Sarah Williams Didn’t Mean For Mary To Take Control Of Her Series

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Sarah Williams is the kind of screenwriter who knows where she’s going when she starts writing a script. But sometimes, a character insists on taking the story in a different angle, and Imelda Staunton’s timid Mary was exactly that kind of character. Williams shows where Mary took her, and us, in a new podcast after the dramatic conclusion of Flesh and Blood.

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Transcript

Jace Lacob: I’m Jace Lacob, and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.

I’ll say it here, and I’ll say it again later: if you’ve somehow gotten this far and have NOT seen all four episodes of Flesh & Blood: stop listening, finish the series, and come back later.

CLIP

Mary And for, for a moment … well, we just didn’t know what to do.

DI Lineham And then what happened?

Jace Now that spoilers are out of the way, we can all admit to ourselves: it certainly seemed like Mark Kinneally was going to be the murder vicitm here all along, right?

CLIP

Mark I’ve had enough of suspicion and, and gossip and whispering behind my back. Why do you think I moved away and came down here? I wasn’t even there when Charlotte died, I was with my daughter. If you don’t trust me on this, one hundred percent, Viv, then it’s a deal breaker for me.

Jace Mark was the victim of an attempted murder, for sure. But Mark, however, is NOT dead — his eyes pop open just as episode four comes to a close.

CLIP

Mary Well, they’re in shock, and, of course, it’ll be terrible for Vivien if Mark doesn’t pull through. But she’ll get over it in time. She’s actually very strong. And, anyway, the good thing is, I’ll be there for her. It’ll just be the two of us …Jace Flesh and Blood’s creator, Sarah Williams started at the end of her puzzle-box series when she wrote it, and knew exactly where her first season would end. Williams joins us to talk about Mary and Vivien, sibling dynamics and the upcoming debut of her series The Long Song as part of MASTERPIECE’s fast-approaching 50th Anniversary season.

Jace And this week, we are joined by Flesh and Blood creator Sarah Williams. Welcome.

Sarah Hi there.

Jace Because this is Flesh and Blood, let’s start at the end. So a big, big spoiler alert for people who haven’t watched episode four yet: why are you listening to this if you haven’t watched it yet? When in the writing process did the identities of the killer and victim click into place for you?

Sarah Oh, pretty early on, actually, yes. I’m one of those writers, I have to know where I’m going. I can’t just kind of start and see where it takes me. I think with something like this, it all started with the family, actually. AndI was aiming to write a family drama. And suddenly, bizarrely, against my true wishes, it turned into a kind of murder mystery. But that was, as I say, that was pretty early on in the development. But but it certainly started in my brain as being a family drama. And then this next door neighbor crept in and, yeah, she took it in a whole different direction. So.

Jace So take me then through the impetus for the decision to make Mary the would-be killer. I mean, it works on so many levels for me. Mary is the protector of the family. Mary, as a sort of jealous hanger on, Mary as an avenging angel, why was Mary the ideal killer in this case?

Sarah Yeah, well, as you say, she’s. Is she a guardian angel or is she just a nosy neighbor? Is she an interfering murderer? She really did come into the whole show without my permission, as it were. And she was she was bred, I think, of those interviews you often see in the press with the next door neighbor after there’s been a murder. And the next door neighbor is so excited. You know, it’s sort of they get to be the expert for a bit on on a national news story. So she started like that and then she became a much more complex character in my head. You know, I began to like her and I began to feel sorry for her and I began to see how this family had treated her over the years. And so as she became more intriguing to me, I suddenly could see her point of view and how this family had ignored her systematically, really. And how much she loved them. And that became a super interesting to me. And I think Imelda Staunton played it so beautifully, so perfectly, sort of hinged between you feel for her. You know, she’s not evil. You know, she’s not a murderer. But you know how strong her feelings are. So, yeah, it was it was a perfect casting for me, that was.

Jace I want to pull on the thread of her character a little more. The Mary we meet in episode one under police scrutiny, presents a very different picture than the Mary we learn about by the end of episode four.

CLIP

Mary And over the years, we’ve become well, not just neighbours, but friends.

Vivien Hi, Mary!

Mary Hi!

Jace How would you describe our perception of her character and her character itself as a sort of evolving over those four episodes?

Sarah Well, I think she’s of course, we’re in two different times zones, aren’t we when she’s being interviewed by the police, that is after the event. And so she’s she’s our typical unreliable narrator in one sense. But I think when you see her in live action, as it were, the lead up to the accident. One of the reasons I wanted to write it in that timeframe was that it seems to me that after an incident has happened, people try and piece together what’s happened. But to me, the interesting thing was how do you get to that incident happening? And so I wanted to take Mary on a journey and see how she got to where she ended up. You see what I mean? So that you’re not looking for a potential killer, you’re looking at a person developing over time to a place where they might kill.

Jace I mean, on those lines, Flesh and Blood ends up hewing closer to maybe we’ll say sort of a Nordic thriller than a traditional British one. The notion that damaged people cause damage. Mary has lost her biological child when he was a baby. She’s lost her husband. Does the threat of losing this family push her over the edge? Is that the inciting incident here?

Sarah Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. That without them what has she got? You know, they’re her family. You know, she’s a appropriated them. But oddly enough, I never set out to do anything Scandi or or in a way anything murderous because I felt I wanted to do a character piece I mean, I’m a real scaredy cat. Honestly, when it comes to noir, I can sit and watch violence, murder, serial killers, rape, you know, child abduction is not my thing. So. So this did not come from a whodunit place. It really came from a, yeah. Relationships, actually. To begin with, I was much more interested in family dynamics and how an outsider who might be either good or bad would interact with that family. So, yeah, it was always a character piece and I was wanted it also to have some laughs in it. I suppose at a very basic level. You know, I find the unrelenting jeopardy sometimes of murder mysteries hard to take. So I’m always looking for some wit, some humor, because life is like that isn’t it. Am I I mean, mine is you know, it’s. Yeah. Some some light and shade I suppose. Yeah.

Jace Mary is clearly obsessed with the family. She’s putting on Vivien’s robe. She’s rifling through the medicine cabinet. Where did the idea for Mary come from and how did her inclusion in the plot transform Flesh and Blood from those initial intentions?

Sarah Yeah. No, it totally transformed it. Yes. And I you know, I have no idea where they came from. And it’s slightly shocking to me when I wrote the the dressing gown scene and her spilling the gravy on the robe. I sort of thought, oh, I’m onto something here. I don’t know. I couldn’t tell you where it came from. But, yeah, she she just popped in, fully formed and. And I thought, yes, she’s a deliciously sort of dark character who we’re going to love. So, um, I thought how nice is that, you know, in a way to have stumbled upon a character who you’re going to love but who’s also going to turn out to be a potential killer.

Jace I mean, she is ultimately a rather sympathetic monster. And to me, it’s very much the product of both the writing and what Imelda Staunton brings to this role. How important was Imelda to crafting this character and bringing it to life?

Sarah Well, I mean, I can’t imagine literally anyone else doing it. Now, did I write it with her in mind? Not at the very beginning, but by the time I’ve done one episode, she was firmly in my mind as about the only person I could think of who could play it. Of course, we didn’t know if she would. But so to me, it was the absolute thrilling moment when she read it and liked it. So, yeah, I mean, she is I mean, she’s always been a brilliant actor, but she’s absolutely at the top of her game right now, I think. And she can do things. In subtext that that almost well, I can’t think of many other actors who can do that. You know, Meryl Streep may be you know, she she can do so much. Every single nuance that was in the script is on her face without her having to say anything. And that, you know, my God, that is such a gift for you as a writer. It really is.

Jace Mary provides the first episode’s viewpoint through her interview with DI Lineham. But given what we know at the end, it calls into question everything Mary has told us thus far.

CLIP

Mary Well, erm…… everyone was having a lovely time.  You know, we had champagne, music, a few speeches.  But I don’t think any of us realised how much Mark had been drinking …

Jace Is she intended to be the most unreliable of unreliable narrators?

Sarah Yeah, yeah. I think she is really. And I think the question is, you know, is she. Yeah. How much of the truth is she telling not only to the police, but to herself and to the family and to. Yeah, to us. Ultimately, yeah. So that was the fun of it for me. And like, I sort of wanted to play with the genre a bit and have some fun with the piece. And and she was just the way into that.

Jace I want to talk more about those interrogation scenes. They proved to be important not only to the plot, but to the narrative structure of Flesh and Blood itself. How did you decide who would be in the hot seat. In each episode? And what did you hope those interview scenes would reveal or not reveal about that specific character each week?

Sarah Well, in one sense, it was to rebut that narrative framework was to remind viewers something terrible had already happened. So it and that we were that the whole series really was flashing back. So, yeah, I, I think I took the decision pretty early on that we would hotseat. The siblings and that in doing so, we would gain a bit of insight into them all being locked in to this lie that we would find out, of course, at the end that that it’s a lie of Mary’s designing and that they are all now at the very end of the of the piece they’re all kind of beholden to Mary. Mary ends up with everything she’s ever wanted, really. She’s she’s in a position of power. At the end of that. But I also, I suppose, wanted to look at the siblings. I mean, I’m one of six kids. So I was writing to begin with from the siblings point of view entirely. And they were my main characters. And they just they they somehow slipped down the batting order. But, um, but, you know, I wanted to so that you could see what kind of people they were and how important their family was to them even when they didn’t think it was. Which I think is something we can all relate a bit to that feeling of your family being a bond that’s hardwired into that bond before you were fully conscious as a human being. Your brothers and sisters are there under your skin. They know all your secrets. They know how to wind you up. But maybe they also make you laugh and, you know, so. So there’s that deep, deep bond there. I suppose I wanted to show that when push came to shove, those siblings would stick together, no matter how much it appeared that they were against each other.

Jace So they know the pressure points of sort of pain and pleasure for each other. How does that dynamic mirror your own with your five siblings?

Sarah Yeah, I think pretty closely in a funny kind of way. I mean, when you come from such a big family, there are bound to be some you’re closer to than others. But nevertheless, you know, when we all get back together, we tend to regress in age to the point where we were last all living in the same house, you know, and I’m number five. So that puts me right down the pecking order I’m about seven years old in that, you know, in that lineup. So, you know, and my older brothers, they’ll patronize me as if I weren’t the independent woman I am, you know. And so, yeah, we do wind each other up really quickly, but there’s nothing. Yeah. There’s an incredible bond as well. You know, we’re still the Williams kids. And we we sort of always will be. I suppose. Yeah.

Jace I want to turn now to Vivien. She is the character around which everything orbits. The glamorous older woman at the center of this story, the sort of half of the unusual friendship between Vivien and Mary. What was behind the decision not to put Vivien then in sort of the hot seat in one of these episodes, but to actually withhold her own perspective from the viewer?

Sarah Well, firstly, we only had four episodes, so it it felt to me that one per episode was good. The other thing I think with Vivien is that I didn’t want too much insight, I suppose, into her She is, by the end, this is the one person who does not is not party to the lie that Mary has told. Because she fainted before the accident. So I wanted her to remain innocent. And that was quite important to me. And I think, again, I mean, I’m very lucky in the casting of Francesca because I think you you do feel for her. She’s she’s got these three kids who, you know, are very being protective or are they actually being a bit selfish, you know, the way that only kids can, which is they don’t want life to change. They don’t want mom to have another priority and I think you really even if you don’t think she’s made the right choice, you you sort of want Viven to have some freedom or at least I hope you do. And I think Francesca. Yes. She she played that so well. And and also that the dynamic between the two women, between Imelda and Francesca worked for me, worked very well. So the casting played into the script beautifully, that the glamorous, you know. Oh, I’ll just throw on a silk dress and some lipstick and a pair of heels and run out. And there’s Imelda. You know, just thinking, oh, it’s all right for her, you know. And then next door in the in the tattier house, in the you know, the flat shoes and the old skirts, scrimping and saving, you know. So. Yeah, and that that, to me, was a really interesting relationship.

Jace Before this next question, let’s take a break to hear a word from our sponsors…

Jace I want to go now to the incident itself. What was an accident? The brawl between Jake and Mark turns to murder. Why does Mary attempt to smother Mark? Is she hoping to to silence him altogether?

Sarah Well, yes. She’s hoping to kill him. Let’s not be too coy about it. I mean, yeah. The reason it was designed like that was because she’s not a murderer. But presented with a perfect opportunity. She’s not going to pass that up. So that was you know, I knew I wanted her to be a killer, I suppose, but I didn’t want her to be in the planning of a murder. So it was that opportunistic moment. Here I am. I’m all alone. No one can ever know that I’ve done this. And, you know, it took me a while to work out how that might happen. And I had to talk to a couple of doctors and medical people about, you know, could you do that? And would it be found out? And what would be the perfect way if someone had head injuries? Could you if you simply denied them oxygen? Would that ever be detectable later on in the postmortem and that kind of things?

Jace And she comes out looking like a hero because she tried to resuscitate him.

CLIP

DI Lineham You’ve had experience of mouth to mouth resuscitation?

Mary I’ve had some, but probably very outdated.  Still, I just kept going. I just, I kept going at it until the ambulance arrived. And I did everything I could. I did everything, everything I could.

Sarah In fact, I love the way she delivers that line. It’s so so the perfect lie, isn’t it? I do. I did everything I could.

Jace And I became convinced that Mark was a serial liar, that his daughter, Sophie, was a myth. Someone he can, your honor, when it was convenient. But it was equally convenient that he had no photos of her. She has no social media presence. How did Sophie become a device that could prove or disprove Mark’s guilt?

Sarah I think we needed somebody because he’s such a loner. You know, he comes into Vivian’s life and he nobody knows him. He’s not from around here, you know. He’s not. I mean, I think this is this is often the way who is going to vouch for him? And so I thought we we need to give him a background and a back story and and also for that. Yeah. For that daughter to. Be questionable, you know, does she exist and. Yeah, I think it will. It was a device that I knew. Again, with series two in mind, I had the feeling that she could appear. And also that. Yeah, I wanted him to have a person in his corner. Yeah.

Jace This doesn’t look like a standard thriller. It’s bright. It’s sunny. It’s well lit. There’s no sort of gloom. How did the direction by Louise Hooper subvert the audience’s expectations about how a thriller should look and feel?

Sarah Yeah, well, she did a great job. I mean, it was always my intention that it should be bright and warm and sunny. And I grew up by the sea and I love and I still live. Actually, I mean, I moved back and I now still live right by the sea on the south coast in England. And so the sea, it’s been an ever present part of my my life. And that it has such a magnetic pull, the horizon, the the the blueness of the sky and the sea. And, yeah, so that was that was really important to me that it did not look noir ish. You know, I thought, OK, we’re going into some dark territory, but I want it to look bright, breezy and sunny. And then Louise completely got that and gave it a terrific look. And as I say, we were we were really lucky. You know, we we filmed in probably the best six weeks of weather we’ve ever had in England. And so we got a lot of bright, bright sunshine in which which I hope gives it. Yeah. Sort of distinct visual style and invites you in, you know, invites you in and says this can be fun as well. Not it’s not just going to be miserable and murderous.

Jace I love the pairing of Jake and Stella. They’re such an unlikely duo. And I love the fact that their relationship starts out as purely transactional and then you lapse into something very unexpected.

CLIP

Stella I think … I think we have to stop this now, don’t we?  With things looking so good for your marriage…this, this isn’t right, is it? Look, come on, we both knew it would come to an end sooner or later, didn’t we?

Jake Well I guess I’ll er … I’ll have to move out.

Stella No, no, don’t be silly.  You can stay here as long as you need to.

Jake Yeah, but the rent?

Stella No, don’t worry, I think you are well in credit.  And I don’t expect you’re going to be here much longer.

Jake I’ll miss you.

Jace Were you surprised by how much audiences and perhaps even yourself enjoyed that dynamic?

Sarah Yes. Yeah. I mean, I think, again, they were both great. And that of the character that Sharon Small plays is so, you know, she she did it so well that it could have been quite a tough, hard woman, but she brought so much warmth to it and understanding. And I’ve always been fascinated by transactional relationships.  And I was actually once had a really interesting conversation with a professional prostitute. And she said to me, you know, people don’t. Imagine it. But one of the key characteristics you need as a prostitute is compassion. And I thought yeah, because, you know, like I can I can see that people who pay for sex aren’t always in the best place. So, you know, nothing is quite what it seems in that world. And so, yeah, but it just felt to me that I could maybe have some unexpected twists in that relationship and how transsexual sex might evolve over time. It’s something that actually meant something and they would develop feelings for each other. And in a way, she is perhaps the most sane person of the cast, isn’t she? I mean, everyone else is desperate for love. And she she’s actually got a slightly better handle on it. That was interesting to me. Yeah. Yeah. I, I enjoyed writing that. And Russell was Russell was great at it too. Yeah.

Jace By the end of the series, the house is no longer for sale. Everything has gone back to and I’m saying this in air quotes “normal” for everyone other than Vivien who’s reduced to being little more than a ghost in her own house. Is there a sense that her family ended up hurting her far more than Mark could have?

Sarah I think there’s an element of that. And. You know, it is part of that question, where does protection, you know, turn into something much more manipulative? You feel for Vivien at the end. Do you think she’s a prisoner in her own house? In a way. And she’s the one person at the table who’s not part of that lie. She doesn’t know the truth. So certainly a big impetus for me was, can we get Vivien out of jail kind of thing? Can we get her to her? The freedom that we all want her to have? You know, if she’s worked hard all her life and she’s lived with other people in mind, can she break free? That’s that’s the sort of question I think that the future begs for her.

Jace What should we make of the look that passes at the end between Vivien and Mary? What’s unspoken there?

Sarah All I do think because Mary doesn’t know that Mark’s eyes are gonna open. So Mary feels she’s got what she always wanted. She has. You know, she’s. She’s as close to Vivian as she can be. And she’s going to look after Vivian. She’s going to protect Vivian. She’s not gonna let anyone else get close to Vivian. She you know, it’s a complicated set of feelings, I think that Mary has for Vivien, and she kind of wants to be her when she kind of loves her and she’s kind of jealous of her. And I think that from Vivien’s point of view, can only just see the tip of that iceberg. She has not given Mary much consideration. But she’s about to have to you know, she really is. I think there is an element there of Mary being the the jailer. Yes.

Jace The Long Song is airing on MASTERPIECE next year as part of MASTERPIECE’s fiftieth anniversary season. Does The Long Song, particularly its themes of immigration, racism, slavery, colonialism, feel especially timely or relevant right now?

Sarah Yes, of course. Yeah. The whole Black Lives Matter movement. Yeah, definitely. There’s never a time when it wasn’t relevant. And I think. It’s it’s a book that’s really close to my heart. And people, you know, you could you could look at it and you said, but it’s so different. You know, it’s about slavery. It’s it’s a book about really tough, tough events that went on a very long time ago. And it is. But but, you know, oddly, it’s not a hard watch because. Andrea Levy is such a brilliant writer and she’s so full of warmth and humanity that she can write a book about slavery, which also has laughs, has, you know, humanity has it’s you know, it’s it really has got everything in there. It has terrifically light moments. And also alongside the very dark stuff. So it is not just I think sometimes people shy away from the subject matter because they think, oh, I cannot bear to watch. That the awful inhumanity of slavery. Well, this is much more than that. You know, this is about the slaves’ absolute triumph of their spirit in captivity and and how they, like all of us, managed to live their lives with with love, with humor, with warmth, with it. It’s a book about humanity, not just about slavery. So.

Jace I want to talk about the late Andrea Levy, who very sadly died last year. You adopted both a long song and the small island. What was Andrea Levy like and how closely did you work with her?

Sarah She was great. She was a real inspiration to me as a writer. Actually, we didn’t work very closely on Small Island, but we certainly did on The Long Song. And she was also on The Long Song, she was executive producer. And so was I. And so our relationship really crystallized on The Long Song. And that was terrific for me. I learned a lot from her. So between us, we thought, well, we’ve got this hugely long book, actually. And we’ve got to condense that into three hours of TV. And. And I felt so strongly that I wanted her vision to come through. You know, it wasn’t gonna be my take on the long song at all. You know, I don’t have Caribbean roots. I wanted it to be as direct from her book as I could make it, you know? So her input into my adaptation was crucial. And she was brilliant and such a generous collaborator. Yeah, she really was. She’s really I mean, I miss her enormously. And I think that that both Small Island and The Long Song so well will turn out to be genuine classics. I mean, I think they’re already being studied in schools and them. And I think, you know, in 50 years time, hundred years time, people would still be looking at them and reading them.

Jace I certainly hope so. Sarah Williams, thank you so very much.

Sarah Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

Jace In real time, as this podcast hits your earbuds, we’re on the verge of a major presidential election here in the United States… so it makes sense that the drama on screen turns towards the political on MASTERPIECE.

CLIP

Peter At some point, you’re gonna tell me why you think that was a risk worth taking.

Duncan I made a judgement call. I’m looking at Twitter…there’s a significant minority who think you’ve already taken a blow.

Peter As you say, a minority. 

Jace Roadkill follows upstart Tory MP Peter Laurence on his shadowy path to power — and series creator Sir David Hare offers a behind the scenes glimpse at his inspirations for the political potboiler here on the podcast November 1.

MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob, and produced by Nick Andersen. Elisehba Ittoop is our editor. Rebecca Eaton is the executive producer at large for MASTERPEICE. The executive producer for MASTERPIECE is Susanne Simpson.

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