Us and them
Bafta-winning screenwriter David Nicholls recalls how Us, his novel about a man seeking to repair his marriage during a family holiday around Europe, made the journey to the small screen.
Award-winning author and screenwriter David Nicholls is no stranger to turning his own novels into feature films, after overseeing the adaptation of his books Starter for Ten and One Day for the big screen. But while both of those told coming-of-age stories of young love, his most recent adaptation – this time for television – explores romance and relationships at the other end of the spectrum.
Based on his 2014 novel of the same name, Us introduces Douglas Petersen (Tom Hollander), who is blindsided when his wife Connie (Saskia Reeves) tells him she’s not sure she wants to be married to him anymore. Agreeing to still go on their planned family grand tour of Europe, Douglas vows to win back the love of his wife and repair his troubled relationship with their son Albie (Tom Taylor).
Mixing Nicholls’ trademark humour and heartbreak, viewers follow the Petersens’ fortunes in Amsterdam, Venice, Barcelona and Paris as a series of mishaps leave Douglas on the brink of breaking up his family for good in an exploration of what happens to a marriage when the romance fades. The series is produced by Drama Republic and distributed by BBC Studios.
“It’s weirdly both very faithful to the novel and quite different, because the novel is all in Douglas’s head,” Nicholls tells DQ as the four-part series airs in the US on Masterpiece PBS, following its UK launch on BBC1 last year. “It’s a first-person voice and it’s distinctive. There’s lots of extra stuff [in the novel] that doesn’t really work because there’s no way for him to say them out loud. The novel is him looking back at something very much from a single point of view, but the bare bones of the story are pretty much the same [in the series].”
Us is the fourth of Nicholls’ five novels and stands out in their company for being the only story of love among older characters, rather than tales of young romance that characterise the others – Starter for Ten, The Understudy, One Day and Sweet Sorrow. After publishing One Day in 2009, it’s also notable that Us didn’t follow until five years later, though his increasingly busy screen career did fill some of the void. The author says finishing Us was “quite hard-fought” as it took him a long time to work out what his next book would be, seeing as it was written in the shadow of the huge success of One Day, the story of a couple told on the same day over a period of several years.
“One Day was a big 30-something romantic story that drew on romcoms and was about youth, growing up and falling in love,” he says. “It seemed a bit artificial to continue in that vein. I wanted to write about the next stage of life, so for the first time writing the novel I was writing about someone considerably older than me at the time. It was an attempt to imagine the future and by the time we got to making the show, I was much closer to Douglas’s age. I had a teenage son. It had not exactly come true but I was much closer to the experience of the characters.”
Nicholls – who won a Bafta for adapting Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels for Sky – describes Us and Sweet Sorrow, published in 2019, as his favourites among his own novels because they’re not conventional love stories, with Us in particularly the toughest and most honest about love, long-term relationships and family. “That was a breakthrough for me, really,” he says. “The first three books I wrote were in a romantic comedy vein and were very much about lovers and friends. I’d never really grappled with the whole business of parenthood and marriage, so for me, it felt like it was hopefully a more mature book, both in its subject and its tone.”
Then, when it came to adapting Us for television, “you have to just take a deep breath and accept the losses and accept the things that aren’t going to work,” he admits. The novel has a lot more travel in it that the ensuing series, with the Petersens visiting more cities. “In the novel, you also get this big, enjoyable and informative internal monologue so you know a little bit more about Douglas’s backstory and why he’s behaving this way,” Nicholls explains. “On screen, you swap that for something just as exciting: performance. Tom gives a fantastic performance. You do get a sense of how what Douglas does and says can be quite unsympathetic, but Tom gives him a terrific warmth, humanity and fallibility that is really appealing and done brilliantly.”
While Douglas is suitably stunned by Saskia’s opening admission that their marriage might be over, once their trip begins, Douglas only has himself to blame for the failings of their relationship as his stubborn single-mindedness and often fastidious, curmudgeonly behaviour leaves him alone and isolated in unfamiliar surroundings.
“He’s desperate to put things right; he’s desperate to make amends and keep the family together,” Nicholls explains. “He goes to extraordinary lengths to do so, but at the same time he’s not necessarily the most emotionally open, coherent or eloquent person and makes mistakes along the way. It’s all motivated by love, even if it’s not always expressed as well as it might be.
“Quite often, men in middle age are portrayed as faithless and adulterous and it’s always about having affairs and running away, and actually he’s not doing that. He’s running towards [his marriage], he’s desperately clinging to things and pulling people together, sometimes against their will. I like that idea of a man who’s motivated by an excess of love for his wife and for his son, which he’s unable to express. It is a love story but a strange sort of sad, sometimes farcical love.”
As the novel comes entirely from Douglas’s point of view, one of the main objectives of the adaptation was to offer more rounded takes of the other characters, most importantly Connie and Albie. Nicholls admits both characters are more sympathetic on screen than they are in the book, in part because they are not seen from Douglas’s “blinkered” perspective. But having had experience of adapting his own work, this time he was more prepared for the “surgery” that comes with putting any book on the screen.
“Adapting your own work is terrifically hard,” the author says. “I have a ban on ever saying, ‘But it works in the book.’ It’s hard to slash and burn the way you have to when you adapt a novel. It’s quite painful to let go of things that are there often for quite personal reasons. But in the end, I really enjoyed doing it and enjoyed finding out how to make the very subjective world of a novel into the more objective, three-dimensional world of the drama.”
The hardest part of the adaptation process, he notes, is the loss of irony, where a novelist can find pleasure in readers seeing the gaps between what a character thinks and how things really are. On screen, that doesn’t work and can just leave a character looking foolish.
“Books are great for thoughts and feelings and it’s absolutely fine to stop the story and tell the reader what’s going on in the character’s mind,” he says. “On screen, you can’t hang around. You just have to keep coming up with change, with narrative, with actions and dialogue. The screen is about people doing and saying things and books can be about people thinking and feeling, and you have to sometimes make quite tough decisions and lose things just to keep the story and characters moving forward.”
Working from a novel with a singular viewpoint, Nicholls reveals many early script drafts of Us contained narration, with Douglas guiding viewers through the story. “But my main experience of adapting books is you always panic and slather the thing in voiceover,” he continues. “You just have to trust the actors to bring the inner lives of the characters on to the screen. If you do that, you can lose the voiceover and the narration, which is often a sneaky way of putting your favourite bits in the book out there, but it never registers in the same way so you have to let it go.”
The logistics of filming a television drama in multiple cities across Europe, even before the Covid-19 pandemic, meant Nicholls also had to adjust the multiple settings of the story accordingly to fit the show’s schedule and budget, which led to tough decisions about whether to shoot in Madrid as well as Barcelona and asking himself just how important the stopover in Munich was.
“Once you’ve accepted you can’t go to Madrid, and Munich doesn’t really earn its place, then you have another question of how can we make Barcelona look like Venice because we’ve got three weeks in Barcelona and only two days in Venice,” he says of the production’s strict travel itinerary, which meant cities often doubled as other places and many of the interior sets of European hotels were filmed in UK studios. “You just have to accept you’re not going to get everything you want and still shoot things well. That’s always the trade-off.”
Early drafts of the scripts were known as “the Dutch episode, the Spanish episode and the Italian episode,” although the final series doesn’t quite play out according to that structure. But what was key to Nicholls’ writing process was identifying that the engine of the story would be Douglas’s search for Albie after his son continues their tour on his own following a particularly acrimonious argument between father and son, and answering the question of how quickly you can get to that point to retain the audience’s interest.
“That was the biggest narrative challenge,” he says. “It used to come at the end of the second episode in an early stage of the script, which is way too late, so it opened up a lot when we tightened things up in the first two episodes and got to the idea of a ‘hunter chase’ much quicker. Giving it a chase structure stopped it being just a series of observations and skits about parenthood. It gave it some urgency.
“The book is told in 160 short chapters, leaping around through time and space in a way that is not entirely dissimilar to a screenplay. The novel had some of the pacing of a screenplay with two arcs, one which takes 25 years and is the story of the marriage, and the other which takes three weeks and is the story of the holiday. Playing with ideas of travel, time and location and overlapping the past and the present was really enjoyable. They’re tricky things mechanically to do but kind of enjoyable, not dissimilar to what we did in Patrick Melrose, where quite often the past and the present would not rub up against each other or one would create a link to the next.”
As Douglas searches for Albie, most doggedly in Venice where he meets Freja (Sofie Gråbøl), the battle to save his marriage falls by the wayside as he tries to repair his relationship with his son. Part of the challenge of repairing things with Connie – viewers see how they first fell in love through flashbacks – is there isn’t a single event or incident to apologise or make amends for, but rather the slow deterioration of their partnership over several years that asks the question: Can he change?
“The problem is who he is; it’s everything about him,” Nicholls says. “It’s his inability to let things go, his inability to express himself, the atmosphere of tension he brings to everything and the controlling nature and the lack of love and affection. To what extent can he change his essential nature and rediscover what it was that brought them together? Can he rediscover his curiosity, passion and enthusiasm? That seemed to me to be a nice motor for a story.”
A big fan of the romantic comedies of the 1930s and 40s and the screwball comedies of Golden Era Hollywood, Nicholls was also inspired by “divorce comedies” that don’t ask whether two people will or won’t get together, but will they or won’t they get back together. “I love that. I prefer the idea of starting from a point of hostility and moving to a point of love, which feels fresher and more enjoyable that a dear old meet-cute format of a traditional romantic comedy.”
Nicholls is now developing a script based on Sweet Sorrow, a tragicomic coming-of-age story of first love set over one summer that the author compares to cult British romcom Gregory’s Girl. He’s also dipping his toes back into fiction.
“When you write a novel, no-one says, ‘Can we cut Munich?’ or ‘Can we cut Madrid?’ because it doesn’t cost anything,” he notes. “I’m enjoying going back to the freedom and the terrifying blank page of writing fiction again.”