'It's radical': how Sally Rooney's Normal People caught a TV moment

As the trailer for BBC 12-parter is released, the production team say the time is right for Sally Rooney’s novel

If Sally Rooney is the “Salinger for the Snapchat generation”, then it seems only fitting the TV adaptation of her novel that garnered the title should be radical, risque and boundary-pushing.

The team behind the small-screen version of Normal People, the Oscar-nominated director Lenny Abrahamson and the producer Ed Guiney, believe complex dramas about young people are increasingly in demand, and the show will sit in a similar space to Sky Atlantic’s Euphoria and Netflix’s Sex Education.

“There’s room for different voices in TV now,” said Abrahamson, who shares directing duties with Hettie Macdonald and was nominated for a best director Oscar for Room in 2015. “You have Euphoria and Sex Education, which are the kind of shows that simply weren’t about 20 years ago. They’re more risque and audiences can handle that.”

Abrahamson and Guiney won the battle to turn Rooney’s second novel into a 12-part BBC Three adaptation and the first trailer for the much-anticipated show is being released on Friday.

Piers Wenger, controller of BBC Drama, said young people’s opinions and the challenges they are experiencing are always a source of great drama. “Young people’s lives now more than ever are complicated and confusing and yet they are exerting agency on the world and that I think makes them – and their stories – relevant to all of us,” he said. “I’ve always felt that everyone would be fascinated by Normal People.”

Abrahamson said he wanted to make “a very strong statement” with Normal People and it was Rooney’s original style and the story of young love that made him want to adapt it. “The territory is so interesting – it’s a positive account of two young people falling in love,” he said. “It sounds simple but there’s a lot cynicism around that kind of material. It’s a look at intimacy in the 21st century and a portrait of a very tender relationship. It’s radical in a sense.”

Analysis this week by Wall Street firm BMO Capital Markets forecast that Netflix will spend about $17.3bn (£13.2bn) on content, increasing to $26bn by 2028. That came after an annual report by FX revealed there were 532 original shows made in the US last year, a 7% increase on 2018.

Guiney said even if we weren’t in an unprecedented era for TV production, Rooney’s novel would still have been adapted. “Normal People is one of these things that would have been in any era. It would have raised its head above the parapet and demanded a TV show in that earlier era,” he said.

Element Pictures – which produced Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster and The Favourite, as well as Abrahamson’s Oscar-nominated Room – is adapting the novel about a young couple’s turbulent relationship at school and Trinity College Dublin, and was Rooney’s second book after her debut Conversations With Friends made the then 27-year-old a rising literary star who “defined a generation”.

Rooney co-wrote six of the episodes alongside Alice Birch and Mark O’Rowe, and has an executive-producer credit. Guiney and Abrahamson said the author had a big influence on the way Normal People looks on screen. “Sally was involved in all the early discussions about how many episodes, the format, conversations about actors, as well as reading various versions of the script,” said Guiney. “She contributed to them all; it was a full-blooded engagement.”

Paul Mescal in a scene from Normal People.
Paul Mescal in a scene from Normal People. Photograph: Enda Bowe/BBC/Element

As with the second season of Fleabag, Normal People will be aired on BBC One and also online on BBC Three, the broadcaster’s youth-focused channel. It will be aired on Hulu in the US.

Rose Garnett, head of BBC Films, who was first approached with the idea of developing the novel into a feature, said the success of the novel made the project unique. “There are so many people who feel a sense of ownership over that book and will be watching the series wondering if their expectations are going to be fulfilled,” she said. “Pressure is one way of putting it, but I’d call it collective excitement.”

The decision was taken to cast the relatively unknown actors Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal in the lead parts, after a worldwide search. “We had casting in Ireland and in the UK,” said Guiney. “But we looked at Americans, Australians and went to all English-speaking countries. In the end, Paul is from just outside Dublin; while Daisy is English but her mother is Irish.”

The BBC has not confirmed a premiere date for Normal People, but said it will air in 2020.

• This article was amended on 18 January 2020 to correct the spelling of Hettie Macdonald’s name.


Lanre Bakare

The GuardianTramp

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