TV - Interview: The Watchman

Actor Stephen Graham is to take centre stage in a new one off Channel 4 drama tomorrow night in The Watchman, written and directed by the multi award-winning director Dave Nath...

Dave Nath, who has previously won acclaim for his direction of major documentaries tackling challenging subjects through unprecedented access such as Bedlam and The Murder Detectives is turning his hand to fiction in this new project. The Watchman is a thought-provoking thriller set on one night, in one location and seen through the eyes of one man.

Stephen Graham, whose extensive acting credits include This Is England - for which he is Bafta-nominated, Pirates of the Caribbean and Boardwalk Empire, plays father-of-two Carl - a CCTV operator who views the world through a series of screens. Working alone, he has gradually become intoxicated by the power of being the 'all-seeing eye.' Carl's growing frustration with the local police comes to a head when they refuse to tackle a group of local drug dealers. Carl decides to intervene in the world he is supposed to be just watching. What follows is a terrifying chain of events played across one night shift.

Graham seems to be getting a little typecast as a CCTV operator/security man as he also had this occupation in the film A Patch of Fog (reviewed by us at Edinburgh Film Festival here) so it will be interesting to see how different this is.

Before the drama airs tomorrow night at 9pm on Channel 4, they have released this interview with Dave Nath and Stephen Graham.

Where did the idea for this drama come from?

D: Channel 4 suggested that the world of CCTV might be an interesting space to look at – we live in a surveillance culture. There are hundreds of CCTV control rooms around Britain that are now staffed by one operator. I’m not suggesting that they all go rogue or go native, but there are instances where that's happened

The film is about a man who wants to do the right thing, and has a strong moral barometer. But he feels impotent, an emasculated man, because he can’t take any action, he can’t do what he thinks he should be doing. And CCTV seemed like a really interesting place to explore different perceptions of the world.

Stephen, what was it that attracted you to the project?

S: It’s a great script. I thought it was a hell of a journey for a character to go on. At the beginning, he’s on his way in to work, and he’s practically whistling. By the end, his life could be coming to an end. He’s put himself in this position – obviously outside circumstances haven’t helped, but he’s in this position because of what he’s done. So I just thought it was a really intriguing piece.

How would you describe your character, Carl?

S: Carl’s an everyman. At the beginning, everyone would find that they had something in common with him. And then slowly, over the course of an hour, we see the little blocks falling away from him. We go on a journey with him. But he’s just a man who tries to do the right thing. He takes his job, as a CCTV operator, very seriously, and he wants to make a difference. And yet he’s certainly capable of making mistakes.

It never really occurred to me that someone’s job is just to sit there all night monitoring banks of TV screens, watching a lot of unpleasant stuff. It really grinds Carl down, doesn’t it?

S: Yeah. In the end, it leads him to question his own worth, his own existence. If he’s just there to jot down times of when things happen, what is the point of that? He’s taken his eyes off the most important thing, that’s right in front of him, that’s tangible: his family. All through being so committed to his job. He takes such pride in his work. But he crosses a line, and that starts off a chain of events he can’t control.

Did you speak to any CCTV operators during the process?

D: I visited one in particular, to look at the layout and how they worked. I started telling them about some of the storylines in the film, and that sense of calling the police about stuff, and the police not being able to respond, was a daily occurrence. Also, the sense that shifts are increasingly one-man shifts. I find that worrying, placing one person in that position. It means your placing a hell of a lot of responsibility on that one person to be accountable for their own actions on any given night when they’re on their own. Ten years ago you’d have probably got four or five people in a council CCTV control room. Now it’s very common just to have one person.

Dave, this was your first time directing a drama – you’ve always worked on documentaries in the past. Were you worried about that?

D: Yes, definitely. I remember when Steve rang me and said “I’ve seen the script, I really like it, I’ve got a couple of questions about it.” And I was really nervous – I kept feeling like I was talking to a Premiership footballer! I was pacing around the room. And he rang, and I kept saying “You do know I’ve never done any drama, don’t you?” And he kept asking for details about the script, and I was still going “Yeah, but you do know I’ve never done any drama, don’t you?” I was really over-compensating.

S: And I wasn’t remotely bothered about that. He’s a first time director in terms of drama, but he’s done amazing documentaries. And I love working with first time directors, because they’re so fresh, so full of great ideas, and so vibrant. I think that can be very infectious on a set. Where we were, contained in that room, there were a lot of technical aspects to telling the story, and that’s where Dave stepped up to the plate amazingly. He just got the best out of everyone that was there, and everyone wanted to succeed. We wanted to tell the best story we could tell, to give it our best. And that all came from him.

D: A lot of people pulled me through the film. My producer, Colin. The Commissioning Editor, Nick Mirsky. But the great thing about Stephen is that he embraced it. The support and energy he gave to everyone just lifted everyone. He’s got an incredible energy and enthusiasm. He pulled me along. There was a lot in there that I didn’t know, and he pulled me through that.

Dave, did you write the part with Stephen in mind?

D: Yeah, I did. I’m a massive fan of Stephen, and of This Is England. But I just assumed there was no way he’d do it. I didn’t want to get excited about something that was never going to happen. I was too embarrassed to even suggest him in a meeting with Channel 4, but their commissioning editor, Nick Mirsky, said it first. I never expected him to do it, and when he said he’d do it, I suddenly went “God, this film could be quite good.”

S: He says that, but he nearly sacked me from the job because I had a beard, so it just shows you! I was filming something else, so I had to have a beard, and when I told him, he was really worried. He kept going “Oh. I never thought about Carl with a beard. I don’t know.” I was going “It looks fine,” and he was going “Yeah, but a beard?” So he says all those lovely things, all those superlatives, but he nearly f***ed me off because I had a beard!

Stephen, as an actor, you were almost always alone on screen throughout the drama, communicating with others on the radio or the phone. Did you miss having fellow actors to bounce off?

S: Yeah. To me, acting is all about listening. I only had one scene with a human in the whole thing. I was in the room for days, and I just had one scene with Imogen.

A lot of the time you’re also reacting to what’s happening on the CCTV screens around you. Did you actually have those screens showing the pictures when you filmed?

S: Yeah, and technically that was really, really difficult.

D: We had this company who came in, who were responsible for playing in all the CCTV footage when Stephen was in the CCTV control centre. And they’d been working on the latest Star Wars film, and they said “Thanks for letting us come on to this project, it’s the most difficult thing we’ve ever done, including Star Wars, but it is the most rewarding thing we’ve done.

Dave, the film asks questions about issues to do with CCTV, privacy, police funding, technology, responsibility and so on. Were you thinking about all of that when you wrote this, or is that just stuff that furnishes the story?

D: The latter. It’s the stuff that makes the story believable. I’m not asking questions about CCTV or getting into that debate. For me this is a film about human nature. It’s about a man who wants to do the right thing making mistakes, and the consequences of that. I’m not making an overt, current affairs point. I’m happy for anyone else to take anything from this that they like, though.

S: Personally, for me, that’s what really good drama does. It makes us think. We have an opportunity to come into people’s living rooms, and if we can provoke a conversation, that’s brilliant.

Here's the trailer. Watch the whole drama tomorrow evening at 9 pm on Channel 4.

Image and Info - Channel 4
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