Ordeal by Innocence: the inside story of how the series was reshot after the allegations against Ed Westwick

Mark Lawson speaks to the director, the producer and industry sources about the BBC’s decision to release the Agatha Christie adaptation – and the removal of Westwick from the series

Bill Nighy and Anna Chancellor, Ordeal by Innocence (BBC, EH)

On 7 November last year, the BBC’s Twitter feed released a picture of Ed Westwick, star of Gossip Girl and White Gold, alongside Poldark’s Eleanor Tomlinson to publicise their appearance in an upcoming adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1958 novel Ordeal by Innocence. Westwick, Tomlinson and a cast including Bill Nighy, Anna Chancellor and Alice Eve had spent the summer of 2017 filming the three-part drama in which the aristocratic Argyll family is shaken by allegations against one of its members. It was expected to be a centrepiece of the BBC schedule last Christmas.

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On 9 November, Westwick put up a tweet that has since been deleted: “It is disheartening and sad to me that as a result of two unverified and provably untrue social media claims, there are some in this environment who could ever conclude that I have had anything to do with such vile and horrific conduct. I have absolutely not, and I am cooperating with the authorities so that they can clear my name as soon as possible.”

The 30-year-old actor had been accused by two women of historical sexual assaults. (Allegations by two other women followed, in mid-November and earlier this month, to which neither the actor nor his representatives have yet publicly responded.)

None of these alleged incidents related to the making of the Christie drama but, after the first two complaints, the BBC issued a statement on 10 November: “These are serious allegations which Ed Westwick has strenuously denied. The BBC is not making any judgement but until these matters are resolved we will not include Ordeal by Innocence in the schedules.”

Someone close to the events says that the decision to pull the show was made by Charlotte Moore, the broadcaster’s director of content. Lord Hall of Birkenhead, the BBC director-general, was “updated on what was happening”, but “it was Charlotte’s call, as she runs the channels”.

Moore solved an immediate problem by replacing the Christie drama, in the prestigious Boxing Day slot, with an adaptation of Jessie Burton’s novel The Miniaturist. But this left the bigger issue of when and if Ordeal by Innocence could be shown. If, for example, an MP is suspended after complaints, Parliament still carries on while the legal process takes its course, but if an actor’s work is withdrawn, that has an impact on a lot of other careers.

“Hundreds and hundreds of people’s work would just have gone,” says Sandra Goldbacher, director of Ordeal by Innocence, “or been indefinitely delayed. Which would have been devastating to everyone.”

It was one of several projects affected by a wave of accusations against industry figures that followed multiple allegations, beginning last October, against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein (who denies non-consensual sex) and actor Kevin Spacey, who’s rejected some of the allegations of sexual assault made against him.

These cases left a number of stalled or orphaned projects that were dealt with in various ways. Gore, Spacey’s biopic about the American author Gore Vidal, was cancelled by Netflix, who also had season six of House of Cards rewritten to excise Spacey’s President Francis Underwood.

Most dramatically, Ridley Scott removed Spacey from the film All the Money in the World, in which he played oil tycoon J Paul Getty, and, in the space of a month, reshot the affected scenes with Christopher Plummer, re-edited the film and still met its original mid-December release date.

This appeared to be the model that Mammoth Screen, the independent production company that made Ordeal by Innocence, followed when it released the statement: “Whilst the allegations against Ed Westwick remain under investigation – allegations that he strenuously denies – the producers of Ordeal by Innocence have decided to reshoot parts of the series with another actor.”

Westwick's replacement, Christian Cooke can be seen alongside Morven Christie (as Kirsten Lindstrom), Crystal Clarke (Tina Argyll), Ella Purnell (Hester Argyll) and Poldark’s Eleanor Tomlinson (Mary Durrant)
Westwick’s replacement, Christian Cooke can be seen alongside Morven Christie (as Kirsten Lindstrom), Crystal Clarke (Tina Argyll), Ella Purnell (Hester Argyll) and Poldark’s Eleanor Tomlinson (Mary Durrant)

Westwick’s replacement, in the role of aristocrat Mickey Argyll, is Christian Cooke, who, in January and February, spent 12 days reshooting 35 scenes. Producer Damien Timmer acknowledges that the decision to reshoot was “mired in sadness” because of the circumstances. Had Ridley Scott given them the idea of how such a process might be achieved? Timmer sounds anguished: “Ah, no. Well, I’d be unhappy with the idea that Ridley set a moral example and then…” He tails off.

When it’s clarified that the question was whether the urgent turnaround of the Getty film set a technical example, Sandra Goldbacher is happy to answer: “I felt encouraged by Ridley Scott having done it. It was like a sort of talisman for us all: he’s done it, so we can do it.”

“Yes, Sandra’s word ‘talisman’ is better than my ill-tempered response,” adds Timmer. “It was useful to know someone else had managed it.”

Goldbacher says that she was given “the money to do it really properly”, but neither the BBC nor Mammoth Screen, citing corporate policy, will go on the record about what the reshoot budget was, or whether any of it could be reclaimed through insurance. “I think it was daunting, initially,” says Goldbacher, “but then really quite exciting. There was a Dunkirk, show-must-go-on atmosphere.”

Luke Treadaway, Anna Chancellor, Bill Nighy and Morven Christie in Ordeal by Innocence (BBC)
Luke Treadaway, Anna Chancellor, Bill Nighy and Morven Christie in Ordeal by Innocence (BBC)

It may have helped that many of the cast have experience in theatre, where it’s relatively common for an actor to leave a production suddenly – due to disagreement with a director, illness, or even death – and for the cast to carry on with an understudy.

One person involved with the production told me: “I know of theatre plays where an actor has died during the run. And the atmosphere during the reshoot made me think of that: a feeling of shock but also solidarity among those who remained, and sympathy for the actor stepping in.”

There was, inevitably, a Groundhog Day element to the experience: the actors returned in January of this year to the same Glasgow hotel from which they’d checked out in August.

In the case of All the Money in the World, one actress was unavailable for the new filming dates and so vanished from the movie. With Ordeal by Innocence, though, Cooke worked with exactly the cast and crew that had previously filmed with Westwick. However, rescheduling their emergency retakes was, Timmer admits, “very complicated as we had cast very good – and therefore very busy – actors”.

Ed Westwick (Getty, EH)
Ed Westwick (Getty)

Anthony Boyle, who was rehearsing in New York for the Broadway opening of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, flew in for a couple of days, and Matthew Goode was able to offer a “12-hour window” during filming for another project. “He didn’t sleep,” says Goldbacher. Mammoth also makes BBC1’s Poldark, which meant that Timmer saw rather a lot of Eleanor Tomlinson: “She had gone straight from Ordeal by Innocence to Poldark, and then, the day she finished Poldark, went back to do Ordeal by Innocence again,” says Timmer.

Logistical disaster struck only once when Alice Eve, flying in from North America, was found to have a problem with her immigration papers at the departure gate. The loss of Eve was solved by technical ingenuity. “We used split screens in the way you would if the same actor is playing twins in a film,” explains Goldbacher. “We merged Alice’s performance from the first version into the new scenes we shot.”

As a precaution, the director had her editors, who usually start work after shooting, in an on-set editing suite, where they checked that footage from both versions could be married.

The story of Ordeal by Innocence moves between the hottest and coldest seasons. The original filming took place during the summer, but the reshoot was in winter, with the consequence, says Timmer, that “the technical challenges were reversed. This time, we had the snow, not the sun.”

“The biggest problem was having to cut out icy breath from scenes that were supposed to be taking place in the middle of August,” says Goldbacher. “But night-shooting becomes easier because it’s dark by 3 or 4pm. So it was swings and roundabouts, really.”

Bill Nighy and Anna Chancellor, Ordeal by Innocence (BBC, EH)
Bill Nighy and Anna Chancellor, Ordeal by Innocence (BBC)

The team were able to re-use the original location, again dressed to look like the 1950s, but which, between the two shoots, had returned to being a 21st-century private home. “Luckily,” says Goldbacher, “the owner of the house kept quite a lot of the things our designer had done. We’d painted the whole house and put in new carpet, which thankfully they’d liked. Otherwise, it would have taken ages to repaint it all again.”

Costumes and props had to be flown back from Rome and Paris, where they were being used on other movie sets: “There was a fur coat that we’d borrowed. And so we had to track down the owner and borrow it back for Anna Chancellor.”

Did Goldbacher notice that some of the reconvened actors were giving different performances the second time around? “Yes. The scenes were different because Christian played it differently [from Westwick]. I don’t want to make comparisons between the actors, though.”

The elegant formula used by Ridley Scott, however, was that he was very happy with the work of both Spacey and Plummer but intrigued by how differently they approached the same material. “Yes. I’d say the same,” says Goldbacher. “It is interesting because you wouldn’t normally get to see that on a film.”

“Both performances had weight and integrity,” agrees Timmer, “but they were very different, which was one of the fascinating things about doing this.”

Eleanor Tomlinson, Ordeal By Innocence (BBC, EH)
Eleanor Tomlinson, Ordeal By Innocence (BBC)

The cases of Ordeal by Innocence and All the Money in the World (and other projects that were unable to reshoot) have caused panic in the screen business because – unless a film were entirely cast and crewed from lifelong celibate hermits – there’s always a risk of someone being accused of something.

I asked Timmer if there is anything producers can do to cover against such thunderbolts. “I think ‘thunderbolts’ is the word. But every era throws up new challenges that impact on filming. You might always have shot a series in a location that suddenly becomes a terrorist zone. The industry adapts and finds ways of working around whatever the issue is at the time.”

Insurance costs are expected to rise, and there is also talk of “morality clauses” being added into future contracts, effectively asking performers to guarantee that no claims will be made.

But a well-known actor who spoke to me on condition of anonymity said: “It’s not at all clear to us how that would work. How can anyone give a guarantee that they could never be accused of something from the past? The issue for actors is how you can hope to defend yourself if allegations – before they are tested and proven – are enough to have you removed from a project.”

One consequence of the Weinstein events is an unexpected sub-genre of unseen performances: Spacey’s Getty in All the Money in the World, Westwick’s Mickey Argyll in Ordeal by Innocence. “Yes. I suppose it’s in a vault somewhere,” says Timmer of Westwick’s erased portrayal.

Perhaps one day these performances will be made available, either as DVD extras or as alternative releases. But that will depend on the outcome of the ordeals of the accusers and the accused.

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This article was originally published in the 24-30 March 2018 issue of Radio Times magazine