Murderland: Robbie Coltrane

Robbie Coltrane
Robbie Coltrane

REGULAR readers of The Life of Wylie blog over on the MEN Movable Type platform may have been wondering where I’ve been for the last fortnight.

The simple answer is – I’ve gone freelance.

There’s a full explanation here and you can check out today’s first small step as a freelance over at The Guardian’s TV&Radio Blog here.

For those who want to know more about Murderland, check out the below.

It isn’t one of my typical blog entries.

The majority will be, mostly, shorter. I promise.

And more blog-like.

If you feel so inclined, please bookmark this new WordPress version of Life of Wylie and stick with me for the road ahead.

You’ll note that my blogs from April this year to October 2 are, at the time of writing, missing.

You can find those at the old platform here.

Lucy Cohu as Sally
Lucy Cohu as Sally

LAURA Mackie used to think that every one of her TV dramas would do really well if it was made with loving care.

“It was a very easy equation. It would equal viewers and rave reviews. But it doesn’t remotely work like that,” she says.

Cracker star Robbie Coltrane returns to the small screen tonight in one of ITV1’s flagship dramas of 2009.

Murderland is a three-part thriller which knows it will attract an audience. After all, it’s not every Monday night you get to see Harry Potter’s Hagrid weave a spell as a potentially dodgy detective.

“Robbie is a big star, he will make people switch on. And if you get them to switch on, I really don’t think you will switch off,” predicts Mackie, controller of ITV drama commissioning.

But there’s more to Murderland than just one big name. Good as Coltrane is as Detective Inspector Douglas Hain of the West Middlesex Constabulary.

Not to be confused with Manchester criminal psychologist Fitz, last seen on the same channel in 2006.

Former Time Out film critic David Pirie has written a murder story told through the eyes of three characters, the point of view changing in each episode.

First we see events via 13-year-old Carrie (Bel Powley), the daughter of a murdered woman.

Episode two reveals the different perspective of DI Hain, in charge of the investigation.

Finally we come to Sally Walsh (Lucy Cohu), the murder victim in a drama set in 1994 and the present day.

“We hope that people will lean forward and concentrate,” explains Mackie, who acknowledges the time-shifting plot requires extra attention from viewers.

Robbie and Bel Powley as Carrie
Robbie and Bel Powley as Carrie

“What I hope we’ve done is made sure it’s clear without dumbing it down because I think the audience are prepared to work hard. You patronise them at your peril.

“Since last autumn we have branded our three-part thrillers as Monday night thrillers, so that the audience knew they were always going to get a certain kind of drama. But each one we wanted to make sure was very distinctive and stand out.”

Talking after a special screening of Murderland at the BFI Southbank in London, she is not keen to set a target for ratings. “I’m really loath to say because it just depends on the different drama.

“An Englishman In New York is a single drama we’ve got coming on later on this year. We’re not expecting that to get six or seven million. It’s a wonderful piece and it’s a piece that’s in the schedule for a different reason.

“I would hope Murderland would get about five million. If it gets more than that, we’ll be delighted. But it’s about overall quality,” she insists.

Those figures will be boosted by a rare ceasefire in the current row between ITV and STV. Unlike most recent ITV1 dramas, Murderland will be broadcast north of the border.

Mother and daughter Sally and Carrie
Mother and daughter Sally and Carrie

Although filmed in north London, it is produced by Kate Croft and Dave Edwards for Touchpaper Scotland, part of the RDF Media Group, and features a leadng man born in Rutherglen, South Lanarkshire.

That is good news for Mackie. “Robbie was attached from a very early stage and we need big stars in order to draw in the audience. So it felt like a really complete package. It was not a hard commission.

“We know Monday nights are very good for thrillers, we know people are in the mood to watch something that is quite challenging. It felt like a night of the week where you were just prepared to work a bit harder. So far, so good with crime on a Monday for us.”

Stick with Murderland for three weeks and you will find out who killed mother and massage parlour worker Sally. “Hopefully the viewers won’t guess what happens at the end. I hope they’ll be satisfied – it’s a very moving ending.”

Lessons have been learned after a mixed reaction to Lucy Gannon’s thriller The Children, screened just over a year ago. “Lucy wanted to leave it open. She wanted you to come away at the end and think it could have been any one of the number of people we’d met throughout the three hours.”

Robbie with Sharon Small as Dr Laura Maitland
Robbie with Sharon Small as Dr Laura Maitland

Mackie thought that production had flagged a clear ending. “But not clearly enough,” she says now. “People loved the drama but they felt really cheated. So if they spend three hours watching something, they want some sort of resolution.”

Former head of BBC drama series and serials, she joined ITV in 2006 and succeeded veteran ITV drama boss Nick Ellliott when he retired the following year.

“We want to offer variety,” says Mackie, who works with deputy Sally Haynes. “It’s no secret that we’re in tougher times now and we have fewer hours than we had. So it means Sally and I have to pick very wisely.

“Again, it’s no secret that we need to aim to get a fairly healthy audience for everything we do. But I think you do it with really good quality pieces. You don’t do it by trying to second guess what the audience might want because most of the time if you do that, you won’t get it right.

“I can’t just commission things I want to watch. I think I’ve got a fairly catholic taste. My background was working on things like Casualty, Cutting It and quite mainstream things.

“Science fiction isn’t particularly my bag but that’s something we’re looking at, something we’re thinking about. You’ve got to offer variety. “

She adds: “It would be very easy for us to just keep doing more and more crime – and it works. The reformatted version of Law & Order worked brilliantly for us and we’re doing some more of that. But you’ve got to do more than just crime.

“We struggle with it, the BBC struggle with it. It’s hard. But when you get it right, when you get something like Doc Martin with a big character that the audience engage with, in a very different way to Murderland, it’s great.

“In the end it’s a cliché, but it does come back to good writing and writers being passionate about wanting to tell a story.

“I’m very pleased to say that David and Kate and Robbie are brewing something else which is equally good and interesting and exciting. It’s very early days but it’s fantastic to have another piece from them.”

*Murderland is on ITV1 at 9pm