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How we made it: Grace screenwriter Russell Lewis on filming during Covid and brilliant Brighton - exclusive interview
Screenwriter Russell Lewis tells BT.com how the ITV drama was made under the testing conditions of 2020 and how he worked with author Peter James to bring Roy Grace to life.
Grace is the high-end TV adaptation of the bestselling novels by Peter James.
Starring John Simm and Richie Campbell, the films follow DS Roy Grace as he solves cases around the city of Brighton.
We spoke exclusively to screenwriter Russell Lewis – who also devised and wrote Endeavour – about working on the show in a middle of a global pandemic and collaborating with Peter, who was also an executive producer on the show.
Filming Grace in the coronavirus pandemic
Grace was filmed in a 10-week window in the summer and autumn of 2020 – but that certainly doesn’t mean the quality of the production was compromised.
With the bustling backdrop of Brighton and high production values, you wouldn’t know that the film was shot with the challenges of Covid restrictions.
Russell explained that he wasn’t allowed on set for the duration of the filming, and neither were the producers. Instead, they communicated remotely and provided feedback on rushes (the raw footage) filmed that day.
“It was a very different way of working that any of us had ever encountered before,” he said.
“For me, it was completely at arm’s length - and also the case with the rest of the execs [producers] not being able to even get out to the set for one day.
“The read-through was very different. We had five core cast members and it was filmed and you watched it the next day. So it was very strange.
“You’ve usually got about 70 people in a room, cast and crew, and it’s more like the rehearsed reading of a stage play.
“Last year on Grace it was very, very unusual – everyone sitting at their socially-distanced trestle table, and it was kind of shot in and around, so that was very weird. A completely different experience for all of us, I think, the actors included. But safety first [was important].”
He added there was some risk to filming in such a precarious time in terms of getting the production finished but the team just “went for it”.
“We just happened to fall between the new lockdowns. I think we had tiers by the time we got to the end of shooting. But the first proper lockdown which landed in January - we were a way off. So maybe we just kind of eclipsed the tiers bit.
“It was more by luck than judgement, completely! I think we all expected that we’d go into another lockdown but we just pressed the button as soon as we had a clear window and went for it. It was a 10-week shoot – August, September, October, November.”
The production team stayed true to the original novel and keep the era of Covid out of the story – a decision that was easy to make, Russell said.
“That was never part of the plan. We pondered it for maybe 30 seconds about whether we should have people wandering around masked.
“But Covid is temporary and Grace is forever hopefully. If you were watching it some years down the track on ITV3, it’ll be nice to be watching it without the reminder of Covid I think, without people wearing masks.”
The pressure of adapting a bestseller
With more than 18 million copies of the novels sold worldwide, Russell felt it was deeply important to replicate Peter’s famous attention to detail on-screen.
“David Gaylor, the force detective who works with Peter on the police procedural aspect of it, was our advisor throughout and we wanted to honour Peter’s research and the meticulous detail he’s rightly famous for," he explained.
“Within the context of only having 89 minutes, I think wherever we did transgress procedure we always ran it past Peter and David Gaylor to see is there a scenario whereby this might.
“Sometimes it would be 'No you don’t’ and sometimes it’d be ‘Well, if you do this then that, you can have what you want if you make a few tweaks to it’.
“We worked very, very closely to try and maintain that strict police procedural that Peter’s renowned for.”
Russell revealed that it wasn’t always straightforward because of the time difference between when the book was written and the present day.
“Interestingly, in the 17 years since the book was first written, police procedure has changed – so sometimes you’d have Dave Gaylor going ‘We wouldn’t do that’ and we’d go ‘But we took it from the book!’
“‘Yeah', Dave says, "that was 2003, we do things differently now’.”
The importance of Brighton
Russell stressed that the south-coast city is important to the story, so it was only natural that the entire production happened there – which is not always the case with a lot of TV drama which films on location before heading elsewhere for interior scenes.
“It’s unimaginable without it – Roy Grace is Brighton and Brighton is Roy Grace. It’s a major character in Peter’s novels, so it absolutely had to be there.
“We shot everything there – it’s very different to making some shows where you’ll go and do some exteriors in a place and then do your interiors much closer to London. We upped sticks and based ourselves there for the duration. It was integral to the piece.”
And he added the setting is part of the reason that Grace stands out from the many other crime dramas around.
“I think it’s Peter’s passion for it [that makes Grace unique] and the character of Roy himself is very interesting, an interesting detective.
“I think it’s the setting, I think it’s the characters. They’re not gathering the clues and whodunnit – they’re fantastic thrillers. There’s an element of mystery but for me what drives me through with it is it’s a page-turner. That’s Peter’s genius.
“Hopefully we’ve found a way to do that in TV terms with his Brighton noir. That’s certainly our aim in any event, to have some of that drive going through.”
Watch the first episode of Grace at 8pm on Sunday, March 14, on ITV.
The second film, based on the book Looking Good Dead, will air later in 2021.