David Hennessy spoke to Lisa McGee, creator and writer of the phenomenally successful Derry Girls, and her husband Tobias Beer about The Deceived, the psychological drama that comes to Channel 5 this week.
The success of Derry Girls has made Lisa McGee synonymous with comedy but this week we can see a more serious side of her writing in The Deceived. Written with her husband Tobias Beer, The Deceived centres around the charismatic and charming university professor Michael Callaghan who starts an affair with one of his young students named Ophelia. When Michael disappears from Cambridge for days, Ophelia follows him to Ireland when she is shocked to find him burying his wife. Although she is said to have died in an accidental fire and Ophelia believes Michael, you might suspect Michael has done something awful to get rid of his wife, the author whose success made him feel so small in comparison.
Michael is played by Emmett J Scanlan, well known from parts in Hollyoaks, The Fall, Peaky Blinders and Gangs of London, while relative newcomer Emily Reid plays Ophelia. The supporting cast includes Normal People star and now Emmy Award nominee Paul Mescal.
Lisa told The Irish World how the idea came about, “We liked all these old movies like Dial M for Murder, Rebecca and Gaslight and we just kind of ran out of them. We thought about writing a longer form TV version that felt slightly more modern and that’s where it started really. We started developing it three years ago.”
Tobias adds, “We did find that we had this real shared taste in this sort of thing so initially it was just, ‘We’ll have a go and try and write a story..’ And the idea that it’s actually been made is just…”
“It’s always a miracle when it gets made,” Lisa says.
A theme of the tense thriller is gaslighting, when someone is manipulated into doubting themselves and their own sanity.
Lisa says, “We’re just both fascinated with relationships and where lines are crossed and manipulation.”
Tobias says, “It’s a relatively modern idea using that term but it’s amazing how people are familiar with it once you explain what it means. People go, ‘Oh yeah, that’s happened to me’. It seems a lot of people have experienced it.”
Lisa confirms, “It’s very common, I think.”
Tobias continues, “Even on a low level, it can be going on like if I say to Lisa, ‘Has anyone done the washing up?’ What you’re actually saying is, ‘I haven’t done it and why haven’t you?’ So I’m increasingly careful about anything that is anywhere near that territory now even if it’s innocent.”
Lisa says, “Michael’s not telling the whole truth and hiding stuff but I think the real story will surprise you again, what the audience might think at the end of episode one or two isn’t necessarily what happened. He has a questionable character but there’s more to him, I think.”
The professor Michael Callaghan may feature in some of his young female students’ dreams but it soon becomes apparent he likes to use and discard them. When Ophelia gets involved with him, it turns into a nightmare. Emmett J Scanlan brings the part to life in a charming and compelling way.
Lisa says, “We’ve both been fans of Emmett for a while so we were really excited. It was always about finding the right part for Emmett and this project, Michael felt really right for him. When we got him we were dead excited. I think he’s such a brilliant actor.”
Tobias adds, “Yeah, the thing with that character was to find someone who had that strength and was imposing enough but also to have the intelligence to do it. Emmett really is amazing at that.”
Lisa says, “He’s such a phenomenal actor. I loved him in Hollyoaks. I loved what he did with that part. People still talk about Brendan. He’s one of the iconic soap characters, isn’t he?”
Tobias says, “I think it’s quite hard to do this sort of material that’s quite big. A lot of stuff is on the edge of being melodrama and you really need people who are good to pull it off. What’s good about Emmett is he also has a fragility to him where you feel sorry for him sometimes.”
Michael mentions his wife having a successful career in literature early on. Although he says it casually, it bothers him more than he will let on.
Lisa says, “He wants someone to worship him because everybody is talking about his wife. He’s got a big ego. He’s hugely insecure because his wife is cleverer than him basically.”
Can Tobias relate here due to his wife’s success with Derry Girls? “You’ve seen through it. The whole thing is a rant from me. Let’s get it out there.”
“It’s exaggerated,” says a laughing Lisa.
However, Tobias says the couple were oblivious to any vague similarities, “It’s interesting. You start to notice things like that afterwards. That never occurred to me but then you go, ‘Oh hang on…”
Lisa points out, “It’s also like being a married couple and writing about an affair. It’s quite interesting, all the discussions you have to have because we’re writing partners as well as married. It’s been interesting.”
Tobias has revealed he even started to fear running into Emmett on set as the Irish actor put so much preparation in that he was constantly asking questions of the writer: “He used to come over and say, ‘Toby, just a quick question…’
“I’d be like, ‘Oh God, he’s going to point out something that doesn’t make sense’. But that’s incredible. It happens all the time that you might miss tiny inconsistencies in one character’s journey and he was brilliant because he picked up on all of those. It’s so useful to have that.
“He’s also a little bit method so sometimes he’ll stay as Michael while he’s having his lunch so you have to be careful, but it works for him.”
Lisa adds, “A really clever actor is terrifying when you go, ‘What are they going to tell me that I’ve forgotten or missed? It’s obviously better to know but that moment where they go, ‘I’ve noticed this…’ You’re like, ‘Oh God’.
“Sometimes you just work with an actor who makes your script better and it’s just joyful. He’s one of them.”
Paul Mescal from Kildare has been filling tabloid pages and being spoken about as a future Bond since he and Daisy Edgar-Jones captured the imagination as Connell and Marianne in Normal People. Tobias and Lisa are well aware of the coup they pulled off by getting him just before his star went stratospheric.
Tobias reflects, “Of course the really incredible thing was Paul Mescal who at the time was not.. He was being talked about but he’s rocketed now. Obviously, that’s a huge thing for us and hopefully he’ll bring a lot of people to it.”
Lisa adds, “It was so funny. I think Toby sent him a message after Normal People and it was just like, ‘That’s you now, we’ll never see you again’. You definitely wouldn’t get him now. It’s so amazing. We got in there just in time. He’s a very special actor, Paul.”
Tobias continues, “He is very intelligent but very down to earth, very humble and just works very hard. I know he spends a lot of time preparing. He finished Normal People and then he started with us the next day or something. It was incredible but I remember the casting director Louise Kiely said to us, ‘You have to have this guy, he’s going to be huge’.
Lisa says, “Sometimes actors like that just come along. Once in a generation, I think.”
The writers do warn viewers wanting to see more of Paul that they won’t see as much of him as they did in Normal People.
“We’re a very clothes on show,” says Lisa.
Tobias adds, “Yeah, you don’t get anything for your money with us, I’m afraid.”
Lisa continues, “They develop quite a nice relationship, Ophelia and Sean, and he’s like her confidante. He’s more suitable for her, he’s her age for a start and she comes to lean on him quite a bit as the story progresses.”
Emily Reid, who has previously featured in Belgravia and The Trouble with Maggie Cole, plays Ophelia.
“The story is told through her eyes. She’s obviously very young but has this intelligence about her, maturity about her that just felt very appealing,” Lisa says.
Tobias agrees, “She has a strength about her. When you have a story where there’s an older man and a younger woman I think it’s always on the edge of being a bit icky. I think because she’s so strong, although it is manipulative and abusive, hopefully it doesn’t feel too much like that from the beginning. You feel like she sort of knows what she’s doing. She’s in charge of her own decisions a bit.”
Derry Girls fans may be surprised to hear of Lisa writing something less comedic but Lisa was a playwright and writer of drama long before she became well known for writing the hugely successful sitcom. Her theatre credits include Jump which has now been adapted into a film while her previous television writing includes RTE’s Raw, Being Human, The White Queen and sitcom London Irish.
Lisa says, “I think I’ve had a bit of that reaction. I’ve never written anything like this before but I wrote drama before comedy. For me it’s just about writing something you love and I really love this story and loved working on the scripts with Toby. I just hope that people engage with it, want to know what happens next and all of that stuff. It’s nothing like Derry Girls.”
Tobias adds, “I think what is helpful is it so different. Anyone who has seen the trailer, it’s not like you could tune in and go, ‘This isn’t funny, what’s this?’ I think people will hopefully understand not to expect any comparisons.”
Lisa says she found writing psychological drama very similar to comedy, “Derry Girls is a plot driven comedy. A lot happens, there’s a lot of turns even though they’re very stupid turns and there’s no real stakes involved.
“In this, the turns are just bigger. There’s more at stake but I definitely think you have to care about the characters to feel worried for them in The Deceived. You have to build moments the way you would build a joke.
“I think there are similarities. One of the main differences is it’s quite hard going writing a mystery because with a comedy when you write a funny bit, you can sit back and enjoy the funny bit and it’s silly. But it’s quite intense writing something that’s meant to be scary and wondering if that’s going to scare people. It’s quite hard to work out if you’ve done it right.”
Tobias adds, “I really enjoyed doing the scary bits and as Lisa said it is like a joke trying to work out the structure of what order you see things in or don’t see things.”
“I think Toby’s brilliant at that. He loves that horror genre. I can’t do it. I think it’s just like writing a joke. You’ve either got that skill or you haven’t but when it came to putting the scares together, he was very good at that. I was jumping in the edit when we were watching it back.”
Michael’s wife Roisin complains to Ophelia in a ladies’ room about having her work explained to her by a ‘patronising pr*ck’. Has Lisa ever had this? “All the time. Especially as a woman in comedy, there’s something about comedy that men particularly feel like they can tell you what’s funny and what’s not. I think that it’s fine. It goes with the territory.”
As an actor Tobias has mostly worked in the theatre and his credits include Merry Wives of Windsor with Judi Dench and Simon Callow for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
How has the married couple found writing together?
Tobias says, “We have to have a rule that we’re not allowed to get upset or say, ‘Why did you say that’?”
Lisa adds, “Or, ‘Why haven’t you thought of that storyline yet’?
Tobias says, “It’s worked so far. Who knows? Maybe we’ll be killing each other in five years.
“Early on, we’ll have the idea, talk about the idea together but when we go work separately and then come back together and swap over. It’s not like we sit in one room and write at the same time. We never do that, maybe that keeps it alive.”
It is lucky for Lisa, Tobias and everyone involved that The Deceived had been completely shot before lockdown forced shooting on all productions to stop.
Tobias remembers, “I think we must have been one of the last shows. When we were doing the very last bits of post-producton like the bits of music and ADR and stuff, we had to do a lot of that remotely. We just snuck in, who knows how long we would have had to wait and hopefully it’s not a bad time to be going out because there’s not a huge amount of new things on.”
When do they feel shooting can return to normal? “I think everybody’s just trying to figure that out,” says Lisa. “We certainly are on Derry Girls because we should be filming now but we were pushed back. We’re just having lots of discussions and trying to work it all out. I think some shows are going to start soon so they’ll maybe lead the way a l bit and we’ll see how we do it.”
Recent reports would have had you believe that a Derry Girls movie was written and ready to go after Lisa casually commented a feature length Derry Girls could happen.
Lisa told The Irish World: “I said this a few days ago in a very ‘yeah, I’d like to do it’ way and then I saw everybody saying it’s basically written and it definitely isn’t.
“It’s just that I’m starting to form ideas. It’s something we’d like to do, I think, and that’s as far as we’ve gone. There’s no concrete plans really. It’s just that I think we’d all like to give it a go.
“After Derry Girls three, I’ll probably sit down and think about it properly.”
The Deceived also includes turns from two of the regular cast of Derry Girls. Ian McElhinney, who plays Granda Joe in the Channel 4 comedy, plays Michael’s father Hugh who is fighting the tide of oncoming dementia.
“Lisa always says it’s actually illegal to not have him in it,” says Tobias.
Ian, who will also be recognisable from his part in Game of Thrones, often steals the show with a caustic putdown of Gerry.
Lisa says: “Yeah, it should be. I think because he’s such a good actor and he plays Granda Joe quite straight, it’s funnier. He’s never trying to be funny and he’s playing him completely seriously all the time so it just really works.”
Louisa Harland, who plays Orla in Derry Girls, also features as the local psychic medium who is not taken very seriously by anyone in the town.
Lisa says it was lovely to have two cast members crossover: “I think it was something that we hoped we might find a part for one of them. She’s just such a brilliant actress and she’s so completely different from Orla, especially in this. It was nice to see her doing a slightly more dramatic role.”
Tobias adds: “I think it’s really nice for actors, when they’re in something as iconic as Derry Girls where there’s a danger people, a bit like David Jason and Del boy, associate them so closely with the character, it’s really nice for people to see they can do other stuff.”
Since it debuted in 2018, Derry Girls has become Channel 4’s most successful comedy since the Irish classic Father Ted and earned Lisa and the team countless awards. It has also been a huge success internationally which is possibly even more unexpected.
When did they know they had something special? Well it seems it was not until they unleashed it on an unsuspecting public although the feedback was instant.
“I think there was two stages to it,” Lisa says. “I think the first was when it went out on Channel 4 and seeing the twitter reaction. I wasn’t looking at Twitter but Toby was. He was like, ‘I think you can look. I think it’s okay’. And then I looked and everyone was reacting so positively. Then the next day we got those figures and we were like, ‘Oh my God’.
“So we knew it had gone down amazingly here and then when the second series hit Netflix globally we knew something else had happened then. Those two things were big moments for us and there was a year between them when we knew it was a success in Ireland and the UK and then we realised, ‘Oh my God, people are watching this around the world’. And then we started getting retweeted in Mexico and India and stuff. That was when really.”
Tobias adds, “I remember the first time I read the first episode. It was a very early draft and within a page, you just go straight into it and I thought, ‘This is really, really special’. I remember saying it. You realise how hard it is and how rare it is to get something that captures, that everyone wants to watch.
“Because it’s so specific and it’s so specifically that place that actually, ironically, makes it have huge appeal. Everyone recognises their own version of it in whichever place they come from even if it’s Mexico.”
Lisa continues, “It’s that old cliché: If you try to please everyone, you’ll please nobody. Shows try and be too broad. Viewers can see through that. They’re very sophisticated and they want specific worlds. They want to learn about other places. I certainly do when I watch stuff.”
Tobias says, “The other thing for me is that we recognise so many things that have actually happened. So much of it is Lisa’s family.”
When asked for the best moment that was taken from Lisa’s family life, she says: “I always get in trouble and I’ll get in trouble again, but I’ll do it.
“My mum and my aunt considered taking a piece of jewellery off the dead body at a wake because the jewellery belonged to their father. They didn’t do it but they definitely had a conversation about it so I remember thinking, ‘Imagine if they had done that, how terrible that would have been’.
Tobias says, “There’s the religious superstition about holy water and things like that. If you say to Lisa’s mother, ‘The Deceived’s been commissioned’. She’ll say, ‘I knew it, didn’t I tell you?’ But she didn’t tell us and also she told us a lot of other things that didn’t happen. We’ll forget about those.”
“She’s going to kill you if that’s in the interview,” Lisa tells her husband while laughing. We had to leave it in because we all know mothers exactly like that.
In decades gone by if Derry was featuring on national television it was probably for negative reasons. Is Lisa conscious of people looking at Derry in a different way now due to them enjoying a comedy from there? “There’s a different tourist experience there now because of the show. There’s a mural there, people do a tour of the locations. You can do a Derry Girls weekend, have a cream horn and a Derry Girls cocktail in a hotel there and all this sort of stuff.
“It brings something other than the bleaker history that tourists are obviously still interested in. It brings a brighter side to people visiting, I think.
“Some people said to me when the mural went up that it was really emotional because murals are usually associated with a lot of painful things that have happened in Northern Ireland and just to see these five eejits looking down on the city, it was just really lovely because they’re just there because they’ve made people laugh. That’s a lovely thing.”
The girls were reunited for a Comic Relief sketch that recently saw them joined by Oscar-nominated actress Saoirse Ronan.
“It was really funny because they asked me to do it and then they said, ‘Only if Saoirse Ronan will do it with you’. And I was like, ‘No she won’t’. But she did. We were all trying to play it cool a bit with Saoirse Ronan in the rehearsal because we’re all massive fans obviously.”
The Irish World just feels like writing some misleading headlines now. Can we say Saoirse is definitely going to be in this Derry Girls movie that is definitely happening? “We wish. If only.”
What can Lisa tease us about season three? “Channel 4 are very, very strict so I can’t really say a lot except that the gang are going to be forced to grow up a little bit this season, another big political story is going on in the background but they also get in and out of a lot of very, very stupid scrapes which is the most important thing because I think that’s why people watch it.”
The Deceived is on Channel 5 at 9pm from Monday this week.