Matthew Bell reports on how improv is the secret to Suspects' success
"It’s a very straightforward police procedural," explained co-creator and Executive Producer Paul Marquess, the founder of FremantleMedia subsidiary Newman Street Productions, which makes the series. But there’s a twist: the cast improvise, working from a storyline, but no script.
The idea for Suspects was triggered by Marquess’s time at The Bill and The Only Way is Essex. On ITV’s cop drama, he worked with a number of top-quality writers – but not enough, he felt, to make the 100 or so hours of TV a year that the schedules demanded.
"We’d often end up with an A-list cast, really good stories that we’d worked out over a period of months, a very well-directed [show] and a B-list script," he recalled.
The final episode aired in 2010. "It seemed like a tragedy to me. The Bill, twice a week, was telling very good cop stories for a mass audience," said Marquess.
Around the same time, other long-running dramas, such as Heartbeat and The Royal, were also being pulled. "There was a real feeling that the days of mid-budget drama were gone in the UK," he added.
On TOWIE, Marquess found himself having to construct storylines for the show’s characters: "We would be on set with these non-actors and, once you’d got them in the right place, pressed the right buttons and shot it properly you’d end up with a really good show. I thought: ‘What if we did this with actors?’"
In 2012, daytime ITV show Crime Stories provided the dry run for Suspects. Shot cheaply and in a documentary style, the programme attracted up to 1 million viewers and the attention of Channel 5 Director of Programmes Ben Frow.
Suspects has three main characters: DI Martha Bellamy (Fay Ripley from much-loved ITV comedy-drama Cold Feet), DS Jack Weston (Damien Molony, who played Hal the vampire in BBC Three’s Being Human) and DC Charlie Steele (Clare-Hope Ashitey in her first leading TV role).
A retired police inspector was hired to prepare the actors. "We taught them how to restrain, handcuff and do a police interview, and how to move around the police station like they owned the place, which was important," said Producer Kara Manley. "We needed to immerse them in the police world and to give them the confidence to take control of scenes."
The team works quickly. There are no rehearsals – "The actors prep their characters but we don’t want them to rehearse. It has to feel raw and have an edge to it," explained Marquess – and scenes are shot in, at most, three takes and often just one. As a result, it takes two and a half days to shoot one commercial-hour episode (46 minutes)– four times quicker than a drama made in a more traditional way.
The RTS London event was chaired by the Editor of BBC Radio 4’s The Archers, Sean O’Connor. "We have no rehearsals and only two takes, and we’ve been doing it like that for 65 years. [Suspects] is very new but it’s also quite old as well," he said.
"The biggest benefit of the ‘no rehearsal, get on with it’ [method] is that it sounds alive and real. There’s a verisimilitude about it – you have cops; I have farmers," O’Connor added. "Don’t do rehearsals, don’t do it more than twice – you’re on to a really good format, which feels new, fresh and exciting."
Director Craig Pickles, who has worked on all three series, explained that the actors can take their improvisation as far as they want, but that the arc of the story has to be followed.
He told the London Centre audience: "Directing this is about letting the actors run free, so long as they get the investigation into it."
"It is a very honest piece of television," concluded Marquess. "It’s not arch and it’s not trying to be too clever. It was designed to appeal to a Channel 5 audience."