Keeley Hawes and Joanna Lumley on Finding Alice, making TV shows and mother-daughter relationships
Finding Alice is an exploration of grief via the story of a woman whose husband dies suddenly. Georgia Humphreys hears from the creators and stars Keeley Hawes and Joanna Lumley
GRIEF can be a complicated journey – as the new ITV series, Finding Alice, so brilliantly explores.
The eponymous character – Alice Dillon – is played by Keeley Hawes, one of the UK's most-loved and sought-after actresses (this month also sees her star in Channel 4 drama, It's A Sin).
The 44-year-old star, who has her own production company, Buddy Club Productions, was also involved in the development of the six-part series.
She had previously worked with Roger Goldby (Finding Alice director, co-writer and executive producer) and Simon Nye (co-writer and executive producer) on ITV hit The Durrells.
And, speaking at a press event on behalf of Finding Alice, she says they wanted to continue the great dynamic they had together.
“It [Finding Alice] has been the second thing my company's been involved with and everyone's been incredibly generous,” says mum-of-three Hawes, who's also known for shows such as Line Of Duty and Bodyguard.
“Nicola [Schindler, executive producer] has been brilliant, everybody at RED [production company]. It's still a little bit unusual to have an actor so involved in the development process – and actually, having the dreaded Covid sort of thrown into the middle of it was a huge learning curve, not only for me but for everyone.
“But the whole experience has been a really interesting, really positive one.”
Finding Alice feels like a unique show; it's honest, blackly comic and moving, and is set in this weird and wonderful smart house, which Alice's husband, Harry (Jason Merrells), has built as his dream home.
But when the couple and their 16-year-old daughter Charlotte (Isabella Pappas) move in, disaster strikes.
On their first night there, Alice discovers Harry dead at the bottom of the stairs – and so begins the difficult journey of coming to terms with a shocking loss.
What doesn't help is Harry's parents, Minnie (Gemma Jones) and Gerry (Kenneth Cranham), keep popping round uninvited, Alice's own parents, Roger (Nigel Havers) and Sarah (Joanna Lumley), only seem to add to her list of problems, and the police are asking questions about the night Harry died.
Meanwhile, Alice is realising – with unexpected visitors knocking on the door – that her late husband had some big secrets.
Discussing how Finding Alice originated and came to the screen, Goldby says: “I was toying with how to tell a story about what happens to us when we die. Is heaven or hell the memory/legacy we leave behind? Then I just came around to grief.
“It seemed such a simple notion that touches everybody. And that it was the way to tell a story. To look at the person who is left behind and the effect of the death on that person and the memory and all the rest of it through grief. Something that touches us all yet still something of a taboo to discuss and confront openly.”
“It's a naturalistic story, life with the boring bits taken out,” suggests Nye. “I do get frustrated sometimes with television, that it doesn't hit that middle ground of human life – comedy, tragedy, the normal with the occasionally extraordinary.
“Even after a death, most of us are programmed to seek the light. When Alice falters in that, we hope showing her moments of despair will make for cathartic viewing.
“Most TV deaths are murders – Harry's death is almost banal by comparison, but I think all the more interesting for it.”
Lumley (74) thought Finding Alice “was enthralling from the very beginning – something completely different”.
“Funny, but quite tragic without being self-pitying,” continues the Absolutely Fabulous actress. “Keeley was a big part of the creation of this along with Roger Goldby and Simon Nye, constructing a really complex central character. So, all of the people linked to her – her daughter, parents, husband's parents, the friends she makes – are all rounded people.
“Sometimes we're bookmarks, ‘Tall woman with red hair' or something. And you think, ‘That doesn't really tell me much'. But all of these characters seem to have reasons for why they behave as they do.”
While Lumley notes Havers's character Roger has “got a terrible soft heart, he cries at the drop of a hanky – I mean, he's just a wet hen frankly”, her character Sarah is “hard-hearted”.
“She's not a cruel person and she's not a bad person but she just can't see any reason to have any social graces. So, she's kind but fairly dismissive of Harry's parents.”
How would she describe Sarah's relationship with her daughter Alice?
“There is a certain amount of friction between mother and daughter – that's terribly realistic. I and my mother and my sister, we just all loved each other completely. But I've met so many people who don't get on with their mothers. Or indeed have daughters who they find, for some reason, they can't really communicate with.
“I think a mother-daughter relationship can be odd,” she adds. “A father-daughter relationship is always devoted, it seems. And a mother-son. But sometimes it's mother-daughter and maybe father-son too.
“Sons who feel they never could earn the approval of their father. These relationships are very well observed in Finding Alice.”
While the series does explore various complex characters, it's very much led by Hawes, who is in pretty much every scene throughout the six episodes.
That may sound difficult, but Hawes points out it's “a lot less nerve-wracking being in lots of scenes, and that way you get to know the crew incredibly well and everyone incredibly well”.
“I think it's much more difficult for people coming in and out and then go away and maybe have a couple of weeks and then have to come back again,” she adds.
“You then have to overcome those nerves – I found when I've gone in on other productions, that's been the case. So, actually, it's quite a luxury to be in any scene, and they're all such brilliant scenes due to the whole story being about a woman who's grieving.”
She adds “there's so much humour to be found within” the story, too.
“Even where there may not have been humour in a line, we have such brilliant people, such brilliant actors, they were finding humour within it, and doing things with the script that were just a lovely surprise as well.”
:: Finding Alice is on ITV, Sundays. Catch up at itv.com