The cast and creator of ITV’s Dark Heart open up about making the bleak detective drama…
Chris Lang is best known for creating Unforgotten, a drama that follows ordinary people making bad choices under terrible pressure, choices that are then investigated with care and empathy from a team who celebrate their ordinariness.
It’s been a huge success and will return for a fourth run in 2019. But for Lang’s new trick, he’s bringing us Dark Heart, which is a very, very different beast.
Da Vinci's Demons star Tom Riley leads the way in this bleak detective drama, which has been adapted by Lang from Adam Creed's series of books.
Riley stars as DI Will Wagstaffe; known to most people as 'Staffe', he's a troubled police detective and a very complex character.
He is haunted by the unresolved murder of his parents, which happened when he was 16 and which affects both his private and professional life including his on-off romance with sometimes girlfriend, his sister Juliette and young nephew Harry, who stays with him when Juliette has troubles with her sulky and sometimes violent boyfriend.
The show also has an all-star supporting cast with Charlotte Riley playing Wagstaffe’s sister Juliette, breakout Bodyguard star Anjli Mohindra portraying DC Josie Chancellor; a junior detective, and Miranda Raison playing Wagstaffe’s on/off girlfriend Sylvie.
The series is split into six parts, with the first two focusing on Wagstaffe leading the investigation into a serial killer who is targeting men accused of child sex offences.
Before the show hits TV screens, we spoke to Riley, Mohindra and Lang about the show’s unusual gestation and dark subject matter...
How did this show come together? And what got you involved?
Chris Lang: “I was offered the book, I read it and there were some things in it that really appealed to me, but I wanted to take the characters in my own direction and tell stories that were more personal to me. The subjects I wanted to touch are not in Adam’s books.”
Charlotte Riley: “I really like Chris’s writing and I always start with the script. This one just stood out. Also, the chance to play siblings is one you don’t get very often, and it’s a good challenge for an actor to play out that dynamic. The character’s trajectory looked pretty juicy.”
Anji Mohindra: “Chris’s scripts are always brilliant, especially the dialogue. You just feel like it’s all there and you just need to serve the scripts. They’ve got so much drive and rhythm to them. It was an easy decision.”
Chris, has Adam Creed been supportive of the move away from his books?
Chris: “He’s been lovely. His books have been re-published and I hope the series gives them a spike. The character is his and it always will be. He created his backstory and that’s a big driving force behind the series. I just take the character in a different direction. He’s been very supportive and he came along while we were filming. I know it’s a bit like giving your child over to someone else, that’s a tough thing, but I hope he’s happy.”
The show had an unusual gestation. You made it for ITV Encore and then didn’t go back to it. But now it’s back for a full series, can you talk us through that?
Chris: “It’s had a very long genesis, originally it was commissioned by the BBC over eight years ago. It didn’t get off the ground there, but people had always liked it. Then I made another show for ITV and somebody who had come over from the BBC asked about the script. She gave it to someone at ITV and it got commissioned for Encore, which was this strange channel which no longer exists. No one quite knew what it was.”
Anjli: “It’s been a strange process. But when you’re making such a bold and different crime drama, you might need to test it. After we did the first one, I didn’t hear anything for a couple of months so I’d said goodbye to it. But then I got a call to say they were doing it and I was delighted.”
Charlotte: “It was always made clear to us that they wanted to do more. We all hoped that it’d get another life. But it’s the same team again, same actors, same director, you just have to leap back in with two feet.”
The first episode has been re-edited from its time on ITV Encore, has much work been done?
Chris: “It was made as a stand-alone single film for a quiet, esoteric channel. They told us to go away and do what we want with it, on the understanding that it wasn’t going to be under the full glare of primetime on ITV. We had a lot of fun with that. Then it got picked up as a series and we knew it would have to be re-edited. We had to pull out stuff that’s not meant for an audience watching at 9pm on ITV1.”
Anjli: “It was on ITV Encore and nobody I knew had it. Unless you were one of those people who were good at getting free trials and then cancelling them very quickly! A few of my family saw it, but not many and I was quite upset that so few people got to see it. Even I didn’t get to see it.”
What was it about Tom Riley that made you choose him for the lead? And what was he like to work with?
Chris: “He’s an exceptionally charismatic and talented actor and you’ll see him develop as the show goes on. I saw him in theatre and I saw what a great craftsman he is. He’s in complete control. He had plenty of thoughts on the character and was always asking questions about where we could take him.”
Charlotte: “I was really glad we were finally able to work together. I’d always wanted to work with him and it’s a really interesting relationship to explore.”
Anji: “He was great. I felt like his young sister during filming, he was kind and nurturing. Wagstaffe has this instinct that you just cannot train and my character Josie just doesn’t have that. With that kind of confidence comes a messy life and disregard for the ways thing are done. Her job is to keep him on the straight and narrow. Tom is brilliant at giving characters so much depth and giving well-rounded performances. He was a laugh in between takes too, which is needed on a series like this one.”
The subject matter is very dark, especially for a mainstream drama...
Chris: “When it was on Encore, it didn’t matter. They wanted something shouty and that made noise, the extremes were encouraged. It’s got quite a graphic opening scene, but it’s not terribly violent, the violence is more suggested at. It’s not an explicit show.”
Charlotte: “I don’t get sent a lot of violent scripts and I do have a threshold about what I can watch. The drama has to be compelling enough to match the violence, sometimes you can’t have one without the other.”
Anji: “You’ve got to find the right balance. There’s a lot of extreme violence on TV already and you’ve got to find the right mix to drive the drama and up the stakes.”
Did you want to stir up debate with some of the storylines? There’s vigilante justice, extreme poverty, domestic violence, lots of big talking points...
Chris: “I wanted to be provocative. Vigilante justice brings a lot of high emotions out of people and a lot of strong opinions. The other stories are about online pornography and the underclass in London and extracting yourself from poverty. These are highly contentious subjects and I don’t offer up any answers, we just ask questions."
Charlotte: “I don’t know if my character would perceive it as domestic violence. She’d think she was in a very intense, passionate relationship and that’s how she sorts things out. The violence is off-screen and you can’t bring everything to every scene. You have to be able to research and look into to play the character and decide how to use it. But it is a big issue and it’s handled sensitively.”
Finally, have you turned your attention to a second series of Dark Heart?
Chris: “Discussions have been had and we’d very much like to. But it’s all about the audience. If they come to it, then we’ll go again. It’s designed to be a returnable series, but we won’t know until we’re three weeks into the run. That’s how it should be. The audience will tell you if you’ve landed.”
Charlotte: “So many jobs are so transient and it’s been great working with this team. Chris is a great writer, always available, always open to new ideas and anything we wanted to shift. I’d love to work with them again and see where we could take these characters.”
Anji: “I think there’s so much more to explore, especially with what happened with Staffe’s family. I’d love to come back and do more.”
Dark Heart starts on ITV tonight (October 31st) and will be released on DVD on November 26th.