JK Rowling weaves her magic again: The Casual Vacancy comes to TV

Gerard Gilbert goes behind the scenes and talks to its stars Julia McKenzie and Keeley Hawes

"I've never read one word of a Harry Potter book," says Sarah Phelps, the screenwriter entrusted by JK Rowling to adapt her first "adult" novel, The Casual Vacancy, for television. "I did tell Jo [as she calls Rowling] that my niece was a big fan and she kindly signed a copy for her."

I too am a Harry Potter virgin. The Casual Vacancy, her tale about the poisonous relationships behind the facade of an outwardly idyllic country town, I rather enjoyed however, complete with all its old-fashioned storytelling virtues – a stylistic aspect of the novel that seemed to rile the more rigorous type of literary critic. And it's Rowling's almost Dickensian take on contemporary British life in fictional Pagford that makes Phelps such a suitable adapter – for she is not only considered one of the best writers in EastEnders history (she famously penned the episode in which Den Watts was killed off), but is also a well-regarded adapter of Dickens himself – with BBC versions of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations to her credit.

"I made my pitch to Jo and she just let me get on with it," says Phelps. "I've adapted dead writers which is great because they can't come and annoy you by email, but she is used to the process of adaptation. She's a writer so she understands what it's like. She was brilliant about just stepping back and letting you get on with it." So what was Phelps' pitch? "It's a massive novel with loads of characters and when I went up to speak to Jo I just said what I thought what the story was about, which is that it was Krystal's story – Krystal is the beating heart of the story."

Krystal, for those who haven't read the novel, is Krystal Weedon, the sixth-former daughter of a junkie, doing her best to bring up her toddler brother – and symbolic of a feckless and semi-criminal underclass living in an adjoining housing estate called the Fields that the more conservative elements of Pagford would like to see separated from their midst by dint of a boundary change. Except that for visual reasons ("it's hard to put a boundary dispute into a TV drama") this has been changed to a drop-in centre in Pagford that local councillors Howard and Shirley Mollison (played by Michael Gambon and Julia McKenzie) want to see turned into an upmarket spa.

The centre is the only reason for the poor folk of the Fields to visit Pagford, and opposing this piece of social engineering are Barry Fairbrother (Rory Kinnear) and the local GP, Parminder Jawanda (Lolita Chakrabarti). "JK Rowling's working title for a long time was 'Responsibility'," says Jonny Campbell, director of the three-part series. "For me the novel's about philanthropy and responsibility in society, hence the Victorian element. What appealed to me – and why Joe wrote it in the first place – was to write a novel with a 19th-century sensibility but in a contemporary setting, in the same way of a Hardy book or a Trollope or a Dickens."

The Casual Vacancy was filmed last summer in a sprinkling of Cotswolds villages ("it was important to make the village of Pagford feel as if, if people had been in costume, it could have been Cranford", says Campbell), but centred on Painswick, which on its website bills itself – with something of the smugness of Howard and Shirley Mollison – as 'the queen of the Cotswolds'. "They're beautiful these villages, but I'd hate to live in one," says Phelps. "They're too perfect and I like being in my pyjamas at four in the afternoon."

"I lived in the Cotswolds for about 14 years," says Julia McKenzie. "In Burford, not too far from one of the villages where we filmed. Some people wanted to provide a new notice board for the village and the arguments about whether it should have a glass front and so on – they argued for about two and a half years and it never got done."

The drama itself apparently became a local issue in Painswick, the mock-up of a lingerie shop run by disaffected Mollison daughter-in-law, Samantha (Keeley Hawes) being raised as an issue at a parish-council meeting. "Although I did overhear two little old ladies passing by," says Hawes. "And one said to the other, 'Oh, I've already got all that stuff'."

Hawes, Michael Gambon, Julia McKenzie and Rory Kinnear – this is tried-and-trusted casting, but the production has struck gold in Scottish newcomer Abigail Lawrie, who plays the central character of defiant but vulnerable teenager Krystal. "We did a huge trawl of newcomers in the West Country and this audition tape came in which blew us away," says Campbell. "At the end of it the girl sort of went, 'Is that what I'm supposed to do?' It turned out she'd never done an audition before. A born actress."

The Casual Vacancy was a bestseller in this country, where it is borrowed from public libraries far more often than any Harry Potter book, and in America. Indeed, HBO are the BBC's co-production partners, although Phelps doesn't believe that the travails of small-town England – a microcosm after all of the universally increasing insulation of the haves against the have-nots – won't seem alien to viewers of Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and Girls. "We're used to watching dramas like Olive Kitteridge", she says. "I don't know anything about a maths teacher's life in Maine but there was a universality there and hopefully this will be the same."

I ask Phelps whether, when she had her meetings with Rowling, whether there was a burning question that she wanted to ask the woman who, after Danielle Steel, is world's best-selling contemporary author. "I'd love to know how she keeps her sanity," says Phelps. To be 'the Harry Potter woman' must be quite an extraordinary thing to be and yet she writes and writes and writes and doesn't stop and keeps pushing herself. I'd like to know how she does it."

'The Casual Vacancy' begins on Sunday 15 February at 9pm on BBC1

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