As this chat with Tatau’s lead actors, Joe Layton and Theo Barklem-Biggs, took place before the press screening for BBC Three’s new supernatural drama, the pair were given the responsibility of describing the series to me: Unique. Mysterious. Fast-paced. Energy-fuelled. A hurricane. A typhoon. (Before long, they’re just listing weather systems.)
“It’s a teen show, accessible for young people” cuts in Barklem-Biggs as his co-star brings up the otherworldly, occult palette of True Detective, “even around all this darkness there will be moments that make you laugh as well. It keeps you on the edge of your seat.”
Layton gets back on message and agrees, “I think it really suits BBC Three.”
That it does, as a youth-oriented story of two twenty-something backpackers, Kyle and Budgie, who’ve escaped their real lives so they can get wasted and get laid on a paradisiacal island. A supernatural mystery quickly ensues when the boys drink a traditional Maori hallucinogen and Kyle starts to see visions of a young islander’s corpse.
“A big thing is the question of what’s real and what’s within my character’s mind,” says Layton. “Budgie thinks he’s nuts” sums up Barklem-Biggs.
The first episode is mostly a two-hander for the young actors whose friendship, according to Layton, is what roots Tatau in reality. “It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, everyone’s got a best mate, everyone falls out with their best mate and everyone goes through drama and stress, so that’s the universal element in the midst of all the strangeness.”
They’re “brothers from other mothers” as Barklem-Biggs puts it with a laugh. “You could look at [Kyle and Budgie] as the archetypal hero and sidekick, but they complement each other. Kyle’s the ladies’ man – Budgie thinks he is but he doesn’t necessarily get them – but he’s fun-loving and charming.”
The actors themselves are another reason Tatau really suits BBC Three. It’s a channel recognised for helping to launch the successful careers of newcomers including James Corden, Russell Tovey, Luke Newberry and Aidan Turner – the latter currently poised to lead a second series of hit BBC One Sunday night drama, Poldark.
Layton and Barklem-Biggs are just that kind of talent. Each has a few credits (Barklem-Biggs, who went straight into the business, has many more than Layton, who took the drama school route) but there’s the potential for big things there, even if they show too much British humility to say it themselves. “Touch wood I can go on and have a career at doing this,” says Layton at one point in our chat, tapping the table.
When I ask whose careers they’d like to emulate, Barklem-Biggs sucks in his breath, “My favourites are pretty tough shoes to fill.” When pressed for an answer, he shakes his head, “Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, people like that.” Layton is in similar awe of his own acting heroes, the cast of the recently concluded Wolf Hall. “Mark Rylance, Anton Lesser, Jonathan Pryce… Mark Rylance is so, so still in Wolf Hall. He’s having the thoughts in space in front of him and lets all that be caught on camera. I find that fascinating.”
There’s little room for such stillness in Tatau, which wastes no time in episode one diving into its supernatural intrigue. That’s down to writer Richard Zajdlic (This Life, Eastenders, Strike Back), says Barklem-Biggs, “he doesn’t want the audience to blink.”
Tatau occupies an interesting position on the digital BBC channel as the first original drama commissioned after plans were announced to move it off broadcast. If the hoped-for second series happens (“There’s potential for it to go again if it’s well-received” says Layton), it could be online-only. That’s something these two either aren’t interested in talking about, or have been briefed not to discuss, defaulting when asked to platitudes about how exciting it was to work with such great people.
As Tatau shares producers with both Being Human and In The Flesh, many of those great people have valuable experience of bringing a genre show to UK TV. Genre fans can be a rabid bunch, I warn them. Have they experienced any hint of hostility from those who might feel Tatau is taking the place of other, much-loved shows? “Hate mail?” asks Layton, “Not yet!”
How does it feel to come in on the heels of the recently cancelled In The Flesh? “Big shoes to fill again, we know that,” says Barklem-Biggs, “We’re confident though. It’s our own thing but it’s definitely paying homage to those great series, like The Fades (in which he had a recurring role), In The Flesh, Being Human…”
What makes Tatau different from those shows? “The whole thing for me about it,” says Layton, “was that these stories are based on Maori mythology and they’re things that we just have no exposure to. It puts that supernatural vibe – which is hot at the moment in the US and the UK in terms of dramas being made – but it puts it in a culture and a part of the world that no-one that I know has been to or is familiar with.”
Barklem-Biggs agrees, “It’s unexplored territory.”
Are there problems, I wonder, in what seems to be the retrograde premise of two white Westerners wading in to rescue a beautiful native girl from… well, we don’t quite know at this point. Writer Zajdlic addresses the colonial unease to some extent by clearly showing Kyle’s ignorance and naiveté in having appropriated sacred Polynesian culture – in the form of his self-designed Maori-style tattoo which gives the series its name – as a fashion accessory.
Whatever political issues the premise might throw up, the local people on Cook Island Rarotonga and in New Zealand were happy with Tatau’s treatment of their mythology. “It’s not a documentary,” Layton reminds me. “As soon as we got there, all the Maori people in the cast seemed to be really happy with it. They were willing to help out if ever anything was wrong, which was rarely. It’s still fictional, and it takes its own route.”
“Shedding light onto those stories is something that I don’t think anyone has done,” continues Layton. “I was ignorant to it completely and while I don’t feel like I’m a part of that now, it’s opening people’s eyes to something that they might not necessarily see when you turn on the box. There’s an open-mindedness in the way that [the locals and New Zealand cast members] shared that with us.”
Tatau’s cast diversity is another selling point for Layton. “The other thing it does is it casts maybe forty people, with two white British actors. The core twelve are all Maori, from New Zealand with roots in the Cook Islands, and that’s something that you just never see.” He’s right of course. You don’t see it.
What is more familiar are the show’s tropical landscapes. “Because of the setting,” says Barklem-Biggs, it’s gorgeous wherever you look.” He’s right too. At the very least, Tatau is sure to be a boon for Cook Island tourism, however spooky and dark the story gets. There’s also something of justice in seeing those beaches, mountains and forests being used to sell traditional Maori legend and not just Bounty Bars.
Tatau‘s director Wayne Che Yip, who co-directed several episodes of Channel 4’s bold and unusual Utopia, had plenty to work with on location, and according to his actors, used every opportunity that came his way. “He storyboarded everything, he’s so detailed,” remembers Barklem-Biggs. “If we wanted to see before a scene how he was going to shoot something, he’d know exactly. It was like reading a comic book.”
As welcoming as the islanders were, filming wasn’t all coconut cocktails and hammocks from the sounds of it. Being so isolated and in such close proximity, not being able to return to normality in evenings and weekends, meant that cabin fever set in. “Definitely,” says Barklem-Biggs, “week three, we went proper mad, but we used it to the benefit of the show for episode eight – that’s the perfect time for it!”
Layton nods along, laughing “When you watch episode eight, we were put through the mill on that. Physically it was draining, really gruelling.”
“We were rolling around on the ground getting quite visceral,” explains Barklem-Biggs. “We went gung-ho. In the Cook Islands, if you get a cut, because of the weather it doesn’t heal for the entire duration. We did our own stunts a lot of the time, they put us through the mill, definitely.”
But that hasn’t put them off returning should a second series be commissioned? Not a bit of it. Massive grins and a resounding “definitely” meet the question of whether they’d be happy to go back and do it all again.
You can see the results of all that arduousness and natural beauty this Sunday night, the 12th of April, at 10pm on BBC Three, and on BBC America in the US on Saturday the 18th of April at 10pm. Watch a brief trailer below.
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