An exclusive interview with the executive producer of Endeavour and managing director of Mammoth Screen.
Rise of the Mammuthus primigenius
Interview copyright © Damian Michael Barcroft 2019
DAMIAN: I’d like to start by going back to what, in many respects, might be retrospectively viewed as the beginning with your work as a script editor on THE WAY THROUGH THE WOODS. I find it absolutely remarkable and also somewhat affecting to think both you and Russell Lewis began a friendship and professional working relationship on the original Inspector Morse series and continued your shared journey together through the Colin Dexter Universe with Lewis and now, of course, six series of Endeavour which is arguably even better than either of its prestigious predecessors. Can you tell me a little bit about meeting Russ for the first time and your initial impressions of him?
DAMIEN: It would have been just before I worked on THE WAY THROUGH THE WOODS twenty-five years ago. I was at Central Films in the mid-nineties, which was a real drama power-house in its day. Ted Childs had hit after hit, and Russell created and worked on so many of these shows – Kavanagh QC, Cadfael, Sharpe. He had the Midas Touch, and Ted turned to him for everything. I was a very junior script editor, and I would see him in the corridor – ‘that’s Russell Lewis!’. There was always a stir when he came in because he was this powerhouse of ideas and everyone adored him. You could feel the energy pick up in the office. I watched him from afar, and read his scripts whenever I was able to. Nothing else reads like a Russell script – the hugely evocative stage directions, the hinterland he gives all his characters, the way he combines real erudition with great populist story instincts, and his genius for plotting. So I was a very starstruck fan. And I got to know him a little bit doing THE WAY THROUGH THE WOODS, which was a seminal experience for me, working with Russell and John Madden, the director. First impressions – that he was very bright eyed and bushy tailed, one of the cleverest people I had ever met, and also one of the kindest.
DAMIAN: And what were you like back then?
DAMIEN: Hmmm. Well, I had always wanted to be a script editor, and there I was, at Central Films, working on these big shows. I couldn’t believe my luck! And I was DULL. I took it all VERY seriously. Earnest.
DAMIAN: Funny, we met briefly before at New College during the location shooting of the opening dance number for CANTICLE but it was only later that I actually realised you had read history there at Oxford. I wonder what your career aspirations were during this period as a student and how did you find yourself becoming a script editor?
DAMIEN: Twenty-year-old Damien wanted to be a script editor – in the old days the Radio Times used to credit script editors in the listings, and I knew their names and followed their careers. I knew I couldn’t write, and I wanted to be a career script editor. I left Oxford at a time of terrible recession, couldn’t get any work, did various admin jobs, bar work, and eventually got a job on an Australian soap opera (another story). And then I got script reading work and eventually the job at Central Films.
DAMIAN: Is there still a certain amount of nostalgia regarding your association to both Oxford as a student, and professionally, the world that Colin created?
DAMIEN: Yes, for me. I went to New College, and there’s always a little frisson for me when we go back to film there. The opening of CANTICLE was filmed in one of the quads – drones, singing and dancing and umbrellas on the lawn – that made me happy. We were never allowed to walk on the lawn, so that was a transgressive thrill. Hollywell Street – which we film in a lot – was the centre of my life for three years, and I always get a little Proustian thrill when we film there.
DAMIAN: Specialising in producing original television drama for some of the major broadcasters including the BBC, ITV and Sky, Mammoth Screen was founded by Michele Buck and yourself in 2007. Was it difficult setting up your own production company and what was your initial vision for it?
DAMIEN: The vision was just to try and make shows we liked. I try not to overthink it and just see where our taste and luck takes one!
DAMIAN: Why the name Mammoth?
DAMIEN: Well, I was knitting a lot at the time, and I liked the fact that mammoths were woollen. And we also thought it was funny to call a fledgling production company after an extinct creature. Tongue was very much in cheek…
DAMIAN: In addition to Endeavour, Poldark, Victoria and the Agatha Christie adaptations for BBC One to name just a few – how the hell do you manage to juggle so many celebrated and esteemed productions?
DAMIEN: Well, I guess it goes back to Central Films, and enjoying working across a big slate of shows. You get used to a certain workload. I genuinely find that working across lots of shows gives me energy. And obviously it’s only possible to do lots of things because I have very clever colleagues and we all help each other!
DAMIAN: As a huge fan of The War of the Worlds and H. G. Wells in general, I can’t begin to tell you how much I’m looking forward to seeing your version, particularly as it’s the first period screen adaptation. What attracted you to this particular project?
DAMIEN: Going back to when I started in television I had always wanted to do a period adaptation of The War Of The Worlds, but there were rights issues. I’d been waiting twenty-five years!
DAMIAN: What do you believe are the essential ingredients for a successful TV drama or what do you look for in a script that lands on your desk?
DAMIEN: Obviously brilliant writing. But brilliant writing comes in so many forms. Every writer is different. I love some scripts that are wonderfully optimistic and full of joy, I love some scripts that are utterly harrowing and bleak. I think that’s true of audience too. I love writers who have a unique voice, and then obviously one tries to cast each show with the most memorable group of actors, and try to not be daunted by the budgetary limitations and achieve as much production value as is humanly possible.
DAMIAN: Would it be fair to say you have a propensity for period dramas and detective mysteries?
DAMIEN: I accept that it does seem to skew that way, but you can’t legislate for what is going to get commissioned from your development slate. Over the years we seem to do a lot of adaptations, but I think that is possibly part of a general trend. I do love history, and I love a period drama…
DAMIAN: Indeed, illuminated only by a solitary and flickering light, I like to imagine a long corridor beneath the offices of Mammoth Screen where you keep Russ typing away in one room with a set of Colin Dexter’s novels and Sarah Phelps in another with a library of Agatha Christie! Who might be found in the next cell?
DAMIEN: Well, we have optioned some interesting titles recently. But of course I can’t disclose what they are!
DAMIAN: Difficult, and also possibly unwise, to pick a favourite among your various productions over the years but given your aforementioned history with the character and the various artists who helped bring him to the screen, Endeavour must surely hold a very special place in your heart?
DAMIEN: Oh yes. Russell’s achievement is extraordinary. By the end of series six he has written fifty-four hours of television. That’s highly unusual! I think of Russell as a Savile Row tailor – he’s made twenty-seven bespoke suits! Clearly it starts with Colin Dexter, but Russell’s brain powers that show. Everyone who works on it has a special spring in their step because of Russell. I can’t think of another writer who has done this – he’s written every word of the show. David Renwick and Jonathan Creek comes close I think – but Russell has written more. Anthony Horowitz created Foyle’s War, but many other writers wrote on the show. It gives Endeavour a very unique identity. And it’s the seamless way in which Russell has developed Colin Dexter’s fictional universe with characters like Strange and Max, but also created the Thursday family, Bright, Jakes, Box etc. I worked on Lewis for many years and it was written by many writers – including some great writers – but the process was entirely different because there was no one author. It made it much much much less rewarding than Endeavour.
DAMIAN: I believe there were lengthy discussions between Russ, Michele Buck and yourself about the idea of an origin film to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Inspector Morse, but who actually came up with the concept – one of you must have been the first to mention it?
DAMIEN: It must have been about eleven or twelve years ago, I reckon? And I honestly can’t remember how it came up. I remember how Lewis came up; I was sitting having a cup of tea with Julie Gardner at LWT, and we were talking about detective series, and she said ‘we should develop something for Kevin Whately’, and I said ‘he’s already played an iconic detective. Hmmm. Surely we would never be allowed to give Lewis his own show?’. And after much wrangling Lewis was born. The idea of a Morse prequel story was just always there, I think. We spent a long time biding our time! Colin Dexter wrote a short story for the Daily Mail about the young Morse, and that gave us the courage to approach him. He took some persuading…
DAMIAN: Throughout my interviews with Russ over the years, he’s always maintained that the film that would eventually become First Bus to Woodstock was only ever intended as a one-off special to celebrate the anniversary and not a pilot as such. However, I find hard to believe that someone with as much business savvy as yourself never suspected that there was the potential for a long-running series?
DAMIEN: Our conscious minds were just making an anniversary film. Honestly. A similar thing happened with Lewis – we’d made a one off film which we persuaded ourselves was just a special one off. It seemed such hallowed ground, revisiting the world of Morse, and we honestly didn’t know if the audience would approve. They did engage with Lewis, but then we had Kevin Whately. The Lewis one-off was a success, and then we made a first series. Endeavour seemed like a much bigger gamble. The idea of a new actor stepping into John Thaw’s shoes seemed a massively high risk thing to do. So our conscious minds were telling us ‘do Colin Dexter proud, this is only a one off’.
DAMIAN: While looking back at the daily rushes of an evening, was there ever a particular scene that made you think First Bus would be a success with both critics and fans alike?
DAMIEN: That first two-hander between Endeavour and Thursday in the police office at night – those rushes were wonderful. The scene with Flora Montgomery where Endeavour almost kisses her – goose bumps.
DAMIAN: Why did First Bus work so well and what was the initial reaction from ITV pre and post-broadcast?
DAMIEN: It’s such a beautiful script. And Shaun and Roger are terrific in it. Colm [McCarthy, director] did such great work, Pat Campbell designed it so beautifully – it just all cohered. But Russell. That was the key to it. Russell honoured the original with such cleverness but he also gave the thing life. Young Endeavour just lived.
ITV were very keen on it, but no one knew if anyone would watch it. TV prequels rarely work. There might be an initial curiosity from viewers but this soon fades. What have we had over the years? An Only Fools and Horses prequel, a Dallas prequel, an Eastenders prequel, a show about the young James Herriot, First of the Summer Rain – none of them worked. And then the recent Prime Suspect show. So even though ITV liked the show I don’t think they necessarily thought it would be anything other than a footnote to Morse.
It went out on a Monday, I think – the 2nd January – and it was greenlit by the Friday. Peter Fincham – who was then in charge at ITV – took perhaps a day longer than we would have liked!
DAMIAN: Can you describe the moment when Russ was told that ITV wanted a full series?
DAMIEN: To be honest the ratings were so huge, and the response from the audience was so extraordinary that we just assumed there would be a series. We went into that first transmission thinking ‘we’ve made a tribute film to Morse, kind viewers please don’t be offended, we only mean well’. And then on transmission something unusual happened. People just LOVED it. I was staying in our cottage in the country and the TV broke about five minutes before it started. This seemed to be BAD OMEN. We have very bad phone reception, but I was able to get a signal by hanging out of a window. In my mind there was a gale, but I might have invented that. And I was expecting a very lukewarm response on twitter – because most things do get a lukewarm response – and there was this tsunami of twitter love for it. And for Shaun. And I think we just knew that Endeavour had legs. Russell and Dan McCulloch Producer] and I spoke a lot that night – you could just feel how much the audience loved it. Very rare feeling!
DAMIAN: One of the reasons that I believe Endeavour works so well and is so distinctive among other detective shows is the fact that Russ is the auteur and has an unrivalled talent for balancing the mystery-thriller aspects of the crime genre with ongoing narrative arcs populated with characters we care about and even love deeply. However, was there ever a concern from either ITV, or even yourself, that he’d be able to write every film?
DAMIEN: No! Generally speaking it’s very unusual for one person to write all of a detective series, but we took baby steps, and just hoped that Russell would want to write all of the first series, and then all of the second series. And it quickly became clear that the thing that really made the show work was Russell’s brain, and that the magic would stop if he wasn’t at the helm.
DAMIAN: Previously, both Russ and I wondered if 1969 would be a good year to end Endeavour’s adventures but you apparently believe that the show could still work just as well into the seventies?
DAMIEN: I think there’s something thrilling about leaving the 1960s. TV loves the 60s, doesn’t it? And it sometimes feels like the decade is hermetically sealed – ‘X show is about the 1960s’ etc. Endeavour is chronicling one man’s life, and I love the way we’ve seen Endeavour grow up as the 1960s unfold, and I think it’s thrilling to see how the 70s can challenge him – and Thursday too. The world continues beyond December 31st, 1969!
DAMIAN: Despite all the interviews in which I’ve tried to dissect a mind so full of obscure, unlikely, and possibly best forgotten cultural references, Russ is a mystery to me. However, it would seem he’s not the only one with strange fancies! – why does an Oxford-educated, executive producer and managing director of a hugely successful production company have such a fondness for a ramshackle and antiquated soap opera like Crossroads?
DAMIEN: Ha! Funnily enough I came across a youtube channel yesterday with lots of old episodes and I lost a very happy chunk of time watching some eps from 1975. As a kid I watched a lot of TV. Only child, busy parents – the TV really was my friend. I have affection for all TV of the 70s and 80s. Russell and I were both tickled by the notion that Kings Oak wasn’t so far from Oxford. The show isn’t the defining love of my life, honest! I have lots and lots of other guilty pleasures!
DAMIAN: And finally, as I’ve been curious about this for a number of years now, what exactly do you mean by the term ‘fragrant ladies’?
DAMIEN: Oh dear God, did Russell mention that? Well, Inspector Morse was riddled with fragrant ladies – right up to Judy Lowe’s character at the very end. It’s not just Colin Dexter’s world, good detective fiction with male protagonists – Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe etc. – needs female characters to beguile and sometimes lead the hero astray. And Endeavour carries on this tradition, starting with Rosalind Stromming in FIRST BUS.
Because its set in the 1960s the worlds of the show can be quite male dominated – the world of academia, the rural and industrial spaces we sometimes visit – and I have occasionally been known to ask if we can have a ‘fragrant lady’ in a story, meaning ‘an ostensibly sympathetic female character who is connected to the crime and might even be responsible for the crime’. Russell has written many great female characters over the years, riffing on a particular kind of British woman of the era – a little bit Terence Rattigan heroine, a little bit Celia Johnson colliding with the counter culture of the 1960s. In one early story I politely enquired if there was room for a ‘fragrant lady’ after Russell had delivered a brilliant but very male dominated first draft. She became the killer and the phrase stuck!
DAMIAN: Damien, thank you very much indeed.
POSTSCRIPT: Damien contacted me after this interview was posted with the following information which is quite interesting:
‘The other thing that amused me about Crossroads and the world of Colin Dexter is this: it has been suggested that Crossroads was axed to release money to the central TV drama budget to allow Ted Childs to make more high quality drama shot on film – and the original series of Inspector Morse was one of the lucky recipients of this additional funding. So Crossroads had to die for Inspector Morse to live. The circle of TV life! So it seemed fun to tip our hat to it, and locate both shows in the same fictional universe!’.