Interview: Jason Isaacs opens Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories

Jonathan Melville 31 May, 2011 2
Interview: Jason Isaacs opens Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories

With his time as Harry Potter’s Lucius Malfoy coming to an end, actor Jason Isaacs has taken on the role of another character from the pages of a bestselling novel, Case Histories‘ Jackson Brodie. As filming came to an end in early 2011, Isaacs sat down with Jonathan Melville to discuss his take on Jackson, the future of TV drama and why this detective is unlike any other.

Listen to the audio version of this interview on YouTube.

Apart from the bits that are painful and cold, and the injuries I’ll carry for the rest of my life, I’ve had a lovely time in Edinburgh.

Jason Isaacs is in good spirits as his trailer sways gently beneath us, the high winds outside meaning only fools, ReelScotland and TV crews would be sitting in a car park in the shadow of Grangemouth oil refinery on a wet February morning. We’re here to discuss the fruits of Isaacs labour for the last few months, a BBC adaptation of Kate Atkinson’s bestselling novels starring the actor as private detective, Jackson Brodie.

Despite the weather conditions, which have caused problems for the production team since before Christmas, Isaacs has only good things to say about Scotland.

I’ve always been in love with Edinburgh. I came as a student many times and slept on floors and did show after show here to empty halls, and then I came back as a professional actor as part of the official Edinburgh Festival. Then I came back as an actor for a few films at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and whenever I heard a film was going to Edinburgh I’d say I’ll go! In 2010 I was here as a juror.

I remind Isaacs of his appearance in an episode ofthe Glasgow-set Taggart in the 1990s, alongside Mark McManus. “I played identical twins, he laughs. I had to be educated in how to speak Glasgow and not Edinburgh. One of the brothers had travelled around the world a lot and was a bit of a hippy. I remember thinking that something highly technical was going on and asking Gordon Flemyng, the director, How are we going to do this identical twin thing? He said, It’s very simple. You stand over there and do a scene. Stop the camera, change your clothes, stand over there.

It was an amazing, eye opening experience because Mark was a god in Glasgow. Grown men, when they knew Mark was outside ready to shoot, would leave their jobs for the day to watch him, he was such an iconic figure. Mark was an extraordinary man, he’d had a life outside acting and had been a bare-knuckle boxer, he’d sailed around the most dangerous territories in the world and had done a lot of great things.

It seems that Isaacs saw more of Scotland than many of its residents in 2010, also heading to Shetland for the annual Screenplay Festival. That was ace, continues Isaacs. It’s gorgeous, I think it was anomalous weather, it was like the Caribbean when we there. We were staying in this tiny little cottage and there was a colony of seals on the stones and cliffs. We’d been to a bunch of exotic places during the year and the week we spent in Shetland, in a tiny little utilitarian cottage living on white bread and Twix, was easily the most memorable part of the summer.

How did the actor find himself back in the country once again for Case Histories? I’d been away a lot in 2009 and I couldn’t be away from my kids anymore. I try to never make it more than two weeks away, though the Icelandic ash cloud screwed me so I was away from a month at one point. I was on Skype every day. I said to my agent that he had to get me a job in London.

He phoned around the BBC begging, throwing my hat in for everything there was. He phoned to say the BBC had offered me Case Histories, and did I know it? It felt like one of those strange moments when you hear a harp, because I do all the audio books for Kate Atkinson, so it’s my voice you’ll hear if you buy the CD, playing 300 characters and struggling to come up with 75 Edinburgh accents, so I couldn’t say no to it.

Jason Isaacs as Jackson Brodie

Jason Isaacs as Jackson Brodie

“Then I went to see the people making it and we were chatting about the scripts and the books, which I knew inside out. I was talking about how it might work and what I felt needed to be changed to bring Jackson to the screen. About two hours in, Alison Owen, the producer, said I think what will really help us is that Edinburgh is almost like an extra character in this piece. There was a big pause and I went, Edinburgh, the city? In Scotland? She asked Is that a problem? You have the pre-Edinburgh drafts of the scripts. We moved it from Cambridge.

Was there ever any doubt he would take the part? It took a split-second during which I could at that point say I’m really sorry, but one of the main points of this is that I can work at home and see my kids every night, and I flashed forward to a world in which I wasn’t playing Jackson Brodie and it was unpalatable. I said Can I come home at the weekend? and she said Of course you can, and your family can come up and visit you, it’s only an hour flight.

I suddenly felt that not only did I want to play it, but that a better way to be a father and a husband was to be off working obsessively during the week then to go home an be crazy weekend dad and pack it full of activities, which is what I’ve done since September.

Did the actor have any input on the scripts at such an early stage? “The scripts weren’t all written when I came along, there was a first draft of the first book. The producers have a lot of say, there’s a lot of open discussion. The BBC have their say and the writers and directors have input. There’s a constant ongoing discussion, mostly because they’re very difficult to get right and in books two and three Jackson’s not in them as much as you’d expect a detective to be. When he is in them he’s not necessarily detecting, because Kate’s not as interested in that. She’s interested in exploring  human behaviour and foibles and his instinct for other people and connections and it’s fascinating on paper, but it needs changing for television.”

With so many detective series clogging up the TV schedules, it seems unlikely that Isaacs hasn’t played one before. Was this a conscious decision? I’ve been offered lots of detectives in my life, most actors have, and I’ve never done one because I never thought I’d make them interesting, because they weren’t interesting on the page. People think that as an actor you can bring a quality to the screen but frankly that’s giving us too much credit.

It’s always to do with the script. I’ve never understood why  most of the drama on television is crime fiction: somebody dies and then a bunch of red herrings appear then the police tell you who did it then they reveal the clues to you. It’s like presenting someone with a filled in crossword and then showing them the clues, I’ve don’t understand what the fun is for the audience.

There’s a bit of trickery going on in our shows, in that it looks like a detective piece and smells like a detective piece but it’s not a detective piece. There is a guy in it who does get some cases and solves some things, but really it’s not about that at all. For Jackson anyway, it’s a far more human interaction, he’s a far less predictable character than I’ve encountered in any script before. Hopefully I convey some of that on the screen, but he’s a Yorkshireman who gives nothing away but on the other hand he’s incredibly sentimental, listens to sentimental music and he’s very dour yet very funny. He amuses himself all the time. He might not amuse anyone else but he thinks he’s funny.

Judging by the first two-parter, which finds Jackson investigating a number of disparate cases in and around present-day Edinburgh, there’s a lightness-of-touch that sets it apart from some of its contemporaries, something Isaacs is keen to highlight.

The cast of characters that appear are so unlikely, they continue to be turned up to 11. Kate Atkinson has such a razor sharp eye for the people she encounters in life. All the people she dreams up, I’ve no idea where she gets them from, and none of them are drawn from the cliched stock of characters we traditionally see fleshing out crime fiction. It felt slightly subversive to me.

If you read the three Jackson Brodie novels we adapted, she starts of with Case Histories having a guy who has some cases and is a detective, and in the next book he follows someone and finds a dead body and that becomes the thing that he does and he’s interested in. In the third book, he’s hit by a train and the person that finds him has something that needs solving in their life, and so there’s almost no somebody comes to his office and gives him a brief stuff, it’s him following his gut and he’s slightly obsessive about helping people and he really needs to learn to say no and go to bed and shut his mouth.

The actor is animated about the opportunities offered to him by the character of Jackson. I’m never quite sure what he’s going to do, he explains. He hooks up with the most unlikely people and he kind of likes people I’d instantly dislike or cross the road from. He has this incredibly intuitive instinct about what’s really going on with people and Kate really seems to be interested in excavating people’s connections with their past and with each other. Jackson has this terrible stuff that happened to him as a kid which has driven him to be a soldier and a policeman and now a PI and never really be able to settle in anywhere, not even in a marriage.

Case Histories

Jackson Brodie on another case

He’s continually trying to right the wrongs of the past, so if he can’t do it in his own life he’ll do it for other people. His own version of setting things right, which might not be anybody watching’s version of setting things right. I think it’s interesting to go on a journey with him, it feels interesting to me. It feels fun. He’s not a policeman and he doesn’t care about doing what’s legal, it’s not about shopping people for breaking the law, he cares about how he thinks things ought to be. He’s got somewhere to go, and that’s the other thing that attracted me to doing it, you don’t leave him how you found him at the end of the six episodes, you find him slightly different and as an actor I’m interested in acting, not doing something so procedural that you can watch them in any order.”

I suggest that most ongoing series reset themselves at the end of an episode. “Those are the most successful programmes in the world,” notes Isaacs. “Those programmes sell more than any other and they make more money for everyone involved. I’m not Jackson Brodie, I don’t mind making money, I quite like making money, I just haven’t yet so far in the work I’ve done, taken jobs just to do that. I quite like to enjoy myself too and not be embarrassed when I meet people in the street about the things I’ve done. This one I think it’s fun and it doesn’t feel like all the other detective shows I’ve seen in the past, though I’ll be honest I don’t watch that them, they bore the pants of me.”

“There are in-built high stakes in precinct dramas. There are cops, hospitals and lawyers because there are people who are going to lose their liberty or their lives and that makes a big difference. You only have an hour and you want the stakes to be very high for the people involved. It’s pilot season in America at the moment and I’ve been lucky enough to be asked to do a number of them since Harry Potter has been over. Most of the shows being written are cops, hospitals and lawyers, pretty much everything is some version of that, secret agents or whatever.

“There was one a couple of years ago, while I was under contract to Harry Potter and couldn’t do it, where somebody wanted to do something about a marriage. They guy who explained it to me, the creator, who had a very successful hit series, said: We realise when we sit down we don’t know that many murder victims, and we don’t know that many aliens or mafia guys, the stuff that engages us constantly are our marriages, our kids, our business and how we’re going to protect ourselves. Fear of getting old, broke or divorcing, and we’re going to try to make a show that’s just about that stuff. Are you interested?

“I said I was more than interested, and could they make the stakes as high? It turns out they couldn’t. Maybe they did it brilliantly, but that show wasn’t picked up to go to series and so that’s why most television reaches for in-built high stakes. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just that within that do you continue to recycle cliches or can you use that prism to explore things that are interesting and stimulating and fun but also resonant?”

Does Isaacs have a kind word to say about any kind of crime fiction? “Italian crime fiction. It explores all that radicalism of the 1970s and the corruption of modern government and the struggle between the sexes, all that stuff. Very respectable literary figures write crime fiction in Italy and it’s thought of as a very highbrow pursuit. It is possible to do all those things at the same time.

“Kate Atkinson, who write Behind the Scenes at the Museum and who has garlanded praise and awards, writes these things and at a squint it looks like you know what you’re getting, but she’s a much more subversive writer than that. Our job is to try and deliver prime time entertainment telly but with the flavour of her writing, which is so different to all the other crime fiction, which incidentally is the reason tens of millions of women read her books that would never read any other crime fiction books.”

Are the producers taking a risk because Case Histories is so different? Isaacs shakes his head: “Isn’t it a risk if they keep doing the same things that nobody’s watching? Fewer and fewer people are watching television if it’s not The X Factor. They’re fragmenting through hundreds of channels, they’re not watching the adverts, they’re on the Internet and watching stuff that’s streamed. There are many reasons why viewers are deserting, budgets are dropping, there’s less drama, so the biggest risk is to trot out the same stuff. You’ve got to give people stuff that’s worth watching.

“I fancied this and it engaged me and I hope my taste and the people who made it transmits itself, because when I was growing up that was one of the great things about British television, it was kind of like a community noticeboard. We had something in common to talk about, and it seems to me that the only thing we have in common to talk about at the moment is The X Factor, it’s the only thing the country can debate and that’s why it ends up filling magazine and newspapers and it’s incredibly depressing.”

Is television at a point where things could go either way?

“I don’t know,” admits the actor. “I don’t want to turn Luddite. I’m a mad keen geek and I’m all for social networking technology and everything else, my trailer is full of gadgets and there’s no use wishing things are the way they were. Nonetheless, I hope there’s always a place for drama that isn’t the lowest common denominator and that we keep it on the schedules, with or without adverts. Whether you download them straight from a chip or whatever, I hope we still get to tell stories with a reasonable budget. BBC Four do amazing things but I hope there’s always a BBC One and ITV there making top class drama.

I add that I enjoyed BBC Four’s The Curse of Steptoe, featuring Isaacs and his Case Histories co-star, Phil Davis.

“So did I, I loved it, but not everything should be shot like that, at breakneck pace, twenty scenes a day, set-up a camera shot and move on. I want to see things lavishly shot and not just that have stately homes and bonnets in them.”

Jason Isaacs and Millie Innes

Jason Isaacs and Millie Innes

What’s the shooting schedule like on Case Histories? “It’s fast and furious. I last did television prior to Steptoe with The State Within, a BBC One miniseries filmed in Canada. It was set in Washington and it wasn’t spectacularly budgeted but it certainly felt like we had more money than this. There was more time and more money and I think you have to cut your cloth depending on what you have and what you’re putting out.

“There are many, many less hours of drama per week and I think drama gets less money than it ever did before and there’s a point at which things will stop being comparable with other top class dramas around the world. HBO spent plenty of money on Boardwalk Empire and when you want a wide shot with a crowd you don’t want to be in scenes where there’s nobody in it. I hope we don’t see a day where it’s just two people in a room.”

As Isaacs mentioned earlier, Edinburgh is another character in Case Histories, Jackson Brodie regularly seen pounding the city’s cobbled streets in the opening tale. Local crime writer, Ian Rankin, has spoken at length about the opposing Jekyll and Hyde sides of the city, those dark corners the tourists don’t see. According to Isaacs: “We’re mostly Jekyll. There’s a lot of the underbelly of Edinburgh and other people have explored it brilliantly, including Rankin in his Rebus stories, but we don’t do that.”

“If you go behind these lovely stone houses and beautiful Georgian terraces there are as many stories and that’s what we’ve explored so far, who knows if we’ll do any more of them, and often outside the city. We’re out a lot on these stunning locations and just to be in them is breathtaking and as long as the story keeps moving full pelt there’s room to enjoy and savour other aesthetic pleasure en route, like the music. He’s a Country and Western fan, he’s a fan of all this sentimental music. Although on the face of it he’s this granite-faced Yorkshireman, clearly he’s nothing of the kind.

“When things work, like Steptoe in which I thought the music was brilliant, everything contributed to making you feel like you were in that period and the music let you know how seriously to take it or not, and there’s an element that’s not quite tongue-in-cheek in this, but it’s meant to be pleasurable, you’re meant to enjoy the sometimes outrageous coincidences and the trouble that gets heaped on Jackson, how unlucky he is.”

The first story in the series sees a raft of familiar faces appear alongside Isaacs, including Sylvia Simms, Natasha Little and newcomer Millie Innes as Jackson’s daughter, Marlee.

“I often have to be reminded it’s my turn to speak,” laughs Isaacs. “The thing about being a detective is that people come in and they do these five act operas. Their daughter’s been murdered or their sister’s disappeared, a whole bunch of catastrophic circumstances for the people who I’m sitting in front of and they sit and do these bravaura performances and I’m watching them and then I get nudged to remind it’s my turn.”

“What’s so clever about Kate and the people adapting her books that the cases, and they’re only really cases in the first one, after that it’s people he comes across the need help and he’s rubbish at saying no, they’re all designed to prey on some particular flaw or fear or obsession of his. So every time he’s engaging with someone there’s stuff in his past he’s not dealt with and the last thing he should be doing is meeting with these people. We flash back to key formative events in his past that made him want to solve everyone else’s problems and stop them getting into trouble.

“The cases could not be designed more entertainingly or tragically to tap into the things that he ought to be burying, which is fun, for me anyway. Reading them the first time I thought Oh no, don’t do that, walk away, go and do a nice bread and butter job, photograph somebody being unfaithful in a hotel, take the cash and have a proper night’s sleep. That wouldn’t make for very good telly, so he doesn’t.”

Is there’s scope for more Case Histories? “Kate’s bursting with ideas. She realised instantly that it’s a different animal based around this detective and that you need to be around him all the time, so she relishes every kind of challenge and she has tons of stories for him to be involved in. We’d have to hold her back.

“We were talking about how to publicise this, because there are millions of detective series and they all have their own flavour. The fans of the book will watch and say “Blimey, it’s nothing like the book”, but it’s everything like the book. To do the books justice you have to take the flavour of them and turn them into what they are. One is a television series and one is a book, entirely different things. Most books take place within the head of the protagonists but screen is about words and actions, but it should be made for people who have never heard of the books.

“I hope people give it a try and stay if they like it, it’s as much as you can ask.”

Updated 4 June 2011: An audio slideshow, featuring just under 10 minutes from this interview, is now on the ReelScotland YouTube Channel. Jason discusses how he came to be cast in the series and his love of Edinburgh.

Case Histories start on BBC One on Sunday 5 June and continues on Monday 6 June. Visit the official Case Histories website for more on the series.