“OVER my dead body, Andrew…”
Rory Kinnear as Barry Fairbrother in BBC1’s new three-part adaptation of JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy.
Jo Rowling’s first novel for an adult audience, published in 2012, became a global best-seller with over six million copies sold to date.
The 3 x 60 minute television adaptation, written by Sarah Phelps and directed by Jonny Campbell, begins on BBC1 at 9pm on Sunday Feb 15.
Set in what appears to be the idyllic English village of Pagford.
Those who have read the 500-page book will know that it deals with how we live today, including issues of community and responsibility.
Or as Sarah Phelps put it about those who live on The Fields estate nearby:
“It’s kind of the lives of people you recognise from the Thirties. But we’ve started to make it their fault.
“And that just seems like …there’s something weird has happened. I don’t like it. So that’s part of the story.”
She was talking during a Q&A session this week after the premiere of the first episode at BAFTA in London.
My full transcript of that Q&A is below, including a new quote from J.K. Rowling.
It’s a fairly long read but, as usual I’d argue, worthy of your time.
The tabloid press will no doubt focus on, among other things, Keeley Hawes as Samantha Mollison and tales from her lingerie shop in the Q&A.
Plus a quote from Keeley in her BBC Press Pack interview. (Which I’ve posted at the very bottom of this blog)
Along with references to JK Rowling’s Harry Potter past.
Her name helps draw attention, of course.
But The Casual Vacancy is an entertaining, thought-provoking and important story, worthy of BBC1 exposure.
Whether it attracts and retains a large mainstream Sunday night audience is another matter.
Hopefully a cast list including Michael Gambon, Julia McKenzie, Rory Kinnear, Emilia Fox, Keeley Hawes, Rufus Jones, Simon McBurney and Monica Dolan will help.
Also introducing Abigail Lawrie as teenager Krystal Weedon.
Daughter of drug addict Terri, played by former Coronation Street and Emmerdale actress Keeley Forsyth.
Quote from JK Rowling:
“Sarah Phelps is a writer at the top of her game. Having met Sarah, and discussed the television adaptation of The Casual Vacancy, I was happy and confident to hand over the job of crafting my novel for the small screen. Sarah has done a great job and I am delighted with how it has turned out.”
BBC One Controller Charlotte Moore introduced the screening:
“It’s absolutely thrilling to be bringing the work of JK Rowling to BBC1. It’s an extraordinary tapestry of modern Britain. A book of such richness that through humour, social commentary and, above all, fantastic characters, I think it says something really insightful and entertaining about the country we live in.”
Q&A with: Julia McKenzie (Shirley Mollison), Rufus Jones (Miles Mollison), Keeley Hawes (Samantha Mollison), Jonny Campbell and Sarah Phelps. Chaired by Amy Raphael.
Q: Sarah – can you tell me about your involvement from the beginning and where you decided to go with the story? What you wanted to take from the original novel?
Sarah Phelps: “Well it’s a massive novel. A huge novel. Loads of characters and loads of different…I thought, ‘I’ll have to talk to Jo about this.’ Said what I thought what the story was about. Which is I think it’s Krystal’s (Abigail Lawrie) story. Krystal is the beating heart of the story. She goes right through the centre of it.”
Q: Did Jo say to you, ‘You can run with it, to a degree, how you want’, or..?
Sarah Phelps: “Well when we had the original meeting and we talked a lot about the book and I said that, for me, the beating heart of the story was Krystal’s and it was all about unpacking Krystal’s story. And that tallied very much with her and she was very cool about the whole thing. I’ve adapted dead writers, which is great because they can’t come and annoy you by email. (laughter) And it could have been really difficult. But the great thing is, she’s used to the process of adaptation. Of having to let her book go into that process from having the films done and everything. And I don’t know if it’s different being TV and this book is very different for her. But she was brilliant about just, ‘That’s your side of the job. Step back and let you do it.’ So there was a great deal of freedom of me…she read the scripts as they came in and commented appropriately. But, honestly, it’s been…”
Q: But she didn’t give you scary notes. You weren’t sitting there thinking, ‘What’s she going to say?’
Sarah Phelps: “No. Not at all. She’s a writer. She understands what that’s like.”
Q: And as a writing process, is it easier to work with an adaptation than starting something from scratch?
Sarah Phelps: “No. All of it’s a nightmare.” (laughter)
Q: I just love you on writer’s block. I love you talking about, it’s tea, then it’s fags, then it’s booze…
Sarah Phelps: “Oh, that’s when it’s going well.”
Q: And when you’re writing you maybe make it blue as well?
Sarah Phelps: “Just to get me going, I used to write really kind of BlueEnders and then just terrible things would happen upstairs in the Vic and it would be really shocking. And then after about three pages of EastEnders as Goodfellas, shooting each other and punching each other and hitting each other with sinks and then doing foul things to…Caligula, you know…and then I’d just go, ‘Delete’, then just start again. So a dog would come in. All of it, whether it’s original…and, yeah, people sort of say about adaptations, ‘So you already…’ It’s kind of like, ‘Ah, just knock that out over the weekend, round of golf, whatever.’ But it isn’t. It’s sometimes almost more difficult because you’re working with something that’s established. You’ve got to make sure you tell a story and you’ve got to bring a lot to it. It’s always a blank page and you’re always wanting to do the story and the characters justice. So I find it just as terribly painful and traumatic and awful.” (feigns mock horror)
Q: And what a great job you did…
Sarah Phelps: “Oh, ta very much. That makes it all better. The cirrhosis of the liver was worth it.”
Q: Jonny – where did you come on board, and we were talking a little bit before about some ideas you’d had about it before…
Jonny Campbell: “I came on board about a year ago. Almost to the day now. And Sarah had written the first episode, I think, by then. You saw the script, ‘Based on a novel by…’ And it’s like, ‘Yeah, where do I sign? Let’s do this straight away.’ But I tried to ignore the JK Rowling factor and just concentrate on it as a story and see whether I had an affinity to the characters and the storytelling. And it was a really rich script that Sarah had written. But because of the number of characters – I hadn’t read the book before but I went to the book and read it a couple of times and then re-read the script before meeting to talk about it. And then it all clicked into place, what Sarah had done and why. The novel, there’s a lot of characters and a lot of inner monologues in the way that Jo gets inside a character’s head and that’s obviously not something you can do quite so easily in an adaptation. But what appealed to me was one of the reasons, I think, why Jo wrote it in the first place. Was that she had this idea to write a novel with 19th century sensibilities but applying it to a contemporary setting. In the vein of Trollope or Hardy or Dickens, even. And that’s what I was really excited by. Was this nature of the classical themes that just go round and round in circles no matter which era you live in, telling a timeless story, really.”
Q: And had you as the acting force, the creative crew over there (Julia, Rufus and Keeley), had you read the novel before getting the call about the job?
Rufus Jones: “I hadn’t. There. I hadn’t. Now I’ve said it.”
Keeley Hawes: “No, I hadn’t either. I did immediately.”
Rufus Jones: “Yeah. That’s kind of how it works. I remember we got the nod and read it and devoured it. I’d actually never read any of JK Rowling’s books. I am the last person on Earth who hasn’t read them. And…”
Sarah Phelps: “I haven’t read any Harry Potter.”
Keeley Hawes: “Neither have I. I’ve got three children. I’ve got no excuse.”
Rufus Jones: “I don’t know what I was expecting but I wasn’t expecting a book with a kind of anger about it. A kind of social anger. A socialist anger, actually. And that was really exciting. And having read the script, I could then see what it had come from.”
Keeley Hawes: “I think you’ve done an incredibly difficult job, Sarah, because they are so beautifully written and well drawn and there are so many characters. The first 50 pages – even reading the book…it’s so difficult to unpick it. And when you do, it’s fantastic. And then you’re in. But when I read it I thought, ‘How is this going to work? And how is it going to work in three parts?’ Because they’re so complex. But you managed it.”
Q: And Julia, what was the experience like for you?
Julia McKenzie: “Oh, it was wonderful. We filmed in the Cotswolds in this wonderful summer we’ve just had. It couldn’t be better, could it? It was lovely. And I got lovely lines to say, in the next two episodes.” (laughter)
Q: I believe it gets darker, though?
Julia McKenzie: “They do. But I don’t.”
Jonny Campbell: “Julia’s character – you get unleashed, don’t you? Beautifully acted. You relished playing the bitch for a change, didn’t you?”
Julia McKenzie: “Yes. It was nice to do a different sort of part.”
Q: Playing against type?
Julia McKenzie: “Oh yeah. It was lovely. I was amazed to get the part. I’m normally offered something with a duster in my hand or something like that. But this was very nice to be offered. And I’d worked with Jonny before many years before in a PD James. Death In Holy Orders.”
Q: You mentioned a kind of socialist angle and it feels to me, personally, like a glorious left-wing, ‘What the hell are we doing to our country?’ With the coming UKIP contingency. That, for me, was the background that’s going on. And I’m not saying that’s on screen. But it makes you think about how we like to segregate and how this government likes to segregate? Did you think about it from a socialist point of view or…I think JK Rowling was going to call it ‘Responsible’ initially. That was her working title for a long time…
Jonny Campbell: “I don’t think that’s just a party political area. I think the whole point is the responsbility angle isn’t confined to just the left-wing bias. For me it was more of a generic thing about responsibility and philanthropy in society, which I think is a universal issue, rather than anything socio-political in that sense. That was how I read it. It was part of the timelessness of it. Hence the Victorian link, which was interesting.”
Sarah Phelps: “It was very interesting, because in the book the dispute is over a boundary line. And it’s difficult to put a boundary line into a TV drama. And I thought, ‘What if it was one of those kind of houses that philanthropic squires and land owners and things like that, they made these huge philanthropic gestures towards the poor and the needy to alleviate their suffering.’ I’m just reading Alan Johnson’s ‘This Boy’ on the train, which is brilliant if you haven’t read it. He just popped out this thing about, just for some reason talking about the people he’s met and Peabody, who was an American banker based in London who made this huge endowment. Peabody flats are famous in London. And it all came from him. A huge endowment for the poor and needy of the metropolis to alleviate their suffering and promote their betterment. And that was in 1862. And it was part of that thinking, of these great acts of generosity or sense of awareness that wealth was there to spread out. That there was a sense of community, a sense of responsibility. So I thought, ‘Well, what if it wasn’t a boundary line. It’s a house.’ A house is bequeathed like the one you see. Because then it’s right there in the centre of the village and it’s really visible, it’s concrete, you respond to it immediately. Especially somewhere like that where property is through the roof. And we were walking around Painswick, which is a beautiful small town. Absolutely perfect, idyllic, it’s gorgeous. And we came slap bang against a house exactly like that. Which was, some local squire had bequeathed it to the local people for their use and their enjoyment and their betterment. And it just felt like it was really of its time and it was a good way of anchoring the argument but where we were then and how things change. Like the countryside changes. The people of The Fields aren’t working in the fields. The fields are now a housing estate and the whole point and purpose and function of the countryside is not to feed the nation, it’s to be a leisure activity. And it was a way to bring in loads of ideas of about where we were and where we are now. About responsibility and community, there was a phrase I kept talking about with Jonny which is, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ We talked about it a lot, that famous proverb. The other thing I kept thinking about was John Donne, ‘No man is an island.’ And, ‘Never send to know for whom the bell tolls…Every man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind.’ Anyway, those felt like great humanitarian battle cries and those were the things that were going through my head when I was writing.”
Julia McKenzie: “That marvellous speech you wrote about immersing yourself in wellness…when Rory Kinnear finished that speech, Gambon looked at me and said, ‘What an actor.’ One brilliant actor acknowledging another.”
Q: I don’t want to bang on about the political thing but would you say it’s political with a small ‘p’ or it’s not even about that at all?
Sarah Phelps: “I think there is real politics involved in it but I think it is, like Jonny says, I’m really wary of finger-wagging and waving. I think rather than demarcating it out so that people feel entrenched into a position…what it is, it’s about trying to appeal to something bigger than perhaps our party political instincts. When you’re watching Newsnight or something, you think people are just arguing a point for the sake of the entrenched opposite. Actually, if we can just jump over that and just see things, so that we’re not..”
Jonny Campbell: “Something beyond a five year plan, I think, with a Victorian sensibility of philanthropy. That’s the way I see it…”
Sarah Phelps: “Just being generous and just not being so mean to each other. And also we’ve done this terrible thing where we look at the media now, we’ve caught all people whose lives…history has not been kind to them. Lives are difficult. You live on the very precipice of being able to feed or house yourself. It’s kind of the lives of people you recognise from the Thirties. But we’ve started to make it their fault. And that just seems like …there’s something weird has happened. I don’t like it. So that’s part of the story. Who knows?”
Q: But there’s also, everybody has a different life behind closed doors and what’s going on with you guys (Keeley and Rufus), a very unsettled relationship with no communication at all.”
Keeley Hawes: “There are three of us in this marriage…four of us.”
Q: Tell me, as well, about Abigai (Lawrie) who plays Krystal. What a find. How did she get discovered?
Jonny Campbell: “It was our casting director, Lucy Bevan. She sent us a tape one day of this girl – they did a huge trawl for newcomers in the area, the West Country and so on. And this tape came in with this amazing audition that blew us away. And then at the end of it this girl went, ‘Is that right? Is that what I’m supposed to do?’ And it turns out she’d never, ever, done an audition before, never put herself on tape or anything. And so we all looked at each other and went, ‘We need to meet her really quickly.’ So she came in and she was delightful. And we discovered that she’s actually Scottish. I said, ‘Well she’s either from Pagford or from RADA,’ because she had such instincts and when we met her I thought it was too good to be true. But no, she really worked hard at it and was absolutely a born actress. Really lovely. She was on set quite a lot because she is, as Sarah said, the beating heart of the story. We were really lucky to find her.”
Q: HBO are involved in this. Is there a feeling, is this something that will translate?
Sarah Phelps: “I hope so. Look at the cast. There’s a universality. You’re just watching people’s behaviour, managing relationships…I mean they look beautiful these villages but, I’ve got to say, if I lived in one I’d run a mile. They’re so perfect. I like to be in my pyjamas till at least four o’clock in the afternoon and generally look awful. But they were really, really beautiful and I think it would be quite hard work to live somewhere like that. I’d find it hard work.”
Amy then opened up questions to the audience:
Q: Sarah – as a writer do you find it easier adapting material from something that’s already been written, especially when it’s a best-selling novel? Or do you actually like the process more of adapting something that you’ve written yourself?
Sarah Phelps: “They’re all a nightmare. You say, ‘Especially if it’s adapted from a best-selling book.’ Because it comes with a weight of responsibility. Similarly, something like Dickens. Oliver Twist has been adapted over 50 times. You can’t just go, ‘Well, I’ll just do what everybody else has done.’ Because you’ve still got to invest all of that rawness and whatever you’re doing. Yes, you’re talking about characters that you know. But in something like The Casual Vacancy, there are so many people in it. There’s a huge amount of getting in amongst them and kicking and shoving it to get the story. So it was still a blank page and it was still blood, sweat and tears. It’s still staring at a blank piece of paper until your forehead bleeds, to be honest. If it’s original no-one can tell you how it should be. But I was lucky. I got to make my pitch and then crack on and do it.”
Q: If there’s myriad voices, is it really hard getting those individual voices..?
Sarah Phelps: “Yeah, absolutely, And making sure that all those stories get told. And all those stories get told in a way that feeds into the story that you’re telling and that they all come to a fruition at the right time.”
Q: Do you have locked script or do you let the cast add..?
Sarah Phelps: “No…”
Jonny Campbell: “When you’ve got a good script you don’t need to ad lib…”
Q: I don’t mean ad lib. I mean, like, say, if Keeley thought…
Sarah Phelps: “If Keeley approached me and said, ‘Do you know what? Can I say that like this?’ I’d go, yeah.”
Keeley Hawes: “You’re incredibly generous. And also the great thing…to having a book and then an adaptation is that from an acting point of view it’s great. Because you read the book and even if those things don’t then translate or they can’t be used for whatever reason in the adaptation, you still have them. As a family, you have all of that background. And you can use those stories. There are things that break your heart because they have to go in an adaptation otherwise…from my point of view it would be called ‘Samantha’ but…”
Sarah Phelps: “Thinking about the book, you could actually do an adaptation of each single person’s life. Miles’s story…I could have wraggled on with harridan Shirley for ever and a day.”
Keeley Hawes: “It’s great to have the book to get the kind of investment…it informs us and our backgrounds.”
Rufus Jones: “We did stick to the script pretty thoroughly. I don’t think anyone felt the need to contribute. It was interesting watching it because, actually, the style, the edit and what Jonny’s done, it’s got a looseness to it that can feel slightly extemporised occasionally, which is really nice. There’s an immediacy that it doesn’t feel written in that way. That’s testament to the edit itself. We just say the words, lovey.”
Q: Keeley – was it liberating to play someone who is so blunt and provocative?
Keeley Hawes: “Yeah. She’s such great fun. I can’t quite believe my luck. When I read it, she is my favourite character. It was just a delight. At the same time there are so many layers to her. She’s very blunt but she’s become that way through this series of events and being in this relationship with her husband and his parents. She’s got a great journey. It was really good fun.”
Q: We see you with your lingerie shop. It looks very believable. Did anybody mistake it for the real thing while you were filming?
Keeley Hawes: “They did.”
Jonny Campbell: “They complained about it at the local parish council meeting. Said it was a disgrace, on the one hand. And then there were a couple of other occasions where we were filming there and a couple of old ladies – literally white hair, stick – were walking past looking in the window. And we were saying, ‘Please excuse us.’ (Reply) ‘Oh no, I’ve got all that stuff.’ Someone came in. They thought it was a sale on. We found people looking around at some of the stuff in there. It was amusing.”
Q: With Keeley serving them?
Jonny Campbell: “That would have been their dream come true.”
Q: Was this in Painswick?
Jonny Campbell: “Yeah, it was Painswick. The whole place was made up of about half a dozen Cotswold villages and it was lovely to stitch them together to make the fictitious place, Paxford.”
Q: I just wanted to ask about how you got into the roles? How you got into your characters and the rehearsal process? Did you discuss any back stories or did you just get together and start reading?
Jonny Campbell: “The script is the most important thing. And as Keeley said, the book was really useful as a bible for some character background material. But one had to be careful to make sure that the elements that were in the book were still relevant and in the adaptation, some of the choices Sarah had made. So those of you who know the book will notice, for example, that Simon Price was a disparate character in the book but Sarah, to draw him into the story more, makes him a half brother of Barry Fairbrother. There are 30 named characters in this. And if they’re all living independent lives then someone has to imagine how they’re going to all cross paths a bit more than just meeting in a shop or something. So that was a very clever idea and it just gave a new dimension to that relationship. It gave us an opportunity to show the character of Simon Price as being a sort of dark and nasty character. But in the book there’s a lot more violence associated with his character, for example. So it’s important to make sure that the actor isn’t going to go off and pick some of the traits which Sarah has either slightly adapted to make that relationship work…but I would say with 90 per cent of the characters it was really useful to talk about some of the motivation from the book and then just do normal rehearsal, which is obviously really crucial. But quite interesting, of course, a lot of the characters never meet each other. It is a tapestry of a place and that was one of the challenges, certainly with this opening episode, to introduce all of the characters as much as one could without confusing people. And making sure that you could see how the lives were crossing over one another and hopefully giving a suggestion of what lies beyond closed doors that we don’t see. That we are intrigued by it to bring you in to the next episode.”
Q: Especially the ghost of Barry…
Jonny Campbell: “Yeah. But also what Sarah did…Barry Fairbrother dies on page three of the novel. And Sarah cleverly found a device, for us to get to know him a bit and to show his relationship with some of the characters without relying totally on flashbacks, for example, and to let us know what made him tick and then we feel hopefully more empathy with the characters when they’re grieving. You sense more of his loss because he’s the main character for a while and then suddenly he’s gone. So that was another change from the novel which was important to make sure that we got right.”
Rufus Jones: “In terms of rehearsals, we had a rehearsal week and I had dreadful food poisoning. So I didn’t do any of it. But the practicalities of making TV is that, actually, once you hit the ground running you don’t stop, for two months in our case. Truthfully speaking, the opportunities of rehearse and investigate is limited.”
Julia McKenzie: “And rare.”
Rufus Jones: “And rare. I think there was a) a surprising amount of it on this production beforehand and b) you always have to have faith in the director, basically, to steer you, which Jonny did brilliantly. Because, especially on a show like this, there are so many dynamics and so many relationships going on. If everyone was doing their own personal research project it would just be chaos. So you need that strong hand on the tiller.”
Q: Sarah – was there any burning question you wanted to ask JK Rowling when you started this process. And did you tell her that you hadn’t read the Harry Potter books?
Sarah Phelps: “Do you know what, the Harry Potter books never came up. Except for when I said that my niece was a huge fan and Jo very sweetly gave her a book and put a really beautiful dedication into it. That cuts a lot of ice with me, that somebody would do something like that. The kind of burning question I’d have loved to ask Jo was nothing to do with the books. I’d love to know how she manages to keep her sanity. She’s Harry Potter Woman. I think it must be quite an extraordinary thing to be. And yet she writes and writes and writes and writes and doesn’t stop and keeps pushing herself. The burning question I’d have liked to ask is how she does it? The other thing about the Harry Potter…it just never came up. We were just too busy talking this and Krystal.”
Julia McKenzie: “Incidentally, if I can interrupt. I was watching Pointless last night and learned a very good fact. That, in fact, a JK Rowling book was the most taken out book from the British library. And they said, ‘Oh, Harry Potter.’ And they said, ‘No, The Casual Vacancy.’ So, I was rather pleased with that.” (laughter)
Q: Jon – you talk about the Victorian themes. How did you go about thinking about that from a visual standpoint. How did that translate?
Jonny Campbell: “I think it was important in choosing the locations, first of all. To make sure that the village of Pagford felt like if everyone had been wearing a costume it could have been Cranford or a period piece. So that was realy important, finding the right locations to weave together. But also the DoP, Tony Slater Ling, came up with the idea to use some vintage lenses. Not that they had lenses like that 50 years ago. But just to give it a timeless, slightly distant feel, with the soft focus in the background. And we used different lenses for different characters, So we had a set of particular lenses for the younger characters and a set of lenses for the adult characters. So there’s a very subtle shift in how those stories look when juxtaposed upon one another. So we did little things like that. But otherwise, for me, it was just trying to see it as a story rather than as a piece of contemporary socio-commentary. As a timeless story. And, for example, when I see Howard bumbling past the lingerie shop, for me that could be a character out of Dickens walking past. It’s the eccentricities and some of the heightened qualities of the characters which are in the book, which is what I was sort of drawn to really. You try to, obviously, keep them believable but allowing their eccentricities to flourish and for it to have the kind of humour that pervades those books as well. But other than that it was just not trying too hard to bang a drum or anything. If you watch it again, which hopefully people will, with that in mind, thinking, ‘Well, actually, does it matter which period this is set in.’ I don’t think it does. I think the same issues would have been in it before. That’s one of the things we did.”
Q: Do you play Barry in it? No? Barry Fairweather? (sic)
Jonny Campbell: “Me?”
Jonny Campbell: “Do I look like him? I wish I was as…I’m glad you think I look like him. A very handsome and wonderfully talented actor. I wish I was in a double life. It’s Rory Kinnear…Rory Kinnear is the main man behind that…have you not come across Rory before? He’s in all the Bond movies. He’s great.”
Q: Sarah – there are so many characters in this, brilliantly portrayed…but some of them are so upsetting, disturbing…when you are writing your wonderful script, do you get emotional about these people? Or can you cut off your emotions from it and it just becomes a hardened exercise?
Sarah Phelps: “No. I always get involved in what I’m doing. If I could just sit there just going, ‘And then this happens…’ then really it’s time to go home. You can’t write from the wrist like that. Well I can’t, anyway. You’ve got to be really invested. Or I have to be really invested. And I can quite easily be sitting there and sometimes writing something which I think its…I don’t know…there’s a scene in episode two with Howard and Shirley in their bedroom and I wrote it and I would be shaking with laugher. Ridiculous. And equally, bits where I write, you have to stop and go like that (emotion). You can’t write cold like that. You might as well not bother. Whenever I’m doing that, I’m thinking if I’m laughing or crying or my heart’s going a bit faster or it’s difficult to write and it takes time because it’s painful, then hopefully that’ll come across when people speak it. But if I’m just sitting there just going, ‘And then the…’ Stop, turn off the computer and go to bed. Because it’s just not happening. So, yeah. I do get invested. Very invested.”
Q: Question for Keeley, Rufus and Julia? Does village life appeal to you at all?
Julia McKenzie: “Well, I lived in the Cotswolds for about 14 years. In fact, I lived in Burford, which is one of the areas that we filmed. They were pulling down Warwick Hall there and that became the drug place. I can tell you that there’s a lot of politics in village life. Tiny, tiny, tiny episodes. In my particular village, for instance, there were some very, very nice, very wealthy people who wanted to provide a new noticeboard for the village. And the arguments about whether it should have a front of glass, should it be this side of the road or that side? They gave up. After about two-and-a-half years, they said, ‘We don’t want to buy it anymore.’ But villages…they don’t have anything else to do except talk about other people. But this is quite extraordinary. And it is a very political piece. As you said originally to me, it’s like a modern Dickens and I think that’s a very true statement.”
Q: I wondered how you found balancing those more deeper issues about what’s going on with Krystal, against all the comedy values?
Sarah Phelps: “I think that if you’re always doing something which could be seen as heavy or issues-laden, and when you’ve got Kay, for example, in the book…Kay is a writer in Pagford chasing somebody who doesn’t want her. She’s up ended her life and dragged her daughter out from London to go and live in Pagford for a bloke who just can’t bear her. You’ll see how it works out as we go through the story. But in order to get people to be in the right place for something to happen, I wanted Kay to have arrived from something else. And I like the idea that she’s come from something which might have a knock-on effect on what she’s doing in Pagford which can then lead to something else. So the story involves everybody and all of their pasts in some small way. Nothing is just one person’s fault. They’re just a really big web. And when it comes to the issues thing, even with Terri…that should be funny. There should be a comedy to it even if it’s a very black comedy…because if everything is just heavy all the time and it’s all brow-beaten, everybody stops listening. You stop hearing and seeing a story. And in my view, in my experience and what I see and I’m quite old and what I’ve learned over my quite old time is that people in shit situations, they tend to be pretty tough about their shit situations. They tend to…‘Yeah. And?’ Smart comebacks. Because if you stopped and collapsed and crumpled, you’d never get up again. So you’re tough, so you get a smart mouth. Because that’s your armour and that’s how you get up and do it every day. And I like the fact that everybody has got a bit of pizazz and there are little bits of…just the way they talk to each other. The way ‘Fats’ talks, going on about his pornography and his obsession with sex and his worrying about the muscles in his forearms. And ‘sex and death but mainly sex. Because when death comes your last thought is never going to be, I wish I’d done less shagging.’ No, he’s right. It really isn’t. But just to give that sense that this is just everyday chat. They don’t know that something profound is happening. No-one ever does know that something profound is happening in their life. If we did we’d probably speak differently and work out some really philosophical way to talk about ourselves. But we don’t. It’s just a moment. So you’ve got to try and capture that. Because if you knew that something profound was about to happen, it wouldn’t happen.”
Jonny Campbell: “But tonally, both in terms of the way it’s written and also trying to capture the spirit of the book which is full of wit as well as darkness, is about how you navigate those straits. It’s a really poignant question. Because how do you juxtapose a scene with a very brutal father terrorising his family next to something much more comedic? But what happens is, it’s not like various characters are comedic and various characters are dark. There’s moments of comedy in the Simon Price story because he’s just so baffling, for some of it he’s a buffoon. But likewise, while some of the scenes with Howard and Shirley initially are more dainty and comedic, that story also turns darker. So it’s almost like a wind that blows through the various characters and taints them with the mood. And that’s what I love about it as well.”
Sarah Phelps: “The river that we found where it was filmed is perfect for it. The river runs through the whole thing with rapids and oxbows and shallow beds and deep pools and current and clogged up…so that’s a really good way of describing the tone of it. Keeping it all bouncing and moving forward and dynamic.”
Jonny Campbell: “I think as a storyteller you never know quite what’s going to come next, if you mix up the tones. As long as the story is consistent and your believe the characters and what’s going on, something that’s comedic can happen right next to something that’s horrific and tragic. Hopefully that’s what we serve up as a story.”
Keeley Hawes Press BBC Pack Interview:
Can you tell us about your character?
Samantha is married to Miles, and they’ve been bringing up their twin girls under the shadow of Howard and Shirley, Miles’ parents.
Shirley absolutely despises Samantha, she hates her. Samantha feels pretty much the same way about her, which was such good fun to play as I couldn’t feel more differently myself towards Julia McKenzie, who I am totally in love with. It’s awful really to play those scenes with pure hatred, and there is this little bit of you that is actually appreciating the brilliant work that Julia is doing.
Miles and Samantha are not in a great place when we meet them, their marriage is in a very bad way. That’s really down to his relationship with his mother and his father. He is a mummy’s boy, but he’s gone too far and now they are using him and pushing him forward in this election. It’s probably a good thing because it does bring everything to a head, between them.
It’s a fantastic scripts, what did you think when you first read it?
Sarah Phelps has done such an amazing job, it’s such a wonderful script to read. I really feel there’s nothing I don’t know about these people. It’s so brilliant, because we’ve got this tapestry of thoughts and memories that have been created by these wonderful scenes that are in the series but aren’t in the book. It’s so beautifully written that all the tiny details of their lives are all in there. It’s a bit like curtain-twitching, on the telly. The situations these characters find themselves in are very real. There’s humour at moments where there really shouldn’t be, at funerals and events and places where people should be seen to be behaving a certain way. Underneath that there are all these other emotions and other relationships going on, and that is how life is.
How do you approach the look and feel of Sam’s character?
When I read the books I was very keen that she should be very large-breasted. I think that’s a major part of Sam’s personality. She’s probably gone to these lengths at some point, when keeping things alive, when she started her underwear boutique. It’s all part of this look. They’re not in keeping with the rest of her, in the same way that she’s not in keeping really with the rest of Pagford. I was very keen on keeping that from the book. The outfit Samantha wears is all very top-end but it looks very cheap.
In the book she’s perma-tanned. She’s got stained hands where she’s just constantly rubbing fake tan all over her at every available opportunity. That was quite difficult to maintain and I was also finishing off another job where I couldn’t be perma-tanned, so the logistics of that were too difficult.
Did you find yourself having sympathy with Samantha?
I’ve got so much sympathy for her. She’s really stuck. She loves her husband and it is something still worth saving. It’s not a total loss. She’s just being railroaded at every turn by these very strong characters. They live in a house which has been owned by Miles’ parents. Even the house they live in is down to them. They live in a house that’s beyond their means, but only because of Howard and Shirley. We have a scene where Miles and Samantha are having a conversation in the kitchen. There’s a ring on the doorbell and they know it’s going to be Howard and Shirley. This is what happens every day, Shirley just lets herself in all day long. It would drive you mad.
Miles has been brainwashed to the extent that he can’t see any bad in his mother. He is like a giant baby, he couldn’t fend for himself on that council estate, he wouldn’t last two minutes. I like to think Sam’s a bit more savvy than that.
BBC The Casual Vacancy Media Pack
JK Rowling: The Casual Vacancy