Black Earth Rising writer Hugo Blick: "The darker things go, the funnier it is"
The award-winning screenwriter explains why he's attracted to tragi-comedy – and invites us into his incredible windmill writing room
An uphill climb faces Hugo Blick when he begins a new project — not least because his office is seven storeys up.
Since 2006, the writer has lived in, and worked from, a 19th-century windmill in Kent, with his wife Elinor, three sons — Atticus, 21, Joseph, 19, and Balthazar, 14 — and the ageing family dog, Flashheart (named after the Rik Mayall character in Blackadder; Blick, who trained as an actor, appeared in a 1989 episode of the sitcom).
Blick’s office is at the top of the mill, reached through a hatch in the ceiling of the uppermost bedroom, and, yes, more stairs. But the climb is rewarded, with contemplative near-silence, broken only by the wind, and a magnificent view: from his desk he looks out on lush, rolling countryside — on a clear day, you can see France on the horizon.
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It’s a fitting spot for the 53-year-old, whose dramas range across the globe. His 2014 hit The Honourable Woman centred on the Israel-Palestine conflict, while his latest, Black Earth Rising — starring Harriet Walter, Michaela Coel and John Goodman — travels from London to the Hague to Rwanda in an exploration of the still-resounding aftershocks of the 1994 genocide.
Despite his unusual workspace, Blick’s daily routine is reassuringly normal: “It’s pretty rhythmic, and based around children, getting them up and to school… After that it’s coffee, plenty of coffee, and then it’s a nine-to-five job.”
It takes months for Blick, acting as writer, director and producer, to plan a drama, which involves elaborate diagrams on whiteboards and, he says, plenty of reclining on his stylish slate-grey day bed. Then he gives himself six weeks to write each episode. “There are only two real moments of pleasure,” says Blick. “When I finish the last line in the last episode and I say to myself, ‘Ah, that’s better!’ And then again at the end of the edit. But everything in between is just… hell.”
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And yet Blick gave himself even more to do while filming Black Earth Rising: he cast himself as barrister Blake Gaines, who first appears in episode four. Blick also gave his home a starring role — but you won’t spot the windmill itself, or its grounds, even though they are movie-set pristine, from the almost geometrically neat garden to the perplexingly blue swimming pool. Instead it’s the inside of Blick’s garage that viewers will get to admire on screen.
“The whole crew came to the mill to film some scenes with my character. I had a pretty horrific childhood with my parents, but they’re both now dead, and by hook or by crook their ashes have ended up in my garage. So during filming,” he says, through laughter, “I realised that a) it was the only time I’ve performed in front of my parents and b) finally we were a happy family, we were together!”
It’s a glimpse of the tragi-comic blend Blick is so adept at, having started his TV writing career with the BBC’s comedy department, where he co-created Marion and Geoff with his college friend Rob Brydon.
Despite the darkness at the centre of Black Earth Rising, there are deliberate flickers of levity, especially in the lead performances: Blick describes Michaela Coel and John Goodman as “absolute actors of great professionalism and dexterity — but they both have a comedic sensibility. John in particular finds a mordant humour that shoots through the show and bounces us through some pretty horrific plot points.”
Blick says, of his tendency to seek out the comical, “I’m always looking to find something to laugh about. The darker things go, the funnier it is. Humour is armour, it’s strength; if you can find the humour in a horrific situation, you can contain it.”
It also helps, he says, to take the long view: “When I’m writing, some of the most heinous crimes are either being constructed in my head or being referred to. So it comes as a real relief to look out of that window and instead of seeing a city landscape of determined threat, you see just sheep. Sheep aren’t out to kill you!”
Black Earth Rising first airs Monday 10th September at 9pm on BBC2