The seven steps to creating a classic conspiracy thriller

Dark forces, enigmatic women, chilling villains... does Channel 4's dark new drama Utopia have all the makings of a conspiracy hit?

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The seven steps to creating a classic conspiracy thriller
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1. The sinister, shadowy organisation

You can’t have a conspiracy without an organisation cultivating it. When it’s not governments behind reprehensible schemes (as in Sydney Pollack’s 1975 movie Three Days of the Condor), it’s usually big business pulling the strings. Channel 4’s conspiracy thriller Utopia has the Network, which spans the globe and wields power surreptitiously at the highest levels. Even on a small scale, it can alter medical records, fabricate crime scenes and manipulate the police.

2. What’s really going on?

Utopia writer Dennis Kelly says his conspiracy involves “something that affects everyone on the planet. The world feels like a scary, dark place at the moment — there’s global warming, the economic crisis — and it’s interesting to poke those issues.” But plausibility is essential. So, while Utopia is about what the Network is planning, it’s also about how you hide when every move you make (on CCTV, through your bank account or mobile phone, what you do and post online) can be monitored and tracked. “That seems to me to be a real concern and can so easily be employed for nefarious purposes.”

Jessica 3. Who’s that girl?

It helps if an individual is central to the conspiracy. Classic 70s conspiracy thriller Klute had Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda), and Utopia has Jessica Hyde, played by captivating Irish actress Fiona O’Shaughnessy. “Jessica is at the heart of the story but she’s an enigma,” says O’Shaughnessy, smiling enigmatically! “While a lot of the characters are initially bewildered by what’s happening to them, Jessica is much better informed as to what’s going on. She’s been on the run since she was ten and is used to a solitary environment so finds it difficult to understand relationships and friendships. She’s fierce, single-minded but rudderless, and that’s such a joy to play.”

4. The grain of truth

Taking today’s realities and stretching them slightly is key. Three Days of the Condor was about America’s desire for oil and the lengths to which it would go in the Middle East to get it. It was released in 1975, almost 30 years before the war in Iraq, which some say was a battle to safeguard the country’s resources for western consumption. In the real world, whistleblowers have revealed conspiracies across industries and governments, but conspiracy thrillers don’t merely mirror reality, they also articulate our contemporary anxieties. It’s telling that in the original 1962 version of The Manchurian Candidate, it was Communist spies conspiring in brainwashing, but in the 2004 remake, it was a multinational corporation. The threat to democracy had moved from a foreign political ideology to big business, the enemy within. Tellingly, Kelly isn’t a believer in conspiracy theories in real life. “As Ian [Nathan Stewart- Jarrett] says in Utopia, if even one of those theories proved to be true, the political earthquakes it would cause would be unimaginable. That isn’t to say that there haven’t been cover-ups and conspiracies over the years, but let’s be clear: the Moon landings happened.”

Becky5. The dogged hero

Often in conspiracy thrillers, the protagonist is a journalist, police officer, whistleblower or someone who’s plugged into the system and is adept at investigating. In Utopia, Kelly gives us Becky (Alexandra Roach), whose father died of what may or may not be a disease created by a pharmaceutical company; Wilson Wilson (Adeel Akhtar), a conspiracy theorist who’s built his own nuclear bunker and erased all trace of himself from the internet; and Dugdale (Paul Higgins), a civil servant pushed to do the bidding of the menacing puppetmasters at the heart of Utopia.

6. The face of evil

Someone has to put a human face to the Sinister Shadowy Organisation and do its bidding on the ground, so whereas The X-Files had the Cigarette Smoking Man, Utopia has an altogether more British creation in Arby — shambling in a shellsuit and rattling a box of raisins before coolly embarking on the most appallingly violent of acts. Played by Neil Maskell, of cult British horror film Kill List, Arby and his cohort Lee (Paul Ready) are ruthless, relentless and yet surprisingly funny.

7. The grail

Every good conspiracy thriller needs a key. It might be a tape recording of an incriminating conversation, a computer disc or USB stick full of potentially inflammatory information, but in Utopia it’s a graphic novel (above) whose pages are rumoured to have predicted the worst disasters of the 20th century. And so The Utopia Experiments (Part Two) is what everyone, good and bad, is after.


Utopia continues on Tuesdays at 10:00pm on Channel 4