Updated: Sep 19, 2020
Introduction by David Nicholls, Author and Screenwriter. [Credit: BBC Press]
Often a story is a response to the one you've just told. My novel One Day was about the beginnings of a relationship - will they, won’t they get together? Us asked what comes next. Once the obstacles are overcome, how do a couple negotiate the long haul of marriage In most love stories this is where the screen fades to black, but what if you keep watching and perhaps add a child or two?
So Us is about marriage and family life and what happens when romantic love fades, or at least turns into something else. In most marriage stories, this means infidelity, but I wanted to write about a husband who wouldn’t dream of such a thing, who is in fact so devoted to the idea of ‘us’ - of holding his family together - that he sends them all flying apart, in this case to either ends of a continent.
It took a long time to get the novel right. Marriage demands a different kind of love story, one that incorporates frustration, irritation, miscommunication, boredom, rage and regret - and where’s the comedy in that?
Then there’s the tricky business of parenthood, and father/son relationships in particular. Perhaps someone finds this relationship relaxed and straightforward but I’ve not met them yet.
The breakthrough in writing the novel came with finding Douglas’s own voice - pedantic, pompous, sometimes witty, sometimes maddening, scornful of ‘emotional intelligence’ but full of a suppressed passion and love that he struggles to communicate. The greatest loss a novelist has to face up to when adapting for the screen is the loss of that inner monologue, the emotions and ideas the character thinks and feels but can’t or won't say out loud. But the great plus of adaptation is that Douglas now has a face and a voice, and I couldn’t be happier with Tom Hollander's magnificent performance. The pedantry is still there, the repressed emotion, the desire for things to be right, but he’s warm and funny and decent too.
Similarly, Saskia Reeves gives Connie wit and compassion, beautifully expressing the confusion of someone torn between love for their husband and frustration at the limits of the life they're leading. Tom Taylor has all of Albie’s maddening cynicism, idealism, confusion, the swagger that conceals confusion and self-doubt. Iain De Caestecker and Gina Bramhill bring a lovely charm and freshness to Douglas and Connie in their early days, and Sofie Gråbøl brings wonderful warmth and intelligence to the Freja, the stranger who threatens to derail Douglas's mission.
Us was originally conceived as a road-movie in novel form, a holiday that turns into a quest through some of the greatest cities in the world, and some of the greatest museums too. But words on the page aren't subject to schedules and budgets, and the endlessly shifting settings of Us are an organisational nightmare for TV production - all those hotels receptions and wary art galleries, the crowded tourist sites, dawn starts and finishes. Few words are more chilling for a production team than 'Exterior. Venice. Night'. But I'm delighted with the way in which producer Hannah Pescod, director Geoffrey Sax and their team have captured Europe on film, not just the beauty of these places, but the frustration, the sweat and stress of constant movement. The Petersens are not relaxed travellers and if something can go wrong, it will, but Us is a love-letter to Europe too, and I hope we've captured that on screen.
Family stories are hard to tell on screen. Without the twists and turns of the thriller, the medical drama or whodunit, events have to turn on a look, a smile, an ill-judged joke or misunderstanding. Despite the grandeur of the backdrop it's a chamber-piece, often a two or three-hander, about a family facing the possibility of life apart. Yes, it's about regret and loss and the spectre of loneliness, but I hope we've made something funny and uplifting too, something emotional and affecting that will have viewers recognising themselves and those around them, as one of 'Us'.
Us begins Sunday 20th September at 9pm on BBC One.