John Simm plays Alec Jeffreys in ITV’s gripping new two part true story Code of a Killer which follows the attempts by scientist Jeffreys and policeman Detective Chief Inspector David Baker to bring a killer to justice using DNA for the first time.
Code of a Killer brings an extraordinary story to a wider audience?
“I didn’t know anything about it until I read the script. It’s an extraordinary and amazing story. Alec Jeffreys is an incredible man who made one of the most important scientific discoveries ever. It changed the way the police find criminals. What a story to tell. I think it will amaze people who don’t know about it. And, of course, it’s a true story.”
You met Alec Jeffreys during filming didn’t you?
“We met at a dinner in Leicester while filming scenes at the university and sat next to each other. Alec regaled us with scientific tales and wonderful stories. If anything, my admiration for him went up after meeting him. He’s a really lovely man.
“There were certain details I wanted to know. For example, what he did at the ‘Eureka Moment’. Did he jump up and down? How excited did he get? We had already filmed that scene and I think I got it fairly close to what he described. We discussed things in the script and how he first became interested in science.”
You also visited the actual laboratory at Leicester University where he discovered DNA fingerprinting?
“Alec showed me exactly where it happened on that Monday morning back in September 1984. It’s quite something to be there. You do get a real feeling of wonder standing there.”
And did you get to use any of his period scientific equipment in the drama?
“I did. I found out half way through using all this equipment that the pipettes and everything had Alec’s name on them. I thought the art department must have done that for the production. But most of it was the actual equipment, machines and material he used in his laboratory at the time. And I play with them trying to look as if I know what I’m doing. That felt really special.”
You grew a beard for the role to capture Alec’s look in the 1980s?
“I had enough time to grow it before we started filming. It was dyed as well – I had dyed hair and a dyed beard. I shaved it off when I got back at the end of filming.”
Did you do your own research on Alec?
“I watched him on YouTube and they sent me quite a lot of footage of him. I was interested in how he spoke then and how he moved around the lab. There was quite a bit of film of him being interviewed. I didn’t want to do an impression of him. I just had to get an essence.
“He is quite a character and he speaks differently to me. I studied his voice and taped snippets of it and put it on my phone as voice memos. So I’d have that on me all day and every so often I’d play him talking. Just to get the feel of him. His physicality and his manner.
“Although I, of course, wanted to meet him, I was glad that didn’t happen until we’d started filming because I didn’t want to copy him, especially now as an older man where he might have changed a little.”
Were you good at science at school?
“Not really. It’s one of the best things about this job. You get to pretend to be all sorts of different people. And it was a real honour to play Alec Jeffreys. The reason I took the job was because I realised the importance of what he did. To be able to play a real life genius, a legend of the science world, was the thrill for me.
“Like most people, unless you’re into science and know about it, I was pretty ignorant about the details before this. So it was great to go over it and learn. To discover what he actually did.
“The good thing about the script is the story of the DNA discovery is very clear and easily understood. And it’s quite amazing that it happened by accident. Then it just so happened a police detective called David Baker was looking for this killer in the same area, read the article about DNA, took a chance and was very brave.
“They are both incredible characters. Real life heroes. Hopefully the brilliance and bravery of these two men will be recognised by a wider audience.”
How would you sum up the relationship between Alec Jeffreys and David Baker?
“A lot of it has been dramatised to tell the Code of a Killer story. David was a visionary in terms of policing. He had the imagination to see how this might help them catch the killer at a time when they were running out of leads. It initially led to a young man who had confessed to one of the murders being released because the DNA test proved he was not involved and that he had given a false confession. David was a very brave man to stand by this new discovery and to trust Alec’s science.”
The drama is obviously very sensitive to the fact that at the centre of this story is the murder of two teenage girls?
“It was done with the full knowledge and support of the families and, of course, you have to be very careful. These are real people and real lives.”
Alec had concerns at the time about his personal safety?
“There was some concern the killer would know where he lived and Alec was the man who gave police the means to identify him. There were also people turning up outside his house after the DNA discovery. He was inundated with people asking for his help in immigration and paternity cases.”
It’s mind-boggling when you think how this discovery is now used around the world in so many ways?
“The ripples of the discovery he made continue to get bigger and bigger. It becomes more and more important as the world turns. I wasn’t into science before this but it seems since we’ve filmed this that DNA is in the paper every single day. Every time I look, DNA has done something else.”
Have you ever had anything approaching a ‘Eureka Moment’ yourself?
“Perhaps when I first tried acting. My first ever drama class when I was coaxed into going. It was Billy Liar. As soon as I started it and everybody went, ‘Oh, well that was pretty good,’ I thought, ‘Maybe I could do this?’ And every time I hear The Beatles.”
You’re reunited on screen with David Threlfall for the first time since you played Kendle Bains and Lenny Smart in the mid-90s’ BBC1 comedy Men Of The World?
“That sitcom wasn’t a big success but I thought it was quite funny at the time. David and I also sang the theme tune. I remember how much fun we had recording it. We’ve been good friends ever since.
“We can’t quite believe it’s taken this long to work together again. We’ve always been meaning to do something on stage and it almost nearly happened. It wasn’t the reason I took the job but it was a big factor. I thought, ‘Well, I’d love to work with David again.’
“He was one of my heroes when I was younger. I saw him play Smike in Nicholas Nickleby and he blew my mind in that. I’ve always been a huge fan of his. He is one of the greatest screen and stage actors this country has to offer and has been for a long time. David Threlfall is another genius.”
The use of DNA testing is so commonplace today but it is amazing to think this discovery was only made in 1984?
“It is quite incredible. You think it’s always been around. It’s closer to the Life On Mars era, really. Then making use of new computer data bases. All of that was in its infancy.
“It was a real privilege to dip into that world which was just incredibly fascinating. And to get the chance to meet Alec and spend an evening chatting with him is something I will never forget. He’s one of the most incredible men I’ve ever met in my life.”
The Miniaturist Interviews: Romola Garai
Romola Garai plays Marin Brandt in The Miniaturist, premiering soon on BBC-1, here she talks about what drew her to the drama and being in a costume drama where she pretty much only gets to wear one costume.
What attracted you to the role of Marin?
I’d read the book shortly after it came out and I thought it was a really surprising novel, really interesting and with very strong feminist themes in it, so I was very excited about it. Time passed and then an email popped into my inbox with the subject, The Miniaturist. I thought it was fantastic they were making it and I was really excited to read the script.
It’s a very genre-bending novel; it appears to be like a costume drama we have seen before, but very quickly we realise that it’s not that. It’s about a woman coming into her own in a society that’s very patriarchal, it’s about a love affair, it’s about discrimination, and it’s about people trying to survive in an incredibly controlled state. It’s a thriller and it’s also a story about political and emotional awakening.
Marin is a particularly interesting character, I think she has one of the best arcs. When I first read the book, she was the character that stayed with me, and when I read the scripts I immediately remembered everything about her. She’s told in beautiful detail in the novel, which John has retained in the script. Marin is just a great character to play, it was a real treat.
Tell us about Marin.
When you first meet her, because the story is told through Nella’s perspective, you meet a woman who seems very cold and intimidating. Then gradually you get this drip-feed of information about her; you see she’s been helping Johannes run the business and you learn that they were orphaned at a young age. She’s very intellectual, she’s very well read, and she’s not married, which is very unusual at the time.
One of the reasons I found her such a fascinating character is that she’s full of secrets and she’s layered; very conflicted and has great faith, but also passions. The house they live in is essentially a tinder box of secrets that Marin has been sitting on to try and stop the secrets exploding out. However although it seems she is trying to keep a lid on it I think she believes that they could subtly break all the rules and be free within the house at least, if only her brother stopped acting so recklessly.
Hopefully audiences will question what is driving her hostility towards Nella. Marin needs Nella a lot to maintain the appearance of being a normal household but it’s also very important that Nella is afraid of her so that she doesn’t try digging and discovering the secrets that they are all trying to keep – because if anyone finds out then their futures are ruined.
What was it like doing the scenes between Marin and Nella?
I loved working with Anya, she’s an incredibly accomplished actress. She’s got a difficult job in this, because Nella has to be very innocent at the beginning of the story, which is always difficult for an actor to play, and also more innocent that a woman of that age would be now. She’s constantly making discoveries, she doesn’t have the information that the rest of us do so she’s always learning new things, and she’s done that with real beauty and subtlety. I really enjoyed doing all our scenes together.
Tell us about Marin’s costume.
Marin only had one costume until a very late stage of the story. Her costume is typical of the puritan values of the period which rejected anything that smacked of luxury or louche values. They also didn’t wear make-up in this period at all, certainly not women of this class and station, and the hair was very simple and scraped back. Her head would have been covered at all times, so I had a black cap that I wore, but to be honest when I wore it I couldn’t really hear what anyone was saying and also talked incredibly loudly because I couldn’t hear myself, so essentially I was shouting at the other actors!
What makes The Miniaturist stand out from other period dramas?
I’ve done lots of historical pieces but there’s something very unusual about this. When you do contemporary novels set in the past the writers are able to do a lot more, and tackle complex themes which writers writing at the time weren’t able to do. More than that, it’s interesting in that it explores a number of different genres. It has elements of a thriller and then it becomes a family drama and then it becomes a polemic about what happens in societies that are so controlling.
I hope people will sit down to watch the show because it’s a pretty costume drama and will be surprised that it is actually rebellious and constantly bringing up important issues – and that they’ll be so engaged they won’t be able to look away.
Trust Me Interviews: Sharon Small
Interview with Sharon Small, who plays Dr. Brigitte McAdams in new three part psychological thriller Trust Me which airs this August on BBC One.
What attracted you to this project?
I liked the character and the premise of the piece – I don’t think we’ve seen this before. And everyone is like an armchair detective, everyone is an armchair actor or doctor, so I thought that people would get off on that and think, gosh what would I do in that circumstance? The audience are the people who are privy to the truth and not us. With my character, Brigitte, I like her neediness, her sassiness – she’s fun and quick-fire talking – and quite honestly I rather fancied myself as a doctor [laughs].
How would you describe your character?
Brigitte is a good person; she’s sassy and is a really good doctor. She has got some issues, but she is trying her best to run this ward and with great intentions, which I think a lot of NHS doctors are.
How did you prepare for the role?
I grew my hair so that I could tie it up – normally I have short hair. We had a fantastic medical training day with Dan and got to do airways and cannulas and stitching and things like that, I loved that. The most important thing for me was to go around the actual A&E department (or ED department as I now know it’s called) in Edinburgh. We met this fantastic doctor – just watching him and really getting to observe what goes on in a ward, the dynamic, what people do and noticing that people are always looking at folders, everyone’s always collaborating and talking to each other. Everyone is always moving around, a lot more than you think and not that quickly. It’s less dramatic than you think.
Is your character challenging to play?
She was. Similarly in something that Jodie mentioned, I had quite a lot of medical jargon to say quite quickly, but I had less of the procedural stuff to do in terms of operational things. As the character is more and more revealed I had to make sure that I took care of how that happened, and that it was subtly done.
What makes a hospital a good arena for a drama?
It’s an ever-changing landscape, a hospital. Every new sort of event that you’re presented with means that you’re having to make life-saving decisions. People’s lives really are at stake, and honestly, my little taste of pretending that I was an ED doctor made me feel quite powerful. If I could fix people so that they survived, that would be an amazing ability.
What are the biggest challenges that you have faced so far during filming?
Saying the medical words Metronidazole – Met-ron-ida-zole, Metron-i-dazole – and trying to make scrubs look even remotely interesting, I don’t rock scrubs like Jodie does, I’m way too curvy for that!
What do you hope audiences will take away from this drama?
I hope that they’ll find themselves in that dilemma of wanting Cath/Ally to succeed, because she’s a good person and she ironically is brilliant at the job. I’m hoping that they’ll see the dilemma that she has, and as you want her to keep succeeding, it means she’s going to keep compromising people as she goes, as well as herself.
Trust Me Interviews: Jodie Whittaker
Jodie Whittaker plays Cath in three part psychological thriller Trust Me which airs on BBC One this August.
What appealed to you about this project?
I was sent the script for the first episode and it fascinated me because it went in a completely different direction to how I thought it was going to. Particularly at the beginning when she’s suspended for whistleblowing and loses her job. It could have gone so many ways, and the fact that she takes on this new identity isn’t the way that I thought it would go. I love the fact that her choices are quite morally dubious – they certainly aren’t black and white. She makes decisions that are quite challenging to justify, even though we know her reasons. I’ve never acted in anything medical before, so it felt completely new.
How does Cath’s lie come about?
Cath starts off by having a conversation with her best friend, Ally, who is a middle grade doctor in A&E and is giving it all up to emigrate to New Zealand. Ally is packing up the life that Cath would have loved to have had, leaving it all behind to go and do something completely different. Suddenly there is an opportunity for her to take on the identity of her friend and in that panic, not necessarily the clearest thinking moment in her life, she does it. Once you set off on a path of lies it’s very difficult to undo it without bringing everything crashing down.
Did you receive any training on medical procedures?
Yes! The writer, Dan, who is also medical consultant and a doctor outside of TV production, showed us a load of stuff that he used when he was training people. He brought in the CPR dummy and showed us how to do a cannula and he, very bravely, let me put a cannula in his vein. I did it right, thank God! Also, YouTube is amazing. The genius of the internet is that you can basically sit at home and Google medical procedures, and TV shows such as 24 hours in A&E, which I watched hours of.
How else did you prepare for the role?
With regards to the technical stuff, we had an on-set consultant so that there was always someone to help when we had to do the procedures. The best thing for me was that my character was also out of her depth and didn’t always know what she was doing, so it kind of covered my own personal fumbles. I’m not someone who likes to over prepare for dialogue scenes, because I think that makes me not listen to what the other person is saying as I’ve already decided how I’m going to do it. It immediately makes it interesting and new and you can’t plan for that, which is great. You can’t ‘wing’ the medical stuff so I had to do my research for that. One of my friends is a Sister in A&E and I sent her a lot of messages asking ‘how do you pronounce this?’ and ‘what does that mean?’, so basically she was my personal medical coach even though she works full time!
Is it challenging playing someone who leads a double life?
Yes, but no more challenging that playing someone who has had something happen to them that I haven’t personally experienced. What’s hard is trying to gauge how good a liar she is, or how in a panic she is. You’ve got to be careful, because you can’t make the other actors seem stupid. These are intelligent, fully formed characters that you’re working with, so it was a fine line of being able to deceive and it not being something that comes easily to her. However, it can’t be that it makes everyone around her feel a bit like an idiot for not working it out. That was tricky, but the director is there to help guide you through it.
Did the uniform help to get you into character?
Yes. It feels odd when you put it on. I did five weeks of studio filming, back to back – all the medical stuff was contained so everything started to become a bit like second nature. The first few times I had to put on an apron, the ‘take’ ended up being about 15 minutes long. Then I worked out that you shouldn’t put the gloves on before the apron! There was lots of daft stuff like that, but you then get into a rhythm. It’s good because it makes you immediately feel like you look the part and then all I had to do was make sure that I knew the lines!
What were some of the challenges that you faced during filming?
I’m not very good with learning dialogue when there are lots of medical terms! I enjoy the adrenaline of being on set because I’m quite good at choreography, I respond well to being taught something physically. That’s why I was terrible at school, because they talk you through things rather than physically show you. I enjoyed doing the different types of surgery as it was fascinating, it’s nerve-wracking but you realise that you can do it. Also, the team who created the props put in so much hard work to make sure we didn’t mess up our bits. I struggled with having massive speeches that involved these medical words. I don’t have a brain for that!
Did you enjoy working in Scotland?
I absolutely loved Glasgow! The crew were phenomenal and the city is wonderful. I could move my family up there and we had a great time as there were loads of brilliant restaurants and everyone was lovely. It was brilliant and I would snap up another job there very quickly, although it does get very dark and cold over winter!
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