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Splitting up is hard to do

Stephen Mangan and Nicola Walker spoke to David Hennessy about the return of the BBC’s divorce law drama, The Split.

Stephen Mangan and Nicola Walker returned to screens this week in BBC’s divorce lawyer drama, The Split as it returns for its third and final series.

The Split is created by Abi Morgan, the Welsh playwright who is also known for screen work like The Hour, The Iron Lady and Shame starring Michael Fassbender.

The series began airing in 2018 and follows the lives of the Defoe family, many of whom work in divorce law with a supporting cast the includes Fiona Button, Kildare actor Damien Molony and Ian McElhinney of Derry Girls.

The second series, which was the third most watched drama series on BBC iPlayer in 2020, saw Hannah (Walker) and Nathan (Mangan)’s marriage fall apart.

The latest instalment joins them ten months on.

Both lawyers have been respectfully negotiating their separation and seem to have reached an amicable agreement following the end of their previously rock-solid 20 year marriage.

But it’s clear that both have become aware of what they are about to lose and there is the additional complication of Hannah learning that Nathan has met someone else.

Stephen told The Irish World: “I want to shake him (Nathan) sometimes. I have huge empathy for him, but the whole thing is messy. That’s what’s interesting to watch: Nice people having a nice life doing nice things doesn’t make good drama.

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“You can be a good person and make some bad decisions.

“Or you can be a good person put in a very difficult situation and not handle it in a textbook way.

“So that’s what’s so lovely about this show.

“I mean, I had people shouting at me in the street after the first series went out, ‘How could you cheat on Nicola Walker? How could you join an internet dating website?’

“Even though she did sleep with a handsome Dutch guy.

“There was a lot of anger directed towards me.”

However, the tables turned when in series two it was Hannah having an affair with Dutch lawyer Christie Carmichael.

“The second series, I got a lot of sympathy.

“People would tell me, ‘Oh mate, that was so tough. That’s been a really difficult journey’.

“I’m not coming out of my house for the next six weeks.”

Is it easy in that way to always empathise with the character if, as he says, the public reaction has been quite angry at times? “I think that’s the job, to understand them and like them.

“You know, if you read it and go, ‘Oh, my God, why did he do that? Why?’

“I think if you’re playing a mass murderer, you’ve got to go back and go, ‘Okay, given those situations, it seemed to him or her like that was the thing they should do at that time’.

“However externally wrong it looks I think you can’t go, ‘Oh, I’m doing a terrible thing here’. Because I think that’s commenting on it and it’s a bit dull.

“I think your job as an actor is to be in the corner of your character and see the world from their point of view and sell their actions as reasonable.”

Nicola adds: “Even when they don’t feel that proud of their actions. Abi’s characters judge themselves.

“They’re not completely blind to where they’re messing up quite often. They’re self-aware.”

From the first episode of this series, the audience can see the reluctance of both Hannah and Nathan to sign divorce papers and that there is still so much there between them.

And while the audience is asking themselves if the split is too deep to repair, Monday’s episode saw the family rocked by tragedy when Rose’s husband James was killed when his bike was hit by a van.

Stephen says: “If they hated each other and wanted to separate, there’s no show so their lives are stitched together.

“Not only do they have three kids but they have been together since they were at college, that takes some working out and I can’t tell you whether they end up together, or whether they separate.

“But you’ve seen how many bombs have been put in by Abi at the beginning. You can see how much there is already.

“Plus, she’ll throw more at us as we go.

“You’re guaranteed huge twists and turns and I think what’s lovely about her writing is you really don’t know which way it’s going to go.”

Nicola adds: “I think that (episode) would take most writers a whole series. Abi’s audacious. It keeps coming.

“What appealed to me (about the show) was my agent phoning and saying there was a script written by Abi Morgan and Sister are making it: Yeah, I’d really like to read that, please. Yeah, I’d like to go for that audition. Thank you very much’.

“That’s it. I was desperate to work with those women again. That was very easy.”

Irish World award winner Stephen Mangan is known for his roles in comedies such as Episodes (alongside Matt Le Blanc), Green Wing and I’m Alan Partridge, said he will be sad to say goodbye to the character and series.

That’s a sense that comes from many of the cast and crew, that they have become like family over the last five years.

“It’s been a treat. I mean, so many great scenes.

“You know, sometimes you’re lucky in a series if you get one or two really great scenes.

“Every episode, there’s another fantastic and difficult- That’s the other thing: Big, big emotions, big situations that you’d have to sell, try and find a way through.

“And that’s what you want.

“You don’t want to be a sort of meat puppet.

“You know those sort of films where literally a can opener could play the part because it’s all CGI.

“And this is really difficult, interesting stuff and it’s just a joy.”

Nicola Walker, known for leading roles in dramas such as Unforgottten and Last Tango in Halifax, was also very sad that the show is coming to an end.

“I’m very, very sad to say goodbye to her and Nathan but it’s been one of the most fulfilling jobs I have ever had, and probably ever will.

“From the first meeting with Abi, she said, ‘In an ideal world with a fair wind behind us, we might get to tell this story in three beats, three seasons, and this is roughly what I think it will be’. And she got to do it.

“So yes, but it’s a proper ending.

“We’ve all been watching lots of telly during lockdown and I can’t tell you how many dramas I’ve watched where the last episode I thought, ‘I’ll never get those six hours back, that’s a really disappointing ending…’

“I really don’t think you’ll be disappointed. It’s a very, very good, satisfying ending.”

Asked what she will remember about the show, Nicola says: “The things that I will take away from it as memorable, they will be somewhere between crying and laughing, usually with Stephen. So very high drama scenes in the house. Sobbing. Or then laughing my head off with him in the back garden.

“And I think that really sums up those characters and that relationship.

“So they’re the things. I’ll miss acting with Stephen full stop and I’m really hoping someone lets me act with him again, hope we’re not banned from acting together for a long time.

“It would be that, it would the extremes of emotion with Stephen and feeling so safe with him to do anything emotional, anything.

“Abi could ask us to do anything and I know I’ll be safe with Stephen and we will have a brilliant time doing it.

“I will miss that because it’s quite rare that.

“You (Stephen) ad libbing Christie Carmichael is still one of my favourite moments in front of a camera.”

Being a Spurs fan, Stephen did not want to hold onto any of Nathan’s Arsenal memorabilia.

“I spent the entire shoot hiding Arsenal mugs in cupboards.”

The current series starts with some tension as Hannah meets the new woman in Nathan’s life.

Stephen says: “I think you read a script and as an actor, you know that’s the scene.

“I mean, I’m walking out of a car and into a building. Fine. I can do that.

“The joy is when you are surprised because suddenly something just happens, you know?

“You can shoot this thing from 60 different angles. A scene where the camera’s on you or the two of you and something happens that really feels.. That’s the joy.

“You feel lucky.

“You feel like you’ve struck a little bit of oil there, gold or whatever.”

When asked how they decide which roles to do and which not to, Stephen begins: “I think you..”

Nicola adds with a laugh: “Sometimes you just take the jobs you get offered.”

Stephen agrees: “Yeah, you take the jobs you get offered.”

Nicola admits: “I don’t know if I am presenting us in the correct way.”

Stephen continues: “Yeah, I’m trying to present this image of 7,000 scripts: ‘No. No. No’.

“You just know immediately if a job is like, ‘Oh God, yeah’.

“You know, it’s the people.

“I always thought when I started out it was the parts, ‘I want to do the big Shakespeare parts, I want to do the big difficult parts’.

Kildare actor Damien Molony plays Tyler.

“You soon realize it’s the people you’re working with. Because Abi could have written an amazing script but if the director’s poor, the rest of the cast were, it wouldn’t work.

“You just spot a collection of people and think, ‘Okay’. But it’s always a gamble. Nothing’s a surefire thing.

“Otherwise, everything would be really good.

“There’s so many things that we’ve all thought, ‘Oh, that’s gonna be great’.

“And that’s mysterious. You don’t really know why that happens.

“You just want to read those scripts and go, ‘Oh, wait, this is great’.

“You want to know what happens next so that’s all you’re looking for.”

Stephen Mangan, whose parents came from Mayo, describes the Irish World award he picked up in 2008 as a ‘very beautiful thing’.

“I got Actor of the Year and it says Stephen Mangan (Mayo) which is where I’m from.

“It’s the only award I’ll ever get that says Steven Mangan (Mayo).

“It was a great night at the Galtymore.

“I was in Belmullet three weeks ago. I’m back all the time.

“Of course I’m proud (of the award). Absolutely.

“My dad and mum used to dance at the Galtymore when they came over.

“No one thinks of me as Irish. I’ve never played an Irish character. And I think of myself as Irish so it’s weird.

“I get offered everything else.

“People think of me as posh English and everything else so it’s nice to be recognized for what I actually am.”

And Stephen is not the only cast member with Irish family as Nicola reveals, “My grandmother’s from Cork.”

Nathan’s new love interest Kate may be new to the show but the actress Lara Pulver was not new to Nicola as they both worked on Spooks many years ago.

She says: “The last time I saw Lara she was hanging out of an audi or something with two guns and shouting at a stuntman, ‘It’s okay, I can do it myself’.”

Hannah and Kate have a tense stand off across the dinner table as battle lines are drawn in their very first scene together.

“It was brilliant it was Lara.

“That relationship, because we’ve known each other and we really love each other, meant we could really explore those early parts of their relationship.”

The series is also directed by Dee Koppang O’Leary, wife to well known TV presenter, LIC patron and Father Murphy’s hurling fan Dermot. Dermot also cameos in a later episode but says, “I’m just playing me. It’s not a stretch.”

And how it all ends is anybody’s guess as there have been two different endings shot.

Stephen jokes: “Christie and Nathan open an antiques boutique in the Cotswolds together but I’m not sure that made it int o the final cut.”

The Split is on BBC1 on Mondays at 9pm, also on BBC iPlayer.

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