The first surprise about new BBC1 fantasy adventure drama Atlantis is that it begins in the modern day.
Our young hero Jason (Jack Donnelly) is about to dive in a one man submarine to find the wreckage of his father’s long lost sub.
Later finding himself naked on a beach with only the sand between his toes for company.
The 13-part Saturday night series continues to surprise as we venture into the mythical city of Atlantis and meet some legendary names.
Including brilliant but innocent Greek maths genius Pythagoras (Robert Emms) – “the triangle guy”.
And a different take on strong man Hercules, played by Mark Addy, who explains: “I’m not fat. I’m big boned.”
Atlantis is the BBC’s replacement for Merlin and comes, in part, from the team behind that show.
A mix of myths, legends and good old fashioned TV storytelling on a sometimes epic scale.
With the first episode including a two-headed lizard, hungry lions and a Minotaur, as well as some early chemistry between the three male leads.
In a city which you will notice is not actually underwater.
At least not yet.
“It’s like shooting a series of feature films back-to-back,” explained Mark Addy at the London premiere last week.
The content of which was embargoed until today. (Wednesday September 18)
“They each have their own quality and their own individual flavour,” added Mark.
“They’re linked but they’re so distinct, each one of them is different from the one before and the one that comes after it. So it’s fantastic.”
Atlantis hits the ground running with an excellent opening episode which feels much more confident than Merlin’s debut back in September 2008.
There was plenty of drama on and off camera – with Jack being taken to hospital after picking up the wrong knife for a scene and stabbing himself in the elbow.
A real knife as opposed to the rubber one which he should have used.
The cast – including Sarah Parish, Jemima Rooper and Aiysha Hart – seemed a little stunned after we had all watched the opening episode for the very first time.
It certainly didn’t disappoint.
So it was intriguing to then hear Jack say: “That’s pretty epic but it’s not a patch on what comes next – it’s insane what’s coming.”
Now that the embargo has expired, you can read my (slightly edited) transcript of the post-premiere Q&A below – along with some initial thoughts from the new Controller of BBC1.
Launching on the same weekend as the live series of Strictly Come Dancing 2013, it’s not yet known if Atlantis will be sent into regular battle with ITV’s The X Factor.
But as The Oracle (Juliet Stevenson) tells Jason:
“Only you can bring an end to the people’s fear and suffering.”
*Atlantis starts on BBC1 at 8:25pm on Saturday September 28 and on BBC America on Saturday November 23.
New BBC 1 Controller Charlotte Moore introduced the premiere screening, with the final episode delivered just a few hours before:
“Atlantis is BBC1‘s new fantasy adventure drama series for all the family which I hope it will fill that Merlin-shaped hole that’s been in our Saturday nights this autumn.
“Set in a time of legendary heroes, mythical creatures and gods, it’s an action-packed 13-part series. It brings to life a whole host of Greek myths and legends, re-imagined for a whole new generation. It feels like an amazing treat that you can actually create every single moment of something because it wasn’t true, Atlantis. But I think that’s also quite a challenge.
“The fantastic cast is testament to the ambition and scale of the scripts. Some of the UK’s best loved actors joining our newest talent to take the BBC1 audience to a rich and wonderful world of adventure.
“The City of Atlantis is a mysterious ancient place. It’s a world of two-headed monsters, minotaurs, snake-head goddesses and palaces so vast it’s said they’ve been built by giants. And into this strange, complelling realm that the young Jason arrives and an amazing adventure begins. Little Monster films have brought this world alive in spectacular style.”
Post-screening Q&A with Jack Donnelly (Jason) / Robert Emms (Pythagoras) / Mark Addy (Hercules) / Aiysha Hart (Ariadne) / Jemima Rooper (Medusa) / Sarah Parish (Pasiphae)
Chaired by Boyd Hilton:
Q: Sarah – that slap? (Pasiphae slaps daughter Ariadne in the first episode)
Sarah Parish: “It wasn’t real. I was not allowed to slap Aiysha, obviously, as much as I wanted to in the scene. (smiles) So it was stage slap which I hoped worked pretty well. I think it looked very effective on the screen.”
Aiysha Hart: “It was brilliant being slapped by Sarah Parish. Who doesn’t want to be slapped by Sarah? It was fine. It wasn’t a real slap. And, yeah, it looked good. I was impressed.”
Q: Possibly people might think this was going to be a kind of blokey, ‘boysey’ type of show. But there are a lot of interesting female characters. Was that important for you when you were offered the role?
Sarah Parish: “Yeah, absolutely. I think they’ve written some fantastic characters for women. Pasiphae obviously is…I think a lot of people would call her evil and scary and controlling. I would say she is vulnerable and misunderstood, obviously. (laughter) Then we’ve got Medusa, who is a fabulous character and interacts with the boys really well. I think you (Jemima Rooper) get to do some really great adventure stuff with them, don’t you?”
Jemima Rooper: “Yeah, maybe…” (smiles)
Sarah Parish: “Lots of running and looking round corners. And then we’ve got our beautiful princess who is…it’s a great part for you (Aiysha Hart) isn’t it?”
Aiysha Hart: “Yeah, I loved it. Because she wasn’t just a one dimensional princess character. She’s got a lot more depth. She’s very smart and intelligent. It’s a kind of coming of age for her throughout the series. And so we get to know her a lot more.”
Q: You (Aiysha) do seem to be lusting after Jason quite early on?
Aiysha Hart: “I do. I think he lusts after her too. So it was certainly requited. But she’s not just a love interest. She adds another dynamic to the palace and she’s a moral voice for a quite tyrannical palace.”
Q: Jemima – We didn’t see you, to be fair, in that episode. But we did see you in the clips at the end. I’m told by the creators of the show that you are very important from episode two onwards. Is this correct?
Jemima Rooper: “I don’t know. I think they’re filling everyone with lies. (smiles) I’m very important. I think the nice thing about Medusa and getting to play it is that when I was first approached with it, I immediately assumed, ‘Oh yeah, here we go, wheel out the bad guy.’ Which was great. But they switched it all on its head and Medusa is not as we know her. But the interesting thing will be how she becomes that person. But there’s romance, there’s adventure. There’s dough. There’s loads of dough. Baps. Floury baps.”
Q: Because you go way back with the creators?
Jemima Rooper: “Too, too far. I’ve been missing for a few years from their shows so it’s nice to be back. It’s nice to be home. They’re like my weird uncles.”
Q: Jack – you’re the lead role in a huge Saturday night BBC1 show. How does it feel? Are you nervous about how it’s going to be received?
Jack Donnelly: “Yeah, I am. It’s still not sunk in. This (screening) has just made it weirder again. Yeah, nervous but exciting. This is the biggest thing I’ve done in my career. Ever. By a long, long way. My last job before this, I was in Misfits wearing a white rabbit head…dressed up as a white rabbit and I had no lines and no-one saw my face. And now this.”
Q: Did you have to audition multiple times?
Jack Donnelly: “I did, yeah. The first audition I went up for this year, back in January. And it went through to February. There were four or five rounds, I think. Then the penultimate one was two-and-a-half hours and the final round was three hours with the producers and the director from the second block and the casting director. We did about eight scenes. They brought Rob (Emms) in to do a chemistry read with me. To see how we went off each other…lots of kissing. (laughter) I was outside beforehand just trying to get myself in the zone, listening to Rocky and shadow boxing and crying, ‘You’re good enough to work. You could do this.’ Just trying to get myself there. I don’t know why I told you that either.” (laughter)
Q: You are obviously naked in pretty much the first scene (once Jason finds himself in Atlantis) – did you have to go on very strict regime of buffing up?
Jack Donnelly: “Well actually, Johnny Capps, the producer, is a big gym-goer and he set me up with his trainer Matt. So I trained with Matt for the first five weeks from when I got the part to when I started. But I’ve not been on a set that long before and they have free cakes and cookies and stuff. And I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll have more.’ It was great and then my brothers had a word with me and were like, ‘Dude, what are you doing? You’re going to be topless.’ So I started doing the Insanity Programme after we came back shooting in Morroco. So I do various training. And there’s lots of scaffolding around the set so I try and do pull ups if I can. And again, I was eating all the catering, which is amazing on set. And then someone else came along and said, ‘You should just be on chicken and broccoli at lunchtime.’ So then they swapped me to that. So I’ve had chicken and broccoli for lunch for the last two months, which is really boring.”
Q: The three of you (boys) – it’s like a three-way bromance. Is that a fair way of describing it? You had the chemistry but did you have to work at how you were going to bounce off each other?
Mark Addy: “Yeah. We’re lucky in that it’s there in the writing for us. But you don’t know until you get three actors together whether they’re going to be able to bring that to life and make that work. It’s great that we can. We had more of a laugh making it…”
Jack Donnelly: “We muck around a little bit too much, actually. I walked out of a lot of scenes off camera and Rob’s there with his bum out. Every time. So there’s a lot of that going on. We’ve had breakfast, lunch and dinner together every day for the last six months. We all live in the same place where we’re staying. So we’ve spent a lot of time together, which I think helps.”
Q: Mark – this is obviously a different version of Hercules. It feels like an almost origin story and that at some point in the future you’ll end up like the Hercules we know?
Mark Addy: “Yeah, hopefully. Once I go on the Insanity Programme. (laughter) And I know the day that that’s going to happen. That’s the day hell freezes over. No…this version of Hercules – his father was Zeus, his mother was a mortal. He’s kind of taken on more of the human traits, if you like. He likes a drink and he likes women. He likes to gamble. Not the best traits but they’re the ones that he’s got. So, yeah, the god-like stuff is not really to the fore.”
Q: Is that what appealed to you – that it’s such an unusual take?
Mark Addy: “Yeah, absolutely. They sent me episode one, which surprised me in that you expect there to be a huge amount of setting up who’s who, what’s what. And you’re in there with the Minotaur in episode one. And you go, ‘Wow, that is amazing ambition.’ It showed what they wanted to do and where they wanted to go with it.”
Q: It’s very cinematic?
Mark Addy: “Absolutely, yeah. And to play a different take on Hercules. My kids were like, ‘You’re playing Hercules? Isn’t he like really muscley?’ I showed them Britain’s Strongest Man. Blokes my size. “These are the strong ones! Hercules doesn’t go to the gym every day. He’s strong because he’s the son of a god. That’s where his strength comes from.’ That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.”
Q: Robert – you’re playing one of the foremost geniuses in history?
Robert Emms: “It’s weird because I am really rubbish at maths. And if I knew I was going to play Pythagoras I probably would have maybe focused in my maths class a bit more. But fortunately no-one as yet has asked me any mathematical questions.”
Q: You said the hair was very important?
Robert Emms: “I got a call three days before we started shooting and they said they wanted to put me in a wig, because there’s a little bit of receding going on here. And I was thinking, ‘I’ve signed up for this for a long time and a long time in Morocco, where we filmed, and do I really want to be in a wig?’ So I was protesting it quite a lot. At one point I said, ‘I’m not going to do it if I’m in a wig.’ Obviously hoping that they didn’t actually listen to that. But fortunately they didn’t put me in a wig and they just bouffed my hair up and made me look a bit like Art Garfunkel. Me and Jack actually talk a lot about hair because good actors maybe put a pair of shoes on and they work from the shoes, what they feel like. Me and Jack just work from the hair. What it looks like. I’m in make-up for quite a long time to make it look that good. (laughter) There’s some tonging that goes on.”
Q: Mark – did it appeal that it’s a big primetime Saturday night BBC1 family viewing show?
Mark Addy: “Yeah. It strikes me that there are shows that I grew up watching that are still iconic in their own way. And this is something that belongs in that category. I’ve not seen anything quite like it on TV. You’ve seen a little bit of it here but some of the stunts and the amazing work that goes into something like this is stuff that you’d normally only see on a movie. Because it is very difficult to achieve. But these creators are the best in the business at doing this kind of stuff. So we’re in really safe hands. And they’re doing stuff, like I say, which you don’t see on television. It’s extraordinary.”
Q: Aiysha – there is a lot of CGI. How does that work? Are you acting with bits of wood with things on the end?
Aiysha Hart: “Actually not bits of wood. We have something more animated, called our 3rd ADs (Assistant Directors) who run around and pretend to be animals and stuff. We just have to react to them with the green screen, which is very fun. Then halfway through the day it’s just not funny anymore. That’s my experience of green screening CGI. I don’t get to do as much as the boys because they’ve got loads of action scenes. But hopefully I’ll be doing more.”
Robert Emms: “The very first day of filming was in the caves with the Minotaur. That was my first day. First thing I did. Nothing there. And our director Justin Molotnikov who was up there, from the first block, a Scottish guy, just came up to me and went, ‘I know you can’t see it but it just looks like me. OK? The Minotaur’s a bigger version of me.’ (laughter) And then he just stood there with two green sticks and went, ‘Raaaar!’ And that’s what you’ve got coming at you.”
Q: Where were those caves?
Robert Emms: “Bristol. It’s called Redcliffe Caves and we spent a lot of April in there. It was really cold, actually. And then we go back there on a regular basis. Sometimes just to remember.” (laughter)
Q: How was filming in Morocco?
Robert Emms: “It was really hot. I’m not allowed to tan in the show. These two (Jack and Mark) get a spray tan every Monday. And I don’t spray tan because I’m inside – although you see me outside quite a lot. So I couldn’t tan. These two were in the sun by the pool quite a lot and everyone else was. I was just miserable in my hotel room.” (laughter)
Aiysha Hart: “I got told off for tanning a bit, as well.”
Q: The rest is filmed in a big studio in Chepstow. So how did Chepstow compare to Morocco?
Sarah Parish: “As you can imagine, there is a slight difference between Morocco and Chepstow. But we found this incredible warehouse in Chepstow in which we have four different huge sets. It’s such an enormous space that some of the crew have bikes to get from one end to the other because it takes such a long time. And within that space we have all the royal sets where Aiysha and I hang out every day. Then there’s a huge market place and then a huge bull ring, gladiator ring. It’s enormous. And on site we have all the costume as well. It’s quite incredible. It’s like this huge machine that works every day. It’s very exciting going to work there.”
Boyd then threw open questions to the media in the audience:
Q: (From me as it happens) Two questions for the boys. How much, if anything, did you know about Atlantis before this project came along? And were there any mishaps in all of those action scenes?
Jack Donnelly: “I Googled ‘Man From Atlantis’ when I got the first audition. (laughter) And saw Patrick Duffy and went, ‘I’m in. I’m so in. He’s got my hair.’ (laughter) And I thought I could do a whole series underwater. This would be great. So before I’d read the scripts that was originally what I thought was happening.
‘And then in terms of mishaps in the action scenes, I stabbed myself in week three. Somehow doing a stunt sequence which you’ll see in episode two, I managed to pick up the wrong knife. I didn’t grab a rubber one, I grabbed a real one that was used for a close up and managed to stab through my elbow – through there and out the other side. We had to stop filming so I went to A&E. Luckily through the editing I look like I can handle a knife, and a sword.”
Robert Emms: “I thought I was going to have to play Jason.”
Jack Donnelly: “Yeah. It was real touch and go there for a second.”
Robert Emms: “I don’t do too much stunt work in it but I did have this thing where this kind of thing attacks me – like a harpie kind of thing. And I was running backwards and I basically just fell over and whacked the back of myself in the forest. But then I thought it was funny to pretend to be unconscious. But then it wasn’t so funny when the medic, who smokes about 50 cigarettes a day was running and almost having a heart attack.
“What did I know about Atlantis as a place? Just that it was an island and it sunk. I’ve done a bit more research since then but that was what I first knew about it.”
Q: Were any of you Atlantis experts beforehand?
Mark Addy: “No. I don’t think anybody is.”
Jack Donnelly: “I might be wrong but the book that Howard Overman produces the work from, worked with some of Plato’s writing. I think Atlantis is only mentioned in one line in it. And the whole myth is taken from that one line.”
Sarah Parish: “But aren’t all the myths that we are using…we’re mixing everything up anyway.”
Jack Donnelly: “Oh yeah. We’d be stuck with just one line. We’ve taken a lot of other Greek myths and thrown it in there as well.”
Q: You are still shooting?
Mark Addy: “We’ve got another seven weeks to go. We have four more episodes to shoot. So, yeah, it’s busy. But the great thing is they’re all different and they’re all brilliant. It’s like shooting a series of feature films back-to-back. They each have their own quality and their own individual flavour. They tell their own story. They’re linked but they’re so distinct, each one of them is different from the one before and the one that comes after it. So it’s fantastic.”
Q: This is the first time you’ve seen it – was it how you imagined it was going to be?
Mark Addy: “Yeah, it’s the first time we’ve seen it. A lot of the stuff that we saw, we were shooting in April. We’ve done so much stuff since that you go, ‘Oh, I remember that!’ Seeing what they’ve done with it is just remarkable.”
Sarah Parish: “I think we’re all quite blown away by it.”
Mark Addy: “We only shot for three weeks in Morocco. There’s a fair bit of Morocco in that first episode but there’s also a fair bit of Chepstow in there. And I can’t see the join. I don’t know where you transition from one to the other. And that’s down to having brilliant directors and directors of photography who can make the light in the studio in Chepstow the same as the light in Morocco. And spray tanning those Welsh extras. We live in the Welsh quarter of Atlantis.”
Aiysha Hart: “It’s quite nice seeing it all come together as well and still be filming. Because obviously we just go on set and we don’t know how epic it actually looks when it’s all put together and all the green screen and the CGI is put together. You just get a bigger picture. And so we can go back and that’s quite exciting filming, knowing how it looks now.”
Jemima Rooper: “It’s a massive, massive jigsaw of little bits and doing multi episodes. It’s got to the point where there’s two units going on and simultaneous things. And the boys especially are running from first unit to second unit and doing completely different episodes and different scenes with different actors. Then to see it all be this nice fluid piece.”
Jack Donnelly: “To see that translated up there, it’s mammoth. But it gets bigger than that. Some of the stuff we’re doing now…I mean, that’s pretty epic but it’s not a patch on what comes next. We’ve done some stuff that is just mental, where they decide to take this. You read it and you think, ‘I just don’t know how it’s possible to do it.’ And then they do it. It’s insane what’s coming.”
Q: Most people will talk about Atlantis as a kingdom that has sunk to the bottom of the sea. Do you ever tackle the idea of this kingdom being inundated by water?
Jack Donnelly: “I read an interview the other day in Empire magazine. At the end of it I think there’s a quote from Julian the producer saying, ‘Ultimately we know the city is doomed. We’re not shying away from that. We’re just taking time to tell the story.’ Now with a lot of the stories, we’re not staying strictly true to all the Greek myths. We are chopping and changing. But I guess that is the idea that people have in their head. But whether that’s a story arc over five years, I don’t know. But I wouldn’t say it’s totally out of the question.”
Jemima Rooper: “There’s kind of the sense of impending doom over the whole city. It depends how many people watch it whether it’s going to get flooded sooner or later!(laughter) But that’s also what’s nice about playing some of the more recognisable named characters, is that you know that it’s going to get there. The interesting thing is how we all get there. And I think that’s probably the same for Atlantis’s fate.”