Tag Archives: The Witness for the Prosecution

Reading between the lines

A trio of the world’s hottest television writers – Bill Gallagher, Victoria Madden and Sarah Phelps – discuss their latest projects and reveal how they find their voice for the small screen.

Bill Gallagher
Starting his career on British dramas such as Casualty, Soldier Soldier and a TV movie based on French detective Maigret, Bill Gallagher is best known for credits including Lark Rise to Candleford, Conviction, The Prisoner, The Paradise and Paranoid. His next project is frontier drama Jamestown (pictured above), which charts the early days of the first British settlers as they begin their new lives in America. It is produced by Carnival Films for Sky1 and distributed by NBCUniversal International Distribution.

Bill Gallagher

Gareth Neame [Carnival’s MD] asked if I would look at this period of the very first settlers who went to America from England. I said, “Ok, I’ll read some books.” So I was reading this stuff and it was terrific but I couldn’t see a show. Then I was reading one book, I was on page 300-and-something and suddenly it said, ‘And in 1619, when the men had been there for 12 years, the Virginia Company sent over a ship with 100 women on it’ – maids to make wives. And I fell in love with the whole notion of doing this. You have to fall in love with it.
That became the defining aspect of the show – to see the whole experience though the eyes of women. I was brought up on westerns on the TV so it really was my mythology as a kid, and I got to write for Native American actors. It was absolutely fantastic.
I wrote the whole thing myself. It’s not always the case but often is. I was instantly very clear about who the characters were and what the stories were. I wrote the pilot very quickly and Gareth gave it to Sky very quickly. I’ve been a writer for 30 years and that speed is a rarity rather than commonplace. Things just fell into place at the right time. Sky makes shows with scale, with issues driving them. It fitted what they wanted and they had a pilot script.
I worked with [exec producer] Richard Fell at Carnival and we went to Virginia together. One of the most joyful parts of being a writer is to find a simpatico partner to work with, somebody who challenged me all the time, who was as passionate as I was about it and who got me as a writer.
I allow myself to be clumsy. I love my craft, I love the craft of making a TV show but I work quickly and sometimes that’s clumsy – but I don’t mind that. I used to beat myself up about it when I was younger, I used to get in a real mess and then I had this realisation at some point that this was just my job and it’s my job to be better – so how do I make it better? I don’t mind being clumsy but I have to find someone who’s not panicked by that, and Richard was terrific. I love the craft of it. I work very hard at the composition and architecture of it all but I also give myself permission to get things wrong.
It’s a great time to be a writer because to write something like Jamestown now, which has Native American characters and slaves and English people who have been transported around the world, we can write anything and it’s doable.

Victoria Madden
Australian writer Victoria Madden’s early credits include The Flying Doctors and Heartbreak High, before she moved to the UK and worked on dramas including The Bill, Trial & Retribution and Irish series The Clinic. She then returned home to Tasmania to write and produce The Kettering Incident (pictured above), an eight-part mystery with supernatural overtones for pay TV broadcaster Foxtel that centres on a doctor who finds herself linked to the disappearance of two girls, 15 years apart. It is produced by Porchlight Films in association with Sweet Potato Films and distributed by BBC Worldwide.

Victoria Madden

I’ve written a lot of crime in my career and I love it as a base to work from. I was looking for other angles and when I was living in the UK, Life On Mars was being shot. I was hugely influenced by that show, the way they managed to make a fantastic crime show but with supernatural overtones that didn’t get in the way. It started to make me think that I wanted to explore the supernatural genre as well and to marry together some ideas.
Tasmania is a deeply gothic place with a horrific past – it’s right at the bottom of the world, it’s very isolated, very alone and suffers a lot from huge environmental wars – and I wanted to explore that, adding in the fact that Tasmania also has an abnormally high percentage of people who go missing. I was always fascinated by that.
That started the idea – then something else, something out there. That was the hardest part for me. I hadn’t done supernatural before. I didn’t want it to be a sci-fi show; I wanted it to be a metaphor and to build the supernatural into the story in a natural way. It’s also about a small town on the brink of destruction and that world I grew up in and that desperation. Also, in small worlds, what I find fascinating is the way you have to get on with your neighbours because it’s so small but everybody hates everybody. It builds this maelstrom of deceit and duplicity.
Anna Macy, the lead character [played by Elizabeth Debicki], is a girl who comes back, realises she doesn’t belong and so starts a journey. It really is a journey of unwinding a character and seeing why we need connection and why we need to call somewhere home. She’s a bit of an anti-hero – you don’t know whether to believe her, so that was fun to play with. Is she lying, is she connected to the missing girl story?
I was very influenced by Scandinavian drama and the importance of place. I wanted a story with a big landscape, so that meant a big budget and universal themes so it could travel. We were really lucky, it was a perfect storm. Foxtel was looking for something really different for Australia so it all came together for a world stage.
I don’t like dialogue a lot and I do anything to try not to write a lot of dialogue, but I knew the themes we were exploring were about disconnection, and so every character – even the smaller secondary characters – had a full journey through the show. When I know the themes I am exploring, I like to work in a mosaic way. I do small scenes between people, taking them out of the drama, and then I weave it together afterwards. I don’t like to do it linearly, I just like to do these moments and think about what these people would talk about. At the end, you hopefully get this coherent episode of characters who are lost and trying to find their way through their circumstances.

Sarah Phelps
Sarah Phelps started her writing career on long-running UK soap EastEnders and has since worked on shows including The Crimson Field, Dickensian and Hooten & The Lady. She is best known, however, for her skill at adaptations, among them Great Expectations and The Casual Vacancy. She is now reinventing Agatha Christie for the BBC, first with And Then There Were None and most recently with The Witness for the Prosecution (pictured above and at the top of this page). The two-part story about a man put on trial for the murder of a wealthy heiress is produced by Mammoth Screen and Agatha Christie Productions, with A+E Networks distributing.

Sarah Phelps

I never read any Agatha Christie at all and I never watched any – I just thought it wasn’t for me. It was cosy, over there somewhere, just not what I’m interested in. But then Damien Timmer from Mammoth told me to read And Then There Were None and I was absolutely knocked sideways. It’s one of the most brutal, savage things I’ve ever read. It’s rather extraordinary. It just took fire in my head.
These 10 people on an island – a salt-scoured rock – in the middle of the sea, unable to reach the mainland and here comes this thing towards them, this bloody reckoning of all the things they’ve done, the lies they’ve told. You watch the veneer of etiquette, politesse, society, gender and status being stripped away from them to reveal the craven, brutish animals they are. They are all people who have perpetrated the most terrible crime – they’re all murderers.
That to me felt like, ‘Well, if this isn’t a story about what it’s like to live in 1939 as the world tips over again and the absolute cataclysm of the Second World War, then what the hell is?’ So that really excited me.
Then I came to The Witness for the Prosecution. It’s 20-odd pages, this story with a great twist, but it’s also the 1920s. We associate the period with people dancing on tables and drinking champagne; flappers and rackety, hedonistic, sexual and social excess, but it’s also a time of extreme depression. People came back from the First World War with terrible injuries, both seen and unseen, and terrible deformities.
In the middle of this is a story about sex, money and murder, about an older, very wealthy woman buying favours from a young man who is completely penniless, and you get a really different feeling from the story. Added to that is one of the main characters is a woman who is absolutely the epitome of alterity – she is a foreigner, an actress from Vienna. What we’re talking about is someone from somewhere else and Christie takes all those great icons of what we believe English and privilege are and just smashes them to absolute pieces. That feels so wildly subversive to me.
There’s always a key that unlocks the story and makes the whole thing explode. Suddenly there’s a tiny detail, it might even be a sub-clause in some long sentence, and it just unlocks everything and that’s when you start running wildly round your house with your jumper over your head like a kid. You know you’ve found your story.
From writing EastEnders to anything else, I’m the audience. Does the story excite me? Do I want to find out what happens next? Am I interested in this story? But if you want it to be universal, you have to be really specific because that’s where you get this emotional connection. Being able to write something that absolutely punches you in the heart from my ridiculously tiny study somewhere in England – if it can punch you in the heart there, it can punch you in the heart around the world.

tagged in: , , , , ,

And Then There Was Sarah Phelps

From Dickensian and The Crimson Field to adaptations of Great Expectations, The Casual Vacancy, And Then There Were None and The Witness for the Prosecution, Sarah Phelps is one of the UK’s most vibrant screenwriters. She tells DQ how she brings a novel to life on the small screen and reveals some of the most important writing lessons she has learned during her career.

tagged in: , , , ,

Cattrall bears Witness

The BBC’s Agatha Christie revival continues with two-part crime thriller The Witness for the Prosecution. Michael Pickard speaks to star Kim Cattrall about playing a murder victim and why she wants to give women a voice in television.

As far as Kim Cattrall is concerned, she had some unfinished business with Agatha Christie’s novel The Witness for the Prosecution (TWFTP).

Several years ago she had read for a role in a new Broadway production of the short story, only to learn that opening night would never arrive for that particular adaptation. But in a plot twist that might have come straight from the pages of one of Christie’s novels, the actor was last year invited to join the cast of new television drama based on the same novel.

“The script came in and it was drastically changed from the novel and the stage play that I knew, but I thought it was a terrific adaptation,” Cattrall recalls. “They said to me they’d like to offer me the role of Emily French and I thought it would be really fun to do it on film and play this character.

“I felt it was a real opportunity, especially as Agatha Christie has always written wonderful roles for women. The script was very different – it was very innovative but still had a lot of strength, with the female characters in particular. She definitely told very complex women’s stories and wrote those characters well.

“When I read the script, it was great and I could make this woman much more of a force than maybe she was originally in the story. By making her more involved in the suffragettes and more of a radical instead of just a stock character of an older woman pining and fawning over a younger man, we can tell a much more interesting story and create a much more interesting woman for her time.”

Set in 1920s London, TWFTP concerns the brutal murder of Cattrall’s glamorous and rich Emily French. All evidence points to Leonard Vole (Billy Howle), a young chancer to whom the heiress left her vast fortune and who ruthlessly took her life – at least according to Emily’s housekeeper Janet McIntyre (Monica Dolan).

Leonard, however, is adamant that his partner, chorus girl Romaine (Andrea Riseborough), can prove his innocence as solicitor John Mayhew (Toby Jones) and Sir Charles Carter KC (David Haig) defend him in court.

The two-parter, which airs in the UK on BBC1 this Christmas, is the second Christie story to be adapted by writer Sarah Phelps and produced by Mammoth Screen and Agatha Christie Productions, following And Then There Were None (ATTWN) last Christmas. It is directed by Julian Jarrold and produced by Colin Wratten, in association with A+E Networks and RLJ Entertainment’s Acorn Media, with Acorn TV streaming the thriller in the US.

The executive producers are Phelps, James Prichard, Hilary Strong, Karen Thrussell, Damien Timmer and Matthew Read.

Though she may play the murder victim at the heart of the story, Cattrall relished the opportunity to flesh out her character, who is frequently shown via flashbacks during the two-hour drama.

The Witness for the Prosecution centres on the investigation in the murder of Cattrall’s character Emily French

“It was a fun challenge playing her,” she says of the widowed heiress. “I saw her as someone who was a bit of a rebel, who was always testing the ropes and also as quite lonely and incredibly bored. I see her as being quite restless. She meets this young man in this restaurant and he’s not the cock of the walk, he’s a vulnerable young man and he catches her eye. She invites him home and has this moment of offering him five pounds a week to be her companion. I felt for this woman who is reduced to paying for company and attention to make her feel young and vital and visible again.

“I was really happy that Julian allowed me to have fun playing this character as multi-dimensional rather than just the rich, older woman who’s preying on a young man. She’s so much more complicated than that and I wanted to bring that to Emily.”

Best known for playing man-eater Samantha Jones in HBO’s romantic comedy Sex and the City (and its subsequent film spin-offs), Cattrall says she left that role behind long ago by steering away from playing similar characters, instead choosing parts she finds challenging.

“So I feel in a very fortunate position to still be challenged and create different characters in different scenarios,” she continues. “Something to bring forward in any part I play more about what it is to be a woman my age. That’s what I’m exploring myself in real life and is the purpose of the things I say yes to.

“In some ways, Emily French is a character we’ve seen many times before. So I thought, ‘How can I infuse her with something that Sarah’s given me that I can create with Julian to make a character like Emily French more understandable, more detailed and more nuanced?’”

The supporting cast includes Andrea Riseborough

Furthermore, Cattrall explains that Phelps and Jarrold combined to ensure TWFTP is a pure ‘whodunnit,’ rather than revealing who the murderer is partway through the story, which means viewers can look forward an engrossing and immersive thrill ride.

“What I love as an audience member is when the story is ahead of me because then I participate more,” she says. “You don’t know who did it and they keep you on the edge of your seat and you feel for these characters because they’re being more complexly drawn, they’re more human instead of just being archetypes. What Sarah’s done in writing it is given them more humanity. You feel for them even though you feel they could have done it, which I think is an interesting way to tell any kind of thriller.”

Filming took place in the English city of Liverpool, which allowed the actor the chance to return to her place of birth – she was subsequently raised in British Columbia, Canada – and also celebrate her 60th birthday there during the shoot in August.

“I’m a combination of British and Canadian,” she explains. “My parents are both British and I’m now spending more and more time there. My immediate family is in Canada and I also have my show Sensitive Skin [HBO Canada], which shoots in Toronto, so I can go between both countries and work and feel very much at home in both of them.”

But what is it about Christie’s original work that continues to fascinate audiences and inspire new adaptations year after year?

Toby Jones as solicitor John Mayhew

“There’s a real need for whodunnit – they delve into characters, character flaws and everybody is fascinated by a murder and what drives it, whether it’s madness or jealousy,” Cattrall says. “They speak to people’s fascination with stepping over that line. They’re blood-curdling and scary – and when they’re done well, they’re very exciting.”

Prior to TWFTP, Cattrall has been seen on screen in two seasons of comedy Sensitive Skin, which tells the story of a woman (Cattrall) and her longtime husband who are trying to reinvigorate their lives as they struggle to come to terms with middle age.

“I really enjoy telling stories about women, especially at the point in their life where I find myself now,” the actor says. “I just think it’s uncharted territory. It would just be boring to do the same thing over and over again.

“The exciting thing is telling stories people haven’t heard before. I don’t see enough of that on television. I see rip-offs of shows I’ve seen before, and some of them are very well done, but what I’m looking for is stories and women who need a voice. We’ve had enough ‘super women’ or ‘wonder women,’ literally, and superheroes – they’re fun and there’s a place for them. That doesn’t mean what I want to produce doesn’t have comedy involved with it or irony or vulnerability for the characters. I’m trying to figure out this time in my life and I’m very much attracted to stories, whether in film, theatre or television, that are telling that story in a way I can relate to.”

Cattrall’s involvement in Sensitive Skin isn’t limited just to her on-screen role, however. She is also an executive producer – a role she describes as “fulfilling” as she looks to bring more original projects into production.

“The thing I really enjoyed about being an executive producer on Sensitive Skin, and the thing that was also most terrifying, was how much say I have, not just to the actors or directors but how I wanted to tell the story and with whom,” she admits. “That’s a really exciting place to be because you start with a blank canvas and then you choose the colours with your collaborators that you want to use, and I’d like to do more of that. That’s why working with writers is so important and exciting because everything is possible, especially at the beginning of the process.

“I would like to do more of that and really continue to tell stories and give a voice to women who I don’t think have been heard in the past.”

tagged in: , , , ,

A busy August in Edinburgh

Aidan Turner of Poldark fame was among And Then There Were None's star-studded cast
Aidan Turner of Poldark fame was among And Then There Were None’s star-studded cast

It’s been a busy end to August in terms of commissions and acquisitions. In the UK, the BBC has been especially active, taking advantage of the Edinburgh International Television Festival (EITF) as a platform for announcing or discussing new developments.

One of its most high-profile announcements is a deal with Agatha Christie Productions that will see seven Agatha Christie novels adapted for TV over the next four years. This follows an earlier announcement that it would be making The Witness for the Prosecution, with a cast led by Toby Jones, Andrea Riseborough, Kim Cattrall, David Haig, Billy Howle and Monica Dolan.

The first of the novels to be adapted under the seven-book deal will be Ordeal by Innocence. Other titles so far confirmed include Death Comes as the End and The ABC Murders, which focuses a race against time to stop a serial killer who is on the loose in 1930s Britain.

Commenting on the deal, Charlotte Moore, director of BBC Content, said: “These new commissions continue BBC1’s special relationship as the home of Agatha Christie in the UK. Our combined creative ambition to reinvent Christie’s novels for a modern audience promises to bring event television of the highest quality to a new generation enjoyed by fans old and new.”

The decision to plan so far ahead came after the success of And Then There Were None for BBC1 in 2015. That adaptation was written by Sarah Phelps, who is also working on the next two Christie projects. Further writers will be announced in due course.

Agatha Christie Ltd boss Hilary Strong
Agatha Christie Ltd boss Hilary Strong

Hilary Strong, CEO of Agatha Christie Ltd, said: “And Then There Were None was a highlight of the 2015 BBC1 Christmas schedule, and we are truly delighted to be building on the success of that show, first with The Witness for the Prosecution, and then with adaptations of seven more iconic Agatha Christie titles. What Sarah Phelps brought to And Then There Were None was a new way of interpreting Christie for a modern audience, and Agatha Christie Ltd is thrilled to be bringing this psychologically rich, visceral and contemporary sensibility to more classic Christie titles for a new generation of fans.”

The Witness for the Prosecution is a Mammoth Screen and Agatha Christie Productions’ drama for BBC1, in association with A+E Networks and RLJ Entertainment’s development arm, Acorn Media Enterprises. RLJE’s streaming service, Acorn TV, is the US coproduction partner and will premiere the adaptation in the US. A+E Networks holds rest-of-world distribution rights to The Witness for the Prosecution, and will launch it at the Mipcom market in October.

Alongside the Christie announcement, the BBC’s Moore used the EITF to unveil a range of other dramas. These include an adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s acclaimed young-adult novel Noughts and Crosses and a new six-part drama from Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty) entitled Bodyguard.

There is also an Edinburgh-set drama called Trust Me, written by Dan Sefton, and a new series from Abi Morgan called The Split. This one examines the fast-paced circuit of high-powered female divorce lawyers, through the lens of three sisters – Hannah, Nina and the youngest, Rose.

The Luminaries
The Luminaries is being adapted for BBC2

Moore’s announcements for BBC1 were built upon by BBC2 controller Patrick Holland, who also announced plans for new scripted series at the festival. “I want BBC2 to be the place where the best creative talents can make their most original and exciting work, where authorship flourishes,” he commented.

Holland’s headline drama announcement was MotherFatherSon, from author and screenwriter Tom Rob Smith (Child 44). This is an eight-part thriller that “sits at the intersections of police, politics and the press,” according to the BBC. “It is as much a family saga as it is a savage, unflinching study of power and how even the mightiest of empires can be in peril when a family turns on each other.”

Holland also greenlit The Luminaries, a six-part drama from Working Title Television based on the novel by Eleanor Catton. A 19th-century tale of adventure, set on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island in the boom years of the 1860s gold rush, The Luminaries is a story of love, murder and revenge, as men and women travelled the world to make their fortunes.

Catton, who will adapt her own novel for television, won the 2013 Man Booker Prize for The Luminaries. She said: “Learning to write for television has been a bit like learning a new musical instrument: the melody is more or less the same, but absolutely everything else is different. I’m having enormous fun, learning every day, and I’m just so excited to see the world of the novel created in the flesh.”

Filming on the six-parter will begin in 2017, taking place in and around New Zealand.

Anna Friel in Marcella
Anna Friel in Marcella

While the BBC dominated the drama announcements at the EITF, ITV also used the event to reveal that there will be a second season of crime drama Marcella, written by The Bridge creator Hans Rosenfeldt and starring Anna Friel. Produced by Buccaneer Media, the first season of the show was a top-rated drama on ITV, achieving an average of 6.8 million viewers across its run.

Commenting on the recommission, Rosenfeldt said: “I was delighted at the reaction to the first season and am thrilled to be revisiting Marcella for ITV. In the second season, the audience will get the opportunity to spend more time in her world, exploring some of the characters and getting to know them better.”

Other interesting stories as the industry gears up for autumn include the news that Amazon has acquired Australian drama The Kettering Incident from BBC Worldwide for its Prime Video service. The show was co-created by writer Victoria Madden and producer Vincent Sheehan was shot entirely in Tasmania. The eight-episode series tells the story of a doctor who returns to her hometown years after the disappearance of one of her friends.

The Kettering Incident
The Kettering Incident has been picked up by Amazon

In mainland Europe, Telecinco Spain has ordered a local version of hit Turkish series The End. Produced originally by Ay Yapim, the new version will be called El Accidente and will be the third local version of the show in Europe after remakes in Russia and the Netherlands.

The show, which was also piloted in the US, tells the story of a woman investigating her husband’s death in a plane crash, only to discover that he wasn’t on the flight. It is distributed by Eccho Rights, which has also sold the original to 50 countries.

In the US, premium pay TV channel Starz has renewed Survivor’s Remorse for a fourth season. The show has had a particularly strong third season having been paired in the schedule with Starz hit series Power. Across all platforms, it now draws around 2.9 million viewers per episode.

“We are thrilled to renew Survivor’s Remorse for a fourth season,” said Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik. “Critics have consistently called it one of the smartest and funniest comedies on TV, and we are delighted to see audiences embracing the characters and the storyline with that same enthusiasm. Mike O’Malley and his tremendously talented team of writers and actors boldly tackle today’s most pressing issues, from race, class, sex and politics to love and loss, but with such a deft touch that nothing ever feels heavy-handed.”

The End has sold across the world
The End has sold across the world

In other news, ProSiebenSat.1-owned Studio71 is producing a live-action series inspired by the Battlefield video game franchise that will launch on Verizon’s Go90 platform. Rush: Inspired by Battlefield will stream on the mobile service from September 20.

The Battlefield franchise, developed by EA Dice and published by Electronic Arts, has amassed more than 60 million players since launching in 2002. “Gaming is one of the most popular forms of entertainment today and there is a huge appetite for content inspired by video games,” said Studio 71 president Dan Weinstein.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,