The new BBC2 drama ‘Murder’, which screens later this month, is already getting rave previews. It has been co-created by Robert Jones and Kath Mattock, the writer/producer team behind the BAFTA award-winning series ‘Buried’ for Channel 4, who first worked together on ‘Cops’ for the BBC.
It also marks the UK debut of Birger Larsen (The Killing).
“Sisters Coleen (Karla Crome) and Erin (Lara Rossi) have an intense and volatile relationship. All they have is each other. They meet Stefan (Joe Dempsie) who is passing through town, and hours later one of them is dead. All we have to go on is what the two survivors tell us. Who did it? And why?
Using personal testimony, Murder revisits the missing moments in search of the truth. Intercut with CCTV footage, flashback and forensic evidence, the protagonists speak direct to camera giving their version of events, one after the other. Although Murder never enters the courtroom, it uses the same principle: the protagonists get to tell their story, and we get to judge who and what we believe. From the accused to the witness, from Defence QC Arlo Raglin (Stephen Dillane) to D.I. Sheehy (Robert Pugh) – the story grips tight and never lets go. But where does the truth lie when the different versions don’t add up?”
As Birger Larsen commented: “I can say without exaggeration that it was the best script I have seen since The Killing. I was attracted to the fact that it’s written in such a way that the actors talk direct to camera. It feels original and intimate. You’re drawn into their world – you see it through their eyes.”
BBC Executive Producer, Matthew Read, comments: “Robert Jones has found a really fresh and innovative way of telling crime stories and in doing so has created a unique format. It is a testament to the strength of his script that such a strong team has been brought together both in front of and behind the camera.”
The cast includes rising star Karla Crome (Hit and Miss), and Lara Rossi (Tender Napalm) as sisters Coleen and Erin Lowell, Joe Dempsie (Skins) as Stefan, Stephen Dillane (The Hours, Game of Thrones) as Defence QC Arlo Raglin, Robert Pugh (Justice, Game of Thrones) as D.I Sheehy, Lauren Socha (Misfits) as Deena, Kate Donnelly (Buried) as the pathologist and newcomer Darren Campbell as Coleen’s boyfriend, Heskett Jupp.
Sally Brockway has been talking to Robert Jones to get the inside story on how the script came about.
This in depth interview is a Screenwriting Goldmine exclusive.
Sally Brockway: At the press conference you and Kath (Mattock) were saying how you began by going to the Old Bailey to sit up in the gallery and watch people as they came and told their stories. Why were you at the Old Bailey? Had you decided to do something about murder and were you in the process of researching?
Robert Jones: Yes we had been talking to the BBC about doing something. We were proposing a legal series, quite what it was going to be was left more or less in the dark. But I think the idea of seeing what happened at the end was there quite early on; seeing a revelatory scene. And then we thought we’ll just start from scratch. We’ll go to a court, see what it’s like, because I think sometimes you have a fantasy. You know these things from films and TV and books and so on, and it always surprises you when you go back to basics. And I think it was only after watching a lot of cases over a lot of weeks we had the idea that you could actually do it as talking heads. And even then I think we thought we’d do maybe up to the trial as drama and then post-trial as talking heads, and then a revelatory scene at the end.
SB: I take it that all those weeks of going to the Old Bailey and listening to people were very valuable, ?
RJ: I’d recommend it to anybody; it’s absolutely fascinating whoever you are, and very chastening. It’s very interesting on all sorts of levels about human nature and about the nature of justice and custody.
There was a guy who used to sit in court doing a puzzle magazine. He was only there to make sure they didn’t run away from the dock, but I suppose he’d just heard it all before so he’d just sit there doing a puzzle magazine while the trial was going on and it was perfectly acceptable.
Whereas I was just hanging on every detail: who has phoned who when and they took the battery out, and so on, all that incredible detail. And it goes on for pages and is highlighted in different colors because people tend to take the battery out of their phone if they’re premeditating a crime, and sometimes they swap phones. It’s incredibly detailed. And some people come into the court and they’ll walk out again 5 minutes later because it’s exceedingly dull and such a lot rests on such tiny pieces of information, but I thought that [level of detail] was fascinating.
SB: So that’s where the idea was created? I think Kath mentioned that she was interested in this idea that you hear someone tell their side of the story and you think, ‘Yup, yup, oh that’s how it is.’ And then someone else comes in and you go, ‘Oh my goodness!’ and it keeps changing as people keep giving their versions. Is that what spawned the idea?
RJ: Yes, and not just other people but the same person. If you saw them with the supporting counsel, their counsel – the defense counsel if it’s the defendant or the prosecution – and they seem really plausible and you think, ‘ah we’ve really got there now.’ And the same afternoon they’ll have their opposing counsel and their story will be torn to shreds.
And also there was a moment where there was a guy who had been tracked using his phone, and been seen, and the barrister kept saying to him, ‘So that’s a coincidence that somebody saw someone exactly like you on the train? And your phone which you had been stolen was also on the train?’
And he kept saying, ‘Yes, it is. It’s a terrible coincidence.’
And you’re thinking, ‘Well, it’s obviously a lie.’ But then part of you thought, ‘Maybe it is a terrible coincidence?’ And you don’t know. You just don’t know.
SB: So you’ve been to the Old Bailey. You’ve thought of this great idea of telling the story, so what’s the idea that you came up with? How did you take the character, from someone you’ve seen? How did you come up with these two sisters? How did they form in your head?
RJ: I think they just popped in from nowhere. I had seen a case involving two brothers but a very different case. The idea of a family link seemed interesting and it’s obviously very easy in terms of identifying the characters for the audience; a family link is very straightforward. There’s only one other character in this episode, a sort of investigator and the lawyer, so it made it quite simple given that we’re asking quite a lot of the audience in the first place.
So, yes, they came along. So the idea itself is quite an interesting one. But how do you construct it? And I think the BBC were very interested and I was very interested. But having pitched it successfully in two or three sentences I then was faced with the dilemma of how exactly to go about it.
SB: How did you pitch it?
RJ: I think we just said something like, ‘We want do a legal drama where you only see the case from the POV of the protagonists talking to the camera.’ It’s not meant to be a documentary, it’s meant to be they’re giving what they want to say. Who they’re talking to or whatever is a moot point. It’s not a fly-on-the-wall documentary. It’s them giving their version of what happened around the time of that murder and how that affects them. It might be pertinent to the case, it might not be. There are quite a few things in there about their lives rather than about the case. And I think the BBC were intrigued by that, the idea of people talking straight to camera. It works occasionally. It worked with Alan Bennett, it worked with Marion and Geoff. So it can work. What hadn’t been done was just telling a more complex story through a number of talking heads
And normally when I write a script I write a very, very detailed storyline. That’s what takes me forever. But on this I didn’t do. I just went straight to trying to tell the story. Because it was so fragmented in my head I just allowed the characters to tell the story and it seemed to work like that.
SB: That’s quite interesting to me. So you normally do a very detailed storyline, now you’re saying this time you didn’t. So you know how you’re going to tell the story, you’ve got the idea that you’ve got these two sisters. I want to know how you put that whole thing together. Because it looks so complicated and I’m thinking surely you couldn’t just do that in your head.
RJ: I think you would if you tried to plan it. I think that’s why I didn’t try to plan it because you would go insane because the storyline would be the same as the script. Because, as you know, the scenes are tiny, quite often they’re just a line, and then you cut to something else. So you couldn’t really storyline it without it almost being the same as the script. So I just thought I’d start and I started with, probably, as it starts now with Coleen in the bathroom describing what she says happened.
SB: So it starts at the point there has been a murder.
RJ: Yes, there’s been a murder and she’s terrified and that she’s hiding from the killer in the bathroom waiting for the police, or perhaps when we see her the police are there and she’s still in there. I just thought I’d start with her voice. She’s the main character. And then see what the story demanded next. And, oddly enough to my surprise, as I’m so fastidious on storyline generally, it just sort of came along and I thought, well next you should have him, and next you should have her, and next you should have a bit of CCTV and then you might have the evidence shots. And obviously in conjunction with Kath with each draft we’d think, ‘well I’d certainly want to give more evidence there,’ or ‘this could happen,’ or ‘that could happen’ and essentially the story was told through those fragments. More or less what you see.
SB: Hadn’t you in your head worked out the arc of it? Because the interesting thing about the way you told the story was that one minute you’d have us thinking one thing and the next minute you give us a little bit of information which changes our opinion, which is very clever. And we go down another path and then you turn sharp right again. I felt manipulated but I didn’t know I was being manipulated.
RJ: There were lots of drafts, which were the real finessing of the twists and bends. I think the story told itself, the story hadn’t changed from Draft 1, I think, but the finessing of how we tell the story. Kath is fantastic in that respect; she is a very creative producer. We just sit down and do a draft and then she reads it and then we’d talk all day and realize suddenly. It’s one of those things where you have to do the draft, you can’t get it in advance, and as soon as you finish it you think, ‘I know where the twist should be, a little turn there.’ But you have to do it. Because it’s people talking they seemed to demand their say in a way that, with drama, you can say, ‘Well if we cut a scene in now. If someone come in and laughs at them then that will go exactly where I want it to go.’ You don’t have that choice. You have to give them their voice all the time and it’s a very laborious process. Once you’ve got the drafts down those finessing, those twists and turns, the clarifications of the story does take quite a long time.
SB: So how long did it take to write?
RJ: I think probably the first draft, which is totally off the top of my head thinking, probably took 3 weeks. And then there might have been a dozen subsequent drafts, maybe even more.
SB: So that 3 weeks, you were just going for it and seeing what happens?
SB: Were you quite pleased with that first draft?
RJ: Yes. I thought, ‘That’s interesting.’ And the reaction I got from Kath was really supportive. We knew we were on to something; because she was over the moon about it. And obviously we did 11 more drafts.
SB: 11 more drafts?
RJ: I think there were about 12 drafts all together, there might even have been more. Something in that first draft really hit her. I think just the fact that it was obvious from the first draft that it could be done. With the right director it could be done. And that hadn’t been at all clear before.
SB: What was missing from that first draft? What did you have to put in and how? How has it changed?
RJ: I’d have to go back and look at it but, from memory, I think what you got was slightly more amorphous. In fact they were written as two half-hours. The BBC were commissioning 30 minutes to go before Newsnight and it was going to be in two parts: Tuesday and Thursday so you could imagine the court case had happened on the Wednesday. So they started off as two half hours and that made them seem like a slightly less daunting prospect to begin with. They were always written together but they were two half hours. I would say they were just that much more amorphous.
I don’t think there are any significant speeches that weren’t there the first time but they might have all been in the wrong order. You can change the order so much on this thing and it makes a huge difference. And we did that with the editor as well. The editor, Jacob, is an amazing contributor and has made an amazing contribution to the whole project.
I’d say that the first draft was maybe a bit too much, like life where it’s not refined enough to tell a story right. It was all slightly on top of itself and the subsequent drafts were drawing it out and feeding the storylines into more manageable conglomerations, so you’d have more, perhaps, one person altogether in places and not keep cutting away to others. So that was probably the main difference. Just clarifying, clarifying, clarifying and finessing and maybe finding another twist or turn here.
I think one of the twists and turns was the thing at the end where there’s a sudden shift in a character who hadn’t revealed that he was near the site in a murder scene reveals that he was – without to give anything away.
SB: No I don’t want to give anything away. I remember that bit well.
RJ: So things like that would suddenly crop up. Does that explain it?
SB: Yes it does. Have you ever done anything like this before with a series of monologues? Or is this the first time you’ve done anything this crazy?
RJ: No I hadn’t and yes it is crazy. If I had known at the time how mad it was I probably wouldn’t have embarked on it. As I said it was one of those pitches that looks easy but the execution was hard.