Bafta-winning writer Nicole Taylor takes DQ inside her thrilling five-part emotional drama The Nest, which has become the biggest new drama launch on the BBC this year.
While the emergence of streaming platforms and the democratisation of choice has largely sounded the death knell for ‘water-cooler’ programming, TV drama still has the power to unite audiences. So it proved earlier this year when, stuck at home at the start of the UK’s coronavirus lockdown in March, millions of viewers tuned in to follow emotional thriller The Nest.
Its weekly roll-out on BBC1 – it wasn’t released immediately as a box set – and the storyline’s dizzying twists and turns ensured people were hooked on the story of a pact made between a wealthy couple and a teenage girl. And the word-of-mouth recommendations that followed have seen the five-part series become the broadcaster’s biggest new drama launch of the year so far. An average of nine million people have now seen the series across its 30-day catch-up window.
Penned by Bafta-winning writer Nicole Taylor (Three Girls), the story introduces Dan (Martin Compston) and Emily (Sophie Rundle, pictured above), who live in a huge waterside house just outside Glasgow and want for nothing except a baby, having tried for many years to conceive.
By chance, they meet Kaya (Mirren Mack), a troubled 18-year-old from the other side of the city. When she agrees to carry the couple’s baby, can she give them what they’ve always wanted, or have they all embarked on a course of self-destruction?
“The idea came to me in the form of this central trio,” Taylor tells DQ. “I was really interested to see what would happen in an extreme, psychologically plausible scenario where you had a woman who was just desperate [for a baby] because of years of infertility, where, in that grief state, one starts to deploy the magical thinking of, ‘This is meant to be.’
“You pose that on the most arbitrary things just to feel like you have got some control over the narrative of your life in moments of despair. So that character of Emily made sense to me, and Kaya and Dan, they just all came to me, as did this idea of a relationship of mutual destruction.
“Whatever I’m writing about, there’s always a central question I ask myself that I don’t have an answer to but I feel has right [answers] on both sides. Though this isn’t an ‘issue’ drama in any way, I feel like surrogacy is quite an interesting one where there’s equally persuasive arguments for and against. I’m always writing about themes of class and young women and things like that. That’s where it all came from.”
Through Kaya, Taylor explores whether an 18-year-old with few prospects and working a zero-hour contract should be allowed to do something for money that is potentially life-changing. “It’s a really tricky question, but that’s what’s appealing about it as well,” the writer says. “I don’t have an answer to it, but I wanted to kick it about and get the audience kicking it about as well.”
The Nest, a fictional and very heightened story, stands in contrast to Three Girls, the multi-Bafta-winning factual drama that aired in 2017 and told the true story of three victims at the centre of a child sex abuse ring.
But there were some similarities in Taylor’s approach to both projects, namely the “tons and tons” of research she did for both – because even though the characters in The Nest were invented, “the issues are real,” she says. “Care leavers, an infertile couple… it felt like I’d done more research than is strictly necessary for a fictional piece but having done Three Girls, that’s just the way I like to do things.
“You’re also not going to turn up anything unexpected or interesting for the audience if you’re going into these things knowing as much as they are. You’ve got to know more than they know to write something exciting.”
The three main characters’ problems go beyond the central surrogacy plotline, with the story also highlighting a murder investigation, criminal links to Dan’s business, and Kaya’s mysterious past and her life growing up in the care system.
Taylor sought to invite the audience to sympathise with all three people at various points in the show. “If, in one act, your sympathies were all with Kaya, I was trying to turn that so, in the next act, your sympathies would be with Dan,” she explains.
“Each of them had a valid point of view I tried to render in the round, so that was really important to me. But I don’t look at my work and think, ‘Yeah, what I’m writing about is young women.’ People have said that to me, but I find all of their points of view just as valid as each other and I was just as interested in each of them.
“You’re not allowed to do it here but if you commercialise surrogacy, who is going to be offering surrogacy services? It’s going to be women who need the money. Surrogacy also offers self-esteem and real affirmation, so a vulnerable young woman like Kaya might be attracted as much by that, and by the fellowship offered and by the sense of family, as the money.
“Dan is more from Kaya’s background but Emily is dead suspicious of her motives from the get-go. I’m constantly trying to play with all these people and get you to really invest in one, only to bin them off and invest in another and then bin them off and invest in another. With Kaya, I was inviting the audience to judge her, only to wrong-foot them and get them to reflect on their earlier judgements.”
Though the relationship between the central trio remains at the heart of the series, Taylor also includes stories and themes of wealth, poverty, criminality, social mobility and family relationships. It all adds up to a fast-paced series bursting at the seams with story and character developments, and means viewers don’t know which way it will turn next.
“I just love a fast-burning story and I think the audience deserved it,” she says. “I’m sick of seeing things eked out over eight or 12 episodes. It’s completely unnecessary in lots of cases and, especially in a thriller, you can hint at things without spending a whole episode plodding through it.
“I have no problem with burning through story. I love doing that and I think you need to do it for a BBC hour. I felt like the audience deserves to rattle through it. You don’t have to show everything. Little threads you leave loose can give people something to think about. It makes for a richer drama as well as a pacier drama.”
Distributed by All3Media International, The Nest saw Taylor reunite with Three Girls executive producer Sue Hogg and production company Studio Lambert, who shepherded the project from script to screen. Andy de Emmony (Lucky Man) directed three episodes and Simen Alsvik (Lilyhammer) helmed the final two. Now enjoying maternity leave following the birth of her second child, Taylor remembers writing the series during her pregnancy and suffering serious illness as she hit episode four.
“I couldn’t finish the bloody thing because I was so sick. I’d got three episodes written and episode four just took months and months, so getting the thing finished was awful,” she says. “But Sue is brilliant; we’ve known each other for so long and worked together on everything. She didn’t put any pressure on me. She didn’t act like she was panicking, although she said to me retrospectively that it was pretty tense because they couldn’t schedule [filming] as they didn’t have the last two scripts.
“But I got there, I finished it and then there was a new deadline of finishing episode five before giving birth! It was slightly hairy in that sense, but I always knew, in quite a lot of depth, what the story was. It had been in my head for years and years before I’d pitched it and started to write. And it’s a world I know super-well, being from Glasgow myself.”
To the surprise of fans of crime drama Line of Duty who have become used to Compston playing an English police officer, the Scottish actor uses his natural accent in The Nest, which meant he could also advise Taylor on some of the Glaswegian slang Dan might use. Similarly, Shirley Henderson, who plays Kaya’s estranged mother Siobhan, also influenced how her character appeared on screen.
“The forensic way she read the script meant she was finding details that I didn’t notice were there,” the writer says of Happy Valley star Henderson. “She was lifting things out of my subconscious because she’d read them on the page and nobody else had noticed, including me. That’s the best bet. You’re sat alone in your pyjamas for years and then, suddenly, you’re on the phone to Shirley Henderson who’s got even better ideas for the character.”
The series concludes with extremely satisfying endings for Emily, Dan and Kaya, but Taylor certainly keeps their futures and that of the newborn baby at the centre of the story in doubt right until the last few scenes. The writer says she didn’t know what that ending would be when she began writing, but she did know where she wanted to leave them emotionally.
“I knew it would be a positive outcome for Kaya. The ending isn’t necessarily what people would expect and I’m pleased to leave people with quite a happy ending,” she says. “It’s all too easy to sign off bleakly – the child goes to no one and the whole thing has been a pointless waste of time.
“As well as wanting to be accurate, this is television and I did want quite an emotionally engaging, satisfying, uplifting ending. And thank God it was uplifting, given when it went out. Imagine if people had invested five weeks of their early lockdown time only for the child to be lost in the system. It would have been so crap.”
Taylor admits there is plenty of scope to return to the world of The Nest, though she is not currently planning a second season. Instead, she has a new, unannounced BBC project in the works, and is writing a musical and “changing lots of nappies.”
Looking back on the show, Taylor jokes “it’s bonkers. I went for it with the story,” pointing to her previous preference for naturalistic storytelling. “I’ve never gone near anything that’s a thriller before. It’s totally beyond my realm of experience but, once I got into it, I loved it. If you’ve got these people, take them for a ride. Just go for it. If you can be truthful to the characters and keep people constantly guessing, that’s just really satisfying to watch.
“If it’s a bit bonkers, that means you’re being unpredictable. As long as it’s not at the expense of truth, I’m good with it. The whole thing was an experiment for me, and I thoroughly enjoyed trying to write that kind of material.”