Interview with Mark Redhead, Executive Producer
Q: How did this adaptation of Doctor Thorne come to the screen?
“It’s been cooking quietly for a very long time. My fellow executive producers Chris Kelly and Ted Childs dreamed up this project years ago and had put it to Julian Fellowes, and Julian, because he loves Trollope, sat down and wrote it off his own bat. Then Downton Abbey happened so it took Julian some time to get round to finishing it. Chris and Ted, who had all but retired by then, approached me and asked if I would be interested in taking it on. Obviously I was. It took Julian some time to write the second part and then one day his agent rang me up and said, ‘Julian has finished the other part.’ So it was like a gift from God. Or Lord Fellowes, depending on which way you look at it. I then took it to ITV. They read it and commissioned it pretty much instantaneously.”
Q: As well as adapting the novel, Julian Fellowes is also an executive producer?
“Julian was a very active executive producer. He is a proven creator and has very firm and clever opinions about lots of things. He’s obviously very good on script but is also very good on casting and has strong instincts. He’s keen on the authenticity of a production. For example, he had opinions about the hair because he wants the historically accurate version of the hair of the period. He likes people to behave as they would have done, within limits.
In the introduction to the book, Trollope says it’s a slightly heightened ‘take’ on the world he is writing about. That’s what he has in mind, so it’s not a work of naturalism. But at the same time you’ve got to create a world that hangs together, that is believable and to some degree follows the social mores and habits of the era. Julian did a brilliant job of filleting a book which runs to 700 pages and turning it into something very economically realised in terms of time.
Julian is the most fantastic company. He is a brilliant, benign and fun character. I always look forward to meeting up with him because you know you’ll be laughing. I like him a great deal.”
Q: Why haven’t we seen this story on screen before?
“It is extraordinary that we haven’t! Doctor Thorne is one of The Barchester Chronicles. But none of the characters from that intrude into our world. So when the BBC did The Barchester Chronicles with Alan Rickman in 1982, they didn’t do this story then. Trollope wrote around 54 novels and they are many and varied and very few of them have been done for TV. I can think of The Pallisers, The Way We Live Now and The Barchester Chronicles. But, as far as I am aware, none of the others. And yet Trollope was a really great writer and wrote fantastic stories and great characters.”
Q: What were the main challenges in realising this for television?
“Julian’s approach is to create a world. Maybe this is something he has learned from Trollope. He did so brilliantly in Gosford Park and then in Downton Abbey. So the challenge is to realise a world, not simply one individual strand. Our story centres around three main houses which have got to be very distinctive. One is a lovely hero house, which is going to be lost. One is the rather vulgar, gothic house owned by Sir Roger Scatcherd (Ian McShane), a little more modern, OTT and a bit nouveau riche. And the other is the grand castle owned by the really snooty people in the story who are the De Courcys.
Just finding those three houses that felt distinctive was a huge challenge. We had people scouring the country saying, ‘Well, shall we film this in Yorkshire or base ourselves in Bristol? Where should we end up doing it?’ And actually they’re in Shropshire, West Wycombe and Knebworth. We also used lots of interiors. This is the magic of film. You stitch together lots of different interiors and exteriors to create what you hope is a world the audience can navigate their way around.
We were also unbelievably lucky with the weather. I know we’re British and obsessed with the weather. If you’re a drama producer then your obsession with the weather is exponential. In the TV business, if it rains you can’t stop filming. You can’t lose a day. You just have to get down on your knees every morning and pray for good weather. As it turned out it was an Indian Summer and the light was golden, it suffuses the whole film.”
Q: What does Tom Hollander bring to the role of Doctor Thorne?
“Tom was our instant thought for what is a very interesting role. The key thing and phrase Julian had was he felt the character needed ‘charismatic decency’. To be nice, genuinely lovable and charismatic at the same time is a rare quality, it’s Tom Hanks, James Stewart…and Tom Hollander. This story is dramatic, romantic and funny and Tom is brilliant at treading that line. So that he is funny but he doesn’t undermine the story by letting the comedy get out of control. He is the moral centre. It’s a really difficult part to play because Doctor Thorne is in possession of a secret which he is unable to share with anybody throughout the entire story and Tom had to manage that all the way through. It’s very unusual for a drama to be about someone who is just trying to do the decent thing.”
Q: What are the main themes in Doctor Thorne?
“It’s about love, jealousy, social climbing, death and change. But mainly about love. It’s different from Jane Austen where there is a feeling society is quite stable and everybody knows their place. Whereas Trollope, writing a little bit later, is writing about a world which is very much in flux. It’s much more like our world. There’s a rising class, the old aristocracy’s grip on their land and their money is slipping and there is a new class rising up. It’s much more uncertain. So underneath what appears to be a very stable world is a great deal of uncertainty and nervousness. I think the audience will be able to connect with that. It’s also much more morally complicated than you would find in a Jane Austen or possibly even in a Dickens. Two innocent young people fall in love and in a conventional fairy story the drama would just chart their journey towards happiness. But in Doctor Thorne the fairy story meets a real social whirl in which two people have an idealised romantic love affair that impacts on all the people around them, their families and friends. So one gets a sense that you’re dropping a stone in the water and it’s the ripples that pass through all of the people in this little world.” Q: Tell us about Rebecca Front and Phoebe Nicholls as Lady Arabella and the Countess De Courcy, plus Ian McShane as Sir Roger Scatcherd?
“Phoebe Nicholls and Rebecca Front play the double‐headed wicked stepmother in a sense. It’s a fairy story in a way and they are brilliant together. Ian is just fantastic. He’s such a great sport and in the most incredible shape. We actually had to make him look less handsome and vigorous than he really is. Again, he’s just one of those actors who treads that line of comic and sad. He’s very skillful.”
Q: How did you discover your two young lead cast members: Stefanie Martini and Harry Richardson, who play Mary Thorne and Frank Gresham?
“Harry paid for himself to come over from Australia to the UK for the audition. That’s bold. To say, ‘I really want to go for this role.’ He is like an artist’s vision of a young romantic hero. And Stefanie, who had just left RADA, is, like Harry, also a wonderful actor. I’m sure both of them are going to have massive careers.”
Q: Did everything go smoothly during filming?
“The producer Helen Gregory and director Niall McCormick did brilliant jobs. Niall told me he had never enjoyed a filming process as much as he enjoyed working on Doctor Thorne. A happy shoot is not necessarily a guarantee of a great show. But it was an unusually jolly and agreeable shoot.
Niall had a very clear sense that what he wanted to do was something really colourful, bright and fun. He used the word ‘entertainment’ and in all the years I’ve been producing drama I’d never heard anybody use the word entertainment before. It’s always about great themes of this, that and the other. Whereas he’s interested in the themes but he felt there was an opportunity to make something really entertaining. He chose to do that by cuvng loose a bit and allowing the characters to be very big, vivid and strong. It feels fresh. It doesn’t feel like your usual old costume drama. It feels very alive.”
Q: What else can viewers look forward to?
“Doctor Thorne has the most incredibly satisfying ending to any drama. It is just absolutely fantastic. I am a sentimental old fool. I sat in the cutting room on my first viewing of the final episode and tears started flowing from my eyes. I was desperately trying to hide my tears from the producer and the editor who were watching the show with me because I thought, ‘They’re going to think I’m an idiot.’ But it just presses the buttons and is so wonderfully satisfying. It isn’t purely schmaltzy. There’s a little bit of grit in the oyster. It’s more complex than a fairy story. More emotionally surprising. I’m really pleased with Doctor Thorne. I’ve made a lot of good shows and I’ve made a few bad ones. I look at this one and think, ‘This is really great. This is really good fun.’”