“IF you go to the cinema midway through a film, you watch the second half first, don’t you?
“So you see how the characters end up in the story.
“What happened to turn them into the people they became.
“It’s like a riddle you have to solve.”
So begins The Night Watch on BBC2 tomorrow night.
Yet another television treat from BBC Drama.
In a month that will also bring us the start of The Hour, of which more later.
My feature on The Night Watch is in today’s MEN and below.
UPSTAIRS Downstairs star Claire Foy admits she was too terrified to speak to the writer behind her latest TV drama.
The Stockport-born actress smiles: “I saw her across a room at the read through of the script and then ran away. It was very scary.”
The Night Watch (BBC2, Tuesday, 9pm) is a 90-minute film adapted by award-winning Paula Milne from the bestselling novel by Sarah Waters.
Not that Claire has anything against author Sarah. “Everyone says she’s lovely and I’d love to talk to her after this. But you’ve got to have the character as your own. And I was scared she’d say too me, ‘What are you doing?!’”
The one-off drama, set in London but filmed in Bath, begins in 1947 with Helen, played by Claire, and Viv (Jodie Whittaker) running a marriage bureau. While mysterious former wartime ambulance worker Kay (Anna Maxwell Martin) walks through the post-war streets.
Intriguingly, this is a story that starts near the end and is then told backwards. The first rewind returns three years to 1944 and then a second back to 1941, as we learn how all the characters are connected and the details of what they have been through. Finally the action returns to 1947 with a closing glimpse of their peacetime futures.
One of the early scenes on screen sees Helen and her then lover Julia (Anna Wilson-Jones) sharing a moment of passion in the bath together. While Anna Maxwell Martin also features in a full frontal nude scene, before getting in to bed with Helen.
But Claire explains: “It’s not about people being lesbians. It’s about people being in relationships with each other. Sarah is a very clever writer of such brilliant stories that go places. It’s a clever device, the time thing. And it’s painfully truthful.”
She adds: “I don’t think the audience will be shocked because all the relationships really suck you in. When reading and watching it, I never felt shocked.
“There were so many stories of women having relationships during the war and I think it will surprise people that everyone felt they had to live a lie, which happens to a far lesser extent these days.”
Anna Maxwell Martin says filming her intimate scenes with Claire were fine. “We giggled a lot. And, actually, it’s much easier doing a scene like that with a woman rather than with a man,” adds the South Riding actress.
Claire is due to return as Lady Persephone in a second series of BBC1’s revival of Upstairs Downstairs, with other previous credits including Little Dorritt and The Promise.
“I hadn’t read the book before I got this job but my sister had. And when I told her I was doing it, she was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m excited about you doing this one.’ Then it was lovely to read it myself,” she recalls.
“Helen is very confused. She has two relationships in the film and you see her at the end, at the emotional turning point of her life. She wouldn’t ever admit that she’s a lesbian. But they’re living this life where they can’t say they’re together. How awful is that, living in secret?”
Claire confessed to being surprised when she watched Tipping The Velvet, another of Sarah’s novels adapted for TV. “Shocked was the only word. A lot of it was about sex and this isn’t about sex. The Night Watch is different but hopefully it will open people’s eyes a little bit.
“It’s about people trying to live their life while there’s a war going on. It’s a very personal thing and very dark at points.”
Kay first meets Helen when she is called to the wreckage of a bomb site. “Filming that was horrible.” recalls Claire. “A plank fell on Anna Maxwell Martin’s head. Luckily, she had a helmet on. It was very cold. But I did get lifted out by six real firemen, which was really exciting. They knew exactly what they were doing.”
Marchlands star Jodie Whittaker plays Viv. When we first see her, she’s a woman in her late-twenties, having had a “self-destructive” long-term affair with a married man.
“The thing I really loved about this period is how liberated it was,” reflects Jodie, who had previously worked with director Richard Laxton on Manchester and Salford filmed Accused.
“Women were empowered because they were given all these jobs and relied upon by the nation. To then be told in 1947, ‘We don’t need you anymore because the men have come back.’
“You don’t often get an acting company that is female oriented. We filmed this in the run-up to last Christmas. There was a lot of giggling before takes, or during. It’s a pretty epic piece and all of us had emotional journeys. So you need a sense of humour and a bit of lightness in between scenes.”
Jodie was also keen to get the period detail of her character correct. “There’s a whole homage to smoking in the 1940s on YouTube. It’s hilarious. The campest thing I’ve ever seen.”