Steve Clarke hears how the creators of Boat Story were determined to make an ambitious, multi-layered thriller
Few TV thrillers have been favourably compared to Tarantino, the Coen brothers and Wes Anderson but Two Brothers Pictures’ ambitious six-part Boat Story, starring Daisy Haggard, Tchéky Karyo and Paterson Joseph, is no run-of-the-mill action series.
This multi-layered show, which started its run on BBC One in late November, begins conventionally enough, with Janet (Haggard) out walking on a wintry Yorkshire beach. However, the down-on-her-luck Janet discovers a washed-up boat containing two dead bodies and cocaine worth millions.
Egged on by Samuel (Joseph), a criminal lawyer with a gambling addiction, they steal the drugs. “Janet ordinarily would not do this, but this is such a moment, and her life is in the pits. At core, she is a moral person, but she just grabs on to this lifeboat and makes this crazy decision,” Haggard told the RTS.
The role of Janet was written for Haggard, who had previously collaborated with creators and executive producers Harry and Jack Williams on Back to Life.
Boat Story’s switchback narrative swerves between brutal violence – including torture scenes that some may find hard to watch – tenderness and irony. Karyo’s drug lord, The Tailor, is a masterclass in villainy.
There is even a play within a play, plus silent film-style title cards to help set the scene, and a narrator with an exquisitely syrup voice. In other words, Boat Story is a mashup and nothing is quite what it seems.
Jack Williams explained: “It’s a show about stories, why they’re important, why we tell them, why we keep watching them. For that, we felt Boat Story needed to embrace lots of different tones and genres.
“At times, in episode 4, there’s almost a romantic comedy but, at others, it’s a dark action movie with an ironic bent. We wanted to lean into the violence so it was quite dialled up, almost comic book and unreal.”
Harry added: “For all those things to co-exist, to have that heightened violence and for the humour to be so absurd, you have to create a stylised world. It’s always a balancing act. You have too much comedy, and the thing falls over. Or too much violence and it becomes too grim.”
Boat Story, for which they helmed the first two episodes, is the Williams’s debut as directors. Judging by what the actors told the RTS, the experience was a positive one. The performers praised the brothers’ willingness to collaborate and their creativity.
Haggard said: “What’s great about the two brothers – and they won’t say this about themselves – is that they are very collaborative. When you’re working with them, there is no sense of ego.
“There’s a sense of wanting to make something better and being open to what that might be. It’s always evolving and feels genuinely creative. In lots of jobs I’ve done, you’re told what to do: ‘Stand there, say that.’ This has a sense of movement, and they won’t let it rest until they’re entirely happy.”
Joanna Scanlan, who plays pasty shop owner Pat Tooh, agreed: “We’re in an industry that is very pressured and serious. It is very hierarchical and there are a lot of people putting pressure on the layer beneath…. The two brothers bring a kind of naughtiness to the process where they just say: ‘Let’s fuck it up and do that thing to make it different and see what happens.’”
She added: “So few people would be inclined to do that because often it’s so serious, with people saying: ‘A lot of reputations are resting on this project and there’s a lot of money involved.’
“It feels like we’re back in the sandbox and able to create a fairy castle…. It’s so unusual because TV is such an industrial process. This never felt industrial at all.”
‘In conversation with the cast and creators of Boat Story’ was an RTS National Event held on 18 December. It was hosted by Empire’s James Dyer and produced by Jessica Molyneux. It can be watched here.