Though born in Henley-on-Thames, Hugo Blick could have been a cowboy. Aged 18, his concerned parents decided he needed to have his waywardness ironed out of him. He was packed off to Montana and put under the tutelage of a family friend who happened to be an avid outdoorsman and former US air force captain.
“I was thought to need a stabilising influence,” recalls the 57-year-old writer, director and actor over video call from New York. The air force captain taught Blick how to shoot and hunt. “Apologies to any vegans out there,” he says. He also learned how to spin a horse. Even in the late 80s, Montana was a wilder west than anything on the M4 corridor. “Winters where temperatures go below -60F are not unusual and life out there can be hard. The ghosts of the harshness of the frontier of the 1890s still haunted the place, at least for me.”
Half a lifetime on, these skills and experiences proved useful to Blick in making The English, the beautiful and intriguingly subversive six-part TV western he wrote and directed, starring Emily Blunt as an English aristocrat uprooted and anxious in the wild west and Chaske Spencer as a majestic, soulful, psychically wounded Native American.
Both Blunt and Spencer play characters whose paths fatefully cross while on their respective revenge missions. She has come from London to hunt down the man who killed her son. He, a soul divided between serving as a US cavalry scout and his Pawnee ancestry, has his own demons to exorcise, not just the barbarous advance of European civilisation that has evicted him and other native Americans from their ancestral lands. But also one particular white devil in the form of Rafe Spall’s diabolical cockney chancer whom Spencer witnessed committing a massacre with a corrupt band of US army lackeys.
Initially, Blick cast himself in a minor role. It seemed a reasonable decision. After all, his first career was as an actor. He was, among other things, the young Jack Napier in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman who memorably kills Bruce Wayne’s parents before saying: “Have you ever danced with the devil by the pale moon light?” Plus, Blick can ride a horse with aplomb. But he gave up the role when he learned he’d have to pay a £50,000 insurance premium.
The English resembles iconic westerns such as John Ford’s 1956 The Searchers or Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Unforgiven in being a revenge-based chase drama, but has more twists on that format than a horse-bound lasso. Instead of alpha white male avengers, Blick gives us a gun-toting English rose of a heroine with Katniss Everdeen-style archery chops, battling 19th-century misogyny in bracingly 21st-century terms. “You want to rape me,” Lady Cornelia Locke tells Ciarán Hinds’ evil hotelier in the opening episode, as she sits wearing a gorgeous but wilderness-inappropriate pink frock under his frightening glare. “I’m realistic when it comes to issues of consent,” he counters. “Then fuck a horse,” she says.
More subversively yet, the other protagonist is not only a Native American hero in a western but played by a Native American. This is hardly a minor issue. While the first westerns imagined Native Americans as scarcely individuated hordes whose historical destiny, like those of the buffalo, was to be hunted to extinction, the so-called revisionist westerns accorded them souls and personalities. But, the more major the Native American protagonist, the less likely they were to be played by a person of colour. Hence, Mary McDonnell as Stands with a Fist in Kevin Costner’s 1990 Dances with Wolves. Hence, too, one of Blick’s favourite westerns, Hombre, in which Paul Newman played a white man raised by an Apache family. “Newman later said he regretted the fact that a Native American didn’t play the role. I think he was too hard on himself about that.”
The English, then, is a subversive revision of the revisionist western, since it has a woman and a man of colour as the drama’s protagonists. Spencer plays a hero in the Eastwood mould, though his existential conflict is made plain by the fact that instead of being a man with no name, he is a man with two: his Pawnee name Wounded Wolf and his army handle, Sergeant Eli Whipp. “If I were a seven-year-old boy, I would want to be not Clint Eastwood but Chaske Spencer,” says Blick.
The inspiration for this character came from another of Blick’s teenage Montana experiences. “I made a hunting buddy I called Chief. He lived on a reservation and obviously wasn’t a chief. So there was a casual racism in the relationship. He called me English.”
Then one day Chief disappeared, leaving two bags he said he would pick up later. “He never came back. I never did find out his real name, nor he mine. He didn’t need whatever was in those bags. And that gave me the kernel of the idea for The English.” In his drama, Eli tells Lady Cornelia, “The difference between what you want and what you need is what you can pack on a horse.”
What would you pack on your horse, I ask Blick? “Water and unshelled peanuts,” he replies readily, as if he’s already worked out how to live in the end times.
“The Pawnee were semi-migratory people,” says Blick, “so they would be used to packing their homes up and riding off. I’ve always felt sympathetic to that idea that home is what you carry, not a place.” And that, presumably, is a lesson for Lady Cornelia, whose identity has hitherto been measured in bricks, mortar and country estates.
Blick sent his first draft to representatives of the Pawnee and Cheyenne nations, and, “They had one plea. Don’t let him die. The Indian always dies before the end in westerns,” he says.
Blick made his name as a TV writer with the 2000 comedy Marion and Geoff in which the hero, divorced cabby Keith played by Rob Brydon, yearned to go home. “He wanted nothing more than to be back home in his slippers with Marion.” But, for both Keith and Eli, there is no way home. Keith lost his in divorce; Eli, and the Pawnee people, lost theirs as the American dream extended its nightmarish frontier.
Blick has since become a singular TV writer who every few years puts out a sophisticated series that subverts a dramatic genre, while often leaving critics baffled. In 2011, his seven-part BBC policier The Shadow Line, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Christopher Eccleston, left me with no idea what was going on. In 2014, he made the BBC drama The Honourable Woman, an award-winning spy thriller starring Maggie Gyllenhaal as an Anglo-Jewish woman, like Lady Cornelia, uprooted from her comfortable London home and confronted with the weight of history, this time in the form of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In Black Earth Rising in 2017, Michaela Coel starred as a Rwanda-born British lawyer embroiled in the case of a Rwandan militia leader, whom her white adoptive mother is prosecuting for war crimes.
Why so many interesting female protagonists? “Only a psychotherapist could get to the heart of that. But I’ve always been more comfortable with women. At school I was much happier hanging out with women and, when I played football, I would always shake the hands of opponents who’d scored the goals. I’ve always been antipathetic to masculinist posturing.”
Blick uses western tropes to explore favourite themes: misogyny, miscegenation, the English class system, racism, the depredations of imperialism and capitalism – but, most of all, the Freudian return of the repressed. On this last point, it’s striking that a new frontier town is being built over the bones of the massacred, whose spilled blood fuels the drama.
Over six episodes there’s enough gunplay and bloodshed to satisfy even the most ardent second amendment enthusiast. So much so that Blick has a small worry. “I suspect it might play well in ‘red wall’ US states,” – ie those Republican-dominated heartlands. He worries the drama may seem to valorise rather than problematise that staple of Hollywood: the rugged American individual who shoots first and asks questions never.
It’s a typical Blick drama in its switchback narrative complexity: “The revenge format is propulsive, forward-looking. What I want to do is to trace that time’s arrow, but also go back to find out what motivates the desire for revenge.”
The English is more pleasurable than anything Blick has done before. Cinematographer Arnau Valls Colomer and Blick have created one of the most visually sumptuous dramas you will see this year, filmed amid epic Spanish rock formations rather than in the American West. “We shot all the time in the afternoons to get that slanting light of the golden hour. I learned that from Clint Eastwood.”
An even greater pleasure is that, simply and touchingly, Blick has written a love story, affecting for being doomed. “I’m so glad you said that,” says Blick when I put this to him. “It is a love story isn’t it? Let’s not forget that. Woody Allen wrote to me saying, ‘Good luck with your horse opera’ which I thought was funny. But he’s right. It is an opera, a place of heightened emotions in a mythic space. That’s what the best westerns have always been.”
All Blick’s dramas, he says, involve someone losing their identity and finding a new one. In The English, Lady Cornelia finds herself in the eyes of the beloved Eli and he himself in hers.
“Isn’t that,” asks Blick as we end the interview, “what love is?”
• The English airs on Thursdays at 9pm and is on BBC iPlayer now.