TV dramas can often be divided into those that require your full, uninterrupted attention and others that are more readily digestible, allowing you to do important things like check to see if anyone’s responded to your joke on WhatsApp (spoiler alert: they haven’t).
Then there are crime thrillers like Deadwater Fell, the new David Tennant drama which begins on Channel 4 on Friday [10th January]. Such is the emotional intensity and trauma of the four-part series’ opening episode that you’ll likely watch the whole thing with your hand over your mouth, scared to watch but too gripped to look away.
The story of a terrible tragedy that occurs in a remote Scottish village, it is told through the eyes of two families.
Local GP Tom Kendrick (Tennant) and his wife, primary school teacher Kate (Anna Madeley), have three children and are close friends with fellow teacher Jess Milner (Cush Jumbo) and police officer Steve Campbell (Matthew McNulty), who are trying to have a baby via IVF. The events unfold in non-linear fashion and are told mostly in flashback.
If the drama has the feel of a true crime documentary then that’s because its writer Daisy Coulam and executive producer Emma Kingsman-Lloyd, who previously worked together on ITV’s Grantchester, are “both a little bit obsessed by them”, said Kingsman-Lloyd.
“Daisy said she wanted to write something that had the forensic detail of a true crime show,” recalled Kingsman-Lloyd.
“We basically said to her just write whatever you want to write - we didn’t have a broadcaster on board at that point - and Daisy went away and wrote the most extraordinary script and we were completely blown away.”
As was Channel 4 head of drama Caroline Hollick, who made it her first commission since beginning in the role just over a year ago.
“I secretly always dreamed that you rocked up, you picked an incredible script off a pile on your desk and you made it and it’s really easy and it turns out it’s not quite that easy but in this case it was, that’s exactly what happened,” said Hollick.
“A crime thriller but not just a police procedural, the story explores the anatomy of a horrific act of violence and the secrets that hide behind closed doors even within families that seem like they have the perfect life.
“It’s also about the intensity of female friendship and the fragility of trust. While the crime itself is unimaginable, the issues that the characters are grappling with are commonplace and relatable and I think that's one of the things that makes this drama so powerful.”
Tennant was so impressed that he asked to come on board not only as a star but as one of its executive producers, the first time he’s taken on such a role.
“There’s something about the way Daisy wrote that first episode which was unlike anything else,” said Tennant.
“It was compelling and ambiguous and hard to pin down. It had the trappings of a thriller but it was more than that, it’s subtler than that, it’s odder than that. These characters are so vivid and yet they slightly slip through your fingers.
“I said I’d love to be involved in this on as many levels as possible, because there were a lot of the elements still to be put in place, and I was delighted to be involved at an earlier stage than actors often are.”
The key for Tennant was the script. “Really it’s the writing, if the writing is good then you are hooked,” he said.
“It’s as true for the actors as it is for the audience. You can always ruin a good script, you can never really make a bad script good. You’ve got to start with that.”
There was something else special about the show in that nearly the entirety of its executive roles were taken by women, including director Lynsey Miller, producer Caroline Levy, and fellow co-executive producer, Karen Wilson.
Hollick said: “In an industry where women still sometimes feel excluded and sidelined, this is a show that is written, directed, produced, executive produced and commissioned by women, and I think that really shows in the unique perspective of this show in a genre that can often feel quite relentlessly masculine.”
It was an influence that the Financial Times previewer Suzi Feay thought shone through on screen.
“The core team — writer, producer and director — is all female and it’s tempting to ascribe the slower pace and careful assemblage of emotional factors to this circumstance,” she wrote. “That said, there are bound to be a few twists yet to come in this slow-burning, brooding tale.”
For writer Coulam the key to the drama’s success was to make the characters as real and as everyday as possible. The crime is entirely fictional but the programme had a forensic criminal psychologist to advise on the story and share examples of similar crimes and the behaviour and characters of the perpetrators.
Unlike true crime documentaries, in which the focus is almost entirely the perpetrator, Coulam said she wanted to “address the importance of the victim as the real person they are”.
“Because it’s such a big subject and it’s really quite dark, I felt it had to be as real as possible … the more grounded it is the better,” she said.
“You could do a really heightened version of it but we tried to stay away from the sensational as much as possible. You want to feel like you know these people and it could happen in your community."
Deadwater Fell is produced by Kudos, part of Endemol Shine UK and begins on Channel 4 on Friday 10th January at 9pm.