Review – Bold and daring television from the BBC – King Charles III, from stage to screen

 

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So, tonight saw the airing of the BBC’s adaptation of 2014’s critically acclaimed stage play, King Charles III. It was one of my theatre highlights of that year (you’ll find my original review here) and I was thrilled to hear that such a daring and though-provoking drama was to be brought to the screen, particularly with most of the original main cast.

Now it has aired and after reading such diverse comments about the programme on Twitter,  it seemed only right to review this new version and compare it to my experience of Mike Bartlett’s original material.

On seeing it for the first time in the theatre, I imagine I had the same thoughts many tuning in to BBC Two had; starting off with unease and discomfort at what I was watching. These are after all, some of the most familiar people in our lives in Britain. However, the cleverness of the style, structured as if a History play by Shakespeare, in verse, means that although real people, the drama is a step removed from reality, allowing the audience to be absorbed by the characters in front of them, rather than focussing on who they were based on.

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Many are also saying that it is disrespectful, but I disagree. I support the Royal Family by and large (especially the Queen and the younger members) and yet I loved this play and equally enjoyed the screen version. It isn’t autobiographical – after all it’s set in the future! Like any good drama, it causes its audience to discuss and debate its content. It requires you to focus and engage with the questions it raises. None of us know what will happen when the Queen passes away and the crown moves to Charles and yes, this is a heightened reality, which I doubt would ever come to pass. However, as a drama, it asks some intriguing questions – Would Charles, who we know has given his political views in the past, resist giving his assent to a law he personally disagreed with? If he did, what would William do? Would he say nothing, or would he in fact do what was necessary in order to preserve the future of the Monarchy if it was put at risk by his father’s actions? Should we even still have a Monarchy, or does the stability of the Monarch actually hold Britain together?

Ultimately these are simply people, just like the rest of us and King Charles III treats them as such, as people with flaws, weaknesses, ambitions and desires. Yes, there are aspects I remain uncomfortable with (in particular, putting words in to the mouths of William and Harry about their mother), but I cannot take offence at something that isn’t claiming to be anything but fiction. In fact, I find myself thinking about the actual Royal Family and their lives in a whole new light.

As for the transition from stage to screen, overall, Mike Bartlett has done a great job in adapting his play for television. There have of course been cuts, mainly to long soliloquies to save time and certain scenes have changed locations (Jess no longer comes to the Palace after her first night on the town with Harry, which I actually think makes much more sense), but on the whole the text and the spirit of the play remains the same, something that I was a little worried may not translate from the stage. Director Rupert Goold (who also directed the play) is perfectly placed to ensure the Shakespearian tone of the piece remains – dramatic in places, mildly comedic in others. I also loved the moments in which characters spoke to camera, preserving the sense of theatre (which is becoming more common on television, with dramas such as House of Cards) and the use of the original music from the play, particularly the haunting Latin singing during the Coronation (which in the theatre gave me goosebumps).

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Although, I did prefer the stage play due to my love of theatre and the powerful atmosphere the play brought to the stage, there are elements that, in my opinion, work better, or are improved by this adaptation. The biggest example is the ghostly presence of Diana. I never enjoyed this on stage, finding it rather cheesy and uncomfortable (even though I understood that a Shakespearean History play needs a ghost to steer the fates of the characters). Rather than a woman walking across a stage, here through the use of lighting and echoing voices, these moments actually work much better. Also, the inclusion of scenes showing the rest of the family’s reactions to Charles’ dissolution of Parliament were also welcome television additions, raising the stakes of the unfolding drama.

The acting remains strong in this 90 minute drama, with the key players from the stage stepping back in to their roles (Charles, William, Harry, Camilla and the Prime Minister all the same). I’ve seen a fair amount of comments on social media criticising the acting, but, in my opinion, to think that is to miss the complexity of this piece. This is after all a fictional story, depicting a family we all know incredibly well. Therefore the actors had to find a balance between conveying a realistic portrayal of those we know, but without becoming caricatures of them. This isn’t after all Spitting Image, which would indeed have been cheesy!

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Central to this is the incredible performance by Tim Pigott-Smith, whose recent death makes watching this even more poignant. He brings to the screen a man whose whole life has been geared towards this one job and on finally getting it, he faces choices which affect the stability of the whole country. It’s interesting that the law he opposes is one restricting freedom of the press, which may be seen by some as admirable. Yet, the monarch’s role is not to stop laws, but to give their ceremonial assent and it is this decision, followed by his dissolution of a Parliament that he feels opposes him, that results in civil unrest. Over the course of the story, you move from admiration, to frustration and then to deep sympathy for Charles and this is thanks to the rich depth of Pigott-Smith’s performance. The last few scenes are heartbreaking and remind me how much he will be missed.

My favourite role on stage was that of Kate and she is just as strong here (with Charlotte Riley replacing Lydia Wilson). Kate is strong and an equal partner to her husband and her soliloquy to camera captures that strength of resolve. I’m not sure I agree with the Lady Macbeth comparisons, but every Shakespearean History needs an expert manipulator! Oliver Chris also does a fantastic job at playing a conflicted William. He loves his father and yet, ultimately has no choice but to effectively betray him, in order to restore stability. I’ve never seen them as evil as many are saying tonight, as although cruel to Charles, their actions seem necessary to preserve the monarchy that the current Queen has worked decades to protect above all else. This drama now includes their two children and by having William hug his son, as he is faced with the such a hard choice, added an extra layer of emotion to the story. Crucially, the final confrontation between William and Charles was just as powerful to watch on screen, which is all due to the work of the actors.

Adam James (a favourite of mine for years), is back as the Prime Minister, placed in an impossible situation and privy to the later emotional scenes. His interactions with Pigott-Smith and Oliver Chris remain very believable. Margot Leicester provides strong support as Camilla, while Richard Goulding returns to the role of Harry. His was a difficult role on stage, as Harry’s plot line acts as the less weighty aspect of the drama and because of that, comes across as weaker and a bit farfetched. However, the more you think about it, the more sad it is, to see someone adrift and ultimately forced to give up what may have made him happy. It’s a performance that I think you have greater appreciation for the more you watch it. The newcomers to the main cast, Tamara Lawrence as Jess and Priyanga Burford as the Opposition leader were also very good too and I particularly liked the gender switch, meaning the Conservative leader here was also a woman!

Clearly, this drama won’t have appealed to everyone and will have its critics, which is fine by me, provided all those criticising it have actually watched it. It’s also true that theatre will never have the same impact on screen as it does live. However, I applaud the decision of Mike Bartlett, Rupert Goold and the BBC to be bold enough to take such a daring piece of theatre and make it available to a wider audience, while ensuring that those of us who loved the play get to see it again in a new form, for which personally, I’m extremely grateful!

King Charles III is now available in the UK on BBC iPlayer. It will also air in the USA on Sunday 14th May on Masterpiece on PBS. The text of the play is available from Nick Hern Books here.

 

 

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2016 Review – My Top Television of the year

It’s time to look back on 2016 and I’m starting off with a review of this year’s television offerings. Personally, I think it’s been a fantastic year for television across all channels and online platforms. There have been some fantastic new shows, which have drawn us in and have us anticipating their return, while other series have continued to keep us tuning in for yet another year.

It’s always hard to choose the highlights of the year, but below are the programmes that have really stood out for me over the last twelve months.

The Crown (Netflix)

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If any series has impressed me the most this year it’s been The Crown. I’d heard the rumours about how expensive it had been to make, but on seeing it, it was clear to see it was worth every penny Netflix had invested in it! Taking us through from the wedding of Elizabeth and Philip in 1947 to 1955, I became absorbed by the world it created on screen. Everything works in The Crown, resulting in a drama of the highest quality. The acting ensemble is superb, with Jared Harris making me cry as King George, Claire Foy’s award-nominated performance as Elizabeth and actors such as Matt Smith and Vanessa Kirby bringing people we feel we knew to life anew. Combined with strong scripts and direction, gorgeous sets and costumes and a wonderful score, this really was a television highlight.

Line of Duty (series 3, BBC Two)

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Line of Duty is a rare series for the simple fact that every series it just gets better. After the excellent second series in 2014, I really didn’t think it could impress me any more. How wrong I was! With the perfect balance of new story and continuing threads left lingering since series one, this was a taut, nail-biting drama that genuinely had me on the edge of my seat (and indeed jumping out of it too). Jed Mercurio’s scripts are a joy to watch and the cast continue to deliver. Take your time writing series four Jed, I’m sure it’ll be worth the wait. If you have yet to watch Line of Duty, catch up fast!

The Night Manager (BBC One)

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The BBC drama department didn’t hold back with this adaptation of John Le Carre’s novel. Made in partnership with AMC and The Ink Factory, the additional budget available to the series meant that the result was a hugely impressive, movie-quality production. Heck, I actually preferred this to the latest Bond film! Hugh Laurie was on top form as the charming, yet dangerous Richard Roper, a pregnant Olivia Colman kicked ass as Angela Burr and Tom Hiddleston demonstrated to a new audience outside of theatre and Marvel films what a great actor he is as Jonathan Pine. It was tense, thrilling, visually stunning and superbly acted. Some are sad it will likely never return. I actually think that’s a good thing. Sometimes a series should go out on a high.

Game of Thrones (series 6, HBO/Sky Atlantic)

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Game of Thrones series 6 was a bit of a mixed bag, with a few episodes in the middle slowing down in pace somewhat. However, as is always the case, it opened with some strong moments, including the return of Jon Snow (as if he was going to stay dead!) and ended with two of the finest episodes of television I’ve ever seen. The Battle of the Bastards was utterly incredible, showcasing battle scenes worthy of any film (and indeed better than most of them!), while The Winds of Winter took the show further down its darker path as Cersei Lannister shows everyone what a mistake it is to get on her bad side! With only two shorter seasons left, it’s all starting to get very exciting indeed!

Stranger Things (Netflix)

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I wasn’t sure whether I’d enjoy Stranger Things, but I’m so pleased I gave it a try, as I loved its mix of dark creepiness, humour and 80s nostalgia (right down to its brilliant title music and sequence). As a kid I loved The Goonies and watching this show took me right back to that era. Indeed part of the fun of watching it was spotting the nods to the films of that decade, whether ET, The Goonies or another. The strength of the acting of its young lead actors was also a surprise and surely Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven has now become an iconic character. Plus I’ll never hang Christmas lights again without thinking about this show!

Planet Earth II (BBC One)

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I admit I don’t watch many nature documentaries, but I couldn’t miss David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II, which surely brought some of the most incredible sequences to television this year. Whether the iguana escaping the snakes, the monkeys pinching people’s food in India, the bowerbird with its love heart, or the majesty of the eagles to name just a few moments, the series was breathtaking and really made you remember how much more to life there is on the planet that we all take for granted.

The X-Files (series 10, Channel 5)

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As a lifelong X-Phile, the return of my favourite duo to television was bound to make this list! Yes, I admit some of the episodes weren’t as strong as the original run, but as a set of six, I thought they did a great job of showcasing everything that made The X-Files such an iconic series. There was mythology, creepiness and Darin Morgan’s brand of craziness in my favourite instalment “Mulder and Scully Meet The Were-Monster”. The series was always able to switch between these different genres and it was fantastic that by re-assembling the old writers it was able to do the same again and of course it was a thrill to see David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson back together. Was it perfect? No. It was however a revival that made me smile in 2016 and I have my fingers crossed that there will be more to come.

Happy Valley (series 2, BBC One)

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Series one of Happy Valley was a highlight of 2014 and this year the second series proved again that Sally Wainwright’s gritty drama was worth tuning in to. Set 18 months after the previous series, we see Catherine Cawood (the excellent Sarah Lancashire) moving forward with life as Tommy Lee Royce (superbly played by James Norton) sits in prison. However, his influence was still felt through the eerily brilliant performance of Shirley Henderson as classroom assistant Miss Wealand, a woman who has become besotted by Royce and manoeuvres herself in to young Ryan’s life. Cawood also had her day job, as we see her working a case that crosses paths with a detective (Kevin Boyle) who finds himself in a terrible situation following an affair. If you have yet to catch Happy Valley, put it on your to-do list for next year.

Olympics 2016 (BBC coverage)

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Summer 2016 saw us all tuning in to Rio to watch the finest athletes in the world competing for Olympic honour. I always find the Olympics inspiring, as we see true role models who have worked hard to be there. You can keep all of your shallow footballers and reality stars in my view. Thanks to the BBC’s multi-channel and multi-platform coverage, I literally watched sport for two weeks and it was fantastic. Whether watching Team GB succeed in the velodrome, Bolt making history or Simone Biles’s incredible floor routine, it was a truly satisfying summer and I genuinely missed it once it was over.

The Hollow Crown: The War of the Roses (BBC Two)

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The first series of The Hollow Crown took us from Richard II to Henry V and this second series moved the Tudor story along through Henry VI, culminating in the iconic character of Richard III. Shakespeare may not be on everyone’s must-see list, but the BBC’s efforts to make these famous plays appeal to a modern audience deserve attention. Henry VI as a play can drag in places and so this adaptation was able to tighten up the story without losing any of its power and emotion. Hugh Bonneville was on top form as the Duke of Gloucester, Sophie Okonedo was a force to be reckoned with as Margaret and Tom Sturridge’s Henry was a much more emotional and less petulant portrayal than I’d seen before. Then of course there was Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard. It’s a superb performance, that was both chilling and charming and with support from Dame Judi Dench and Keeley Hawes this series really does showcase the strength of the British actors working today.

Victoria (ITV)

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This list started with one Queen and so it seems only right that it ends with another. The first series of Victoria took us in to the early years of the reign of Queen Victoria. Jenna Coleman (best known for her role in Doctor Who) was excellent as the young woman taking on the role of monarch in a world ruled by men. Her chemistry with Tom Hughes’s Albert really sold their blossoming romance, but it was her close relationship with her first prime minister Lord Melbourne, played by the superb Rufus Sewell that I truly loved and I admit I was very sad when Lord M’s time in her life came to an end. Hopefully series two will be just as strong as the first.

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So that was 2016 for me and there were so many shows I didn’t manage to watch (The Night Of and Westworld to name just two). The good news is that 2017 is already shaping up to be just as strong a year. For some suggestions of shows to tune in to next year, feel free to read for post on 17 shows to watch in 2017.

 

Top Television to watch in 2017!

I can’t believe it’s the end of the year already, which means it’s time to look ahead to the top television choices for 2017. Personally, I think 2016 was a superb year for television, whether returning shows or new ones (my look back at 2016’s excellent television will be posted in the next few days) and the new year is already looking rather promising.

So, here are the 17 programmes that I’m most excited about tuning in to in 2017 (well it’s 18 actually, but I’m sure you’ll let me off). As I’m in the UK, air dates and channels are those for the UK.

Sherlock (series 4, BBC One, starts 1st January)

Sherlock S4 - GenericWell, Sherlock was always going to be on my list of hotly anticipated television for the new year! After last Christmas’s slightly bizarre special, series four arrives and from the trailers promises to be a much darker affair. With Toby Jones on board to play this year’s baddie and Andrew Scott making an appearance (in flashback? still alive? who knows), I have high hopes. Sherlock deserves its hype thanks to its strong cast, direction, writing and music and I hope the next three episodes will only leave us wanting more!

Broadchurch  (series 3, ITV, expected Spring 2017)

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Returning in early 2017 for its third and final series is one of ITV’s strongest dramas for years. I know I’m in a minority when I say I really did enjoy the second series of Broadchurch (it really does benefit from a rewatch), but even if you preferred series one, the partnership of David Tennant and Olivia Colman is always a joy and I’m intrigued to see what drama awaits the residents of this Dorset community.

Suits (Dave, series 6B returns 29th January)

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I’ve recently started watching Suits again and had forgotten how much I loved it. Now up to date, I’m looking forward to seeing the continuation of series 6 when the series returns in 2017. One of the show’s biggest strengths is how it continues to adapt the focus of the series as it goes along and after quite a few changes over the last couple of years, it will be very interesting to see what’s next for the gang. I’d quite like to see Harvey’s mother make an appearance, to see how he copes with that emotional hurdle, but we’ll have to see. Oh, and more hand holding with Donna please Harvey!

Taboo (BBC One, starts 7th January)

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A new eight part drama for BBC One is Taboo, created by Peaky Blinders’ Steven Knight, British actor Tom Hardy (whose international reputation continues to grow following his Oscar nominated performance in The Revenant) and his father, writer Chips Hardy. Set in 1814, Hardy plays James Keziah Delaney, a man believed to be dead who returns to London from Africa to inherit his father’s business and avenge his death.  With a supporting cast including Mark Gatiss, Tom Hollander and Jonathan Pryce and with Ridley Scott on board as an executive producer, this will certainly be an epic start to BBC One’s year.

24: Legacy (FOX, starts 15th February)

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I admit I struggled with the idea of 24 without Jack Bauer and I’m still sceptical, but I’m willing to give this reboot of one of my favourite series a go. Yes, there’s no Kiefer Sutherland, but if the storylines continue to grab my attention and interest with the help of 24’s signature real-time format and if the acting is up to scratch, this could be very enjoyable indeed. I really do hope it proves to be worthy successor to the original run.

Making A Murderer (Netflix, date TBC)

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The first series of this documentary in to the case of convicted murderer Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey both shocked and infuriated me and millions of other viewers. I’ve continued to follow the events online and it will be fascinating to get under the skin of this continuing case, as those representing Avery and Dassey continue to fight to unearth the truth behind the tragic murder of Teresa Halbach.

Guerilla (Sky Atlantic, date TBC)

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Written by John Ridley (who won an Oscar for the 12 Years A Slave screenplay), this drama set in the 1970s London revolves around black activism, when a young couple liberate a political prisoner from an underground cell. The couple’s ultimate target becomes the Black Power Desk, a secret counter-intelligence unit within Special Branch dedicated to eradicating such activism. Starring Idris Elba, together with a very strong cast for theatre lovers like me, including Rory Kinnear, Daniel Mays and Denise Gough this powerful series is near the top of my list for 2017.

Stranger Things (Netflix, date TBC)

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Stranger Things’s mix of spooky, supernatural and classic 80s nostalgia was a real highlight of television this year and I’m already looking forward to seeing where the characters are a year on, when series two returns in 2017. We don’t know much yet, but set in 1984, it’ll be lovely to see what nods to the films of that era make it in to the series (it has already been said that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom will be an influence). With all the wonderful kids returning (including Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven), as well as the other regulars from series one, this is sure to be as addictive as series one.

Prison Break (series 5, channel and date TBC)

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It’s time to break out of yet another prison! I’m still surprised about the return of this series, which did get rather bonkers by the fourth series. However, as we left the show with Michael supposedly dead, it will be interesting to see how they explain away his reappearance back behind bars! Those behind the show have said that this is a one-off event series, which will conclude the Prison Break story and as most of the original cast are back, I’m very curious to see it. Hurry up UK and announce how I can watch this!

Big Little Lies (Sky Atlantic, date TBC)

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Remember when people were shocked at the idea of a successful film actor choosing to do a TV series? Thankfully this is now commonplace and 2017 sees the arrival of HBO’s new series based on Liane Moriarty’s novel, starring Reese Witherspoon, Nicola Kidman and Shailene Woodley, as mothers of children at the same kindergarten. As their children become friends, their lives are apparently turned upside down as secrets are revealed. HBO and Sky Atlantic (who are airing it here in the UK) are doing a great job of not giving too much away as yet!

Game of Thrones (series 7, Sky Atlantic, summer 2017)

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Let’s face it, Game of Thrones will be on this list for the next two years before the series ends! After moving past the books, the thrill now when tuning in to Game of Thrones is that anything really could happen and whether you’ve read them or not, all of its fans are now in the same boat. As Daenerys makes her way across the sea with her army and her dragons, it’ll be fantastic to see some of our favourite characters hopefully come together at long last. Will Jaime have to kill Cersei? Will Jon and Sansa finally reunite with Arya? Will the game of thrones really matter if the White Walkers breach the Wall? I can’t wait to find out!

Twin Peaks (series 3, Sky Atlantic, date TBC)

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I remember dipping in and out of Twin Peaks when I was younger so that I could see David Duchovny playing Denise. To my shame I’ve always intended to revisit it and give this cult classic the attention everyone tells me it deserves. I now have the boxset and what better time to watch it than now, before David Lynch and Mark Frost’s series returns after 25 years?! With Kyle MacLachlan back as Dale Cooper and many others returning (including, I hear, Mr Duchovny!), together with actors such as Jim Belushi and Laura Dern said to be making appearances, this is sure to be one of the most talked about series on television in 2017.

Riviera (Sky Atlantic, date TBC)

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Another film actress leading a new television drama is Julia Stiles in Riviera. Created by writer and director Neil Jordan (based on an idea by Paul McGuinness and co-written by Booker Prize-winning author John Banville), this thriller is set on the French Riviera. When her husband is killed in a yacht explosion, Stiles’s character sets out to uncover the truth of what happened to him, only to discover the truth about the activities he was really involved in. It sounds as if this could be this year’s The Night Manager (pity there is no Tom Hiddleston though)!

Death In Paradise (series 6, BBC One, starts 5th January)

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I do love Death In Paradise! What better winter pick me up is there than the glorious island life of Saint Marie (actually Guadeloupe) and the lovely Humphrey Goodman played by Kris Marshall? Yes it can be a bit silly, but that’s part of its charm and these murder mysteries are always great fun. Also, series six apparently includes a two-part story set in London. It’ll be brilliant if we get to see the rest of the gang trying to adapt to Humphrey’s world for a change!

Doctor Who (series 10, BBC One, date TBC)

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After no new series of Doctor Who during 2016, I’m looking forward to the return of Peter Capaldi aboard the TARDIS during 2017. With a new companion Bill Potts (played by Pearl Mackie) who we’ll meet on Christmas Day, it will be interesting to see a new duo flying through time and space having adventures. Rumours are circling that Capaldi may call it a day after this series to make way for a new Doctor when Chris Chibnall takes the helm. I hope he doesn’t leave, but either way, I intend to enjoy a new set of episodes of this BBC classic.

Fearless (ITV, date TBC)

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We still know very little about this new ITV drama. However, the simple fact it stars Helen McCrory is enough for me. Also starring Sir Michael Gambon, all we know at the moment is that it is a six part legal conspiracy thriller in which McCrory plays a solicitor determined to free a man she believes was wrongly convicted of the murder of a child. However, it seems forces in the police and intelligence community are just as determined to stop her. Written by one of the writers of Homeland, I have high hopes for this series.

The Crown (series 2, Netflix, hopefully late 2017)

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After all the hype, it was thrilling to discover that Netflix’s drama documenting the early years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II was utterly superb. The writing, direction, costumes, realistic sets, stirring score and excellent acting from the whole cast means that series two can’t come quickly enough. We don’t yet know how many years the series will cover, but it’s already been confirmed that it’ll be the last series with the current actors, before older actors move the decades forward as the Queen’s reign unfolds.

Line of Duty (series 4, BBC One, date TBC)

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Okay, so this makes 18, but on hearing that the new series of Line of Duty will likely air in 2017, I really couldn’t leave it out. Without a doubt, this has been one of the greatest dramas of recent years, with each series building on the success of the first. After the nail-biting end to series three, it’ll be interesting to see what’s in store for the team of AC-12 when the show moves from BBC Two to BBC One. If you haven’t watched it, then get catching up fast!

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So those are my picks for 2017 and that’s only based on what has already been announced, so who knows what other shows we’ll be enjoying over the next twelve months! For now though, enjoy the Christmas television offerings!

Television Preview – The Fall series 3, plus Q&A with Allan Cubitt, Gillian Anderson & Jamie Dornan

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As I took my seat in the auditorium at the BFI in London tonight and the lights went down, I felt a little apprehensive and perhaps a bit nervous. I was after all about to sit and watch the first episode of series three of The Fall in public; this being the series which in previous years has had me watching from behind a pillow! However, it was too tempting to miss, particularly as this preview screening was to be followed by a Q&A with the show’s creator, writer and director Allan Cubitt and stars Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan (more on the Q&A at the end of this post for those interested).

Although I don’t plan to give much away about what happens in the first episode (and have not referred to anything we were told was embargoed), I will mention some aspects of episode one here and will also try and set out at the end as much detail of the Q&A as I can so some may class this as containing mild spoilers if you wish to know nothing before tuning in.

Disclaimers out of the way, the third series of the BBC’s superb psychological thriller, picks up exactly where we left events; Rose Stagg has been found, but Paul Spector and DS Anderson have been shot. The stakes are high for Stella Gibson as the man she has pursued over the previous two series is rushed to hospital and a desperate battle to save his life begins. As a result, this episode of The Fall finds us in very different territory to previous episodes, in a sense becoming more of a medical drama. Be warned if you are squeamish of hospital scenes as there’s plenty of blood and guts here!

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The dramatic end of series 2!

As well Spector’s fight for life, this opener does set the scene for other storylines that are likely to play out in this series. There is of course Rose Stagg, the woman to survive Spector, who will no doubt have to come to terms with her terrible ordeal, together with her husband (played wonderfully by Jonjo O’Neill). There are also those others affected most profoundly by Spector, particularly his family (I can’t help but feel so sad for his children, who surely cannot remain shielded from the truth in today’s media world) and Katie (still played brilliantly, to the extent I wanted to shake her in to seeing sense, by Aisling Franciosi).

Then of course there is Stella Gibson, who remains one of the most fascinating, strong and multi-faceted characters on television. Gillian Anderson is (unsurprisingly) on excellent form here, in a role she knows so well by now, as we see her emotional reaction to recent events. It’s particularly interesting when she is asked why she reacted with anguish when Spector was shot and you do wonder perhaps if her answer is the whole truth (although Gillian herself says that it is so I believe her!).

One of my favourite moments of the episode was the simple touch of Stella taking the missing person poster of Rose Stagg from the hospital noticeboard; this woman at least she was able to save. There is also a lovely moment between her and Rose’s husband. As she gives him advice on how he should be there for Rose, I again found myself curious as to Stella’s own history. We know she used to have her own rubber band on her wrist and this scene again brings our questions on Stella to the forefront. Creator Allan Cubitt confirmed we would learn a little more, but he and Gillian Anderson have always felt that one of the strengths of the character was the enigmatic nature of her life, so I cannot imagine we’ll ever really know her, and perhaps that’s how it should be. John Lynch also returns as ACC Burns, who finds himself having to defend Gibson’s decision to take Spector to the woodland, which resulted in the shooting. It will be interesting to see how she stands up to any attempts to blame her for what happened and how that will affect her relationship with Burns.

Overall, this is a great start to the third series, laying the base for events to unfold over the coming weeks and it is credit to Cubitt’s style and the characters he has created, that despite Spector being in no position to harm anyone in this episode, I still found myself tensing when nurses went near him alone! It did feel a bit slow in places, but was still an absorbing hour of drama, containing strong performances from its cast. I’m certainly intrigued to see the path the story will take this series and hope the BBC hurries up and announces an airdate!

 

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(L-R) Alan Cubitt, Gillian Anderson & Jamie Dornan (better photo of him below)

 

Q&A with Allan Cubitt, Gillian Anderson & Jamie Dornan

Below is as detailed a record of the Q&A as I can write. The BFI usually uploads its Q&A segments to its website, so I’d keep an eye out for this in the future.

1. Discussing the medical aspects of the series

As this episode takes place predominantly in the hospital setting, the Q&A began with a discussion of the medical element of the series as a whole. Allan Cubitt explained how The Fall has always had a medical element, in the context of while Spector took life, others were trying to save lives. He referred to Sally Ann Spector’s work at the hospital and the deliberate cutting between scenes in which the baby died in the neonatal unit in series one, with Spector’s terrible crimes, in order to convey the enormity of what Spector does. He also talked about having to direct a medical drama for the first time with this episode, which was a new experience for him.

He also touched on how those in the medical profession in Northern Ireland have understood the dilemma of treating patients such as Specter for a long time, particularly during the Troubles and indeed reference to putting clinical need above morals when it comes to medical care is discussed in the episode.

2. Redemption for its characters?

The panel was asked if they thought there was any redemption for any of the characters this series and they all said yes, although refused to say which characters! On being asked specifically if he thought there was anything redeemable about Spector, Jamie Dornan admitted it was hard, but when playing him, he did think there were aspects of him that were commendable (albeit very few!), those being the traces of him being a good, loving father and that he approached his career with professionalism, providing a good quality of support to families who’d been bereaved.

3. Man, monster & method?

Linked to the discussion of the redemptive qualities (if any!) of Spector, Dornan was asked if he felt Spector was man or monster and his approach to playing him. He made clear that it would have been wrong to play him as a monster and that there had to be relateable aspects to him. When playing the scenes with his children, Dornan played them as a father and nothing else, as why would he? In those moments Spector is just a father and a husband and he was keen to avoid the “monstrous” tag. On being asked whether he used method acting for the part (basically meaning staying in character the whole time), Dornan laughingly said he didn’t stay in character all the time, as he probably wouldn’t still be married if he had! He spoke about all actors having their own method, but explained how after all these years he now has ways of locking in to Spector’s psyche without too much build up.

Cubitt also complimented the emotional depth of his lead actors, speaking about Dornan’s personal reaction when they were filming the scene from series two in which Rose Stagg is screaming at the camera. Apparently Dornan watched Valene Kane’s performance on set, with his head in his hands because it had affected him so much, but yet then he was still able to deliver his scenes as Spector talking to the camera afterwards. Cubitt also spoke about Gillian Anderson having not seen those scenes in advance of filming the moments where Stella watches the tapes for the first time, meaning her response to them was genuine, again highlighting the empathetic and powerful actors he has as his leads.

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(L-R) Alan Cubitt, Gillian Anderson & Jamie Dornan

 

4. The ease of becoming Stella?

Gillian Anderson spoke about it being easy to “put on” the character of Stella now, saying that on going to the wardrobe fittings (at Selfridges apparently!), as soon as the clothes are on, she becomes Stella. Cubitt agreed that the look created for her really worked, as on arriving in Belfast she is presenting a face to the world of a woman doing a professional job.

5. Stella’s relationship with Spector?

As mentioned above, there is a scene in which Stella’s relationship with Spector is questioned, in light of her “anguished” reaction to him being shot. Stella justifies this by saying she didn’t want it to end without him facing justice, as the families needed that closure. On being asked whether she thought Stella’s answer was the truth or whether there was an unhealthy fascination with him, Gillian Anderson agreed that Stella is fascinated by him, but is obsessed with bringing him to justice. It’s hard for Stella to grasp that he may get off without punishment by dying and Anderson thinks Stella made the right choice to go to help him in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. Anderson also highlighted that Stella is a character with flaws, such as her decision to sleep with DS Anderson (Colin Morgan) in series 2, but Cubitt commented that he hoped the characters are true to life in the sense that they are flawed.

6. Stella’s character and background

The panel agreed that Stella Gibson is an important character to have on our screens, as a strong woman in the police force, who is comfortable with who she is as a woman. Anderson admitted that she hadn’t met anyone quite like her and that there were aspects of Stella that aren’t her, but would be fun to adopt. She also spoke about how it is more interesting for the audience not to know her background, although agreed we do learn a little more this series. Cubitt agreed that he’d wanted things to unfold gradually and that the enigmatic nature of Stella has always been important. He talked about there being a scene in which we were to see her call her mother, but that they didn’t keep it, as it would have given an idea of her class and background and that it’s more interesting to wonder what her life away from Belfast is like. We assume she has no partner or children, but on the other hand it wouldn’t totally surprise you if that transpired (he stressed that wasn’t a spoiler / hint at all for the series).

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7. Media criticism of The Fall

The criticism the series has faced in the past was also discussed, particularly those press articles which had criticised it for being misogynistic and glamorising violence against women. Cubitt spoke about how much it had upset him on a personal level, as he was the writer and creator so whose fantasies were they saying they were if not his? It was personally insulting, but he didn’t see people who held those views changing them during series 3, as if people have such a “reductive and simplistic” view then a few more episodes of drama wouldn’t change it. To him it is absurd. He spoke about how he’d been contacted by people who had also praised the emotional truth of characters such as Katie and he highlighted how frequently Stella talks about the idea of men, women and violence, raising this topic in a clear and intelligent way. Cubitt also reminded the audience that Spector says he doesn’t hate women, he hates everyone, including himself and that in fact the most violent we see him is when he kills Joe Brawley. It was a fascinating section of the Q&A, which could have become a whole separate conversation on its own.

Audience Questions

It was then time for the audience part of the Q&A, which thankfully was filled with intelligent and interesting questions.

8. As an icon and role model since The X-Files, does Gillian Anderson feel a sense of responsibility when choosing her roles?

Gillian admitted that she did feel a certain sense of responsibility, but that even if that wasn’t the case, she would probably still choose the same roles as she has done, because those are the roles she is attracted to.

9. Is this the final chapter of The Fall?

Although the BFI audience tonight was urging the panel not to answer this question, Anderson pointed out they’d been answering it all day, so we’d read it tomorrow anyway! All Cubitt would say is that series three was not necessarily the end of The Fall. I guess we’ll all have to watch and see!

10. What made Allan Cubitt think Jamie Dornan was Paul Spector from his original audition for another role in the drama?

Allan Cubitt was asked what he saw in Jamie Dornan’s audition tape that made him right for Spector, seeing as Dornan had originally auditioned for the role of James Olson. Cubitt spoke about having met Dornan before and wanting to bring him in to audition, but then realising he wasn’t right for the part of Olson. His extraordinary presence on camera convinced Cubitt straight away that he was right for Spector, but that it was felt by others that Dornan should come back and audition again for the role. He did and Cubitt was quite adamant that this was the right actor (to the extent it was Dornan or no one for him) and that on sending the tape to Gillian Anderson she also agreed. Cubitt also commented that as the actor would need to spend 50% of the time on screen alongside Anderson as Stella Gibson, he needed someone with just as much emotional depth and that Dornan had that. He also enthused about the stunning casting for series three.

11. Does Gillian have any advice for young actors when facing rejection?

Gillian’s advice was perseverance and not to take rejection personally as it can be a gift. As long as you leave an audition knowing you gave it everything, the rest is out of your hands.

12. How has Jamie’s view of playing Spector changed since series one, in light of him becoming a husband and father?

Jamie was reminded that at the launch of series one, he’d said he couldn’t relate to Spector as he hadn’t killed someone, wasn’t a husband and wasn’t a father. Now two of those facts have changed (don’t worry, he still hasn’t killed anyone), has his view of the character changed? Dornan agreed that a lot had changed for him since The Fall had begun and that having children is like a reset button for your life (in that everything changes in an instant), but that actually you see less of Spector being a father this series. He spoke about drawing on his love for his niece when he was filming those scenes for series one.

13. Had Allan Cubitt always intended the role of Katie to develop the way she has?

Cubitt said that he had the notion that Katie’s role would develop that way and that throughout The Fall there is the theme at play of people not being parented completely. Katie, for example, has lost her father, something Spector cruelly reminds her about in series two. Cubitt spoke about being fascinated by what Spector thinks of Katie, as she is not on his radar as a victim because he sees her as a child and that it is this warped view that Stella calls him out on. Cubitt wanted Katie to go on a complex journey where she is ultimately learning that there are dangers in the world.

14. When he knew the end game, how did Cubitt map out the story when he had no idea about the number of series he would have?

Cubitt recalled being asked to write for the second series of Prime Suspect, in which he had four hours to map out. That experience had made him realise that that amount of time uses a lot of story! He explained that although he knew the story beats for The Fall, he had also known that there would be detail along the way that he would have to invent and that as characters are invented, they started to dictate side plots as well.

………………………

Sadly that was all the panel had time for tonight. As is always the case with the BFI’s previews and Q&As, it was a fascinating insight in to the making of this excellent British drama. No air date was confirmed for The Fall tonight, but hopefully we won’t have too long to wait to find out what the next chapter has in store for Stella Gibson and Paul Spector!

If you have yet to watch The Fall, in the UK it’s available on Amazon Prime and via the BBC Store. The teaser trailer for series three can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/Su8qOzmIRL0

My Top Television of 2015

The year is almost over so it’s time for another annual television review. How time flies! It’s been a mixed year, however, there were still some brilliant programmes during 2015 and these are the ones that stood out for me, which I couldn’t wait to rewatch and will no doubt tune in to again in the future.

Wolf Hall (BBC)

Wolf Hall was a truly superb achievement, highlighting the quality that the BBC produces effortlessly. As someone who had only recently seen the RSC stage productions and started reading the books after watching a BFI preview of this series, it met every expectation I had for it. The screenplay was a perfect adaptation of the books, the locations and costumes were gorgeous and the direction and choice of lighting was inspired. The scenes lit purely by candlelight truly captured the sense of England in another time. Then of course was the acting, with a strong ensemble bringing these famous characters to life, all led by Mark Rylance, one of my favourite actors. His Cromwell manages to capture all the internal thinking of the man. You can see that so much is going on in his head, even when no word is spoken and it’s lovely more people have become aware of his brilliance through this drama. I certainly hope that the third book will also be adapted once it’s released.

Broadchurch (ITV)

I’m aware that a lot of people were disappointed by the second series of Broadchurch, but I wasn’t one of them and actually think the series was underrated and very worthy of a revisit for those who only watched it on transmission. Yes, series one was superb, partly due to the unexpected quality of the story and the way it captured the nation’s interest. It was always going to be difficult to repeat. However, series two has a lot of brilliant elements that the first didn’t (and couldn’t) have. The bond and relationship between Hardy and Miller was stronger and gave David Tennant and Olivia Colman more scope to build on what had gone before. They are friends here and able to be a team in a way they couldn’t be in those early episodes before the trust had been built. On top of that you had two stories at once. Perhaps the weakness of this series was too many little plots (the barrister’s son as an example), but the mix of the court case with, for me, the more interesting plot of Sandbrook always kept me guessing. It also gave us one of the most interesting characters on television this year – Eve Myles’s Claire Ripley. One minute you liked her, then you suspected her, then you worried for her. She was a whirlwind of emotions and personalities and was always wonderful to watch. I’m a little worried a third series may be unnecessary, but I’m intrigued to see what Chris Chibnall has in mind.

Doctor Strange & Mr Norrell (BBC)

Another quality BBC drama was this adaptation of Susannah Clarke’s fantasy novel and I still think it received much less fuss than it deserved, being a brave and exciting choice of drama for the BBC to make. The cast were wonderful, with Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan doing fantastically as the title characters, with Marc Warren truly creepy as The Gentleman. Beautifully shot and with some impressive special effects (that sand horse scene in episode two was truly fantastic on first viewing for a television show). If you didn’t watch it, I’d encourage you to give it a try. It really is magical.

Game of Thrones (HBO)

I imagine Game of Thrones will make this list every year unless it does something spectacularly wrong before it ends! Series five also marked the year in which those of us who’d read the books finally moved on to new material! Anything is possible now! Ayra Stark’s development continues in fascinating ways and Maisie Williams only gets better each year, but let’s face it the pinnacle of series five was Hardhome. It felt like a scene from The Lord of the Rings and I’d love to see it on a cinema screen. The vast, epic and powerful scope of those 20 minutes were incredible. I’m very excited to see what will be coming next.

Jessica Jones (Netflix)

I admit that I came to Jessica Jones as a David Tennant fan rather than a Marvel fan, but I’m very pleased indeed that I did, with Jessica Jones being one of the one most fascinating characters on television this year, wonderfully played by Krysten Ritter. It may be part of a comic universe, but this is not what you’d normally expect from a superhero series, with that aspect of the show seeming secondary to the dark, adult themes that it contains. Tennant’s Killgrave is also a truly chilling villain, his ability to make anyone do anything, frightening in its possibilities. With strong writing and an excellent supporting cast, this was one of the strongest first series of a show I’ve seen in a long time. Read my full review here.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)

I admit I tend to watch more dramas than comedies, but this new Netflix series was recommended by so many of my friends I had to try it. What a brilliant series it is and series two cannot come quickly enough! The premise may seem bonkers, but the writing is sharp and funny and the characters immediately likeable. Kimmy Schmidt is so full of naive, innocence and Ellie Kemper is wonderful in the role. Not many characters have made me laugh as much as Titus Andromedon (played by Tituss Burgess) did this year and it’s always lovely to see Jane  Krakowski on screen. You couldn’t fail to be cheered up, no matter how naff you felt when you watched this series and that’s a rare achievement.

Arrow / The Flash (Sky)

I may be cheating a little counting two shows as one, but due to the crossover nature of the worlds of Arrow and The Flash it seems justified (look at the great promos they can do for them both now)! I’ll always love Arrow, as the characters have bedded in and let’s face it, it has Felicity Smoak (and yes, Stephen Ammell…), but The Flash really did a  brilliant job in its first year of settling in so quickly. After only a few episodes the characters felt developed and were people you were genuinely interested in watching. I’ve not enjoyed series two of The Flash so far as much as the first, but together these two shows do a brilliant job of combining the fantasy/superhero elements with interesting, well-rounded characters and stories.

The Blacklist (Sky Living)

In my view, series three of The Blacklist is its best yet. Initially the plots felt a bit silly and the FBI characters laughable in their ineptness, but it was the brilliance of James Spader’s performance as Raymond “Red” Reddington that hooked me. He was enigmatic, charming, funny and with an edge that made you know you wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of him! Series three has seen him and Agent Keen work even more as a team, as she continues to be on the run from the very colleagues she used to work with. It has given the series an interesting new angle and given Megan Boone as Keen some much more interesting material to work with.

Doctor Foster (BBC)

Mike Bartlett is one of my favourite playwrights, currently on a role with his stage successes both here and on Broadway and with Doctor Foster he has brought his ability to write human emotions and behaviour to the small screen as well. Over the course of this series, the tension that developed as the truths of the characters unravelled was brilliant. Bertie Carvel was very good as the cheating husband who you couldn’t completely despise (well not initially anyway!), Adam James was on fine form as the sleezy neighbour, but Suranne Jones is utterly superb as Doctor Foster. Her performance is magnetic, as we watched her move ever closer to confronting her husband and the final episode was certainly nail-biting. It’ll be interesting to see where series two finds her.

Peter Kay’s Car Share (BBC)

It was actually my parents who told me how good this series was. This recommendation was quite unusual, as I wouldn’t have expected them to be watching this type of comedy and so curiosity meant I had to tune in. It’s such a gem of a series and so brilliantly written by Peter Kay. How he comes up with some of these ideas I do not know, but it made me laugh more than most series have this year. The central chemistry between him and Sian Gibson, as his colleague and friend Kayleigh Kitson is perfect and has so much potential. I’m very much looking forward to a second series, which surely must be coming soon.

……………..

So those are my television highlights of 2015. There has certainly been a lot to see this year and I have a list of things to catch up on that I couldn’t fit in. I hope 2016 proves to be just as entertaining (well it already has The X-Files so will be off to a spectacular start!). My top picks for 2016 will follow soon.

Television Preview – Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (BBC) & Q&A with cast and crew

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Over the last few years, a number of friends have mentioned the book Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell to me and been surprised that I haven’t read it. Written in 2004, Susanna Clarke’s international bestseller has after all been around quite a while now. It’s one of those books I’ve always meant to read and just never got round to picking up.

In the meantime, fans of the book have been desperate for a screen adaptation and after possible film projects have come and gone, the BBC have finally completed a seven part adaptation of the story for BBC One. It will air some time in May (no specifics yet) and last night I went along to the BFI’s preview screening of episodes one and two and what a truly outstanding piece of drama it is.

For the uninitiated, the story is set at the beginning of the 19th century, when magic has not been performed in England for over 300 years and therefore the country has lost its belief in such practices. However, in Yorkshire,  a reclusive man is in fact a practical magician and on being pressed to prove so, causes quite a stir when he brings the statues of York Cathedral to life and speak. With his newfound celebrity (which he is not too keen on), he travels to London on the encouragement of his man of business, hoping his talents can be useful to the government in the Napoleonic Wars with France. While there however his summoning of a fairy (and not the nice type you are thinking of) causes all types of problems to begin. At the same time, wealthy gentleman Jonathan Strange is not even aware he is capable of magic, until a street magician, Vinculus, tells him it is his destiny. Soon Norrell isn’t the only magician in London.

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Susanna Clarke’s book has become an international bestseller

It sounds fantastical, which of course any drama about magic will be. However, don’t be put off if that isn’t something you normally turn on your television for. If you enjoy top quality drama of any kind, you will enjoy this series. As a story, I was impressed by how credible and real the world on screen is. Susannah Clarke was very clever to set her story in period England, during a historical war we all know about, with the magical elements simply weaving in as if they’ve always been there. This gives it an authentic reality that you don’t find with all fantasy stories.

As a drama I absolutely loved the opening two episodes, which I imagine will only get better as the story unfolds. Episode one sets the scene, introduces the main characters and draws the audience in to the story very quickly, while episode two builds on the story and mood and contains some of the first brilliant visual effects moments. As someone yet to read the book, the world was new to me, but you certainly don’t need to worry about needing any background knowledge to watch the series and Peter Harness’s scripts are perfectly paced and certainly not confusing. Those around me in the audience who have been fans of the book for years only had praise for his adaptation.

Together with director Toby Haynes (whose previous work includes Doctor Who and Sherlock) and producer Nick Hirschkorn, the three have done a fantastic job in capturing the mood and atmosphere of the story and bringing it to life so fully on the screen. It is in equal measure creepy, funny, dark, exciting and intriguing and the visual effects (created by Milk Visual Effects), are incredible. The fact they are not used excessively makes them stand out at moments when you really need them to. Look out for a scene in episode two, which would not be out of place in a Tolkien film and which was so visually impressive, I wanted to applaud (for book readers, it involves a ship and some sand…). I imagine there will be lots more moments like that to come too.

The key cast of the series. Image by Lindsay Niles at http://whatlindsayreads.blogspot.co.uk
The key cast of the series. Image by Lindsay Niles at http://whatlindsayreads.blogspot.co.uk

As for the cast, they are simply brilliant. Eddie Marsan is wonderful as Mr Norrell, reluctant to come out from behind his books and interact with others and Eddie conveys his quietness and awkwardness wonderfully. Bertie Carvel (recently seen in Coalition as Nick Clegg, but who will always be the original stage Miss Trunchball in Matilda for me!) is a fantastic choice for Jonathan Strange, who despite his slightly arrogant gentleman persona, is incredibly likeable and Carvel brings out his warmth, wit and humour through his performance.

There are some excellent supporting performances too, particularly Paul Kaye (another Matilda veteran) as creepy street magician Vinculus, Enzo Cilenti as Norrell’s man of business Childermass (who seems at times to be the boss of Norrell), Charlotte Riley as Jonathan’s love Arabella, Sam West as Sir Walter Pole, who becomes caught up in Norrell’s magic, both knowingly and unknowingly and John Heffernan, bringing added comedic moments as Lascelles.

However, the stand out performance for me was that of Marc Warren (Hustle, The Musketeers) as the fairy summoned by Norrell, named The Gentleman with the Thistle-Down Hair. This isn’t one of the cute fairies at the bottom of the garden we think of now. Instead The Gentleman is a creepy, gothic creation who, once summoned, glides in and out of our world for his own enjoyment, regardless of the consequences and Marc’s performance is superb. Everything from the voice and movement to his look, for which makeup, hair and costume should be applauded, is absolutely perfect. It’s a disturbing and chilling performance (think Bowie’s role in Labyrinth, but much, much darker and far more creepy). I almost wish no promotional images of him appear in advance, so that the first time you see him is on screen as he appears by magic.

The BBC clearly have another stunning series on their hands and one which should appeal to everyone, whether you enjoy fantasy stories or not, which yet again shows how important the BBC is to quality British television. It’s superbly acted and beautifully shot, with brilliant work by makeup, costume, effects and music and is a truly engaging, entertaining and exciting story, which is bound to draw you in. I now have the book (only £3 from FOPP if you are tempted), so I am determined to at the very least start it before the series reaches our screens some time next month (especially as I’m now left wanting to know what happens next). For now, enjoy the very short teaser that has been released:

Q&A session at the BFI

Following last night’s screening, there was a Q&A session with writer Peter Harness, director Toby Haynes, producer Nick Hirschkorn and actors Bertie Carvel and Marc Warren.

1. What was the journey of the adaptation from book to screen?

Producer Nick Hirschkorn talked about how, since its publication in 2004 and subsequent success, the book’s rights had been acquired by New Line Cinema, with talk of it being brought to the screen as a film by Peter Jackson. He said he never felt that the material was right for a film or indeed a trilogy and that a television six part format would be better. It was years later, once rights were available again that, alongside Cuba Pictures they decided to approach the BBC’s Controller of BBC Drama Commissioning Ben Stephenson. He immediately said yes and the now seven part series was created, with filming taking place in Yorkshire, Canada and Croatia from late 2013. Writer, Peter Harness, spoke about his approach to writing the episodes, which he said began with dividing the book in to chunks of around 250 pages per episode, although as the story picks up this does change, as episodes one and two take up approximately 400 pages, while the final episode covers around the last 50 pages of the novel. He said it had been a daunting task, but possible because it was such a wonderful world created by Susanna Clarke and he described it as “mining treasures.”

2. How did Marc and Bertie hear about the project and get their roles?

Marc Warren admitted that he hadn’t read the book, but had seen the cover in shops over the years. He told a brilliant anecdote that it was while in South Africa and chatting to Richard & Judy, that Judy said it was their favourite book and that if it was ever made then he needed to play The Gentleman with the Thistle-Down Hair! When he heard about the project, they didn’t seem to be asking for people to come in for that role (he jokingly said he assumed they had some famous American in mind!) and so he told his agent that he wanted to read for it. In advance of his audition, he learnt a spell (a sigil apparently) and performed his trick when he met Toby Haynes, saying he was The Gentleman! Toby noted how remarkable his casting session was, as instead of lasting the usual 20 or so minutes, he spent 90 minutes doing various scenes with Marc.

Bertie had read the book after having it recommended to him and had loved it. He spoke about always casting himself in his head as Jonathan Strange as he felt a kinship with the protagonist and because it was such an incredible story. He loves that the story (and these scripts) keep surprising you, as he is a character coming of age and growing up, but then once you think he’s arrived, the tide recedes and just keeps going somewhere else. He was in New York, opening the RSC’s Matilda at the time of casting and he was shocked when his agent told him they wanted him to tape for the role. Not long afterwards Toby and Nick flew out and worked through some scenes with him before he was offered the part.

3. How did they decide when to use visual effects?

Director, Toby Harness, spoke about how this was not the same budget as for that of a film, so there were financial considerations needed when deciding on visual effects. Also due to the size and scale of the book, they needed to keep asking themselves does the effect warrant the screen time, which again is limited and this all forced them to be cleverer. He commented that such constraints were after all how the TARDIS came to be in Doctor Who, which is now so iconic! He explained that they used the effects budget as little as possible, so when it was used the effects on screen would be different to others on television (Marc loved the same scene as me, saying it’s one of the best things he’s ever seen on TV!).

Bertie Carvel commented that the magic was often off stage in the story, which makes it seem much more credible as a result. He also liked the “low fi” tricks used for some of the magic, such as summoning Marc’s character (done by lighting a candle), where there is no camera trickery at all, or the scenes when only certain characters can see Marc. This he said was more like theatre, using a collective imagination, which is a kind of magic in itself. The writer spoke of how creating and writing the magic was like creating the atomic bomb – terrible and unpredictable power, which once out of the box can’t be put back in.

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L-R: Marc Warren; Bertie Carvel; Peter Harness; Nick Hirschkorn & Toby Haynes at the BFI last night.

4. How did they go about making it feel like a bigger canvas than it is (in terms of backstory of the world in the book)?

Peter Harness spoke of his awareness that people will be turned off if something is too dependent on mythology and how alienating that can be. Therefore the mythological world of the Raven King and the golden age of magic, referred to in the book are there as texture and to give a sense of a bigger world, but that you don’t need an understanding of it to follow the story in the series. They didn’t want that to overpower the story of the characters.

5. Was there an obsession with period detail?

The panel spoke about the brilliant work of designer David Roger, which made this easy. They wanted to start from the real world, making is raw and grubby (which apparently is actually quite hard to convey on a set!). The producer said that he felt the key with fantasy is that you have to believe the world and therefore need everything to be consistent in terms of look. He particularly loved The Gentleman’s kingdom of Lost Hope, which he thought looked seamless, as everything worked together to create the consistent look they wanted. Bertie Carvel also commented on the importance of good leadership in a project, but also that he loved that they’d been allowed room to bring everything they could as actors, which he said was rare.

Audience Questions

6. How closely did Peter Harness work with author Susanna Clarke on his scripts?

Peter explained that they didn’t work closely initially, as she trusted them to get on with it. Toby Haynes recalled that she did send them a letter beforehand which said “Beware of working with magicians. They are extremely ungrateful.” Once the scripts had been developed and ready to be shared she read them and loved them and was very happy and supportive. She apparently became a regular and proud presence on set.

7. Do the panel believe in practical magic and its future in England?

Marc Warren said the only magic he can do is make a coin disappear, but that it had been magical making the series! Tony Haynes jokingly said that they were the charlatans so were the wrong people to ask but they all agreed that there had been something special about the project and that everything seemed to slot in to place.

8. Is there an air date?

All they could say was that they had been told some time in May.

9. Would they consider adapting Susanna Clarke’s short stories?

The producer agreed that the short stories from The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories were brilliant, but didn’t lend themselves to a long adaptation like this one. He said to wait and see, but that there were no plans to do so at the moment.

10. How useful is it to depict magic in a setting which already has rules you need to follow, i.e. the period drama setting?

Bertie Carvel spoke about how Susanna had made a believable world out of the fantastic, by laying it over something very real and that making it believable was the key. The writer agreed that the rules of a period drama were quite clear, so you did have something to start with, although the director did jokingly say that those rules could be a pain too (e.g. how to correctly pick up a spoon in 19th century England)!

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell will air some time in May on BBC One in the UK. For more information keep on eye on the BBC website.