Why The Lost Letters of William Woolf is a perfect book for a screen adaptation
It’s a beautiful story evoking a time gone by, which could be a major returning series
Helen Cullen: has created a clever, thought-provoking and heart-warming narrative about love, loss, broken dreams and how to negotiate relationships as they change over time
“More than Kisses, Letters mingle Souls” – John Donne
While there is a huge selection of different types of drama on offer, the current trend seems tilted towards high-concept, glossy, predominantly dark thrillers with only the occasional foray into more entertaining and uplifting territory. As producers, we’re constantly looking for ideas and material that have a real point of difference and when we read The Lost Letters of William Woolf we felt the story and characters would lend themselves perfectly to a TV adaptation.
The 1990s setting feels like a perfect point to look back on – not as far away as Downton Abbey or Poldark, but still an era that seems simpler and less frightening; a time where, nearly 30 years later, the audience can reflect on with fondness and nostalgia. A world where people were more optimistic, communities rallied around each other and our heroes were relatable and courageous. It’s a beautiful story evoking a time gone by; one which we believe could form the basis for a major returning series, combining romance, mystery and stories of the week.
William’s workplace, the Dead Letters Depot, is a brilliant central setting, or “hero location” for a TV series. William is a kind, passionate and utterly real hero and we travel with him as he negotiates the trials and (mis)fortunes of a life perceived to be unfulfilled. Alongside William are his band of letter detectives spending their days solving postal mysteries, opening up letters and parcels to different worlds, giving us unique and endless entry into many varied and rich stories. For a long-running series, you are always mindful of running out of stories but here the options are limitless.
The ensemble of characters around William are really colourful and distinctive. From Ned Flanagan, the Dead Letters Depot director, leaving on the dot of 5pm, to the romantic Marjorie Clarke with her “Best Auntie” mug and her determination to unite lost lovers, these characters spring from the page and are a gift for a TV adapter.
Helen has created a clever, thought-provoking and heart-warming narrative about love, loss, broken dreams and how to negotiate relationships as they change over time. We believe a TV adaptation can capture this spirit and dramatise both the over-arching love story of William and his wife Clare, his quest for the mysterious letter writer, Winter, and a weekly stand-alone story or stories that resolve each episode. The diversity of stories, which range from a little boy wanting to run away and join the circus as a means of escaping his tough home life to the poignancy of William delivering a George Cross to its rightful owner, is limitless.
It can be a challenge for any author to hand over their work to a production company and allow the world they’ve created be shaped by someone else. That’s why it’s such a privilege to work with someone of Helen’s sensibility; an author who understands that our screenwriter will bring their work to life in a different way but one that will remain true to its original spirit.
Helen has created a world where long-forgotten memories are restored, and through the hard work of the Letter Detectives, people find hope again. And so, as with the book, we hope to show the power of writing to spin new worlds for ourselves. We will see how William becomes increasingly obsessed with the letters written by Winter to the man she calls “My Great Love”, we will meet the children who write to Santa Claus, we will explore the bereaved writing to those who have passed on as well as spend time with those who write longingly to movie stars.
We want to remain true to the exceptionally nuanced, complex and, most importantly, visual characters that Helen has created. Using Clare as an example, she was written as a counterpoint to William’s story and is perhaps the less likeable character at the start. Yet, throughout the novel, she soon becomes one of the most relatable and we begin to sympathise with her when we hear about her troubled background, along with all of William’s own failures and weaknesses that she has had to manage. She is an “everywoman” character – strong, independent and all too often sadly missing in many television adaptations; we are sure that both Clare and William will become iconic and aspirational TV heroes.
William and Clare’s relationship is a focal point of the series and while it is always challenging to create a “real” relationship on screen, we firmly believe that their story is one that will resonate with a TV audience. In their mid-30s, their relationship has worn down, cluttered with unfulfilled hope and promises. Part of the novel’s appeal is that Helen lets both sides have their say, with interior voices that sound authentic. There’s a realism to the characters that will translate effortlessly to the screen; we understand Clare and William because we see and hear them around us every day.
One of the things that attracted us most to the novel is its tremendous visual potential – while the precinct of the Dead Letters Depot is a brilliant focal point for the drama, the stories of William’s trips reuniting items and letters with their owners offer endless opportunities to showcase different settings and locations as hetravels around the country. In addition, Helen captures the look and sound of the early 1990s, namechecking specific tracks which, again, will form a huge part of the TV series.
So, for us, this novel has it all. An original and clear premise, beautifully drawn central characters and, above all, a strong emotional heart that we believe will connect with a wide TV audience. In a world of disposable social media and emails where the squeak of the letterbox and the thump of the envelope on the door mat has dwindled in significance, we hope that our production will seize the essence of the novel and celebrate the thrill, joy and meaningfulness of the hand-written word in a caring, enchanting and positive way.
Laura Mackie and Sally Haynes are managing directors of Mainstreet Pictures. Before founding Mainstreet, they were the drama commissioners for ITV Network where they were responsible for a raft of successful dramas including the multi awardwinning and international hit Downton Abbey, Broadchurch, Appropriate Adult, Scott and Bailey, Whitechapel and Endeavour.
The Lost Letters of William Woolf is October 2018’s Irish Times Book Club pick. Helen Cullen talks to Books Editor Martin Doyle on Friday, October 26th, at 7.30pm, in the Book Centre, as part of the Waterford Writers Weekend curated by Rick O’Shea