How did Pilgrim come about?
For a long time I’d wanted to do something with the incredible wealth of folk stories in the British Isles. If you go to Ireland or Scotland or Wales, they get very well repeated but in England, it doesn’t happen as much, and they seem to be a little under the radar. I was fascinated by the fact that almost every single corner of these isles has got a story, there’s some happening or going on. For years, I couldn’t think of a way to tell these stories because obviously they’re not complete stories in themselves – often they’re just fragments, incidents or things that might have happened.
I went to a conference about something completely non-connected to that and I had an idea there about a latter-day pilgrim… and as that came into my head, I went “Pilgrim…” and the proverbial lightbulb went on, and I saw a way to connect the stories with a character who could, as it were, move through them. After that everything fell into place and I knew I had the genesis of the idea.
So you’ve added your own folk tale!
(laughs) Yes, I’ve rather cheekily added my own folk tale. Of course, there’s a long tradition of immortal wanderers, lost souls wandering about, so he’s definitely in that tradition but the idea of the pilgrim himself, that’s all me.
How long did it take from the “lightbulb” to the first episode going out on Radio 4?
About 18 months. I had the idea and pitched it. We were commissioned to come up with the first draft of the first play, so I did that, and then the first four were commissioned quite soon after that.
As the series has progressed, the serial elements have increased…
That’s definitely the case.
Was that a conscious choice or just the way the characters unfolded?
It’s really the way the story evolved, and with this final series, we wanted to look a bit at the myth of Pilgrim that I’ve created, as it were. Over the years, I’ve never really gone into his background too much, where he’s come from. I’ve liked to keep him quite a mysterious figure and people project quite a lot into him. But there have been questions about who is he, where is he going from here…
I was interested in some of the folk that we’ve created and the larger mythology of the Greyfolk and his relationship with the King, and his relationship with the world around him and the people that he’s helped. There were characters that we liked and felt it would be nice to meet them again, rather than constantly reinventing characters. I thought for the final series as it stands we would bring some of those people back, so inevitably a serial element started to evolve.
But each play is pretty much an individual standalone. They’re all in very different places.
You’ve brought him very much in contact with the 21st century world, but you also brought him into Home Front, the First World War series…
That was [producer] Jessica [Dromgoole]’s idea really – but it was a brilliant one.
Was it different writing him 100 years younger?
No, because Pilgrim is Pilgrim. That’s the curse and the joy of him. He’s always Pilgrim, so he is the same Pilgrim in 1914 as in 2016. He doesn’t look any different. He doesn’t sound any different.
Does he not learn?
Yes, he learns, but his appearance in Home Front was so brief – it was an Easter egg, it wasn’t like he had a fully-fledged storyline or anything like that. That would have been difficult and would have made Home Front a different programme, and none of us wanted to do that.
It’s short and sweet – he turns up as a friend of the father of one of the child characters in it. She sees him on the street and tells him to hurry home before the blackout and the girl says to him, “Will you find your way in the dark, Mr Palmer?” He says, “Always.” For those who knew it was, that would be a pleasing thing; for those who didn’t, or didn’t care, it was just a passer-by on the street.
Was there ever a temptation to feed that into the main series – the little child was the grandmother or great-grandmother of somebody?
Yes, I thought about it, and then thought it was pushing it too far. It might happen – never say never – but I thought it was probably better to leave that just as it was as a tiny moment in time.
Have you ever considered a flashback episode?
There is something in season 7, but I don’t want to spoil it…
This is the last season; why’s it coming to an end?
We never knew we were going to keep being commissioned to do it. I always said it can’t end on an even number, a 2, a 4 or a 6 because it’s Pilgrim and it can’t; it could be 3, 5 or 7, and 7 felt like a proper number to round things off. In some ways I don’t think I’ve quite accepted that I’m not doing it but there was no kind of “we’ve got to end now”, it was more “maybe it’s time to give him a breather”. Seven series is a proper body of work…
But he doesn’t die. We’ve not closed every door on ever seeing William Palmer again – but more than that I don’t know.
I saw Paul Hilton in an episode of Grantchester, and once I’d realised why his voice was so familiar, I thought that he looked the way I imagine Palmer to be… has there ever been a move to try to take the series to the screen?
Oh my goodness, I’ve had that conversation many times over the years. People are interested in it and it’s got a lot of fans in TV and film. There’s no embargo on it happening, but it’s not happened yet – or ever. Who knows?
Are all the incidents in the series derived from something established?
Yes, pretty much. The DNA of most of the stories are in those folk stories: they can be as brief as the one that comes to mind immediately, a play in series 3 about a man who turns into a hare [Sookey Hill – series 3, episode 2]. That came from a two-line legend outside of Cirencester, which said, “A witch lived here and she turned a man into a hare.” That’s it, that’s all that there is. I remember thinking it was interesting: that was all it was, but it has a root in that. The episode I think was set in the West Country and the Cotswolds.
There are endless stories about spirits in pools, mines, people you don’t talk to. There’s always an element of either an event that has taken place in an ancient place, or a story associated with it.
What’s the attraction to you of the folklore?
Goodness… The attraction to me of it is…
That it triggers plotlines and ideas in your own mind?
No, that’s the last thing that attracts me to it! As a cultural phenomenon, I think it’s intoxicating.
As a writer I’m always drawn to the sense that numerous realities can exist all the time, and the layers of our culture and our being are all around us in those places. What was a housing estate or a Tesco’s might once have had a story, or have a depth to it, particularly in a country as old and as rich in story and those kind of traditions as this one.
I felt connected to it… I hesitate to use the word “romantic” but there’s definitely a deep magnetic pull I’ve always felt to those kind of lost, remote places, both in the modern and the ancient world. The sense that other things happened there other than the things that we are accustomed to in our everyday lives.
Yes, Romantic. The traditions that I want to use with it are the ones with a sense of the irrational, the absurd in it, that sense that this world is not as certain as we think it is, or as rational as we think it is. Those stories seem to tell us those things, a nod towards that which we can’t understand, that which we can’t explain, that which we can’t easily dismiss yet somehow form some kind of cultural drone behind the one we live in.
“More things in heaven and earth than are thought on in your philosophy…”
You’ve worked with Marc Beeby as producer/director on the whole series…
He’s been my loyal and constant companion throughout this adventure.
How did it work between you?
Very much in the traditional way that it does in radio, and, I guess, in theatre. I’d have a rough idea of an arc of some sort, but very loose, so the individual stories could always be the thing, with a kind of mumbling serial at the back of the drama, rather than all being on the front foot. The idea was always presenting each of those stories in as clear and as exciting a way as we could. That was always our mutual goal.
He throughout the seven series, and Jessica for the first five, were the best midwives I could have hoped to have. Sometimes it would get too much for me, and they are always extremely helpful with advice and guidance, which has been invaluable to me throughout the process. I think of it very much as a team effort.
The casting of Paul Hilton as Palmer – how did that come about?
I think that was Marc. I think he had worked with Paul Hilton in The Brothers Karamazov, and thought he would be a good William Palmer. As he indeed proved to be.
Have you found yourself hearing his voice when you’re writing – and has there been anything about that that has changed Palmer (as much as Palmer can change)…?
He does change. It’s not that he doesn’t change. His soul doesn’t change. He’s changed throughout the series. He’s slightly given up his quest for death and certainly he’s been hardened by betrayal, and the very real human experiences that he needs to keep having.
Somebody said to me quite perceptively about Pilgrim is that unlike a lot of other of those kinds of heroes, he’s not driven by revenge. He’s driven by a need to accommodate the burden of his existence – that sounds very grandiose! That’s what he’s trying to do. He’s not trying to find the King of the Greyfolk and pull his head off.
Yes, in a way to justify his ongoing-ness. This actually forms very much part of the fabric of the seventh series. One of the themes of it is remembering, not forgetting, and that seems to me to be how he maintains a sense of who he is, by not forgetting who he is – whereas it would be probably easier to not remember much about who you were if you had his set of challenges, but he chooses to remember, he chooses to remain his own humanity. It was very important as a theme to it for him to maintain. I was always very keen that Palmer wouldn’t be a victim of his curse.
He owns it in that sense…
Yes, he owns it or tries to own it. Perhaps, as some of the characters have said to him, he protests too much and he quite like being Pilgrim. There’s a particular kind of insight that only a character like him could possibly have.
He does seem to enjoy the fact that he’s able to do this because nobody else can…
Yes, he does sort of dig it!
Pilgrim series 7 can be heard on Radio 4 from 29/2-4/3 at 2.15 pm and thereafter on iPlayer
Series 1-6 are currently available on iPlayer.
Series 1-4 will be released by BBC Physical Audio in June.
Thanks to Harriet Murdoch for her help in organising this interview