After The Fall, Jamie Dornan returns in Irish period drama

Director Allan Cubitt tells why he cast actor in revenge tragedy Death and Nightingales

The creator of TV crime series The Fall has admitted he turned down the chance to make a fourth season of the drama because he felt he had gone as far as he could with the “dark” material he was working with.

Allan Cubitt wrote three series of The Fall that saw actor Jamie Dornan play Paul Spector, a serial killer dodging Stella Gibson, a determined detective played by Gillian Anderson.

“There was the sense, ‘do I really want to go back to there?’ because the material is so dark it needs to be saying something interesting,” said Cubitt. “Ultimately, I would have just been making points I’d made before.”

Instead, Cubitt has teamed up again with Dornan to make a very different drama: a three-part adaptation, starting this week, of Irish author Eugene McCabe’s novel Death and Nightingales. Set against the backdrop of the Fenian dynamite campaign of the 1880s, it tells of Beth Winters (Ann Skelly) and her struggle to break free from her domineering stepfather Billy (Matthew Rhys), a struggle that brings her into the orbit of the charming Liam Ward (Dornan).

The author’s only novel – he has also written plays and short stories – it has long been considered a modern classic in Ireland.

“It’s a revenge tragedy, rather than a psychological thriller,” says Cubitt. He originally envisaged it as a film before the success of The Fall saw it commissioned for TV.

“Eugene wrote it in 1992 against the backdrop of the Troubles, so it feels both a powerful historical story and a very contemporary one. It has complex characters, powerful themes and a clash within social spheres, and that was what appealed to me. It’s a proper serious piece with serious themes.”

Jamie Dornan as Liam in Death and Nightingales
Cubitt wanted Dornan as Liam because ‘Jamie is so good at playing ambiguous characters’. Photograph: Teddy Cavendish/BBC, Night Flight Pictures

He cast Dornan because “Jamie is so good at playing ambiguous characters”, while Dornan himself recommended 21-year-old Skelly, best-known for Irish soap Red Rock, whom Cubitt describes as “a transcendentally wonderful actress”.

The story’s intensity – it largely revolves around the complicated dynamics between the three main characters – meant casting was crucial. “At heart, it’s a love story, which occurs across a religious and class divide,” said Cubitt. “But it’s also a story of gender, of Beth and her struggles to extricate herself from a terrible situation ... and whether she can take control of her destiny.”

That focus on Beth is important for Cubitt, given that The Fall’s male/female power dynamics, largely expressed through the complex relationship between Anderson’s detective and Dornan’s voyeuristic serial killer, saw Cubitt accused of misogyny, a charge he remains deeply hurt by two years after the show’s finale. “I was distressed that people misinterpreted my intentions,” he says. “The trouble with any drama that takes a risk is that it may be accused of being what it’s setting out to critique. [But] The Fall, I felt, was a forceful attempt to lay out a feminist agenda and tackle toxic male attitudes, both in the malignant form of Spector but also in the way other men acted and in Gillian’s character’s response to those men.”

“It’s not simply about Spector’s actions but about the ripple effect those actions have and how they affect everyone else around him. I think of it as a prescient show in that it tackled patriarchal sexism and malignant narcissism and looked at the toxicity of the male libido and we are now having a very public debate about those attitudes in the wake of Me Too.”

Death and Nightingales is also likely to spark intense debate, given the relevance of its border setting to today’s Brexit-dominated world, and the way McCabe addresses both religious difference – Billy is a Protestant landlord, Liam Catholic, while Beth’s mother was Catholic but she has been raised as part of the Protestant ascendancy – and the desire for Irish independence from the UK.

Cubitt’s main concern, given the period setting, was to avoid falling into the trap of “Oirishness” by overly romanticising McCabe’s story or failing to capture its darkly ambiguous tone. “I think that rather than having an obviously American happy ending, or a Russian one where everyone is desperately unhappy,... we have something both more powerful and truer to life,” he says.

Death and Nightingales begins on BBC Two on 28 November at 9pm


Sarah Hughes

The GuardianTramp

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