The Fall : subverting the crime genre (2013)
The Fall, BBC2
9 May, 2013
Writer Allan Cubitt was involved in everything from casting to editing on his BBC2 series The Fall. Tim Adler speaks to the producers and star Gillian Anderson about the unusual set-up.
From the moment he takes off his balaclava at the start of The Fall, BBC2’s new five-part crime drama, we know who the killer is.
Jamie Dornan plays a handsome young man who looks as if he wouldn’t have any trouble chatting up the career women he stalks in Belfast city centre. Then another mask comes off: he has a son; no, he has a daughter too. He’s married as well and apparently in a loving relationship. Oh my God, he works as a grief counsellor, consoling parents whose children have died. We’re still only a fifth of the way through episode one of five.
The Fall is constructed as a series of revelations, each more compelling than the last. Or, as writer Allan Cubitt puts it, it is a game of hot-and-cold where we, the audience, know who the killer is but the police, led by Detective Superintendent Gibson (Gillian Anderson) are left floundering. Northern Ireland police, unwilling to accept they have a serial killer in their midst, fail to connect the dots.
Cubitt, whose credits include the second Prime Suspect, wanted to write a show that spent as much time with the serial killer and his victims as it did with a plodding police investigation.
“It was an idea I’d had for a while, as a one-liner really: we would identify the killer from the get-go and spend an equal amount of time with the two hunters, as it were, until the balance of power slowly started to shift between them,” he says.
Cubitt took the bare bones of his idea to his friend Gub Neal, a collaborator on Prime Suspect 2 who now runs production company Artists Studio. Neal came back to Cubitt with a proposal: rather than just be a gun for hire, the writer would be full-blown showrunner, involved in every aspect of production, from casting to editing.
Neal says: “This show is a model for what we want to do with Artists Studio: writers with their own vision working in pretty much the same way as top-level US showrunners. They have ownership of the material and the way it’s made, without the burden of running a business.”
Executive producer Justin Thomson- Glover adds: “Allan was on set every day and even in the editing room. We wanted to give him a voice on everything. I don’t think any show has had the writer’s voice so upfront before.”
The producer’s income for the show was to be split equally between Cubitt and Artists Studio.
Neal took the pitch to BBC Northern Ireland, which commissioned the script and put up two thirds of the £4.5 million budget. German rights group ZDF Enterprises came in alongside Irish broadcaster RTÉ and Flemish- language Belgian broadcaster VMMA. Content Media is handling international sales.
Northern Ireland Screen also backed the project, on the condition that it was shot in Belfast. However, the decision to shoot in the city was not down to a co-production strategy designed to secure as much soft money as possible; rather, the script called for somewhere that had no experience of serial killers, allowing Anderson’s DSI Gibson to be drafted in. “The emotional ambition of the show was to show how awful it is when these crimes are perpetuated, so that you’re following the consequences of these crimes,” says Neal.
Conscious of the ubiquity of crime drama, Cubitt resolved to take things deeper. “Two things lacking in crime drama are going into the reasons why somebody becomes a psychopath, and any identification with the victim or the victim’s family. Too often the serial killer is a cardboard bogeyman,” he says. “I wanted to convey some of the psychic shock of a murder. It just disturbs people very profoundly. The mother of Moors Murder victim Keith Bennett was in agony for the rest of her life.”
The X-Files star Anderson was always first choice to play Gibson. However, the actress was wary.
Despite star turns in Bleak House and The Crimson Petal And The White, this would be her first TV lead role for a decade. She had already turned down playing the lead in another BBC thriller, Hunted (which, coincidentally, was also the working title of The Fall). Anderson had concerns that Artists Studio just wanted to do something slick, aping American shows. What she had in mind was much less glossy.
Anderson says: “It was very important to me how they were planning on shooting it. I had quite strong opinions about its potential. Artists Studio was just as interested as I was in making it as gritty and timeless as possible.”
She also helped cast the fairly unknown Dornan as the serial killer. “This was a difficult role,” she says. “He had to both be a family man and feel like an outsider. It was paramount that we didn’t recognise this person. They couldn’t look or behave like a serial killer. The discomfort must come from the fact that if this bloke was trying to pick you up, you might just say yes.”
Cubitt acknowledges there was pressure to cast a bigger name opposite Anderson. “Although it would have been safer to go with somebody better known, Al wanted to go with someone the right age. Most serial killers are in their late twenties when they start,” says Thomson-Glover.
Anderson also helped pick Belgian director Jakob Verbruggen to helm the show. This was another risk. Verbruggen had made Flemish crime show Code 37 but had never directed an English-language drama. Partly the hope was that, not knowing much about the history of The Troubles, he would see Belfast with a fresh eye and avoid the usual clichés.
Verbruggen was directing the last couple of episodes of Code 37 when he got the call. He leaped at the opportunity. “The fact that as a foreigner I could bring a fresh eye played a big part in the decision to hire me. It was my first time in Belfast. At first, I thought it was going to be like arriving in East Berlin in the 1970s. I was pleasantly surprised to fi nd a city that was reinventing itself,” he says.
“I was nervous about meeting Gillian Anderson because I knew she had much more experience than I did. After all, I grew up watching The X-Files.”
Verbruggen certainly picks up telling details: a passing shot in police headquarters of a board commemorating all those officers who have been killed on duty; the fact that only Northern Ireland police are allowed to carry handguns as part of their everyday work.
More importantly, The Fall gets into the fibre of reality. At times, the drama has a documentary feel, occupying that apex where fiction and non-fiction meet. The details feel right. For a start, there is no barging through crime scene tape or DSI Gibson disturbing evidence while wandering around in full make-up (think Silent Witness).
Rather, she spends one scene muffling her dialogue through a face mask, dressed in a lumpy forensic boiler suit. By the end of the series, she’s sleeping on a police cot with dark smudges under her eyes from exhaustion.
As with other gritty, slow-boiling crime dramas, comparisons will inevitably be made with The Killing. In The Fall, who has the upper hand seesaws between the murderer and the investigating officer. So it’s frustrating that the show breaks off just as the hunter becomes the hunted. The BBC wants to see viewer reaction before commissioning any more episodes, leaving the audience dangling. Will viewers have the patience to wait a year and a half before seeing whether DSI Gibson gets her man?
Given her schedule – Anderson is due to start filming feature Our Robot Overlords in May, and has other projects lined up after that – it’s a concern the actress shares. She’s hardly short of work. “If we don’t get the go-ahead for series two soon, we can’t start shooting until November and by the time viewers see it again, it will be 18 months since the first five.”
What do you say, BBC?