Like Doctor Foster last year, Trauma, the new drama series by acclaimed television and theatre writer Mike Bartlett, is about obsession.
Not a slighted woman’s obsession with her cheating husband, but the obsession of a heartbroken father with the surgeon who failed to save his son’s life. Intense, unsparing and at times hard to watch, Bartlett’s new work is likely to grip the nation again.
Still only 37 years old, and also responsible for last year’s adapted-for-television play King Charles III and the upcoming newspaper drama series Press among much else, Bartlett tells Radio Times how and why he does it.
I loved Doctor Who when I was a kid. When I was nine I found a copy of Doctor Who: the Making of a Television Series in the school library. It had a picture of Peter Davison on the front and it was a formative book for me. It explained all the different departments like the script, cameras and sets, and explained how a television show is put together. Reading it, I realised that all this stuff I was watching on television was actually made by people. That book started my career, so when I eventually wrote an episode of Doctor Who last year, Knock Knock, it was pretty special.
Steptoe and Son taught me how to write plays
I learnt all about the theatre – stagecraft, entrances and exits, how to tell a story in one space, how the audience reacts to what’s going on – from watching studio sitcoms on the telly when I was young. I got it all from 2point4 Children, Dad’s Army and Fawlty Towers. And especially Steptoe and Son; if they made that show now it would be a dramedy. It goes for minutes without any laughs in one of the bleakest situations you could imagine.
Trauma isn’t me
I come from a privileged background. I was brought up in Oxfordshire and went to private schools; I’ve been very lucky. But life is never as simple as that – there are members of my family who haven’t been as fortunate – and my job is to write outside of myself. In Trauma, Dan (John Simms) is a factory manager, an ordinary guy who gets made redundant and loses his 15-year-old son to a knife attack on the same day. Dan has done all the right things in life; he works hard, he’s got a job. Then suddenly he’s at the mercy of people above him who are telling him what to do and no one’s treating him with respect.
Dan looks at the surgeon, Jon [Adrian Lester], who should have saved his son and didn’t, and thinks, “But you do have money. Your kids went to a good school.” If you unpack that it’s about the promise of an equal society, of comprehensive education and a national health service that almost everybody still wants to have, and yet it feels like we’re getting further away from that at the moment.
The pubs in Morse
I don’t go in for clubs and high-minded dinner parties. I like the idea of being good at my job and having a normal life. You know, just family, work, a house and a car. And I like the sort of Oxford pubs you see on Morse or Endeavour, where half the people are locals who have nothing to do with the university but there is also a chess club arguing about politics in the corner. Party political broadcast I joined the Labour Party three years ago, after Ed Miliband lost the election, but no one has asked me to write a party-political broadcast for the party yet. I haven’t met Jeremy Corbyn, either.
King Charles on screen
King Charles III [Bartlett’s 2014 play about Prince Charles’s accession and reign was adapted for television last year] is a work of fiction. It’s in verse to make sure you understand that this is not a documentary. It’s not The Crown, taking historical events and fictionalising them – it’s an imagined future. Tim Pigott-Smith [who played Charles on stage, but died before the TV version was broadcast] got his OBE after doing it but I don’t think that’s a dilemma that I’m going to face, having written that play, though my mum wouldn’t be happy if I turned it down.
Watching telly together
When I was young I liked the idea of everybody watching Saturday night television together. I liked the idea of television bringing us together. I think it still can and that’s what I love about Doctor Foster. A lot of people were watching it on the night it went out. It’s a sort of old-fashioned pleasure, doing that. We all have a need to be loved. We all try to have self-respect. Most people are pretty decent. Anything that reminds us of that, like watching telly together, is probably a good thing. But it won’t last, because TV drama as an event is not the way the industry is going.
Suranne – the perfect doctor
Whoever played Gemma Foster had to be in every single scene for five hours in the first series. The list of actors you want to watch for five hours is not massive. Suranne is a brilliant, brilliant actor and people love her. Which is very useful, because she does some quite extreme things. So, I always thought it would be her but when you are doing something that difficult together, you need to look each other in the eye, suss each other out, you need to have a cup of tea together first. With some people, it can be two cups of tea, but with Suranne it was one cup. I knew it was her.
Doctor Foster’s appeal
Doctor Foster is about wondering if you can trust the person that you’re married to or in a relationship with. It’s all about the betrayal of those relationships. Most people have experience of being cheated on, and if they haven’t been cheated on, then they have certainly wondered about doing it. Betrayal is a very common experience, so it naturally appeals.
I keep the situations real
You could imagine a version of Doctor Foster where she finds out what’s happening and kills her husband and then has to try and hide it. But I didn’t do that, because all the interest for people at home is in relating closely to what happens on screen – going, “I did something like that. I burnt all my husband’s clothes.” Or, “If you ever do that to me, I’ll do the same thing to you.” But if she killed someone, they’d go, “I haven’t ever killed someone,” and they’d be watching her rather than empathising with her.
I will decide when to write a third series of Doctor Foster
It’s totally up to me. No one has ever put pressure on me to make more of it. I think the BBC would rather I did something new, but if we do bring Doctor Foster back it will only thrive if we do it at the right time. That ending of series two leaves a lot open to come back to: where has the son Tom gone and what’s happening to him? What happens to the parents? That’s the sort of story territory we’d be in, but it’s not written yet.