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This weekend sees the launch of BBC Three’s latest – and possibly last – original drama commission. With the channel likely to be available only online from 2016, TATAU appears to bring to an end a commendable run of innovative genre dramas pioneered by the channel since it began broadcasting in 2003 (renamed from the original BBC Choice). TATAU (it’s Samoan for ‘tattoo’) follows in the footsteps of the long-running Being Human and the award-winning but shorter-lived The Fades and In The Flesh and chronicles the exploits of two likely London lads travelling to the Cook Islands off the coast of New Zealand and becoming involved in the world of Maori myths, symbols, hallucinatory visions...and tattoos. The eight-part series is a collaboration between BBC Three, BBC America, Touchpaper TV (Being Human) and South Pacific Pictures, New Zealand’s largest screen production company. At the show’s London press launch last month, TATAU creator/writer Richard Zajdlic (This Life, EastEnders), Rob Pursey (Executive producer, Touchpaper TV) and the show’s star Joe Layton (New Worlds, Father Brown) who plays Kyle Connor who, along with his best friend Paul ‘Budgie’ Griffiths (Theo Barklem-Biggs) finds himself in the middle of a bizarre and inexplicable mystery thousands of miles from home, explained how the show came about what what’s in store for those touched by TATAU...

Tatau follows Kyle (Layton) and Budgie (Barklem-Biggs), two disillusioned twenty-something friends who abandon their mundane lives in London and set off to travel the world. They arrive in the sandy (if fictional) idyll of  Manu Taki in the Cook Islands where Kyle’s random Maori-influenced tattoo takes on an eerie and almost supernatural significance when Kyle goes snorkelling in a lagoon and finds the dead body of a local girl, Aumeau, tied up underwater. Or does he?

The series was created as a direct result of the desire of both the BBC in the UK and BBC America to work with South Pacific Pictures to craft a series set and filmed in the Cook Islands. “The BBC came to me and said ‘we want to do something in the Cook Islands’,” says creator/writer Richard Zajdlic. “I love travelling and I love different cultures so I came up with the idea of taking some back-packers to the Cook Islands and it all sort of spiralled with the idea of the tattoo and getting into the Maori culture which gave me all my ideas and my access into the story and it just sort of mushroomed and developed.” But although he’s travelled the world, Richard had never visited the Cook Islands and found himself writing a series set somewhere he knew little or nothing about. “But that’s the power of the internet, it’s a fantastic resource,” says Richard. “It’s the best research library in the world, you can literally see the Islands if you Google Earth. So I did a lot of research online but it’s really about making the imaginative leap. Once you’ve got the basic facts of the culture it was about taking that leap from there and spiralling outwards. These two guys are English, they’re fish out of water in a completely alien culture and travelling changes you, it does affect you inasmuch as you’re exploring and discovering other cultures and other civilisations and other people and you discover a lot about yourself too. So even though I hadn’t been there I’m certainly an English guy and I’ve been travelling so I know what that’s like and I know what it’s like to be a fish out of water and when you’re young as well that’s just an amazingly exciting time.

When Richard and the cast and crew finally arrived in the Cook Islands they were welcomed warmly by the locals who were enthusiastic and excited about the project. “It was heartening because the Maori people were very complementary about how accurate it was but they also had lots of ideas themselves and they had loads of input to offer,” says Richard. “Everywhere you go of course it’s the people that make the place and the Cook Islands were absolutely wonderful with some amazing characters. We went and visited a real life ‘tohunga’ (tattoo Master) who’s covered head-to-foot in tattoos. Tattoos really mean something and everything is an emblem about your origins, your history, your potential and so when Kyle puts this thing on his arm he’s just sort of imagined it and thought it up and thought ‘that looks good’ but to the Maoris all those symbols mean something which he doesn’t realise; but he will realise it as the series goes on. Certain aspects of the tattoo identify certain things particularly in relation to aspects of the island. Kyle’s a guy from Croydon and yet he has some of the symbols which specifically denote that he’s from that island which to a Maori is impossible, that couldn’t be. But no spoilers! But the symbols have been chosen specifically for things that happen in the story...

Touchstone’s Rob Pursey agrees that getting the tone and the style of a series based so strongly on an unfamiliar culture was fundamental to the plausibility and success of the show. It was important that the locals felt that their traditions were being respected. “When we were out there and pre-production was starting we made contact with lots of people including Maoris who read the scripts for us and they were helping us with locations and with finessing the scripts,” he says. “It’s remarkable how little had to be done but we just wanted to make sure we got things right. The last thing we wanted to do was turn up and mispronounce or misquote or get the culture wrong so we had people involved who could read the script intelligently and advise us on all sorts of things we couldn’t possibly get right on our own. There is one particular legend which is in the DNA of this series but it’s one of a whole series of stories, it’s a bit like the Greek myths, there’s a whole encyclopaedia of stories that do all the things our myths do but they’re unfamiliar – beautiful, wonderful stories but quite frightening as well. Like a lot of the best myths and fairy stories they explain the world and opening up that world was a very exciting thing.

For star Joe Layton just getting the role of Kyle was something of a dream come true. “When I found out I’d got the part I was actually down in Cornwall walking along the beach in the rain and then I got a call from my agent letting me know I’d got the job. Then I came back to do a read-through with the other guys, met Theo who was playing Budgie and everything just sort of clicked. It was absolutely incredible working in the Cook Islands, I feel really fortunate to have been out there; the people were so incredibly welcoming and the Maoris gave us their traditional blessing. They were so open and willing to share and they took such pride and joy in it so for me, going to somewhere I’d always wanted to go but could never have dreamt of going made it a real dream job.

As the only two British actors in the cast, it was vital that Joe and Theo managed to establish a real on-screen ‘best friends on tour’ chemistry. “We had a really good relationship in that we were never nervous and never felt we were stepping on each other’s toes,” says Joe. “If I wasn’t sure how a scene was working there was never a moment when I thought I couldn’t talk to Theo and vice versa so we actually spent a lot of time working out off-set as well. We were in the same hotel – when you’re on a desert island there’s not much else to do other than sit on the beach. [Lead director] Wayne Yip, Theo and I all said to each other that this was such an opportunity so that when we finish it let’s not feel that we’ve left any stone unturned and that we’ve not taken a risk on something or haven’t really pushed it. I think we did that and it was great working with both Wayne and Theo.

Tatau’s first episode suggests that the boys are running away from more than just a mundane life in rainy Britain. Kyle has suffered the tragedy of losing a child and Budgie is on the run from people who don’t seem to have his or his fmaily’s besyt interests at heart. “The boys aren’t just out there on a bit of a bender,” says Joe. “Kyle wants to submerse himself in the culture and take it all in. The loss of his child is something we explore but ultimately Kyle and Budgie are both leaving London for different reasons but they want and need to get away. Kyle is in a job he’s not interested in - which a lot of my friends would relate to and he goes through this traumatic period in his life which acts as a catalyst and a springboard which leads him to say ‘Let’s just do this now’. ”

Tatau is a big, widescreen, exotic sprawl of a series full of golden beaches, clear blue skies and seas and exotic wildlife. One of the highlights of the first episode sees Kyle’s snorkelling adventure which comes to an abrupt and shocking end when he discovers what appears to be a weighted-down corpse drifting in the waters. “The stuff in episode one is a mix of actually shooting in the sea in the Cook Islands where the water varies between a foot deep and three metres which goes all around the island and then the sea suddenly drops to thirty metres. All the stuff with the coral we did on the reef and another section we did in a pool in a Helicopter Rescue practice pool in New Zealand, a normal pool which was six metres deep with a rock structure built into it with oxygen tanks for us to breathe from at the bottom.

The dramatic heavy-lifting in the series is done by Joe and Theo with strong support from a cast of unfamiliar actors from the other side of the world. “Theo and Joe are the only British actors in the story and the whole point was to make the other characters we meet - most of them in episode one – as real and as compelling as our leads and there’s quite a few storylines which take you off with those characters so they’re like leads in their own right,” explains Rob Pursey. "Obviously it’s quite a daunting thing to do because we don’t know that acting community, we’ve never worked with them before but we worked with a Casting Director over there and Wayne our director and John Rushton the producer saw a lot of that local talent and the rest of us back in the UK were getting the tapes uploaded to us so the casting process wasn’t that different from normal. It was just extraordinary hearing these new voices – and most of them are young and virtually new and unknown even in their own territories. But we were delighted with what we found and I think that hearing and seeing them work with an English crew and with English leads just blended and worked brilliantly and there’s some brilliant acting there. It’s great for them because obviously it’s a small country and they find it pretty exciting to be in a show which started in the UK but it made over there; it’s a great window for them.

With BBC Three’s future still currently in flux – a final definitive decision is due in June – the future for Tatau beyond its first run of eight episodes can only be distinctly uncertain. But whilst the series works as a standalone story there’s clearly more mileage in the format should it attract an enthusiastic audience. “Well it’s definitely returnable, I’m working on that right now,” reveals Richard Zajdlic. “It’s difficult to say how or why because of spoilers but it has potential although it’s very important that it has a closed narrative. It’s a story which starts and has very definitive conclusion and a proper narrative arc.

Rob Pursey also sees Tatau as a show with a future. “There is one particular legend which is in the DNA of this series but it’s one of a whole series of stories,” he says. “It’s a bit like the Greek myths, there’s a whole encyclopaedia of stories that do all the things our myths do but they’re unfamiliar – beautiful, wonderful stories but quite frightening as well. I think because this eight-part series has one Maori myth at its heart it feels like a second series would open up another chapter of that series of stories for the British characters and maybe a  couple of the Maori characters who could carry on through. Series two would effectively open up a whole other story from that book of myths.

TATAU begins an eight episode run on BBC Three on April 12th at 10pm.

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