“IT was just like getting a fantastic present.
“It’s so rare to find a crime book that’s so beautifully written and so rich and deep and complex.”
Screenwriter Andrew Davies talking about adapting Benjamin Black’s Quirke novels for BBC1.
The first of three 90-minute Quirke film – Christine Falls – was screened at the BFI in London all of 11 months ago in June 2013, followed by a Q&A.
But as is sometimes the way with TV schedules and dramas that don’t fit into neat one hour slots, the start of the series was delayed until now.
With that first Quirke story on BBC1 at 9pm tomorrow (Sunday May 25).
Having already been screened in Ireland and New Zealand.
Set in the Dublin of 1956, it stars Gabriel Byrne as Quirke, the chief pathologist in the Dublin city morgue.
With Aisling Franciosi, Michael Gambon, Geraldine Somerville, Nick Dunning and Stanley Townsend among the cast.
The books are actually written by award-winning Irish author John Banville, using the pseudonym of Benjamin Black.
Against the “Dublin Noir” backdrop of what producer Lisa Osborne describes as “the peaty, smoky, whiskey-glimmering bars and drawing rooms of Black’s imagination”.
Happy Valley actress Charlie Murphy and Inspector George Gently’s Lee Ingleby feature in next Sunday’s second film Silver Swan.
With Merlin’s Colin Morgan playing Jimmy Minor in the third story, Elegy For April, adapted for the screen by Conor McPherson.
And while the story in the first film moves from Dublin to the outskirts of Boston, it was all filmed in an around Dublin.
My edited highlights from that Quirke Q&A are below.
Followed by a separate quick chat I had with Aisling Franciosi, who you may recognise from series one of The Fall.
BBC Drama boss Ben Stephenson introduced the screening by talking about John Banville, who won The Booker Prize in 2005 for his 14th novel, The Sea.
“What a phenomenal writer. I’ve always been such a huge fan of his vast collection of wonderful literature. So it’s a real honour for the BBC to be able to be pairing up with him to bring his fantastic Quirke books to the screen. I was addicted to them when I first read them. They’re wonderfully characterfull and create this extraordinarily, atmospheric, engaging, complex world. And they’ve got great plots with real complexity as well. So they felt like a real must for television.
“Andrew Davies is a really phenomenal talent. There aren’t many writers in this country who when you say the name of the writer it speaks volumes about their work and it will actually get people to tune into their work. There’s absolutely no question that Andrew Davies, across his extraordinary career, is one of those. He wrote my favourite ever TV series House of Cards.
“Gabriel Byrne is an extraordinary actor. We’ve all watched him in movies and American TV shows and we are so thrilled to have him on the BBC. I think it’s a part that he just absolutely inhabits and like a true movie star he has to do very little with his face for you to utterly engage with him.”
Q&A with John Banville / Andrew Davies / Aisling Franciosi (Phoebe) / John Alexander (who directed the first episode):
Q: Playing Phoebe in Quirke?
“I was really nervous about watching it but I think it’s great. It came together so well. It’s quite difficult to be objective about yourself.
“I had only seen an article online about the production saying that Gabriel was going to be Quirke. So when I got an audition I just straight away went to read the books because I wanted to know more about Phoebe and I read the scripts, obviously, as well. I tried to find out as much as I could.”
Q: You were born in Italy but raised in Dublin, where Quirke it set, from the age of five?
“It certainly helped. I was a student when I took the part. I left university for the part. I think there’s a sense of where it’s set. But obviously it was in the 1950s so I had to find out a little bit about what was going on at the time.”
“I can’t speak highly enough of Gabriel. I was so lucky to get a chance to work with him. He’s like a mentor to me – and I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor.
“I cried when it finished. I didn’t want the job to end. It was really an amazing experience.
“Her world is turned upside down in the first film. And there are repercussions. Phoebe has a lots of interesting twists and turns.”
Q: How did you become involved in adapting Quirke for the screen?
“It was sheer luck. I’d read John’s literary novels before. I wasn’t aware of the Benjamin Black novels. So it was just like getting a fantastic present. I loved it. It’s so rare to find a crime book that’s so beautifully written and so rich and deep and complex.
“I think audiences are cleverer than we often think they are. And they don’t like to be too spoon-fed about all that kind of thing.
“As for staying very close to the original, I would always say that if it ain’t broke don’t try to fix it. It seemed fine to me. I would just put the book down there and copy it out. (laughter). Sorry!
“I’d met John once decades before on a rather drunken day in London. I met him in Dublin when I was half way through the first draft and we liked each other enough to meet one to one and so I had a long lunch with him and then he showed me around some of the key places for him in Dublin, which was very useful to me.
“Then I actually, without telling anybody, the producer or anybody on the show, sent him the first draft when I’d finished it because I was a bit worried about whether I’d got the Dublin idioms right or not. I just wanted him to like it or at least say it was OK.
“And both those things happened. He corrected my Dublin idioms and he gave the script his blessing. So that was the extent of our collaboration. It was all there in the book, you see. Sometimes – when I was adapting Tipping The Velvet, I really needed to consult Sarah Walters about some technical aspects that I didn’t have any experience of. (laughter) But I thought – this is all about stuff that I’m deeply into myself.”
Q: The character of Phoebe?
“Phoebe gets pushed through some terrible stuff. The character of Phoebe is like a little ray of light at the centre of it. We finish this episode with her really down but we can’t imagine her being down forever. She’s always lit like some lovely Fifties’ movie heroine in those dark bars. You get that and focus on her like she’s a guiding light.”
Q: Gabriel Byrne?
“He always seems to have had this curious integrity. You just trust him. I knew he was attached when I started writing and I was just thrilled. If you read the books attentively, Quirke is described as being a very big man, six foot four or something like that and fair-haired. And I never believed that. No – Quirke looks much more like Gabriel Byrne! So it was enormously helpful writing the script to think that’s who’s going to be playing it.”
John Banville (Benjamin Black):
Q: Writing Quirke as Benjamin Black?
“I like the notion that people think that it was after I’d won the Booker. In fact, on the day that the Booker shortlist was announced in 2005 my agent was having lunch with my publisher and said, ‘By the way, here’s a new Banville novel. It’s rather different and it’s written under a different name.’ So I had become Benjamin Black before the Booker Prize. The problem with winning a prize like that is that people assume that your life began at that stage. I’m really only about seven. My life began when I won the Booker.
“I had written a script, oddly enough, for a mini series. It didn’t get made. I decided I would turn it into a novel because I’d begun to read Georges Simenon who greatly impressed me with what could be done with crime fiction. I’ve always read crime fiction all my life and admire it greatly. So I turned it into a novel. I didn’t know if I could do it. I went to Italy, a friend of mine lent me a room. One Monday morning at nine ‘o clock I sat down and thought, ‘Can I do this?’ And by lunchtime I’d written two and a half thousand words, which, for Banville, would be an absolute scandal. Because Banville, if you got 200 words done by lunchtime he’s feel he was doing well. And so Benjamin Black was born. He’s now free – I feel like Baron Frankenstein, the monster is now out in the world and he can’t be stopped.”
Q: How much of you is Quirke and vice-versa?
“Oh nothing of me is Quirke. Of course they’re all me. All characters are oneself. I’m the only material I have to work with. My agent used to insist that I was in love with Phoebe. But it suddenly struck me one day that, in fact, I am Phoebe. If there’s anybody in the books that is me, then it’s Phoebe. Phoebe is strong. She’s stronger than Quirke.”
Q: The first story involves child trafficking which is a topical issue?
John Banville: “A lot of stuff had come out. All kinds of wriggling worms came out.” (re the church in Ireland in the 1990s)
“But we must not brand everybody in the church. There were very decent priests and nuns who did their best, who lived a religious life and who educated the country. They did it for free. So we must not forget that.
“But there were a lot of very bad people and Rome essentially covered up for them. But we had learned a lot of that – certainly by 2003 / 2004 when I started these books. But more and more came out. Everybody knew in Ireland when I was growing up. They knew and they didn’t know. Ambiguity, for me, is the essence of life and certainly the essence of fiction.”
Q: Quirke’s intake of alcohol and cigarettes?
John Alexander: “We got through an awful lot of grape juice and herbal cigarettes. It’s part of the depiction of the period.”
Q: What was your inspiration for these sometimes dark and sinister stories?
John Banville: “Like all writers, I looked into my own dark heart and up popped Quirke. I don’t see myself as a particularly nice person. We all carry our secrets with us. We all carry our strange, dark urges that we don’t express – we can’t afford to express. Life would be unbearable. The world would not work if we did.
“But that’s what writers do. We are given license to betray our worst selves. Quirke is a damaged person. He drinks even more than I do, which is saying a lot. But I’ve done dreadful things in my life, as I’m sure we all have. Aisling’s too young but give it time.
“The world is a strange and dark place. It’s also an exquisite and luminous place. When I handed the latest novel into my Spanish publisher, who is absolutely crazy about Quirke – I think he’s the love of her life – she said, ‘Oh this is wonderful. But could you please lighten up a little bit.’ So I said, ‘Alright. Next time I’ll send him on a holiday to Spain.’ The world is rustic-coloured, like those Boston leaves.”
Q: What does Gabriel Byrne bring to the character?
John Alexander: He’s got an amazing stillness and integrity. He plays the complexity of the character so well. You always trust that he’s trying to do the best and he has his dark secrets and his past.”
Q: What do you think of the end result on screen?
John Banville: “I’m completely screen struck. So when I see real people embodying my characters I’m completely undone. I’m just thrilled by it. Always am. Have been from the very start.
“I’m very impatient with writers who constantly whine about Hollywood and how they were betrayed and so on. Gore Vidal beautifully said, ‘Hollywood never destroyed anybody who was worth saving.’
“If you give your book up to the screen to be made into this big popular medium then that’s what you do – you don’t complain about it. My policy always is – it’s now your baby. You’re translating this into a different medium. And it fascinates me to watch the way that it’s done.
“Of course to some extent I watch it through splayed fingers. But I recognise after two or three minutes that this is now translated into a completely new and different medium. It’s mine in a peculiar way but it’s also not mine at all.”
After the Q&A I spoke to Aisling Franciosi:
Q: Your take on Phoebe?
“Phoebe is a really interesting character. I was really attracted to the role because there aren’t a huge number of female parts that get you excited. And when I saw this part I said, ‘Oh my God, she’s so multi-faceted as a character.’ She’s from a wealthy background but is attracted by Quirke who is this loner who goes against the grain. So she wants to stoop to that level and try out the things that he tries out – goes drinking with him. She is asked to deal with a huge upheval in her life and in later episodes you see how complex a character she is in the way that she deals with the repercussions of how crazy her family is, without her having known for so many years.”
Q: What does she see in Quirke?
“He represents to her the excitement that she maybe doesn’t have at home. You can see from Mal (Malachy played by Nick Dunning) and Sarah (Geraldine Somerville), as many people were in the Fifties, they’re conservative. They don’t drink or smoke, they’re very religious and she’s a normal teen – she wants to rebel a bit. And Quike is this figure in her life who lets her do things like that. He brings her out to pubs and bars where she meets shady characters. How could you not fall in love with someone who show you the exciting side of life? And that’s what he does.”
Q: Working with Gabriel? Did he give you any advice?
“I said early on, ‘Please feel free – if you see any way you could help me, please I’d really appreciate it.” And he said, ‘What? Most actors would hate that.’ And I said, ‘I’m in the position here where I don’t want to screw up. So all the information I can get and all the learning I can do is only a good thing.’ He was really kind. He always knew when to say something and when to just leave me be. He didn’t really give me notes but we’d talk about scripts. He talked about the scenes with me a lot and we’d decide things between the two of us.”
Q: You said in the Q&A that you left university for this?
“I did The Fall in my third year of university and I just juggled the two. And when I found out I got this, I’d actually just missed the first three weeks of college anyway because I was doing Romeo and Juliet down in Cork, so I wasn’t particularly in favour at the university! But I couldn’t pass up on doing a job like this. So I thought, ‘You know what, university can wait for a bit.’” (laughs)
Q: What is it like to watch yourself on a big screen?
“I wouldn’t say it’s very pleasant. Of course I’m really proud to be part of something like that but you’re obviously going to always be a little less objective than other people. We all see things in ourselves that you don’t like. I guess it’s just part of the learning process. I’m starting out so I have to make myself watch it and go, ‘OK, I’m going to learn from that, what I just saw there and try and do better the next time.’”
Q: There is scope to see more of Phoebe in a possible second series?
“There are more books than the first three so I can’t actually honestly say whether they’re going to be going back or not. I would love to see them and there’s potential there for the Phoebe character. So I would definitely say yes.”
Q: The Fall?
“I couldn’t believe the reaction! It really got people talking, which was a great reaction to have. Again, that was, for me, quite a different experience to Quirke. It was great but I really felt a little bit like a rabbit in the headlights. I just had to deal with my first TV job. But, again, it was a great script. Both The Fall and Quirke had really good scripts.”
Aisling has since gone on to make her big screen debut in the new Ken Loach film Jimmy’s Hall and this week attended the Cannes premiere ahead of the UK release on May 30.