It’s a sign of the times that Lisa McGee and Tobias Beer, the husband and wife writing duo behind Virgin Media One’s new thriller The Deceived, are speaking to the Irish Examiner from their new home in Belfast.
The move away from London was prompted by a mix of their eldest child starting school, McGee returning to her Northern Irish roots, and critically, a pandemic that seems to have reduced the importance of London as their work hub.
“We’d been wanting to move for a while, but the pandemic made it happen sooner. I love London but also, maybe a younger person’s game,” McGee adds.
Arguably, the UK’s capital has served its purpose for this creative couple. It’s where McGee became the National Theatre’s writer on attachment and wrote TV series like London Irish, Indian Summers and most famously, Derry Girls.
It’s where Beer delved into acting, both with the Royal Shakespeare Company and on screen. And it’s where the couple met in 2013, married, and had their two children: Joseph, 4, and Sean, 10 months. In the last few years, their projects took them back and forth anyway; last year in particular was spent mostly in Northern Ireland filming both Derry Girls and this new release.
The Deceived centres around an illicit affair between student Ophelia Marsh (Emily Reid) and the manipulative/charismatic Cambridge tutor Michael Callaghan (Emmett J Scanlan).
When his wife Roisin (Catherine Walker) mysteriously dies in a house fire, he returns to Co Donegal, and Ophelia follows. His manor house in the fictitious town of Knockdara becomes the setting for much eeriness and intrigue, particularly with Roisin’s death haunting their relationship.
The series follows in the largely lost tradition of suspense dramas like Dial M for Murder and Rebecca. Already released in the UK, where it aired on Channel 5, it received broadly good reviews that noted its faithfulness to the thrillers of yesteryear.
“We were worried about the tone of it, but luckily, a lot of the critics in the UK seemed to understand what we were nodding to. That was a relief,” says McGee.
Beer elaborates that “the rules of the Gothic genre are quite prescribed and you have to follow them to a certain extent. Like, you could wonder why Ophelia stays in the house and doesn’t just run away, but those are questions you can ask of all of those shows.”
“It’s the same when you’re watching Agatha Christie, and someone goes to a house to kill people one by one,” says McGee.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous when you think about it. It’s one of the hardest genres to make believable, and it takes really good actors. Catherine Walker especially has stuff that’s right on the edge of melodrama and being laughable.”
Happily, they weren’t short of revered cast members in the four-part series. You might recognise Scanlan from a number of high-profile roles like Gangs of London or Peaky Blinders, or even from his international breakthrough in Hollyoaks. (“He’s one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with,” notes McGee).
Unexpectedly, the biggest draw is Paul Mescal, who’s since become the breakout star of 2020 from his turn as Connell in Normal People. Playing Ophelia’s new friend in Knockdara, he was brought on the project by casting director Louise Kiely, who had also hired him for Normal People.
“In fact he had just finished shooting it,” recalls Beer. “He had one day off, and then he came to shoot with us. We can take no credit, and what's happened to him has been unbelievable. That overnight stardom doesn't really happen anymore these days.” “He's such a good actor as well,” adds McGee.
“It feels like some people were born for it. He was supposed to be a movie star. He's just incredible.” Derry Girls fans will also spot familiar faces – namely Ian McElhinney (better known as Da) and Louisa Harland (the quirky Orla). With the crossover of castere they concerned about inviting comparisons?
“We didn’t have that problem with Ian because he’s just in everything,” laughs McGee.
“When we were writing that role, it felt like it was going to be him. I wrote and told him we’d written this role and if he didn’t do it, we didn’t know what we were going to do. So he did thankfully. If we had a couple of the girls in it, it may have felt like a bit stupid, but we didn’t worry about having one or two cast members in it,” she continues.
“Louise was just perfect when she read for Clodagh, and she’s different in it. A lot of people didn’t realise it was her.”
The Deceived began while Derry Girls was still a twinkle in McGee’s eyes, but it took longer to see the light of day because of TV production hurdles and it proved tougher to write.
To clarify, the writing process was difficult because of the intricate story, rather than the potentially tricky husband-and-wife collaboration. “We never had to discuss that aspect, it just seemed to work,” says Beer.
“We worked out the story together early on, but when we were writing it, Lisa would go off and work on Derry Girls, and I’d write, and when she’d come back and work on it, I’d do something else. So we were never actually sitting in a room together working. And we don’t tend to fall out over work. Because it’s so important to us that it’s good and right, neither of us took it personally if an idea was changed. That’s key for any writing partnership.”
“I remember the start being relieved that you were so good,” McGee says of Beer (it turns out to be news to him).
“I knew we come up with a story together, but that's different from writing a 60-page television script. So when you turned in the first episode, it was a huge relief for me. There's just no way we could have made it work out of politeness, because it was too hard.”
Beer returns the compliment, saying “on my side, I've had someone right there, who’s been able to help and is so experienced. Very few people would have that. I feel like I’ve learned a lot. It might have taken much longer to get to this stage.” “It definitely takes longer if you’re not living with your script editor,” laughs McGee.
They’re already planning another writing partnership: an “epic crime-y drama” says Beer, currently a 10-part series that, they hint, will have a wide reach.
McGee is also busy with redrafting the third series of Derry Girls, which she’s still hopeful will air in 2021.
“Some of the stories, with the restrictions, will need to be tweaked slightly,” she explains.
“It’s complicated: there's a lot of people in it, and they’re often in small spaces, and there’s usually a guest character each week. So it's tricky to figure out all the ‘bubbling’ that needs to happen for it to work. But we’re getting there.”
The Deceived begins on Virgin Media One at 9pm tonight (Monday, Sept 7)