Tag Archives: Julie Graham

Together alone

Pushing the boundaries of filming under lockdown, writer and star Julie Graham and director Robin Sheppard tell DQ about creating and producing comedy-drama Dun Breedin’.

Julie Graham is meant to be in Scotland, shooting season six of BBC crime drama Shetland. Instead, she’s filming scenes from her latest series inside her own home.

The Benidorm and Penance actor is the creator of comedy-drama Dun Breedin’, teaming with director Robin Sheppard (New Tricks, Delicious) to piece together the story of five longtime friends who have overcome life’s adversities together and now find themselves at different stages of the menopause.

Set in Brighton, the 12-part shortform series introduces Indie (Tamzin Outhwaite), Susie (Angela Griffin), Gigi (Tracy-Ann Oberman), Roo (Graham), Doll (Denise Welch) and Wanda (Alison Newman, pictured above) as it aims to put women’s sexuality, agency and worth under the spotlight.

It’s an idea Graham has been developing for two years, though she never imagined she would see it brought to life within the unique filming limitations provided by the current UK lockdown.

“I’d been mulling it over and developing it with [producer] Andrew Green, and I always wanted Robin to direct,” she tells DQ of her first writing project. “I was trying to bash it into some sort of shape to send off to commissioners and stuff, and then mad Andrew just rang me up one day and said, ‘Let’s just shoot it.’”

By this point, Graham hadn’t written any scripts, only some character breakdowns and an idea of what direction they might take. Green then proposed filming a batch of 10-minute episodes that could be shot in the actors’ homes, with Sheppard directing remotely. Blonde To Black Pictures Two and Manic Butterfly Productions are producing.

Dun Breedin’ creator Julie Graham (left) with her daughter Cyd

“It was like this snowball effect. Andrew’s got all this energy that pushes me along, and you just go, ‘Yes, of course, we can do that.’ Then the next thing we’re doing it,” she says.

Camera packs were delivered to the cast, while Sheppard provided them with shot lists showing where the camera should be in relation to their position in the room.

“This is a whole new way of working,” the director admits. “I work out how to shoot the scene so it will cut together, and then I write all the shots down in a shot list and then do all sorts of diagrams, because it’s very difficult actually to articulate. It’s an aerial view of where the camera is and what size shots to do so we get the right kind of coverage and we can cut it all together.

“It’s like using your brain in a very different way and communicating in a very different way. So you end up with the right kind of material so you can edit it all together and you know it’ll look fabulous and everything.”

Despite the filming conditions, Graham made the decision not to set Dun Breedin’ during the lockdown. But while this increased the limitations facing the story, she says it also sparked her imagination.

“If we’d set it in lockdown, we would have had more limitations because that’s all we would have talked about and it would have got a bit samey and a bit dull, so this is all about the world that was before, but we’re just far too busy to see each other,” she explains.

One of director Robin Sheppard’s shot list diagrams

“We’ve just spent a lot of time on the scripts. And then we’ve had to utilise husbands, wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, children, animals and anyone who can pick up a camera and have a go, so it’s been a real family affair.”

Considering the challenges of filming in lockdown, the ambition of the series is evident from the fact that neither Graham nor Sheppard wanted to tell the story through the frame of a FaceTime or Zoom call, but film it as if they were on a real set.

“It’s extremely ambitious. And it’s a massive learning curve, particularly the first shoot, and everyone’s really up for giving it their very best shot, but it’s got such a great vibe,” Sheppard says. “We shot the first shoot day last Monday [April 20], and I’ve watched all the rushes that have been uploaded. Then we’ve got a really good editor, David Barrett, who’s cutting away in his shed in his garden, very safely, socially isolated.

“I was just so impressed by how well the actors have taken to the technical side of it. They’ve really embraced it. We’ve got some extraordinarily good footage, brilliant acting across the board and fantastic scripts. So that’s a really good starting point.

“I love the way they’ve done the shot list but in their own idiosyncratic way – it’s brought so much to the party. It’s given it a unique visual quality I was really hoping for and absolutely delighted to see. It’s difficult to quantify but it’s got a magic quality about it, quite unlike anything else, which is a product of it being shot on the way it is.”

Griffin, known for roles in Coronation Street and The Detail, and also set to star in upcoming Netflix series White Lines, admits she has been “loving” filming Dun Breedin’. “I’m quite techie anyway, so I’m really interested in the behind-the-scenes of TV as well as what goes on in front of the camera,” notes the actor, who was approached to take part by Sheppard after he directed her in period drama Harlots.

Denise Welch with her husband, who turned DOP for her scenes

“I just really enjoy it. There’s an incredible cast; I know a lot of them, so we’ve already got a shorthand between us, and Julie’s really cleverly written a show not about the lockdown to be shot in lockdown,” adds Griffin, who has reeled in her whole family to help shoot her scenes.

“Our industry has completely and utterly fallen apart. It’s non-existent, there’s nothing going on, so we’ve got to find a way to keep being creative. And with Julie Graham at the helm, we might have found a way.”

Sheppard describes the characters as “sassy, ballsy women,” who share an intimacy with each other because they’ve been friends for such a long time. “Luckily, quite a lot of the cast know each other really well, so that really helps with that, but there’s a real freshness to it,” she continues.

“It’s bloody funny and really moving as well. There’s some quite tough stuff mixed in there. It’s not all high jinks by any measure , there’s some properly difficult material as well. But there are some corking laughs and they are an outrageous bunch of really great, sassy women.”

“We’ve all got our different relationships and I just wanted to show those strands of friendship and not shy away from all the messiness of life and all the stuff that goes on,” Graham says. “I don’t see a lot of it on TV. A lot of it I just can’t relate to. So I wanted to write something from the heart that was releasable, something that was my experience of strong female friendships and how they’re very complicated sometimes and incredibly loyal. I’m not going to shy away from it. I am planning for them to have some spectacular arguments as well.”

There are also some male characters, such as Roo’s husband (Steve Edge), who has retreated into his garden shed to avoid her at “peak menopause.”

“My husband didn’t want to act in it so he’s now my DOP, my gaffer, my caterer and my everything,” Graham says of casting Edge. “I was on FaceTime with Steve and we opened a bottle of wine and had a drink together and he was in his shed. It’s amazing, it’s a real man cave. I suddenly thought, ‘Why wouldn’t he be in the shed all the time?’ It was born out of that, so I’m getting all this inspiration talking to other people. I’m constantly being inspired by the other actors and what we can utilise for the scenes and stuff – because at some point, I’m going to run out of ideas.”

Angela Griffin applies some make-up to husband Jason Milligan

Primarily a character-driven story, Dun Breedin’ also contains some serialised elements that will link episodes together, with episode one featuring a character posting something they shouldn’t have on Facebook.

“That sets off quite a lot of hoo-hah and then there’s the aftermath of that. But there’s also the stuff of everyday life that you very rarely see in comedy dramas,” Sheppard notes. “It’s the day-to-day detritus and the coping with the domestic world around you, but also stuff at work.

“Julie’s character’s got quite a tough job. She works for the NHS in mental health. So she’s dealing with some fairly hardcore stuff and then she comes home to her extremely annoying teenage daughter who can’t look beyond the end of her own nose, so it’s all that kind of stuff.”

Setting the series in the characters’ homes also focused the drama on family relationships, Graham says. “If we were shooting this in a normal way, there would be a lot of pressure on us to have very strong plots and to also focus on more than the detritus and minutiae of domestic life.

“I don’t want it to be too domestic because I don’t want to say that’s all women’s lives are. But at the same time, it is so much part of our lives and we may as well make it funny as we go along, because it is. Sometimes it’s ridiculous and it’s funny and it’s all those things I want to reflect. It’s focused a lot on that but it’s probably the stronger for it.”

The actor and writer would ultimately love to see Dun Breedin’ land on mainstream TV at some point in the future, but until then, it will be released in 10-minute chunks twice a week on YouTube, beginning tomorrow. The series is also raising money for the Trussell Trust, which supports a network of food banks across the UK.

“What’s brilliant about this is the decision to make it definitely not about lockdown, because people need an escape from lockdown. They need to see something that’s fresh, new and bold and done despite the lockdown,” Sheppard says.

Robin Sheppard

“Everyone’s very aware of all the issues surrounding the lockdown, particularly the people on the front lines still out there, being incredibly brave and doing very challenging jobs, but also for a lot of people psychologically adapting. But there’s something really admirable about a group of people coming together and working out a way to still be creative and keep those muscles all taut and toned but not making it about the lockdown. That’s not part of the story.”

“People just rise to the occasion,” Grahams adds, pointing to videos of ballet dancers and musicians playing together despite being not being physically together.

“For actors, it’s different because we can’t just go on YouTube and start acting or put ourselves online and start doing a soliloquy. I mean, I’d probably get carted away. They’d think I’d lost my marbles! It’s difficult for actors, so this is a great outlet, and that’s probably one of the reasons they all just jumped at the chance to do it.

“Everyone I asked said yes, and I was so grateful and so chuffed that they they all got on board. It was so flattering.”

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Let the wrong one in

Julie Graham leads the cast of Penance, a three-part psychological miniseries about one woman’s grief and what happens when she befriends a potentially deadly stranger.

UK broadcaster Channel 5’s drive to become a major player in the drama stakes continues apace with this week’s psychological thriller Penance.

Adapted by Kate O’Riordan from her 2016 novel, it’s the story of a bereaved middle-aged woman who gets caught up in a dangerous love triangle.

Penance also marks the debut project from West Road Pictures, the All3Media-backed scripted production label launched last year by executive producer Jonathan Fisher. His credits include Blood, an Irish drama acquired by Channel 5 (season two is on its way) and the 20th anniversary season of ITV’s Midsomer Murders, which Fisher exec produced.

C5’s aim to produce mainstream-quality drama on a budget has resulted in productions like last autumn’s nail-biting Cold Call with Sally Lindsay, and Agatha & the Curse of Ishtar at Christmas. This year, we’ll see the rejuvenated All Creatures Great & Small and The Deceived, written by Derry Girls’ Lisa McKee and produced by All3Media-owned New Pictures.

“I was incredibly excited to pick up a new commission from Channel 5 so soon after launching,” explains Fisher. “For many years, Big Brother and Celebrity Big Brother were key features of the Channel 5 slate, so they decided after cancelling Big Brother to explore other genres, and one thing they hadn’t done was produce original drama.”

Penance stars Julie Graham as grieving mother Rosalie

Fisher says he viewed the modest finance available for Penance as an exciting challenge. “If you know from the outset that your drama is going to be made on a relatively low budget, there are many things you can do to maximise the money you do have on screen.”

Keeping the main cast to just five characters helps keep costs in check. Julie Graham stars as Rosalie Douglas, a mum grieving the death of her son, Rob, who drowned in Thailand on his gap year. With her marriage to Luke (Neil Morrissey) already floundering after he had an affair, she and her teen daughter Maddie (Tallulah Greive) attend grief counselling sessions run by their priest, played by Art Malik. There they are befriended – and ultimately beguiled – by another attendee, Jed (Nico Mirallegro, pictured top alongside Graham).

Suffering under the weight of his own grief, Jed rekindles a hope for the future within the Douglas household. But underneath, a deadly and morally corrupt triangle is taking shape.

“One of Penance’s real strengths is that it feels intense and claustrophobic and like you’re very much in that compact world of characters,” explains Fisher. “It’s a domestic drama, so it doesn’t require a huge number of locations and is rooted in the family home.”

Casting well-known actors also attracts viewers. Morrissey has been a household name for decades as a star of Boon, Line of Duty and Men Behaving Badly, and says he found it easy to connect with Graham in this three-part series.

“I’m old friends with Julie, since the late 80s, when she filmed an episode of the ITV drama Boon alongside me, so there’s a shorthand between us,” explains Morrissey. “And coincidentally, Luke’s a brewer, which I also am! I provide the beer for my beloved Crystal Palace FC. I can tap into the kind of experience he has gone through [losing a son]. You can bring things to mind – in my case, the loss of my brother and my mother. At the age of 57, there’s enough I can call on.”

Neil Morrissey plays Rosalie’s husband Luke

Lead actor Graham has a diverse CV that includes At Home with the Braithwaites (2000-03), William & Mary (2003-05), The Bletchley Circle (2012-14 and 2018) and Benidorm (2016-19).

Graham also worked on another O’Riordan adaptation, 2006’s The Kindness of Strangers. “Julie has such a relatable and endearing quality,” says Fisher. “Viewers can watch her and totally understand her emotions. That’s integral to this story of Penance, because the character does make what you could call alarming decisions along the way. But because Julie puts in such a terrific, grounded performance, I totally find all her motivations entirely credible.”

Graham justifies Rosalie’s dubious decision-making, which sees her welcome near-stranger Jed into the family unit, with potentially devastating consequences.

“Grief is the shadow that falls over the whole piece,” explains the actor. “Rosalie makes very, very bad decisions because of grief, because she’s extremely vulnerable and easy to fool, and that’s what hooked me. It wasn’t just about a woman dissatisfied with her life and her marriage. That’s why she allows this man into her home and ultimately opens them up to the most awful situation.”

She adds that landing a meaty lead role at her age (54) was a delightful surprise. “When they offered it, I bit their hand off!” she laughs. “Ordinarily, for every four or five or even six parts for older actors, maybe there’s one for an actress over 40. I’d say it’s still 75/25 in terms of casting. That’s why ERA 50:50 [a campaign group for gender balance for actresses] is trying to get broadcasters to redress the balance.”

The series will air across three consecutive nights, beginning this evening

Costs on Penance were further contained by filming over five-and-a-half weeks near Dublin, even though the drama is set in an unidentified English town. “Ireland is attractive if you’re on a low budget because they have a really appealing tax credit,” explains Fisher. “I also film Blood in Ireland, and we have such a fantastic talented crew on that that I moved them all over to Penance.”

Even the lamentable Irish weather cooperated in helping Fisher keep within budget. “The climax of Penance leans into the tradition of the psychological thriller,” he explains. “It all takes place in pitch black in a woodland. We were shooting in November and it was absolutely freezing and the rain was pelting down, which from a production point of view was absolutely fantastic because we couldn’t have afforded that number of rain machines.”

Graham says a “Blitz spirit” helped everyone through the long evening’s filming. “We were all soaked to the skin and Nico and I were bruised and battered by the end of it, but everybody looked after each other,” she adds.

Due to debut tonight and air across three consecutive evenings in a bid to build tension and encourage binge-watching, Penance is yet more proof that C5’s bid to compete with established networks in the drama sphere is paying dividends.

“You don’t need millions of pounds per episode to make quality TV drama,” says Fisher. “What we found on Blood and what we’ll find on Penance is that viewers respond to a quality story. It doesn’t always need big flashes and bangs and stunts and expensive sets in order to be an accessible and relatable piece of TV drama for the viewer.

“Penance is made on a modest budget, but it has high production values and punches above its weight.”

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