Utopia: They're coming to get you
New Channel 4 drama Utopia combines conspiracy theories, edge-of-your-seat tension and dark humour with a talented cast. It could turn out to be one of the TV hits of the year
So early in the new year but already there is one potential contender for my television drama of 2013. It's an unsettling and sexily contemporary six-part drama called Utopia that might superficially have a whiff of Poliakoff (including as it does mysterious relics, dark conspiracies and beautiful cinematography), but couldn't be more different in terms of dash, humour and sheer seat-of-your-pants excitement. It's called Utopia, although "Dystopia" would have been a more apt description.
The screenplay is by Dennis Kelly, Sharon Horgan's erstwhile scripting partner on "the best sitcom nobody watched", as BBC3's Pulling is repeatedly described, and more recently, the co-creator of the West End smash musical Matilda. The plot involves a youthful trio of graphic novel fans (played by Nathan Stewart-Jarrett from Misfits, Alexandra Roach from Hunderby and Adeel Akhtar from Four Lions) who decide to meet up after becoming online forum members obsessed with a cult graphic novel called Utopia, about a scientist who makes a deal with the Devil and whose pages are rumoured to have predicted the worst disasters of the last century.
Powerful unseen forces known as The Network are also after the secrets contained with the graphic novel, and IT consultant Ian (Stewart-Jarrett), student Becky (Roach) and nuclear-bunker owning conspiracy theorist Wilson (Akhtar) find themselves thrown together and running for their lives from the funkiest pair of sadistic hoodlums since Tarantino was in his prime – with their remorseless and enigmatic question: "Where is Jessica Hyde?" (Hyde, played by Fiona O'Shaughnessy, finally reveals herself at the end of tonight's episode).
"I thought it would be interesting if we had ordinary people," says Kelly. "Most conspiracy thriller protagonists tend to be either journalists or cops and I was more interested in what if it was someone who was like me, a person who doesn't really know what they're doing."
Filming in Liverpool, director Marc Munden (The Devil's Whore/Mark of Cain) gives Utopia a stylishly heightened look, while the young cast is surrounded by such flavoursome veterans as Stephen Rea, James Fox, Geraldine James and Simon McBurney, with Paul Higgins playing a civil servant in charge of NHS drug procurement who is seemingly being blackmailed by the Russian mafia. Kudos, the production company behind Spooks and Life on Mars, approached Kelly with the idea of writing a conspiracy thriller around a graphic novel. "It didn't seem like there ought to be a conspiracy in something like a graphic novel," he says. "Graphic novels are very beautiful and amazing works of art, and I liked the idea that there was this group of people who understand they are works of art."
Perhaps aware that the subject matter might sound a tad niche, Kelly adds that he didn't want to make his protagonists too geeky. "I didn't want to go down 'geek avenue' because actually lots of people read graphic novels," he says. "It meant you could reach a lot of ordinary people." And whether or not the graphic novel turns out to be a McGuffin, Kelly has managed to craft one of the least predictable thrillers since The Killing – perhaps because he shares a technique with The Killing's creator Soren Sveistrup. "I like not knowing where I'm going as a writer," he says. "If it surprises me, there's a good chance it will surprise you."
He's well served by his young cast, especially the impressive Alexandra Roach, last seen as the lead in Julia Davis's award-winning Rebecca spoof, Hunderby. "It's the one job I put everything into… I cancelled a holiday… I was like, 'I'll do anything,'" she says. "What normally happens is that my agent sends me a script and I get 10 pages in and my instinct kicks in about whether I should or should not go for the audition, but with this I read straight through and just knew I wanted to be part of it." This, even though her first scene was a (albeit very funny) vodka-fuelled fumble with Stewart-Jarrett in a nuclear shelter. "You're nervous anyway starting a new job, and the schedule comes through and it's 'You're doing a sex scene' – that's great on my first day." I wish there had been vodka on set."
Just as Kelly didn't shy away from the cruelty in Roald Dahl's Matilda, there is some pretty shocking stuff in Utopia, especially a torture sequence involving rubbing chilli powder, sand and bleach in someone's eyes. Expect the Channel 4 switchboard to be busy that night, and Ofcom to be alerted. "The only violence I personally find offensive is violence that doesn't shock me," says Kelly. "Anytime I've seen violence in real life it's always, always been shocking… so if you're making something like this, you've got to go with it unless you're a coward. Mind you… people knowing that it came out of your head, you do actually think, 'What do these people think of me?'"
Channel 4 seems to have been happy to give Kelly his head. "With this, no one has backed away from anything I've thrown at them," he says. "I've got to be honest – writing these scenes and you're thinking, 'At some stage someone is going to say you can't do this.'"
Is he a conspiracy theorist himself? "I kind of wish I was but I don't believe in any of them. I like that people are obsessed with them, but then again there must be some that are true – all the stuff that's been going on recently, it's just mad.
"The human mind looks for patterns and wants to make connections, and people do make intuitive leaps and they're right, like Watergate, but when you get to things like the moon landings… the moon landings happened." Is he sure? "Yep, quite sure."
'Utopia' begins tonight at 10pm on Channel 4
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