Set amidst the iconic landscapes of modern Edinburgh, new BBC One crime drama Case Histories brings Kate Atkinson’s novels to screen, starring Jason Isaacs as hero Jackson Brodie. A former soldier and policeman, Jackson’s tough-guy exterior belies a deeply empathetic heart. He’s unable to resist coming to the rescue and is a magnet for the bereaved, the lost and the dysfunctional.
Watch the trailer…
The six-part series begins at 9pm on Sunday 5th June 2011 on BBC One.
How would you describe the series?
“Well, Case Histories is a game of three halves. There’s three different books of Kate Atkinson’s we’ve adapted into six episodes and at the heart of it is a man sorting other people’s problems out whilst avoiding his own. Case Histories is a detective piece, there’s a detective, he gets cases, he solves them. But it’s more an emotional drama about a man struggling with his past and putting together the pieces of other people’s pasts and avoiding his present. So he runs… a lot.”
What is Jackson Brodie like?
“If I could sum it up in two sentences they wouldn’t be best-selling books all over the world and we wouldn’t be telling the story in six hours on telly. He’s a very interesting guy, he almost never does things the way you expect him to. Lets be clear, I’m not describing myself here but he’s very tough and resolved and smart and sensitive, empathetic, ethical and driven… and kind of damaged.”
What are your favourite elements of him?
“The most extraordinary characters come into his life and they ask him for help and he really ought to be saying no, he ought to have learnt his lesson. But he finds it really very hard not to help people out.
Did you draw from any other TV detectives when you were preparing for the role?
“He’s not really a traditional detective. He’s been in the army for a long time, he was a policeman for a long time and he never quite fitted into any of these moulds. He’s not interested in catching the bad guys and punishing them as much as he is in understanding the human condition. It’s more that he connects with people and he understands who they are and what makes them tick and why they are lying as opposed to when they are lying.”
Is there anything you wanted to bring to the role specifically?
“I’d done the audiobooks for the publisher, so I’d played all the parts, well hundreds of them, and done all the funny voices. So when they came to ask me if I wanted to do the show the first thing was that I was slightly frustrated that I only got to play Jackson and not everybody else as well. But I just wanted to try and recreate for the viewer the same experience I had reading the books, which is the sense of slightly heightened reality and colour and the kind of richness of the characters and the unusual nature of Jackson’s interaction with them. So I just wanted to avoid whatever my first clichéd instincts were and trust Kate’s instincts instead.”
Did you do any other research?
“There’s not a lot of research you can do. I’ve played a lot of soldiers and I’ve actually come across a lot of policemen as well in the course of my work, but really he’s an unusual idiosyncratic guy and the people who come into his life… there’s not a single one of them that are made up of on-the-shelf characters. They’re all odd and they’re all lost in some ways, lots of survivors of trauma.
“A lot of the themes are to do with people carrying things from their past that he helps them to unburden, so there wasn’t a lot of research – you have to just try and be this guy in this situation. The only thing I think I bought personally to it was my sense of humanity. He’s got an eight year old daughter, I’ve got an eight year old daughter, he’s got an ex-wife, I’m currently holding on to mine.”
Do you try and put yourself in his head?
“Acting is a really simple job, it’s just hard to do. You just have to be that person with their background in that situation. That’s all it is. My kids do it all the time when they’re dressing up and playing games. We see throughout the series that Jackson’s haunted by his past, and driven by a personal tragedy. One of most enjoyable elements about it is that he’s quite dry, he sees the humour in everything. I don’t mean he’s a gag cracker, I just mean he’s a dour Yorkshireman who is quite laconic.”
Is it easy to play a Yorkshireman?
“The tough thing about playing a Yorkshireman was that we shot in Edinburgh and I was surrounded by these rich and glorious accents that I couldn’t join in with. I’ve been a professional Scot for years at the beginning of my career, played at lot of Scottish parts, and it’s a lot easier to be a Yorkshireman when you’re surrounded by Yorkshiremen.”
Can you describe Jackson’s relationship with Louise?
“Jackson and Louise were partners at work when he was a copper and he was very good and she learnt a lot from him. I think she’s a little bit younger than me, Amanda, so I had to guess Louise is younger than Jackson. He slightly disgraced some other policemen and made himself very unpopular and that’s why he resigned before he was kicked out.
“She nonetheless knows he was a really good copper and his obsession, his determination is what led to these other policemen getting suspended for not doing their job properly. So she not only respects him but there’s a small fire burning for him somewhere and obviously there’s a huge one in him for her.
“However, she knows it’d be a disaster to be involved with him. She’d never let herself do that and she’s not going to do it to her kid either or to her career and he thinks that if he even tried she’d slap him down so fast that he’d never come up for air again. So there’s this thing between them that ought to happen but I’m not sure it ever will. Louise helps him out often because she knows he’s doing something right, that he’s sorting things out, and often outside the law in ways that she can’t as a copper.
“She helps him out because her heart is in the right place as well. They were actually a very good team when they worked together. It just doesn’t win her any friends back at the police station.
He’s quite morally driven?
“He’s quite driven, he’s quite obsessed and it can be a pain for her (Louise) because he doesn’t just keep to office hours, he keeps popping up in her life and work in places where it’s very uncomfortable but she can’t quite find the strength to reject him and not to help him because she knows why he’s doing it – he’s doing it for the right reasons.”
How did you feel when you first read the script?
“When they first gave me the script it was an odd experience because, having done all the audiobooks, it was like revisiting very familiar territory. Then I remembered how clever they had been, because actually the books are brilliant as books, but if you just transcribe them for the screen they’d be rubbish. Television genre, particularly television like a detective piece, requires something completely different. So the first two scripts written by Ashley Pharoah, who is a brilliant television writer, had completely honoured the spirit and characters in Kate’s books but told the story from a different way, from a very different angle and that’s what those scripts continue to do.
“It’s odd though when you like the books so much you think, ‘Why don’t we just put the books directly on the screen?’ If you try to do that, it’s clear it’s not going to work and you have to respect the medium and its different requirements. Television is a very linear and literal medium, so in a way you have to obey the conventions of the genre so that you can then do something very unconventional. That’s what I think the producers have managed to do really well.”
Is it quite a physical role?
“There’s a lot of running around and jumping up and down and diving into freezing cold water and flinging yourself over walls and getting beaten up. There’s a lot of getting beaten up, I’m constantly getting beaten up. It saves me going to the gym. I don’t think the public really care how much you get hurt making things but it so happens I’m carrying a bunch of work-related injuries, but hopefully I’m not in too much real danger. I’m a walking, jangling ball of ibuprofen.
“Running down icy streets and flinging myself over walls. I am genuinely bashed to pieces, my achilles is shot from running down this icy street and I fell over this fence and I keep getting kicked and punched and twisted and then I have to go in the ocean, which was below freezing. Is it possible for water to be below freezing and still move? I’m not asking anyone to play the violin too loudly. It’s a laugh, I like it.”
How much do you think Edinburgh plays a role in the film?
“Edinburgh has slightly upstaged me and become a major character in the piece, which I’m fine with. It’s a gorgeous city and I came here a lot as a student during the festival and I came here as a professional actor as well for the film festival. You just can’t take your eyes off it. Right in the centre of the town you’ve got this extraordinary epic hill at one end, and the castle the other end and a huge park.
“Everywhere you go there is extraordinary architecture and there’s history and beautiful greenery and the sea. So I keep watching the directors, who seem to frame off centre and its clear to me that I am in some corner of the screen and the rest of it is taken up by this beautiful backdrop! It’s a great city. We’re not shooting a travel brochure though. It just so happens that it’s very picturesque and gorgeous.”
How did you get into acting?
“Oh bloody hell! I don’t know. I think I was probably always a liar; I just get paid for it now. I went to university and I was a bit out of my depth, socially. I was surrounded by a lot of very posh people. They all sounded like Hugh Grant and I didn’t. In the first week I auditioned for a play, drunk, in the day I was joining all the clubs, I was joining the wine and cheese and parachuting club as well.
“I just loved it, I just loved everything about the group of people you were suddenly very intense with and how you were unpicking what made human beings tick, together, and you were in it together and there was a place to go to every night, as opposed to the bar, and I haven’t ever really fallen out of love with that process, researching who people are, what they do and why they do it and telling stories.”
How do you feel when you’re performing?
“In the moment of acting you don’t feel like anything, you feel like the person, as much as you can. It’s all a trick of the imagination. As far as I can, as much as I can force myself to or allow myself to I feel like Jackson Brodie when I’m being Jackson. I feel as much like the character as I can allow myself to relax into, so I feel angry, upset, driven, curious, whatever the hell it is. I feel like them. I mean that’s the game of it. It’s a game, it’s all play. It’s not something you put on, it’s something hopefully you allow out.”
Could you talk us through a couple of your favourite scenes you’ve shot so far, moments that stick in your mind?
“I loved working with Sylvia Syms. Sylvia Syms I first knew when I was 19, when I was a first year student doing student acting up in Edinburgh oddly enough. She was the mother of one of the guys who I was acting with and she was this great goddess of the screen who took us in and made us cups of tea and we went round to her house and to have her here acting was a real treat and to start the whole ball off like that, that was nice. Phil Davis I loved working with because we did Steptoe And Son together for the BBC and he brought such a quiet dignity to it.
“I thought there were beautiful scenes up in his loft where he’s kept an incident room for his missing daughter. He has this burning inside him. When you know someone and you’ve worked with them before and you say hello to them and the director calls action and something comes to life. It makes my job really easy.
“As Jackson Brodie most of the time I’m watching other people go through, relive their tragedy or have some extreme emotional response to something and these phenomenal actors come in and I just get to sit there and watch them and I have to be reminded to act. Natasha and Fenella who played the land girls, Olivia and Amelia, such a fabulous double act together.
“They really felt like sisters, I felt the weight of their past there and it’s another thing… it’s hard to keep a straight face because they were kind of bitching with each other. It was a great scene in the botanical gardens where Natasha tells me that she’s an actress and Fenella says, ‘I think he’s worked that one out for himself already.’ She’s just so dry and brilliant.
“The scene that was hard was when Marlee, who plays my daughter, (which is confusing because he real name is Millie, so I’m Jason playing Jackson and she’s Millie playing Marlee), she’s run away and I find her and I tell her she should go home and I tell her she should go away to New Zealand with her mum, even though I really don’t want her to, and I have an 8 year old daughter and my job is to release myself into it, that’s an actor’s job, to release yourself truthfully into it, and I found myself trying desperately hard not to blub with tears at the thought of packing my daughter off to New Zealand.”
Do you learn from other actors?
“One of the things I learnt early on from really big names is that when you see actors messing around on set and you think they are being very childish or even unprofessional what they are doing is keeping themselves loose because what we have to do is keep completely relaxed and not get bound up in the tension that everyone else is going ‘We’re running out of time, we are running out of money, we’re losing the light, oh my God’ and the fear and there’s a lot of people gathered around the monitor and going ‘What’s going to go wrong to ruin this, what’s going to stop us quickly finishing in the next five minutes.’
“If you’re thinking ‘what must I not do?’ ‘How can I not screw this up?’ you won’t do anything decent. So I’ve learn from a lot of people who are much more talented and better known that me to throw all that away and be completely loose in the moment and try and allow yourself to surprise yourself, not to plan.
“So if you came to the set and watched me you might think I hadn’t looked at the script or learnt my lines. One of the best directors I ever worked with was constantly saying to all of us actors in this play, ‘Stop showing me you’re angry, stop showing me you’re upset, stop showing me your jealous or whatever. Stop doing anything. What you want is what’s important. What do you want from the other person? What do you want them to say? What do you want them to feel?’
“When I’ve sometimes taught at drama school I’ve nicked wholesale everything that guy said to me. And so it’s always about Jackson, what does he want the other person to think, feel, say? What is he trying to get at? And if you concentrate on that you don’t do anything, you’re just after something.”