Claustrophobic interrogation rooms, grisly murders, tormented detectives; if there is one thing British TV has no shortage of, it’s bleak police procedurals.
Luckily for us, the visually stunning new series Landscapers, written by debut screenwriter Ed Sinclair and directed by Will Sharpe (Flowers), is a welcome departure from the well-trodden genre.
At once a fantastical love story and a darkly comedic crime drama, the series sees Olivia Colman (The Favourite) and David Thewlis (I’m Thinking of Ending Things) star as Susan and Chris Edwards, the unassuming couple from Mansfield at the centre of a baffling true story. In 2014, the pair were charged with murdering Susan’s parents, the Wycherleys, and burying them in the back garden, where they lay undiscovered for 15 years.
It’s a stranger-than-fiction case involving fake letters from actor Gérard Depardieu, forged pension documents and thousands of pounds of stolen money spent on worthless Hollywood memorabilia.
Drawing on the Edwards’ fascination with old Westerns and classic Hollywood films, the series explores notions of truth, guilt and trauma through a mesmerising visual aesthetic. Switching between scenes of escapist black-and-white fantasy to green and red realms of nightmarish theatre, director Will Sharpe explains that Ed Sinclair’s ambitions to play with the form in his scripts were what initially excited him about the project.
“One of the more challenging aspects was to have these discrete, distinct worlds, or modes of storytelling, [which spoke] to the characters’ psychology,” he says. “It shows how differently you could present the same truth and how differently that would make you feel about it.”
Given the shocking nature of the crime, Landscapers offers a perhaps surprisingly sympathetic depiction of Susan and Chris Edwards. Since neither Sinclair nor Sharpe were in any doubt over the couple’s guilt, understanding the couple’s psychology and unpacking the complex web of relationships and events that led to the tragic moment of the crime became a key motivator for the creative duo.
“Our criminal justice system operates within fairly narrow legal bounds which means that once you're convicted of a crime, you are defined by it to a certain extent. As soon as they were convicted, they became these cold-hearted murderers. But I don’t think real life is as black and white as that,” Sinclair explains.
“If you’re interested in working out how people like Susan and Chris ended up doing what they did, I think you have to put yourself in their mindset. That's an inherently sympathetic act and there's no way of getting around that,” he adds. “I mean, I certainly hope that no one comes out of watching Landscapers thinking I'm condoning murder.”
“Part of the world of this show is being open to the audience about the fact that we, too, are just storytellers, and this is also just our version of the truth, the same way there are versions of the truth within the show"
The empathy present in Sinclair’s scripts piqued Sharpe’s curiosity when joining the series. “I think we both really wanted to tell this story in as complex and nuanced a way as we could. [Susan] has a very complicated and special relationship with her husband, Chris, and they're in a really remarkable, dark, and complicated situation,” Sharpe explains.
Buoyed by stirring performances from Colman and Thewlis, Susan and Chris’s love story is a moving portrayal of a couple who sit outside of normal society yet remain devoted to each other against the odds. When studying the case, Sinclair noted the revelation of Susan’s abuse at the hands of her father was a fact often skipped over in media reports of the tragedy.
“It seemed to be an almost embarrassing detail, given the conviction. I just felt like that might be the whole story in a way, with Susan's willingness to let go of reality potentially as a result of her childhood experience,” Sinclair says.
“As [Susan] grew up and went through adulthood, I think, inevitably, you find yourself thinking that perhaps Chris was her hero, the ideal man. And so that's her side of the equation, that she fell deeply in love with him almost as a rescuer."
From abuse to alcoholism and murder, Landscapers navigates some deeply disturbing topics, yet the overarching tone is that of a black comedy. While Sinclair was unable to speak directly with Susan Edwards, in a letter sent to her in prison he admits being upfront about some undeniably comic elements in the case.
“How polite they were to the police before they handed themselves in, the Gérard Depardieu thing, it's all wild and strangely entertaining, but darkly so,” he explains. “So, in that sense, it felt like it matched the tone of the real-life story.”
“Comedy obviously has a long history of dealing with very serious matters and I think it's very effective at doing so. There's very little that communicates shared understanding better than laughter,” he adds.
While the Nottinghamshire police are given hilariously irreverent lines of dialogue, it was essential that the criminal investigation, the victims, or the perpetrators never became the butt of the joke.
“[Despite showing sympathy to Susan and Chris], I didn't want that to feel like I wasn't sympathetic to the police in the situation, or indeed the victims in this situation. I don't think it's a zero-sum game, I think you can have a situation where it's pretty shitty for everyone,” Sinclair says. “But again, I didn't want it to be miserable. So you make them funny, you make them humanly fallible and I think they feel a bit more real and accessible like that.”
Indeed, to navigate the responsibility of depicting real people, Sinclair and Sharpe decided to own the fact that this was a dramatization. With Western-style shootouts, characters breaking the fourth wall and police interviews disassembling into film sets, the creators opted for a surrealist rather than realist mode.
“I think part of the world of this show is being open to the audience about the fact that we, too, are just storytellers, and this is also just our version of the truth, the same way there are versions of the truth within the show,” Sharpe explains. “As the series progresses, you start to see the world of Landscapers almost get dismantled. And you start to hopefully wonder, what parts of the story can you trust?”
While the narrative may be laden with deception and mistrust, the experimental accomplishment of Landscapers is an undeniable truth.
Landscapers airs tonight on Sky Atlantic at 9pm, with all episodes available to watch now on NOW.