Hollington Drive creator Sophie Petzal: “There’s an appetite for stuff that’s just a bit bonkers”

Writer Sophie Petzal talks new ITV drama Hollington Drive, her love for thrillers and why David Tennant should've won a BAFTA for Des.

Hollington Drive

ITV’s latest thriller, Hollington Drive is a star-studded look at the darkness lurking in perfect suburbia. 

The Hollington Drive cast is led by Anna Maxwell Martin and Rachael Stirling, who play a sisters Theresa and Helen. Their co-dependent relationship is put to the test when a child in their seemingly idyllic neighbourhood goes missing – and they might know who was involved.

Emma Cox spoke with Hollington Drive creator Sophie Petzal, who also created Irish crime drama Blood, to learn more about the dark family thriller, awkward comedy and why thrillers are having such a “purple patch”.

Where did the idea for Hollington Drive come from?

On the back of Blood, which was my Channel 5 drama, I got really into writing authentic, personal, family-based stories. I found that that was such a rewarding way to centre a thriller. I also happened at the time to be thinking about sisterhood. I’m a twin and that’s one of the most valuable relationships in my life. I have to caveat that the relationship between my characters Theresa and Helen has got very little, hopefully, to do with the relationship between me and my sister!

But I just felt that brotherhood is seen a lot on TV drama, and it’s seen as sexy and active, but sisterhood is just a description. A woman’s defining relationship on screen is usually a partner, so that’s something I really wanted to write about. Your sibling is the person with whom you probably share the worst things, because that’s the person who is possibly also just a little bit too much like you.

So I came up with an idea about two sisters who live very co-dependent lives, who live very close to one another, who are in one another’s pockets. And then they discover their two children may have been involved in something terrible, and they decide to keep it a secret which leads to an ever-spiralling conspiracy of stress and secrets and lies.

Tell us a little more about Theresa (Anna Maxwell Martin) and Helen (Rachael Sterling).

When we’re with family we fall into our typical hierarchical roles and that’s something I feel is reflected between these two characters. Theresa is very dependent on Helen, even though from the outside it seems that she extensively has her s*** together. She has a very nice life, a very nice house, a very nice partner who takes great care of her, but she is still clinging to her sister and her sister is very comfortable in the role of looking after her. They have such a fixed dynamic of co-dependency that influences the way they act, think, and behave. It’s what pulls them together, but also sort of pulls them apart.

What is it about the family dynamic that you think fits really well with this kind of thriller?

I love thrillers, they’re my favourite dramas, but I’m less interested at the moment in telling police-led thrillers. I love those shows as well, but what really interests me is character-driven drama with very high stakes where seemingly normal people are exposed to something appalling. Seeing what these major explosive events do to us as people, as communities, and asking ourselves what we might do when the worst thing happens to us.

I like stories that have a dilemma at the centre of them, where you are are afraid that you might be involved in something terrible and what you do about that.

Hollington Drive cast
Hollington Drive cast

What’s the terrible event that happens?

All I can say is a child goes missing and Theresa and Helen suspect their children have something to do with it, and they go to certain lengths to try and deal with it. I can’t say much more than that or I’ll get my hand slapped!

Tell me about the casting…

Anna and Rachael have a wonderful chemistry and a wonderful relationship because they’ve worked together before, on The Bletchley Circle. 

We got so lucky. Anna is just one of the most exceptional actors working in the country at the minute and she’s absolutely incredible to work with. And Rachael is is so phenomenal and brings such a weight and gravitas to her work. She’s such an incredible presence and she’s also one of the sweetest, nicest, funniest people.

We’ve also been very lucky with the rest of the cast: we’ve got Jonas Armstrong and Jodie McNee and Peter McDonald and Ken Nwosu and Jim Howick, which is just ridiculous. These are people who should all be leading their own ITV shows. And the kids, we completely lucked out with these brilliant children.

How would you describe the tone? Blood was very foreboding…

I like things to feel quite funny in a weird, uncomfortable way and I’m always conscious of not having people fall into tropes of TV drama thrillers and saying the same things that they all say. I like them to make bizarre choices so I’m hoping that it feels a little heightened. And that’s reflected in the setting as well because they live in quite spectacular kind of surroundings. We’ve got the kitchen island and all of that stuff and the women dress really well. I hope it feels a bit brighter than Blood just because of the nature of the setting but yes, absolutely, I would still want there to be a sense of increasing dread.

All your actors also excel in comedy acting…

I know, and now I’m thinking, “Oh God, we’ve set up this expectation”. But yes, Anna is hilarious. They are all incredible dramatic actors but they are all also very funny. At the read-through or in rehearsals we’d go, “We could definitely do a sitcom, very funny version of this”. But the balance is for us to figure out when this stressed-out woman is quite funny, and where do we want to play it more serious.

Anna herself obviously had very well developed thoughts about the character and how she wanted to play her and Rachael’s really funny.

I think my favourite moments are things that really shouldn’t be funny, but end up just being funny because someone said the wrong thing, or because it’s really awkward. Like, the dog is humping the cushion at the funeral, or there’s a guy blithely talking about paedophiles when a child has gone missing which is so inappropriate.

Thrillers are having such a purple patch at the moment. Do you know why that is?

I have a bit of a thing about how snooty awards are these days, and the fact that David Tennant didn’t get nominated for a BAFTA for Des – he would have done if it was on Netflix. And Whitehouse Farm and things like that should be racking up the awards.

I know for a lot of people true-life crime is a bit tired and “Here we go again” but it gets six million viewers every single time and ITV do it really, really well. Really classy. And I think they’ve grown up with it as well. Whitehouse Farm was so sophisticated and compelling, and incredibly popular.

The ambition with my show is to be sophisticated but it’s also to reach a broad audience, and to compel and grip millions. It’s very easy to get that wrong but I think ITV have been doing it right and are having a really, really good spell.

David Tennant in Des
David Tennant in Des

With ever-more complex plot twists on shows like Line of Duty, do you feel a pressure to ramp up those twists in your work?

I think you probably find the zeitgeist reflected in your own taste. So rather than thinking, “Audience wants this”, I am the audience as well and I’ll put twists in because that’s the stuff I like. [Executive producer] Jonathan Fisher’s TV tastes are unashamedly mainstream and he’s an absolute aficionado on Midsomer Murders. That’s his bread and butter, he knows that stuff back to front so he’s very, very clever at knowing how these sorts of dramas are supposed to take on.

Then I come in with a slightly more off-kilter, left-field approach. Together hopefully we have made something that feels weird, but ticks along in the way mainstream dramas are supposed to, that has the hooks in all the right places that keeps you coming back for more. 

There are all these incredibly smart, sophisticated, expensive, A-list led shows on all the streamers and then something like Vigil comes along and we’re all, like, “This is what I wanted actually – a drama where something really stupid and fantastic happens”. This is not a slight on Vigil, by the way.

You don’t always have to make perfect sense. You just have to be great fun, and promise the unknown. It’s that feeling when you’re watching and you say, ”I can’t believe that just happened. What’s going to happen next?” People just want to be entertained, no matter how big and clever or humble the show is. It’s just about being entertained.

British drama sometimes get a hard rap compared to American …

Yeah. But I think when we do addictive and classy, I think we’re better than anyone. Look at Line of Duty at its best. I watched Line of Duty more than any other show. Ever. I’ve watched series three about eight times. I still think Sherlock is one of the greatest things ever done. That was the drama that made me want to go into television.

Another thing we do really well is those big, one-off thrillers that nobody remembers in a year or two, but everybody’s obsessed when it’s on. Like The Replacement, where one of them was on maternity leave. Everybody was talking about that.

We’re pretty good at these really splashy, big thrillers that get everybody talking and then just disappear.

Doctor Foster was another one, particularly the dinner table scene … 

Yes! And I say this with a lot of love in my heart, there’s something about our dramas that is sometimes a little bit like Latin soap opera. It’s kind of like, “Oh my God, this is so ridiculous”. Our actual soap opera is often meaningful and grounded so I love our splashy dramas. And I think we’re not that obsessed with reality. Thinking about Line of Duty, can you imagine being so boring as sitting there thinking, “Yeah, but they don’t carry guns like that” or “They’d never get in the building”. That doesn’t matter. From the start the creator is telling you sub-textually, “This is a world in which anything could happen. Hold on to your seats. We’re not constrained by the parameters of reality, and therefore nothing will surprise you.”

I think there’s quite an appetite for that stuff that’s just a bit bonkers.

Hollington Drive airs on ITV on Wednesdays at 9pm. Looking for something else to watch? Check out our TV Guide or visit our dedicated Drama hub for the latest news.