BritBox's Magpie Murders: A story within a story

BritBox's Magpie Murders: A story within a story

Thursday, 10th March 2022
Lesley Manville in Magpie Murders (credit: BritBox)
Lesley Manville in Magpie Murders (credit: BritBox)
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The RTS learns how the complex BritBox whodunnit Magpie Murders was made – and why one of the characters was influenced by Emily Maitlis.

Eagle-eyed viewers – and, for detective dramas, we should assume that’s the majority – may have noticed a small detail in an early episode of the long-running ITV series Midsomer ­Murders. “You’ll see one of the characters reading a book called Magpie Murders. At that point, I hadn’t written it, but I got the book made up into a prop anyway,” Anthony Horowitz, writer of both, told the RTS. 

Magpie Murders is a murder mystery story set within a murder mystery story. The idea came to him 15 years before he put pen to paper; the tricky task of weaving the conjoined stories together in a clear, linear fashion explains the unusually long development period. The book was finally unveiled in 
2016, and arrived on BritBox last month. 

The protagonist in this modern twist on the classic murder mystery tale (you’ll spot on-screen references to Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes and Dorothy L Sayers) is Susan Ryeland. Played by Lesley Manville (soon to take the role of Princess Margaret in The Crown), Ryeland is an editor to Alan Conway (Conleth Hill), a celebrated author who delivers the manuscript for his latest masterpiece, Magpie Murders, but with the final chapter missing. 

When Ryeland travels to Suffolk to retrieve it, she discovers that Conway has been murdered – and that the mystery of his death may be uncovered by the missing chapter. Thus follows a clever take on the classic whodunnit, with a stellar supporting cast of Tim McMullan (Foyle’s War) as Atticus Pünd, the fictitious detective in Conway’s book and Daniel Mays (Line of Duty), who takes a double role as two policemen – one in the story, and one in the story within the story. 

“We’ve made a lot of crime, but I think this is the most distinctive piece we’ve ever made,” said Jill Green, producer of the series and CEO of Eleventh Hour Films. “The biggest challenge was that, in the book, there’s a huge amount set in 1955, and a very small amount in the contemporary world. We decided to flip the two over and make the contemporary story almost 70% of the drama and make Susan our reliable narrator. I felt that she needed to carry the audience through all the complexities that the script is presenting.” 

The team brought Manville in early on, when Horowitz had written only the pilot episode and outlined the others. As such, Manville helped flesh out Ryeland into a woman who eschews settling down in favour of an independent lifestyle and has intelligence and style. The latter aspect was influenced by the broadcaster Emily Maitlis, after Manville spotted her while waiting in a BBC foyer. 

“I watched her run across the reception and she looked fantastic. It was 10:00am and she had an amazing outfit, high heels, the lot. I thought, ‘Yeah, I’ll pinch that little bit of her and put that into Susan’,” said Manville. “I was hugely helped through that journey by the costume designer, Annie Hardinge. She came in with this array of clothes, which was another little lightbulb moment. All those things helped me to get Susan on the go.” 

For McMullan, a large part of embodying his character was nailing the accent. “I played a German character before – Dr Miller in The Deep Blue Sea – so I drew on that,” he explained. “I also watched Anton Walbrook, a wonderful Austrian actor from the 1930s and 1940s, and tried to pick up his voice. But I didn’t want Pünd to be too guttural. German can be quite harsh and I wanted to find a non-harsh version.” 

Daniel Mays in Magpie Murders (credit: BritBox)

Mays had arguably the meatiest challenge as an actor, playing two different characters. “In terms of an acting exercise, it was brilliant because of how different they are to one another and [yet] how similar they are. [The dual role] gives a great theatricality to it all,” he said. 

The dual set-up is also what attracted director Peter Cattaneo: “For a director, it’s an absolute gift. You’ve got a chance to make two movies or two TV shows at a time. The transitions, where we’re in one world and we flip over to the other world, were so cleverly written in the first episode. There was potential to keep playing with that all the way through.” 

While the story is set in London and Suffolk, where a little filming took place, much of the production occurred in Ireland – an added complexity while shooting under Covid conditions, said Green: “You’re flying whole crews between Dublin and the UK, but everyone also had to quarantine, so it was a very big commitment, and very expensive. 

“I had three five-day chunks where I had to quarantine. I think it was the best thing that happened with the show. Boy, did I do some intricate shot lists, storyboards and prep – and I think it helped. Often, you’re rushing around in prep, but, actually, I had time to think about those things, so it was quite good for me. As Danny said, if any actor on this show doesn’t know their lines, they deserve to never work again, because they had five days to learn.” 

While the series was primarily developed with PBS and GBH in the US – no doubt with an eye on the growing appetite for UK crime dramas there – the British partners changed mid-process. 

ITV got the ball rolling before BritBox took over. “It was at a moment when ITV felt it had a lot of other crime returning and the schedule was busy,” explained Green. “But it was also at a moment when BritBox was starting to make original drama – it had literally made only three and we’re the fourth, I think.” 

With Moonflower Murders, Horowitz’s sequel to Magpie Murders, published in 2020, the team is hopeful that Ryeland can return to the screen again. It already foresees 2023 as a potential release date, provided the financiers agree. “Both PBS and BritBox are very excited, so we are really hoping. But also we have to wait for Lesley to become free,” said Green. 

“The book has already been brilliantly narrated on audio by one Lesley ­Manville, as it happens,” said Horowitz. “I’m very, very hopeful. Moonflower Murders here we come.” 

Report by Shilpa Ganatra. ‘Magpie Murders preview Q&A’ was an RTS event held on 3 February. It was chaired and produced by journalist Caroline Frost. 

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