Television to murder for
'Resort to Murder', the new thriller series from the Beeb, is far from a classic whodunnit with its Goths, Skins and Crusties. It has itself diced with death, writes Elizabeth Udall
Because, for 18 months, the people involved with its production have been wondering if Resort to Murder would ever see the light of day. After all, it was the controller of BBC1 himself who is reputed to have said he didn't want it anywhere near the channel.
The first script was commissioned by the BBC from the writer Tony McHale four years ago. The intricate plotting took him two years to get on paper. But when Charles Denton took over as Head of Drama at the BBC, McHale was rewarded with a green light for it to go into production with a budget of pounds 4.5m.
Under the working title Brighton Boy, the story began with Sam and Harriet Penny walking on Brighton Pier one night. When the couple part for a moment, Harriet sees a young woman being dumped into the sea. Before she can get back to her husband, she is murdered. Sam is arrested as the prime suspect and son Joshua returns from Oxford with eight hour-long episodes to try to prove Sam's innocence.
Still on a high from the 17-week shoot which had finished only days before, in December 1993 the producer, Barry Hanson, arranged a viewing of all eight episodes for the executive producer, Michael Wearing. It was here that Hanson realised, for the first time, that the series did not work. "It dawned on me like a rather unfortunate brain storm that surgery was required," he says.
Hanson told Wearing his views. But Alan Yentob was looking at an early transmission for the series. So Hanson and the director, Bruce Macdonald, did some rapid work on it and asked Wearing back to view a director's cut of the first three episodes in late spring. "It was intended only for Michael, but Alan insisted on looking in as well. And he reacted very badly to the material," says Hanson.
"I can't complain. I could have made life easier and kept my mouth shut. Alan was basically saying: 'You're right, Barry - and then some'. " Yentob is reputed to have said he did not want such rubbish on his channel. "He was seeing it in the context of BBC1 and thought it was too complicated and looked too arty," Hanson explains.
The screening had come at a time when Yentob was still experiencing the fallout of the previous summer's announcement of a collapse in BBC1's share of the audience - the lowest since 1985.
Speaking at the Birmingham Radio Festival soon after, Yentob said that he felt the BBC was "remote from people's lives" and needed to make programmes that were "popular with a substantial audience".
Not long before seeing Resort to Murder, Yentob had apparently declared Lifeboat - a pounds 5m series written by Lynda La Plante for BBC1 - to be "almost unwatchable".
"BBC1 is a populist channel and Alan wants things to be pretty straightforward," says Resort to Murder's associate producer, Bill Shapter. "People were snapping at his heels about Lifeboat. There was a good deal of sniping going on generally. Then he saw Resort at a time when it was not ready anyway."
It was decided that Macdonald and various editors were surplus to requirements and a rigorous editing process began without them. "Bruce had taken on an ambitious task, to create a distinctive piece within tight budget constraints," says Hanson. "And he pulled it off very successfully. I felt badly about him being sacked. But it was not put to us as a discussion document." Although Tony McHale's involvement at the filming stage had been minimal, he was asked to contribute to the editing process.
"If a writer turns up on set, everyone thinks you're going to complain," he says, and insists this was not the case with him. "I liked the look of what Bruce was doing. But I think he became so immersed in it, he got lost. When I saw it on screen, I realised it had to be tightened up. It was inaccessible."
A shoal of red herrings removed (yet the cinematic quality intact), McHale is happy with the resultant five episodes. "I wanted to do an old-fashioned thriller, a whodunnit, but within a modern context. This is not a Morse or a Miss Marple where you ponder around making decisions in pubs." Indeed, the evocation of a sinister subculture of Goths, Skins and Crusties, coupled with the increasingly unsettling storyline of Resort to Murder, is as far from tweedy hips and classic cars as you are likely to get.
The series has already won an award. It was placed in the Top 10 Television Series of 1994 at the Cologne Film Festival last month. And many of its key players, who at McHale's request were relative unknowns, are now appearing in major movies. Ben Chaplin is in Merchant Ivory's Feast of July and The Truth about Cats and Dogs with Uma Thurman. Steven Waddington will be seen with Emma Thompson and Jonathan Pryce in Carrington.
"It has been a nightmare and some nightmares are worse than others," says Hanson. "But I feel we have been vindicated with the placing in Cologne. We were up there with things like ER." McHale admits he was nervous. "It had never been shown in public before. I thought, 'What if they all boo? I'll look a right Charlie after coming all the way to Germany.' But we were told it was highly original in its concept and very English. And at the end they all stood up and cheered."
n 'Resort to Murder' starts on Thursday, BBC1 at 10pm
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