Harry and Jack Williams: Writing Rellik is the most challenging thing we’ve ever done

The brothers behind The Missing, One of Us, Rellik and The Liar reveal how they make their hits – and that work “never ends”

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Harry and Jack Williams are incredibly cheerful for people who write such dark thrillers. The siblings (36 and 38 respectively) are TV’s most in-demand writers, though they’re likely to be unimpressed with their two latest dramas – Rellik on BBC1 and Liar on ITV – being scheduled against each other on the same night.

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Today, they’re reflecting on tougher times, when a lack of work meant that in the middle of the day they’d often be found in the pub. “We had a lot of fun then,” says Jack, who lives with his lawyer wife Jenna and their two children. “But we were hopeless and had no money,” adds Harry, who lives with his girlfriend Antigone. Now they’re flat-out busy – but are they still having fun?

What was the first thing you wrote together?

Jack In my 20s I wrote a sitcom called Roman’s Empire that was based on a break-up. Harry kept telling me to rewrite it and I lost the will to live so I got him involved. Then an actress who shall remain nameless said to me after we’d done the rewrite, “You should never ever work with your brother again.” The irony is delicious now, but for a few years after that sitcom we couldn’t even get arrested.

Harry We finally realised we weren’t funny and stopped trying to make sitcoms. While we were trying to make comedies we were just watching dramas because that’s what we love. I’m not sure why we didn’t do it earlier.

And then in 2014, along came The Missing with James Nesbitt

Jack It changed everything. Just before The Missing we wondered if we should stop – we couldn’t really afford to keep going.

Harry I thought it would go down horribly, because that response was all I knew. As soon as it aired, I just wanted to hide under the sofa. We loved what we’d done but we were scared.

Rellik is told in reverse. How was that to write?

Harry The most challenging thing we’ve done. We hit a brick wall with it at one point.

Jack When Harry said to me, “Let’s do a thriller set backwards,” I thought, “God no, that’ll be really hard”. Harry pitched it after a few other ideas, I didn’t know he was going to – then he realised how difficult it would be and wanted to retract it!

harry and jack williams

What’s a day at work like for you?

Harry We start around 9am but it takes a long time to gear up the energy to start writing.

Jack We never realise we are actually working. I’ll say to Harry, “So why did the character do that? That’s kind of interesting,” and then before you know it, we’ve started. Harry will be lying on the sofa and say, “We should write that down,” so I go and write it down, like his scribe. Can you see how this works? [Laughs]

What’s the writing process like?

Jack We talk scenes through and then split them equally. We go into different rooms and then come back together and read each other’s work. We call it mastering because that’s an audio term from when we were in a band…

Harry [Head in hands] Oh God, Jack, don’t! It’s embarrassing. We’re allowed to rewrite the other’s scenes as much as we want – if we don’t think it’s good enough we’ll improve it.

How do you feel when you can’t get a plot twist right?

Harry We both freak out. It’s a knot you can’t unpick; you could crack an entire episode in an afternoon and you’ll have one thing that doesn’t make sense for about three days.

Does working together make you more productive?

Harry It’s much better because you get guilt, which is my prime motivation in writing. You think, “Oh God he’s got five pages, I’ve got two, I need to not be behind.”

Jack You need to feel you’re keeping up, not letting the other side down.

Do you ever switch off?

Harry It never ends. When writing The Missing we went to France, where the series was set, to do some research. We’d get on the train at 7am and Jack would start asking questions about our characters and then that’d go on until 11.30 at night when we were having drinks.

Jack Our dad’s a writer and mum’s a producer so they enjoy it all but my wife occasionally says, “Shut up!” At Christmas we do try to talk about other things – but we struggle.

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Rellik begins on Monday 11th September at 9pm on BBC1