What is Tatau?

Claire Webb heads to the set of BBC3's latest supernatural drama

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It’s a picture-postcard scene: a cloudless sky, an azure ocean fringed with fine white sand, palm trees swaying in the breeze. A young man who could have stepped out of a travel brochure saunters down the beach in nothing but trunks and a tan.

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He is Joe Layton, star of BBC3’s new drama, Tatau (the title means tattoo in Maori), in which two backpackers run into eerie trouble in the Cook Islands. Otherworldly goings-on aside, it’s a far cry from its predecessors: the dilapidated Barry Island B&B of Being Human, the bland suburbs of The Fades, the stark Lancashire village of In the Flesh.

If the BBC Trust approves director-general Tony Hall’s proposals, Tatau will also be the last BBC3 drama to be broadcast on TV: the plan is to confine BBC4’s younger sibling to iPlayer in the autumn, saving the corporation £50 million a year, of which £30 million will be poured into BBC1 drama.

In a blog post in January defending the online move and the unpopular axing of In the Flesh, BBC3 controller Damian Kavanagh explained that “with a falling income and increased costs, BBC3 can only make one drama a year”. The one drama for 2016 has already been revealed – a thriller about a woman who escapes from a cellar after 13 years – but that hasn’t deterred more than 20,000 Flesh fans from launching a fervent campaign for a third series.

Of course this also means that time has already been called on 2015’s drama, Tatau, before the first series is even shown. Surely this is the real reason Tatau boasts such an exotic location: it’s been made with one eye on the foreign market. A co-production with a New Zealand company, half of it was filmed in Auckland, and most of the
cast and crew are Kiwis – and it was sold to BBC America before filming even began. 
Each episode is also 38 minutes long, leaving plenty of time for overseas broadcasters to squeeze in ads.

This global ambition isn’t the only way in which Tatau ventures into new territory for BBC3. Being Human boasted vampires, werewolves and a ghost, In the Flesh had zombies, while Tatau’s supernatural storyline is based on Maori legends. Even bolder: writer Richard Zajdlic had never met a Maori, never mind been to the Cook Islands. 

“That’s the power of the internet,” he laughs, pallid with jet lag and mopping his brow in the fierce midday Pacific sun. We take refuge under a marquee that’s been erected on the beach.

Wasn’t Zajdlic worried about playing fast and loose with Maori founding myths?

“Of course, and we absolutely wanted to be respectful and embrace their culture. We listened closely to the cultural adviser and it’s the predominantly Maori cast who steered us.”

Much to his relief, when he finally touched down on set, both the Cook Islanders and Kiwi Maori cast were very complimentary about how accurate it was – “which was terrific, really heartening”. Some of the tribal elders even volunteered to be extras in a few scenes.

As for the titular tattoo, it was designed by a traditional tattooist – “tahunga” – and every line is symbolic, the ink traditionally applied using a shark’s tooth.

“It’s a very sacred act over there. Every mark is an emblem about your origin, your history, your potential,” says Zajdlic.

“I met one guy covered in tattoos and he went through every single mark: this means I’ve got children, this means I come from this tribe, this means I come from this part of the island.” 

Tatau’s 23-year-old leading man Joe Layton’s tattoos haven’t been etched with a shark’s tooth, but painted on every day. And, like Zajdlic, he’s smitten with the islanders. 

“When we sat down for the read-through, a local launched into this ten-minute speech in Maori. We were like: ‘What the hell?’ But it was a blessing of the project.”

Filming in a tropical paradise wasn’t always idyllic, however.

“Every time I get in the sea, I’m like: how the hell did Daniel Craig do it in Casino Royale? There’s coral spikes everywhere, the sun is so bright, and there’s sun cream in my eyes!” The crew also has to contend with “absolutely monstrous” coconut crabs armed with huge pincers, stray dogs, a centipede that took bites out of its wrangler, and the heat – exacerbated by a roaring campfire when I visited the set.

But Layton says that the biggest danger of all is coconuts.

“Coconuts kill more people in the Cook Islands than sharks do. The safety officer’s job was to look up, check where the wind was coming from and spray-paint no walking zones – the coconut drop zone.”

Maybe Barry Island isn’t looking too bad, after all.

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Tatau begins on BBC Three tonight (Sunday 12th April) at 10.00pm