Midwinter of the Spirit: Interview: Stephen Volk (part 1)

With the nights drawing in, it’s the perfect time for a new supernatural series on ITV. Midwinter of the Spirit begins on September 23rd, based on Phil Rickman’s novel, featuring Anna Maxwell Martin as deliverance minister Merrily Watkins. Renowned TV writer Stephen Volk – creator of Ghostwatch and Afterlife – has adapted the book, and in this first (spoiler-free) part of his chat with Paul Simpson, discusses what attracted him to the project…

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How did you get involved?

ITV Studios – which used to be Granada and was rebranded – approached me because they had the rights to this book, and I think the other Merrily Watkins books too. I went up and had a speculative pitch meeting with [producer] Phil Collinson and the rest of the team knowing that other people were going up for it. I did what I usually do: read the book and had some vague ideas on how I might approach it, and then winged it in the room and hoped that they connected with what I proposed.

Luckily they chose me and wanted to work with me; I was absolutely delighted at Phil being the producer on it, and was very taken with the book, obviously.

We started by talking about adapting The Wine of Angels, the first book, which is a bit of a funny one, because Phil Rickman, who invented the character after all, doesn’t consider that to be the start of the series proper. He considers Midwinter of the Spirit to be the start and The Wine of Angels, even though he wrote it first, is kind of a prequel in a way. He was ambivalent whether we started with Wine or Midwinter and in the end, it wasn’t my decision, but the decision was made to go with Midwinter of the Spirit. I think largely because there was more of a crime element to it, and for that reason there were more police characters in it, so it had a certain security as a crime series; we got all the characters off in a good yarn, rather than just some of them.

Also Merrily herself is being offered the job in Midwinter whereas in Wine it’s kind of a prelude to that, so in terms of setting up a series about a character that’s involved with deliverance, Midwinter was our best bet. We spent about six months working on both, and then we plumped for Midwinter of the Spirit, which I think was the right decision really.

One of the things we weren’t sure about in Wine in TV terms – even though I absolutely loved it, and I’m not saying anything against it – was it was about village life. People other than me were concerned that we would give the wrong impression about what the series was going to be like. We wanted to shrug off the parochial village life kind of thing and make it modern – but that’s just one fragment of a long discussion that went on for a long time.

One of the things that really got me wanting to do this was one of the very first scenes, with Huw Owen at the Outward Bound school on the Brecon Beacons where he’s teaching a bunch of clergy people about deliverance, and he’s described as having a voice like David Hockney on downers. I almost laughed out loud and thought, I can really get into this: this is not Max von Sydow. This is something that takes into account all our preconceptions about exorcism and all the Catholicism that is weighted on that tremendous film, but it’s done lightly and with a grace of touch that I thought was amusing and subversive really.

Merrily 1The other thing was essentially Merrily herself: a female vicar. I’m conflating my reaction to both books in a way, but I was worried that the series of books would be preachy or rather pro-Christian that would be, for me personally, off-putting in terms of relating to that character. What I found to my delight was the character is not preachy at all. She’s down to earth, she’s self-deprecating, she’s got an acid humour and sarcasm. She’s got her own problems; she’s not perfect. In fact what I really like is she’s full of self-doubt about the job; she’s completely lacking in certainty about what she’s getting involved in. She’s a kind of Everywoman in this situation, albeit that she’s a female Vicar.

Also the great thing about Midwinter is she’s so vulnerable emotionally and spiritually; she’s bereaved, she’s got this testing new job. She’s plunged into it and she’s not sure if she’s up to it, and she’s got this mentor who pokes at her confidence. He’s constantly asking her if she’s up to it, and when she wants his support, he says, ‘well maybe you can’t do it’ – tough love writ large. I loved the character and I thought I could write it – which sounds stupid, because the character is written already, but what I mean is I can translate that character in television terms.

The other question that came up when I was pitching for it was ‘how would you do the supernatural elements?’ I thought that was a bit of a strange question – would you interview a crime writer and ask how they’d tackle the crime elements? I don’t think they would, but there seems to be this dislocation when it comes to doing supernatural on TV – people wonder how you’ll do it. I just said ‘I know exactly how to do it – you can see what I did in Afterlife’, which was to approach the supernatural as subjective, as psychologically sound, and make it believable.

How much did you need to alter to bring it to 2015, and into a TV three-hour version?

Merrily bookI watched the Jake Gyllenhaal film Enemy last night and an interview with the director, Javier Gullón, who said that in adapting this book [José Saramago’s 2002 novel The Double] for film, you have to completely destroy the source material in order to rebuild it. Now I wouldn’t say that, but I can see the point that he’s getting at: you have to take something apart in order to build it into something that is an honest version of what you read.

You have to be quite cruel to be kind in a weird way that is sometimes very hard for novelists to accept – although I’m not saying that Phil Rickman hasn’t been anything other than very supportive,  but in general terms. Having created a very sound story on the page, it can be very tempting to think why don’t you just do that? It’s very tempting to think if I’d done a novel that I’d think the same thing, but the fact of the matter is it’s a 550 page book and if you’re anything like literal about all the story strands, you’d have a 10 part series – and in any case I don’t think that would necessarily please him or the fans.

Therefore at the very beginning we were thinking we would have to leave out some of this in order to strengthen most of the wonderful stuff that is there; in my role, it’s not a case of me saying we’ll do this or that, it’s a collaboration with producer, script editor, executives at ITV, and my own sense of what will make it work for TV audiences.

The thing I tell people about adapting is I can’t be responsible for the novelist. I can’t do the work with Phil Rickman standing behind me: it would be physically and mentally impossible. My duty is to the book and not to the author. It’s his book and his character, and I’m acutely aware of that, and he spent many years writing this character but at the end of the day he’s not going to thank me if it doesn’t work in its own terms as a TV show.

Midwinter of the Spirit airs on ITV from September 23rd at 9 pm

Click here for part 2 of the interview

 

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