Lisa McGee and husband Tobias Beer on their new television drama The Deceived
Derry Girls creator Lisa McGee teamed up with her husband Tobias Beer to write psychological drama The Deceived, currently airing on Channel 5. The couple told Jane Hardy about the show, the shift in tone from comedy and how to stay married while working together
HOW do you follow a mega commercial and critical success like Channel 4's Derry Girls? If you're creator Lisa McGee, by moving to something completely different and drafting in actor and writer husband Tobias Beer as co-author.
The result, The Deceived, is an intense psychological thriller running weeknights until Thursday on Channel 5. It deals with lust, gaslighting, inequality in relationships and throws in some Donegal spirits for good measure.
Ms McGee says she found the shift in genre liberating.
"I started out in playwriting, moved into TV drama, then went sideways into comedy. And I suppose Derry Girls is what I'm known for. But I love writing in different genres, it teaches you a lot."
She adds that writing a mystery was a long-held ambition.
"It was my aim to write a mystery because I love storytelling. But it's heightened writing so it's quite scary as well."
Scary is the mot juste. Our heroine is called Ophelia, which indicates things may not end well. She falls for one of her Cambridge lecturers, Michael Callaghan, played with indecent attractiveness by Peaky Blinders star Emmett J Scanlan. He disappears to his native Ireland, Ophelia follows him and things turn creepy.
As McGee and Beer reveal, their influences were in part the big modern Gothic romances. McGee explains: "We always wanted to work together but this is our first joint project. We went on holiday when our first son was 10 weeks old and we ran out of things to watch so enjoyed films like Gaslight, Dial M for Murder and Rebecca and this drama has been heavily influenced by Rebecca."
That is clear in the conflict set up between Michael's wife Roisin and Ophelia. In both stories, the seemingly perfect, desirable wife is not actually the threat the younger woman imagines. As McGee says, "We were interested in seeing whether we could write something that was modern in its setting but which might have a period feel to it –
to see whether the form would hold within the fast-paced and sophisticated world." It unquestionably does.
The couple's working method is civilised, as Beer reveals. “We talk very loosely about an idea early on – often over drinks so it doesn't feel like work. Then we do a plan for the structure and plot very rough scenes, after which we'll carve them up and write separately. Then we come together and swap around, noting each other's work and editing."
He adds that the writing team stave off divorce by clever planning.
"We never really do stuff at the same time apart from at the earliest and latest stages. Lisa is so experienced and brilliant on structure that she often steps away, then returns to give her thoughts, which is an extra stage of free script editing."
The couple had to fight for one scene in Ireland, as Beer notes. It involves ghost stories in the scary big house in Donegal where Ophelia is experiencing a culture clash.
"We've followed Irish dramas like The Weir by Conor McPherson and had to fight for the storytelling scenes. That's not what you do in television, you don't just tell stories." But they won their right to include atmospheric rather than physical action.
McGee adds: "We wanted to create a space for storytelling as everyone in the drama is lying. That was quite interesting to us."
Beer and McGee seem to have drawn on their own Anglo-Irish partnership for aspects of The Deceived. As McGee says, her Derry background is at ease with the supernatural.
"You'd never let the truth get in the way of a good story. And my mother would say things like 'Lynne saw the banshee in Buncrana.' My grandfather would spin a yarn – at least, we think that's what he was doing – about playing cards with the devil. You'd hear the same stories over and over again, like a ritual."
In The Deceived, this ghostly country that spooks the English girl looks the part. Its bleakness illustrates the pathetic fallacy with nature reflecting the characters' turbulent moods and actions.
As Beer puts it: "People there are at ease talking about the mystical, the supernatural. Lisa says she believes in ghosts and isn't frightened of them, it's not a big deal. I don't believe in them but would be terrified if I saw something. If we all queued up in a spooky place, we wouldn't see the same thing. It's maybe a function of our own mind, our own turmoil, perhaps that's what ghosts are."
Apparently, some rooms of the main house they filmed in, which Beer describes as "a character in itself", made the actors uneasy.
When TV dramas really hit the spot, they reference the zeitgeist. As McGee says: "With Derry Girls, we didn't know it but it would relate to Brexit. Now everyone is talking about gaslighting in politics and elsewhere and we've written about it."
Gaslighting is the psychological manipulation of somebody by subtle or not so subtle means which leads them to question their sanity and may get darker with the possibility of suicide. But as Beer says, they didn't want to produce public health education drama.
"Our intention goes back to the original 1930s Patrick Hamilton play called Gas Light. We didn't want that line at the end 'Have you been affected by this? Ring this number.'"
On whether television has overtaken film, their original inspiration, McGee has this to say: "For writing it has. There's nothing better than being able to build a world and grow the characters over years. And there could be a second series of The Deceived, although we don't want to leave people hanging at the end. I love writing for TV as the standard is so high."
She adds that certain people have redefined what the small screen can do.
"I loved Normal People, and we have its star Paul Mescal in this drama, also Succession and Euphoria."
Covid-19 won't stop this golden age, either. Beer and McGee say they've continued to write during lockdown. "When things return to normal, the ideas will be there."
Appropriately, like McGee's favourite viewing, this is a dark piece. As you hear in the first episode, 'Bad things happen here'. It's a must-see slice of television.
:: The Deceived is on Channel 5 nightly until Thursday, 9pm. Catch up at channel5.com