Midwinter of the Spirit: Interview: Stephen Volk (part 2)

Midwinter volk 2.2In the first part of this interview, Stephen Volk talked about how he became involved with the adaptation of Phil Rickman’s Midwinter of the Spirit, currently running on ITV, and below he tells Paul Simpson about some of the thematic elements as well as the practicalities of adapting the novel…

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Was the three one-hour structure already in place when you came on board?

I think it was a question whether it would be two or three hours, and I thought that once you’ve got such a rich situation and such a big situation, it would be throwing it away to do just two 45-minutes of drama really.

I think often the middle part of a story, when someone is really struggling and is up against the ropes and has all the obstacles thrown at them, is where you have the fun – in a way it’s ‘what else can go wrong for this person really?’ That’s what the fun is: throwing more problems rather than solving them, and I thought there was more than enough story to sustain three hours.

Did the book naturally have that sort of three-act feel to it?

That came through a lot of discussion at the beginning: we tend to have whole days where I’d get together with the script editor and Phil [Collinson] the producer and [executive producer] Keiran [Roberts] and we would just talk.

A lot of TV writing, to be honest, is talk: it’s a very swift way to get to the nub of the problem structurally. I think, over a period of weeks, you evolve a structure for episode 1, episode 2, episode 3, usually on the basis of where we’re going to end episode 1 and episode 2 – what’s going to be the kind of turning point – and then you work back from that.

I quite like working to the act breaks – the three commercial breaks in an ITV hour – so that’s your pacing in a way. You get a sense of where those breaks are going to be in each episode, what you’re building to, and the turns you’re going to do.

The other thing of course, in a diagrammatic way, is you’re working out what are the different strands of story in this larger story. There are a lot of different strands that knot together as the story goes on: it almost seems as if they’re quite different in episode 1. There’s the strand to do with Canon Dobbs and Denzil Joy, and a strand to do with Jane – Merrily’s daughter – getting mixed up with Rowena, and then there’s Merrily doing her job and getting called in by the police who have a kind of satanic murder on their hands. What I love about the books is they have these different strands that weave together and you’re wondering how they conglomerate into one story.

Of course, the key thing for me in Midwinter and the reason I really wanted to do it now, is that it really had a place to be made now as a drama, even though it was written 15 years ago. Firstly it’s about morality and choice, and about good and evil: there’s a key line that Phil Rickman has in the book, which is also in the drama, when Merrily says “Satanism looks down on Christianity because it peddles the lie called love.” Often when I adapt something there’s something that jumps out to nail the theme of the piece to me, and you hang everything thematic from that idea; really the whole story is about love to me – the love that is part of Christianity, and also the love between mother and daughter. That essentially is what becomes at stake at the end of the story.

Also what was appealing to me is this big picture of Britain today – a landscape of faith and belief, or lack of it, in Britain. It speaks of anxieties today, of values, personally or as a country. That was in the back of my mind when I was adapting it.

Midwinter volk 2.1How long did you spend on it?

It’s difficult to say, because we started off thinking of Wine of Angels, but I think it was about 18 months ago, maybe a little bit longer than that when I went up for the first meeting, but as time went by it accelerated. I think it was maybe last November (2014) when ITV read the first episode and liked it, and to my astonishment, because this never happens, two days later, they said yes, we want to do it. I was looking forward to having two or three weeks off before hearing anything, but these things are often about timing in ways that you can never be privy to. I think it was one of those moments of synchronicity where it landed on their desk and it happened to be the kind of thing that they wanted on that day! I’m not knocking it and I’m not complaining!

And presumably if this is a success – and it’s moved from ITV Encore to ITV1, so they’re giving it a higher profile…

These days broadcasters never make a decision until it’s gone out. You can never predict anything. In order to steal a bit of a lead, we’re thinking about what we might do next, if we get the chance to do another one, but we don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth too much.

I’ve seen a rough cut of all three episodes and I’m tremendously excited by how it came out, for a start – I’m astonished how they managed to do it. There’s a lot to pull off on the usual TV budget. In terms of what I wanted to achieve with it, I think it has turned out rather special – but you could say, ‘He would say that, wouldn’t he’!

You don’t know whether it will connect with an audience: what you think will engage sometimes doesn’t, and what you think may not work turns out to have an affect more than you expect.

All I can say is that everyone did a fantastic job and we couldn’t have had a more amazing cast. They did a tremendous job in casting this and it makes me smile to think of the people that they’ve got in those parts – and now I’m thinking of what we might do next and looking at some of the other books, it gives me a big grin. One of the delights of doing television is that when you have actors in a role you can start to see them when you’re writing scenes and thinking of scenes. You approach it with a lot more relish in a way because you can predict what fun they’ll have with it.

It’s all very exciting – possibly, but it’s all very touch wood and rabbit’s foot! But I’m really delighted to have done Midwinter as a start point…

Midwinter of the Spirit continues on ITV on Wednesday evenings and is on the ITV Player

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