Jamie Dornan and Matthew Rhys on Eugene McCabe's Death And Nightingales

Ahead of new televised drama of Eugene McCabe's classic novel Death And Nightingales airing next week, Gail Bell caught up with stars Jamie Dornan, Ann Skelly and Matthew Rhys to hear more about dark tales of love and betrayal in Co Fermanagh

Ann Skelly and Jamie Dornan star in Death And Nightingales, set in Fermanagh and filmed near Downpatrick. Picture by Teddy Cavendish
Gail Bell

A LONG, dark tunnel is faintly illuminated by slivers of light spilling through cracks in the low, arched stonework overhead; an indistinct scurrying intensifies – a mouse, or, worse, a rat?

It is bumpy underfoot and we fumble our way along with the help of someone's mobile phone torch, tip-toeing tentatively along the uneven path towards the light...

And, 'Cut' – our little unscripted, two-minute drama in an ancient tunnel linking outhouses to the main house where filming was in full swing for new BBC period drama, Death and Nightingales, comes abruptly to a halt.

A TV production girl at the head of our ramshackle line tells us to 'shush'; we are approaching the opening and the cameras are rolling.

I am on set at Myra Castle near Strangford, although the actual setting for this tense three-parter starring Jamie Dornan – and based on Irish author Eugene McCabe's haunting 1992 novel of the same name – is Co Fermanagh.

To find out more, the small press group is guided to a seated area, covered with flapping tarpaulin, and here we sit, headphones on, glued to the monitor showing a domestic scene in the 'dairy' just a few feet away.

Dublin actress and widely tipped breakout star Ann Skelly (Red Rock, Kissing Candice) who plays main character, Beth, is making butter while having a confab with her maid, Mercy (Co Monaghan actress Charlene McKenna) and there is a lot of bashing in a bowl and meaningful looks exchanged between the two.

Mercy is bemoaning the state of the male species – although she makes a notable exception when new arrival, Liam Ward (Dornan) – "a mad republican" – rides by, (off camera, unfortunately), declaring him "the most breathtaking creature" she has ever seen.

This apparition aside, Mercy asserts men are "generally, a bad lot" and there are various allusions to them spying, gossiping and "looking for information".

At first glance, we might have been disappointed with this scene – surely they could have set up something a bit better than a more-listening-than-talking Ann Skelly who is just thumping a stick in a bowl – but that would be to miss the point.

She really doesn't have to say very much at all to demand attention, instantly confirming what Dornan, his co-star Matthew Rhys and producer Jonathan Cavendish had already told us – Skelly is "luminous" in front of the camera.

What this little glimpse of Death And Nightingales also throws up, however, is a more robust understanding of one of the central themes: who can you really trust?

"It was a time when England ruled Ireland and you didn't really know who was your enemy and who was your friend," explains Cavendish, whose producing credits include Brigid Jones's Baby and December Bride, based on the book by northern author Sam Hanna Bell and filmed, as it happens, just up the road.

As well as the curtain-twitching, there is love, betrayal, deception and revenge wound up in a "toxic environment" in McCabe's story, which, for Cavendish, has an added personal dimension.

"My ancestor, Frederick Cavendish, was murdered in Dublin's Phoenix Park in the same time period, so I do feel slightly involved in this tale," he says. "It is a powerful story, set in 1885, against the backdrop of the beautiful Fermanagh landscape.

"There is a lot of tension and the whole piece, I think, is a metaphor, for the intractability of life in this part of the world where religion is always a dominating factor."

Adapted from McCabe's novel by Allan Cubitt (The Fall), it stars Skelly as Beth Winters, whose life is complicated from the outset – she is the product of an illicit dalliance between her late mother and a Catholic man (who is not her Protestant landowning husband) – and Dornan as the 'bad boy' with whom she plots to escape on her 25th birthday.

"There is a lot of complexity, a lot of love and disdain," says Skelly, who said she was relishing the part of the "smart, independent" Beth who, by fair means or foul, is determined to rise above her circumstances.

Luckily, Dornan is one of the southern actress's biggest fans and actually suggested her for the part.

"Ann is an unbelievable actress," Dornan enthuses. "Her close-ups are amazing. She's only 21 and she's the real deal."

Meanwhile, his own role, playing young Catholic sub-tenant Liam Ward, has left him pondering his propensity to inhabit yet another "dark" character in drama.

"There's a mystery about him [Ward], a darkness which is compelling, but I don't want to only play dark characters," Dornan says in oblique reference to his sadistic killer, Paul Spector, of BBC's The Fall, and the also the rather dark Mr Grey in Fifty Shades.

So, what exactly attracted the Holywood-born actor – who looks quite at home in his battered vintage hat and waistcoat – to a period drama set in darkest Fermanagh?

"Death and Nightingales is a well-crafted and classy drama," he says, "and it is adapted by Allan [Cubitt] who basically changed my life with The Fall. I have so much faith in his work and I trust him implicitly.

"Also, it's not all deceit and danger; there are other, nicer aspects to Liam's character and I hope people warm to him. I'm not a religious person and I'm not overly political either, but I read Eugene McCabe's book and it's always fascinating to learn about the reasons for people's anger."

He sees it simply as "a good role" – and being "back home" also brings the small joys of not having to repeat himself and "tell a joke that no-one gets".

"And, it's nice to be recognised here, even if there is a sort of violence to it," he quips. "I often end up in a headlock with someone, so, now I'll go to the golf course and play nine holes by myself instead of going out for a drink to the pub."

Thankfully, Welsh actor Matthew Rhys, who takes on the role of Billy Winters (Beth's stepfather) managed to avoid any headlock encounters with over-enthusiastic local fans and was enjoying "the craic" – on and off set.

But, the Cardiff-born actor, who was in Northern Ireland over the Twelfth of July period, was surprised to observe such "religious passion and fervour" still evident on the streets in 2018.

"The fervour is still here," he says. "It was an eye-opening experience for me, but I enjoy the Northern Ireland banter enormously. Here, banter knows no bounds."

Describing the drama as "cleverly woven, epic story", the star of The Americans "loves" his character [Billy], who "battles" conflicting feelings for his spirited stepdaughter.

"Billy is a staunch and proud Protestant landowner who raised Beth as his own," says Rhys. "He is a fair man and politics or religion don't affect his judgment and neither is he swayed by gossip. I think he is misunderstood.

"I relish his complexity and the role has definitely stretched me as an actor... especially growing the beard and grappling with the nuances of the Fermanagh accent."

:: Death And Nightingales, produced by Imaginarium Productions and Soho Moon, is supported by Northern Ireland Screen and airs on BBC2 on November 28, at 9pm.

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