BritBox lifts the lid on its first original drama, The Beast Must Die, an ambitious thriller with an all-star cast.
Bringing a cherished project to television can take several years’ hard graft; for it to take decades is much more unusual. But, thanks to BritBox, an adaptation of The Beast Must Die – written by Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis under his crime-writer pen name, Nicholas Blake – has finally reached the TV screen.
More than 20 years ago, actor Nathaniel Parker narrated an audio version of the book. “It has always been for me the most ingenious of plots – clever, subtle, taking you by surprise at the end.… It’s a brilliant little book,” he recalled at an RTS event in late May.
A few years later, he turned out a script, sending it to Jill Balcon, DayLewis’s widow and mother of Oscar-winning actor Daniel. “She went, ‘Nah, that’s not a good enough script.’ Fair enough, I hadn’t written a script before so I understood completely,” he said.
Following Balcon’s death in 2009, her estate offered Parker the rights to adapt the book. The actor set up his own company to make the series, Pull Yourself Together Productions, and found a fellow fan in Ed Rubin (now the head of New Regency Television International), who loved Claude Chabrol’s 1969 film adaptation, Que la bête meure.
“I didn’t like the film – we came to it from two different ways,” admitted Parker, “but we hawked it around and, luckily, BritBox was the one that bit.”
Parker appears in the five-part revenge thriller, which debuted at the end of May, but in the smaller role of Blount, therapist to Billy Howle’s troubled detective, Nigel Strangeways. “Generally, when you see an actor who is [also] an exec producer, they are the star,” said Parker.
"BritBox was… incredibly refreshing… there was no micromanagement"
Writer Gaby Chiappe, who wrote the screenplay for the terrific British comedy-drama Their Finest, put the kibosh on Parker’s initial plan to play Frank Cairns. “Gaby had this brilliant idea of changing Frank into Frances Cairns – that was me out of the window,” said Parker. Cairns, played by Cush Jumbo, seeks revenge when her six-year-old son is killed by a hit and run driver, and suspects the killer is businessman George Rattery (Jared Harris).
BritBox’s first original drama boasts a heavyweight cast. Few actors, following his star performances in Chernobyl and The Crown, are currently as hot as Harris. Jumbo excelled in US legal drama The Good Fight, while Howle won plaudits for his recent performance in The Serpent.
Having seen Chabrol’s film, Chiappe started to think that the role of the bereaved parent could work equally well as a woman; probably better, given that she was planning to update the book from its original 1938 setting to the modern day.
The book is “quite edgy and felt very of the moment, but it’s very hard to set something in 1938 and not make it feel safe and a heritage [piece],” she said. “Some of the things that [Cairns] does in the book, with modern sensibilities, would make me feel quite queasy – the grooming of a young woman to get close to the person who he thinks killed his son.… The transposition of the gender of the lead character just came naturally with it being [set] now.”
Another significant change sees the setting moved from Gloucestershire to the Isle of Wight. “Sailing is really important in the book and I was looking for somewhere where sailing isn’t just the preserve of the very rich,” explained Chiappe.
A police advisor working on the series suggested the Isle of Wight, where people “run little shitty cars just so they can keep a boat on the water”.
Finnish director Dome Karukoski, who made the well-reviewed Tolkien, starring Nicholas Hoult as the young writer, was also drawn to the island’s split character: “You have this touristy image… and a darker side; there’s a lot of poverty, kids who can’t afford to go to the mainland because the ferries cost too much.
“I tried to use [this] visually and aesthetically – the sunny versus the darkness in locations and lighting.”
As events turned out, the Isle of Wight had more than just locations going for it. When shooting was finally under way in autumn 2020, following months of Covid-19 delays, the island was, for a time, one of the few regions in England placed under the loosest tier 1 restrictions.
Karukoski said that working under Covid protocols made shooting “more tense and tiring”, but he also identified a couple of benefits: “When we moved the shoot, it gave us additional time to work on the script with Gaby.
“I [also] love obstacles…. We put our heads together and thought, ‘If we couldn’t shoot something due to [the Covid] regulations, what else could [we do with] the scene?’ Our wonderful crew made a lot of great creative choices.”
TV is awash with crime series but The Beast Must Die is more ambitious than most, partly thanks to its source material. Day-Lewis explored “something quite elemental about [loss] within the framework of a detective novel”, said Chiappe. “You have to hit the genre marks, otherwise it doesn’t work as genre, but that’s not the only thing that is happening.”
BritBox’s cold war series A Spy Among Friends, starring Damian Lewis and Dominic West, is expected to air later this year. Contemporary thriller Marlow, starring Claire Foy, is due to shoot in the autumn. Chiappe was quick to praise the UK streamer: “It was non-interventionist in a way that is incredibly refreshing – they had thoughts and ideas but there was no micromanagement.”
BritBox’s arm’s-length stance was particularly welcome to Parker: “I was in Far from the Madding Crowd, playing Gabriel Oak, and we literally had to stop shooting in the middle of a field in the Yorkshire Dales because the head of ITV, or whatever, wanted me to wear a hat – oh, for God’s sake. There was none of that with BritBox.”
For the actor, The Beast Must Die marks the achievement of a long-held ambition that dates from his first TV appearance in a 1988 Battle of Britain drama, Piece of Cake: “From the very first day of filming on Piece of Cake, I’ve wanted to be on the other side of the lens as well, with a really good script and crew, creating a really good product and everyone having a really good time.
“That’s what happened on my first ever proper exec producership – I’m thrilled to bits.”
Report by Matthew Bell. ‘The Beast Must Die: Preview Q&A’ was an RTS event held on 26 May. It was chaired by journalist Caroline Frost and produced by the RTS and Organic Publicity.