TV - Close to the Enemy

Ahead of the first episode of  Close to the Enemy, a new post-war drama series coming to BBC Two on Thursdays, the BBC have released a Q & A with the writer/director Stephen Poliakoff...

Jim Sturgess (One Day, London Fields) heads a stellar cast for the seven part drama set in a bomb-damaged London hotel in the aftermath of the Second World War. Co-stars include Freddie Highmore (Bates Motel, The Journey), Charlotte Riley (Peaky Blinders, In the Heart of the Sea), Phoebe Fox (NW, The Hollow Crown), August Diehl (Inglourious Basterds, Le jeune Karl Marx), Robert Glenister (Paranoid, Hustle), Alfie Allen (Game of Thrones, Pandemic), Charity Wakefield (Wolf Hall, The Halcyon), the legendary Angela Bassett (American Horror Story, London has Fallen), Lindsay Duncan (Birdman, Alice in Wonderland), and Alfred Molina (Love is Strange, Show Me a Hero).

Close To The Enemy follows intelligence officer Captain Callum Ferguson (Sturgess), whose last task for the Army is to ensure that a captured German scientist, Dieter (Diehl), starts working for the British RAF on urgently developing the Jet engine. With the background of the emerging Cold War, it is clear to all that it's crucial for British national security that cutting edge technology is made available to the armed forces as quickly as possible. Callum uses unorthodox methods in his attempt to convince Dieter to work with the British and eventually a friendship develops between the two men, but soon tensions arise as all is not as it seems.

Over the course of the series, Callum encounters a number of other characters whose stories all intertwine. These characters include Victor (Highmore), Callum’s younger brother, struggling to deal with psychological trauma caused by his experience in the fighting; Harold (Molina), a Foreign Office official who reveals some startling truths about the outbreak of the war; Rachel (Riley), an enchanting Anglophile American married to his best friend, and Kathy (Fox), a tough, young woman working for the War Crimes Unit, fighting to bring war criminals who have escaped prosecution to justice. All these characters are trying to rebuild and move their lives forward in the aftermath of the war, a war that scarred them all so deeply.

Producer Helen Flint, a long-time collaborator with Poliakoff on productions such as Shooting the Past and Perfect Strangers, says: "This is a complex and interwoven story but it's not a 'worthy piece' of historical drama as its relevance is very current to today with all the conflicts swirling around the world. The piece is set after the five endless and brutal years of the Second World War. The aftermath of the bombing of London is still very evident. Light drenched the city as the sun filled the void where buildings used to stand, and children play in the left over bombsite.

"Austerity Britain brought severe rationing and the talk of Nuclear Bombs and the Cold War frightened people to their very core as much as German bombers did during the war. However, out of horror can come huge leaps in science and the arts. Some of the finest British films were made in 1946/47, the Edinburgh Festival was started, the advance of the jet engine, space ventures and nuclear energy quickened with renewed vigour as the Allies jockeyed for world dominance.”

The majority of the filming was in Liverpool, Flint explains why: "We filmed in Liverpool as we had access to an old bank in the centre of the city. The building size allowed us enough room to convert it into a hotel. Being able to base in one building brought us practical and therefore creative time which is everything as budgets reduce year on year. Nowadays, in London we don't have empty buildings that we can use easily for sets, so as an industry we are constantly searching for places to film outside the capital. Liverpool is a compact and accessible city and therefore outside of our hotel sets, moving locations during the day was refreshingly achievable".

And she describes the experience of working with the celebrated Poliakoff. "What makes Stephen is two completely different people. The writer is immersed in the story and series or single structure, and time is not important. Only at the end of prep and before filming are both his characters in the same room. As a director, he divorces himself from the writer and becomes pragmatic and constantly ambitious for highest visual standards in every department from acting through to sound. He treats every shooting second like gold, which means time is never wasted. Occasionally he surprises everyone by reverting to the writer when a beat is misunderstood or not noted in a scene".

Here's what Stephen Poliakoff had to say:

Where did the idea for Close to the Enemy come from?

The germ of it came when I was finding out about all these scientists being grabbed literally off the streets of Germany on an industrial scale by the Allies at the end of the war. Some were Nazis guilty of serious crimes but they were given new identities by the Allies.

I had an idea of balancing that against someone on the other side of that dramatic equation who wanted to pursue those guilty of war crimes and made to feel low priority, but still persisting with the quest. I thought that dramatically that was a very interesting equation.

I had the idea that the hero would be the person responsible for turning a German scientist, and using every canny plan to break his resolve not to cooperate. He would be determined to access the German’s knowledge so the British could use it to become powerful again.

Why did you choose to set the drama in 1946?

I have written a lot about the 1930s, but never about 1946 before. It was a pivotal moment when the Cold War was just starting. The military had a big role in post-war society. They controlled hotels and stately homes where they bugged the rooms so they could listen to German officers nattering.

Tell us about the hero of the story, Captain Callum Ferguson played by Jim Sturgess.

He is at the centre of it all. I wanted to show someone who is very bright and yet full of fragility. We see him having nightmares from his time fighting in Normandy. That was such a factor back then. So many people had seen things they never thought they would see. There was also a general sense of fury about being so unprepared for the war, that Dunkirk and other disasters took place.

Callum says we must never be caught out again like we were in the war. He is well aware of the huge missed opportunities which ended in devastated cities. He is fuelled by that.

Why did you decide to use the hotel as the setting for Close to the Enemy?

I’ve used a hotel twice before, in Dancing on the Edge and Perfect Strangers. It’s something of a signature. A hotel brings the characters together in an unforced way. It’s a place to meet for food and music. There are also bedrooms there. What more could you want from a story?

All the characters are trying to rebuild their lives after the war. You couldn’t have been through the war without baggage. Everyone has seen something terrible or lost someone close to them.

How does their experience of the war affect the characters in Close to the Enemy?

People had to grow up very quickly. Callum and Victor (Freddie Highmore) are both still young, but they already have had a lot of experience. They both go on a big journey moving forwards.

Victor was at the Battle of Monte Cassino and is always jumpy. He’s funny, but he also has an air of potential tragedy about him. He’s on the edge. He obviously has post-traumatic stress disorder. But he is also a natural misfit. He’s fearless and contrary, but what he says tends to be right. There is a wild energy about him, but he’s not remotely mad. He gets saner and saner, even though the dark turns of the story threaten him.

Callum is capable of violence which makes him fragile. There is a streak of rage that runs through him. It’s caused by the unfinished business of what he has witnessed. What softens his character is romance and protecting his brother. He takes on an almost parental role with Victor.

Close to the Enemy also contains humour, doesn’t it?

Yes, it has humour and positive energy. I was aware I was dealing with very serious topics, but I wanted it to be a compulsive story. I wanted it to be a pleasurable experience rather than arousing guilt about how we messed up after the war. I wanted people to think, “Gosh, I didn’t know that.”

What is the significance of Kathy’s character played by Phoebe Fox?

The SOE (Special Operations Executive) lost a very considerable number of agents, and during the war Kathy worked for the SOE. She now has a very specific motivation. She watched us lose so many agents – some met terrible ends – and that has driven her to her current role.

Tell us about the character of Rachel played by Charlotte Riley.

At the beginning, she seems mysterious, and Callum doesn’t know whether to trust her, but there’s clearly a very powerful attraction between them. She starts music and poetry evenings at the hotel, which are an expression of that burst of creativity that happened after the war.

What about Rachel’s husband, Alex (Sebastian Armesto)?

Another thing which was a huge issue after the war was the question, “What did you do?” Alex had an incredibly cushy time in Washington. Isherwood, Britten and Auden were all attacked for sitting out the war. At dinner parties people would tell them, “It’s all very well for you, you lucky sod, being able to eat everything you wanted and not feeling you could be killed at any moment.”.

What is the significance of the ballroom in the hotel?

It represents the future. Eva (Angela Bassett) is there because she refused to play to segregated audiences in America, so she has ended up in this ballroom for a few days. But she is encouraged to stay because Dieter (August Diehl) likes music. She is a force for good for the future. She says, “Why can’t we in our own tiny way make a difference?”.

Do you think TV is still seen as an inferior medium to film?

No. The snobbery about movie stars doing TV has evaporated. Now everybody works across all media. What has made a huge difference is the ability to tell long form stories, so actors get richer parts on TV. And these days so many films are action movies. Do you want to spend your time being beaten up by a CGI superhero who might not even be there?

What do you hope that audiences will take away from Close to the Enemy?

I hope that even if you think you’re not remotely interested in that period, you will be drawn in by this collection of colourful characters. All the characters have very interesting story arcs.

I hope viewers will be intrigued by the setting of the hotel, and wondering how they are going to cope with the situations they find themselves in. Is Callum going to be able to turn the German and not fall foul of the dark forces of the secret services? Is Callum going to get dangerously involved with Rachel? Will that destroy him because she is married to his best friend? Is Victor going to self-destruct and get his brother into terrible trouble because he’s very indiscreet? Is Kathy going to be able to bring people to justice? What is Harold up to? Is he dodgy? Are any children going to be able to have a normal childhood?

Is it meant to be a history lesson?

No, it’s the opposite of a history lesson. It’s not making a point. All I’m doing is telling the best story I can to reveal the world at a very interesting moment. It was a time when people were forced to make very tough decisions. The drama encourages people to think, “What would I have done?”. You don’t need to be interested in history to be intrigued by that. Above all, I hope people find Close to the Enemy a truly compelling story.

Images & Info - BBC

Episode One of Close to the Enemy airs on BBC2 on Thursday 10th November at 9pm