“IT’S not a challenge you could turn down. You’ve got half a novel.
“My wife calls me, ‘The man who’s finished off Dickens.’
“Which I think is unfair.”
The Mystery of Edwin Drood director Diarmuid Lawrence speaking at the British Film Institute in London last month.
Ahead of the two-part BBC2 adaptation at 9pm tonight (Tuesday) and tomorrow.
The story Charles Dickens was writing when he died.
Executive producer Anne Pivcevic explained how the TV team set about solving the puzzle
“It reads like a thriller, a whodunit.
“It was only meant to be 20 odd instalments and he died in the middle of chapter 12.”
Drood is the sometimes strange tale of troubled choirmaster John Jasper (Matthew Rhys) who is addicted to both opium and 17-year-old Rosa Bud (Tamzin Merchant).
The darker side of Jasper has a murderous hatred of his nephew Edwin Drood (Freddie Fox) who, as we meet the characters, is set to marry Rosa.
This adaptation by Five Days crime writer Gwyneth Hughes also portrays twins Neville (Sacha Dhawan) and Helena (Amber Rose Revah) Landless as half Tamil.
With Dickens casting his eye over our attitudes and prejudices.
Diarmuid and Anne were joined on stage for the post-screening Q&A by Freddie Fox and Rory Kinnear, who plays the Rev Septimus Crisparkle.
I also spoke to Freddie, Sacha and Rory later that evening.
My story on Sacha is in today’s MEN – and below.
You can also read on for more from those later chats with Freddie and Rory.
Plus several links, including one to short video extracts from the BFI Q&A.
The exterior Drood scenes were filmed at Rochester in Kent, which became Dickens’ home town.
With the cathedral interiors shot at Saint Bartholomew the Great at West Smithfield in the City of London.
The second and concluding episode is a real rollercoaster with several twists.
David Dawson shining as Bazzard alongside Alfie Davis as urchin Deputy.
And more than repays the investment of having stuck with the sometimes strange and haunting first hour.
TV star Sacha Dhawan has landed the role of a lifetime after finding fame in America.
The Bramhall actor won new fans in the USA as call centre worker Manmeet in NBC comedy Outsourced, made by the producers of the stateside version of The Office.
Now he’s about to help solve one of Britain’s great literary puzzles in a two-part BBC2 adaptation of the unfinished Charles Dickens novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Former Aquinas College student Sacha plays fiery Neville Landless, an orphan twin who is a crucial figure in the new drama.
Crime writer Gwyneth Hughes took on the challenge of finishing the story, left hanging when Dickens died in 1870.
She searched the book and its original cover for clues as to where the story was heading and decided the Landless twins were Tamils from Ceylon – now Sri Lanka – with a British father.
“With great enthusiasm, the production team put two young British Asian actors into starring roles in a costume drama for the first time,” explains Gwyneth.
The highly prized parts went to Sacha, who trained at Manchester’s Laine-Johnson Theatre School, and Amber Rose Revah as his twin sister Helena.
“I don’t think it’s been done before. So to be part of that was really exciting for me. I was really happy,” says Sacha.
“I spend half the year now in Los Angeles and half here and my family were very proud when I got the role in Drood.
“It’s a bit of a TV first and a character with real substance who creates a lot of mystery. It’s very different to a lot of Dickens’ novels and should hook viewers.”
Drood director Diarmuid Lawrence says: “Sacha and Amber were so made up to be cast in the only two Asian roles in the whole of Dickens. I can’t believe how pleased they were when they got the parts.”
Gwyneth had worked with Sacha before in the BBC1 drama Five Days. The search for clues in Dickens’ last novel also led her to study letters he had written over the years.
They included Dickens’ correspondence with with Knutsford-raised Cranford author Elizabeth Gaskell, who had died five years before. Mrs Gaskell later moved to Plymouth Grove, Longsight and was a good friend of Dickens.
Sacha starred in the original stage production of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, reprising the role both on Broadway and in the film version.
The two-part adaptation, screened at 9pm on Tuesday and Wednesday,(Jan 10/11) also features former Coronation Street actress Ellie Haddington.
It is part of a special BBC Dickens season marking the 200th anniversary of his birth on Feb 7 2012.
“I thought first of all, ‘I’ve got to read the book.’ I don’t usually think that. If there’s source material there, films or other things to compare to, I usually shy away from it. But I thought, ‘I’ve got to read the book.’ Because in the way Dickens does, which is so clever, he kind of writes as a screenwriter and a director, visually in mind the little ticks and the little isms he gives each of his characters. I thought, ‘Well I’ve got to search through the book and find those.’ And little things. Even the details that nobody will notice but as an actor you want to satisfy yourself, really. Things like the pocket watch that his father gave him in the book. And I made sure that I wanted a pocket watch…tiny little things but it just helped me form the character.
“And secondly I thought, ‘This could be really, really good.’ It’s also the type of Dickens that I was so unused to. Very unused to. The casting agent told me that as I finished my audition, I said, ‘I really want to do this part. I really think I can do this.’ And fortunately I was given the opportunity.”
Different kind of period drama?
“I think initially for any actor it’s a selfish attraction, which has got to be the character. And so the initial attraction was someone who is infinitely dislikeable in moments, broken hearted and rather sweet and charming in others. But ultimately also the attraction for me was that even though really John Jasper / Matthew is the out and out lead, it’s a lead role. It was a lead role where you had the name of the piece on your shoulders and I was interested to try and do that. Try and round a character that could otherwise really go one way or really go the other. I wanted to give it bits of both.”
“There were a lot of different takes…I watched Saving Private Ryan, actually…”
What did you make of Gwyneth’s ending?
“It’s so you won’t see it coming. And so, yes, in that way I was sold.”
Are there clues from the first episode as to the ending?
“Yes, there are. Because I obviously know, it seems so glaringly obviously to me. But then at the same time you’re playing with very untangible stakes which are addiction and different perception when you’re drugged out and that, as an audience, you’re never going to be able to quite guess what’s one and what’s the other. Playing with perception, Diarmuid’s done it very cleverly and you will not guess what happens because it’s not only one twist, there’s another twist.”
Filming those interiors in St Bartholomew the Great in West Smithfield, City of London?
“Bart’s is nuts. It’s great. It’s huge. Massive organ. It’s like when you’re a kid and you go to one of those haunted houses in a theme park and you really get scared by it. You could easily get scared in that place because it’s so dominating. They shoot a lot of movies in there because it’s such a Gothic, atmospheric place. At one stage they had two huge wind machines for a stormy night and a rain machine. In the book it says there’s a very specific description that the clock hands are bent because the wind is so strong. And so the storm has to be intense.”
Top drama for winter nights?
“Yes. Even though it is a whodunit and it keeps you on the edge of your seat because it’s got a cliffhanger at the end of ep one, it takes its time, it matures over the period of the first episode and then goes kind of helter skelter into the second episode. And I really thought that was very brave because often with the BBC or any production company have to be tempted to keep an audience constantly filled with excitement. Like they usually do in cinema – close up, close up, smash to this, smash to that. And this doesn’t. It leads you on a psychological journey that you’re never quite sure where you are and allowing you to make your own mind up. I think that’s very brave.”
You’ve guest starred in a new episode of ITV1’s Lewis with your cousin Laurence Fox?
“Yes. And then bizarrely today I was filming my last day’s on Parade’s End, which is a BBC series. Lewis is a really nice fun thing. I’m playing a nasty piece of work. It’s the first time I’ve acted with a family member. And ‘Lozza’ gets to pull me up by my lapels and act like the older cousin. He enjoyed that. He got to slap me around a little bit. And in 2012 I’m going to be doing Hay Fever in the West End, which will be nice.”
“I know a few of the Dickens and having written on him at university, I always knew that this one I probably didn’t have to read because it wasn’t finished. So it was interesting that someone had taken on the challenge. Quite a bravado thing to do, to think you can finish it off. And so I guess that’s what interested me initially.
“And then reading it, the character himself, just to play someone so consistently warm and open and loving, despite what must be frustrations within himself of living with his mother and being by himself and dealing with people like John Jasper and people who make life difficult for themselves but at all times trying to see the good in people. I just thought it was sweet. He is the light in the piece and the necessary light. And he comes more into his own in the second part.
“Also having played a few slightly warped…baddies or people with great internal turmoil and struggle – then to have someone whose outlook in life was so attemptedly and relentlessly positive, even though he was aware that life had its own frustrations as well, I guess that was something new to do.”
Will Dickens’ scholars be satisfied by the ending?
“Yeah, I mean fortunately the Dickens’ scholars will probably make up a small percentage of the audience. What was important was to try and create an ending that satisfied the various story threads, that satisfied how the characters could and might behave. And I guess that satisfied an audience’s appetite for seeing where they hope the story might progress. And I think Gwyneth has done it, as well as making it very much an exciting piece of television.”
Working with Julia McKenzie, who plays his screen mother Mrs Crisparkle?
“We’d worked together on Cranford before. A similar kind of spirit to our scenes. She’s a similar age and a similar look to my mother and I’ve always in my mind associated my mother with Julia McKenzie, from being a very young boy to actually be able to fulfil those expectations of her.”
“The thing you get the input in is how these characters think and how they might behave in certain situations. And I don’t think humanity changes from century to century. It’s all the same really. All good writing is about exploring how people behave and how people inter-react. It’s always just exploring the difficulty of being alive.”
How does filming a Drood compare to filming a Bond? Rory is currently reprising his role as Bill Tanner, M’s Chief of Staff in Skyfall, filming in London and Pinewood.
“Well, we know the ending. I guess it’s filming for the BBC and filming for a big franchise like that, there are some financial differences in terms of the money they have to spend. But at the same time you’re working with decent and classy actors and you’re working with decent, classy directors and you’re doing a decent and classy script. So you’re not surprised there are similarities, as well as a central character who’s slightly peculiar with the opposite sex and addicted to vices.
“Essentially what you do as an actor is the same. Whether or not you’ve got helicopters and hundreds of Range Rovers or you’re sitting in a chair in a waiting room for four hours because they haven’t got a trailer for you to sit in, essentially what you do on camera is the same. It’s creating characters and inter-acting with people.”
Why should people watch Drood?
“If you haven’t heard of it and you haven’t seen it before and you know it’s by Dickens then there might be something interesting in it. Most people have an inkling of what happens in Great Expectations – the fun thing about Edwin Drood is most people won’t come to it with that many expectations. And to think here’s a probably a one in a lifetime chance to get to see how Gwyneth has chosen to adapt it but also to maybe think, ‘Oh that sounds interesting, I might go and see what’s left of the book to read.’”
The twist at the end?
“I’m under such pressure not to reveal anything! But yes, there is a big twist and yes it does take you aback and make you think, ‘So where does the book end and…’ But I think the skill that Gwyneth has shown is that whilst there is a twist, you don’t actually know when Gwyneth kicks in and Dickens takes his bow.”