Doctor Foster writer Mike Bartlett “had to learn how to be a good bully” for ITV workplace drama Sticks and Stones

Mike Bartlett, the writer behind Press, Doctor Foster and King Charles III, has turned his attention to the subtle machinations of workplace bullying — and why we still find torment "funny"

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Mike Bartlett is a writer with a track record of unpicking universal experiences; he made his name in television with the acclaimed water-cooler drama Doctor Foster, starring Suranne Jones as a woman who fears her husband is having an affair.

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While he claims “everyone has had some experience with infidelity,” his next television series, Sticks and Stones, zeroes in on perhaps an even more common life experience: bullying.

The three-part psychological drama follows Thomas (Ken Nwosu), a hardworking businessman who freezes during a crucial team pitch and instantly loses the respect of his colleagues, several of whom begin a subtle campaign against him. 

Speaking exclusively to RadioTimes.com, Bartlett, who says that as a child he had a “pretty horrible” experience of bullying, admits that he saw himself in Thomas, but that he sees himself “in all the characters” he writes: “That’s really important, so you know, in order to write this one has to learn how to be a good bully.”

The bullying that Thomas encounters is, at first, low-level — he returns to his desk to find increasing numbers of Post-its stuck on his belongings; for example, “This is a stapler”. Asked about the Post-its (which soon cover Thomas’ desk), Bartlett reveals that he included them as a way to interrogate “the tension between something that is funny, it is funny, but it is also torment”. 

“That’s what the show is trying to get at,” he continues, “why do people find that funny… that we find torment enjoyable, even in reality — Jeremy Kyle, Weakest Link —these shows keep coming up, that we like seeing people suffer. Why is that? That’s what the show’s exploring.”

The series is partly based on Bartlett’s previous play, Bull, which starred Susannah Fielding (she reprises her onstage role in Sticks and Stones) and also dealt with workplace bullying. “Certainly workplace power dynamics [are] happening all the time, and people suffer in the workplace, they really do,” he says.

Doctor Foster's Mike Bartlett, Suranne Jones, Bertie Carvel and Tom Taylor (Getty, TL)
Doctor Foster’s Mike Bartlett, Suranne Jones, Bertie Carvel and Tom Taylor (Getty)

Bull is this discussion of what profit-making, what capitalism does to humanity, and does to people, that you are giving your time in exchange for some money, but they are taking a profit from your time, and they want you to be as efficient as possible — they don’t want you really to eat or go to the loo or fall in love or have a family,” Bartlett explains. “Ultimately the company doesn’t want any of that, they want you to be a function. And I’ve always be fascinated as a dramatist between well, what’s the end game of that? I’ve always thought that the end game of that, if you want people to [be] a function not a person, is facism. And I find that way of seeing companies and business really interesting.”

In the series, Thomas becomes increasingly paranoid, eventually lashing out. “I think it’s a sort of madness maybe [that Thomas experiences] but it’s one that any of us could experience if the right buttons were pressed, if we were treated in the right way,” Bartlett says.

“It’s scary, and we’ve all got something that could click and make us seem like we’re crazy, and indeed make us depressed or make us have to stop work, and so I don’t think that’s unusual, we’re all vulnerable to that,” he continues. “If put in the right situation, we could all lose it.”

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The three-part series Sticks and Stones will begin on Monday 16th December at 9pm on ITV and will air daily over three nights.