STARBURST: As both creator and writer of the series, we’re assuming that you’re a long-time fan of H. G. Wells. How did the series itself come about?
Graham Duff: I’ve been a devotee of Wells since I read The Invisible Man when I was 12. I haven’t read absolutely everything he wrote, as it’s an enormous body of work, but I love all the ‘scientific romances’ as they were called at the time. But my biggest Wells obsession has always been his short stories. I’ve re-read them scores of times over the years. About a year and a half ago, I was on holiday and started reading them for the umpteenth time. And it vaguely drifted across my mind how strange it was that hardly any of them had ever been adapted for the screen. It then took about three days for it to dawn on me that, as a screenwriter, maybe I myself should adapt them!
How did the project find its way to Sky Arts and how involved were they in the creative process and the development of the series?
I took the pitch to Clerkenwell Productions – who’d made Misfits amongst other things – as they were a company I was interested in working with. And it just so happened that they’d been talking with Sky Arts the previous day about the possibility of developing a new horror series. From then on, it just felt like we were swimming with the tide. I have to say, Sky were great – they trusted us and let us get on with making the series we wanted to make. There was nothing you could even vaguely call ‘interference’. It’s been a joy, a passion project brought to life by an incredibly gifted team.
Were the story selections for the series based on your own personal favourites from this rather overlooked corner of the Wells canon?
Wells wrote over seventy short stories so there’s a real wealth of great material to choose from. Initially, I was just guided by the stories which I’d always enjoyed reading. I was very keen to adapt The Story of The Late Mr. Elvesham as I think it’s an absolute masterpiece of mystery and suspense. So that one was in the bag from the start. But a number of other considerations soon came into play; what would work best visually? What would fit the aesthetic we’d chosen? And, of course, which stories we could do justice to on the budget we had!
One of the most exciting things about Wells is he pretty much invented the science fiction genre. So in several of his short stories, we see ideas which have become the cornerstones of science fiction being articulated for the very first time. So quite often, what you’re reading is a sci-fi trope in its purest form.
What can you tell us about the format of the series?
We’ve actually taken quite an experimental approach to the material. I’ve always liked playing around with the boundaries of genre and representation and these stories provided a perfect arena for that. And as soon as Adrian Shergold came on board as director, the experimental side really blossomed.
Each episode is presented by Wells and, as the stories progress, he appears within the stories commenting on the action. It sounds odd, but it really adds an interesting atmosphere to the show. Also, the sets themselves don’t have any walls. So even though the furniture, furnishings, costumes and so on are all rich in period detail, the ‘rooms’ themselves have no walls, so there’s just this blackness surrounding everything. Again, it sounds strange but it really works. It helps give the series quite a strange, dreamlike quality.
Ray Winstone seems like an unusual choice to play Wells. What particular qualities were you or the production team looking for, in general, in the actor who was going to play Wells?
For Wells himself, it was crucial we get the casting right. Although he isn’t on screen all the time, Wells plays a big part in how the stories are manifested. I think the idea of Ray playing H. G. Wells has surprised some people, probably because there’s an assumption that Wells was another product of the Oxbridge system when, in reality, he was a working class man from Bromley. Ray really relished playing Wells – partly, I imagine, because it’s quite different from the kind of ‘geezer’ roles he often gets offered.
The series boasts a pretty formidable supporting cast with established names such Michael (Harry Potter, Doctor Who) Gambon, Rupert (Sherlock) Graves alongside up-and-coming talent including Luke (Unbroken) Treadaway and Antonia (Misfits) Thomas. Beyond Wells himself, how involved were you in the casting?
I was involved in all the casting! There are actors I’d worked with before who I was keen to have involved in the show, such as Tom Goodman Hill, who played P.C. in Ideal, plays a priest in an episode called The Moth. The casting has been a dream. I’d like to think my scripts played a part in attracting great actors. But, in reality, I know that Adrian Shergold is such an exciting director to work with that actors flock to him. Actors like Rupert Graves, Leanne Best, and Michael Gambon had worked with him before and were very keen to do so again.
How closely did you find yourself working work with director Adrian Shergold in the process of bringing the scripts to the screen? Did you share the same ‘vision’ of what you wanted to see?
Adrian and I clicked from our very first meeting. Right away it was obvious that we were both talking about making the same show. Adrian has made some pretty impressive television over the years, working with people like Dennis Potter and so on and his instincts about how to interpret a scene are usually spot-on. One interesting thing is that TV directors of his seniority quite often settle into a kind of comfort zone. TV schedules are always super tight, so an experienced director will often do what they know will work. Adrian, however, was keen to experiment on virtually every scene – hanging the camera upside down, putting sticky tape on the lens and just generally taking risks. It was really exciting to collaborate with someone so unrestricted by convention.
Do you think this sort of series would be difficult to place on mainstream TV, which tends to increasingly play it safe?
I think a mainstream channel would quite possibly have been interested in a series of adaptations of HG Wells’ short stories. However, I think it would have been pretty difficult to get this version of the show commissioned by a mainstream channel. Like I say, it’s fairly experimental in a number of aspects – the production design, the soundtrack, the structuring, the casting – and I think a more mainstream broadcaster would have tried to curb those elements and insisted we take a more traditional approach.
I have to say Sky Arts were extremely encouraging and supportive from day one. They understood that the experimental approach Adrian and I were proposing wasn’t wilful. It was something which we all felt would add to the stories’ sense of fear and dislocation.
The soundtrack is provided by members of both Massive Attack and the Cocteau Twins; viewers often complain about intrusive and inappropriate background music in TV dramas these days; how does the soundtrack of Nightmare Worlds differ and how important do you think the right musical score is to the success of a TV series?
One of the very first ideas I’d had for the series was to avoid the traditional approach to scoring period dramas – pianos, cellos and decorous woodwind arrangements and so on. I was very keen that the majority of the score should be electronic. A lot of Wells’ ideas are about the shock of the new, so I thought a non-traditional score would help foster the feeling of unease.
I’d met Damon Reece and Elizabeth Fraser after a Massive Attack show in Manchester a couple of years back and we’d got talking. I’d always loved both Massive and the Cocteau’s and it turned out that Damon and Elizabeth were big fans of my series Ideal. The idea that we should collaborate came up, so we kept in touch and I filed the idea away for future reference. Then, when I was first developing the Wells project, it just seemed obvious they should be the people to score it.
Music is one of my life-long passions. And I’ve been deeply involved in the soundtrack to pretty much everything I’ve made. With Ideal - even though it was cues as opposed to especially scored music – the soundtrack was absolutely crucial to the show’s atmosphere and appeal.
What can viewers expect from the series and what would you like them to take away from it?
I think it’s a genuinely creepy and unsettling series. It deals with some of our most primal fears and I think, due in no small measure to the genius of Wells’ original ideas and prose, the stories are unpredictable and emotionally engaging.
And I would hope the series would encourage people who only know The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, and The Invisible Man to seek out Wells’ short stories. I genuinely think they are amongst some of the best stories written in the English language.
The series commemorates Wells’ 150th birthday, but do you think there is the potential for further episodes should these go down well? Are there any other writers you’d like to do something similar with?
Adrian and I would love to make more. I’ve already drawn up a list of further stories I’d like to adapt. And I’m also involved in developing another horror series based on the works of another great writer of the macabre – but I don’t want to talk about that right now, as we’re only in the very early stages.
A bit like asking who is your favourite child, perhaps, but which episode or episodes are you especially proud of and what, if it’s possible to say, are the stand-out moments in the series?
There’s an episode called Devotee of Art that I’m particularly proud of. It’s about a painter who’s offered the chance to attain great fame but at an extremely high price. I don’t want to talk about specific moments, as I’d like audiences to come to the stories with innocent eyes so to speak. Suffice to say, there are points in every episode which should make audiences jump, as well as several goose-bump inducing moments.
The Nightmare World of HG Wells screens on Sky Arts on January 28th (Episodes 1 and 2) and February 4th (Episodes 3 and 4).