Only an idiot would say there is no God,” says Noah in Tony Jordan’s 90-minute drama The Ark, and the writer, a former market trader, is clearly no idiot.
Jordan may have left school at 15 with no qualifications, and not written anything until he was 35, but in the past 20 years he has been responsible for some of the BBC’s greatest hits, including EastEnders, for which he has written over 250 episodes, the con-artist series Hustle and the time-travelling police drama Life on Mars. He must be quite an actor as well, because when he went for the EastEnders job he pretended to be a Londoner, scared that a lad from Southport would not be thought suitable for Albert Square.
Jordan is at one with Noah about God, and believes that the Old Testament patriarch did exist. “I can’t start from any other place,” he says, although, he admits, “I struggle to decide what sort of Christian I really am.”
So how did he pitch The Ark to the BBC? “I told them this is not Peppa Pig, it’s not about animals, but this is religion that will work in primetime.” It was a tough sell, and it took the writer over three years to raise the £2 million budget, but Jordan has form when it comes to putting on successful Biblical drama. The Nativity, starring Andrew Buchan and Peter Capaldi, was shown to great acclaim on BBC1 in 2010. His starting point there was to imagine a father coming into his local pub and saying, “My teenage daughter is pregnant and she won’t say who the father is”.
With The Ark he knew he had to capture the audience in the first five minutes and couldn’t have “some white-bearded old man speaking down to them, like Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments”. So his Biblical shipbuilder can handle himself in a punch-up and seems to have a better (monogamous) sex life than any of his grown-up sons. The script also has plenty of modern-day allusions to “the rich getting richer, and the poorer falling further and further into debt”, and to “men who defile children”.
“You have to believe in and care for Noah and his family so that’s what I try to make the audience do in the first few minutes,” he says. “My story is about making a choice. In Noah’s case, about whether to believe in and to obey God. And for his family, whether to obey their father, even though they think he could be off his head. That’s the heart of it.”
The drama was shot in Morocco in just three weeks. There were no real problems, but the set was swept each morning for snakes and scorpions. Shortly before going into preproduction, however, Jordan learnt that Hollywood was making its own version of the Flood story – Noah, starring Russell Crowe, Emma Watson, Ray Winstone and Anthony Hopkins, with a budget of $125 million.
Though successful in the United States and places like Russia, Brazil and South Korea, the movie didn’t make much impact here. And while Noah’s budget allowed for lots of effects The Ark’s didn’t, and Jordan, as writer and producer, had to find solutions to the problem of “the animals marching in two by two” and the flood.
Key to the success of The Ark are the actors David Threlfall and Joanne Whalley, who play Noah and his wife Emmie. Jordan says Threlfall, one of his “top five actors”, and the star of Channel 4’s long-running Shameless, is known to be very choosy about his roles and for his complete dedication to ones he does play. The writer says he was “blown away” by Threlfall’s performance as Tommy Cooper in last year’s BBC4 biopic Not Like That, Like This, and was desperate to get him on board. They had one meeting about the role and the next day the actor sent him a five-page document with suggestions for how it should be played. Jordan says, with a smile, that he “took them on board”.