Doctor Foster feels like a very contemporary story but, after two successful series, writer Mike Bartlett feels ready to reveal that the plotline is almost 2,500 years old.
Gemma Foster was originally conceived as a contemporary version of the title character in Medea, a Greek tragedy first produced in 431 BC. Bartlett had adapted the play by Euripides (about a wife who seeks violent revenge for her husband’s infidelity) for a theatre production in 2012, which seeded the idea for a TV modernisation.
“In the original pitch, I never actually said, ‘We’re going to do Medea at 9pm on BBC1,’ ” says Bartlett, “because it probably wouldn’t have gone down very well. But that idea was always behind it.”
That ambition is the reason that the two series of Doctor Foster each have five episodes (echoing the five acts of classical drama) rather than the four or six more normal in TV fiction.
For the second series, Bartlett also had a more recent, cinematic model: “I was thinking of a western: Gemma and Simon facing off at high noon in the main street of a town that isn’t big enough for both of them.”
Despite drawing on old forms of storytelling, Bartlett aimed to update the ideology: “I wanted to take some of those misogynist ideas about mad women and witches, and hopefully subvert them. I get upset when people describe Gemma as mad. I don’t think she is; she’s just very angry. If it was a man behaving like that, you wouldn’t say he was mad. You’d say he was fighting back.”
Bartlett says series two was easier to write because he knew what Bertie Carvel and Suranne Jones could bring to each scene, while the extraordinary performance of Tom Taylor as the couple’s troubled son in the first run encouraged Bartlett to give him a more pivotal storyline this time.
“Yes. That reflects the fact that we lucked out with Tom: he’s going to become a global star. You could see that, so it would have been foolish not to give him more to do this time.”
Those familiar with Medea will note that the heroine of that play kills her children, but surely Doctor Foster won’t take its Greek parallels that far? Bartlett apologises that he can’t say anything about the plot of the final episode, or a possible third season: “Depending on what happens at the end of series two, a third might not be possible. That’s all I can say really.”