Morbid fascination

Kerr Logan, Michael Smiley and Eileen O’Higgins in character as Conall, Brock and Nancy.

David Hennessy spoke to Michael Smiley, Eileen O’Higgins and Kerr Logan, the stars of Dead Still, a new period drama set in the Dublin of the late 18th century.

A new period drama will take you to Victorian Dublin. Acorn TV’s Dead Still follows the renowned memorial photographer Brock Blennerhasset who is played by Belfast actor Michael Smiley.

Brock lives a solitary and private life until his niece Nancy, played by Eileen O’Higgins, comes to stay with him and lend a hand and he takes on an eager assistant in Kerr Logan’s Conall.

An unfortunate accident forces Brock to take the help of would-be actress Nancy and former grave-digger Conall Molloy to help keep his business afloat while a tenacious detective keeps digging into some mysterious deaths. Brock just hopes his business will not be implicated in any macabre murders.

Michael Smiley, who is well known from dramas such as Luther and Wire in the Blood, told The Irish World his character is somewhat haunted and probably more comfortable with the dead than the living: “He’s an incredibly private man and completely anti-social. He doesn’t have many social graces. I suppose if you’re from a landed gentry background, you could spend all day on your estate and not see anybody. You’re just lost in your thoughts and your desires and your dreams and your fears and all of those things that, if you keep them between your ears, are massive but once you start talking to people, engaging with people about how you’re feeling, you realise they are surmountable.

 

“Whereas if everything is private and you keep it to yourself, everything is really massive in your life. Having a conversation could be painful. Telling people how you feel is impossible. Brock is one of these guys who likes his own company, likes social distancing to use a modern phrase. Brock would do really well in lockdown.

“I think Brock has broken away from the family constraints because it can be quite stifling and he’s broken away by discovering and becoming obsessed with this new invention which is photography.

“It was really interesting to research the birth of this new fangled thing. In those days, late 1800s, the bicycle was just coming to the fore, photography was coming to the fore. These were massive life-changing, generation-changing inventions. It was interesting to see how they adapted to that.

“What do we do with this new invention called photography? What do we take photographs of? The equipment is so cumbersome and heavy, you’re not going to want to carry it far. It’s not like you can take moving images. What’s a thing that doesn’t move that you want to hold onto? Let’s take photographs of our dead relatives.

“There’s this new fangled thing coming through, what do you do with it? It’s a bit like when the internet came through.

“He’s landed gentry and I don’t think they really knew about the Irish.

“You’ve got the house, the money, the prestige but it must be really boring. It’s like a lockdown, there’s nothing to do.

“I’ve been thinking (during this lockdown), ‘This must be what it’s like to be a millionaire, there’s nothing to do’. I’d rather be working.”

Eileen O’Higgins, who has appeared with Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn and Mary Queen of Scots, told us it was the mix of drama and comedy that attracted her to the project: “I had never read a story like it before. It was also delving into something that I found absolutely fascinating and I don’t think people are necessarily aware of it: The memorial photography element.

“It was very dark but sort of funny. You didn’t know if you were meant to be laughing. The script just flew off the page because the language was so accurate. It was a big melting pot of so much. I think in Irish culture we deal with things like death very openly. We’re open in grieving. Grieving is not a taboo thing.

“To bring the photograph aspect in with humour is a very accurate depiction of Irish people in that we can laugh at some of the most tragic times.

“Also, I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve been in a lot of period things but I’ve never seen this time of Irish history. I think there’s so much Irish history that we haven’t actually touched on so it’s there to explore.”

Kerr Logan, who is recognisable from his roles in Game of Thrones, Good Vibrations and London Irish, told The Irish World he doesn’t get to play people like Conall very often: “I don’t get the chance very often to play incredibly nice people. I have a career that is filled with playing incredibly cmplex, damaged characters. When I got ahold of Conall, I saw this guy who was just really working class and really wanted to better himself, an artist deep down.

“Of course people who come from his financial background and social standing were never able to pursue any sort of artistic endeavours so actually in this setting he sees an opportunity to actually do something more of what he wants in his life rather than grave digging.

“I loved playing the character. He is just a very honourable, very straight down the line, very direct character. I never really played anyone like that before.

“It felt like a real collaboration. Sometimes you come on these shows and you’re very much a number or you’re very much a pawn in someone’s game of chess but this one felt like a real collaboration.”

Although it may seem grisly to us today, post-mortem photographs were a common practice in Victorian Britain and Ireland. Michael continues: “We’re looking back on times with the modern eye. Now we find it squeamish. In those days, you probably wouldn’t. Especially in Ireland. We’ve got a culture of the wake: The body stays in the home with the lid off the coffin and people come around and pay their respects, tell stories, drink through the night. All of those things are part of Celtic culture but it’s also to make sure they’re really dead. We would look upon that as being macabre by today’s standards whereas in those days it was just another aspect of remembering somebody’s life.”

Brock may have felt he had to take in his niece due to family loyalty or even sympathy but owing Conall nothing, he was reluctant to take him on as an assistant. However, he soon finds he enjoys having two people around as he gets to teach them things and vice versa.

Michael says: “All of a sudden that invigorates. Once he starts letting them help, there’s a whole new Narnia world of possibilities that he is slowly but surely seeing with the energy that Nancy brings.

“Nancy sees him as a pioneer. He was the one in the family who struck out on his own. He’s like a hero of hers, that’s the reason she seeks him out. She’s like a suffragette feminist of her day. She’s very strong in a way which I think is very reminiscent of Ireland. Ireland is very matriarchal. The strong women of Ireland were legendary. She’s a prototype of that.

“It’s interesting to see a working class man who was a grave digger having to go through all the racism, the sectarianism that’s come his way. We see it in the family portrait one where he has to photograph the Blennerhasset family and you see all the snobbery and bitterness there.”

Kerr, who is recognisable from his roles in Game of Thrones and London Irish, adds on this subject: “He does get looked down on but I think it’s one of those things that he understands what his social class is. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time in his life he’s been looked down on and treated badly or Conall has been slightly abused in that way, ‘You’re just who you are from where you’re from, you’ll just get it done’. I think he takes the goading on the chin really and he manages to get a little bit of backbone and tries to stand up for himself.”

The series shows that both Brock and Nancy come from a horrific family in terms of their snobbery. Eileen says: “Poor Nancy has been living with the overbearing matriarch so her wings have been totally clipped. She just has a thirst for life and she is going to dive in. She’s going to go for it even if she’s not sure if it is going to work out. I think it’s her enthusiasm and her innocence that made her so endearing to me.

“She’s enthralled by Brock. She sees him as an artist. She knows he’s slightly different and she knows he is the person in the family that she would most like to be around. I think he appreciates that she gets a hard time in the family. Even though they may be polar opposites , they have shared experiences within their family which make them an unlikely pairing.

“One of the big things that attracted me to the part was that John (Morton, writer) and Imogen (Murphy, director) have not created a character which is in the series to serve the male characters. Nancy is very much her own woman with her own desires about what she wants. If Nancy says she’s going to do something, she will do it.

“It’s refreshing to see a female character that what she desires, wants, things she’s trying to achieve in life is not necessarily what we’ve seen before which is, ‘One must get a husband and settle down’. She’s not looking to find a husband to set herself up for life, she’s going to set up her own life.

“It’s so refreshing and accurate for the period. Around that time you had the setting up of the Abbey and stuff like that. It’s just never been depicted.”

There have been loud cries for more recognition of female film-makers and more diverse roles for women in recent years. Eileen believes we are moving in the right direction here.

“I think there’s a lot more room to move forward but I think there’s been a big step forward. I think it starts from the top, having more female writers, directors, producers. Even coming to auditions, the parts are more accurate to life. They’re more complex. They stand alone. They’re not there as support to complex male parts. It’s moving forward.”

There is clearly something between Conall and Nancy. Although Nancy may not have been particularly impressed with the former grave digger on first impressions, he has grown to admire his decency to the point that she fights his corner with her own condescending family. Could they get together?

Eileen says: “I think there’s a real respect between the two of them. I think she can see the type of person that he is. She stands up for him. Nancy has a strong moral compass and a backbone. She knows what is right and she is particularly protective when it comes to him. I think she can see he gets a rough ride or things might not work out for him.

“There’s something about him that she is naturally drawn to. She doesn’t know what it is. She respects his opinion on things but I don’t think she has copped on that she might like him the way he has maybe copped on.
“It also touched on the cultural differences of the time in terms of a grave digger with someone who comes from a more affluent background.”

Kerr adds: “I think with any of these sorts of things, those sorts of relationships, they’re shoe horned into so many dramas. You have the young assistant and the niece, and it’s like, ‘Okay, they’re gonna get together, blah, blah, blah’.

“It’s finding the truth in it and maybe these characters will never get together or maybe they will get together but it’s about playing each moment as truthful as possible and not having it as a preconceived idea. Yes there are a couple of little inklings of romantic attraction and stuff but whether these characters will ever end up doing something about it , you just don’t know. We don’t know either.”

Michael says the Irish film industry has come on leaps and bounds in recent years that makes filming such a period drama like this in Ireland possible.

“I live in London so I love going back to Ireland to work. All of a sudden I’m surrounded by own sensibility. I don’t have to explain myself, I don’t have to adapt my accent. I’m back home and the crew and the cast were just amazing. Everybody was hilarious. There was the 32 counties of Ireland, you would have peple from Monaghan taking the piss out of people from Laois, people from Donegal taking the piss out of people from Co. Down, having a laugh at Cork and Kerry and Waterford. It was rather joyous.

“I used to bring my bluetooth speaker into the make-up room. In the make-up room in the morning we would all have a dance and a song together, it was fantastic but it was really hard work. It wasn’t easy but it was fantastic. Most things that are great aren’t easy.

“There’s a whole generation who are coming through now. There’s been big productions going on for quite a while now in Ireland north and south: Game of Thrones, Vikings, Love/Hate, Penny Dreadful, all these big productions, all that has been going on.

“There’s just loads of really good grips, sound department, camera crew and DOPs, they’re just all there.
“What I think is really exciting is that there’s a new Irish sensibility, a new age Irish sensibility coming through that I think is really interesting. It’s not trying to sell the English version of Ireland back to the English again. They’re more, ‘This is how we see life, how we perceive the world around us’. I find that really invigorating and I want to be part of it.”

Eileen adds: “It’s a very lucky experience to get to film at home.

“The skills that have been built up, it’s just unbelievable. It’s why they can compete at a world level when it comes to filming. It’s lovely when they do productions which are about Ireland, set in Ireland or telling Irish stories. Ireland is renowned for its story telling so to be able to tell then in this medium so well is a feat really. I think everybody gets excited when they get to do an Irish story, even the crew. They’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is about us, this one, great’.”

Could we see a second series? Michael says this first series very much lends itself to extending and further developing the characters.

“There’s so much more to be explored. It’s a really interesting time in Dublin, coming up to the 20th century. Ireland at that time was still under British rule. Historically speaking, there was a lot of poverty in Dublin but also a lot of bored aristocrats which lends itself to darker and gothic tales.”

Kerr adds: “If we ever got to do another series or another couple of series, I think that they’ve got a lot more character developmennt in the bag of how these characters change and evolve and see where they end up. I think it would be a lot of fun to do.”

Kerr starred in the Channel 4 sitcom London Irish with Peter Campion who is also among the Dead Still cast as Nancy’s brother. Although it got a lukewarm reception at the time, Kerr says it is getting a second life as fans of Derry Girls go back to look at Lisa McGee’s previous work.

“It was maybe seven years ago. I keep getting the odd message on social media saying, ‘God, I love Conor from London Irish’. I think because of Lisa McGee’s sucess, they love Derry Girls so much that they have gone back and started watching London Irish and it’s getting a second wind.

“I don’t think I’ve ever done a job like that which has been filmed so long ago that people are still enjoying now. It’s wonderful that work that you did that long ago still speaks to people in some way now.”

Born in Bangor, Northern Ireland, Kerr moved to Lancashire with his mother at the age of 12.

“I’ve moved all over the place really. I’m a bit of a mongrel. I grew up in Bangor in Northern Ireland until I was about 12. Then my Mum moved over to Lancashire and I lived in Lancashire from 12 to 18. Then I got into RADA so I went down to London. I lived in London for seven, eight years and then the last four years I’ve been living in Edinburgh. I’ve literally moved all over the place.

“When I left acting school, I didn’t know whether I would be seen as an Irish actor or an English actor or just an actor who might end up doing everything. I’ve always very much felt like an Irishman and I’m so pleased the fact that the industry has given me so many Irish roles. It has just been wonderful.”

Mentioning Derry Girls, is the other Ulster man a fan? “Very much so,” Michael says. “It is fantastic and it didn’t just drop out of the heavens. The person who wrote it spent years trying to get her voice heard: Don’t give up, don’t stop until the miracle happens.

“I think there’s more. I think Derry Girls will be a great bridge for other people to come over. There’s other voices in Ireland who will be emboldened by the success of Derry Girls. There’s so many interesting, independent voices all over Ireland.

“Not only is Derry Girls important but it’s also hilarious and the acting is brilliant and the storylines are fantastic and it doesn’t hold back. For a lot of my English friends it’s very educational as well. They see a culture that they didn’t know anything about.”

Michael has lived in London for 37 years now and remembers when the Irish were not so welcome due to the IRA bombing campaign.

“In the early days if I went into a bar, I would have to ask for a drink with an English accent. I had to learn to do a cockney accent so I wouldn’t draw any flack but those days are gone now. There’s a lot of cross-cultural experiences. A lot of people have gone to Ireland who never went to Ireland before. Before people would have said to me, ‘I’ve only ever been to Dublin for the rugby’. No way would they have been to Belfast. Now Belfast is a groovy capital. People go to Belfast for culture and having a laugh and having a great night out. If you would have told me that 30 years ago, I would have never believed you.

“Younger people will always change it. New generations coming though, they won’t be as entrenched or as embittered as the generation that went before them so there’s hope for the future. As long as people keep pushing forward , work with love as opposed to fear, life will always be better.”

Kerr just spoke about London Irish getting a second wind. Does Michael think it could be time for a Spaced reunion, the show he first came to prominence on along with Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Jessica Hynes? “No. It’s 20 years now. Give it another ten years and there will be one in an old people’s home.

“Ultimately, I don’t think so. I would love it just to see what they would come up with for Tyres. I think Spaced is what it should be. Really it was perfect the size that it was. You can overstretch things and then you can destroy the heritage of them.

“Does everything have to have a nostalgia to it? Do we have to rehash everything? Let’s push forward and see what new stuff is out there. Like we were just talking about, what I love about the stuff that is coming out of Ireland is that it’s fresh, it’s new.”

Dead Still is streaming on Acorn TV. Click here.

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