Well, who would have thought it would all end like that? Sir David Hare gives the inside scoop on the political realities of his Roadkill series, and talks through how his own Covid-19 diagnosis was inspiration for a gripping new play.
Jace Lacob: I’m Jace Lacob, and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.
Well, there you have it: Prime Minister Peter Laurence ambled his way right into Number Ten, only for a long-forgotten shell company to rear its ugly head…just as he settles into life on Downing Street.
Peter What’s this?
Helen Stanfield Titles.
Peter I’d hoped you’d signed it.
Helen Obviously not.
Jace Laurence’s fast track to political prominence seemed arbitrary at times — what scandal cut which politician when, and why should voters care, again? — so it’s only appropriate that his own eventual downfall will be just as arcane. The coverup is always worse than the crime, they say, and that Laurence could be undone by the lack of a signature on a piece of paper says a lot about the cutthroat world of modern politics.
Dawn Someone has leaked it from Downing Street. Now I am looking at you, Julia. I’m looking you straight in the eye.
Julia Prime Minister, I don’t have children, so I can’t swear on their lives. But ask yourself, why would I do such a thing?
Jace Series creator Sir David Hare formed his series around the small indignities of contemporary politics, and he returns to the podcast for a post-series recap.
Jace And we are back again this week with Roadkill creator Sir David Hare. Welcome back.
Sir David Hare Thank you.
Jace Initially, the dynamic between Peter Laurence and Charmian Pepper seemed to perhaps echo that between Francis Urquhart and Mattie Storin in House of Cards, but the disgraced Charmian ends up flattened by a van in D.C. in episode two. What was behind your decision to kill her off at the end of the second episode?
David I kill fewer people than any other writer for television. I regard the death rate in so many series as totally ridiculous. I’d been watching Ozark, which for me is just spoiled by the number of people who die. I mean, I loved Ozark up until people started dying in tens and twenties and you start going, ‘I do not at any level accept that this is likely.’ And I kill people very, very sparingly indeed. I felt I had to kill Charmian Pepper. In other words, there had to be a crime because that happened to be the way the story was going. But it’s not a crime that detains us. And the explanation for the crime is hinted at in the fourth episode that this is anything but a procedural series.
Jace But at the same time, I mean, can you clear the air around Charmian’s death and state whether it is an accident or is in fact, murder? The recorder is still in her possession when she’s killed. Is the idea to silence her?
David The idea is that, you know, I’ve read an article two days ago that these think tanks are pretty sinister. A lot of these think tanks are really unpleasant. And I read somebody talking about think tanks and saying that for a £50,000 pound investment in this country he could get a quarter-million pounds’ worth publicity. And they all ways in which lobby groups use the supposed intellectual freedom in order actually to advance some fairly doubtful causes. And obviously, I don’t need to talk to you about the way Washington is run by lobby groups. And I think these think tanks that pretend to be independent and give themselves posh names, you know, be it the Society for the Defense of Freedom or the Society for the Defense of Free Speech, often mask much more sinister activities. And that’s really what I’m writing about. I don’t think murder is beyond the reach of some of those think tanks. And that’s really what I wanted to say.
Jace Charmian’s death at the end of episode two is juxtaposed with Peter slamming into a deer while he’s driving.
Peter What on earth were you doing? I told you not to do that. Why did you do that?
Duncan What was I supposed to do? I thought it was important. What matters is that it’s positive. Peter, you have a daughter. We don’t know who she is, but we know she exists. What do you want me to do?
Jace There’s a clear thematic link between these two images of roadkill — of Charmian being run down while Peter inadvertently plows into a deer. What was the intention of linking these two collisions?
David Just the idea that, oh, that your life runs at such speed that catastrophic events overtake you and things that you would wish to undo cannot be undone. And, you know, she should never have turned drunk down that street. And, you know, she knows from the moment she turns down that street that she shouldn’t turn down that street. And we all do things in life where we know we’re suddenly, horrendously about to become roadkill. And it’s about to happen. And we walk towards the guns. And that is one of the most frightening feelings in life, I think.
Jace “We’re European champions at locking people up. We lock up more than anyone else.” Peter Laurence’s public claims about incarceration and restoring sense. Are these beliefs an outgrowth of learning about Rose’s existence, or candid expressions of his frustration with a broken system?
David No, he. He’s someone who, from the point of view of efficiency, just says, ‘This is stupid.’ As I think, you know, you don’t have to be left-wing or right-wing in America to say, ‘Locking up an entire generation of young black men is just storing up trouble for society.’ What is it? Some unbelievable figure, like a third or something of, you know, urban black men are incarcerated at some point before the age of 30. And, you know, you can see that is not a very, very intelligent way to run a society. And you don’t have to have any particular political point of view to see that it’s something of which in 100 years time, we’re going to be deeply ashamed, we’re just going to say, ‘I can’t believe they did that.’ It’s going to seem as cruel as certain Victorian penal practices and, you know, Peter’s a man of the future. And he’s thinking this, this can’t go on like this. It’s a waste of money and it’s a waste of people’s lives. And in the process of feeling that, yes, he makes contact with Rose. And I do think and this, of course, is everything to do with complexity in the character. I do think he makes genuine contact with his illegitimate daughter. He’s deeply moved by his illegitimate daughter. He begins to love her as a legitimate daughter. And there’s nothing opportunistic or manipulative about that. He opens his heart to her. And I hope that’s, I’d be a long way from calling it redemption, but I think it’s something that is very attractive in Peter, that he is prepared to take this illegitimate daughter under his wing.
Jace The scene in episode four between Peter and Rose in prison is, I think, my favorite of the entire series. Both Hugh Laurie and Shalom Brune Franklin are stellar here. Their characters immediately connect on an almost molecular level.
Peter I know this is the question I’m not supposed to ask, but why did you do it? Why did you rob a bank?
Rose You make it sound very romantic.
Peter Why did you defraud the bank, if that’s less romantic?
Rose I was a high-flyer. Fraud’s quite common. It’s more common than anyone knows. High-street banks try to cover it up. They don’t want their customers to realise how easy it is. But in my case they decided to prosecute.
Peter Why your case?
Rose Because they disliked me. And I stole a little bit more, so.
Jace How tricky was it to write this scene where these two finally come face to face?
David Not in the slightest. And, of course to me, it’s so easy to write that scene because it’s crudely that it’s that kind of thing, you know, structure’s difficult, plot is difficult, narrative’s difficult — writing that scene is the easiest bit of the whole project. But the interesting thing is that when we were filming it, somebody on the set in a pretty senior position said, Of course, in the final thing, this scene won’t run this long, because nobody, lets scenes this long run on television, it’s obviously far too long.’ And I said, ‘I will be very disappointed if we didn’t get the whole scene.’ And sure enough, we do get the whole scene every word I wrote is there.
Rose I didn’t want to give you my name when we first got in touch. I thought maybe you’d remember the case, and it would have put you off.
Peter I ‘dread the coverage at the time. I thought it was pretty racist.
Rose Yeah. Who’d have thought a woman of colour would be clever enough to steal that much?
Peter And what was your reason?
Rose The people at the top of the bank were taking great big bonuses. Just reaching their hands into the clients’ money and calling it salary.
Peter So it was a protest?
Rose No, it wasn’t a protest. I just fancied proving something.
Peter Proving what exactly?
Rose Proving that I was cleverer than them. From what I’ve read, you like doing that too.
David It’s just it’s the point you’re heading to, that scene. I’m glad you like that scene, because that’s to me, the scene, that is what the whole thing is about. On the other hand, you can say the price of that is the extreme hurt of his other daughter. You know, meanwhile, Lily is sitting at home feeling he’s never been a father to me and he doesn’t like me very much. And I don’t think he does like her very much. Sorry, that’s the family lottery, you can’t, I think Samuel Johnson somewhere shows that you can demand kindness, but you can’t demand fondness. And so, you know, Lily can get kindness from her father, but she can’t get fondness
Jace Peter and Rose do seem to be cut from the same cloth far more than Peter and his other daughters. Is there a sense here that biology trumps circumstance, that nature overrules nurture that they’re meant to be?
Jace He’s just absolutely thrilled to find a human being. who understands. I don’t think anyone can quite see that book. Unfortunately, the shot is very, very brief. But the book that he brings to the second encounter in episode four, I don’t know if you saw the title, but the title of the book is I think it’s called “How to Steal,” or something, and they just both roar with laughter at this. Because she’s in prison for stealing, and he sort of admires people who got the initiative to steal. And so you that there is a connection there? Yeah, absolutely. But he’s also I love that scene with Bella, the mother. You can absolutely see why he was attracted to Bella in the first place. And you can also see that there’s a profound link between the two of them, which was forged, you know, twenty five years previously, but which is still there.
Jace Rose might be one of, if not the most compelling character within the piece, which is no small feat given that she’s locked up in prison for the full four episode run. As her creator, what’s your take on Rose Dietl? What does she want ultimately? And where do you see her arc going once Peter becomes Prime Minister?
David It really does deeply confuse people when they’re brought up, not knowing who their parents are. You know, I had a great friend who was adopted and he was absolutely fine with it. It didn’t cause him any problem until at the age of 22, his hair fell out. And so he suddenly went, ‘Oh, I see, I was the child of someone who was prematurely bald and I’ve inherited that.’ At that point, he just his whole life became about, ‘I must find out who my parents were,’ because the mark of who they were was all over him. So identity was terribly hard to come by because you just had no clue of your inheritance. And I think that’s marked her. And I think one of the things that, you know, draws the two of them together instantly is the sense that it probably wasn’t the most wonderful thing to do to leave her without her ever knowing who her father was.
Jace I have to say, despite the fact that their connection feels so genuine, I was shocked that Peter chose to publicly acknowledge Rose Dietl as his daughter. What is behind his decision? Is it an emotional choice, a calculated one to get ahead of the story? Or both?
David Well, you know, I mean, you’re now I mean, I must say, you’re bang on the money, as we say, in England. You know, I’m leaving you to decide these things. That, to me, is the thrill of fiction — there’s a complexity in human motivation. You know, there’s no doubt that Dawn Ellison interprets it as pure pragmatism. In other words, it’s going to come out at some point. So why not preempt it by putting it out there yourself? And in quotes “claim her.” And that way, by saying you’re not ashamed, you, as it were, scotch, the snake of disgrace. I could see it. Yeah, you could see it the other way. He looks up and he’s going to be you know, Bella assumes it means sacrificing his career. But, you know, other people might say no, on the contrary, it’s going to make him even more human and even better liked. And, you know, more like us. And so maybe it’s a, you know, tactical. I personally don’t think it is. But I think everybody has to make those judgments themselves. And what I love in fiction, you know, and I’ve been rude about Ozark and I apologize for that, but what I like in Ozark is the complexity of the characterization. So you actually see, Laura Linney’s character change in front of your eyes. She’s one kind of person at the beginning of the series. She becomes another kind of person as the series goes on in a way which is extremely subtle, incredibly well acted and very, very well written. And those changes, you know, I do love to see in fiction because they’re complex in the way we’re complex.
Jace Before this next question, let’s take a quick break to hear a word from our sponsors…
Jace Peter Laurence manages to ascend to Prime Minister, casting Dawn aside to take control of the Party. What is the statement you’re making here about just how easy it is for Peter to do so?
David Well, I try not to make it too easy. In other words, six weeks passes, you know, but I do think that we are living in accelerating times. You know, it’s much harder to hold on. I can’t count the number of elections we’ve had in this country, is it four since 2015? How many Prime Ministers have we had? We had Cameron. We had May. We’ve now got Johnson. The feeling is, Johnson will not last very long either because of his illness, Covid, because he suffered from Covid-19, and is plainly not physically in wonderful shape. But secondly, because he’s finding the job of Prime Minister is not what he hoped it was going to be, in other words, he imagined himself lording over academic problems and having a jolly good time, instead of which he’s finding because of Covid and because of Brexit, that being Prime Minister is extremely demanding and hard. And the chances are it’s a possibility that he’ll be gone within the next 18 months. And things are just moving much, much faster in 21st century politics than they did in 20th century politics. And that’s really the point I’m making. You know, you’re no sooner Prime Minister than you’re trying to hold on to not being thrown out of Prime Minister, and that that’s an that’s a new phenomenon. And that that’s how things are nowadays in the whirligig of British politics.
Jace And we see how that fall could come just as easily as his climb. Helen refuses to sign the paperwork to dissolve Stanfield Titles. Could this be his own death warrant?
David His wife has been represented as a person who in a very British way, you know, she’s very, very like the women of my mother’s generation that I grew up with, the women who put up with everything and don’t complain. And then, you know, you, I hope, root for her. She’s brilliantly played by Saskia Reeves. And as the series goes on, she seems to find some steel. And you first see evidence of that steel when she deals with a potentially dangerous lawyer who tries to take her out to lunch to pump her.
Helen If you don’t believe the journalist died accidentally, then you should prove it.
Rochelle Helen, I don’t think you’ve wholly understood just how serious this stuff is.
Helen I’ve understood perfectly. But I’ll tell you one thing: if I do betray a man I’ve been with for thirty years, it won’t be because a professional advocate took me to a posh lunch. It will be what I decide for myself.
David And then at the end of the series, it’s his wife who holds all the cards and who lets him know she holds all the cards. And again, it’s a switch in her character. And, you know, you can see I love those switches.
Jace The political careers of both Dawn and potentially Peter could be derailed by seemingly small, trivial matters. A leaked email, the papers to an offshore shell company, rather than the sort of bigger tabloid friendly scandals like having an incarcerated daughter. Is it ultimately the tiny missteps rather than the larger which end political careers?
David Well, it’s a very good question, isn’t it? Well, I mean, it’s often, you know, as they say, it’s not the lie, it’s the cover up. We just had, you know, in intelligent administrations just fess up. You know, it really, the clever thing, if you’re a politician, is to say, “Yes, I messed up and yes, we did. That was stupid.” But now, unfortunately, the deny, deny, deny is the rule of the day. And deny, deny, deny gets you into terrible trouble. And, you know, as I say, never apologize. Never explain. Which has now become the mantra of all Western politicians. And that kind of militant self-belief, and I don’t think it’s good for us, either as human beings or in our leaders and the ability to say, ‘Yes, I made a mess of this,’ to me, this is a wonderful thing.
Jace There is a lot of focus within Roadkill on the role of special advisers or spads who often outlast PMs, which is itself a hot button issue in Britain right now. Within Roadkill, Dame Vanessa Pollard sort of embodies the obstinacy of civil servants who won’t to yield to progress. Does the series ultimately take a stand on the unchanging, often petty nature of modern bureaucratic government?
David No, it’s more taking a you know, it’s saying which I suppose anyone who’s ever done anything in politics feels the temporary nature of what you achieve. You know, you can see in your country that Trump’s main mission in the last four years has been to undo everything that Obama did. And it must be very strange for Obama to be watching someone who is absolutely obsessed with his achievements. I mean, there was an extraordinary moment at which Trump was even talking about ending the policy of fruit and vegetables to children. Now, why on earth would you undo such a wonderful policy? And of course, the reason was, it was Michelle Obama’s idea. And that’s why it must now be undone. And so, necessarily if you are part of the fabric and, you know, you are a civil servant and you see what I believe are called here today, gone tomorrow ministers, you do get some sense of this all being a pageant and somebody tries to do something whereupon somebody else immediately undoes it. And so that does create a certain resistance in civil servants. But it also, you know, whenever a minister suggests something, inevitably a civil servant will say, ‘Yes, we tried that in 1995 and it didn’t work.’ And so there’s always going to be that tension and that that that probably is a proper tension. And to replace the checks and balances of democracy with an authoritarian elite at the center, which is what Boris Johnson is now trying to do, I don’t think that’s going to be a superior form of government. I think it’s probably likely going to be an inferior because it’s so undemocratic.
Jace You contracted Covid-19 yourself earlier this year and wrote about your experiences with the monologue, Beat the Devil which being performed with Ray Fienes. What was it about your very unpredictable experience with the illness that compelled you to write about it?
David Oh, well, I didn’t think anyone who hasn’t had it can quite understand what it is. You can tell in the casual way people talk about it. They don’t really understand its sheer unpredictability, you know. One doctor said to me, ‘We haven’t had anything since HIV/AIDS that we understood so little. This is a virus we don’t understand.’ Now, I think in the last few months, the business of learning about it has begun. One of the doctors I quote in the play wrote to me and said, I’d love to bring you up to date, because we’ve changed our minds several times about the nature of this virus in the last few months. We’ve learned an awful lot.’ And so, I just wanted to explain to people who haven’t had it what the experience of having it is like, which I describe as roughly like having a Catherine wheel set off inside your innards, or a dirty bomb thrown inside you. And there’ll be a pageant of symptoms and you don’t know from day to day what the next one is going to be. And everybody’s symptoms are dissimilar. You know, everyone tells you that you lose your taste and smell. That’s the most common symptom. But personally, I had a completely different symptom, which was absolutely everything tasted of sewage. And I could not get the taste of sewage, whatever I ate, if I could keep it down, mind you, whatever I ate tasted of sewage and I could not get the taste of sewage out of my mouth, however much water I drank, liquid I drank, or mints I sucked sewage, sewage, sewage. And yet that’s a symptom I haven’t heard many other people describe. Delirium, conjunctivitis, herpes. You just don’t know what’s coming next. It’s a rollercoaster. And so it’s quite a dramatic thing to write about.
Jace And finally, what is next for you, Sir David?
David Well, a number of things are next. Goodness me. I made three films about Johnny Worricker, who was a spy, and then in MI5, and they were shown on PBS and I had never intended to return to them. But this is subject to the moment kicking around, but so urgent that I have dusted Johnny Worricker down. And my hope is that next year I’ll be allowed to make a fourth one so that all these films about Johnny will fit together. But, you know, in the current crisis, it’s very hard to say that anything that you intend to do will actually.
Jace But the Worricker trilogy could become a Worricker Quartet?
David That’s that that’s my head, because I love the character. I love Bill Nighy. I love the ability that Bill has to attract all these other wonderful actors that we had in the first three. And, you know, it gets me out of the house. I direct.
Jace Yes, you do. And you’ve directed not only the Worricker trilogy, but also Paris By Night and The Designated Mourner, to name a few. I mean, what is it about a project then that makes you say, I want to direct this?
David Oh, Bill makes me direct a film. Bill Nighy makes me direct. He’s the only person who now makes me direct. Nobody else asks me that, Bill. He’s comfortable being directed by me. I have a long standing, intense admiration for him. And I like directing Bill. It cheers me up. And so I do it for morale. And also it’s good for me to be reminded of problems of directing so that I really then doubly enjoy not directing, and handing these last two series over to S.J. Clarkson for Collateral and Michael Keillor for Roadkill, oh, heaven! You know, I can walk off a set and say, ‘Your problem!’
Jace I love it. Sir David Hare, thank you very, very much.
David Lovely to talk to you. Thank you very much.
Jace We’ve reached the end of another season of MASTERPIECE — which means our 50th Anniversary season isn’t all that far away.
On November 29th, we’ll have a special preview podcast episode of our Golden Jubilee Season, with exclusive sneak peeks at the titles coming to your screens in January and beyond, and an intimate chat with MASTERPIECE executive producer Susanne Simpson.
Plus, catch a special sneak preview of our upcoming documentary podcast, Making MASTERPIECE, covering all 50 years of MASTERPIECE history — with more than a few surprise guests!
Jace What is MASTERPIECE and how would you describe it in your own words?
Hugh Bonneville I think MASTERPIECE has been over the years, certainly from my side of the pond. It’s been a haven or a crucible, a melting pot of hopefully the best of British imports
Jace That’s November 29th, here on the podcast.
MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob, and produced by Nick Andersen. Elisheba Ittoop is our editor. Rebecca Eaton is the executive producer at large for MASTERPIECE. The executive producer of MASTEPIRECE is Susanne Simpson.
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