The Outcast author Sadie Jones on the genesis of her unsettling BBC1 drama

Kirsty Lang learns that the bestselling writer originally intended her 1950s Oedipal tale for the screen

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There’s a wonderful serendipity about Sadie Jones’s novel The Outcast being adapted for BBC1. She originally wrote it as a screenplay and only turned it into a book after failing to get it made.

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The novel went on to become a bestseller and win the Costa First Novel Award as well as a place on the Orange Prize shortlist.

Nearly ten years later, her postwar tale about a damaged boy is finally going to make it onto the screen. 

“I wrote the book in secret just to stop myself going insane,” says Jones. “My script was stuck in development hell. I needed something to keep me busy and the story of Lewis’s childhood kept unfolding in my mind.”

Jones sees The Outcast as an Oedipal tale. Lewis is ten years old when his beloved and free-spirited mother dies in an accident. The only love Lewis has ever known was from his mother, played by Hattie Morahan, who we see frequently in flashbacks.

His subsequent relationships with women are coloured by that. He wants to be loved and they want to save him. When his father remarries the young, fragile Alice (Jessica Brown Findlay of Downton Abbey and Jamaica Inn) she is ill equipped to deal with her damaged stepson.

Jones was 40 by the time her debut novel was published. She had spent 15 years trying unsuccessfully to become a screenwriter. Although happily married and living in west London with two children, professionally she was deeply frustrated. The daughter of a poet and an actress, she had always known that she wanted to write.

As luck would have it, her original script for The Outcast was in development with a producer called Caroline Wood, who gave up film to become a literary agent. “She called me to say she was leaving the film industry but had I ever
thought of writing this as a book? I said,‘Yes, and I’ve just finished it.’”

Wood became Jones’s agent and sold the novel very quickly, having spent almost two years trying to get it off the ground as a film.

The Outcast is a coming-of-age story set in postwar Surrey. It’s stockbroker country, a world in which men in pinstriped suits commute to London during the week while the women stay at home, look pretty and plan the occasional cocktail party. Children – when they’re not at boarding school – should be seen but not heard.

So Lewis, played by George MacKay, unable to deal with the pain of his mother’s death, has a breakdown in his teens and starts to self-harm. He lives with his buttoned-up father (played by Greg Wise), a man he barely knows because he was away for years fighting in the war.

His father is also grief stricken, but has no idea how to comfort his son – and nor does anyone else. In the stultifying world of the 1950s Home Counties, nobody knows how to address Lewis’s problems except by punishing him. 

I should confess an interest in The Outcast because I was a judge on the Orange Prize for Fiction [now the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction] in 2008, the year it was shortlisted. 

All of us were struck by her acute portrayal of small-town hypocrisy, but also how she managed to create an attractive hero in Lewis, even though he was an outcast.

Jones has also written the screenplay for the two-part BBC1 drama. When I ask her whether she would have allowed another writer to adapt it, she says an emphatic no. “With this particular story it would have been unthinkable.”

“I wanted to write about somebody in a group who everyone turns away from, in the way animals turn away from an injured member of the herd. I’d like to think that if my children brought home somebody who was messed up, I’d look after them, but generally people think, ‘I don’t want that child near my own.’

“It’s a horrible, base, animal response but it happens, particularly with boys. We’re scared of boys, we’re particularly scared of damaged boys and we’re scared of grief.”

In the 1950s there would have very little help for a child like Lewis. “It was just after the war and the entire nation was suffering from collective post-traumatic stress disorder. People closed the door on their emotions and the older generation were trying to pass on this emotional lock- down to their children.”

The novelist’s own parents were products of a 50s childhood. “I find that era fascinating,” she explains, “because it was sandwiched between the cataclysm of the war and the explosion of freedom in the 1960s. It was ten years when British society held its breath.” 

Was Jones socially isolated as a teenager? “I hated school; I thought I was a depressive until I left and realised there was a big wide world beyond.”

So did she have a particular interest in mental health? “No, it was only after I finished it that I realised I had written a book full of issues. That wasn’t my intention.”

Without giving too much of the plot away, there is a scene in which the village church burns down. For Jones, this was the highlight of the shoot. She’s a reserved, softly spoken woman but when she describes this she lights up.

“It was so thrilling! They had these amazing special effects guys with gas jets. We brought in our own pews and just set fire to them inside the actual church! I kept thinking someone in the village was going to come and say, ‘What the hell are you doing?!’ It felt like the naughtiest thing.”

The shoot took place at night, and as flames started to flicker, people poured out of the pub at closing time. Two slightly tipsy Americans asked the crew what they were shooting; after a brief explanation of the plot they tottered off.

As they walked past Jones, one turned to the other and said: “What was it called again?”

“I don’t know,” came the reply. “Nigel burns down the motherf ****n’ church?”

“That had us in stitches for the rest of the shoot,” says Jones. “‘Nigel the Mofo’ became our working title.” I’m not sure the inhabitants of her fictional 1950s village would approve. 

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The Outcast begins tonight (Sunday 12th July) at 9pm on BBC1