After a season one conclusion that left the Twittersphere outraged, Bancroft writer Kate Brooke tells DQ what’s in store for the eponymous rogue cop in season two and why there’s no character like her on TV.
When it comes to crime drama, viewers have an expectation that by the time the credits roll, the culprit has been discovered and justice has been served, with the investigating police officer rightly celebrated for a job well done.
But when ITV miniseries Bancroft concluded in December 2017, the audience was left fuming that DCI Elizabeth Bancroft was not only the villain of the story but that she had also got away with her crimes.
“People wanted resolution,” says creator and writer Kate Brooke about the reaction to the show’s climax. “I felt like it was an end. It wasn’t justice, but not everything is about justice. We’re in a world where bad people get away with things and I really wanted to do a show that didn’t have an obvious redemption at the end of it.”
The story introduced ambitious and respected Bancroft, played by Sarah Parish, who is targeting a violent gang suspected of illegal arms dealings. But when a cold case being reinvestigated by DS Katherine Stevens (Faye Marsay) threatens to bring buried secrets to the surface, Bancroft does everything she can to stop the truth from emerging.
By the end, Bancroft has earned a promotion despite being revealed to the audience as a killer, with DS Stevens left in a hospital bed. Twitter lit up with unhappy comments.
“I just wanted to hit an audience with an immoral female because there’s still not many of them around,” Brooke says. “I had the idea six years ago. It took so long to get onto the screen because commissioners would go, ‘So the twist is that she didn’t do it?’ I’d say, ‘No, the twist is that she did do it.’ and then they’d say it was not for them.
“I felt it had an ending – it just didn’t have an ending people wanted. But that’s ok.”
Brooke was in India when, jet lagged in the early hours, she tuned into social media to see the reaction unfold in real time. “I thought, ‘Oh shit, they hate my show.’ Everyone was so furious about it but actually that’s what they need,” she says. “The truth is, people are furious because they’re being moved in some capacity. In a world of television where it’s hard to break through, we broke through. We did really well.”
Produced by Tall Story Pictures and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment, the show proved to be one of ITV’s best-performing dramas of that year with a series average of 6.7 million viewers and a 25.1% audience share. Season two was announced in February 2018 and the three-parter will debut in the UK on New Year’s Day with all three episodes airing on consecutive nights.
Picking up some time after the end of season one, Bancroft is riding a professional high after heading up a newly merged police force and delivering extraordinarily low crime figures. But isolated from her estranged son Joe (Adam Long), she is facing increasing pressure from her pact with crime boss Daanish Kamara (Ryan McKen).
When a disturbing double murder causes her professional and personal lives to collide, she is forced to confront a new enemy while suffering the repercussions of her past actions.
“Everything she thought she wanted she’s got, but actually she’s a very lonely person,” Brooke says of Bancroft. “We really make her suffer in season two. There’s a desire [from viewers] for justice, especially justice for women, but look at Peaky Blinders. Tommy Shelby [played by Cillian Murphy] is constantly killing people but people don’t mind. A woman killing someone and getting away with it – we’re not allowed that. That’s why I wanted to do it.
“She’s not Villanelle from Killing Eve, she’s not a psychopath. She can feel things. But the key thing is she lives within society. She walks and breathes amongst us, and she’s a really good policewoman. She’s bloody good at her job. She just happens to be a little bit bad on the side. We just haven’t ever had someone like her. What was hilarious was people thinking this was going to be another ITV crime thriller and then it was like, ‘Oh shit, she killed someone.’ That was quite funny. By the time it got to episode three, people could see something interesting happening, so it will be interesting to see how they react to season two.”
Bancroft’s world is explored in more detail this time around with the introduction of her mother Carol, played by Francesca Annis, and the opportunity to drill down into her psychology and discover what made her the person she is.
“I don’t think she should be excused, but we can begin to try to understand her,” Brooke continues. “There’s no sob story. That’s not the point. We know the show a bit better, we know the pace, but it still has these massive twists and turns, which is what an audience wants.”
Season two also sees Bancroft in a more grounded world, with Brooke admitting season one crossing into melodrama at times. Though she wanted the series to be more heightened than the average television crime drama, building the rules of the procedural also gives the character some boundaries to push against.
“The thing about Villanelle is she’s in a fantasy world. She can sort of do anything,” says Brooke, who herself has worked in fantasy when adapting Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches for Sky1. “Bancroft couldn’t just put on a disguise and shoot someone. She’d get caught. She lives in the real world. What is important and what we’ve learned from season one is you have to earn all the deaths. She can’t just go and kill someone. That’s why it’s a difficult show to write because if she was just killing everyone like Dexter, it’s just Dexter. If it was a story of the week, there’s no grounding to it, so we really try to earn the kills – and there are kills. We earn the kills and that’s the way to ground it. She’s basically a survivor.
“There are some very clear rules for her. She doesn’t enjoy killing. She’s not a psychopath who finds it fun. But she will do it if she has to. She will do it if someone comes up against her and either she or someone she loves is threatened. Then she will do anything.”
Brooke wrote the series with co-writer Ben Morris, who first worked with Brooke as a researcher on period drama Mr Selfridge. They start with Brooke’s story outline before breaking down the episodes in an American-style writers room with script editor Kathryn Shrubb.
“I started in theatre so I’m a collaborative writer – I like talking to other people and there’s lots of young writers who don’t get an opportunity,” Brooke explains. “I could have written all the episodes, but he’s fantastic in a room so we write very collaboratively. It’s great to be working with young writers.”
However, she admits that unlike in the US where the showrunner system is prevalent, the UK industry is still producer-led. “Here, it was very useful that I really knew the show. It’s quite high risk and I had to fight to keep the vision,” she says. “It’s been a very happy production but the UK traditionally has creative producers who like to hold the reins very tight and they’re not letting go without a fight.”
In particular, she says she had to battle to keep Bancroft’s mother Carol in the show “because it’s not plot. There was a lot of ‘cut the mother’ and then they got Francesca Annis to play her and suddenly everyone loved the mother! But she holds her place, it’s character and we’re a very plot-driven show. We want to open up those questions about Bancroft.”
Another key influence on season two of Bancroft has been Sarah Parish, who stars as the eponymous detective. Brooke spoke to her before putting pen to paper and then gives her a first look at the scripts.
“Sarah has inhabited her so fantastically,” she says of her leading actor. “We get on like a house on fire. She’s magnificent. She’s done such a great job. She just gets Bancroft. She’s a great ally for the show.”
Like season one, this new run of three episodes promises to pack in plenty of drama, with Bancroft left reeling as her professional and personal lives crash into one another in spectacular fashion. It’s a rollercoaster ride that Brooke hopes will start the new year with a bang and keep viewers hooked until the end.
“There’s lots of twists and turns and I hope it will deliver like season one delivered those massive surprises, and I hope that psychologically it will be more grounded,” she adds. “That’s the plan.”
Following appearances on screen this year in Sanditon and A Confession, Kate Ashfield tells DQ about continuing her burgeoning writing career by penning Finnish psychological drama Huone 301 (Man in Room 301).
Two years after her first writing project debuted, Kate Ashfield has found time between acting roles to pick up her pen once again. But while Channel 4’s Born to Kill, co-written with Tracey Malone, was the study of an apparently model teenager with hidden psychopathic tendencies, her latest project is entirely a family affair.
Produced for Finnish SVoD platform Elisa Viihde, psychological drama Huone 301 (Man in Room 301) tells the story of the Kurtti family, whose lives change irrevocably one fateful night. Years later, the secrets of that night start to unravel on a family vacation in Greece, pushing their family ties to the limit.
Ashfield, best known for her role opposite Simon Pegg in comedy-horror film Shaun of the Dead, was recently seen on screen in ITV period drama Sanditon and the same broadcaster’s true crime drama A Confession. But although she considers acting and writing on a level par, she says she is enjoying the creative freedom that comes with writing.
She began work on Man in Room 301 shortly after Born to Kill aired in 2017, when UK producer Wall to Wall Media approached her with a one-page outline for a drama about a British family that goes on holiday to Spain, only to suspect a man staying in the same apartment building is the grown-up killer of their three-year-old nephew.
After meeting with Elisa, Ashfield wrote a treatment for the show, turning it into a six-part series about a Finnish family that travels to Greece, with the action set across two timelines. The platform gave the green light after reading the first script, with the series now set to launch on December 19.
“The starting point was if someone was 12 when they did it [the crime] and were now 24, would you recognise them? Would it even be them?” the writer tells DQ, acknowledging the show’s similarities to the Jamie Bulger case in the UK, in which two 10-year-old boys were convicted of abducting and killing two-year-old Jamie in 1993. “But it’s very different in Finland because they don’t criminalise children like we do.” (The age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales is 10 and in Scotland it’s 12, having been raised from eight this year.)
“When the story was reset in Finland, it became more attractive to me as an idea because we’re such a small country and we have such black and white views, whereas in another country it’s not that clear cut. The criminal age in Finland is 15, so if something like that did happen, they would just stay at home. They’d probably get counselling, they might move school but they might not. It would just be treated in a whole different way, so that makes it a slightly greyer subject matter, which is always interesting.”
The story introduces a multi-generational family who go on holiday to Greece, only for the grandfather to suspect the man staying in room 301 is the killer. The two timelines, set 12 years apart, then slowly reveal how the events in the past and the present day collide.
For Ashfield, writing Man in Room 301 offered her the chance to delve into another culture and write about universal themes involving a family and its secrets. But the slow, brooding thriller, which is directed by Mikko Kuparinen, posed several challenges for her, not least the cultural differences between Finland and the UK.
“They tend to not want anything to be too dark,” she explains. “The death of a child is terrible and they don’t want to focus on that in the way some UK television series might do. We’re also a lot more emotional and physical with each other than they are. They don’t say a lot; it all has to be pared down. Watching Nordic series, it’s less expressive. If you wrote a scene where they greet and hug each other, it just isn’t Finnish. They’d say, ‘We’d never do that.’ So it’s mainly in the way they relate to each other that’s different.”
Ashfield would regularly travel to Helsinki for meetings with Elisa, Wall to Wall and production partner Warner Bros International Television Production Finland. Scripts were initially written in English before the shooting versions were translated into Finnish.
“Because it’s about relationships, all those things are universal, so that was easy to negotiate in a different language,” the writer says. “It was just learning about the landscape and the culture, which was different. Because we were doing it with Warner Bros Finland, they were in script meetings and talked to anything they felt would be more appropriate or ring more true to people in Finland. I had one character house-sitting for somebody and they said, ‘We just don’t have any reference of that.’ It’s just the smallest things, you could never know what [the notes] were going to be when you sent the scripts across. That made it an interesting experience.”
In between script meetings, Ashfield would explore Helsinki and the surrounding area to build a picture of the landscape, the types of properties and the lifestyles of the people who live there to better inform her writing. One example is when she wrote that a character would break into the post box of another character in an apartment building lobby, only to discover mail is delivered to each individual apartment and lobby-set post boxes don’t exist.
“It’s really strange little things like that that you keep coming up against. You just wouldn’t guess it. You can’t break a door down in Finland; because of the weather, they’re much stronger. Also, the Finns, because they have such a strong welfare system and have universal basic income, they don’t have homelessness and they’re just inherently better people in terms of not breaking the law. If their child was drink driving and hit another car, they would take them to the police station to confess. Here we might say, ‘Well no one got hurt and we won’t tell anyone.’ But they wouldn’t do that because it’s just wrong. All that stuff is quite interesting and you end up looking at your own culture in a different way.”
Unlike on Born to Kill, Ashfield wrote all six scripts herself, comparing the process to completing a “massive jigsaw” as she contemplated how the story would play out across the different timelines and use the juxtaposition between the scenic Finnish countryside and the sun-drenched Greek landscape, where Athens-based Inkas Film and TV Productions provided coproduction support. Warner Bros holds international remake rights while APC Studios is distributing the original series.
“You also have to put story hooks in,” she continues. “This has no ad breaks [in each episode] so it’s not like Born to Kill where you have to have a hook every act out. That in itself becomes slightly different storytelling. It’s very much character-led, especially as Finns are more contained emotionally so you need to really get into their minds. It becomes more psychological in that sense.”
An actor now embarking on a writing career, Ashfield says she wants every part to be good, from the grandma to the young girl, with scenes viewers won’t expect and the ability to shock and challenge the audience. The series stars Antti Virmavirta (The Other Side of Hope) and Kaija Pakarinen (Devil’s Bride) as the parents, Jussi Vatanen (The Unknown Soldier) and Andrei Alén (Rig 45) as the grown-up children and Leena Pöysti (Laugh or Die) and Kreeta Salminen (All The Sins) as their wives.
“It’s also about the dialogue,” she notes. “I’ve been acting for years and you just want everything you get your characters to do and say to be authentic and not expositional or contradictory emotionally. I get a real feeling of the characters, and that’s the joy. That happens when I write with other people as well. I know those people, I know what they’re like. That’s part of it for me.”
With Man in Room 301, she hopes to entertain viewers with a story that takes them out of their own lives, while also prompting them to imagine what they might do in a similar situation to the characters on screen.
“Hopefully you relate to all of the characters and think, in that circumstance, ‘I could have done that,’” she adds. “Who knows how one will react. I wanted to make them all as likeable as possible in that scenario.”
Anna Friel, Sinead Keenan and Rosalind Eleazar star in ITV’s emotional thriller Deep Water. Writer Anna Symon introduces the series, produced by Kudos and distributed by Endemol Shine International, and discusses a key scene in the first episode that lays the groundwork for events to come.
Deep Water tells the story of three ordinary mothers who each go on an extraordinary, emotionally compelling journey. Told through a female lens, it places modern women and their needs and desires at the centre of the drama.
The series is based on two books by Paula Daly: Just What Kind of Mother Are You? and The Mistake I Made. So often in TV drama, the family, and the home in particular, are a place of safety and retreat from where the real story is going on, be it a police investigation, the world of intelligence or a business setting. But in these books, as in most of our real lives, the highest stakes surround the families themselves. The question each woman is being asked throughout the series is: how far would she go to protect her family? It’s a question that, to me, feels highly relatable but also surprisingly under-examined in TV drama.
Paula was born and bred in the Lake District, and when you read her page-turning novels, you really feel you’re being taken to Lake Windermere by someone who understands it from the inside out. By placing our women in this beautiful but, at times, harsh landscape, we hope to have further added to the epic scale of their stories – even if that meant filming the show was often hindered by rain, hail and snow.
Just What Kind of Mother Are You? tells the story of two mothers, Lisa and Kate, while The Mistake I Made is about Roz. In developing the series, I put all three characters in the same world by placing all their younger children in the same class at school. It’s quite a departure from the books, but I have kept the brilliant characters Paula invented and her very authentic vision of the Lake Windermere and the surrounding villages.
One line from Paula’s books that really struck me is: ‘The Lakes have always been littered with two extremes of women – the ones who never work and the ones who never stop.’ That class divide in the Lakes is one of the key themes of the series. Kate (played by Rosalind Eleazar) is one of the women who doesn’t work, whose family own lots of property in the Lake District.
Lisa (Anna Friel) runs the local kennels, so her life is about servicing the moneyed class who leave their dogs with her while they go on holiday. Her husband is a taxi driver, so he’s also in the service industry. Together, they’re busy parents who both work really long hours. In other words, they are very different from Kate, although we soon discover she has real challenges of her own. Roz (Sinead Keenan), a physiotherapist, is in serious financial trouble, so she is also working every hour she can to make ends meet.
In the first episode, Kate invites Lisa and her husband round for dinner. There is already an uncomfortable undercurrent to the invitation because Kate has accused Lisa’s 10-year-old son of bullying her own boy. Intimidated and wanting to please, Lisa accepts the invite. As soon as she and her husband arrive, Lisa gets whisked into the kitchen by Kate. Kate’s sister Alexa is also there, who’s as polished and impressive as Kate – at least in Lisa’s eyes.
Lisa soon feels completely out of her depth, amazed that Alexa can afford to send her four children to boarding school. A very awkward conversation ensues between the three women about how they bring up their kids. It’s the sort of conversation to which many of us have been party in one form or another. As women, we often compare and judge each other’s choices, at least in my experience.
This is a pivotal scene because it’s about who has money, who doesn’t, who works, who doesn’t and how that impacts on your family. As the evening progresses, the scene moves to the dinner table.
Here, Kate and her sister argue about whether you should stay together for the sake of your children if your marriage is in trouble. Kate storms out, and there’s a sense that something very strange has happened in her life. It’s the first clue we give the audience for them to try to work out what has happened to Kate in her past, and what secrets there are within her household.
At the same time, we notice Lisa starts to flirt gently with Adam, Kate’s brother-in-law, and this leads to a major transgression. This kicks off one of our main storylines, examining female desire.
Overall, in this scene, I’m laying down all the themes that are going to emerge throughout the series: class, marriage, parenting and sex, all told through a female lens.
Rob Lowe, the US actor best known for turns in The West Wing and Parks & Recreation, discusses his move to the UK to lead the cast of crime drama Wild Bill, his role as an executive producer and his passion for directing.
Writers often have their ideal star in mind when putting the finishing touches to their latest screenplay. In many cases, this is simply a pipe dream – but when Wild Bill co-creators and scribes Jim Keeble and Dudi Appleton say they wrote the lead role specifically for US actor Rob Lowe, it was more than just fantasy.
“Wild Bill gives us a chance to write about modern Britain and modern crime through unique eyes,” they say. “We wrote this for Rob, for his smart-talking, anarchic, soulful voice. Displacing Rob in Britain and specifically in Boston, Lincolnshire allows us to tell stories that are left-field and unexpected. We wanted to write something that couldn’t take place anywhere else, or at any other time.”
It was fortuitous then that Lowe, best known for starring in Aaron Sorkin’s political classic The West Wing, was looking for a project set outside of the US.
“I just needed a break from network television,” admits Lowe, speaking to DQ at the Monte Carlo Television Festival. “I’ve had a show on the schedule every year since 1999. I’m really proud of that. I don’t know if any other actor has ever done that. But I wanted to do [the type of] storytelling you just can’t do on a traditional American network. The pace is different, the stories are different, how it’s shot is different. I wanted a geographical change and, as I was looking for that, Wild Bill came to me. The character was undeniable.”
The ITV drama, produced by 42, MultiStory Media and Anonymous Content, sees Lowe play high-flying US cop Bill Hixon, who is parachuted into the UK as the new chief constable of the East Lincolnshire Police Force, with a targeted brief to tackle rising crime figures while making budget cuts.
Initially derided by his new colleagues as a clueless fish-out-of-water, he comes armed with a range of statistics and algorithms he hopes will help him finish the job and return to the US as quickly as possible. However, he soon finds the locals are just as smart-mouthed and cynical as they are back home, while a return to frontline policing makes him question whether Boston needs him or he needs Boston.
Executive producer Rory Aitken describes the series as “Happy Valley with a touch of Fargo,” while the Lincolnshire countryside provides a refreshing alternative to the cityscapes more commonly associated with crime dramas. It is distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.
Lowe is quick to agree that there’s also a touch of Moneyball about the series, a reference to the book of the same name about the Oakland Athletics baseball team’s attempt to build a competitive team using analytics and statistics. Michael Lewis’ non-fiction work was later turned into a 2011 film starring Brad Pitt.
“That’s exactly what I thought of when I read it,” he says. “Analytics have taken over the world, they really and truly have. They’ve changed everything and they really, truly have changed law enforcement. It makes perfect sense. You have X number of men or women on the force; run it through a computer and the computer will tell you where they need to be. It’s not up to their intuition. It actually makes more sense for law enforcement than it does for sports. But I’ve never really seen that [in television], so it was nice. It’s the perfect way to come into an old, traditional doing-it-the-same-way-for-decades-and-decades story, and then throwing a character in like Bill is a brilliant, original concept.”
Lowe heads a cast that also includes Bronwyn James as DC Yeardsley, an eager detective who proves to be an early ally for Bill; Tony Pitts, whose chief commissioner Keith Metcalfe has hidden reasons for bringing Bill from the US; and Aloreia Spencer, who as Bill’s 14-year-old daughter Kelsey shares his grief at the sudden loss of his wife and her mother.
The cast is rounded out by Anjli Mohindra, Rachael Stirling, Anthony Flanagan, Angela Griffin, Aleksander Jovanovic, Divian Ladwa and Vicki Pepperdine.
Lowe’s role on Wild Bill isn’t confined to the screen, however, as he also takes up an executive producer position behind the scenes alongside Aitken, Eleanor Moran and Tim Carter. He says he was on board the project a year-and-a-half before filming began, offering notes during the scriptwriting stage and becoming an integral part of the casting process.
“The EP job as an actor/star is different on different shows,” he says. “When I go from this to work with Ryan Murphy on 911: Lone Star, my job there will be, ‘Good idea, Ryan!’ That’s my job. Here, it’s more of an unknown for me. I didn’t know a lot of the players involved, so it’s kind of like a quality-control position where I step in when needed. I’ll give notes on scripts. Jim and Dudi are English, so their notion of how an American speaks sometimes needed some help to make sense, so I’m there to do that. But now the show is up and running, if we were ever to do a second season of it, I kind of feel like my work is done.”
It’s his experience across a screen career spanning four decades that means at this stage, Lowe feels he has to be involved beyond just saying his lines. “You’ve got to,” he adds. “At this point, I’m usually by far the most experienced person involved in anything, anywhere, so you want to bring what you’ve learned to bear and bring what you can.”
Appearing in Wild Bill still offered Lowe a chance to find new experiences on set, not least in the more relaxed working conditions on a UK set compared to those in the US. “Oh my God, it’s so different,” he exclaims, recalling his time on CBS medical drama Code Black as an example.
“We would close down an eight-lane freeway, have a fiery tanker inferno and a multi-car pile-up. Then there would be a helicopter rescue and back at the hospital there would be 700 extras and a blackout or 14 multiple storylines – and we’d shoot that in eight days. Wild Bill is me running around in a car in the countryside in 17 days. So there’s definitely not a sense of urgency making TV in Britain!”
On the set of Wild Bill, Lowe recalls the emotional demands of playing Bill in a cold and often wet location on the English east coast. “But that’s what I signed up for,” he says stoically. “That’s what you want. Why go to Boston, Lincolnshire if you don’t want that? So every day where I was cold and wet and lonely, I was like, ‘Yeah, but it’s all going to be on screen.’ What you don’t want to be is cold, wet and miserable and have none of that on screen. That’s a nightmare. So I knew what it was.”
Beyond its Hollywood star lead and unfamiliar setting, Wild Bill is also notable for its shift in tone away from the fast-paced nature of many other crime dramas. It is filled with human drama and emotion, with episode one focusing on the effort to solve the murder of a woman who disappeared many years earlier, while fans of Lowe’s turn in off-beat comedy Parks & Recreation will be pleased to find the show also has touches of humour.
The actor says the Wild Bill’s mash-up of genres isn’t something you see on television very often, and while some reviews have been critical of Wild Bill’s uneven tone, the actor says that’s exactly what they were trying to do.
“I happen to be really down with the mash-up,” he says. “But here’s the thing that made me laugh too – the thing about the internet, Twitter and social media is the noisy five people can make it seem like everyone feels a certain way. I’ve seen people really upset about the lack of authentic accents in the show. As an American, I can’t tell the difference anyway! But I love that we’re watching Chernobyl and falling all over ourselves, even though it’s in Ukraine and everyone has a British accent, and nobody says one fucking word about it.”
For his next project, Lowe will return to US network television to lead Fox crime drama 911: Lone Star. The actor says that while much of the plot is still in the minds of creators and executive producers Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Tim Minear (American Horror Story), he does know he will play a fire chief with a grown-up son, living in Austin, Texas.
“He comes to deal with this firehouse that has had a tragedy and there’s a very specific reason why he’s there to deal with it,” he reveals. “Above and beyond that, honestly I don’t know! It airs after the NFC Championship Game [in January 2020], which is a big deal, and we start shooting right after Labor Day, so we’re literally in the process of writing.”
Beyond acting, Lowe has uncovered a passion for directing. After helming a short story two decades ago, his first experiencing directing a major project came last year in the shape of Lifetime movie The Bad Seed, in which he also starred. A remake of the 1956 thriller movie of the same name, it saw Lowe play a widowed father who, after helping his daughter cope with the tragic drowning of one of her classmates, begins to suspect she might have been involved.
“I love directing. It’s the most fulfilling thing I can do,” he says, adding that he prefers it to acting, performing his one-man show and writing books because “I get to use every club in my bag and I love it.”
The problem, he notes, is that he’s attracted to a very specific type of material. “It’s elevated genre pieces,” he continues. “I did The Bad Seed, which is a homage to The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. But it just took so much time and I literally don’t have the time.
“The other thing is, like everything else, to be a movie director today means something different than it did when I was a kid. There are very few Quentin Tarantinos [Pulp Fiction], Paul Thomas Andersons [There Will Be Blood], Steve McQueens [12 Years A Slave] or Damien Chazelles [La La Land]. Those are my heroes. But now it’s tough even for them. The notion of a writer/director/auteur, that’s not the era we’re living in right now. Those types of people are now the David Simons [The Wire], the David Milches [Deadwood] and the Aaron Sorkins. They’re all creating television, which is a whole other thing.”
To many viewers, however, Lowe will always be Sam Seaborn, the intelligent and charming White House deputy communications director in Sorkin’s The West Wing. In today’s divisive and polarised political climate, particularly in the US, it’s unsurprising that the series’ idealistic liberalism under Martin Sheen’s President Josiah Bartlet continues to be a touchstone for fans of the actor and the series alike.
Lowe agrees that the show is “more valuable than ever. I just know because of the people who come up to me all the time,” he says. “It used to be, ‘I love The West Wing’ or ‘I still love The West Wing.’ Now, honestly, it’s ‘My husband and I are working our way through the series for the fifth time.’ It’s unreal. It is more relevant – people are more into it today than they were when it was out. It’s crazy.”
If an often-mooted West Wing reunion or reboot ever comes to fruition, Lowe might yet find himself back in the White House. But whether he’s in front of or behind the camera, he’s set to remain a fixture in the television world for some time to come.
After starring in Gurinder Chadha’s latest feature film, Viveik Kalra reunites with the writer/director for her new TV series, Beecham House. He tells DQ about the upstairs-downstairs drama, set in India in 1795.
In Blinded by the Light, the latest movie from Gurinder Chadha, Viveik Kalra plays a British Pakistani teenager whose life is uniquely inspired by the music of Bruce Springsteen.
Kalra’s star turn in the coming-of-age film led him to immediately reunite with the acclaimed writer/director on her next project, Beecham House, which also marks her return to TV drama.
“We did the film a couple of months into 2018,” the actor recalls. “I’d auditioned two or three times for it, got it and then filmed it for eight weeks. Then, right near the end, she went, ‘I think you’d be right for a part in this show I’m doing.’
“I forgot about it but she came back in, which was rather exciting. It was good because I guess, in some ways, because I’d just led a film of hers, she knew she could rely on me in that part, which is lovely.”
Kalra describes Beecham House as a “very special project,” owing to the fact it takes place in India in 1795. “It’s not a time period you usually see, it’s just amazing,” he says. “It’s an incredible time period, very culturally uplifting, at a time when the British and French are visitors and aren’t ruling over Indian people, so you have a lovely view of India untouched and untainted.”
The six-part ITV series sees John Beecham, a former soldier in the East India Company, arrive in Delhi determined to leave his past behind him and start a new life as an independent trader, taking up residence in the titular mansion. However, the staff soon harbour questions over their secretive new master, who arrives with his infant son August.
One of the first people he meets at his new home is Kalra’s Baadal, the head of the property’s staff, who helps John (Tom Bateman) settle into his new life. It’s this dynamic in the home that has seen Beecham House dubbed ‘Delhi Downton,’ drawing comparisons with ITV mega-hit Downton Abbey, which charted the fortunes of the aristocratic members of the Grantham family and their servants.
“Baadal is the initial link to John when he comes to the palace for the first time,” Kalra explains. “It was an interesting character for me to look at because it’s this upstairs-downstairs drama and I’m the link between the upstairs and downstairs, so it was a great opportunity.
“Due to the nature of the character and the family who stay in the house, it’s uplifting for the servants because they can do things in the house that typically weren’t allowed. When someone enables you and uplifts you, you can be more of a person with them rather than just a servant, so I think that makes the dynamic of Beecham very interesting.”
Baadal’s loyalty to his job and his master is challenged, however, when he falls for Chanchal (Shriya Pilgaonkar), which puts him at odds with Daniel Beecham (Leo Suter) and Ram Lal (Amer Chadha-Patel), forcing him to choose between duty and passion.
“It’s a catch-22 because when the Beecham family comes, they enable the servants to relax and not be on edge,” he adds. “Baadal has time to think about other things in his life, so it’s interesting to see whether he follows his head or his heart.”
Kalra says his relationship with Chadha while filming Beecham House was different from that during Blinded by the Light. On the feature film, as the lead actor, he kept his head down and got on with the job. But on Beecham House, he felt less of a burden, with the weight of the series placed on Vanity Fair star Bateman.
“I was able to relax a bit more. I was chilling out on set, which was amazing,” he says. “But although I had a smaller part, it didn’t feel like a smaller part, which I think is quite a lovely thing about a director and how they make you feel. Gurinder talks to everyone with the same sort of vibe and decency, regardless of whether they are an SA [supporting artist] on set or whether they’re the lead actor. I found that throughout the movie and throughout Beecham.”
Describing writer, director and producer Chadha as “a force of nature” on set, Kalra continues: “She will always have more energy than you, no matter how young you are. I’m 20 years old – every day she would have more energy than me! She’d be singing, dancing, she’d be the life of the party. She’s one of those people who knows what she wants, which is lovely, and she’s not afraid to say it. If you’re doing something she doesn’t like, she just says, ‘Don’t do that, do this.’ Then when you do do it, you take the note and she’s lovely and warm and sees that you’ve done something right.”
Interior scenes for Beecham House, produced by Chadha’s Bend It TV and distributed by Fremantle, were shot at Ealing Studios in London, while the exteriors and landscapes were filmed on location across the Indian state of Rajasthan.
“It’s crazy because if you saw the set in Ealing, it didn’t feel fake at all,” Kalra says. “You’re standing there and thinking it doesn’t look completely real to the eye but then you look at it on camera and it looks exactly like the real thing, which is a credit to everyone who worked on it. Then when you start filming in India, it is totally different in terms of the number of people on set, the talent. It was amazing to be able to film there. We were there for a good two months and a lot of the cast hadn’t been to India before.”
Filming in old palaces and then staying in them as well meant Kalra began to feel like his moustached character. But by the end, “I was very pleased to shave my face,” he jokes. “It wasn’t quite as good as another actor called Amer’s. His moustache was amazing and he could curl it up. Mine wasn’t quite at that level.”
British television dramas to have explored India before or during the time known as the British Raj include The Jewel in the Crown, set during and after the Second World War, and Indian Summers, which follows members of the British government and trading community in 1932. But Kalra believes it’s more than just the fact Beecham House is set over a century earlier than these two shows that sets it apart from similar dramas.
“Just the dynamic between the characters is something that won’t have been seen before,” he says. “John is an uplifting character as opposed to one who is downbeat with the servants around him. He’s a mysterious character at the beginning. When it gets down to it, it’s incredibly interesting to see how someone uplifting and incredibly warm deals with pricklier situations in which people are slightly evil and conniving. It’s exciting to see a nice person get around those things, someone nice and human, and how they battle those circumstances as opposed to someone who is mean and evil trying to battle evil.”
Beecham House, Kalra adds, is “a very human story within that world. It’s a period piece, so it would be very easy to act to the period, but a wonderful cast has been assembled with some fantastic Indian actors, some from India, some from the UK. With that wonderful cast, it’s amazing to see people in the time period as opposed to them playing up to it.”
Writer brothers Harry and Jack Williams discuss the origins of The Widow, the globetrotting ITV drama starring Kate Beckinsale in her first TV role in more than two decades.
As is par for the course for a Hollywood actress, much of the media attention around Kate Beckinsale focuses on her romantic relationships.
But in the Underworld star’s new TV drama – her first small-screen project in more than 20 years – it’s the absence of a partner that drives the action.
The Widow focuses on Beckinsale’s Georgia Wells, who has been living as a recluse in the Welsh countryside for three years since her husband Will’s death in a plane crash in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Everything changes for Georgia when she spots a man with a remarkable resemblance to Will (Matt Le Nevez) in the background of a news report about the troubled African country. Convinced that, somehow, Will is still alive, she returns to DRC capital Kinshasa for the first time since the plane crash, embarking on a quest for truth that takes her down a dangerous and difficult path.
So begins the latest series from Harry and Jack Williams, the writing brothers behind acclaimed dramas such as The Missing (BBC1), Liar (ITV) and, most recently, Baptiste, a spin-off from The Missing. The show is produced by the writers’ prodco Two Brothers Pictures and distributed by All3Media International.
Making its UK debut on ITV last week after being released in its entirety on Amazon elsewhere in March, The Widow first began to take shape following conversations Harry had with his then girlfriend (now his fiancée), herself a widow. “She had actually written a blog about it, and being in that emotional place was something we’d been talking about – so naturally I ended up coming up with a TV drama with that at the heart of it,” he says wryly.
“We thought it was intriguing to start with a character who’s lost someone. And then, putting our mystery and thriller hats on, we thought, ‘What happens if you see that person again, and what does that do to you?’ It felt like there were a lot of stories there and a lot of ideas, which we were keen to embrace.”
The writers had hoped from the off that Beckinsale could be secured as their lead – something that must have seemed a tall order given it had been two decades since her last dabble with TV, in 1998 telemovie Alice Through the Looking Glass. Sam Donovan, a director on The Widow alongside Olly Blackburn, says: “She was nervous about doing eight hours. It’s a lot of work – four feature films back-to-back, essentially.
“We had a lot of rehearsals, we worked with all the other actors together, we did big page-turns, we had chats on the phone. It was the whole kind of skirting round each other before she agreed, before we agreed. We checked each other out, essentially, before we all said yes. But she got it – she got the character, she got the loss and the determination that Georgia has, and she was super excited to get stuck into the eight hours.”
Donovan was one of several members of the team behind Liar who reunited for The Widow, alongside the Williams brothers and producer Eliza Mellor. “Sam directed the second block of Liar,” says Jack. “There are some scenes that you write and you go, ‘This could be awful’ – it’s a good scene but it could, in the wrong hands, be shit. There was a scene where Joanne Froggatt’s character drugs Ioan Gruffudd’s character and kidnaps him, and it was one of those that could have been awful. But it was amazing when we watched it, so we were like, ‘He’s good – let’s get him again.’”
Harry adds: “It looked fantastic, everything he did in Liar, and we were on the same page in this one as well.”
Beckinsale was undoubtedly encouraged by the continuing success other movie actors have found by migrating to the small screen, offering them the opportunity to flesh out a character across several hours of drama. The latest include Richard Gere in BBC series MotherFatherSon and Julia Roberts in Amazon’s Homecoming.
“You can tell proper character stories over a longer period of time,” Harry says of TV drama. “You can really dig into character. For us as writers, we love having eight hours to dig into a story and tell loads of stories, so I suppose the same must apply to actors when they’re looking at roles. People don’t see it as a step down to go and do a TV show.”
Jack adds: “Everyone’s getting spoilt by the amount of good TV. Actors want something to get their teeth into, a proper role to get stuck into.”
Georgia is the latest in a long line of strong, believable female characters written by Jack and Harry Williams. “With her character in particular, it was quite interesting. You see her in Wales, very closed off, very shut off emotionally. Over the first hour, it’s interesting to watch someone face the challenges that she goes through,” says Jack.
“It was a very good character to write but a very hard one to play,” says Harry, praising Beckinsale for both her performance and her stunt work throughout the show, with Donovan describing her as a “one-take wonder” when it comes to action scenes.
The brothers decided to marry their widow starting point with a longstanding aim to place a drama in Africa. “We’d been talking about something set in Africa for a while, something about the Congo,” says Jack. “It’s just a very interesting place to set something. It was lots of different ideas coming together at the right time.”
While the series is fictitious, it touches on many real-life issues facing countries like the DRC, including child soldiers and corruption. Jack also admits true events helped feed the story, but adds: “I can’t fully say what. A lot of it was informed by the Congo as a place – historically why it’s important, why it’s interesting and why the country faces challenges. Some of that has been in the news recently and I think that’s reflected here. There are some specific things that I won’t spoil.
“This story couldn’t happen anywhere else; by the time you get to the end, this is not a story that could have happened in any other country. It’s not an issue-led show, but that’s there and it’s part of the tapestry. Hopefully it’s accurate.”
Harry adds: “There was a lot of research. A lot goes into it.”
Unfortunately, it proved too complicated to actually film in the DRC, so much of the action was shot in South Africa instead, with the globetrotting production also spending time in Wales and the Dutch city of Rotterdam. The latter plays host to a subplot involving experimental treatment for the blind, which promises to tie into The Widow’s complex narrative as the plot develops.
“We’ve done a lot of shows that are very intricate and involved, but this one more than anything. It’s one of those that, when you get to the end, it would bear re-watching,” says Jack, revealing that the writing process for the series took around 18 months.
“Quite often, we’re working it out as we go, but with this one we kind of knew the shape and the arc of the whole thing a little bit more,” adds Harry. “It took a long time, but I really enjoyed it.”
Despite their impressive hit list, the brothers say the way they write together is far from a fine science. “There’s no process or anything,” says Jack. “It’s like making sausages – no one wants to see that; you just want to eat them.”
Harry picks up: “It’s struggling through ideas and thoughts for a really long time and talking about what the story might be, what we want to say, and then interrogating it as much as we can. Once we’ve figured out what the story is, we divide it in half and go away and not look at each other. Then we write our own halves and swap them over. You can kind of rewrite over the other person’s as much as you want.”
The approach often leads to confusion in terms of who has written what in the final script, with Jack admitting he has found himself praising his brother for his own work on more than one occasion. “I turned to Harry after watching something the other day and I was like, ‘That’s so good, that was a great scene,’ and he said, ‘Well, you wrote it,’” he explains. “I did feel quite ashamed but also quite proud of myself, like, ‘Good on me!’”
A family liaison officer discovers a personal connection to a missing persons case in ITV drama The Bay. DQ speaks to lead director Lee Haven Jones about filming the series, casting Morven Christie and why he believes actors are often neglected.
They are often in the background of a tragedy, offering families and individuals support at the toughest of times. Yet rarely are police family liaison officers and their sensitive role pushed to the forefront of a television drama – a surprising fact considering the range of crime series on air.
Step forward ITV drama The Bay, which stars Morven Christie (The A Word, Ordeal by Innocence) as Detective Sergeant Lisa Armstrong. Described as a fierce and hard-working family liaison officer, she is assigned to a missing persons investigation – but quickly discovers she has a personal connection to this frightened family, one that could compromise her and the investigation.
Set in the English coastal town of Morecambe, the six-part drama comes from writer Daragh Carville (Being Human) and co-creator Richard Clark. It is produced by Tall Story Pictures, with ITV Studios Global Entertainment handling distribution.
It was the location, as well as Carville’s script, that drew lead director Lee Haven Jones (Shetland, Vera) to The Bay. Haven Jones helms the first three episodes, with Robert Quinn (Home Fires) picking up the back three.
He first read the script in March last year, describing it as a “real page-turner” that finds the balance between believable characters and narrative drive. “That’s not always the case,” he explains. “Sometimes it falls on one or the other. There’s also a fantastic central character. Lisa’s fun, feisty and flawed. There’s a fantastic reveal at the end of part one. Then in part two, there’s a moment where Lisa decides not to reveal the truth. That decision ricochets out and has unbelievable consequences as the story unfolds.”
The drama is particularly personal to Carville, who wanted to set it in Morecambe, a stone’s throw from his home in nearby Lancaster and a town literally on the edge, a classic seaside destination for holidaymakers now struggling against the availability of low-cost holidays abroad.
Haven Jones says there was never any doubt the series would be filmed in Morecambe, with interior scenes shot in Manchester. The director calls it an “under-represented” part of the world – one that he found had a cinematic scale.
Inspired by the depictions of the British seaside in film, television and photography, most notably by artists including Martin Parr and John Hinde, he says The Bay doesn’t have the “technicolour” qualities of series like Broadchurch, but does expel the British cliché that it’s ‘grim up north.’
“We’ve sprinkled it with the broadest of colour. We’re trying to impact the glamour of Morecambe,” Haven Jones says. “It’s just a fantastic place to film – the tidal estuary with the sands and finding glamour at the promenade. It’s what we don’t normally get in a seaside town in the Lake District. It’s an ideal place to film.
“The only frustration, owing to the budget, was we couldn’t film more there. A constant refrain of mine to the producers was it’s called The Bay – we want to see the bay. I pushed to get as much of it in the drama.”
Appearing alongside Christie in the series are Jonas Armstrong (Troy), Tracie Bennett (Scott & Bailey), Lindsey Coulson (Funny Cow) and Chanel Cresswell (This is England 90), among others. Haven Jones says “the great thing” about working on The Bay has been the freedom he has been afforded by executive producer Catherine Oldfield, which included casting the ensemble drama.
“Morven read for it and I pretty much knew from the moment she started reading she was perfect for the role,” he recalls. She’s a consummate actress. I’d known of her for a while. She’s done it all. She was at the Royal Shakespeare Company and is a fantastic stage actress. She has a wealth of stage and screen experience. She’s unflappable.
“I remember a conversation with her early on where she found playing a police officer asking questions very difficult. She’s usually used to being interviewed. I said, ‘Don’t panic, you will get your chance!’”
Christie’s Lisa is the heart of the show, providing an emotional core to a drama that otherwise might seem quite procedural, with detectives attempting to solve the mystery laid out at the beginning of the story.
“A lot of work I have directed has been procedural,” says Haven Jones, who is now working on the next season of Doctor Who. “The key for this project is to find it has more emotion to it; it has more heart. It’s a bit of a hybrid between a police crime procedural and family saga. That’s the USP. The police case unravels and then is solved, and all the characters you meet in the first episode are involved in some way.”
With a background as an actor himself, Haven Jones says part of his approach to directing is to focus not only on the visuals but equally the performance of the cast. “Actors are surprisingly neglected by directors,” he asserts. “The thing I’m really pleased about is the quality of the performances. We have mentioned Morven but we’ve also got Jonas and Chanel. They give emotionally charged performances that feel honest and raw to me.
“We did quite a bit of rehearsal, which is also sometimes neglected because some directors think it’s good to get that rawness of the first take [on camera]. I’m of the opinion it’s fantastic to have rehearsals because it unearths layer upon layer of that performance. You never get as much as you want, but we did have a significant amount of time here. It’s just very useful to help figure out what drives these characters and what they are concealing.”
Nothing about The Bay is high-concept, Haven Jones adds, claiming the story’s strengths are in its believability and the relatability of the characters. “They’re very ordinary folk going about their lives in an awful situation. It’s there to be identified with,” he concludes. “It’s just a cracking good story with really good actors doing their thing in a strikingly beautiful landscape.”
Katherine Kelly and Molly Windsor star in a ‘cat and cat’ struggle triggered when a lecturer suspects a student of cheating. The actors, director Louise Hooper and writer Gaby Hull reveal how they keep viewers on edge in this four-part thriller.
In the opening scenes of ITV’s new thriller Cheat, sociology lecturer Dr Leah Dale (Katherine Kelly) is giving a definition of power, power dynamics and coercion from the pre-eminent philosopher Bertrand Russell. Apart from setting up one of the central themes of the ensuing drama, it remains one of the only things that is definitive in the rest of the episode.
Cheat twists and turns and jumps around in time from the opening minute and doesn’t ever really allow the audience to settle. Light relief and levity is in short supply, and when it does come, it is quickly supplanted by more tension.
Ostensibly, the four-part series is about an open-and-shut case of academic deception. Average university student Rose Vaughan, played by Three Girls’ Bafta-winning star Molly Windsor, pops up with a first-class dissertation, setting off alarm bells in the head of academic integrity advocate Leah. While department head Harriet (Neve McIntosh) is won over by Rose’s charm and plea of innocence, Leah is spurred on to expose her as a cheat, setting off a malevolent competition for supremacy between the pair. Meanwhile, Leah seems to be caught in a loveless marriage with her academic husband Adam (Tom Goodman-Hill) who is desperate for a baby and has also been won over by Rose.
Cutting to the present, Adam’s cold and lifeless body is lying on the pathologist’s table while Rose and Leah face off either side of the partition glass in a police visitor room. Detectives are seen questioning whether they have apprehended the real killer, while the audience is left thinking, ‘What the hell has gone on here?’
It comes as no surprise that Cheat is the product of fraternal writing and producing duo Jack and Harry Williams and their prodco Two Brothers Pictures, with distribution handled by All3Media International. Fresh off the back of relationship/crime thriller Liar, also for ITV, and time-shifting Rellik for the BBC, Cheat has all the hallmarks of a tension-filled Two Brothers romp, with many questions unanswered as the audience struggles to work out who to trust. That’s just episode one.
“We’ve left it purposefully open. It’s not the on-the-nose show where you are told where your sympathies should lie,” Kelly (Strike Back) tells DQ after a press screening of the first episode. “Especially by this stage in watching and in lesser hands and with safer choices, you would think your sympathies would lie with me. And the fact they don’t is testament to how hard we worked at that. We were brave enough for the audience to not like us. I don’t want to watch dull certainty, I want to feel an emotion. I want a bit of the audience’s soul, whether it’s with utter detestation and repulsion or total affection and understanding.”
Director Louise Hooper (Vera, Stan Lee’s Lucky Man) says the creative team was intent on making Cheat stand out from other crime dramas with its dichotomies and layers. “We didn’t want to put our flag in the sand and say, ‘It’s this.’ It should be mercurial. It shifts, it pulls and it shifts again, and that’s how it should be,” she explains. The whole point is you don’t know what it is. You’re thinking, ‘Is Rose being a sarcastic bitch or is she being genuine?’
“It’s about all the dark, slippery and wrong emotions that you pretend you don’t have, but everyone does, and they’re the ones that get you into trouble. It’s not a normal thriller/cop show where police cars come in and there’s a dead body; it’s about normal people in this rarefied world of academia and all those feelings about not quite fitting in, feeling jealous, frustrated, and they start to build and build.
“I like that idea of being slightly counter-intuitive with thriller. It feels hot and hazy [at the start], but the underbelly of it is dark and dangerous with all those horrible emotions bubbling.”
The duel between Leah and Rose is chivvied along by an impressive performance from Goodman-Hill as the supercilious, fractious, exasperated and occasionally caring Adam. And in keeping with Cheat’s plan to confound viewer loyalties, you don’t feel the utmost sympathy for the character when you see his corpse lying in the morgue. Peter Firth (Spooks) and Lorraine Ashbourne (Jericho) add to the ensemble with typically divergent parental advice as Leah’s academic mum and dad.
However, it is Kelly and Windsor who are the focal points, their characters’ interactions laced with menace and throwing up signals of sexual allure, obsession, jealousy and certainly some mutual respect.
According to Hooper, director of photography Ed Rutherford wanted to make sure it was a real “cat and cat” relationship, rather than cat and mouse, pitching the main actors against each other, with both “tough as nails, like two boxers in the ring.” Windsor says her portrayal of Rose, therefore, had to be instinctive in places to feel as authentic as possible.
“People are so complex. You have to go into their thoughts and beliefs, because as humans we have thoughts and opinions about everything. So the research never really ends. In terms of doing the job and shooting it, you have to learn your lines. They’re a bit like bullets in a gun that you can’t fire until you’re doing the scene, and you don’t know if that’s going to work or it’s going to misfire. Going in with good writing, directing and great actors, it’s more fun to stay open-minded and work with each other than to work with a set ‘this is what I’m doing.’”
Kelly agrees, adding: “You can’t really go into this with a mindset of how it’s going to play out because both characters are challenged in every single scene. All I did was do my homework in terms of I didn’t go to university, I just wanted to check in – not just with that world, but what that world’s like now – and make sure she looks right and her home feels real and feels authentic.”
Dramas set in the world of academia often find themselves facing criticism, with scholars quick to take to social media to vocalise any unrealistic televisual portrayals. That Leah does not have a permanent role at her university but lives in a palatial detached house will likely raise a few eyebrows, as might Adam’s casual attitude towards a multimillion-pound research grant proposal. Hooper acknowledges she wanted to make Cheat feel “slick and cinematic” but also to maintain as many true-to-life elements as possible.
“When we shot it, I wanted something that felt heightened. It’s a bit wanky, but I love it. [However], it was really important to me that everything felt authentic. I’m not a big fan of things like house porn – ‘oh look, there’s beautiful flowers’ – I’m always breaking things and putting a bit of pollen on the floor. In the house of Adam and Leah, we wanted loads of washing, and piles of stuff, and in Rose’s room there’s eyedrops, so it looks real.”
Additionally, the inspiration for the story sprung from a similar case of real-life cheating brought to writer Gaby Hull (Benidorm) by an academic acquaintance. Although this was originally used as a guiding light for the series, Hull says it became more of a springboard into interpersonal relationships.
“Originally the script was based in academia and university politics, but we pulled back on that because we wanted to up the personal/thriller genres. The themes on the surface are of integrity and standing up for what you believe in, but there’s lovelessness and the destructive power of it. No one wants to hear four hours about an essay,” he jokes. “But I didn’t consider the academics. Hopefully there aren’t enough of them to cause a real fuss!”
As Hull indicates, academia is a handy launchpad for the twists that follow in Cheat, which was screened at Berlinale last month ahead of its ITV launch next Monday. By the time episode one ends, audiences quickly realise that the answers they’re seeking can’t be found in a textbook.
Cleaning Up stars Sheridan Smith as an office cleaner who attempts to clear her gambling debts by entering the murky world of insider trading. Smith, her fellow cast members, writer Mark Marlow and executive producer Jane Featherstone discuss making the six-part ITV drama.
During a screen career spanning more than 20 years, Sheridan Smith has won acclaim for her portrayal of real people in biopics such as The Moorside, Mrs Biggs, The C Word and Cilla. So it’s surprising to hear her reveal that the most stressful part of appearing in ITV drama Cleaning Up was playing Sam, the fictional lead character.
“My own thing is losing myself in Cilla or Mrs Biggs. You have so much research and you focus on their mannerisms. But you hide behind it in a weird way and it’s like, I didn’t know what to do with Sam really,” the actor admits. “That was the most challenging thing for me. You do end up getting angsty with it, because Sam’s living on her nerves. But I have learned to leave it there now and not take it home, if I can. I still go to my own personal stuff to get that emotion, so it’s always going to be hard to switch that on and off.”
In the six-part series, created and written by first-time writer Mark Marlow, Sam is part of an invisible army of minimum-wage cleaners who sweep, polish and dust the offices of a financial firm whose offices look out across London from the city’s towering Canary Wharf district. But struggling with an online gambling addiction and drowning in debt, the mother-of-two begins to use valuable inside information to bet big on the stock market in the hope of changing her fortunes.
After taking some time out of the limelight, stage and screen actor and singer Smith returned with an album last year and an acclaimed performance in BBC one-off drama Care, in which she plays a struggling single mum who finds herself having to care for her elderly mother when the local health authorities refuse to take responsibility.
“She is very vulnerable. I do love playing characters like that,” Smith says of playing Sam. “I also love that she’s such a good mum. [Having children] is something I haven’t done yet, or might not do, but at the heart of it she hasn’t had opportunities that maybe other people got. So I love that she’s got that fire in her belly. Also, the scripts were kind of written on the go because we did it in two blocks. So I didn’t even know what was coming later, which was kind of fun as well because when I was finding stuff out, it was like, ‘Oooh.’ I’ve never had that before. That was quite fun. It has been the longest job I’ve ever done, filming-wise. It was a long shoot, but it’s been fun.”
Cleaning Up completed filming a year ago but the timing of the six-part drama couldn’t be more topical, with gambling and, in particular, mobile gambling apps, being key to the story. It also highlights the plight of the thousands of office cleaners on controversial zero-hour contracts whose work often goes unrecognised or unnoticed.
Smith and co-stars Jade Anouka (Jess) and Branka Katic (Mina) went on a cleaning course to ensure their on-screen performances met the standard of real-life workers, while Smith says she also learned about the stock market and insider trading in a similar fashion to her character, who at one point reads a book called Investing in Shares for Dummies.
“It was confusing to me and completely went over my head when I first started reading about it all. But the great thing is it’s new to Sam as well, so it makes it easier to play because she’s figuring it out as well,” Smith says. “It’s fascinating to learn about it all. I didn’t know anything about that world.”
As Sam’s best friend and fellow cleaner, Jess also becomes drawn into her money-making scheme, hoping to provide a cash injection to her family’s struggling cafe. Anouka, whose previous credits include ITV thriller Trauma, says all the characters are relatable. “I can see people I know who could easily be in these situations. What drew me was these are real people, these are real situations – ordinary people getting themselves into extraordinary situations.”
But while Sam’s cleaning job means no one would suspect her involvement in illicit economic activity, financial trader Blake (Ben Bailey Smith), who unwittingly becomes Sam’s initial source of information, doesn’t quite have the same protection as he picks up stocks for a mysterious buyer whose identity remains a secret through the first episode.
“Blake is playing with high stakes. That’s not lost on him. But to counteract that, there’s also a disturbing sense of nonchalance about what he’s doing, which should tell the audience he’s done it many times,” Bailey Smith says. “If you keep the amount small and the number of times you do it disparate, it will probably fall by the wayside rather than go under the microscope. Blake in that first episode is worried about the microscope, and what’s fascinating about Sam is she feels she’s so far away from that microscope, so why not do it? So I guess you’re seeing, in a funny way, where you can be in terms of tension, panic, worry, concern and fear deeper into the game in Blake, but you’re also seeing what it’s like to start [in Sam].”
Cleaning Up was created by Marlow, who teamed up with lead director Lewis Arnold and prodco Sister Pictures to bring the series to ITV after conceiving the story while watching big-screen blockbuster The Wolf of Wall Street. A former video editor, Marlow had been “trying to be a writer” for five years until Arnold introduced him to Sister founder Jane Featherstone (Broadchurch, Humans).
“Lewis and Mark sent me the first draft and I read it and loved it. I was like, ‘But you’re a brand new writer, so this is great but can you do a rewrite?’” Featherstone recalls. “I said, ‘Here are my thoughts on it, if you can do a rewrite, I’ll take it on, because if you can’t there’s no point in being a TV writer.’ That’s the process of scriptwriting, that’s normal. We do that on every single script, but I didn’t know if Mark could do that – and it turned out he could. So I took it on and we did 15 more drafts and then took it to ITV when it was this very beautiful thing Mark had really honed. They greenlit it within about a week.”
Marlow then faced the “daunting” challenge of writing the remaining five episodes, having only ever written a handful of pilot spec scripts. Thankfully, he had an idea of how episode two might begin and that kickstarted the process, which he describes as a huge learning curve.
Key to the script was getting the character of Sam right – an exercise the writer completed with the help of input from Arnold. “I knew the idea of the show was big but it would fall down if you didn’t believe the character would do something,” Marlow explains. “So I spent many weeks talking to Lewis about what we needed to get Sam correct, particularly in the first half of the first episode, so when we see her going down this criminal path, you totally buy that this person is going to do this. Lewis was helpful in getting that right. Then, once we were happy we had a character that worked, that was the version Jane saw.”
Filming was largely split between London’s iconic Canary Wharf district and a housing estate in the shadow of tower blocks, where Sam lives with her two daughters. A suitable home was found on the Isle of Dogs, with Featherstone admitting it was important to get the location right.
“I’m really fussy about that sort of thing and getting it right, so we built the interior of the house in a studio and used the exterior on the Isle of Dogs,” she says, revealing that cameras weren’t allowed to film on land owned by the Canary Wharf management company due to the subject of the drama. “But there’s a patch of land in front of Canary Wharf Tube station, not owned by Canary Wharf, so all the scenes in Canary Wharf have to be there, all on private land.
“All the banks also said no to filming but there’s a floor owned by an office rental company in one of those very tall buildings and we rented that, so we were there.”
While broadcasters can be nervous about commissioning scripts from fresh writers, Sister Pictures’ involvement put ITV at ease, giving Marlow the space and support he needed to write the drama, which is distributed internationally by ITV Studios Global Entertainment. Featherstone says the story was “irresistible” to her, though the fact it isn’t strictly a ‘genre’ piece was one of the most difficult elements of the project.
“Everyone’s desperate for stories but it’s difficult to make things that don’t have a genre underpinning them,” she explains. “It’s the hardest thing of all, because there’s no body. What we did have was a criminal element in terms of the jeopardy, and the stakes are there because of what Sam’s getting involved with. But really it’s a family drama.”
Featherstone and Marlow have discussed storylines for possible second and third seasons, though they admit Cleaning Up’s future rests with viewers and whether they follow Sam’s morally dubious journey into the murky world of insider trading.
For her part, Smith says she would also be keen to come back to the show, which begins on ITV on January 9. And as a keen observer of the creative process through production, she is now developing plans to set up her own prodco and build a future off-screen.
“There are a lot of exciting things [I’d like to produce],” she says. “There are lots of things I’m planning to do this year, a lot of great acting roles, so I’ve still got that. But, going forward, that’s the next dream – being creatively involved and maybe doing some more behind the scenes. Who knows, I might direct; I don’t know. That might be 20 years down the line. I’m just exploring the whole thing of being able to develop things with people and have much more say in it all.”
A feature-length drama explores how British ice skaters Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean overcame humble beginnings to win gold at the 1984 Winter Olympics. DQ speaks to writer William Ivory and skating consultants Nick Buckland and Penny Coomes about making the ITV film.
Such is the fame and unrivalled legacy of British ice skaters Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean that few who watch a new ITV film based on their rise to fame will not know the result of the 1984 Winter Olympics that saw them perform their iconic Bolero routine in Sarajevo.
Yet it’s a sign of the emotional tension in Torvill & Dean that you’re still willing them to grab first place as if you were watching the real thing for the first time.
Torvill & Dean stars Poppy Lee Friar (Ackley Bridge) and Will Tudor (Game of Thrones) in the respective lead roles as writer William Ivory (Made in Dagenham) charts the pair’s early years, from the first time they ventured onto the ice to those final moments that saw them clinch Olympic gold.
The Darlow Smithson production’s cast also includes Anita Dobson, Stephen Tomkinson, Jo Hartley, Dean Andrews, Christine Bottomley, Jaime Winston and Susan Earl. The executive producers are Ivory and Emily Dalton, the producer is Emma Burge and the director is Gillies MacKinnon. International distribution is handled by Endemol Shine International.
The biopic, which is described as a fictionalised account of true events, opens in Nottingham in 1968 with Jayne and Chris as children in their family homes. Jayne is introduced to skating on a school trip, while Chris, following his parents’ separation, is given a pair of skates by his new stepmother.
Both begin to train with different partners, before they are brought together and are soon taking part in competitions. But with both having full-time jobs and commitments beyond the rink, they face an uphill battle to achieve their dreams.
Ivory has form as a screenwriter of one-off biopics, penning 2012’s rowing-focused Bert & Dickie to tie in with that year’s London Olympics. He also wrote Burton & Taylor, about the relationship between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, the following year.
“I’m a bit down on so many shows that are either procedurals or there are dead bodies lying around. It gets harder and harder to write dramas that aren’t like that, truthfully,” he says of the appeal of Torvill & Dean. “So to be able to write something that is an exploration of two people and how they came to be the successes they were is wonderful.”
The writer says he approaches all fact-based dramas in the same way – by finding a personal connection to the material. When he was first approached to write Torvill & Dean four years ago, he turned the project down because he didn’t think he could add any value to their story. Then he met exec producer Dalton, and the figure skaters themselves, and became interested in their creative process and how they work together as artists.
Torvill and Dean read various drafts of the script and gave notes, but all the time understood Ivory was keen to get under their skin and explore certain themes and moments in their lives that they may not have considered significant. Some lines were cut, other bits were kept in, while some scenes were transplanted from one location or time to another to meet the practicalities of the script.
As a result, “I believe this film is part of their iconography now,” Ivory says. “It might sound ridiculously overblown but I think they’ve been doing something really interesting right through their careers and they are still exploring something, they are trying to push themselves creatively all the time and I admire that.
“There’s one bit in the film that’s a denouement and is a speech I’d entirely made up, but Chris read it and said, ‘That’s me.’ That’s really gratifying. It’s hard because you don’t want to mess up somebody’s life.”
In the film, the contrasting personalities of Torvill and Dean become clear, with the latter more abrasive and abrupt while Torvill appears gentler and more accommodating.
“Sometimes I think with Chris it’s almost like he can’t articulate what he’s feeling, yet he’s feeling it with such great passion and force and sometimes that can be quite frustrating for him. And Jayne has just got this incredible ability to take that raw, unfettered emotion and kind of convert it into movement and dance on the ice,” Ivory explains. “At times, she had to be the more accommodating to achieve what they wanted, otherwise they could have combusted. I think they were just incredible.”
With biopics often focusing on one particular event, it’s interesting that Ivory chose to write a broad take on Torvill and Dean, from their childhood to the Bolero in 1984. When he wrote Bert & Dickie, he recalls, he cut the first 90 pages of the script, as it was all backstory, to give the show a singular focus on Dickie Burnell and Bert Bushnell’s bid for gold at the 1948 Olympics.
In this case, Ivory was keen to show where Torvill and Dean had come from and, in particular, the fact that they didn’t receive any help on their journey to becoming world-class skaters. Dean, in particular, had an unsettled childhood, which features in the film, and the writer believes this informed his demand for precision and the stories in their dances, which were often about love or unrequited love.
And though Ivory was given a lot of creative freedom – he relocated one skating competition from Bristol to Sheffield – there is only one character he made up, Mark Benton’s ice rink worker Ted. “Bizarrely, that was the one I had the most problems with because we had to make sure there was nobody around at the time who could be mistaken for that character, because I made it all up about him and his role,” he says. “He’s this anchor to the world they came from and to which they never quite left. He also represents the pride Nottingham has for Jayne and Chris – we take great joy and reflected glory in their success.”
Unsurprisingly, the challenges of making Torvill & Dean centred on scenes filmed on the ice, which Ivory describes as a “very hostile environment” for a film crew. Not only was it tough to light correctly, but recreating the skaters’ extremely difficult routines also proved tricky.
That was where Nick Buckland and Penny Coomes, five-time British ice skating champions and three-time Olympians, came in, acting as consultants, skating doubles and mentors on the drama. The couple also trained in Nottingham, with Dean among their coaching team, and cited Torvill and Dean as their main inspirations.
Filming took place in Belfast, where they felt “huge” responsibility to ensure the skating was accurate and authentic.
“Our world is a funny one because you just get to see the end product – you get to see the sparkles, the make-up, the music, the lights. And you don’t really get to see what it takes to get to that point,” Coomes explains. “I for one have been through more than my fair share of injuries, and you see that [in the film] too. It’s nice to give our sport this exposure to show that, yes, it’s an amazing thing to be an athlete, but it’s hard too. I think it’s honest and real; that’s what I love about it.”
Leading actors Friar and Tudor didn’t get too much time to train before the shoot, but Buckland and Coomes say they both fell in love with skating. “They wanted to do as much as they could possibly do within the movie, so it was great to work with people who were enthusiastic and wanted to get it right and take the time,” Coomes says. “It’s hard because they had such a tall order to skate and be Jayne and Chris. It was something that was quite daunting for us but they definitely did well.”
Buckland reveals they started a WhatsApp group where they would share pictures of movements and poses they wanted the actors to learn, communicating with them around the clock.
Then on the ice, Friar and Tudor would skate together, and for any complex moves, Buckland and Coomes would step onto the rink. Sometimes Tudor would dance with Coomes, and Friar with Buckland, depending on the shot required by the director.
“They were very clever in the way they filmed it,” Buckland says. “We got a variety of all sorts of different routines Torvill and Dean did the whole way through. But it’s about the story, really, and the story is about them and their relationship on and off the ice. The skating is just one part of their journey.”
“The challenge was mainly having enough time to give each scene everything and making sure we went through everything properly,” Coomes adds. “It did add a different dynamic to what the film crew and the director were used to. It took some time to get things going, and certain scenes took longer than others. Like anything, you always wish you had a little more time.”
With Torvill & Dean airing as the centrepiece of ITV’s Christmas Day schedule, Ivory hopes viewers will be left with a greater appreciation of the sacrifices the duo made to reach the top.
“I think they made sacrifices for their art, rather than their sport. For me, that’s an even more noble thing to do,” he says. “We see where they come from and we see their circumstances. They had no money, no help. They came from really simple backgrounds, and to achieve what they did, I think it’s really worth celebrating. We’re not great at celebrating our heroes in this country, and we should do with them.”
As London faces increasing demand for studio space, DQ visits Manchester to find out how the UK city and Space Studios are proving to be an attractive filming proposition for high-end television drama productions.
For many television makers and watchers, Manchester will always be known as the home of ITV’s iconic soap Coronation Street. The long-running series, its former home at Granada Studios and its move to MediaCityUK, where the BBC can also now be found, have certainly helped to put the north-west English city on the map when it comes to TV production.
But with the demand for studio space in London at an increasing premium, coupled with the requirement of UK broadcasters to see dramas created and set outside the capital, Manchester is now becoming an attractive destination for high-end drama producers through Space Studios and its partnership with Screen Manchester.
Located on the outskirts of the city centre, Space Studios still looks box fresh, with an array of towering sound stages, workshops, business units and car park space that doubles as room for unit bases. Equipment companies including Panavision and Provision are among those on site.
It was here that upcoming Sky1 street-racing drama Curfew took over three stages for six months of filming, while walking down the numerous corridors reveals that offices have been allocated to ITV crime drama The Bay’s costume department, BBC period series World on Fire’s art department and Amazon and Liberty Global’s psychological drama The Feed’s art department and production office.
Other recent dramas to have been filmed there include Cold Feet and The A Word.
Built on the site of the former West Gorton housing estate, which became synonymous with Channel 4 drama Shameless, Space Studios opened in May 2014 as a purpose-built facility for high-end TV, film and commercial production. Six sound stages offer more than 85,000 sq ft, with the imposing stage six, which opened in February this year as part of a £14m (US$17.9m) expansion, offering 30,000 sq ft alone, with adjacent room for props, set builds and dressing rooms.
The Space project was originally devised by Sue Woodward, a former MD of ITV Granada, founding director of social enterprise Sharp Futures and founder of The Sharp Project, a hub that is home to more than 60 entrepreneurs in the city specialising in digital content production, digital media and film and TV production. Both Space Studios and The Sharp Project are managed by Manchester Creative Digital Assets (MCDA), which was set up by Manchester City Council to oversee the city’s digital, production and creative sectors.
The Sharp Project was opened on the site of a former Sharp electronics distribution warehouse, which was bought by the city after the company vacated the premises. Series such as comedies Fresh Meat and Mount Pleasant have been filmed there and the success of the venture led to the decision to create a dedicated production facility on the site of a former Fujitsu electronics factory.
Colin Johnson, director of screens and facilities at Space Studios, recalls: “We knew that we could make television in the city because we’d done it at The Sharp Project, and we could tell there was going to be a big uplift in demand [for production space] because of OTT and SVoD platforms commissioning drama, tax breaks and people being displaced from London.”
Phase one was completed in 2014 and since then, “we’ve been pretty full ever since,” Johnson adds.
The land where stage six was built was a former Victorian pump factory, which was adopted by Space Studios once it became clear there was sufficient demand for a larger sound stage. Further space on an adjacent site has recently been cleared, with the potential to expand further.
Throughout its development, and beyond, it has also sought to be an anchor in the local community, working with Sharp Futures to offer apprenticeship schemes and keen to plug into the surrounding talent pool through job opportunities and skills days.
“London’s full and we’re here. It’s as simple as that,” Johnson says of Space Studios’ success. “We’ll show producers the space before they get the job and then they pick up the phone to us and say, ‘Have you got availability?’ We’re getting those calls because of the ground work we’ve put in early on. Some of the people bringing jobs in we showed round when stage six wasn’t there or showed round when we were a building site. We’re here – and London seems to be full.”
Rob Page, commercial director of MCDA, continues: “The ecology’s here as well, most importantly, in Manchester, whether it be crews or Screen Manchester assisting you while you’re on location. We’re not just another warehouse in the middle of nowhere without an ecosystem surrounding you.”
Much has been made of new studios planned for London, in particular a £100m proposal to build 12 sound stages as part of a complex in Dagenham, east London. Approval for the plans was received in February this year. But Johnson and Page stress that, in contrast, Space Studios is ready now. “We’re really well placed in that we have the skills, we’re in the centre of the country, we have the stages and these facilities,” Johnson adds.
Beyond Space Studios, Manchester has been home to location shoots for series including Age Before Beauty, No Offence, Our Girl, Snatch and Scott & Bailey. Castles and coastlines are also within reach of the city centre.
But until Screen Manchester launched in July 2017, the city didn’t have a formal film office. Since then, development manager Bobby Cochrane says Sky1’s Curfew has become the biggest drama Manchester has done to date. The office facilitated racing scenes by closing Mancunian Way, an elevated highway linking the east and west of the city.
Streets around Manchester’s viaducts, Northern Quarter and Spring Gardens areas can also double for London and New York, while Hugh Grant’s BBC1 drama A Very English Scandal also spent several days filming inside Manchester Town Hall, which shares similar interior architecture to the Houses of Parliament.
Working in partnership with Space Studios, the aim is to become a one-stop shop where producers can find studio space, locations and seek permissions such as road closures under one roof.
Cochrane adds: “Manchester has got a central hub where everything you can do in the city is under one umbrella. We want it to be a global film-friendly city.”
William Makepeace Thackeray’s classic novel Vanity Fair has been adapted for UK broadcaster ITV and streamer Amazon. DQ speaks to the writer and some of the key creative talent behind the camera to find out how this strikingly contemporary series was made.
Ten years ago, Gwyneth Hughes began writing an adaptation of Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray’s 19th century novel long considered a classic of English literature. Her modern update of the story never made it to screen, however, and her work was left unfinished.
Fast-forward a decade and Hughes (Dark Angel, Remember Me) has penned a new version, this time keeping its period setting, which will premiere in the UK on ITV on September 2 and on Amazon Prime Video in the US later this year.
Set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, the story follows Becky Sharp as she attempts to claw her way out of poverty and scale the heights of English society.
Hughes describes the source material as “an absolute romp” that bounces between extremes, from light comedy to terrible tragedy. She has sought to keep that variation in her adaptation, but says large parts of the second half of the book have been trimmed, when the pace of events becomes decidedly slower. As a result, the Battle of Waterloo, which happens halfway through Thackeray’s tome, takes place in episode five of the seven-part series.
In relation to the story’s heroine, “all the other characters have money, they’ve all got family and middle-class incomes, but she’s alone in the world,” the writer says. “She thinks she deserves better, and her sense of entitlement that drives her all the way through the story is a really modern theme, in bad ways as well as good. In the end, you love her without liking her because she behaves so badly at times – but that also makes her extremely relatable.”
Despite making some cuts, the production sought to be as faithful to the source material as possible. On set, producer Julia Stannard would carry copies of Thackeray’s novel as well as Hughes’ scripts so the subtext of the author’s work was never lost in adaptation.
“With seven hours of drama, you’re asking people to make a big investment in terms of their time to keep coming back and watching, so you have to care about the characters,” Stannard says. “That is a big challenge for Vanity Fair because it is a world inhabited by flawed characters. So how do you make it emotionally engaging without dumbing it down or changing the original text? Thackeray cared a lot about these characters and I think we’ve created a world in which our audience will care about those characters too.”
After working on several contemporary series such as Broadchurch and Liar, director James Strong found the new challenge he was looking for in Vanity Fair, revealing that he was drawn towards the variety and scale of the story as well as the team he would be working with. The series comes from Mammoth Screen and is distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.
“Gwyneth had done an amazing adaptation; she distilled the essence of the book into the story so, for me, it was about finding a visual language that made it feel relevant, exciting and interesting,” Strong says of his approach behind the camera. “Some period dramas can be quite reverential and respectful. This one I wanted to feel very much like it was a period drama shot in a contemporary manner.”
In practice, Strong used zooms, steadicam and handheld cameras to shoot the series, mixed with wide-angle lenses that could convey huge scale. “Then you’re up close with the characters in an intimate and personal way, always with Becky at the heart of it,” he explains. “Her vision, her perspective of the world around her, also dictates the camera pattern and style, so we look at it though her eyes quite literally in many ways.”
Becky is played by up-and-coming actor Olivia Cooke (Bates Motel), who heads a cast that also includes Johnny Flynn as Dobbin, Martin Clunes (Sir Pitt Crawley), Frances de La Tour (Miss Matilda Crawley) and Suranne Jones (Miss Pinkerton), while Michael Palin appears as Thackeray himself. The series also features Claudia Jessie as Becky’s confidante, Amelia Sedley, plus Simon Russell Beale and Claire Skinner as Amelia’s parents and David Fynn as her brother, Joss.
By the time Vanity Fair airs, Cooke will be a huge Hollywood star, thanks to her role in Steven Spielberg’s futuristic nostalgia trip Ready Player One. “Our little Olivia is going to be Steven Spielberg’s latest heroine and then she’s going to pop up as Becky Sharp. It’s great,” muses Hughes. “She’s very talented; she’s going to go far. We were very lucky to catch her on the way up.”
Stannard picks up: “We wanted to put together a cast that felt surprising, so Olivia was not a TV name, she’s a movie star. Martin Clunes is in his first big period drama, Frances de La Tour is a national treasure. And our young cast, I can guarantee, will be household names in a couple of years. Johnny Flynn, Charlie Rowe, Tom Bateman, Claudia Jessie, they’re all incredibly talented young actors.”
Shooting began in September 2017 and finished at the beginning of February, with most filming taking place in London. The crew also spent time in Budapest, which doubled for scenes set in Brussels and Pumpernickel, a small Germany principality featured in the novel.
“A lot of them have to be period-correct so it was a big challenge to find the right locations,” Strong says. “A lot of settings [such as characters’ houses] are composites so we do the drawing room and the bedrooms in one place, then you do the exterior in one place and the kitchen or the garden somewhere else.”
All in all, Vanity Fair was shot on 120 sets across 12 weeks. And while the series was filmed entirely on location, visual effects played their part in bringing the sets to life.
“The job has definitely changed over the years and I’m embracing it because we can’t physically do everything,” says production designer Anna Pritchard (Broadchurch, Top Boy). “The time pressure of building streets and covering roads, especially when you go back in time and do 1815, there might be one Georgian building but it’s changed so many times… You could build from scratch but you know you’re spending thousands and thousands of pounds and it doesn’t ever look 100%. So what VFX can do for us is absolutely amazing.
“It was such a beautiful project to work on because it was so varied – we got to build streets and all the characters’ houses. I loved every single one of them. Even going to Budapest was fantastic. We made good use of their period architecture.”
With location logistics and actor availability complicating proceedings, the production schedule was akin to a military exercise – quite literally when it came to filming sequences recreating the Battle of Waterloo, the centrepiece of the show. “We had 300 men playing Napoleonic soldiers living in camp. We had 50 horses, plus armourers, explosions. We had VFX, drones and sometimes two or three shooting crews, costume and make-up,” reveals Strong. “All of that is a massive undertaking and, at the centre of it, you’ve got to keep the vision going and deal with the weather and whatever it throws at you.”
Strong is no stranger to televisual set pieces, having assassinated JFK in Hulu drama 11.22.63 and overseen multiple alien invasions in Doctor Who. But he hadn’t orchestrated a Napoleonic battle before. Likewise, Hughes had previously never written a war scene.
“There’s actually more of it [in the script] than Thackeray wrote in the book,” she says. “And never in my whole writing life have I been asked to write a scene that began ‘Ext – Battlefield – Day.’ You write that and then think, ‘Now what?’ I learned to write a battle, so that was fun.”
“Day one and, oh my gosh, it’s war – and how are we going to do it?” says Pritchard, recalling the first time she read the script. “It’s all about the cavalry, the horses, the cannons and the weapons, the artillery and the armoury. But the wonderful thing about battles is it’s all set in a field. So for me, it’s not so much about what I’m going to build but the art of war and how we make it look good. A lot of fine detail and research went into that.”
Stannard, however, is well versed in battle scenes, having previously produced War & Peace for the BBC. So when she joined Vanity Fair early in its development, she was quick to call in military adviser Paul Biddiss and horsemasters The Devil’s Horsemen, having worked with both on the Tolstoy adaptation.
“Thackeray doesn’t go into a great amount of detail about the battle but what was important was these are very privileged young men and they have never really faced any challenges in life,” she says. “Suddenly they’re thrown onto a battlefield, young men in their early 20s, and they literally don’t know what’s about to hit them. It’s about the shock and the contrast between their very privileged lives in London and the reality of suddenly becoming soldiers. That felt like a massive journey for those characters and it felt like it would be a cheat if we didn’t show the audience that and let them share that experience.”
Hughes has form when it comes to television adaptations, having penned a version of Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood. She also wrote the biographical Miss Austen Regrets, based on the life of novelist Jane Austen, known for works such as Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility.
“You don’t have to read Vanity Fair. It’s alright, I read it for you,” Hughes says, echoing the words of fellow writer Andrew Davies when he spoke about adapting Tolstoy’s War & Peace in 2016. “So for people who never pick up a book, they can still enjoy this wonderful story. We always come back to these stories because they are the best stories ever written. That’s why they’ve lasted.”
That timelessness is also why Stannard believes classic works of literature continue to be remade for the small screen. “I’m not really interested in making drama that just feels locked in that time,” she says. “What I’m interested in is looking at the key themes of the book and what’s happening for those characters and relating it to the here and now.
“It’s a great challenge to adapt a book that’s been adapted before. The biggest challenge for us was probably making it feel fresh and different. I hope and believe we’ve done that.”
Writer Daragh Carville tells DQ about creating ITV crime drama The Bay, which was born out of his ambition to put a new twist on a familiar genre.
With filming now underway on six-part crime drama The Bay, don’t be surprised to see writer Daragh Carville hanging around the set. But rather than keeping an eye on how his scripts are being transformed for the cameras, he’ll be there just to admire how a television drama is actually made.
“I do like being involved in that side of things. I’m enough of a fanboy to find the nuts and bolts of what directors and actors do and the whole production process fascinating,” he says. “But, realistically, my priority has to be the scripts.”
Co-created with Richard Clark, The Bay follows DS Lisa Armstrong, a fierce and hardworking family liaison officer who is assigned to a missing persons case, supporting the family through a terrible ordeal while also helping the police investigation. But when she realises she is personally connected to the case, she discovers fighting for justice comes at a cost.
Ordeal by Innocence and The A Word star Morven Christie (pictured top) plays Lisa, with Jonas Armstrong, Tracie Bennett, Lindsey Coulson and Chanel Cresswell also among the cast. The series, due to air in 2019, is produced by Tall Story Pictures for UK broadcaster ITV, with ITV Studios Global Entertainment distributing worldwide.
Carville’s career has spanned theatre, film and television, with small-screen credits including supernatural drama Being Human, student-focused 6 Degrees and firefighter series The Smoke. While he still considers himself as a playwright, moving between the stage and screen, he believes there’s something particularly exciting happening currently in TV drama.
“It’s to do with the canvas we’ve got, which makes it very different from a theatre piece. Theatre is extraordinary – each new play has its own set of rules. It’s a wonderful place for metaphor and poetry,” he says. “But the opportunity to tell a story of multiple episodes over many years feels like an extraordinary thing. It makes it very different from the stage or movies. It’s its own unique art form.”
Key to any good drama is character, Carville continues. “The shows I respond to most have got really complex and detailed characters at their heart,” he says, highlighting series such as Breaking Bad. “Characters like Walter White, Jesse and Hank are just engines of story. They generate so much drama because of who they are. They’re people living with secrets and complications; characters that are driven. We understand why someone is doing something, even if what they are doing is mad, wrong, risky or dangerous.”
Genre is also important, with Carville revealing it’s often the topic of the first conversation you have in television. But the writer says a straightforward police procedural isn’t enough for him anymore, either as a writer or a viewer.
“I want to go home with those cops. I want to understand their families and lives and the impact of this crime on the community. I want to feel,” he says. “I don’t want to solve a puzzle as if doing a crossword. What I want is drama and to be moved and taken on a journey.”
Subsequently, The Bay was born out of Carville’s desire to put a new spin on the crime genre and take viewers on a new journey through the experience of a family liaison officer – a character often seen in the background but rarely heard in television dramas.
The spark came from a radio news item about the aftermath of a murder trial, in which the family of the victim made a statement outside the courthouse and specifically thanked the officer who provided them with support throughout their ordeal. It gave Carville the idea to write a crime drama with family firmly at its centre.
“That officer is at the cross point of a crime and family drama. Someone who, after the crime has affected the family, goes in and works with those people potentially day and night at the most emotional and traumatic time of their lives,” he says. “So there’s a multitude of stories there. But that’s just a job – I had to find out who she was. I just started to do the kind of work that writers do, sketching ideas and working out who that person could be and gradually discovering this character, Lisa Armstrong.”
The drama is made more personal to Carville by its setting in the northern English coastal town of Morecambe, with the series now in production there and in nearby Manchester. The writer lives in Lancaster, adjacent to Morecambe, and has long wanted to write something set in this place that is literally on the edge, a classic seaside town that has lost its identity as UK residents increasingly go abroad for their holidays.
“In reality, there’s a lot of poverty and deprivation, and yet it’s a very beautiful place. There are a lot of contrasts and contradictions at work,” he says. “There’s never been a show set in Morecambe; it’s unexplored territory for a TV drama. I wanted to write something set in the community I live in. So all of those things came together to generate this show.”
There’s also the sense that Carville wanted to firmly root his drama in reality, akin to shows from writers he admires such as Russel T Davies, Jimmy McGovern, Sally Wainwright or Lucy Kirkwood.
“Even in a genre series, what I’m interested in is not what a person would do in a cop show but what is happening to them in real life. You’re constantly measuring the story against lived experience. That’s true of language as well – it’s important to have dialogue that has a music to it, that rhythmic and is fun to say and listen to so that it feels real.”
That drama is currently enjoying a new golden age is not in doubt, with the likes of HBO, AMC and other US networks bringing some all-time-great series to the screen over the past few years. But Carville is also keen to recognise the outstanding work being done in the UK.
“Not enough people also acknowledge that there is brilliant work happening in British TV,” he says. “I would say Happy Valley and Line of Duty are the equal of any of those great HBO shows in terms of their narrative drive, their richness and complexity of character. They’re right up there, they’re absolutely brilliant, and those are just two examples. A Very English Scandal was an absolutely brilliant piece that couldn’t exist anywhere else.”
Four years after it last aired, British code-breaking drama The Bletchley Circle has been resurrected and transferred to the US. DQ hears from showrunner Michael MacLennan and production designer Joanna Dunn about creating The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco.
When The Bletchley Circle came to an end after just two seasons – totalling seven episodes – in 2014, many viewers bemoaned what they saw as the premature demise of a popular drama. Ultimately, however, it wasn’t popular enough for UK broadcaster ITV to stick with the 1950s-set code-breaking crime series for a third run and the case was closed.
But in today’s television landscape, cancelled doesn’t always mean cancelled, and SVoD platforms have now built a – perhaps unwanted – reputation for reviving series that have met their end elsewhere. Amazon’s order of a fourth season of Syfy space drama The Expanse and Netflix’s commitment to a fourth run of former Fox series Lucifer are just two recent examples.
The return of The Bletchley Circle differs, however, in the fact that this isn’t just a continuation with all the same characters and the same setting for a new season. Instead, ITV has partnered with US streaming service Britbox (which is backed by ITV and BBC Studios) for The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco, which transplants two of the original characters to the Pacific coast where they team up with new faces to investigate more crimes stateside.
Set in 1956, three years after the end of The Bletchley Circle on ITV, the show sees Jean (Julie Graham) and Millie (Rachael Stirling) leave London for San Francisco to investigate the murder of a close friend. There they are joined by North American code-breakers Iris and Hailey who, like their British counterparts, find themselves undervalued and overlooked despite their indispensable contributions to the war effort. With renewed purpose, the code-breaking team will stay in San Fran and continue to solve mysteries together in the Bay Area.
Iris, played by Crystal Balint, is described as a brilliant mathematician and jazz musician, while Hailey (Chanelle Peloso) is a streetwise engineer with a secret. The new cast also includes Jennifer Spence as fellow code-breaker Olivia and Ben Cotton as roguish homicide detective Bill Bryce.
Directors on the series include Gary Harvey (Murdoch Mysteries), Mike Rohl (Reign), Alexandra La Roche (The Flash) and David Frazee (Orphan Black), while the executive producers are creator Guy Burt, Jake Lushington, Brian Hamilton and Canadian showrunner Michael MacLennan (Queer as Folk, Bomb Girls). The series is produced by Omnifilm Entertainment in association with World Productions, which made the original series, with Kew Media distributing.
MacLennan says he was attracted to The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco – the first original series commissioned by Britbox – by the story of “intelligent women who had been underestimated their whole lives.”
“I’m drawn to stories about strong women and particularly how the original The Bletchley Circle was about women who were building each other up, who were co-operating, who were recognising they were stronger together than they were apart,” he says. “It was very exciting for me to see how this kind of unique constellation of talents and temperaments came together, the results of which were unstoppable.”
The show is set at the dawn of the civil rights movement in the US, with San Francisco epitomising the country’s tremendous change – from gentrification to the transformation in racial politics – making the city the perfect setting for the series.
“When Jean and Millie come to California, it’s like they’re visiting the future,” MacLennan says, noting the differences between London, still recovering from the after-effects of the Second World War, and the Pacific coast, which was not directly touched by the conflict. “The other thing is that it was also the very beginning of the feminist movement. It was just beginning to happen, that there had been women who had come to realise their powers and potential, largely through what they did during the war, who had that tamped back down again. They went off to be mothers or wives and, after a couple years, there was a sense that ‘this isn’t enough for me, I want to recapture some of the things I’m capable of.’ It was a very exciting time of social change.”
Discussing his approach to writing the season (which tells four stories over eight episodes), MacLennan says that if he knows the ending at the beginning of writing the story, so too will the audience. “So we’ve always left room in the writing to be surprised by the discoveries ourselves as we’re cobbling together these stories,” he explains. “What’s unique about the way we’re telling our mysteries is that they’re told over two hours, so that gives us a little more time to have more layers of complexity to the mystery, and also to allow for more of those character moments for both the guest stars and our series regulars.
“When I think about a mystery, it’s usually twofold. I think about the research; I’m always looking for a story that is true to the time, but that has contemporary analogs – something that we’re going to feel like there’s a texture of it, that feels real to our lives today, a lens through which we can explore themes of today. The other side of it is character. What does this mystery do to our women? I’m always looking for ways that the investigation hook can into their personal lives. You test every good idea, and I have to admit there were a few where we were barreling towards one solution and came upon a better one, a bigger surprise. That’s a very exciting thing when you’re telling a mystery story, that you don’t have a sense of the inevitable. I think when you approach your story from that point of view, it allows the audience to be just as surprised as we are.”
As well as the city backdrop and its numerous diverse neighbourhoods, music plays an important part in setting the mood and tone for the series, via both jazz and the emerging genre of of rock ‘n’ roll. Guy Garvey, the lead singer of British band Elbow, notably makes an appearance on stage.
MacLennan says he was inspired by one of the main settings of the series, the Big Bop Club, which is based on Bop City, the first integrated club in San Francisco. “It was primarily a jazz club, and this is a place where you would see black and white musicians on the same stage, together,” he says. “The same goes with the folks on the other side of the lights, watching it. That was a rare and remarkable thing for the time, and it’s also part of the key to the place’s success. I was very excited by that as a way to present not just diversity of characters, but diversity in terms of the musical collaboration.”
With filming taking place in Vancouver, the Canadian city that has regularly doubled for San Francisco on screen, production designer Joanna Dunn was tasked with finding a way to blend 1950s America with some of the British style of the original series.
“1956 is kind of the cusp, a little before what we think of as the 50s iconically,” she says. “It’s not sock hops and poodle skirts; you want to keep a bit of a foot in what Bletchley was in the UK, so it’s more pencil skirts, more streamlined, a bit more architectural. Fifties colours are amazing, but you have to be careful because a lot of them are not good on people’s skin tones, so you are restricted to more blues, yellows and greens for the palette and tone.
“I wanted it to be bright and exciting because it’s such a fun and colourful time, but I also didn’t want to detract from people, so it’s taking that vibrancy that was a direct contrast from England and taking it down ever so slightly to make it fit. I wanted a good transition from England to here, while still being able to make it look like the land of milk and honey.”
There is more than just the 1950s on show, however, with a Victorian rooming house, the 1920s-inspired Big Bop and Iris’s family home from the 1940s. “I like that each set had its own period and its own style, but I still feel they’re all connected,” Dunn says. “It still all feels like it belongs in the same environment, and I think that’s because the city of San Francisco is also the same way.”
The designer notes that the most challenging aspect of making the series, which debuts tonight on ITV and tomorrow on Britbox, was recreating the period setting in modern-looking Vancouver. “We don’t keep a sense of history in the same way, we’re a city of transplants. Everybody is from somewhere else,” she says. “There are no roots, so I find historical things aren’t kept in the same way. Things are just taken down and built modern, which is progressive, but it’s hard to do the 50s when everything looks like it’s been built in the last 20 years.”
Having said that, Dunn enjoyed recreating a period she describes as her personal favourite. “There’s this simplicity of 50s design – there’s almost a lack of design, that stripped-back minimalism that was just starting, so it’s nice to embrace that,” she adds. “The police station is probably the best example of this because I wanted to try to give a ‘new’ construction feel. They built new things back then, so the police station was a new construction. They didn’t over-design, they didn’t over-decorate and, because of that, the lighting is done in a way that almost feels film noir.”
Airing in more than 200 countries, Midsomer Murders is celebrating its 20th season on television this year. DQ visits the set of the popular crime drama, which boasts some of the strangest deaths on screen.
At its heart, Midsomer Murders can be described as a traditional murder mystery – but there’s nothing orthodox about the way the show’s plethora of victims meet their grisly end. The long-running British drama, which ushers in a remarkable 20th season in 2018, has seen victims drown in a cauldron of soup, electrocuted while riding an exercise bike and poisoned by a tropical frog.
Even more bizarre was the death of a woman crushed by a wheel of cheese, while another killing was the work of a headless horseman. One man died after being hit by bottles of vintage wine while he was pinned to the ground as a human target.
But that’s part of the charm of the long-running series, which delicately blends stories of serious crimes and its light-hearted tone to concoct an antidote to the darker, more brutal crime series on television.
It also continues to strike a chord around the world, with the new season of the ITV series already picked up by ABC (Australia), DR (Denmark), FTV Prima (Czech Republic), SVT (Sweden), VRT (Belgium), Sky (New Zealand) and Acorn Media (US). LA 7 (Italy), Fox (Portugal), RSI (Switzerland), ZDF (Germany) and France TV, meanwhile, have renewed their long-running deals for the show with distributor All3Media International.
“My personal favourite was [season 16’s] Wild Harvest, where a man is tied to a tree, covered in truffle oil and eaten alive by wild boar,” reveals leading actor Neil Dudgeon, who has played DCI John Barnaby for the last seven years. “It’s not the sort of thing where you think, ‘That could have been me.’ It’s a really twisted and bizarre way of killing someone but it’s kind of fun. We’ve never gone in with people getting bashed over the head with a shovel. Mostly the writers try to come up with the most exotic deaths they can, which I think is part of the fun of the show.”
It is a sunny June 2017 day at a secluded building, surrounded by woods, on the outskirts of north-west London when DQ finds the Midsomer cast and crew preparing to shoot the final scenes of season 20’s third episode, Drawing Dead, which centres on a comic-book convention featuring scores of new superheroes imagined by writer Jeff Povey. There are no capes or masks here, however, as DCI Barnaby and DS Jamie Winter (played by Nick Hendrix) have joined new pathologist Dr Fleur Perkins (Annette Badland) in the lab to discuss her forensic findings after examining the latest victim’s body.
“We generally finish in the police station and mortuary, which is a good thing because it usually just involves me and Nick explaining the plot to each other,” Dudgeon jokes. “On odd occasions, we’ve had to do the police station stuff at the beginning of the episode, which is a bit of a car crash because we haven’t been to any of the locations, we haven’t seen any of the murder scene or met the other characters. We’re just explaining something we’ve barely got a handle on. So doing it at the end is much preferred.
“We’ve spent most of the last two weeks on a lovely village green with a big marquee and various stalls and stands with extras all dressed up as new superheroes we’ve invented for the purpose of the show. All these people come to this village where they celebrate all things comics and this terrible thing happens. Then while we’re on the trail, somebody else bites the dust.”
Dudgeon describes Midsomer, set in the fictional eponymous county, as a police show that’s less about the police and more about the characters the detectives meet during their investigation, each with something to hide. “Everybody’s got secrets but only one person is lying about the fact they’re actually the murderer, and that feeds Barnaby’s interest in all of the characters,” the actor explains. “I’ve always liked that the police aren’t very interesting. [Creator] Betty Willingale’s idea was for an antidote to the police shows of the time where it was about having an interesting policeman, whereas this is not – he’s not an interesting policeman, he’s happily married, goes out to work and investigates murders, then goes home and puts his feet up.”
Dudgeon joined the series to replace original star John Nettles, who played DCI Tom Barnaby (John Barnaby’s cousin, owing to the fact the series is known as Inspector Barnaby in many overseas territories) for 13 seasons. Between them, they have worked alongside several partners, with Hendrix joining the main cast ahead of season 19. His move to Midsomer came as the actor sought to step into a leading role, having previously appeared in The Crown and Marcella.
“It’s a fun job and every episode’s different – every four weeks you get a new group of actors, a new story, locations and fun things to do,” Hendrix says. “It has to have jeopardy but, whereas in a gritty drama I’d jump out of the way of something, hit my head and knock myself out, in this I’m face-down in manure. This particular season is quite a lot funnier and the producers have encouraged us to embrace that tongue-in-cheek humour a little bit more. There is a line, because it’s still murder, it’s still crime, but they’ve embraced that fun side of it, which is what I think people love about the show.”
For executive producer Jonathan Fisher, who joined the Bentley Productions show in September 2016, Midsomer Murders is underscored by its great sense of theatricality, best seen in the various deaths invented for the show. He’s also keen to keep pushing the idiosyncrasies of the characters that appear in each episode to create an eccentric, larger-than-life ensemble.
Early in the development of each episode, Fisher will meet with the writer to discuss story ideas, usually beginning with the world the episode is set in. As well as a comic-book convention, season 20’s six episodes include a monastery that has been converted into a brewery, a chocolatier and somewhere the producer describes as a cross between a circus and a pig farm.
“We like to have a specific world per episode,” he says. “We try not to repeat where possible and we’ve got Ian Strachan, the coproducer who has been on the show for 18 years, who’s fantastic at identifying what we’ve done before. He’s a great source of knowledge for us.”
But that’s just the starting point for creating what Fisher stresses are very tautly plotted murder mysteries, each with nine or 10 potential suspects. “It’s harder than people think to get that right because they’ve all got to stay in play until the denouement at the end, so you can’t just eliminate one by one. Then we try to add some characteristic Midsomer flair and colour where possible.”
With the trend for gritty and often brutally violent crime dramas on screen, it’s Midsomer that provides a “refreshing” alternative, Fisher believes, describing the show in terms of its escapist quality and sense of joy. “The crime drama genre is pretty crowded at the moment and we’re really set apart from that in the fun of what we do,” he continues. “At all times, murders are taking place but the thing about Midsomer is those murders can be fantastically theatrical and elaborate, and that’s something we pride ourselves on.
“I can reveal one death from season 20 – we’re going to do our first ever ‘death by chocolate.’ So our poor victim is going to have his head encased in chocolate and made to look like an Easter egg, which I think will be really good fun. The challenge for me is to get the deaths as colourful and imaginative as possible, but everything has to be underscored by an emotional truth. So we allow our killers to kill in these theatrical ways but, ultimately, come the denouement at the end, the motive has to have some emotional truth to it.”
As Dr Perkins, Badland joins the cast this season playing a pathologist she describes as a strong lady who knows her own mind and enjoys winding up DCI Barnaby and DS Winter. But she admits that she tries not to get too attached to any of the characters or guest cast members, as she doesn’t usually see them on set unless they’ve met an untimely end.
“I meet characters at the read through and then they’re dead by the time I see them again,” she deadpans. “So they’re lying on a slab or somewhere uncomfortable in the countryside. Usually they’re cold, tired, grumpy or laughing, or it’s a double for the body. That is odd because I come in and do my four or five days in a [shooting] block but the crime’s happened, so you don’t have an emotional journey. You don’t have those connections. You come in and work – she works it out.”
Fleur’s arrival is a step change for Midsomer, with Fisher explaining that those behind the show wanted to move away from the romantic frisson between previous pathologists and the detective duo, instead casting a more established actress to shake-up proceedings. “She’s got some fantastic, acerbic putdowns so I think she’s going to bring a new energy to the show,” he says of Badland’s arrival. “The scenes we’ve shot with her have been fantastic, a real treat.”
The series will have run for 122 episodes by the end of season 20, with 333 deaths up to the end of season 19 (the producers wouldn’t confirm how many more there will be this season). Nevertheless, the show’s longevity continues to surprise Dudgeon, who first signed up not knowing how many episodes he would be involved in. “It’s all got a bit out of control and it goes on and on,” he says. “They keep saying they want more and I’m powerless to resist.”
Similarly, Fisher believes there’s no reason why Midsomer can’t run for another 20 years. “The thing about Midsomer is it has a timeless quality to it, so while new trends will come and go, Midsomer remains constant and at the top of its game,” he says. “The fans love it and keep coming back to it. People do forget Midsomer is a relatively large county, so the death rate is not ridiculously high, but obviously that’s the running joke and we’re fine with that. We’ve far from run out of murder methods. There’s plenty left to go.”
Lee Ingleby is out to prove he’s not a murderer in ITV’s emotionally taut four-part drama Innocent. DQ speaks to writers Matt Arlidge and Chris Lang and producer Jeremy Gwilt about putting viewers at the heart of this moral dilemma.
At the heart of every good drama is a moral dilemma, according to writer Matt Arlidge. If that’s the case, Innocent, created and written by Arlidge and Chris Lang, is a very good drama indeed.
The four-part series, which launched last night on ITV in the UK and runs on consecutive nights until Thursday, sets out its stall in the opening scene. David, played by Lee Ingleby, appears on the steps of a court and tells the waiting press that he’s spent seven years in prison for murdering his wife – a crime he claims he did not commit. During that time he’s not only lost his liberty and reputation but his kids as well. The question is, do you believe him?
To the horror of his wife’s family, including sister Alice (Hermione Norris) and her husband Rob (Adrian Rowlins), the case is reopened and the ensuing investigation will see allegiances flip-flop as the drama unfolds. Other cast members include Daniel Ryan as David’s faithful brother Phil, Nigel Lindsay as DI William Beech and Angela Coulby as DI Cathy Hudson.
Arlidge, whose credits as a producer include Mistresses and Cape Wrath, says that the aim is to ask the key characters big moral questions so that the viewers put themselves in their shoes and ask: ‘What would I do in that situation?’
The show, distributed by All3Media International, was inspired by articles Arlidge and Lang had read about miscarriages of justice. It made them think about the impact of those judgments and the consequences for the families involved. “It uses a thriller structure to explore how families work when there’s pressure put on them that exposes the fault line of a family dynamic,” says Lang, whose ITV series Unforgotten, which is filming its third season, means he is no stranger to crime drama.
It’s the combination of this thriller structure wrapped around detailed, compelling characters that is core to the success of ‘domestic noir.’
“If David’s telling the truth, it means there’s a killer out there,” continues Arlidge. “There’s someone who’s killed and got away with it, and that’s something we were always interested in exploring. On the one hand, what’s it like to be imprisoned for a crime you didn’t commit? But conversely, if you did commit murder and get away with it and lived with it for eight years, what’s that like?”
Innocent producer TXTV was founded by Arlidge, Lang and producer Jeremy Gwilt and each of its projects relies on all three creative directors being available to collaborate. While Lang’s Unforgotten was produced by Mainstreet Pictures, Innocent was greenlit at a time when the TXTV trio were free to work on the show together. Gwilt was involved in the development process from the outset and he describes this tight, creative relationship as one of the features of their company.
“Although creative imperatives take priority, we’re never afraid of confronting practical issues during storylining and scripting that might impinge on the creative during production,” says Gwilt. “It’s usually best to address them at the earliest stages of a project’s inception.”
In-demand British actors Ingleby (The A Word) and Hermione Norris (Cold Feet) head up the cast, but Gwilt says it’s getting less common to have on-screen talent in place before pre-production and describes scheduling as a jigsaw puzzle. “The availability of actors is one thing,” he explains, “but their availability also has to match the availability of locations and the design department’s ability to create our sets. In most cases, the shooting schedule is built sequentially around the locations then the cast has to fit in with that.”
Although the show is set on the Sussex coast, filming took place in Ireland and the taut emotions of the drama are counterbalanced by sweeping cinematic drone shots along the coastal estuary. Lang says they are the lungs of the piece, giving it space to breathe. Innocent editor Michael Harrowes adds that the isolated hut on the beach to which main character David returns after his incarceration adds to the emotional impact of the story.
“There was a craving for space and freedom,” he says. “David was trapped; set free from prison but trapped in this enormous space where he was surrounded by the coast. Editorially, it was a genius move to set it on the coast.
“We built this technique where we would build a character to a point of crisis, to a point they were unable to proceed emotionally and we’d crash out into these landscapes, these fabulous drone shots, and it worked incredibly well for us.”
Gwilt says director Richard Clark (Outlander, Doctor Who) was brought on board because of his reputation for emotionally driven drama: “His visual style is also fluid. It features developing movement and this was especially desirable as we have a large number of potentially static dialogue scenes in interview rooms. It subtly introduces pace and energy and allows us to explore every nuanced reaction from the characters.”
Finding areas of Ireland that matched the topography and architecture of the south coast of England was challenging, but ensuring a seamless transition between the weather of these two geographical areas was even more problematic. “The weather in Ireland was incredibly windy and for a couple of days it blew at almost gale force,” remembers Gwilt. “We were shooting in a wooden house right on the beach. It got so windy during a night shoot that we couldn’t even use the cranes we’d hired for the lights. And the blackouts we’d rigged around the cottage to enable us to shoot night interiors during the day were virtually ripped to shreds. We had an army of brilliant electricians and riggers who were clinging to our equipment for dear life so that we could carry on filming.”
In terms of Innocent’s appeal to an international audience, Lang says it tackles universal stories and themes. “Every society in the world will understand the difficulties families face, and every community ultimately believes in the idea of family and wants it to prevail,” he concludes. “So when you threaten it and place it under immense strain as we do in this story, every community in the world will want the family to prevail. Everyone starts in one place and is slowly is forced by the changing story to reappraise. Every character has to go a long way as well. It’s a big shift that all of them have to make.”
London’s Royal Festival Hall hosted the most prestigious night of the year for British television as prizes were handed out to dramas including Peaky Blinders, Three Girls and The Handmaid’s Tale. DQ went behind the scenes at the Bafta Television Awards 2018.
Crowds were hanging over balconies, hoping to catch a glimpse of their favourite TV stars as dozens of plush cars lined up to drop off their A-list cargo at London’s Royal Festival Hall. The red carpet outside was a scene of organised chaos as guests made their way past photographers and fans cheering their name before they arrived inside the venue for this year’s Bafta Television Awards.
Inside the grand building, which sits on the city’s Southbank beside the River Thames, the atmosphere was one of relative calm as the auditorium’s seats slowly filled up ahead of the start of the show, this year presented by former Great British Bake-Off host Sue Perkins.
BBC comedy This Country and drama Three Girls, which was based on real events, each scooped two prizes, while Molly Windsor (Three Girls) and Sean Bean (Broken) scooped the gongs for leading actress and actor. In the best drama category, Peaky Blinders beat competition from Line of Duty, The Crown and The End of the F****** World, while US series The Handmaid’s Tale triumphed over scripted rivals Big Little Lies and Feud: Bette and Joan to be named best international drama.
After the winners were escorted off stage, DQ was on hand to hear some of their reactions.
Drama Series: Peaky Blinders (Caryn Mandabach Productions, Tiger Aspect Productions, BBC2) This was Peaky Blinders‘ first Bafta award for best drama since the period drama set in 1920s Birmingham debuted on BBC2 in 2013. Season four aired last year, with a fifth commissioned by BBC2. Steven Knight, creator and writer: “I’m shocked. I think it took that long just for people to get the idea of what it’s all about. Some things do take time. I’m really pleased. I’m hoping that next year it will be [actors] Helen [McCrory], Paul [Anderson] and Cillian [Murphy]. They are the Peaky Blinders. My ambition was to make it a story of family between two wars. I’ve always wanted to end it with first air-raid siren in Birmingham in 1939 – three more seasons. Now we’re getting approached to do all kinds of things – ballet, musical, a movie would be great. I wouldn’t want to do it at the very end but maybe between two of the seasons.” Caryn Mandabach, executive producer: “I’m gobsmacked. What Steve’s not saying is many people were saying, ‘It’s not for me, it’s too northern, it’s too violent.’ What people didn’t understand was what he was really writing about was the effect of violence on people and the importance of respect for the family. Now finally everyone’s catching up with an honest depiction of people everywhere after some giant thing like the First World War. I don’t know how he actually writes them, personally. I think he’s got writer fairies that visit occasionally.”
International: The Handmaid’s Tale (MGM, Channel 4) After claiming victory at the Golden Globes and Emmys, Hulu’s adaptation of Margret Atwood’s dystopian novel – a timely and often challenging watch – was a sure thing to continue its award-winning run following its UK broadcast on Channel 4. O-T Fagbenle, who plays Luke, Offred (Elisabeth Moss)’s husband before Gilead: “The source material, Margaret’s book, is just a phenomenal piece of literature. Also we live in scary times, changing times, with populist governments on the rise and a greater awareness of the way patriarchy affects women’s rights in the world.
“What’s been really interesting about it is how so many people from so many walks of life related to it. When it first came out, Donald Trump had just been elected and everyone related it to Trump. Then there was the great #MeToo movement and people related it to that. Also people around the world are relating to the different ways, large and small, that men have oppressed women.
“Elisabeth is the greatest actress I’ve ever had the chance to work with, in so many ways. She’s phenomenal and she carries such a load with her. The material is so challenging and she’s just charming and generous on set. You couldn’t wish to work with a better partner in a scene.”
Supporting Actor: Brían F O’Byrne, Little Boy Blue (ITV Studios, ITV) O’Byrne and Sinead Keenan starred as parents Steve and Melanie Jones in the four-part ITV series, which dramatises the real-life killing of 11-year-old Rhys Jones in Liverpool in 2007. “Jeff [Pope]’s script is so good and Paul [Whittington]’s such a wonderful director, you know you’re going to be in safe hands but also worried they may have actually called the wrong guy – there must be a mistake. I was living in LA at the time and I had just decided to move back to Ireland after being over there for three decades. I hadn’t worked in the UK before and got a call to go to Liverpool. I didn’t have the fear of getting a job until I met Mel and Steve, and then there was the realisation I could really fuck this up really badly and it would be terrible. It’s too sensitive a material.
“You’re not really thinking about it from an acting point of view as much as you’re invited into [the Jones family’s] home, and I got to meet two people who are grieving a decade later and are processing something we could all have empathy with and identify with. It would be our horror that your child, just coming back from football practice, could be indiscriminately killed.
“This award is Sinead’s really. I got to witness an incredible performance take after take. Actresses are the ones who really have to go from 0-100 right now and it’s expected take after take. She was living in grief for those several months. It was a really tough job for her.
“The odd thing was going to work on a set like that because everybody thought of it as we’re not just making a shit TV show. If you go and work on something like that, everybody there had care for the piece. There was great care and attention taken because we all met [the family at the heart of the story] and we didn’t want to lessen the loss they had in any way.
“They obviously wanted their story told because of their love for Rhys. I know they were happy about how the show ended up. [The existence of the show means] Rhys’s memory is still out there. I think ultimately that’s what they wanted. They want to show their grief continues and the senseless act of his murder is not just nightly news thing, it goes on and it stays with them.
Miniseries: Three Girls (BBC Drama Studios, Studio Lambert, BBC1) The BBC three-parter retold the true stories of victims of grooming and sexual abuse in the English town of Rochdale between 2008 and 2012. The series also won writing, editing and directing prizes at the Bafta Television Craft Awards last month. Nicole Taylor, writer: “The first thing I did was turn it down repeatedly because I was scared to do it. I thought I had good reasons for turning it down but actually I was just scared – and what I was really doing was turning away from the girls because I didn’t want to look, like everyone else. They didn’t want it to be true. I didn’t want it to be true. I was scared of approaching it, and that was actually an appropriate place to start from. Once I went up to Rochdale and met the girls and their mums and dads, I was so stunned myself at the gap between the idea of Girl A and Girl B and Girl C and these anonymous people, and getting to know them was so enormous. I was so shocked by that; I thought, ‘Right, I’m definitely going to do this – I can’t not do this.’ I didn’t really do anything else for three years.” Philippa Lowthorpe, director: “The really urgent thing for me as a director was to get inside those girls’ heads and see their experiences from their point of view, not on the outside, but to really try to understand from the inside what they might be experiencing and to be really truthful to their experience and honour their experience and to not walk away. It was very emotional. We had a brilliant casting director in Shaheen Baig and we chose very carefully girls not only for their talent, but also their maturity to be able to deal with this kind of subject matter.” Simon Lewis, producer: “Before the programme could be broadcast, we showed it to [the real-life victims]. They came and watched it individually because we were obviously nervous and because we knew it would be emotional. One by one, sometimes with a family member or a friend, they all came in to watch. We were expecting them to say, ‘That’s not quite right,’ or ‘I didn’t go in that door’ or ‘I was never in that car,’ but actually the essence, the big stuff, they all said that’s how it was. When we showed it to them, there were a lot of tears. But there were a lot of tears all the way through making it.” Susan Hogg, executive producer: “One of the girls said, which has really made me proud, that until she watched the programme, she didn’t realise she was a victim. Watching the programme, because we’d interviewed her and then put her character on the screen, she could see she was absolutely a victim, and that meant a huge amount to her. It’s not just about the three girls on screen, it’s about the thousands of others who have been abused and those trials keep coming up and more and more victims come to light. It’s for all them really that we made this programme, for them to be heard, because, for a long time, even when they went to the police, they weren’t being heard and weren’t being believed. Now we know that is changing. For the BBC to support a programme like this and for [director of content] Charlotte Moore to put her weight behind it and have the confidence to commission it is massive. With the way funding now works and we have a lot of money coming in from America and the SVoD channels, we’re doing a lot of coproductions, this really important domestic drama is very hard to fund, and the BBC absolutely does that. Long may that continue.”
Supporting Actress: Vanessa Kirby, The Crown (Left Bank Pictures, Netflix) Kirby stars in the epic British royal drama as Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy)’s younger sister. The award marked the first major Bafta for Netflix, following craft prizes for photography & lighting and sound.
“I just felt like the luckiest person in the world to play someone so colourful, vivid, brave and strong, so actually this is for Margaret, wherever she is.”
Single Drama: Murdered for Being Different (BBC Studios Documentary Unit, BBC3) This film, from the award-winning team behind Murdered by my Boyfriend, retold the brutal 2007 killing of 20-year-old Sophie Lancaster, who was kicked to death by a gang of teenagers. Her boyfriend Robert Maltby was also severely beaten and ended up in a coma. Both were targeted because they were goths. Aysha Rafaele, the former creative director of BBC Studios Documentary Unit who is now setting up a drama hub within the organisation: “A big thank you to Robert Maltby and Sylvia Lancaster, Sophie’s mum, for their bravery and courage in allowing us to tell this devastating story. Sadly since Sophie’s death, hate crime in this country has continued to rise. It’s our duty and our privilege as filmmakers to not look away from the dark corners in our society.”
Scripted Comedy: This Country (BBC Studios, BBC3) Female Performance in a Comedy Programme: Daisy May Cooper, This Country The BBC3 mockumentary, about two young people living in a small village in the Cotswolds, also earned its stars and co-creators (and siblings) writing accolades at the Bafta TV Craft Awards last month. Charlie Cooper, writer and actor: “We had an idea in our head that we thought might be funny but we were never intelligent enough to articulate it. As soon as we met these guys [producers Tom George and Simon Mayhew-Archer], they knew immediately what we were on about and transformed what was a seed of an idea into something that’s good and funny. It’s amazing.” Daisy May Cooper, writer and actor: “What we were worried about when the first season came out was that people might not be able to find it [on online network BBC3]. Now with a second season coming out, people are really talking about it and I get stopped a lot more, which is brilliant. I absolutely love it.”
Male Performance in a Comedy Programme: Toby Jones, Detectorists (Channel X North, Treasure Trove Productions, Lola Entertainment, BBC4) The comedy series, written and directed by Mackenzie Crook, saw Crook and Jones play a pair of metal-detecting enthusiasts. It previously won the 2015 Bafta for scripted comedy. Jones won the award for its third and final season. “I think it’s fantastic writing. It’s a strange thing in world of TV now that I was cycling through New Orleans making a film last October and these guys came out of a bar and just went, ‘Man we love the Detectorists.’ It’s so extraordinary that a show made in a village in Suffolk is big in America and Canada. It’s a testament to how Mackenzie’s created characters that are archetypal. It’s about friendships, maybe about a life a lot of people want, where they can go to the pub with their mates and they have time.
“Mackenzie and I have worked on the same things before but never worked in a scene together. Then we were in Muppets Most Wanted as a double act and he said to me, ‘I’ve written this thing with you in mind. You don’t have to do it. I know it’s a nightmare when people tell you they’ve written something for you but, if you don’t mind, I’ll email it to you. You probably won’t like it and you don’t want to do a comedy show, do you?’ He emailed it to me and it was just the most amazing dialogue. It’s not comedy in the sense of gags, it’s about humane characters. That’s what appealed to me.
“I always think the most glamorous thing about our job is the contrast. You get to move medium, you get to move where you’re working, the scale you’re working at and the people you’re working with. That always feels to me like the most glamorous thing you can possibly do. So to work on Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and then go and stay in a pub and make Detectorists, it just feels fantastic. Neither one is better. It’s just a huge contrast.
“Mackenzie was pretty clear that he didn’t want to say goodbye in a big way, but there’s a challenge in the show that you find treasure. You can’t keep finding treasure. It felt great that he’d found a third season because it felt like the second one, where we found treasure at the end, that was a good place to stop. Nut he said, ‘What if the treasure was up in the sky?’ So it actually feels good and appropriate to finish it. I really miss those actors because it was such a chilled-out job. You stroll to work in a field in the sunshine every day. The scripts are immaculate. It’s very rare you don’t have to change anything.”
Soap & Continuing Drama: Casualty (BBC Studios Continuing Drama, BBC1) The long-running BBC drama follows the staff and patients at the fictional Holby City Hospital’s emergency department. George Rainsford, who plays Ethan Hardy: “Casualty has been around for 30 years. It keeps challenging itself and keeps challenging the viewers, keeps producing big stories people can relate to, hopefully, and it keeps championing the NHS. I’m really speechless. I genuinely didn’t think we’d be here.” Chelsea Halfpenny, who plays Alicia Munroe: “I think it shows authentically the realities of the NHS. The business, the lack of funding… I get a lot of tweets and messages from nurses and doctors saying thank you for showing the struggles.” Simon Harper, executive producer: “There isn’t particularly a gender pay gap on Casualty, I wouldn’t say. One thing that came to light in the [BBC] pay publication thing last summer was just how hard our artists work, and every single one of them deserves every single penny that they earn. I would agree in the industry wide there’s still a lot of work to be done but I think we can hold our heads high on that issue.”
Leading Actor: Sean Bean, Broken (LA Productions, BBC1) Former Game of Thrones star Bean won the award for his portrayal of Father Michael Kerrigan, a Roman Catholic priest who tries to be a confidant, counsellor and confessor for a congregation struggling with its beliefs amid the challenges of daily life in contemporary Britain. The series was written by Jimmy McGovern. “It kind of developed with Jimmy as an idea. I’ve worked with Jimmy before on a thing called Tracie’s Story, where I played a transvestite, so I knew it would be something unusual. It was kind of semi-autobiographical for Jimmy; it was based on his experiences but it stemmed from scratch really. There was no script, no story, it was just his ideas and he was very passionate about that. I got on board very early and said I’d love to work with him again and let’s see what you come up with. I wasn’t really taking a gamble because I love him – and whatever he comes up with, it’s going to be interesting. But it was very exciting for me. It was a nucleus that developed.
“We got the first episode and that was brilliant. It started off well and it was great to work with Anna [who played Christina Fitzsimmons], who was someone I’d wanted to work with for a long time. She was so perfect for the role, she was so fragile and vulnerable and yet a very strong woman, a woman with great self-belief but who has been battered around by her circumstances.
“I like looking at who the characters are, how they’re written and how they develop. That’s always been the case. When you read a script, if there’s detail that’s great but, in terms of characters, there are not a great deal of scripts that have characters that develop and we can relate to. There are quite a few one-dimensional characters you can play but you’re trying to supplement it with whatever you do to improve the character, whereas something like Broken, Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, the characters are there and you live up to their expectations. It’s up to you to reach that peak of characterisation. I’m just a bit more selective [now] and I like to know the directors and producers. Fortunately I’ve worked a few years and got to know quite a few people. I look forward to playing characters like Father Michael Kerrigan again.
“I worked as a producer on Broken. I’d like to spend some time looking at other things and maybe books I’ve read or ideas people have and become a producer. I wouldn’t say I’d like to direct, I can’t see myself doing that at the moment, but I’d like to be involved in the process of starting something from scratch and developing it and finding interesting characters to play. I don’t want to play something extreme. I think often the very simple stories as in Broken are the most powerful.”
Leading Actress: Molly Windsor, Three Girls Windsor plays Holly, a young girl new to Rochdale who is keen to make friends and fit in, but soon finds herself drawn into a world she cannot escape, despite her pleas for help.
“It’s surreal, absolutely bizarre. Philippa [Lowthorpe, director], Nicole [Taylor, writer] and Simon [Lewis, producer] were working on Three Girls for a long time before I came on board. They’d done so much research that they were my first port of call and they introduced me to Sara [Rowbotham, an NHS health worker] and Maggie [Oliver, a police officer who investigated the real case] and some of the real girls. Any questions or bits of research or bits of things I wanted to know, they were so great and kept us all in the loop and told us everything. The biggest challenge was the responsibility, the weight of knowing, because you want to do it right. If you look at it as a big mountain, that becomes a bit scary. So for me it was taking it scene by scene and taking it each day as it came and just committing to it – because if you look at it as a big project, that’s a big challenge.”
Hear from the winners of the Bafta Television Craft Awards 2018 here.
Writer Simon Nye talks to DQ about writing The Durrells, ITV’s hit family drama about a British family living on the idyllic Greek island of Corfu in the 1930s.
For a certain generation, Simon Nye will always be known as the creator of long-running comedy series Men Behaving Badly, a series that defined the ‘lad culture’ of the 1990s.
In fact, the writer and author has his roots firmly in the comedy genre, having written other series including Hardware, Wild West, Carrie & Barrie, Beast and Reggie Perrin.
More recently, he penned TV biopic Tommy Cooper: Not Like That, Like This, and wrote a 2010 episode of Doctor Who, with Matt Smith then in the lead role.
Today he’s still writing comedy, but The Durrells is arguably more dramatic and certainly more exotic than anything he’s written before. In fact, he wrote a BBC TV movie based on Gerald Durrell’s autobiographical novel My Family and Other Animals in 2005, before returning to the novel and its two sequels – known as Durrell’s Corfu trilogy – for the ITV drama, which first aired in 2016.
Now in its third season, the series continues to tell the story of Louisa Durrell (played by Keeley Hawes) and her four spirited but unruly children who have left England for a new life in Corfu in the 1930s. It is produced by Sid Gentle Films and Masterpiece in the US and distributed by BBC Worldwide.
“I think it is our best season – I wouldn’t say if it was worse – but we’re in that sweet spot where we know what we do best and there are lots of stories to tell,” Nye says. “Corfu is still looking gorgeous.”
Nye is no stranger to adaptation, having turned his own Men Behaving Badly and Wideboy novels into TV shows. The second was known on screen as Frank Stubbs Promotes, starring Timothy Spall. He also penned a TV movie version of The Railway Children for ITV, as well as his earlier Durrells effort.
“We always try to have a story from the book in each episode but it’s getting harder so we’re branching out a bit,” he says of The Durrells. “It’s a balance between not inventing so much that it’s nothing to do with the family in the books and the family we know lived on Corfu, and the need to create stories that last the course.”
That challenge has been extended further in season three, with the episode count rising from six to eight. “Eight episodes is actually very different from writing six episodes because it’s a different rhythm, but it’s been great,” Nye adds. “Not that a fourth season has been confirmed yet, but I’m already writing the first two episodes of the new season.”
Each episode presents the challenge of finding a story for the each of the large cast, which includes Louisa and her children Larry (Josh O’Connor), Leslie (Callum Woodhouse), Margo (Daisy Waterstone) and Gerry (Milo Parker), not to mention the returning Greek characters and this season’s new arrivals.
“Initially you want to come up with a satisfying spine for the whole season,” says Nye, who adds while his storylines are informed by the books, he also has to do a lot of legwork himself. “Leslie has a long story that runs through it and we’ve got such great actors that you really want to give them something they can get their teeth into, other than just looking pretty on the terrace. That’s the real challenge, in 46 minutes, to get everyone firing. The stories do move along swiftly so it’s a question of cramming as much as we can in without making it look ridiculous. I tend to start slowly and later episodes are easier to write.
“We try to have a grand plan at the beginning but you find in the early episodes that your characters want to go in different directions. You just want to have an idea of what’s coming up because then you can build on what’s there and sow some seeds for later episodes. But a lot of people don’t watch the whole season, so you have to make it work on an episode-by-episode basis as well.”
At its heart, however, The Durrells is the story of a family loving one another but simultaneously at war with each other, an idea that has served as the framework for the entire series. The story opens with Louisa taking her brood to Corfu in an attempt to patch up their differences, but the Mediterranean landscape only serves to highlight their individual and collective eccentricities.
“Who wants to watch a functional family?” says Nye. “It’s got to go wrong. Not that we’re teaching lessons, but you do learn from seeing other people screw up. Although it’s set in the 1930s, they’re quite a modern family. We can’t swear, being on television pre-watershed, but their feistiness comes across. They’re quite a handful.”
While the British family’s place in Europe is at odds with the current political landscape, Nye is reluctant to pepper The Durrells with references to Britain’s vote to leave the Europe Union, despite his own staunch anti-Brexit position. But with war looming – season three is set in 1937 – the drama does serve as a reminder that Europe is not a place of harmony.
“In many ways, they’ve done it all wrong,” Nye says of the family’s efforts to integrate into their new surroundings. “They’ve got friends but they haven’t really learned the language. The real Laurence Durrell learned quite a lot of Greek, and Leslie a bit. But they’re not adverts for internationalism at all. That’s how your average Brit, me included, would be. I’ve learned very little Greek, appallingly; I should have worked harder at it. But they’ve gone for other reasons – they were falling apart as a family in Britain and are trying to heal that.”
Writing every episode of the series means Nye has little time to mix with the cast and crew, admitting that he spends most of his time trying to catch up with the production schedule instead of hanging around on set. “Especially with eight episodes, you’re trying to make sure you deliver them on time,” he says. But he hasn’t yet reached a point where he wants to bring other writers onto the series.
“Most writers, if they’ve got the energy and the time, would prefer to write everything themselves because it’s your own voice and, also, if somebody’s else’s episode goes wrong because they’re not as used to the characters as I am, you spend a lot of time fixing it. So as long as I can, I’ll try to write them all. But the principle of team writing is a good one and we want some of the American action and long-running series. We should be embracing that more because with a hit series, you want to be offered lots of episodes.”
Unsurprisingly, one of biggest challenges on the series is filming with the many animals that make up budding naturalist Gerry’s expanding menagerie, with the third season introducing a sloth and flamingos, which Nye says make pelicans look positively professional.
They’re the source of many jokes, however, which adds to the light-hearted nature of the series. “It’s got lots of jokes in it because that’s often the way families relate to each other, especially that family, which is full of lively minds,” Nye explains. “So humour is often the way they get through the day. When I first started doing comedy I thought you didn’t need to bother with a plot, and I quickly learned that that’s a very poor way of writing a sitcom. And it’s even more true of drama that you need to focus on it. If the plot’s working, it makes the dialogue so much easier. You just want it to be credible.”
As The Durrells heads into the sunset of its third season, Nye says there’s still more fun to be had with the eponymous family beyond a potential fourth season. “It feels like we’ve only just scratched the surface,” he says. “They were there for five years [in real life] and Milo, who plays Gerry, is growing. There is still quite a lot to say but I hope we won’t outstay our welcome. The war is looming in Corfu and Greece but certainly we want to get them home and get to know them a bit more.”
British period drama The Durrells returns for its third season with more fun in store for the eponymous family. DQ caught up with star Keeley Hawes and the production team on the set at the world-famous Ealing Studios.
In the green room at Ealing Studios, we are surrounded by the most unusual props: vintage bird cages, ancient posters of beetles and butterflies, old hamster cages, lots of pressed flowers, distressed wooden shutters, an antique garden bench covered in ‘lived-in’ throws and cushions, and a period microscope.
You do not have to be Sherlock Holmes’ long-lost Hellenic cousin to work out that we are on the set of The Durrells, ITV’s enormously popular adaptation of Gerald Durrell’s bestselling memoir, My Family and Other Animals.
Scripted by Simon Nye (Men Behaving Badly), this easy-going series set in the 1930s follows the trials and tribulations of the Durrell family – long-suffering widowed mother Louisa (Keeley Hawes), struggling novelist Larry (Josh O’Connor), awkward, gun-obsessed Leslie (Callum Woodhouse), embryonic feminist Margo (Daisy Waterstone) and budding naturalist Gerry (Milo Parker) – as they move from stuffy Bournemouth and strive to carve out a new life for themselves in Corfu.
In the third season, which begins on March 18, Louisa has resolved to renounce her quest for romance and instead concentrate on her family. But with Larry battling to complete his third novel, Margo desperate to find a new vocation, Leslie careering between three different girlfriends and Gerry continuing to expand his menagerie, Louisa has an awful lot on her plate.
Ealing Studios is a place redolent of filmmaking history. It has been home not only to such recent productions as Downton Abbey and Beauty & the Beast, but also such timeless Ealing Comedies as The Lavender Hill Mob, The Ladykillers and The Man in the White Suit.
But just why has Britain gone daft for The Durrells? Hawes, who has also starred in such acclaimed dramas as The Missing, Line of Duty and Spooks, believes the series has struck a chord because it appeals to a very wide audience: “I had an email from a woman recently. She told me that she sits down every Sunday night to watch The Durrells with her grandson, who is nine, her daughter, who is in her 40s, her mother, who is 94, and her husband, who she couldn’t get to watch anything else.”
The actress adds: “From the age of nine to 94, all these generations sit down together for this show. It’s something the whole family can watch together. That’s very rare these days because it’s very difficult to make it work. I can’t think of anything else that does that. This has captured everyone’s imagination.”
That impression is reinforced by the sense that Nye’s scripts have a dual effect. Hawes continues: “What Simon does so well is that fabulous Pixar thing of making jokes that work on two levels. He writes jokes which will go over children’s heads, but which make us adults laugh at the same time. So when children are invited in to these cheeky jokes, they feel very excited about it. It’s the same reason why we can all watch The Simpsons together.”
The Durrells, which is made for ITV by Sid Gentle Films as a coproduction with PBS strand Masterpiece and distributed by BBC Worldwide, also taps into a deep communal yearning for a mythical, more gentle and less threatening past. This instinct is perhaps fuelled by a desire to lose ourselves in a realm far removed from the horrors of the real world.
The scheduling also helps a great deal. As Britain is battered by storms and snow, what could be more relaxing than luxuriating in the flawless blue skies of Corfu? It is classic escapist Sunday evening drama.
Hawes affirms that theory: “The Durrells is one of those feel-good nostalgia shows that people want to watch on Sunday night before getting ready for the week ahead.”
But it is not just in this country that The Durrells has had an impact. It has also caused a stir in Corfu. Producer Christopher Hall observes: “The series has had a huge effect. British tourism [in Corfu] has gone up 15% since we first went out. There is a big spike every year just after transmission. On the easyJet flight from Gatwick to Corfu, pretty much everyone has watched The Durrells.”
It has not all been positive for the production, however. Hall notes: “Some tourist operators have been selling tickets to The Durrells Experience and promise a visit to the house where it’s filmed. One day, coach-loads of people turned up to look at our location. We had to tell them, ‘Sorry, this is a private house. You can’t come and look at our set!’
“Two years ago, we had signs up everywhere in Corfu saying, ‘The Durrells’, but we had to take them down because people kept stealing them and putting them on their own house!”
For the producers, there is one other problematic by-product of the show’s popularity. Hall, who also produced Critical, Dracula and Trial & Retribution, says: “The local hotels in Corfu are also doing very well – much to our cost. We say to the hotels, ‘We do a lot of work on the island – can you give us a discount?’ And they reply, ‘No, we can’t give you a discount because we’re full!’”
In addition, The Durrells bears out that old filmmaking maxim: never work with animals. The creatures that make up Gerry’s substantial and ever-increasing menagerie are generally very well behaved, but inevitably there are still rogue elements.
Liz Thornton, who works as the animal coordinator on the production, reveals that the most difficult animals she has had to deal with on The Durrells are – quite surprisingly – pelicans. “Out of all the animals, you really don’t know what they’re going to do.
“They’re characters. They will suddenly take a dislike to someone, and that’s it – they’re off. All the animal handlers are standing just off camera. They try to persuade pelicans to do things with fish, but it doesn’t always work!”
The show has also thrown up some intriguing tests for production designer Stevie Herbert. She says her most demanding task is sometimes working out precisely what things are. “The agricultural equipment on Corfu is fascinating,” she says. “There is a guy in the village whose house is like an agricultural museum. You look at an implement and think, ‘What is that?’ They’re uniquely Corfu.
“A lot of it is to do with collecting olives. There are many strange tools you wouldn’t even think of. There are specific baskets that taper down according to the size of the donkey carrying it. Greece was built by donkeys.”
For all the challenges, the cast and crew have clearly relished working on the Greek island. Herbert speaks for everyone on The Durrells when she declares: “Corfu is so beautiful. The sun and the sea and the scenery are all amazing.
“Scrape back the modern world and the old Corfu is still there, just beneath the surface. Terrapins leap in the river, bask in the sun and cross the road at their own pace – they even have road signs warning drivers about that.”
She concludes: “On Corfu, we have a breakfast club where we eat sandwiches, watch the sunrise and think, ‘Yup, another day in paradise.’”
It’s a feeling no doubt shared by the millions of viewers who tune in to The Durrells every week.