Midwinter of the Spirit: Interview: Phil Collinson

Phil 2Former Doctor Who and Coronation Street producer Phil Collinson is at the helm of Midwinter of the Spirit, Stephen Volk’s adaptation of Phil Rickman’s novel currently running on ITV, starring Anna Maxwell Martin as deliverance minister Merrily Watkins Shortly before the first episode aired, he spoke with Paul Simpson…

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What was it about the way Stephen Volk pitched his adaptation of the books that grabbed you?

I’ve wanted to work with Stephen for a long, long time. Afterlife is just one of my favourite TV dramas. I think it should have run for ten years; it was absolutely criminal that it was cancelled after only two, but then again, it’s entered that hallowed place – the show where not enough episodes were made and it leaves you hungry for more. I think that’s not necessarily a bad thing sometimes.

With Afterlife, Stephen managed to deliver a brilliantly scary thriller that was unlike anything else on British television at the time, but at the heart of it was such a humanity and the wonderful characterisation that meant a very big broad audience was able to come to that show. Sometimes that horror genre can put people off and hold its audience at arms’ length. Stephen’s writing is real and believable and he always make to make it not hokey, and really accessible. He is such a superb writer; I think he’s done a lovely job of this.

Phil 5In the first instance when we were looking for someone for these books, we weren’t sure where we were going to pitch them. But we knew we wanted it to appeal not as a genre piece, but as something that could appeal to a broad audience, so he was the obvious choice really. We did talk to a couple of other people but as soon as we met him really there was never anyone else in the frame.

He just talked about Merrily, our central character who is an exorcist. You can pick the books up and have a take on it that they’re about what she does as a job, and the paranormal, which obviously excited Stephen. But he was just as excited about her relationship with her daughter, the agony she has over her failed marriage and what responsibility she has for that, how she feels about being new in this parish, and the angst of being a woman in a man’s world – all those things that are universal in their appeal to a drama audience he latched onto.

Obviously we knew his horror credentials are second to none, but it needed to be more than that, this show. That’s what he offered us, a two-pronged approach: he’s written that mother/daughter relationship so beautifully and he’s delivered a heroine in the middle of it who is really complex and complicated in the best tradition of the ITV heroines. I think Merrily is going to be up there with Jane Tennison, [the characters played by] Sofie Gråbøl – a really rounded female protagonist. Obviously she’s there in the book but it’s no mean feat to adapt it for television.

If you’re not careful it becomes Akenfield or The Vicar of Dibley with ghosts.

Exactly, and I think it needs to be more than that. Merrily has to be a very modern heroine, she has to live in the modern world. I think Phil does that with the stories very deliberately: they’re not safe and comfortable. They’re about the dark side of life, and I think the audience is fascinated with that grey area. None of us likes to imagine that death is the end, for a million different reasons. I think he taps into that in the books – yet some of the books are fifteen, eighteen years old now.

The big challenge for us has to be: how do we make them resonate for a modern audience, at a time when faith and people’s belief systems are as much part of our society and our culture now as they ever were? People have talked for ages that religion is dying out, no-one’s going to church – but it’s not, churches are still full. There are many faiths now – we’re a multi-faith society and I think it’s as complex and interesting as it ever was.

I think it’s a great time now for picking something like this up and having another look at it. Obviously a big preoccupation with this show, and the ones that follow, is faith and belief systems and the church. At the heart of this first story is a bishop who’s trying to modernise his diocese and trying to look at how to remain relevant. I think that’s really interesting as a subject for a drama because we’re all a bit interested in faith. No matter who you are, and however much an atheist you are, I think your atheism is as rooted in a belief as somebody else’s faith is.

Obviously there’s a fine line to tread with this kind of material, if you’re trying to make it appeal to a broad audience. You’ve got to tell a cracking story and scare them a bit, but not scare them too much, and in the middle of it make sure there’s a person that you’ve got to be rooting for really quite strongly, and not scare people just for the sake of it. I think it’s been a really interesting journey.

What were the particular challenges of this production for you? Obviously it’s a big drama, children involved, horror elements…

It is a big production. We’re a Manchester-based production unit and the books are set on the borders. Obviously we were keen to use a Manchester based team – that’s the point of us, to promote film making in the region – but at the heart of this is Herefordshire, so obviously we were making this at a distance: we did a big location shoot in Herefordshire.

phil 4There were big set pieces in each of the episodes. The whole thing was on location, and it’s a big logistical beast to move a film unit around like that, but obviously we knew we needed those big pictures for a full blooded drama.

The biggest challenge is the final episode of the show, set in Hereford Cathedral. We had to be very sensitive to the church and what they would want us to do. There was a bit of discussion about that, how we would shoot it. We ended up doing a week in Chester Cathedral, which was a huge place to shoot and light, but I think it looks amazing on screen.

Did you have to tone down any elements because you were shooting in a sacred building?

No, the church, Chester particularly, was fantastic. We filmed in various churches in Herefordshire as well and they all sort of recognised that the church comes out of it really rather well.

Merrily is representative of the organised faith but she’s an Everywoman who questions that faith all the time, questions its relevance, questions what she’s saying and what she believes all the time but in the end is a good person, and is a moral person who is the centre of these shows. They were clever enough to realise that whatever journey she goes on, whatever dark place we stray into, there’s no point hiding that bad things happen, that bad people are out there, and that there are dark forces in all kinds of different guises. They were great about realising that and also realising that they come out of this rather well.

Let’s talk about the casting: what was the process for bringing Anna Maxwell Martin on board?

Myself and [director] Richard Clark went to meet Anna for a coffee in London. She’d read the scripts and got very excited, and was very keen to do it. ITV were very keen on Anna – most recently she’d been in The Bletchley Circle, a very popular ITV show.

It was a marriage made in heaven really – she’s perfect to play that part. She’s just wonderful, there’s absolutely no doubt about her acting chops and her ability to appeal to a big audience as well. I think there’s an innate sympathy about her and yet a complexity bubbling under the surface about every character she brings to the screen. She’s wonderful in this, everything we would hope, and by the end of the story – which is obviously the first of what we hope will be many adaptations – you’re left wanting to know more about that character, which is brilliant. It’s what you always hope will happen, that the character will spark an interest. I hope it will for a big audience as well because she certainly has for everyone who’s seen it so far.

APhil 3nd a new actress playing Jane…

Yes, Sally Messham, it’s her first job out of RADA. We had brilliant casting people, VHJ, who did a wonderful job who pulled in some wonderful actors. Jane is 15 so we were obviously looking for a younger actress and they found Sally who is uncannily like Anna in many ways. There’s a physical resemblance but you really believe they’re mother and daughter. It’s a relationship that’s at the heart of the books and at the heart of this first story, because it’s a very modern relationship between a single mother and daughter. It really helps to make the show feels like it belongs now in 2015, not back in 1999 when it was written.

We needed a really special actress, and we saw quite a lot of new actresses for that part, but the minute we saw Sally, we were completely convinced she could do it. She brings a complete freshness to it, a wide-eyed openness that was amazing to watch on the set. Obviously she works a lot with Siobhan Finneran and with Anna, and with those two brilliantly consummately professional actresses she had a wonderful lesson in how to do it.

Phil 1David Threlfall is playing Yoda – Huw Owen, born to Welsh parentage but raised in Yorkshire. Brilliant Yorkshire accent and big white hair – he looks amazing. He’s a sort of exorcist teacher that Merrily goes to, who at the beginning of the story is teaching a group of vicars what deliverance ministry is, what the pitfalls are, what to look for. An incredibly sensitive, soulful, heartfelt man who wrestles with his own faith and conscience all the time. He’s a wonderful character and as the story unfolds he becomes much more involved with it as Merrily feels she’s out of her depth and turns to him for help. It’s a wonderful father/daughter relationship but more complicated than that. They’re really compelling together.

We were so lucky to get David: it’s a pivotal role but not the central role. David is a brilliant leading actor. Again he was the first person, the only person we talked to for this. Richard and I went to meet him and he had some incredibly intelligent questions to ask about the production and the character, but at the heart of it I think he just loved that man and the complexity of a man who wrestles that hard with his belief system. I think he really enjoyed playing it. I’ve longtime been a fan of his, and a brilliant part of my job is when you get to work with the people who’ve been heroes.

One thing close to my heart is the music…

Edmund Butt is our composer. I’ve long wanted to work with him: I think he’s just about the best around, and particularly for this sort of material. He scores it like a drama, not a horror film, not to make you jump or lead you down the path. He gives you a brilliantly melodic full-blooded score, a beautiful big sound to go with a big picture.

Phil 7It’s not a full orchestra – it’s a small orchestra used very cleverly to give us a massive sound. A very modern sound, too: lots of electronic stuff, lots of Delia Derbyshire type sounds used interestingly and well. He supplied us with sound stems that are used all the way through the show. He’s just a really clever modern composer who’s quite classical and lyrical at the same time. He ticks both boxes which not many people do. He did the Afterlife score for Stephen Volk as well – that opening credit score is so memorable. Once you’ve heard it once it sticks. He’s done a similar thing for us.

Midwinter of the Spirit concludes on ITV tonight (October 7).

Read part 1 of our interview with Stephen Volk here;

and part 2 here.

Our review of episode 1

and episode 2

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