Eternal Law: Interview: Matthew Graham (Part 1)

In the first part of a major interview, Eternal Law co-creator Matthew Graham describes the genesis of the series and how it could quite easily have had a “Torchwood” vibe…

Set in York, Eternal Law focuses on two central characters: Zak (played by Sam West) and Tom (Ukweli Roach) who are “lawyers with a twist.” In reality they are angels, placed on Earth to do good. Their angelic credentials are hidden from public view, and are opposed by dark angel Richard Pembroke (Tobias Menzies), while being kept in line by the enigmatic Mrs Sheringham, played by Orla Brady…

How long has Eternal Law been in development?

It’s been around about as long as you would expect a show to be around and in development before it gets made. Most shows do take a couple of years to get off the ground, that’s not unusual, unless they’re from a very successful set of novels, and there’s a will to get them done.

This was a show that Ash and I pulled out of the ether, out of our heads, then found someone to develop it with, and then got ITV interested. Sometimes the BBC say they want to do an adaptation of Thomas Hardy, and Ashley says he’d love to do that, and then of course the will is there much quicker from everybody.

I think we first started talking about Eternal Law when we were doing series two of Ashes to Ashes, in 2008. It started with a conversation about angels, and Powell & Pressburger’s film A Matter of Life and Death, and how to find a way to do a show that has this big grandiose metaphysical fantasy element to it, but was warm and cosy and fun. Hopefully it wouldn’t take itself too seriously, but seriously enough for there to be real drama in there. Very quickly we felt like it would be a natural fit for ITV: they do heartfelt, heart on sleeve drama very well when they do it right. We thought it would be a great opportunity to work with them.

Just amongst ourselves, we started talking about characters. For Ash and I, the litmus test is, if we sit over a pint and discuss characters, do we start getting the giggles, and do we start laughing? Originally Zak was more grumpy, more portly, dare I say, a Peter Firth type thing going on in his head – a gone to seed cherub who drank and smoke…

The sort of character Timothy rather than Sam West would play?

That’s right! It’s a very good way of putting it. Then putting him with a wide-eyed innocent boy sounded like a lot of fun. Rather than take a pitch to anybody, we thought we’d take advantage of having our company, Monastic Productions; let’s establish this thing ourselves, and see whether or not it’s working.

So Ash went off and wrote an episode one script completely speculatively. We worked on that for a couple of passes, and for us it felt like a natural home to take it to Kudos. We have a really brilliant working relationship with them: they get us, we get them, and they’re very good at realising high concept ideas, and very good at interrogating high concept ideas.

Part of the problem we had with Bonekickers, for example, was that we rushed that into production off the back of a  lot of energy and enthusiasm, but not had time to interrogate the show properly and work out what sort of show it was going to be. We determined not to make that mistake with Eternal Law.

We told Kudos we were happy to have a long development time on this – we were still in the middle of making Ashes. We wanted to develop this at our own pace and try and get it right. That’s what we did. Ashley did quite a few redrafts of episode one, and then we were ploughing into series 3 of Ashes. We had to put Eternal Law on hold while we got Ashes out of our system; we knew series 3 was going to be the final one.

When Ashes was finished, we turned our full attention to Eternal Law. ITV were very enthusiastic from the off, but they were also very nervous. They were in a slightly different place then – they hadn’t had as many shows land as they hoped, and they weren’t quite sure what was going to work for them. Here we were with a show about angels. At the time, they were angels who were shagging a lot and sleeping together. It was all a bit more HBO. They were very concerned about some of those very extreme elements; were we asking too much of an ITV audience?

So we spent seven/eight months reworking Ash’s episode and talking it through with ITV until they said it was shaping up really well . It was solidifying in their minds and ours. It wasn’t just about us convincing them, it was about us going on the same journey as ITV, and learning what the show is. We showed it to [ITV boss] Peter Fincham and he really bought into it: he said it was really charming and really fresh, and something new for ITV. Let’s go for it.

How much is retained from the original draft in what was aired last week as the actual premiere?

A lot of it is. The premise, the set-up, Mrs Sheringham, Richard Pembroke: all of those survive from the early draft. It was more a tonal thing. Our original idea was that angels were bisexual to the point of non-sexual; they were all quite happy to sleep with anything. It was a slightly more Russell T Davies/Torchwood thing: it was a Captain Jack vibe. It was quite sexy, because Mrs Sheringham, Zak and Tom had a big bed they all slept in. It was fun and made us laugh. It wasn’t too explicit; it was all implied. But ITV said that was going to be too rich for their blood. Isn’t it enough that we’re buying into angels?

What we did want to keep was Zak as the bon viveur with the slightly cynical, grumpy eye, and Tom as the wide-eyed innocent. All of that remained.

Read our review of episode 1 hereepisode 2   and episode 3

In part two of the interview, Matthew Graham talks about the development of the characters.

Part three, posted next week, will look at Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes and Doctor Who.

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