning and horse-riding skills every day. “They’re unbelievable people, and I have such a newfound respect for that side of our industry. I don’t think I would be anything without them,” she says. “I can’t ride a bike and I can now ride a horse.

“Filming was incredibly vigorous because it was long days, long hours. It was brutal. There were a lot of outdoor and night shoots. I spent two weeks with my face in a puddle in the middle of the night, but I loved every second of it.

The most frustrating part for Harland was not being able to work with Mohammed – a “genius and brilliant” actor who filmed separately in front of a green screen so Billy Blind could appear tiny next to Nell – while she was also restricted in the number of stunts she could do on screen. “But my stunt double was so incredible,” she says. “So if you ever see me do something incredibly cool, it probably wasn’t me. It was Melissa. She is Renegade Nell. She’s the real deal.”

Taylor is best known as the lead director and an executive producer of Netflix’s British series Sex Education, which is notable for its blend of Welsh scenery, 80s-inspired costumes and US high school aesthetics. He was instrumental in creating the unique world of that series, and Renegade Nell called on him to perform a similar task.

“It is definitely the hardest, most labour-intensive part of it, but it is also the biggest joy of this,” Taylor says. “I’ve been spoilt with Sex Education and this, where to come in and design and build a world with your heads of department and your designers is just easily the most fun part of it.”

Nick Mohammed of Ted Lasso plays magical spirit Billy Blind

Part of the appeal of signing on for Renegade Nell was that the prospect scared him. “It’s everything I’d ever dreamt of as a kid to be involved in,” he says. “It was action, fantasy, VFX, wire work. I’ve always been a big Disney fan, I get the Disney DNA, and this is definitely a progression. Louisa as Nell is also leaps ahead in terms of what an expected Disney hero is. That’s hugely thanks to Sally’s writing, obviously, but I knew what I would want to watch on Disney and it felt like an opportunity to have a play with some really exciting material.”

Taylor describes himself as an “odd” partner for a period adventure, admitting he might not have been the first director thought of to lead the series. But when he pitched his vision for the show, he remarked how funny it is – a common yet understated element of Wainwright’s work – and he subsequently landed the job.

“It’s a really funny show, and she was so happy to hear that,” he says. “A lot of people don’t tend to use that word as a way to describe stuff that she has done, because people tend to lean towards the dramatic elements of Sally’s writing. But because I come from a comedy background, I always need a way in via humour. When I read scripts that are dry and devoid of humour, I’m at a loss – and this knew its comic tone.

“Everybody uses the word ‘grounded’ when they pitch, but doing grounded with fantasy and action, and essentially superhero lore, is difficult. Probably the thing that I’m most proud of is that it makes sense. It feels like all the answers are leading to the same show. Because there are so many elements and aspects to it, it could easily be a bit of a sort of smorgasbord. And I think it feels cohesive and it’s certainly mad – it definitely has a mad streak within it, but it feels like it knows what it wants to be.”

With ambitions to ensure British-made Renegade Nell didn’t feel like a “poor cousin” compared with US series on the Disney+ platform, Taylor sought “big visuals and confident design” for the show, which is unusual in that it isn’t based on any prior IP, such as a book or graphic novel.

That meant costume designer Tom Pye, production designer Anna Pritchard and DOP Oli Russell were all encouraged to be “bold” in their work, which is set against a backdrop of natural landscapes including Epping Forest, Ivinghoe Beacon and Windsor Park, studio-built sets such as the interior of The Talbot, and shoots on location at Hampton Court Palace, Hatfield House and the Old Royal Naval College.

Joely Richardson as eccentric newspaper magnate Lady Eularia Moggerhanger

Filming at numerous stately homes across the UK, Taylor had to find a new way to shoot historic buildings that had often been seen on screen before. But the discovery of one previously unknown property, a private residence, enabled them to build the entire Tottenham set that features in episode one.

Yet with Renegade Nell also doubling as a road movie, the nature of the show’s dynamic storyline meant many sets and locations weren’t used more than once. Fight choreographer Embree was also hugely influential when it came to the way the show moves in terms of the action sequences, which include street fights, brawls on the roof of horse-drawn carriages and numerous chases involving the actors on horseback.

“One of the toughest things, but the most fun, is we were inventing our own rules for the physics of these superpowers, and it was a real head-scratcher,” says Taylor. “Can Nell jump high? Yes. Can she jump on top of this stagecoach? Yes. Does she get any injuries? Yes. So you design this superhero who takes the knocks but, as soon as the power of Billy exits, she’s fucked. She feels every punch she’s just received.

“We were always very wary of a ‘Tinkerbell effect’ where we’re on Disney and they’ve got a 100-year history of magical things. We wanted to find a blunt, heavy, real-world version of this. And part of that was mine and Sally’s anxiety of doing a fantasy show for the first time. We wanted to make it feel as real to us as possible, and that did influence the way we shot it.”

But working for Disney, Taylor was minded of creating a series accessible for family viewing and says the production was “on a tight leash” in terms of hitting a UK 12A rating, meaning a film screening in cinemas is appropriate for those 12 and over, while those under 12 are permitted if accompanied by an adult.

“When you’re dealing in horror and action, we were trying to push to the hardest end of a 12 we could, but they were good with us and gave us some room in certain places,” he says. “They want a show you can watch and share with your family, and one of my favourite things is that it feels like family viewing fare.

“It’s going to shock you and it’s going to scare you in places. But I’ve got two young boys and to know that I’ve made a show I can finally watch with them that isn’t about sex and teenagers is a really big thing for me. It’s hard to categorise, but it’s a lot of fun.”

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