Emer Kenny: "I definitely had to learn to assert myself"
The writer and executive producer of ITV's Karen Pirie reveals how she and the show's title character have been on parallel journeys.
Since making her screenwriting debut on EastEnders' online spin-off E20, Emer Kenny has penned episodes of Irish crime drama Red Rock, the punchy period drama Harlots and award-winning Sky series Save Me. It was by way of that last commission that she came to take on her latest, most ambitious and most personal project to date: an adaptation of Val McDermid's crime novels featuring young, fearless Scottish investigator Karen Pirie.
"It's been such hard work," Kenny tells RadioTimes.com. "It's been a real mountain to climb for the past four years."
She serves as both writer and executive producer on ITV's Karen Pirie, having previously worked with production company World Productions on the second season of Save Me. Kenny credits Lennie James, the creative force behind that series, as her biggest inspiration when it came to tackling the role of showrunner.
"Lennie James... I think he's a genius, but the way that he led that show... he had such clarity of vision, he knew that the buck stopped with him, always, with the story and the tone, and he always had an answer to what the show should be.
"He was amazingly collaborative, he would take on ideas, he would listen to everything, but he always knew what the show was. Being a lead writer and executive producer is a very different experience to writing on someone else's show, because the buck stops with you. I really held Lennie up as a kind of inspiration, because I knew that I was going to have to have those answers for everybody.
"I also knew that it was really important for me to be across every single creative element right from the beginning, right to the end, because when you have that central voice, a show feels really cohesive and clear. All of my favourite shows have a real sense of identity in what they're trying to say and I think that just feels more identifiable if it's through one person's view.
"I really wanted to be that for this show, so I was really in the weeds with this: with the casting, I was on set every single day, all the way up to the trailers and the poster. I've wanted to be across every single thing.
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"Obviously, I'm collaborative, and obviously, you have amazing people who come in and work with you and they have amazing talents, but you just need someone to keep their eye across everything and that's what I learnt from Lennie, I think."
Kenny has adapted McDermid's first book to feature Karen Pirie, 2003's The Distant Echo, into three two-hour episodes. The end result is, she says, "really different to the book" – not least because the character of Pirie only appears towards the climax of the novel. "Karen is only in, I think, about 20 pages of a 600 page book, she comes in at the end and she's quite instrumental, but she's not the protagonist in any way. But then Val takes her through the rest of books on a bigger journey."
The TV version also updates the book's timeline – the story follows both the events that led to the murder of a barmaid, Rosie Duff, and Karen's cold case investigation three decades later, with the novel's two timelines of the 1970s and the early 2000s shifting to the 1990s and 2022. Otherwise, though, Kenny has kept what she felt was "really essential about the story": the two timelines, the central character of Karen, a few other regular characters, and a gang of university students who find themselves the chief suspects.
"Those were the core things that I wanted to stay true to from Val. But then I kind of just threw everything up and went, 'Right, now I've got to write a TV show' – because most of the people coming to a TV show haven't read the book, so you have to make sure it fits in the TV landscape as its own unique thing.
"I both stayed quite true and loyal to what the book's about but also let the rest fall away and then brought a lot of myself to it after that – and Val was really cool with that, which was great."
One of Kenny's innovations was to have the police's renewed interest in the Rosie Duff case be sparked by an amateur investigation conducted by a true crime podcast – a phenomenon that hadn't taken off when McDermid wrote her story almost 20 years ago.
"I was really worried about it being another 'dead girl show', because we see a lot of murdered women on screen," Kenny admits. "I wanted a way to comment on that and become quite meta with it – so I could have the podcast commenting on the case, I could have Karen commenting on the podcast, and it's just ways for me to layer up the discourse around what we're showing and what we're doing and the issues that are at play."
Playing the title character in Karen Pirie is Lauren Lyle, a 29-year-old Scottish actress best known for roles in Starz drama Outlander and another BBC/World Productions collaboration, Vigil. "We thought it was going to be quite hard to cast because Karen is quite young – she's in her twenties – and we were going to have to find quite a few different qualities to really nail her," Kenny (who also appears in the drama as Karen's friend River) recalls.
"It was being able to do the massive emotional beats – particularly when you get to episode 3, Karen really empathises with some of the central characters and [Lauren's] ability to turn the waterworks on, to just show her all that emotion in her eyes... she's just got it. But then also to be able to do the comedy and do the wit and do the banter and bring that attitude to her... to do those two things, and do them so well, I think is quite rare in any actor."
The part also required another tricky combination – a screen presence that was both down-to-earth ("like you could totally walk past them in the street") and yet with "a kind of strength and magnetism that means you want to watch them on screen".
"Lauren's really, really got that," Kenny insists. "She can totally up the wattage and go on a red carpet and look amazing, but she's completely happy to bring it all the way back and look quite tomboyish and vanity-free and a little bit unfashionable. She's really prepared to do that.
"But I have to say the magic was when I heard her read. We talk a lot about chemistry between actors, but chemistry between writers and actors I think is just as important. My writing and her voice, the rhythm of it, just it was like, 'Ah, she gets it. We get each other.' And from then on, I couldn't write without hearing her voice."
Taking Karen Pirie from the novel to script to screen has been "a learning experience", Kenny says – and it hasn't escaped her notice that her own experiences mirror what Pirie undergoes on-screen, with the young investigator frequently underestimated by her male colleagues.
"As a young woman, you're taught to be nice and sweet and I definitely had to learn to assert myself and be quite direct and confident. That goes against everything you instinctively feel you should be as a young woman in a room. That's been huge for me – and it's been interesting to be doing that on a show that is about a young woman proving herself and showing people who she is. It all became quite meta for me and quite personal."
The most important lesson she's learnt? "Collaborate and be open to other people's talents and skills, but also be really confident, clear and direct in who you are and what you want to do.
"I think my biggest surprise was I really know what I'm doing. I think for a long time, I've been sort of thinking, 'What do I know?' and I got here and I was like, 'I've been doing this for 15 years and, actually, I do know how to tell a story!' I just have to tell people that, and now I feel like I have, and I'm there. It is quite surprising how long it can take you, though, personally, to get to that point."
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