Veteran TV producer Alan J Wands discusses the transition from novel to screen of Denise Mina’s bestselling novel, The Field of Blood, as it comes to BBC One Scotland.
Outside a nondescript office block on Glasgow’s India Street in October 2010, passers-by could be forgiven for not realising that upstairs the calendar has been turned back to 1982 by BBC Scotland for their new two-part drama, The Field of Blood.
The recently vacated council building has been redressed for the next few weeks as the news room of the fictional Daily News, a place where men are men, wee lassies are wee lassies and equal opportunities have yet to make their mark on the workplace.
Actors Jonas Armstrong and Jayd Johnson are filming multiple scenes in the office of Murray Devlin, the paper’s no-nonsense editor played with relish by David Morrissey. In amongst the spot-on period detail of typewriters, memos and sweetie wrappers (Kit Kats really were bigger in the 80s), the only sign of 2011 life is a stray Starbucks cup tucked away beside Morrissey’s desk.
A major adaptation of Denise Mina’s bestselling novel of the same name, The Field of Blood is the latest project for veteran producer, Alan J Wands, whose credits include Bill Forsyth’s Comfort and Joy and Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters. Today, Wands is overseeing proceedings from just outside Devlin’s office via monitors in a back room.
“I’ve known the executive producer, Andrea Calderwood, and the writer, David Kane, for many years,” says Wands when asked how he came to be involved with the project. “When I did Rebus for STV he was my principal writer. Andrea needed someone to produce it, I’d worked with David in the past and we all worked well together.”
With police procedural dramas commonplace on UK television, what makes The Field of Blood different? According to Wands it’s more than just the period setting.
“It’s a different twist on detective stories, where the hero is usually a middle-aged man or a bolshy woman. Our heroine is a wee lassie, Paddy Meehan (Jayd Johnson), a girl of 19 who’s not even a reporter. She’s a copy boy, somebody who waits to be called to make tea, go to the research room to get cuttings, run down to the fish and chip shop. A gopher, basically.
“As a character in the detective genre she’s something people haven’t see before and you’d expect the police or one of her superiors to be solving the crime but it’s her who takes it on to find out what happened.”
The first episode immerses the viewer in the mystery of a small boy who has been murdered, a case which soon becomes a personal one for Paddy.
“A boy is being accused of committing murder and Paddy thinks something isn’t right,” continues Wands. “She also happens to be related to him. It’s also about Paddy trying to find her feet and find out what life’s about. She comes from a big East End Catholic family who are at the church every Sunday but she’s lost her faith and is trying to find her own way and forge her career against a family who think her job is to get married and have kids. They don’t understand her while she sees the world outside moving forward.”
The misogyny of the police force and the news room are key elements of Kane’s adaptation, another element which Wands feels marks the programme as unique. “Apart from the woman in the archive and another trainee, it’s all old men in the news room and they have a view of a woman’s place. So it’s very different to most cop shows.
Best known to Scottish viewers for her role in soap opera River City as Nicki Cullen, Jayd Johnson had left both the programme and the country to attend acting college in New York when Wands decided to approach her for the part of Paddy.
“I was finishing off a stint at River City when Jayd announced she was leaving. She wanted to take her career in another way and applied for college in New York, the American equivalent of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. She was just going into her second year when we approached her.”
Although commissioned in July 2010, Wands was approached to work on the series in February 2010. “I received drafts of the script as it progressed so I could put my comments into it.
“It went through a few twists and turns, mainly to do with the fact that we had the script we liked but not the financing to make it. It was too big with too many characters and too many expensive elements so we had to go back and trim it to something we could afford. We budgeted it off the page and it was fairly accurate budget but we didn’t get that amount of money from the BBC so we had to do a run through the script to bring it in line to the budget.
“We then went for further finance to what was then Scottish Screen, now Creative Scotland, which allowed us to go back and put some of the things we’d taken out back in. At that point we’d messed about with the script to the point that there were still things that weren’t quite right and they annoyed everybody. You take out a particular passage or scene that somebody loved but if you want it back you need the money.”
According to Wands, these kinds of trade-offs are commonplace in TV and film. “It happens all the time. I read a particular script that a good friend of mine wrote and it was made up here. About three years ago I read it and it was unbelievably brilliant. It was commissioned and then they started to discuss money. They couldn’t afford to make the script for the money that was available. So the writer had to go back and rewrite it, mess it about to the point that when it was broadcast it was awful and he wanted his name taken off it.”
Has Wands learned ways around these situations over the years?
“That’s what I’m best at. The Field of Blood is set in 1982 and people tend to think that’s not that long ago. But the whole fabric of Glasgow has changed completely in 30 years. There’s hardly a street corner you can stand on now and say it was the same three decades ago. Buses, street furniture, lamp posts, pavements. We had cobbled streets in 1982, shop fronts were different, no neon.
“There was a scene set on the waterfront that needed a crane in the background. We had to scrap it and film it somewhere else because there wasn’t a way of getting it and keeping the Science Centre and Armadillo out. We could have done it with CGI but we didn’t have the budget for that. There was a scene following a car through Glasgow at night and it was almost impossible. We had to shoot it at night against the backdrop of the Barrowlands, because they’ve not changed.”
One of the biggest problems facing Wands and his team was Scotland’s smoking ban. “We film in a 1980s news room and they all smoked like chimneys, but it’s against the law to portray smoking on a film set. A film like The King’s Speech has people smoking all the way through it and has won various awards, but it couldn’t have been made in Scotland.
“Our prop man came up with a device whereby he built what looks like a cigarette, but it comes with a Government stamp that says it’s non-toxic, but it looks real. It also creates the kind of haze you used to get from smoke indoors. It cost a lot of money to create something to get around the law but people who watch it won’t know we’ve even done it, so what’s the point in banning it? It’s a big handicap to production companies who want to come here and can’t believe they’re banned from portraying smoking.”
Alongside Jayd Johnson, the impressive cast also includes David Morrissey and Peter Capaldi, two names guaranteed to draw in audiences. “Capaldi has always helped me out,” says Wands. “He’s a friend of mine from the old days and he’s a good friend of David Kane. We’re forever asking him to do cameos in things. He was working on something in London while this was being shot, so I worked with the producer down there worked around different schedules.
“Morrissey I had for four or five days. They both did it because they liked the writing and the parts but I suppose they partly did it as a favour to me or David Kane. I worked with Morrissey in the early 90s on a thing called Black and Blue, about corruption in the Metropolitan Police Force.”
The Field of Blood is the latest BBC Scotland drama to reach our screens in the last six months. How does Wands view the current state of TV production in Scotland?
“The last 12 months have been great for TV production up here. Lip Service did well and is coming back for a second series. Case Histories has just finished production and was made with another series in mind. I’m just about to start Young James, a pilot based on James Herriot’s studies in Glasgow. There’s a German company who come here every other year and make films based on Rosamunde Pilcher novels.”
Interestingly, The Field of Blood is only being screened on BBC One Scotland, though it will be available on iPlayer for viewers outside the country.
“It was commissioned through BBC Scotland as part of the strand which also brought One Night in Emergency and Zig Zag Love to TV. You get a shot at making a one-off with the hope it might lead to a full series, which is particular to BBC Scotland therefore it doesn’t come with a network tag but with a BBC Scotland tag and budget, which is less than you’d get for a network slot.
“Having said that, it’s got a great script, really good director and cast and we think it’s worthy of the network and so we’re pushing it in that direction, as are BBC Scotland. It’s a pilot of two episodes and The Field of Blood is part of a series of books and if it went to series you could commission new scripts. We hope it will get a full series.”
The Field of Blood is on BBC One Scotland on Sunday 8 May and Monday 9 May at 9pm. Episodes will be available throughout the UK on BBC iPlayer.
Updated 28 August 2011: The Field of Blood will screen around the BBC One network (except in Northern Ireland) on Monday 29 August and Monday 5 September 2011, see the BBC website for full details.