Ordinary Lies writer Danny Brocklehurst: I wanted to make Beth’s decision “really, really hard”

The man behind the compelling BBC drama talks to Kasia Delgado about re-writing the final episode, Jo Joyner's performance and what he'd do with a second series. Contains spoilers!

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The final episode of Ordinary Lies was one of the most unbearably tense, yet subtle, dramas I’ve seen in a long time. For five weeks, many viewers have said how gripping, painful and entertaining the series has been, and episode six is no exception. The last instalment centres around Jo Joyner’s character Beth, whose storyline had been gathering pace throughout the series. After months and months of having absolutely no idea where her husband Dave (Shaun Dooley) had disappeared to, or even if he’s alive, he comes back into her life. Yet Beth has tried to move on, and her relationship with Mike (Max Beesley) is happy, even blissful. 

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We’d all suspected that Dave would return, because things were starting to go too well for Beth, and Shaun Dooley would have been too talented an actor to waste on an absent character. Yet when it actually happens, Beth’s reunion with her long-lost husband, now a stranger, is seriously powerful stuff. Like Beth, I was left desperately wondering whether to root for the kind, exciting Mike, or the broken, hopeful father of her children.

So RadioTimes.com spoke to the show’s Bafta-winning screenwriter, Danny Brocklehurst, to get some answers to our burning questions about the final episode, and secrets from behind the scenes of Ordinary Lies…

Danny, the final episode was really heart-wrenching and incredibly tense. Why did you round off with Beth’s story? 

It always felt like the natural way to end it, as it’s been the spine of the show. I was going to write it as a more joint episode between Mike and Beth, so we both kind of split the focus and saw a lot more of what was going on in his house.

In fact, I did a whole draft of writing it like that. But in the end we felt that actually we just wanted to be with Jo Joyner’s character, so unusually, because none of the other characters I’d done this for, I did a complete rewrite of it and basically started again and just wrote it all about Beth. Obviously Mike features but I think we just wanted to go on that journey with Jo Joyner’s character. About twenty minutes of the episode is completely out of the show room and just on the road with her. 

Watching the episode, I felt like we were put in her position, and  that it was really easy to imagine her nightmarish situation. You want it to work out with Mike so much, but there’s also that sense of history and duty with Dave. Did you deliberately write it so that we didn’t know who to root for?

Well, I suppose that because you’ve seen her with Max’s character for six episodes there was always the danger that you’d want her to be with Mike, so the challenge of it was— and whether or not we’ve achieved that I don’t know—  to make it as balanced as possible and go “look, this is the father of your kids and he’s had some sort of break down. He’s kind of the same man but this terrible thing has happened to him.” Just to make it really, really hard.

I’ve done a lot of research about missing people and it’s a very difficult area for people, especially when they try to move on with their lives. Because there’s no closure, and then when people do come back or are discovered, it’s a massive head screw for them. They sort of buried them, in a weird sort of way. So I wanted to understand how Beth would deal with it.

And that moment when she does confront him felt very raw and unpolished, it felt utterly real. Is that what you intended?

That’s a testament to the director and to the actors because they had to pull that off, but as I was writing it I tried to make it as real as possible based on how I felt that character [Beth] would feel. You write it and you hope it’ll be a powerful scene. Shaun is great in that scene, he looks wounded. I think Juliet May, the director, did a good job of making that moment real. Because it’s a hard moment to pull off. Essentially, those two actors just did a cracking job.

When you watched that scene, were you taken aback by how powerful it is?

It’s funny because you go through a process with this stuff, I see rushes and I get to see the mechanics. But when I actually saw the first cut I thought it was incredibly powerful. I thought the whole episode was powerful, because I think the strength of Jo’s performance carries you along on this journey to that big scene with her and Shaun Dooley at the end, where he’s saying “I love you,” and you’re going, “Oh God, this guy’s broken.”

If there were to be second series, would that story continue or would there be a whole new cast?

Well firstly, there’d better be a second series! From the figures I’ve seen, I think we deserve one, and the reaction from the public’s been amazing. But first they [the BBC] sort of get you to develop an idea of where the second series would go, so at the moment the idea is that we would continue telling a story that heavily involves Mike and Beth, and would keep some of the regulars from the series.

But we’d want to inject some new characters in it to give you somewhere to go with new stories and secrets. Some of the people who’ve been in the background could come to the fore. Fat Jase could get his own story, for example. If you’ve got actors like Max [Beesley] and Jo [Joyner] and Sally [Lindsay] you want to give them good stuff to do, but you also need to bring some new life into it.

You tackled some major issues from unusual angles, like Jase’s domestic abuse being perpetrated by a woman, and the missing person who returns and he’s not entirely wanted. You don’t often see that on TV it’s usually a man being abusive, and then a missing person returning to open arms.  Have you always wanted to show all types of human struggle?

Oh God, yeah. Without sounding too silly about it, I try to take the difficult subjects and make them understandable. I mean, the episode in which Rick [Shazad Latif] had a fling, or whatever you want to call it, with an underage girl massively divided people. Some people were just outraged with me. And then other people can completely understand how it’s happened. Others said ‘”this sort of thing has happened to me” or “I know someone who it’s happened to.”

Those kind of episodes are perversely quite satisfying. You know you’re dividing and challenging people. I think that’s what drama has kind of got a duty to do, not every week, but from time to time. And also, the first episode where Marty pretends his wife is dead; People didn’t know whether to laugh, whether it was funny or sick. I quite like those episodes because you’re trying to do something different, and gets it talked about, which is no bad thing. A lot of TV can come across as samey and quite bland.

How did you come to the idea of writing a drama of interwoven, yet separate, stories? 

It’s quite difficult to pull off actually, because what you find as you go through the series is that you’re dragging quite a lot of baggage with you. For example the Michelle Keegan episode [in which receptionist Tracy gets caught up in drug trafficking on a girls’ holiday], I sort of wish we’d had a bit more space to deal with the consequences of that in subsequent episodes.  So you’re forever trying to give a big brand new story but also set things up for future episodes and trying to bring things in from previous episodes. It’s a balancing act, and whether we got it right or wrong, I don’t know. Maybe it’s something we could perfect if we go again, but the ambition was always to tell a load of big stories and make it as rich and full as possible.

There are so many period and crime dramas on at the moment, do you think this was a particularly important time to write something about ordinary people now?

I am no lover of period drama, I just think there’s too much of it on TV and quite a lot of it I find is just escapism— and there’s nothing wrong with escapism but it’s not for me. I would never write that kind of stuff. So there’s that, but in terms of crime, I completely understand why crime dominates the schedules, and I’ve just written a crime show for Sky. And there is crime in Ordinary Lies too.

But when I went into speak to Charlotte Moore [controller of BBC1] about this show, I basically pitched that nobody would die in six hours of television, because I wanted to write a show that, though it’s dramatic,  would be about people’s lives, work, their family, love lives. My ambition was to try and get the drama from the extraordinary things that happen to ordinary people, because most of us are not involved in murders.

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I know people have said the lies in this series aren’t ordinary, but that was always was the point! These are the almost unbelievable moments in normal people’s lives. I just felt that at least one show could slightly redress the balance there and not be about crime, murder and death. I’m really proud of the fact that we’ve done that.