IT’S a television drama about angels who smoke and drink.
And has won the blessing of the Archbishop of York John Sentamu.
But Eternal Law co-creator Matthew Graham said church officials at York Minster made a special request about filming in the Gothic cathedral.
“The Bishop of York is a fantastic guy and a very forward-thinking fellow,” explained Matthew when we met up in London on the last day of November 2011.
“The only thing they said to us was, ‘We don’t want any strippers stripping in the Minster.’
“I don’t know why they thought strippers might feature.
“Although there was a much raunchier early draft of the script where the angels were bisexual and they all slept together.”
The six-part series stars Samuel West and Ukweli Roach as Zak Gist and Tom Greening, two angels placed on Earth to do good.
In one scene the duo, who work as lawyers, are seen swigging from a bottle of wine on the roof of the ancient cathedral.
They are kept in order by former angel turned housekeeper Mrs Sheringham, played by Strike Back and Mistresses actress Orla Brady.
With Tobias Menzies also starring as dark angel Richard Pembroke and Hattie Morahan as barrister Hannah, who has a past history with Zak.
The York-based drama was created by Matthew and his writing partner Ashley Pharoah, the team behind Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes.
“Gene Hunt made us giggle, so that’s why we did Life On Mars,” recalled Matthew.
“The idea of a grumpy angel smoking cigars also made us smile.”
You can read what Matthew had to say about the new series below – including the link with Ashes To Ashes.
Ashley was also supposed to be at the launch, where we were shown the first two episodes.
But as Jane Featherstone (executive producer for Kudos) explained:
“He unfortunately isn’t here today because we took him out for a celebratory dinner last night and gave him food poisoning.”
Matthew added: “He has been felled by a rancid roast chicken.”
Here’s my transcript of the post-screening general Q&A involving Matthew and Jane.
Followed by the details of a further chat I had with Mr Graham.
Where he talks more about the Ashes / Jim Keats / Eternal Law link and gives an update on his involvement in the Star Wars TV project.
Eternal Law begins on ITV1 at 9pm this Thursday (Jan 5).
Is the time right for a drama about angels?
The critics will certainly have something to say on that score.
But, as ever, it’s what you think that counts.
Feel free to leave a comment at the bottom of the blog – I read every single one.
Jane Featherstone began by explaining how Matthew and Ashley first went to Kudos with the idea:
“I thought, well, the next crazy idea from the men who set an entire series inside a man’s head, this might be interesting. And their next crazy idea was angels on Earth. I think it’s completely wonderful.
“I think when they came up with the notion they were inspired by (Michael) Powell and (Emeric) Pressburger’s It’s A Matter Of Life And Death. They wanted something romantic and fun and I believe that’s what we’ve got – an ethereal dysfunctional family.”
Q: Why York and how did you film there in a city packed with tourists?
Matthew Graham: “Yeah. I don’t think we helped with all the vehicles that we had. Why York? I think the show lends itself to a very idiosyncratic and historical setting. We felt that was important. We really wanted to set it in the north of England and we decided to go and check York out and them maybe go on and have a look at Durham. But really 20 minutes after getting off the train in York we decided, with respect to Durham, we didn’t need to see Durham. Because York was just fantastic. I’m ashamed to say I’d never been until we started recceing for the show. It’s just such a lovely city. It’s got character, it looks wonderful. And this show is unashamedly, unapologetically about making you feel cosy and happy and safe to some extent. And York does that. It does that for me. I’m a convert. I’d like to move there.”
Jane Featherstone: “And I don’t think it’s been used, hardly ever actually. So we were also looking at a city that hadn’t been exposed too much and that was a beautiful place. And a cathedral was such an obvious wonderful, beautiful place around which to set our community. And they were very, very welcoming to us.”
Q: Why is the time right for a drama about angels?
Matthew Graham: “Well, we don’t know it’s right! (laughs) I can tell you why we enjoyed writing it so much and enjoyed making it so much, probably more than anything we’ve done actually. We’ve just really loved making this. I don’t want to load it with anything more than it needs to be loaded with but the world’s a bit **** at the moment and we all feel it. And it’s on our doorstep. We’re not just worried now about what goes on in far flung places. We’re worried about what’s happening outside our own front doors. And so for me, personally, it gave me comfort to write something that was about hope, but flawed hope. So that our characters are not pious, they’re not better than us, they are just different. And that’s where the fun came, really, and where the optimism for it came. Which is, ‘Look, they’re messed up too.’ Heaven’s as messed up, in a way, as Earth. But there’s hope, there’s optimism. And there’s a chance maybe for things to get better. I know that’s a naive sentiment but it’s going right back to where we started from with this show and the Powell / Pressburger inspirations and A Matter Of Life And Death. We wanted it to be about hope and romance and those sorts of things. I think at the moment it’s actually quite a nice little public service to occasionally give people things like that, just so that they can come home from a day reading about countries falling out of the Eurozone, put the kettle on and sit down and watch this show.”
Jane Featherstone: “Also a love story like this which is impossible, difficult, unrequitable – if that’s a word – and I think that angels allows us to do this love story across the universe, in a way. Which I think is something that’s never been done before on television and is another wonderful obstacle to these two characters getting together. That’s one of the reasons I absoljutely fell in love with it when they brought it to us.”
Q: How informed were you when writing this about angels further back in art?
Matthew Graham: “Yeah we were. We did a bit of reading. Obviously angels seem to exist right across the world in different cultures and in different forms. We felt it was prudent to keep our angels non-denomenational and to not align them. I know they go into the (York) Minster but, goodness me, you can’t not film in the Minster, it’s so awe-inspiring and beautiful. But there’s no overt Christian message or overt particular one religion in this. And we sort of made up our own rules really – we probably use Powell and Pressburger slightly more as a reference than any kind of historical text because we thought they had a lovely balance between cheeky…and also the idea that the spiritual world is not airy-fairy. That it’s actually run on a series of rules and regulations. It just appealed to us.”
Jane Featherstone: “We often had conversations about – what would really have happened? And then we remembered that we were talking about angels and we could, perhaps, make our own rules because there wasn’t a set text.”
Q: So would you call it a general humanitarian…
Matthew Graham: “Yeah. Exactly. In fact I would boil it down even more to, ‘It’s about fish out of water.’ It’s about two people, strangers in a strange land trying to get on and do the right thing. We do make a few references to Paradise Lost in one of the later episodes, which we think is quite fun. We have a moment where Tom’s reading Paradise Lost and Zak says to him, ‘I wouldn’t. It’s a very bad idea to Google yourself.’”
Q: Between you and Ashley, who was Zak and who was Tom?
Matthew Graham: “I will tell you that a producer in the States described Ashley and I as…if we had written ER, I would have killed the guys with the big helicopter crash and Ashley would have given Dr Greene a brain tumour. That was the difference. He’s the gentle empathic one and I’m the one that likes to blow things up and run around. We’re both Zak. We’re both grumpy and we like to drink.”
Q: Matthew, your story in the press notes as told to you by your mother:
When I was two years old we were both in the garden. Our house was a semi in Rickmansworth, the gardens in the street running cheek by jowl. Mum was weeding. She heard a voice. It was calm and clear and urgent but in no way panicky or alarming. In hindsight she realised that she couldn’t tell if it was male or female.
“Quickly. Look behind you.”
She turned to see little Matty tottering forward, the garden shears open towards his face. Losing his balance and about to fall! She reached out and prevented me severely injuring or possibly killing myself. And then naturally she looked to the gardens on either side of us so she could thank the neighbour who had warned her.
The gardens were empty.
Was that her guardian angel who had whispered urgently in her ear that afternoon? Was it mine? Was it merely the sixth sense that a mother may have for her child?
Q: Do you have any guardian angel moments where you’ve felt something like this. Plus can you expand on the themes that you want to explore over the course of the series?
Matthew Graham: “Well the story that I tell, it’s not my experience, I was too young. My mum tells it and she tells it as gospel. I think that angels as an idea are an aspiration, aren’t they, rather than a belief system. I know some people incorporate them very heavily into their belief systems but I prefer to see them as examples of optimism and hope and the best of us, really. And that’s kind of where my belief in angels kind of stops.
“The themes – episode two is a very good example of what the show is, I think. And sometimes we really go into court almost not at all. And we’re very keen that it’s not a law show, it is an angels show. And it’s very much about the lives and loves of our characters.
“So obviously the romance becomes very big and Richard Pembroke and the whole dark forces thing is a big thread. We pull people along on the strength, we hope, of the characters and their situations, rather than asking you to invest in a very big complex ethereal fantasy. We try to keep the balance fairly rooted. And actually we use the fantasy for fun. We’re trying to have fun. It’s designed to be fun and enjoyable.”
Q: You have made the angels fallible – was it difficult to think about their biological needs, if I can put it that way?
Jane Featherstone: “You should have read the first draft.”
Matthew Graham: “Their biological needs. Well, Sam West does like to ask whether angels have belly buttons. That’s his big question. Yeah, well they like to drink, they like to smoke, clearly, they fall in love. When they’re on Earth they’re quite fallible and quite human in a way. But that’s actually not our idea. That was something we did get from reading about the common belief systems about angels – they are not God. They are not perfect at all. They are far from perfect.”
Jane Featherstone: “They are equipped with everything that every human has but they’re tested not to use it. And I think that’s the challenge.”
Q: What was the reaction of the Minster when you wanted to shoot there?
Matthew Graham: “Oh it was great. They were fantastic. The Bishop of York is a fantastic guy and a very forward-thinking fellow. The Minster, as far as I’m aware, were absolutely terrific. The only problem we did have was getting up to the top of the tower to film because it’s so dangerous. You imagine putting nine foot wide prosthetic wings on an actor and sticking them 150 feet in the air and you’re asking for trouble. So we obviously had to recreate that. But I don’t think the Minster have ever been a problem.”
Q: Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes both dealt with an afterlife of a sort. Has that been a preoccupation for you for a while and why did you decide to explore it further?
Matthew Graham: “It wasn’t a conscious thing. I actually think from my own experience, I had so much fun writing the Danny Mays character in Ashes To Ashes that I really wanted to carry on personally playing around with those ideas. And again not turning them into portentous, proselytizing drama but just to have fun with it. To just use it to create good fun dramatic tension.
“But actually Ash and I were talking about Eternal Law long before Ashes was finished, actually. I suspect that probably the Ashes thing came out of the Eternal Law thing. We were sort of talking about Eternal Law and then when we came to the third series of Ashes we started to put some of those themes in, because we didn’t know that Eternal Law would happen.”
Q: Why did you decide to make this about angels and the law and did you ever contemplate any other professions?
Matthew Graham: “No, we didn’t contemplate any other professions. And that again because if you know A Matter Of Life And Death, Heaven seems to predominantly be a law court and judges and juries seem to be a big thing there. So it really came from that. We do think that there would be angels selling The Big Issue and angels as policeman and angels as doctors etc. But the law it about judgement and most people’s perception of any kind of God or afterlife seems to be irreveocably linked with the idea of judgement. So I think that’s why we though we could play with those themes and have fun in a secular world and a spiritual world.”
Q: You talk about the cinematic influences. Did I note a bit of Kramer Versus Kramer in there?
Matthew Graham: “It’s Kramer Versus Kramer in there, definitely. And Boston Legal. But if we’re going to rip off, we do like to rip off from the very best.”
Q: Any thought that we might see Mr Mountjoy (God) or is he more like Captain Mainwaring’s wife?
Matthew Graham: “He’s not as scary as Captain Mainwaring’s wife. It’ll have to be Stephen Fry, won’t it? It’s contracturally obliged to television that Stephen Fry has to be God.”
Q: Do we find out who Mr Mountjoy’s equivalent is on the other side?
Matthew Graham: “I don’t want to give too much away. But what we don’t do is, we don’t run away with ourselves too much on the supernatural. We do go further and it does get quite big at the end. But we don’t bring in anybody else at this stage. We thought it was enough for people to get their heads round what we were doing. And if people were comfortable with what we were doing and there was an appetite to see more of the angelic world then we’ve got a lot of ideas that we want to explore.
“Richard (Pembroke) can smell unhappiness if it’s close by. And that’s a theme that keeps running throughout the series.”
My further chat with Matthew Graham:
“One of my favourite films is A Matter Of Life And Death. We were having a screening of it somewhere and we were watching it. And we came out and said, ‘It would be lovely to make something, maybe a movie, like this. Something that just wears its heart on its sleeve. Has no agenda other than to basically make you feel slightly better than before you started watching it.’ And that’s when it started. And we started talking about it and I think it was Ash who said, ‘What if the angels were grumpy and grouchy and they like to drink and smoke?’ And then, of course, as often happens with us, if an idea makes us giggle we think, ‘OK, let’s try it.’ Gene Hunt made us giggle, so that’s why we did Life On Mars. The idea of a grumpy angel smoking cigars made us smile. So that’s when we started.
“That was probably three years ago now and we didn’t do anything with it for a while. And then Ash went off and just wrote a spec episode one, which was similar to this episode one but was much raunchier. It was more of an HBO version of the show. They were bisexual and they all slept together. Zak, Tom and Mrs Sheringham all slept in a bed together. It was a pretty sexy show back then.
“We showed a version of that script to ITV and they went, ‘We really like it but is it a bit overboard with the sexuality?’ Although if the show is a hit and we come back in a second series I think we might start pushing a few of those buttons and push the boundaries a little bit more.
“Whether you agree with it or not, and I don’t always agree with ITV editorially, but I do know that they understand their audience. And we very much felt from day one that we’d like this to be on ITV. We just thought it was a nice home for it because it’s as much about community. And I think ITV just do community drama very, very well. The BBC do Spooks very well and ITV do Where The Heart Is very well. So we kind of had to take a lead from there.
“But this is a brave show for ITV. Again, sometimes now people look back on Life On Mars and Ashes and they say, ‘Mmm, you pulled your punches there with Gene. You didn’t make him overtly racist.’ And you think, ‘My God, think about it. This is mainstream BBC1. It’s time travel in a coma patient’s head with a man who drinks, swears and drives cars dangerously.’ This is an ITV mainstream show about angels smoking on the roof of a church. It’s pretty far out for ITV and we have to go a certain degree and then respect their tastes as well, if you see what I mean.”
Q: You said the Danny Mays character in Ashes series three sort of came from this?
“Ashley was probably working on Eternal Law while we were doing series two of Ashes. We really liked the Richard Pembroke character. We liked the way Richard played against Zak and we thought that was fun. And so when we got to series three of Ashes, we needed a guy to investigate Gene. We thought that was good. And I suddenly said, ‘Why don’t we rip ourselves off, basically? We don’t know Eternal Law is going to get made. Let’s take a demonic character and put it in to the mix. We can do that because it’s set in the afterlife. So why can’t we do that?’ It was that way round. We got excited about Richard Pembroke and made him Jim Keats in Ashes. And so now we’re going back and doing a whole show that’s basically like the last couple of episodes of Ashes in a way. It’s fun.”
Q: Angels on the top of York Minster swigging from a bottle of wine?
“Like I say, the Minster were just great. The only thing they said to us – I don’t know why they thought this was going to happen – they said, ‘We don’t want any strippers stripping in the Minster.’ And I said, ‘What gave you the impression that the show would feature strippers in the Minster?’ They must have read the early draft! But, no, they were really happy. In fact they were very excited to see us having angels fighting. Because actually to us it might seem pretty extreme. To somebody steeped in the church, it’s your life. It’s how you think. You think about the Devil and God fighting it out. So to see a good and dark angel battling it out in the middle of the Minster was actually not only not controversial to them, I think it was quite appropriate.”
Q: Interesting time to screen this? Plus the current global economic uncertainty?
“We didn’t do it in the end because we were worried that it would be seen in poor taste and I think we were right not to do it. But one of the things we were going to do was show, imply, that a couple of people you’ve really seen in the news were actually angels. But we felt that there are angels out there. There are those people that come and help us in times of need. Of course they’re good people. But they might as well be angels. It’s the ultimate aspirational show, really, is what it is.
“What we didn’t count upon was that by the end of the year we all genuinely feel so much more vulnerable. I feel more vulnerable now than I did during Iraq. I haven’t felt this vulnerable since 9/11. I think 9/11 really shook us all. But this is big and more permeating. This feels as though the very fabric of western civilisation is rocking now. I’m not saying we’re pleased about that but I do think it makes Eternal Law…Eternal Law is a balm. It’s supposed to be a comfort.”
Q: What’s coming up in 2012?
“I’ve just written a film for the States. I don’t know whether it will get made but it’s moving forward. I also spent two years working on the live action Star Wars TV series. I don’t know whether it will happen. At the moment the official line is that it’s on hold while they work out how to make it because it’s so expensive. But I did do two years on that. So I’m hoping that eventually George Lucas will work out how he’s going to recreate…he’s basically having to redesign the way television is made in order to be able to make this show. So if he works it out then it’ll happen. And Ashley is doing a wonderful Thomas Hardy adaptation in development for the BBC – Return Of The Native. It’ll be three parts or something like that. And it’s early days so I don’t want to say too much but I’m working on a ghost story for the BBC. It’s not a green light. It’s just a development. But it will be a single. It’s an adaptation. But not of a novel. It’s an adaptation of a previous television work. That’s all I can really say at the moment. It’s relatively obscure but it was quite big in its time.” (laughs)
Q: And what happened with Case Histories?
“Case Histories is going again, apparently. We’re not involved. Basically what happened was, I was going to do a book, Ashley was going to do a book, Lizzie Mickery was going to do a book. And then I don’t think Lizzie Mickery could do it. I couldn’t do it, I was snowed under. And Ash was already started on his, so he carried on. And we felt that basically it was unfair for us to continue. As a company we were, if you like, taking money for doing nothing. So we came to a deal with Ruby where we said, ‘You guys better go off and do it and we’ll back off.’ So that’s how it is now.”