CANNES — Star Jack Davenport and co-creator Paul Unwin are holding their breath for tonight’s premiere of their new series, Breathless, on ITV in the U.K.
Set before the swinging sixties when Britain was still constrained by convention, the ensemble drama stars Davenport, Zoe Boyle (Downton Abbey), Catherine Steadman (The Tudors), Iain Glen (Game of Thrones) and Joanna Page (Gavin and Stacey).
The script, which bounced around the various BBC channels before landing at U.K. commercial network ITV, centers around the complicated personal and professional lives of a hospital staff in a London on the brink of the sexual revolution in 1961. It’s a pre-Beatles Britain, where the pill hasn’t been introduced yet, abortion is outlawed and it’s illegal to be gay. The political perspective made it palatable for both Unwin and Davenport. “I don’t actually like period drama,” admitted Unwin, while Davenport diagnoses himself as “allergic” to medical procedurals.
“We worked really hard for it to not look like a traditional period drama,” Unwin told The Hollywood Reporter. “We really wanted it to feel funkier, brighter, more colorful and sharper than the slightly dourer outlook of that period we are used to seeing. We tried to invent something that is a period drama but doesn’t necessarily feel like one.”
Davenport praises Unwin for turning out Pinteresque scripts with little dialogue but lots of wiggle room. “Where most writers tend to use seven words, Paul tends to use three, which is really liberating. This is a very controlled, clipped and stratified world, and yet they’re still human beings. From the get-go, it’s clear that what’s unsaid is as important as what is said, if not more so.”
The clothes, however, are a different story. “Truthfully, you start dressing yourself up in that stuff and suddenly your physicality is taken care of, whether you like it or not.”
“There’s a certain glamor to it. My parents always talk about times gone by when men wore hats and women wore gloves. It’s that respectability thing — you dress up for dinner you make an effort for that, and we’ve all sort of let that go a little bit,” said Boyle. While sure to draw comparisons to Mad Men starting from the opening credits to Boyle’s social-climbing sexpot redhead to the impeccable costumes and sets, the six-episode ITV Studios and Masterpiece co-production sets out to shatter the world.
“I was immediately fascinated by someone who is so preternaturally calm in the face of everything,” says Davenport, who plays the postcard-perfect family man. “In one of my first conversations with Paul, I said, ‘This is pathological. Clearly it’s all going to go to shit,’ and he said ‘Oh yes, don’t worry about that!’ “
The tumult of the tightly wound time period unraveling invokes a sense of security in modern audiences. “The world we live in now is changing faster than ever, and I think to know that really profound change was taking place quite recently in ways that we now totally take for granted, we’re reassured by that on a subconscious level. Whatever happens, somehow we’ll make it through.”
Apart from the first two scripts and a story outline that were finished at the start of shooting, Unwin was writing pages as the filming progressed. So while Davenport knew that the rosy outlook of the first episode was about to become much darker, the cast did not know how it would end.
“I had really, really good fun, because people started predicting what I was going to do. And I became more and more mischievous and started suggesting madder and madder plots, and people would go, ‘Really? Is he going to be beheaded publicly?’ It was a real joy,” said Unwin of the writing process. “I wasn’t trying to be wicked.”
“He was being a little bit wicked,” counters Davenport. “We’re in this game, so I’m not just saying it. But a couple of things that I was like, ‘Wow, I did not see that coming.’ There’s some bold stuff in there. It was pretty staggering.”
“That was the reaction from ITV. It was suddenly, ‘Holy shit, this could really work.’ ” The last episode of the first season sets up a second season, which Unwin is already writing, though no order has been placed. Based on early reviews and the feedback from ITV, he’s bullish about its prospects for another year, which would shoot on the same schedule to be on the air next October. However, Davenport, just off of the canceled Smash, is more cautious.
“The court of public opinion is a crazy place,” he said. “It absolutely depends on the British viewer. If they abandon it in droves, we will be looking for other jobs.”
Breathless premieres Thursday night on ITV in the U.K.