'Women live with the animalistic fear that they’re going to be murdered'

‘Blood’, starring Adrian Dunbar and Carolina Main, has the makings of must-see TV

Starts on Virgin One at 9pm Monday 8th October.

 

The new drama Blood has been gaining traction via word of mouth and is already being touted as one of this season’s big water-cooler TV moments. The six-part series could “spark a new era for Irish TV” claims its star, Adrian Dunbar. Taut, stylish and suspenseful, Blood has the makings of must-see TV. It begins when Cat Hogan (a mesmerising Carolina Main) returns home after the death of her mother, and back into a clouded and complex relationship with her father Jim (Dunbar).

Jim – a popular local doctor in small-town Meath – has no shortage of social standing, where Cat, the troubled, opinionated prodigal daughter, has relatively little. The trauma appears to help Cat’s synaptic pathways bridge together, resulting in her recalling some troubled details from her childhood. It’s enough to convince her that her father is somehow responsible for her mother’s death. What follows is a classic case of “he said, she said”.

Sophie Petzal’s wily script has the audience wavering in their loyalties as Cat proves to be a somewhat unreliable narrator. Not only is Blood part of a vivacious wave of domestic noir thrillers that count Gone Girl or Girl on a Train as none-too-distant cousins, it also comes on the back of a number of Scandi hit thrillers, many of which have the same brooding, starkly windswept tone as Blood.

“With the age of video-on-demand and boxsets, Irish people are watching The Bridge and The Killing in Danish and Norwegian,” observes producer Ingrid Goodwin. “They’re simple stories about people who live in those countries, not necessarily related to politics or history. Blood is one of the first examples we have of that. We’re brilliant storytellers, and I’ve often wondered why we aren’t making more of that kind of storytelling.”

Comparisons to Scandi-noir aside, Blood has much else going for it. It’s the first notable drama offering from the newly rebranded Virgin Media One (formerly TV3). Blood could also be described as one of Ireland’s first significant post #MeToo projects.

Family secrets

According to Blood’s writer Sophie Petzal, a British-born screenwriter with a Dublin-born mother, the nucleus for the project has been many years in the making. The perfect timing in the wake of #MeToo, she says, has been an accident. “I’m someone who is like, ‘this I the stuff I want to write about’, and deep down I was compelled to write about a young woman who may seem unbelievable against a man who is entirely untrustworthy,” notes Petzal. “I didn’t really approach it with my political head on, but looking at it now, it does seem oddly prescient. It’s always been a subject that fascinated me – women not being believed while men in authority being trusted implicitly.

“I’ve also been fascinated, possibly because of my own family life, by how adult children can have such different perspective on their parents as adults, and even different to siblings who grew up under the same roof,” she adds. “I wanted to get into the secrets a family can keep.”

The post #MeToo climate, says Goodwin, has affected opportunities for women in the film and TV industry for the better.

“It’s certainly become very popular to hire women, in a ‘let’s get a female director, because of the moment’,” she says. “I’ve heard some people say, ‘a few people I know have hired me because I’m a girl’.”

Certainly, other elements are afoot: Waking the Feminists may have highlighted gender disparities within Irish theatre, but it’s thought that many other sectors have been beneficiaries of the dialogue. Additionally, the Irish Film Board announced a number of new funding initiatives for female writers and directors, one of which, Blood’s two directors Lisa Mulcahy and Hannah Quinn have benefited from.

Female crew

Blood is something of an anomaly in Irish film production, boasting a largely female crew – in addition to writer Petzal, co-producer Goodwin and directors Quinn and Mulcahy, Blood’s editor is Isobel Stephenson and the director of photography is Kate McCullough.

“This really wasn’t about ‘jobs for the girls’ at all. There might be a lot of people going, ‘it’s because of the #MeToo movement’, but it was more about the opportunity to prove ourselves,” says Quinn.

Director Lisa Mulcahy: Blood has a largely female crew
Director Lisa Mulcahy: Blood has a largely female crew

Did having a largely female crew have any bearing on the set energy, the execution of the project, or the end product?

“I was curious myself to see whether it would change the dynamic of the project, and ‘no’ is the boring answer,” says Goodwin.

“I would say it has changed the dynamic in terms of making the process more collaborative and less harsh,” notes Quinn.

The largely female crew, says Mulcahy, was less by design than accident.

“Rather than it being a male or female thing, it really came down to personalities,” she asserts. “It just turned out that a lot of the female HODs [heads of department] were the right people for the job.

“I’m told by actors it’s a different vibe with a female director – I’m generalising, but I suppose we have a different way of going about things. You can’t say that men aren’t sensitive or thoughtful, but I’ve been told by actors about the different energy that less testosterone brings.”

Adds Petzal: “It felt fantastic to be able to work with that level of talent, male or female. It did put to shame comments that have surrounded women in production for so long, like ‘you can’t get good female DPs’. My collaboration with the directors in this case was so unchallenging and unegotistical. They never gave me an easy ride, though.”

Many of the women note that in general, the film and TV sets they have worked on have been male-dominated down the years.

“When I started as a trainee assistant director, there was much more bum squeezing, hugging and tickling – it all went on,” notes Mulcahy. “A film set is a very particular place, with an unusual environment. Some gaffer would be giving you a hug and you sort of go along with it. Now, there’s a huge difference on set. It’s no longer acceptable to comment on how someone looks.”

In writing circles, Sophie noted that she, too, met gendered expectations on occasion: “I was asked, ‘do you have a shoes and handbag script? Where’s your Girls?’” she admits. “Men get to write the serious stuff.”

‘Grip lit’

Traditionally, crime thrillers and crime drama had been seen as largely the preserve of men, but not anymore. It is estimated that 75 per cent of the new “grip lit” books are authored by women, with David O’Callaghan, book category manager at Eason Ireland, estimating that 60-70 per cent of their readership is female.

Female characters – historically in crime fiction, found on page one in a pool of blood – have become much more complex in this new strain of domestic noir. Often, they are ordinary women forced into extraordinary situations, and many of them are flawed, conflicted and occasionally unlikable.

It stands to reason that this new wave of “household noir” is turning its attentions to the lives and interiorities of women. There has been a concerted shift from the stranger jumping out to a situation where suddenly the protagonist can’t trust the people around them, or closest to them. 

Petzal theorises that female writers are particularly well equipped to write psychological thrillers, because they have a more acute understanding of fear than men. “Women live with the animalistic fear that they’re going to be murdered,” she says.

“We know what we fear and wonder how to prevent getting into your car and not getting kidnapped. I’m not sure if it’s a strange animalistic thing, but we seem to find entertainment in the thing we universally fear. I know from talking with my female friends about true crime, there’s a strange black humour to the whole thing, and it’s like we’re learning to know the beast. In crime drama, it’s no longer about having women on slabs and men looking over them.”

Taut new drama: Cat Hogan, played by Carolina Main, and her father Jim, played by Adrian Dunbar
Taut new drama: Cat Hogan, played by Carolina Main, and her father Jim, played by Adrian Dunbar

Blood’s setting in small-town Ireland – where claustrophobia, gossip and the perennial upkeep of the “good name” are rife – certainly lends itself well to the subject matter. It will, say the show’s makers, be interesting to see how the show travels outside of Ireland: already, it has been sold in the UK and US, to Channel 5 and Acorn Media, respectively.

“There’s certainly a universality to this whole thing, and I do hope that people will say, ‘this reminds me of how I am with my brother’, but there’s something about the aura of secrecy that felt very specific to this part of the world.”

Adds Mulcahy: “Even while we’re nearly at [the year] 2020, the doctor in small-town Ireland has everybody’s secrets and has a very uplifted position in the community. The thing about towns like this, there are a lot of tiny secrets that everyone has, yet they think that other people don’t know about.”

Blood starts on Virgin Media One on October 8th at 9pm

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