Michael Palin returns to BBC in an acting capacity for the first time in 20 years in Remember Me, a 3 part ghost story that begins on 23 November. It seems that one of the big attractions to the role was that he was much younger than his on-screen character.
“I was immediately attracted by the prospect of playing quite a challenging and central role in a very good drama. But normally you might get anxious about being an old person playing someone much younger so it was rather nice to be an old person playing someone even older!” laughs Michael.
“Tom’s age is an intriguing element of the whole story and although he is very old he has somehow been preserved and that is part of the tension and mystery.”
There were, in fact, many elements that drew Michael to the drama written by Gwyneth Hughes.
“I felt very comfortable reading the script; it was well written, very assured and the drama develops well. It was a mixture of a ghost story with elements of the past but very firmly set in contemporary Yorkshire and I like the fact that it has this strong backbone to it about life and problems for people growing up in Yorkshire nowadays. The fact it is set up in Yorkshire intrigued me because that is where I come from and I thought it would be nice to go back there and do some filming.”
Much of the drama is filmed in Scarborough but Michael explains: “I had no links to Scarborough, in fact I’d only been once in my lifetime when I was quite small, but it was a revelation. It is a fine town in a marvellous location and I loved my time there. I enjoyed the shoot terrifically and we were very lucky because we had a period of quite good weather when the rest of the country was being swept by terrible storms in February. So we were up in Yorkshire basking in the sunshine hearing about sea walls being broken apart in the south – such a reversal of what usually goes on but very fortunate for us.”
Talking about his character, Michael says: “Tom is a really original creation. It is very hard to compare him to any other characters seen recently in drama, partly because of the extraordinary upbringing he’s had which is the mystery of this drama; why is this very old guy still around?
“He’s rather like somebody who has been preserved in a shell for decades and suddenly breaks out. So in a way Tom is a rather immature man, even though he is over 80 he has not seen much of the world. Because of this extraordinary relationship with his Ayah he has been protected and when he does come out he is like a little boy, the way he looks up at the sky or opens the car windows as he is driving along just to take gulps of fresh air. In a way you feel this man has at last got away from something that has trapped him and imprisoned him for so long but at the same time he isn’t prepared for the world, he doesn’t know how it works which makes his reactions sometime very odd and strange. Sometimes he appears quite rude, at other times funny or quite endearing.
“For Tom it is like he has been living in a dark basement, metaphorically, and here he is in the sun light after a long, long time wanting everything to be suddenly different. The great skill of the story is that his background has not left him, the tentacles of his past are still there which reveals him to be a tragic figure. The story reveals some nasty things he has done in his life but, by the end, one has a certain grudging sympathy for him flailing about in a morass of a past he can’t step clear of.”
Of course Michael had a few challenges to face up to in his return to acting.
“The main thing I was worried about is that I hadn’t acted in a series for a while so learning the lines, getting on top of the part; I was worried about all those things. Fortunately I was blessed with having Ashley Pearce as director. He was superb and we got on from the beginning. I felt he was somebody who really listened and who guided me through but let me feel my way into the part.
“The other challenge was how do I look 80 or even 100. We decided it was not going to be right to put on lots of prosthetic make up, best to use what was already there and accentuate some of the wrinkles already gathering and play the rest of the aging process from within. I was worried would I look old enough or just like Michael Palin with lines on his face but I think in the end the combination of good make up, layering up the right clothes and really feeling like an old man might. That’s a challenge I enjoyed, I would start shuffling along and feeling how I thought Tom would feel at the time. And I had a memory of my dad in his baggy layers so I could empathise.”
Explaining Tom’s relationships with other characters in the drama, Michael continues: “The relationships he has with various women in the story, especially Hannah (Jodie Comer), are quite intriguing. They start by thinking he is a weird old man, then get interested and end up feeling quite protective of him.
“His life has been dominated by this ghostly figure who has probably frightened him and kept him under her control whereas Hannah is bright, fresh and honest, open and sparky and he just loves that. He sees a spirit in her and she in him which they both benefit from. Hannah is having a terrible time in her own life and it’s a really touching relationship where both sides help each other and, despite the fact that he shouts at her, she becomes quite protective of Tom and that creates complications for her as well… it’s a complex set of emotions going on.
“And Rob, the policeman (Mark Addy) who is investigating the death of Tom’s social worker, is also having a terribly hard time in his life. He’s the bluff policeman not having any nonsense, not having anything to do with the supernatural but he gets drawn in as well and I think it’s Gwyneth’s skill that she manages to make all this believable.”
The question we really have to ask though, given that this is a ghost story, does Michael believe in ghosts.
“I used to read lots of ghost stories when I was young, I absolutely loved them but now I have to say most of them terrify me. I’ve never had a psychic experience or seen a ghost but there are moments in your life when something happens; either an extraordinary coincidence that takes your breath away or there is a creak on the stairs in the darkness of the house at night and your imagination goes to work…
“I do think there is a strong area of our own imagination where we respond to what I imagine are perfectly explicable, natural circumstances with supernatural explanation. Who knows, maybe there is such a thing. I wouldn’t close any doors but I’ve not seen it myself.”
Remember Me Begins On BBC-1 23 November 2014.
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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