By: Alex Moreland
“I’ve always been obsessed by dinosaurs and monsters, all that kind of stuff, since I was a boy,” says Douglas Henshall, explaining what drew him to a certain ITV drama, the first two series of which are available on BritBox today.
“Primeval was kind of a hang-over from childhood, a way of vicariously satisfying the old childhood memories.”
It was also a series that almost always seemed on the brink of extinction.
Following a team of scientists investigating the appearance of temporal “anomalies” which delivers both prehistoric creatures and future predators to the present, Primeval began life at the BBC, under a very different title. “I’d made a [documentary-style series] called Walking with Dinosaurs for the BBC back in 2000,” recalls co-creator Tim Haines, previously a science journalist with a background in zoology, “and it struck me that all that technology [could be] used for a drama. Because the BBC wanted a recognisable piece of IP, we made Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World first. I then came up with the idea of Cutter’s Bestiary, and developed a script with another writer, which didn’t go anywhere.”
It’s at this point that Adrian Hodges – who had recently won a BAFTA for Charles II: The Power and Passion – came on board. “One day I went into [BBC Head of Drama] Laura Mackie’s office, and she asked me what I wanted to do next. She suggested Bleak House – I’d already done David Copperfield, so I said no, I don’t want to do another Dickens, thank you. I want to do something that’s fun, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’d just watched all of Buffy, I thought it was a brilliant show. I wanted to do something with the same vibe, the same feel to it.”
“She then suggested something called Cutter’s Bestiary – a terrible title, but that’s what it was at the time,” continues Hodges. “I spoke to Tim, and he said, ‘I want to do dinosaurs in the modern day’, which is brilliant. I’d also just been to the Natural History Museum and I’d thought, why on earth isn’t anybody doing dinosaurs?”
Several scripts were written for the BBC, as Primeval went through various different iterations (“first it was made into a 90-minute drama, and then they asked whether we could make it post nine o’clock” says Haines) before eventually finding a home at ITV.
“When we started, there was no Doctor Who, and we thought it was time for something like Doctor Who. But then Russell T Davies started Doctor Who, and we were deemed to be too [similar], so after what must have been about four or five years, the BBC finally turned it down,” explains Haines, charting the complex evolution of the first series.
“Nick Elliott, the commissioner at ITV, had seen the success of Doctor Who and Robin Hood too and thought, well, maybe ITV has to try this out. Here he had a script with Adrian’s talents behind it, so that’s why they decided to go for it.”
It was at this point that the show started to find its cast. “The audition came through like any other, but when I read the script, I realised it was something very different. I’d never seen anything like it,” says Andrew Lee Potts, who played Connor Temple in all five series of Primeval. “My first audition was the morning after a night shoot on another job. I was so over tired I think I became a little euphoric, which seemed to work for the manic mind of Connor.”
“When I finished S Club there were quite a few things that came through that I wasn’t really ready for. I just needed a break, to escape the limelight in any way, shape, or form. Primeval came at a time when I was ready to come back into TV,” remembers Hannah Spearritt, who played Abby Maitland in all five series of Primeval. “In my audition, we did an up-on-your-feet type thing, imagining Rex [her character’s pet dinosaur], because Rex was going to be a massive part of Abby’s character. That audition was a little bit different to a normal audition!”
“I didn’t do any auditions for Primeval,” says Douglas Henshall, who played Nick Cutter in the first, second, and part of the third series of Primeval. “It was an offer. I went and met Tim and Adrian and had a natter with them, and that was it really. I liked the premise. I thought the idea that you could make a show that was smart and educational and fun, aimed at a family audience was a nice idea. I thought it – especially the first three episodes of the first series – was very well-written.”
“I had a choice between going to do Primeval or going to do another show, which was a particularly hard-hitting kind of… You guys would describe it as gritty drama, I suppose. I’d been doing that for so long that I thought it might be nice to go and chase dinosaurs for a while.”
“I had a lot of fun,” says Spearritt. “It was cool to play a swashbuckling female role, for the younger girls [in the audience]. I loved that element to it, playing a strong female character. And the special effects were pretty high standard. I think they’ll stand the test of time – the budget was quite high, I think a million pounds per episode? – so I think it will have aged well.”
“Merging the live action drama and the CGI threw up challenges everyday, like a giant jigsaw, but when it all came together the end product was something very special,” says Potts. “Certain times as an actor you get lucky enough to have the opportunity to play a role that seems to fit like a glove (albeit a fingerless one), I’m happy to say Connor Temple was one of those roles for me.”
Primeval touched on ideas of ecological disaster and environmental preservation; looking back, though, there’s a sense that it wasn’t just ahead of its time thematically, but commercially as well. “I think we were we were born for Netflix, frankly,” says Adrian Hodges. “No disrespect to ITV, who were very good to us in their way. But I think I think it would’ve been nice to have a bigger budget. Tim did miracles on a relatively small budget at the time.”
“I think if we’d waited even another five years!” agrees Henshall. “When all the streaming networks started out, I think absolutely it would have done a lot better, yeah.”
At the time, argues Haines, “British television’s approach to genre was appalling. There was definitely a cultural snobbery towards it – we were lucky to get Primeval away. After Primeval, I ended up making Sinbad and Beowulf, but I have to say in retrospect, it was a bit sad to have to make [those] just because the audience recognised the name, rather than making something original like Primeval.”
The series often seemed like it was itself an endangered species, and that uncertainty wasn’t without its challenges. “We always got good ratings, but we fell victim to changing hierarchies at ITV, from memory. I don’t know exactly what was going on in the background, but Tim did a remarkable job of keeping it on the air,” says Hodges.
“[Commissioner] Peter Fincham had the oddest relationship with us: he turned it down at the BBC. When he came to ITV, he cancelled it. And then he recommissioned it, and then he cancelled it again. He had four goes at the series!” laughs Haines. “It wasn’t ideal. But that was because of the 2008 crash: ITV was two weeks away from going bankrupt, and so they were slashing left, right, and centre. Our show unfortunately suffered because of that, after series three.”
It was difficult, as well, to be up against Doctor Who. “There was no way that we could compete with Doctor Who, you know? Any time that we ever got matched up anywhere near them, we were completely squashed by them,” remembers Henshall.
“[Doctor Who] was a juggernaut at the time, it was a behemoth. We were competitive, of course we were, but I just wanted to do well,” says Hodges. “If we could’ve beaten them that would’ve been great, but that was never really our goal particularly. It was too big a show at that point, it had too much publicity. And Russell T Davies was doing really well with that show at the time, it was brilliantly written. I felt it was a great show at the time – I think we’d have a better chance today, let’s put it that way.”
Andrew Lee Potts, meanwhile, thinks Primeval found the right home. “I think the time we hit the UK screens was just right, judging by its success. I think it’s the nature of the beast (no pun intended) of being an actor or involved in a show like this [that there’s some uncertainty]. The show was very expensive and prime time, so there was always a risk of it ending prematurely. I think most actors are just happy if it gets past series one!”
Following the second series, Douglas Henshall opted to leave Primeval, and his character was written out at the start of the third. “I thought it had become a little simplified in its ambitions,” he explains. “It was becoming a slightly different show, more of a monster-of-the-week type thing. The first season, I thought was very exciting, but it became more standard by the end of the second season, and I thought they’d probably be better served with someone else.”
“Of course, Jason Flemyng came in and then Ciarán McMenamin after him. I know Jason and I know Ciarán, I trusted that they would both do a great job, but [I never watched them in it]. I didn’t want to do that thing of watching somebody who will go and be better than you were – I don’t want to go and troll myself!”
“I learned a lot of lessons as to how to lead a show better. It helped me a lot going in to [BBC drama] Shetland, just for myself,” continues Henshall. “But I thought we made a pretty good show [with Primeval], we took something that could have gone very badly wrong, and it didn’t. I think we did the writers proud.”
“Dougie leaving was, of course, really disappointing – he’s one of the best actors in Britain – but you have to adapt and move on,” says Spearritt. “He was the heartbeat of the show, and it was very different after, but the show evolved. We lost quite a lot of people, but new energy comes in and sometimes that’s what’s needed.”
In another timeline, the series might’ve unfolded differently. “Adrian did have a three series arc for Dougie. At the end, he was meant to be stuck with his wife in the past, but we had to change that,” says Haines.
That ending would’ve tied into one of Primeval’s biggest unanswered cliffhangers: who was Jenny Lewis, and how had she replaced Claudia Brown? At the close of series one, Cutter returned from a trip to the past to find that his almost-love interest Claudia Brown (Lucy Brown) had disappeared, and no-one else remembered her. Series two introduced a new character, Jenny Lewis – again played by Lucy Brown – and it was only Cutter who noticed they were seemingly the same person.
“Jenny and Claudia were the same person, having evolved in a different way. Gradually, we were going to reveal that there were people all over the world with a similar situation,” explains Hodges. “We only ever showed her at the time, but there were [going to be] lots of people in that same situation, and lots of prehistoric animals developing differently. Gradually Cutter would’ve noticed small differences in evolution, and go to change things back.”
“I liked that idea, and certainly Lucy went with it very well,” says Hodges, thinking back. “But unfortunately, we never really got a chance to resolve it, it was too closely tied in with Dougie and [that plotline] was never the same again as well.”
“It was a real shame. We didn’t want to lose Dougie, but he felt he wanted to go and we couldn’t hold him. Which is fair enough! I absolutely respected his decision making, he’s a good guy, but I was very disappointed when he went,” continues Hodges. “I think he did really well on the show, and I’d like to speak very highly of him. He brought a real gravity to the role.”
With the first two series of Primeval arriving on BritBox today, how do the cast and creatives feel about audiences getting the chance to revisit the show?
“Primeval opened a door to the past in the present day and where that is concerned, in my opinion, that’s timeless,” enthuses Potts. “One of the things I feel Primeval did so well was mix drama, adventure and humour for the whole family to enjoy and I think that’s why people remember it so fondly – it’s lovely to think it’s living on.”
“It was always a programme to escape reality, to enable the family to sit down and enjoy something together – it has those layers [that] young children and adults could enjoy it,” says Spearritt. “It’s dinosaurs, isn’t it? They never age.”
“I saw it not long ago, I think it’s very good – well, some of the haircuts aren’t!” says Hodges. “But I think it aged really well. I’m very proud of that show, immensely proud. I think episode three of series one is one of the best things I’ve ever written, funnily enough, the one where they find that Juliet Aubrey’s character [Cutter’s wife Helen] is still alive.”
“It made me a better writer I think; it was the first real money show I’d done, so the pressure was unbelievable. I realised how hard it is to write clever dialogue and a good plot in such a short space of time,” he continues. “I’d do [another series] tomorrow, I’d do it in a heartbeat if I could.”
“I think it would be very hard for me to say no to revisiting Connor if asked,” agrees Potts. “I will always have a soft spot for him and I owe a lot to the people who trusted me with the role.”
“It would be interesting to play her again someday, to see the mature version of Abby,” says Spearritt. “That was the funny thing about it – we were all we were so young, it was almost unbelievable that we would be employed to [hunt dinosaurs]!”
“It feels a little bit sad now for me, because it was a lovely show to work on, but it’s been and gone,” says Haines. “But the Primeval fans, the groups of them – it’s a lovely thing about the internet, the way these people and enthusiasts can find each other – whether they write stories off the back of the series, or whether they are creating new images for it, writing and talking about the characters, it’s immensely flattering to get to see such enthusiasm still.”
Is there anything in particular they’d like people to take away from watching the show?
“That you’re right to be absolutely still fascinated by dinosaurs, and science, and climate and all of those things that were in that show,” says Henshall. “One of the best nights of filming that I’ve had in a long time was when we did the night shoot at the British museum. We were in there all night by ourselves and we could wander around the museum in the dark, looking at the sarcophagi of mummified Egyptians.
“It was quite a magical thing to do, and I think very in keeping with what we were trying to do in that show. The possibility of all those things having been real once was very, very present. I think kids who were excited about things like that will still get a lot of pleasure out of the show.”