Graham Norton on the ITV adaptation of his crime novel Holding

Graham Norton on the ITV adaptation of his crime novel Holding

Thursday, 10th March 2022
Holding (credit: ITV)
Holding (credit: ITV)
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Graham Norton’s crime novel, Holding, is about to air on ITV. Caroline Frost talks to him and other members of the creative team.

I was very clear I didn’t want to do the adaptation. I’d had my time with these characters, and it was time to hand them over.” Graham Norton is quick to explain why he was thrilled to let someone else bring to screen his 2016 bestselling crime novel, Holding. It is the story of a murder in a rural Irish community where everyone, it seems, has secrets that they have been holding on to. “I thought I’d feel weird, but I’ve loved watching the direction the characters have gone in, and the way the world has opened up and got larger. I’ve really enjoyed it.” 

The screenwriting fell instead to his friend Dominic Treadwell-Collins, a former EastEnders executive producer who runs Happy Prince (part of ITV Studios), which is making the show. With Holding, Treadwell-Collins is ­flexing other muscles, too: it’s his own screenwriting debut. 

“I’ve always loved a whodunnit, and this book was so brilliant and set in an area I knew. I drove out to Ireland and kind of auditioned for Graham,” he says. That was a few years ago. “Then,” he says, “I tried different ­people adapting it and my uncle said: ‘You should do this yourself.’” 

He set to work alongside co-producer and writer Karen Cogan (both are executive producers here, along with Norton), and it was she who persuaded him to put more of his own history into the script, to make it more personal. 

“My dad was from West Cork, and he died very suddenly in an accident when I was 15,” says Treadwell-Collins. “It affected my family massively in good ways and bad ways, and I felt that now was the time to put that in the show, to talk about grief, about how holding on to grief can be so detrimental for you. The flip side is, I was living on the farm my dad grew up on, and on the first day of filming, I walked up to my dad’s best friend’s farm where we were shooting. It felt a bit cathartic for me, quite raw and painful, but I think the best things are.” 

Given permission by Norton to do whatever he liked with the story, Treadwell-Collins has kept the book’s central narrative, but has expanded other characters, including the Ross sisters, living together uncomfortably on the farm where a body is soon ­discovered – a shift that delights the author. “Mine were more constrained and they’ve been fully developed. Each one of them could have their own show,” Norton says. “One of the things I’ve really enjoyed is, my book is a genre book, it’s cosy crime, and what Karen and Dominic have done is make a TV show unlike other shows. The feel is entirely its own and that’s hard to do.” 

For Cogan, such characterisation was a crucial aspect of the piece. “Telly eats story, you need plot, plot, plot, but the joy of this book was the people, so it was important to us that we spent time with them in their smaller moments, in kitchens, in bedrooms, in private moments that you don’t always get the luxury of in telly. They were really important to us.” 

‘It’s acerbic, followed by a hug’

Key to all this was the team’s choice of director. Enter Kathy Burke, who, Treadwell-Collins explains, “understands grief and loss”, but also the value of community, on and off screen. He says admiringly: “She took it to a whole new level with her vision, her punkiness that she brings, and her gathering together of the cast and crew. 

“On the second week, a crew ­member came up to me and said, ‘I’ve never been on a set where the director has known everyone’s name.’ And I think that all comes out on screen.” 

Siobhán McSweeney in Holding (credit: ITV)

Burke, by her own admission, feels more at home directing in the theatre, but during lockdown had enjoyed listening to the audiobook of Norton reading Holding. “Then, my manager got in touch and told me Dominic wanted me to have a look at a TV project, and it turned out to be the same book.” 
Burke was equally lured by the prospect of expanding the roles of the Ross sisters and other women. “He’s made them three-dimensional, which is so rare,” she says. The pedigree of the cast didn’t hurt, either, as it includes some of Ireland’s most beloved actors, including Siobhán McSweeney (Sister Michael in Derry Girls), Conleth Hill (Game of Thrones), Brenda Fricker (who won an Oscar for her role in My Left Foot) and Pauline McLynn (Father Ted’s scene-stealing Mrs Doyle). 

“People such as Siobhán McSweeney and Conleth Hill, they’re usually the supporting actors people love, but they’re never the leads – but, with Holding, it’s happened,” says Burke happily. “I was so chuffed that these were the people Karen and Dominic wanted from the off.” 

For Hill, the role of PJ, a weary local policeman propelled unwillingly into action, is, by his own admission, the best he has ever read. “He’s holding things, too, he doesn’t feel like he really belongs, never felt part of the community,” says Hill. “He’s real and flawed and human.” 

Alongside him for much of the show is Linus, a younger but more senior officer, played by Clinton Liberty. As the real outsider to the village, Linus is the viewer’s way into this tightknit community. His evolving partnership with PJ is also a joy to behold. 

“They both have such different ways of operating,” laughs Liberty. “Linus is headstrong, PJ is coasting and enjoying trying not to do too much. That said, throughout the show, I really feel that Linus learns to take a step back and not always go by the book. And PJ learns to have more confidence in himself and take the initiative.” 

Arguably, the biggest character on-screen is Norton’s fictional village of Duneen, filmed largely in two ­locations in West Cork. 

“We looked at a few different towns, and the one we ended up using was, in real life, really busy. We kept being told the traffic would be diverted, but it never happened,” says Treadwell-­Collins. For the Tobermory-­esque rich colour palette of the high street– PJ’s first call-out in the show is when one resident has the temerity to paint his shopfront brown – Cogan explains that, while no buildings were construc­ted, “We worked very hard with our art department.” 

The colours are key to the look of the piece, but Burke admits she struggled initially to find them and translate them to screen. “I was looking at paintings from Ireland, and they were all green with a red pillar box,” she says. “Then, I came across paintings by the artist Katherine Boucher Beug, sent them to Karen and Dominic and said, ‘This is the colour palette. I’ve found it!’” 

The tone of the show is rich, too, and shifts unexpectedly from sinister and brooding to whimsical and comedic. Cogan references the Coen Brothers’ work and other small-town dramas, such as the multiple Emmy award- winner Olive Kitteridge, but also ­credits Norton’s original work. “A huge amount of that is Graham, his warmth but not being afraid of the darkness. It’s acerbic, followed by a hug.” 

Of course, Holding, like Norton himself, is essentially Irish. Indeed, he says the only note he ever gave was when he felt things had become “too Irish”. Norton explains: “I was saying, ‘You have Irish actors, you’re filming in West Cork, it’s Irish enough. We get it.’” 

Holding will air in four parts on ITV from 14 March. 

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