Why The Outcast is no ordinary period drama

Its cast may include stars of Downton Abbey and Sense and Sensibility, but the BBC's new Sunday-night drama has a dark side

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You’d be forgiven for assuming that The Outcast is just another Sunday-night period drama. Set in an aesthetically pleasing and sunny version of the past, full of rolling lawns, huge country houses and genteel drinks parties, it’s as familiar as Highclere Castle.

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It even has period royalty on side in the form of Jessica Brown-Findlay, who played youngest Grantham daughter Sybil in three series of Downton Abbey and here plays young housewife Alice Aldridge. 

But when RadioTimes.com sat down to talk to the cast on set, it soon became clear that The Outcast is actually something a bit different. Take Nathanial Parker’s opening gambit: “I was just taking the blood off my knuckles in makeup. How often do you get the chance to punch your teenage daughter in the face?”

Adapted by Sadie Jones from her bestselling novel of the same name (which began life as a screenplay in the first place), two-part drama The Outcast follows the fortunes of Lewis Aldridge (Pride’s George MacKay), a young boy growing up in the 1940s and 50s who is rocked by a terrible tragedy that his suburban community meets with stony indifference.

Adrift from his emotionally absent father Gilbert (Greg Wise) and immature stepmother Alice (Brown-Findlay), Lewis begins to unravel, turning his anger inward. As time goes on, he even turns to self-harm in scenes that are bound to be the biggest talking points of the two-parter and are brilliantly (if appropriately grimly) presented.

“It’s funny because what it wakes you up to was that you think this is a modern issue, but it’s not!” Brown-Findlay tells us. “People have always been that way, struggled. It’s not a new concept. It’s just newly spoken about, and accepted. There are places you can go for real, brilliant help, rather than being told to shut up and deny it – go to prison for it. No it’s not the way to help anything.”

Other extremely dark moments in the drama include the terrible fate that awaits Lewis’ mother (a brilliant performance by Hattie Morahan that’s enough to leave the audience traumatised, let alone her young son), and the aforementioned physical abuse inflicted by Nathaniel Parker’s wealthy pillar of the community on his wife and children.

“Particularly at this time, in the 50s, where have they got to go?” Parker says of the damage inflicted by his character Dicky on the women in his life. “They didn’t have their own cheque books, did they get out? Did they make a scene? People think it happens just with the working class – no, it’s not true.”

“I can’t think of a period drama off the top of my head that explicitly [deals with] that theme of self-harming,” lead actor MacKay says.

“I think repression is the theme that’s looked at a lot, but the outlets for repression in this are kind of – this is quite unique.”

Not that The Outcast is completely without the usual period charm. In terms of the costumes, cars and other visual details, it’s wonderfully rich and all shot beautifully in the summer sun to highlight the idyllic facade of the characters’ lives (in contrast to their inner darkness). And no matter how much it deals with more intense themes than we’re used to from the genre, it still performs as any good period drama should – to tell us something about our own lives in the present day through the prism of the past.

“Within this world, and I think probably it’s still the case now, we all want to feel part of a tribe,” says Greg Wise, unrecognisable from his days as a Sense and Sensibility heart-throb in the guise of the grey-haired, moustached Gilbert (above). “This is about what happens to a tribe when it’s rocked and we start peeling it all apart.”

“You start seeing underneath all these terrible things going on –but on the surface we’re all here in our lovely suits and ties and all cleanly shaven.”

If nothing else, you’ll never look at Lady Sybil in quite the same way after episode two…

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The Outcast begins on BBC 1 tonight (Sunday 12th July) at 9pm, and concludes next week