Earlier this year, Channel Four thriller Utopia splashed acid yellow over a particularly grey January. Its attention-grabbing story of hit-men, deadly viruses, and global conspiracy shook TV audiences from their post-Christmas slumber and showed them a world where graphic novels hid deadly secrets and mad scientists made deals with the devil. With ‘Where Is Jessica Hyde?’, it also coined the creepiest catchphrase since those twins asked The Shining’s Danny to pop round for a play date.
Speaking to comedy and television writer Vicky Nangle as part of a Space event held last month in Brighton, Utopia writer Dennis Kelly spoke about writing the series, dealing with controversies, and what he has planned for the second run, due to begin filming this October…
Utopia celebrated the everyman instead of the ‘we’re so special’ character didn’t it?
Originally, it was from an idea from [production company] Kudos that was very very sketchy, just a page or something, and it was very different from what you eventually saw on screen. What I liked about the idea was that there was a conspiracy hidden in a graphic novel. I didn’t like what the conspiracy was. It was much more Illuminati, a bit more Dan Brown, it had gone on for over one hundred years and that sort of thing. The people who were going to be investigating were kind of cool internet kids that knew what they were doing and they were a bit intrepid. I thought, what would happen if they were just a bit shit like I am and everyone I know is? What would you do if you were just a bit shit and then you suddenly had to run for your life?
I do like very, very ordinary people, but I do like to put them in extreme circumstances. I never think that I particularly write dark stuff or that I try and write dark stuff but it seems to come out that way and I have to accept that it probably is, because other people have said that.
I feel like what I need to do is care about my characters. I can do bad, terrible things to them – and I probably should do because it’s my job, that’s how drama arises really – but I’ve got to care about them. I think the only real sin in writing is despising your characters. If you despise your characters, you’re despising people. If you can’t be bothered to find a way to like or love someone, then why are you writing them?
You said that you don’t believe in conspiracy theories, so what made you zone in on this?
It’s hard to say I don’t believe in conspiracy theories. I don’t believe in the majority of them. I met a writer yesterday who I really respect who told me she genuinely believed that Kate Middleton’s baby and the pregnancy wasn’t real [everyone laughs] and with that amount of belief, maybe she’s right? A lot of the conspiracy theories, like Diana’s death or people not walking on the moon, or the Twin Towers, there’s such a simpler answer which is that those things probably happened.
There’s been a rise in conspiracy theories in the last thirty years. At one stage writing Utopia, I did want to put in that the rise in conspiracy theories was a result of The Network trying to hide their own conspiracy, but then I thought it was just too much of a headfuck. I couldn’t get my head round it at all and it just seemed too ridiculous. There has been this massive rise in conspiracy theories though. We live in a world where people are constantly saying to you, ‘I’m telling you the truth’, whether they’re doing it through documentaries or reality TV or journalism or whatever, and ‘I wouldn’t lie to you’, and the more that someone does that to us, the less we believe, because instinctively if someone says ‘I’m telling you the truth’ you think ‘Why are you saying that?’ There’s this weird thing with reality and fiction where they’re sort of blending in strange ways.
You highlighted moral ambiguities in series one. Utopia moves you from one side of the fence to another and tells you there’s no clear cut right and wrong.
There’s a question at the heart of Utopia that I can’t answer, which is, with a burgeoning population, what do we do? I have lots of answers for lots of the world’s problems, and no-one ever asks me so they’re still going on [sighs. Everyone laughs]. For this one, I don’t have an answer because my slightly lefty liberal sensibilities just cannot offer anything. There’s talk about birth-rates going down, but our birth-rate went from 2.7 to 2.4 in the last fourteen years and we still produced another billion people. Even if the birth-rate does lower to 2.2 or 2.3 we’ll still be producing another billion in twenty years and it’s just a fucking nightmare. Phosphates are not going to last, we’re not going to be able to feed this amount of people. I don’t have an answer to that. I don’t think that Utopia’s going to come up with an answer for that, and I think if the world looks to Utopia for an answer to that, we’re really in trouble, but to me that makes it interesting, because it’s difficult and I don’t understand it.
Your writing doesn’t ever flinch does it?
I didn’t start out as a writer, I started out doing shit jobs that I hated and so for me, when I started writing – I left school very young with no qualifications and I went back to university when I was about thirty – for me it was incredible because I’d done shit jobs for years and years and to not get up in the morning firstly was amazing, but also to deal with the subjects you wanted to be dealing with and for that to be your raison d’être was just incredible for me. I feel really connected to writing. In so many ways, it’s saved me. So I get very angry when people aren’t brave with it.
Watching it though, when you do something bad as a writer, like pull someone’s eye out with a spoon, is really horrible. It doesn’t feel good. Because you think, ‘that came out of my mind and everyone now is thinking what a disgusting person I am’. But my view is that when you think of something bad, the next thing you think is, I won’t do this, I can just do without the hassle. I won’t put someone gouging someone’s eye out, or I won’t have a child massacre because it’s easier for me not to. I’ll find something else, I’ll write something else and no-one will say ‘What a dick’. But then I think if you do that you’re a fucking coward, you’ve got to believe in your characters and your story and you’ve got to have the courage to do those things.”
You do end up with a bunch of people on your shoulder. Some of them are your audience, some of them are friends, some of them are critics and they all have nagging little voices saying ‘don’t do this, don’t do that’ and those things aren’t really very good for the story. The only thing your story has is you, and it deserves your full attention.
Did Channel Four ever ask you to tone Utopia down or take things out?
There wasn’t one thing that they balked at. I kept thinking with the eye-torturing, someone’s going to say ‘soften this’ and they just didn’t. There were things that we softened. We did actually film a fake eyelid where you saw the thumb go in and move around, and the moment we saw it we just said, no that’s shit, because what’s scary about it is the psychology of it, not seeing things happen.
With the school massacre, Channel Four were very, very nervous about that and they were ready for it, they were ready for whatever would happen. When it aired, nothing much happened. The Daily Mail got a bit snotty about it, but Channel Four were very scared and they were ready to wheel me out to Paxman to talk about it. They were nervous, but at no point did they talk about compromise. I was amazed actually, they were incredible.
They had complete faith in you?
In everyone that was doing it I suppose, in the project. They really loved the project from the beginning and they wanted to make it work and they wanted that as much as I wanted it. I was really lucky I think.
How do you feel when you see what you’ve written performed for the first time?
Sometimes you see it and you think, you arseholes, you totally got that wrong! But the good thing about Marc Munden who directed the first three episodes of Utopia is that he rehearses every single bit and he really interrogates the script so he’ll phone you up and say ‘what is this bit?’. You’re working with them and people are saying, ‘I don’t think this sounds right’ and you’ll have little tussles and fights and all that stuff is really healthy, but by the time you actually get to see it, hopefully you’ll know to some degree what you’re getting.
What you want is to be pleasantly surprised. That doesn’t always happen, but the characters in Utopia, like Jessica Hyde, I thought Fiona O’Shaughnessy brought more to that than I’d given her. The Jessica Hyde I wrote was a little bit more in control. What was interesting about Fiona who plays her, is that she looked genuinely fucking nuts and there were moments where I’d sort of look at her as her character and think, even you don’t know what you’re going to do next and that really scares me. She brought so much more to it. It’s the same with Arby’s character, Neil Maskell brought more to that character than I think I gave him. Your job as a writer is to inspire talented people to take it further.
There’s going to be a second series of Utopia isn’t there?
There is. It’s currently being written. It’s being filmed in two months [speaking on the 22nd of August]. I’ve got two months before the first block. You film it in two blocks so episodes one, two and three, and then four, five and six. Marc Munden who directed one, two and three, and really set up the look for Utopia – and that’s what people talk about a lot when they talk about Utopia – he’s a brilliant director, more like a filmmaker than a TV director really, and he’s fantastic to work with. He’s come back and he’s going to do the first block again. He has a much more involved role in the whole series, which is great.
Can you give us any ideas about what series two might contain?
We’ve got a very odd first episode, which people are either going to really like or really say ‘what the fuck did you do that for?’ and I’ve got no idea what the reaction’s going to be. Some of the characters are coming back, you’ll definitely see Arby again, and Jessica. There’s a lot of people dead unfortunately and a lot of people will die [laughs].
Do you have a finite end for Utopia in mind?
I think I do, I think so, yeah. Not necessarily a good one. [Laughs].
Dennis Kelly, thank you very much!
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