Paul Unwin in conversation.
After the success of Casualty and Holby City, I wondered whether I could come up with another drama set in the world of medicine. It was always there in the back of my mind. Then I began to get interested in sexuality generally and more specifically the relationships between men and women before the arrival of the Pill, before abortion was legalised and when it was illegal to be gay. It struck me as a VERY different world from ours, although in many ways it feels quite recent, not least because so many people around us today lived through that era. A world with very different rules is fascinating as a writer to explore.
Attitudes we dramatise in Breathless will, I think, surprise and shock viewers.
I was determined to create an involving, character-driven series making use of multi-strand storylines that evolved over six or more episodes. I think TV is changing; people watch drama rather like they read novels; they want to consume big stories. So I pulled together the three key elements of medicine, sexuality and strong characters and set the drama in early 1960’s Britain. The result is Breathless.
I therefore set out with Peter Grimsdale – who co-created these characters with me – to give them all very complicated lives involving increasingly tangled lies. It is this that makes Breathless so interesting, I believe. While I won’t say what they get up to – you have to watch all six parts to see how the series ties together – all of our characters are either party to a lie, or trying to carry one off themselves. No one is quite what they seem.
We had a lot of fun with this. By creating a world of “secrets and lies”, I think Breathless reflects something about the way Britain was and possibly still is. If I understand anything about the early sixties it is that it was harder to express and act on desire, and marriage was a formidable objective and institution. Of course sex happened but it was very risky for women. On another level, it was a world that was more formal and conscious of keeping up appearances, which meant that people had to keep the improper hidden or covered up. So, mental health – dementia – was far less discussed; sex education was lacking; an unwanted pregnancy meant marriage or adoption…
These are big character drivers. Otto Powell, Jack Davenport’s character, is a superb surgeon but he is risking imprisonment by offering abortions to women who get into ‘trouble’. A complicated man, he is seemingly totally in control but also driven by a sense of life passing him by. Passionate, restrained, a ‘God’ in the hospital, he is above all a man living a lie, hiding a devastating secret from his past which could shatter the careful illusion he has created.
Otto’s oldest friend and closest colleague, Dr Charlie Enderbury (Shaun Dingwall), knows Otto’s secret. Indeed, he is part of it. However, being party to this knowledge has become increasingly toxic and his growing anxiety is eating into his professional and personal confidence. The effect this has on his marriage to Lily (Joanna Page) is slow to emerge and both touching and sad.
Keeping the secret makes Otto’s wife Elizabeth (Natasha Little) – the most sophisticated character – very vulnerable, particularly when someone from the past reappears – Iain Glen’s Chief Inspector Mulligan. Throughout, I have tried to create characters that have depth but also surprise. The bad are vulnerable, the good are not always good, plans don’t work out, lies are unsustainable.
Also there is nothing ‘eccentric’ or ‘arty’ about Breathless. It involves a group of strong and varied characters living at a different time but each with a clear sense of direction and desire. Their stories weave in and around each other. Sometimes the drama is close to a thriller, at others – I hope – it is funny. It hits emotions firmly and takes the audience on a real journey. ITV have been incredibly supportive. As soon as they read the first script, they rushed Breathless into production and whilst it was a tall order story-lining the whole thing, writing five of the six episodes and directing the first two, ITV have been a thrill to work with.
[download label=”Download the text as a PDF”]http://sofarproductions.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/BREATHLESS-ITV-Paul-Unwin.pdf[/download]
PR Matters (UK) Ltd
33 Oval Road
NW1 7EATel: +44 (0) 20 7184 6734
Mob: +44 (0) 7973 363341