Stephen Volk is the legendary British horror writer who began his career penning the spec script that became Ken Russell’s sensual, surreal and nerve-shredding movie Gothic, re-imagining the night that Mary Shelley created the story of Frankenstein. Since the film’s release in 1986, it has become a cult classic.
Not content with creating just one piece of landmark entertainment, in 1992 Stephen conceived and wrote the BBC’s infamous Halloween special, Ghostwatch. During the broadcast, a ‘ghost hunt’ in the style of subsequent reality TV favourite Most Haunted appeared to become horribly, tragically real. Due to the uproar it created at the time it has never been shown on television since, although fans and academics alike regularly host screenings around the country.
In between successful film scripts, novellas and short stories since then, Stephen has found time to adapt what is bound to be one of the highlights of the autumn TV schedules: Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins novel Midwinter of The Spirit, one of a series of books about a female vicar in a sleepy Herefordshire town who encounters bizarre and unsettling events in her role as ‘deliverance consultant – or exorcist. Stephen talked to Felicity Evans about infamy, cult classics, the allure of Los Angeles, and why he loves his latest project so much.
The Merrily Watkins books have a huge fan base, and the stories they tell of a female vicar struggling not only with the possibility of dark spirits among us, but also machinations within the church and life as a single parent, are immensely compelling. What attracted you to Merrily, and made you want to work with the character and the world she inhabits?
I just fell in love with the character, and the relationship she has with her daughter Jane, and her relationship with Huw Owen, her mentor. I thought the idea of a Church of England exorcist, or ‘deliverance consultant’ as they refer to it in the books, was a wonderful gateway that enabled a continuing series, potentially – as the idea of a spirit medium had in my series Afterlife. Suspension of disbelief can be a really awkward thing in a TV show – if you have a character who comes up against supernatural things week after week, it’s quite difficult to do that without it becoming increasingly implausible. But in Rickman’s novels, you believe it unquestioningly.
What I was wary of, and what I didn’t get thankfully reading the first page of Midwinter of the Spirit, was for it to be a veiled piece of propaganda for the Christian church, because I want to do it for a modern audience that’s maybe more ambivalent about faith, as I am myself. In fact, I am an atheist, but (perhaps paradoxically) I’m very interested in the idea of belief as a dramatic theme. What made me love Merrily is that she’s such an everywoman, full of doubt about getting involved in ‘deliverance’ despite her day job, and in addition she has all the problems that go with having a teenage daughter, some of which are to do with her faith, and some to do with the circumstances under which her husband died.
You must be thrilled with the casting of Anna Maxwell Martin – she’s really top-drawer!
She does an amazing job and quite honestly I think she owns the part. One thing we’re aware of is that there are fans of the books, and I really want to please them, but some of them tend to be quite literal about how Merrily looks: she needs to be short, she needs to have dark, curly hair and so forth. You can almost never combine those physical attributes with getting the best actor for the part, and for me – hand on heart – we’ve got the best possible person in the role. We had a shortlist of people for quite a while, with some obvious choices, but the one that sprung out for me was Anna. She has a quality that immediately elevates the material, and I think that she brings an astonishing realism of emotion to something that’s dealing with some pretty far-fetched things, so it could easily tip into melodrama.
This story is about a vicar, someone who has dedicated her life to God, and in this day and age some might say it’s tough to sell such a character to an audience that, if polls are to be believed, are largely ambivalent about religion…
As I say, I took that ambivalence as a given. I deliberately haven’t broached that question of how she came to her vocation in the adaptation. There are sections in the books where she talks about her revelation at a certain place at a certain time, feeling born again, however in my scripts I never touch on where her faith has come from because we don’t really know this character yet – let’s not get into where her faith has come from because you risk it sounding cheesy and the audience not buying it. Maybe if we do another six or ten episodes we can look at how it happened, but there’s an awful lot the audience needs to understand about Merrily first: her relationship with her late husband, with her daughter, her new job, her role as deliverance consultant… I looked at it this way: if I were to meet a vicar tomorrow, they wouldn’t straight away tell me why they became a vicar; I’d have to know them for a couple of months! And even though she’s a vicar and a Christian, she’s still in a position of being sceptical about things that are happening to her: anything that’s supernatural, she applies doubt to it, and that’s the way most people would be. The things that happen in this story are creepy and larger than life, and life-threatening. I think if she believed in and blindly accepted what unfolds – dark spirits, Satanists and so forth – then you’d have something without any tension. Her acceptance would dull the drama.
You began your career with a high-profile success, Gothic, and you’ve worked in LA with big industry names such as William Friedkin, yet you’ve remained committed to horror, the supernatural, chillers, even when those things weren’t fashionable, as they are now. Was there ever a time when you thought: I’m just going to move full-time to LA and write blockbusters?
I could have taken that opportunity to go out there in the late 1980s, but it’s a leap in the dark anyway simply being a freelancer – going to LA would have been that but more so. Besides which, I didn’t want to go there and be just another screenwriter queuing up round a producer’s swimming pool to get a job. I wrote quite a few American screenplays in the 1990s, some were made, some weren’t, but in the decade from 2000-2010 the balance changed and the stuff of mine that happened to get commissioned was mostly for British TV. Still, I turned a lot of stuff down, a lot of rewrites of awful Hollywood screenplays because I never wanted to do that. There’s a danger in seeing some sort of planning in all this, but there isn’t!
As to genre, for me, I think it all started proper with Nigel Kneale’s BBC play The Stone Tape. People have always seemed to look down on horror, that it’s low-rent and not something you should be proud of. But I saw The Stone Tape and yes, it was genre, it was a haunted house story, but it also had brilliant characters, it’s wonderfully written, it’s got really carefully worked-out scenes with subtext – I felt it was as richly wrought as anything you would expect to see on Play For Today. And I thought, ‘Now is the time not to be embarrassed by being a horror or a science fiction writer, now is the time to say: “This is what interests me”, and to concentrate on doing it as well as possible.’ So, that was a kind of watershed moment for me, and since then I try not to be embarrassed by calling myself a horror writer.
Working on Gothic with Ken Russell, your first proper feature script – it must have been a heck of a learning curve!
People have this image of Ken Russell, this enfant terrible, but all I can say is that I have worked with much bigger nutcases with much, much less talent than he brought to the table! He didn’t mess around massively with the script, and once he started shooting he just got on with it; looking back, I wish I’d gone along to the set a lot more to watch him work and see what he was doing. The good thing was that Ken was keen to make the film and he wanted to do it quickly, within a few months of reading it. The money was there ready to bankroll it, so there was none of this endless development hell – although looking back I think maybe it would have benefitted from a bit of development hell! I don’t actually think Ken was a development hell kind of person… He was great: the camera was his pen, he knew what he wanted, and didn’t want to shoot endless ‘drafts’. It was the film-making process that interested him.
Let’s talk about Ghostwatch, because it really was so fresh and innovative, and made such an impact on the public. And people still remember it and run screenings of it to this day! Would you be able to make something like that today, do you think?
There are a couple of things that would be different now, namely that I don’t think we could keep it secret that we were making it. Even then, though, we did give it a false name, because we thought even the name on the front cover of the script might blow the gaff if it got out, because we were pretending it was “live”.
The other thing different is the internet. About a week after it was broadcast, there was a huge furore about it: it hit the tabloids and the producer had to appear on Biteback, but eventually it died down. The director and I sort of slunk back into the shadows… We were proud of it but a lot of people were aggrieved, although we hoped that some others had enjoyed it. It was ten years later, when the BFI brought it out on DVD (in 2002) and the internet was up and running, when people who had watched it on TV and had been affected by it, or enjoyed it, or missed the end, got the DVD and had the benefit of a running commentary, which included our reason for doing it – which no-one had ever asked us at the time. Then it grew in popularity: Steve Freestone set up a fan website, and before we knew it there were hundreds of people sharing their memories and experiences of it, we started to be invited to screenings at universities and so forth, people were there who had watched it when they were 12 years old, that kind of thing. We suddenly, almost 15 years later, felt as though Ghostwatch had a new lease of life. It had been buried by the BBC and, we thought, had been largely forgotten, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Now this narrative approach has become so fashionable, from The Blair Witch Project, of course, all the way to Paranormal Activity and the many other found-footage and reality TV style horror movies – do you sit back and watch and think ‘Yup, got there first!’?
No, not in that way! But I think in the early 90s we were becoming aware of a blurring between drama and reality: drama was being shot with handheld cameras like documentaries, things like NYPD Blue, and also footage on the TV news of the Iraq war was accompanied by music, which is a dramatic device. That in particular informed our decision to do something in that borderland between fact and fiction, but I don’t think we knew necessarily what was going to come next in terms of reality TV or any of that – we were catching on to something of the climate at the time. But we did want to have a debate: who do you trust, what do you trust? Is that really an expert on TV? You only know that because she’s got ‘Expert’ on the caption, but she could be telling lies. I also thought that a ghost story was a perfect vehicle for asking: ‘do you trust your eyes?’ And it benefited from being on the BBC, because people trust the BBC! At the time, it was never assessed as piece of horror fiction but seen as a hoax, which was annoying at the time because we didn’t think of it as that, as a prank, but as a drama that had to be told a certain way to be effective. In some ways, you could say it was too effective!
Midwinter of the Spirit will begin on ITV on Wednesday, 23 September 2015