TV - The English

With the mini-series starting on Thursday on BBC Two (and Friday on Amazon Prime for non-UK people), read an interview with The English's writer/director Hugo Blick ...

Press Release

An epic chase Western, The English takes the core themes of identity and revenge to tell a uniquely compelling parable on race, power and love.

An aristocratic Englishwoman, Lady Cornelia Locke (Emily Blunt) and a Pawnee ex-cavalry scout, Eli Whipp (Chaske Spencer), come together in 1890 mid- America to cross a violent landscape built on dreams and blood. Both of them have a clear sense of their destiny but neither is aware that it is rooted in a shared past. They must face increasingly terrifying obstacles that will test them to their cores, physically and psychologically. But as each obstacle is overcome it draws them closer to their ultimate destination, the new town of Hoxem, Wyoming. It is here, after an investigation by the local sheriff Robert Marshall (Stephen Rea) and young widow Martha Myers (Valerie Pachner) into a series of bizarre and macabre unsolved murders, that the full extent of their intertwined history will be truly understood, and they will come face to face with the future they must live.

The English is a 6-episode epic Western led by Emily Blunt (A Quiet Place, Sicario) and Chaske Spencer (The Twilight Saga, Banshee) for BBC Two and BBC iPlayer in the UK, and Prime Video in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, in association with All3Media international. It is produced by the multi-award-winning production company Drama Republic (Doctor Foster, Us), and written and directed by multi-award-winning Hugo Blick (The Honourable Woman, Black Earth Rising, The Shadow Line).

Here's the interview with Hugo Blick

How would you describe The English to the audience?

The English is set in the American West of 1890, on the cusp of the frontier’s closure. It tells the story of an Englishwoman and a Native American man. In very different ways but to equally devastating effect both have been stripped of their identities. United, each reveals strengths the other lacks but together they have a chance to avenge themselves against their loss. So much as it’s a quest for reclamation, it’s a love story.

What was the kernel of an idea that led you to writing The English?

I was sent to Montana at Eighteen as a stabilizing influence. I lived with a family friend, a retired USAF captain, Olympic Gold Medalist and avid outdoorsman. He taught me how to hunt, shoot, spin a horse - a sort of Will Geer to my Jeremiah Johnson! We also cut wood commercially. Our contracts came from the government to supply those most in need. Sometimes this involved Native people’s communities. We made a hunting buddy I called Chief. He wasn’t a chief. He called me English. We were easy with this casual racism, but pretty soon I got to see it was a one way street - with all the heavy traffic heading his way. Back then the reservation seemed hard and isolated, particularly in winter. I had never seen such difficulties. Then one day he took off, leaving a couple of bags with us for when he came back. He didn’t. Nothing to come back for. I never knew his real name, nor he mine. I regretted that. This was a kernel for The English.

What kind of research went into developing the series?

A lot. Once completed, I sent the scripts to Crystal Echo-Hawk, CEO of IllumiNative, the Native led racial and social justice organisation. She then introduced me to representatives of the Pawnee and Cheyenne Nations each of whom are specialists in the cultural and military history of their respective Nations. The journey taken with IllumiNative and the Pawnee and Cheyenne advisors, has been long, detailed and hugely rewarding.

How do you feel about the Western genre and where does The English take it?

At its best the Western allows us to escape the reality of who we are and how we live today. Something about its huge landscapes, mythic heroes and villains, the epic violence and love they pursue, can speak directly to our souls.

For me the most interesting Westerns tend to explore the themes of personal loss and consequent restoration of justice. Perhaps what’s unusual about The English is who it chooses for its heroes, a Native American man and an Englishwoman, and the precise kind of justice they’re both looking to restore.

What was it like working with Emily Blunt?

She read the first script and has been with me every step of the way since. What she offered to the consequent scripts and following production has been incalculable. Beyond all that, and above it, is a performance of exquisite delicacy and strength.

And with Chaske Spencer?

That Chaske managed to inhabit the elevated Western persona of a cinematic hero, historically the preserve of a Wayne or Lancaster, Eastwood or Newman, with all the nuance and dexterity of that inheritance and for him to do so as a Native American playing a Native American, felt pretty groundbreaking to all involved.

The script feels sparse. How did you approach writing this way? Was it different from your usual method?

I had heard I think it was Jimmy Stewart say, “The first clue to a good Western is a slim script!” I took him to heart. These were slim scripts, made even slimmer in the edit. Whenever I could, I honed them down. They started at an hour each, we got them down to fifty minutes. Emily Blunt had a lot to do with this, as did the Amazon team. The last episode is just over an hour but I feel it earns it.

The key to the story’s rhythm is in the character of Eli. He speaks to it, how he’d learned not to. The less said, the more an audience can hear what is.

The look of the series is crucial. The wide open spaces, the extraordinary light, even Cornelia’s costumes in the opening episode. What was the inspiration for this cinematic style? Any of the great Western directors for example?

It’s all about the light, how it falls on landscape and character. Cinematographer Arnau Valls Colomer and I studied the genre carefully, particularly its mid-twentieth century period. On location we scheduled for the late afternoon when the dust was up and the sun low: Back-lit by sun and front-lit by arc light, I found the results impressive, although it could be blinding to the actors. We shot 2.39:1 CinemaScope using a limited selection of Panavision Anamorphic lenses. I didn’t want to move the camera, so spent a good deal of the time figuring out where best to place it so we wouldn’t have to.

It’s pretentious to say I picked this up off studying Kurosawa but so what, I did! And George Stevens. And Eastwood. And Anthony Mann. I want to say John Ford but every time I hit up against “The Searchers” and see Chief Scar played by a blue eyed German - I just know we’re in trouble… It’s the the same for Audrey Hepburn in John Huston’s “The Unforgiven”.There’s actually quite a bit to admire in the picture, issues of prejudice and intolerance, but then this casting kind of turns that on its head. I loved Martin Ritt’s “Hombre” and consider the screenplay by Ravetch and Frank very fine. It was a direct inspiration to “The English” with one key swap out: instead of Paul Newman representing the native experience, we have Chaske Spencer, who actually is. However, “Hombre” remains such a fine picture - plus I’ve a sneaking suspicion Chaske picked up a few tips from Newman on the soul of a cinematic hero. How did I get here? Oh yes, light and landscape. You have to work with them, bring them into the story - they’re as much a character as any found within them.

The score, by Federico Jusid, is both epic and intimate. How did you come to work with him?

I listen to film scores in the car. Obsessively. A few years back I had one of Federico’s pictures, the original The Secret in Their Eyes, on a constant loop. So when Iain Cooke, our music supervisor, had the hunch to introduce us, it felt almost uncannily intuitive. We use score for emotional articulation, it’s almost the closest thing in the picture to the author’s overview. It sits deep inside the story, like the joints to a skeleton, and the body simply won’t move without it. Scoring a western is hard! You have to both engage with the genre’s expectations whilst delivering a voice that sounds entirely individual and unique. Fede has a deep, formal knowledge of composition but neither is he afraid of the simple, symmetrical right-hand piano tune. In this score I feel he has delivered on both.

Beautifully. The last twenty minutes of the last episode, at the risk of saying it straight, is a world class score. And now with The English I have something else to play in the car!

It’s set in the Mid West and filmed in Spain. What were reasons for filming in Spain?

The actual period of the classic cowboy was approximately thirty years, the following hundred and thirty has been almost entirely myth, built as much by our televisions and cinema as by the Chisholm trail itself. The Western lives in our imagination - and it can travel. So when Covid chased us first out of Kansas then Alberta, I was intrigued to look to Spain. As it turned out, we got lucky! I can see, and hear, in every frame just how lucky we were to make this with such an experienced and committed crew whose involvement in the the genre often stretched back through generations. It’s interesting that we made a story with colonialism at its heart told from the very kernel of its creation. This meant a lot to all involved.

How did you find the right locations? How much set building was done on location? The Hotel at the start for example. Does it exist?

Because I knew first hand the locations we needed to replicate, I was already aware that Almeria (which has the famous Leone/Eastwood sets) would not work for this Kansas/Wyoming set story. Luckily our location scout took us to a huge beef farm in Avila outside of Madrid. With the grasses, rock formations and horizontal light, it provided a perfect mythic space for this Western.

The designer, Chris Roope, also understands by research and intuition that one structure within the landscape can read so much more powerfully than many. Strangely this outlook also renders him very popular with producers… (It’s our third, and hopefully not last, time of working together). The hotel was our build - as were almost all of the location sets seen in the production.

What proportion was shot on location?

The vast majority. You just wouldn’t get that light or landscape any other way. Taking this level of circus to that environment presented great logistical challenges to our producers. But under the management of the simply genius horse-master, Hernan Ortiz, the whole pace of the production was dictated by the rhythm of the horses. This was an entirely beneficial experience.

The titles seem both referential to the genre but unique. How did they come about?

The titles were produced by a long term colleague who brought on one of the lead the creatives behind the “Mad Men” titles. My brief to them was pretty simple - do what you did there, but do it for a Western. I feel they delivered on the brief.

The first episode of The English airs on BBC Two on Thursday 10th November at 9pm (and for non-UK viewers on Friday 11th November on Prime Video).

Images - BBC

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