Switch: Interview: Producers Rob Pursey and Phil Trethowan

ITV2’s new supernatural comedy-drama Switch comes from the team behind Being Human, executive produced by Rob Pursey and produced by Philip Trethowan. With scripts by Chloe Moss and Tim Price, the Touchpaper series stars Lacey Turner, Nina Toussaint-White, Phoebe Fox and Hannah Tointon as a group of four young witches trying to make their way in the big city. The producers sat down with Sci-Fi Bulletin at the press launch to discuss the show…

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How did you go about casting Switch?

Rob: We were looking for four girls that felt real, if you know what I mean. The casting process was interesting because we also had to cast the Witches of Kensington who are very posh Sloane girls. They were easier to cast, maybe because it’s becoming increasingly easy to cast upper class people: because they are the ones who can afford to learn to act. This generation, you don’t find many people who are from ordinary backgrounds. It’s a worry for the future.

The key four, the characters are pretty well defined in the script. So we knew we had to find a way of getting that across. We knew they had charm and wit and real heart as well. That was the key to the script. Hopefully when it is moving, it is really moving and it’s not silly all the way through. In one-hour dramas, you can’t just have jokes for an hour. You need heart, so what we were looking for was that emotive quality..

Phil: But then the invisible quality is the chemistry between them. We talked about the possibility in the casting process of getting various prospective candidates in the room together but in the end we didn’t go for that because we were so sure of our four girls.

Even then you don’t know for sure there is going to be that spark between them. It’s hard to fake that. But there is a genuine rapport between them. They are genuinely mates, and that’s priceless really. It will come across on screen.

Did you have all the scripts by the time you were doing the casting?

Rob: No we had three or four of them. And we had storylines, so we knew where we were going. Certainly the last two hadn’t been written when we were casting, but there was enough to know what was required.

We knew when we cast Caroline Quentin that we wanted her back. She has a very big role in episode six. She was fantastic. That was the other important bit of casting really: somebody with a bit of… whatever it is that she has got that you know you can rely on..

Did any of the scripting change once you’d cast the four girls?

Phil: A little bit, actually. Lacey has a very good abrasive quality to her. We noticed early on that she was very funny when she was being tactless. There was a great moment in episode two, which we wrote in long after the script was finished, where Lacey is telling off a little boy after he has almost been hit by a car and, as it happens, the little boy’s mum was killed by a car and died! That’s his back story. Lacey’s like “For God’s sake! Your mum got killed in a road accident. Haven’t you learned anything?” It is this real tumbleweed moment. Little details like that come afterwards.

Rob: At first all you know is that they are good, but you come to realise how good they are along the way. I think some of the stories in episode six we might not have tried before we cast them. You get a sense of what their range is but they’ve got far more of a range than we could have hoped. It’s a very young lead cast, the average age is about 24.

Did it help that Lacey had been working for so long on EastEnders?

Phil: I think Lacey is a step beyond the average soap actress. What she did in EastEnders was pretty phenomenal.

Rob: And obviously we worked with her on Being Human series 3. That was obviously a very different part. We had a sense of what she was able to do, but her performance in that was miles away from what she had done in EastEnders. We felt very confident that she would be able to go wherever.

I think putting her in a position where she’s the sort of mother hen is interesting because we’re seeing that even though she has got the guts to do it and the authority to do it, she’s not entirely sure of her footing. It’s quite sweet, and to see that glimpse of vulnerability behind that tough surface is something I think Lacey is really good at which is why I thought she was perfect for that role. She’s obviously the one we knew best because we worked with her before.

It’s funny with casting, because sometimes you know within ten seconds of them sitting down that they’re right; they take it over and go somewhere with it.

It’s funny that they’re not a million miles away from that in real life.

Phil: Yes, that’s true.

Rob: Yes they are drawing on themselves. They feel comfortable in their own skins.

Is that a function of the fact that they are younger, they don’t have as much acting experience to draw on?

Phil: I think there’s a lot of truth in that.

Rob: Yes possibly. I think as they’ve said themselves it is so rare to get a series that is female-led – you might get a 50/50 division or a double act – but this really is female led. I think that’s given them some gusto because they know it’s rare and they want to make a go of it

Was that part of the diktat from ITV?

Phil: No, it was always part of the format.

Rob: The pitch was about four girls’ friendship.

Did the tone change at all? Was it always going to be very funny?

Phil: We never wanted it to be dark…

Rob: Not Being Human dark.

Phil: There are different shades of that, and we didn’t want to make the same show again. So I suppose the comedy goes hand-in-hand with the lightness of touch.

Rob: I think what’s so good about the scripts is that the writers are such sharp observers of modern life. The scene where the boss is trying to understand the tearful girl, that was a great little vignette of somebody who is an adult not understanding what somebody who is 15 years younger is talking about. I think they’re very, very good at that kind of observation. That girl, we got her back later for another episode after we saw that. There are a few semi-regular characters, like Aaron the guy in the clothes shop. He’s fantastic, so we kept using him. You are able to adjust as you see how certain people do.

Do we see any of the other girls’ mothers?

Phil: Yes. There’s a story about Hannah and her mum, played by Imogen Stubbs, which comes to bear in episode six. That’s an emotional climax for Hannah because she hasn’t seen her mum in many years. Going forward, we will definitely meet the other mums if we get the chance.

Rob: It’s a really funny way of telling stories about family relationships. One of the things that we noticed about American shows, such as The Secret Circle, is that they take the mother/daughter relationships very solemnly. So we’ve got to go against that and the fact that Grace just wants her mother out of her hair… It makes it real. When your daughter goes to London, you’re worried that she might be raped. And as the daughter, you just want your mother a long way away. We went with the human route not with the solemn witchcraft route. The latter is a bit…

Phil: …A bit tedious.

Were there other shows that you looked at? Or did you actively go “no, we’re doing it our way”?

Phil: I accidentally caught some of The Secret Circle when channel hopping. It was this really earnest scene in a dusty old attic. There was a clichéd-looking spell book in between these two characters, and they were having this incredibly earnest, slow conversation with each other. Our show is never going to be that.

Rob: I watched it after we got the commission. That was the thing that was on around the time that was the closest. It’s funny, it felt a million miles away from what we are doing. Our motivations are a long way from theirs and what they’re doing isn’t funny. Fair enough, it’s a teen Gothic thing, and there’s a market for that. We’re trying to go somewhere else. It’s not a Gothic show.

Were you restrained in any way on the special effects?

Phil: Well you’re restrained by the budget. I think we’ve done a great job with them in terms of the means that we had. At the same time, if you had all the money in the world, that’s not what Switch is about. It would imbalance the show. It’s fundamentally character driven. Constraints like that make you play to your strengths, and the strength of this show is that it’s a character driven concept

Rob: The idea is it’s four people in a flat. On the shelf they’ve got Jamie Oliver, Delia, and the spell book! It’s very rooted in the flat.

Making them not very good at it was a good call; it means that spells can go wrong. Jeopardy doesn’t come easily to shows like this, because nobody is going to die. And if they do they come back to life. You have to find jeopardy somewhere else, and I think the fact that they’re only just about in charge of what they’re doing with the spells adds some tension that things can go badly.

Switch airs on ITV2 from 15 October. Read our review of the first episode here.

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