Serial killer drama The Fall went out with a terrifying flourish, with career best performances by Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan. We talk to one of the show’s stars, Bronagh Taggart, and ask why this chilly thriller became such a word of mouth hit.
In the third year of the BBC and RTÉ series The Fall, writer and show-runner, Allan Cubitt, decided to take things in a very different direction. In what was a very daring move in TV terms, he switched from a focus on the noir-ish streets of post-Troubles Belfast, to somewhere exponentially more chilling: the diseased recesses of the mind of The Fall’s central criminal character, Paul Spector, played by Jamie Dornan.
Uniquely, then, here was a serial killer romp that was serious about the motives of the murderer. What could turn an apparently stable and successful family man – the face Spector presented to the world – into an homicidal maniac with a soaraway strangling fetish?
The result: a gripping psychodrama that combined the starkness of a Beckett play with the gloss and grit of the best Scandi noir. This was, hands down, one of the most stunning television moments of 2016 – and a worthy recipient of the Hot Press television show of the year accolade.
“It took a while for me to get my head around just how popular the series was,” says Bronágh Taggart, who plays Detective Constable Gail McNally, a steely foil to DCI Stella Gibson, played by the extraordinary Gillian Anderson. “You’d turn up on set and see all these people queuing outside. And they weren’t from just down the road – they had come from all over the world. It’s a sign of how good the show is that it had carried so well.”
What was most impressive, however, was how The Fall cast aside the tired tropes of the serial killer genre. The action in the third series picked up seconds after Spector had been gunned down by vengeful gangster James Tyler, who believed the Belfast Strangler was having an affair with his wife (his anxieties were misplaced: Spector was more interested in throttling women than sleeping with them).
“We’re losing him,” shrieked Gibson as she cradled her quarry – though, in fact, Spector’s ultimate fate was far less straightforward. As he recovered in hospital, Spector claimed, with conviction, not to have any memory of the crimes of which he was accused. Cubitt had lead us into a moral maze, as we were invited to consider whether a person could or should be held accountable for deeds of which they have no recollection and which they appear honestly horrified by.
ELEMENT OF TRUTH
In parallel with Spector’s recovery, DCI Gibson and her crew delved into the strangler’s back history and uncovered further horrific evidence of his depravity. This made for uncomfortable viewing – exactly as Cubitt intended. He had, after all, initially conceived of The Fall as a riposte to all those glossy thrillers in which men inflect endless horrors upon women, the violence amped up for our titillation.
The objective, he has stated, was to strip away the glamour and explore the psychological forces that fuel violent misogyny. The irony was that Cubitt was himself accused of misogyny, with one Daily Mail columnist condemning The Fall an “invitation to share an extended rape fantasy.” “Being accused of misogyny when you’re not a misogynistic person, and indeed your entire raison d’être is the reverse of that, feels like an artistic failure,” Cubitt told the Radio Times. “But at the same time I’m long enough in the tooth to know that you have no way of controlling the responses. People will bring what they will bring to bear.
“There has been one female death in The Fall across the first 11 episodes. The other ones are reported, but I only showed the murder of one woman on screen, which I needed to do to show what it was that Paul Spector [Jamie Dornan’s character] was about.
“I don’t expect to be applauded for my restraint, but I do think that compared with a great many other dramas I could mention, The Fall has never indulged itself in that way. The most violent thing we did was to show Spector kill a man [Joe Brawley] in series one.”
Cubbitt feels that The Fall has been a victim of ‘guilt by association’, with a number of other shows graphically depicting violence against woman.
“I watched the first season of [French zombie drama] The Returned, which I liked in many ways,” Cubbitt observed, “but there’s a [scene with] a woman who’s walking and wearing a PVC cat suit because it’s Halloween, and she’s attacked, stabbed, and then the killer makes an attempt to devour her internal organs on camera. It’s a zombie drama on some level. So I think one of the things is that The Fall disconcerts – because hopefully there’s an element of truth.”
Given the subject matter, the atmosphere on set was understandably serious. However the cast and crew did their best to lighten the mood.
“With something so heavy and dark, people tried to pull themselves out of it as soon as possible,” says Taggart. “It’s not something you want to carry around with you all day. We can still have light-hearted moments. It’s harder for the leads: they were dealing with really difficult stuff. My character was on the police task force, so I was working a lot with Gillian – that was great.”
Anderson puts in a career-best turn as the buttoned-down Gibson, a vacuum-sealed control freak, who signals her distance via pastel blouses and chilly gazes. Was it intimidating to act opposite such a world class performer ?
“Gillian was a hero of mine, even before The Fall,” Bronagh says. “She is someone I would have looked up to. Of course you want to make sure you are at the top of your game when you are in company like that.”
What of Dornan, who imbues Spector with a slow-burn menace, so that your blood runs cold as he cranks his neck or narrows his eyes?
“Was Jamie Dornan intimidating?” she half laughs. “Not at all, he’s the sweetest guy, so polite and unassuming.”
Alongside the mesmerising psychodrama, The Fall doubled as a showcase for Belfast. Cubitt gave us the city as moody future-scape: all glittering skyscrapers and slate skies. The old Troubles cliches were mercifully absent.
“Allan loves Belfast – he knows more about it than I do and I was born there,” Taggart chuckles. “He really captured what outsiders are struck by when they come to Belfast. It was something we had never seen on TV before. Everything was always Troubles-related. The Fall wasn’t embedded in that.”
For the benefit of those who have not yet caught up with the season, we will refrain from spoiling the ending. Suffice to say that The Fall won’t be returning in its present form, though Anderson had indicated she is open to revisiting the character of Stella Gibson in a few years.
In the meantime, Taggart has plenty on her plate. She works both as actress and screenwriter, with filming about to start on Guard, a Belfast-set short she has penned, which is set amid the city’s boxing community (her director husband, Jonathan Harden, will oversee the shoot). The budget was raised via a crowdfunding campaign – a process Taggart found gruelling, but ultimately inspiring.
“I wrote it about a year ago,” she recounts. “I mostly write for television and act in TV and film. I’ve always fancied making that transition into writing for film. A short tends to be the stepping stone. This one is about a young Belfast woman who becomes obsessed with boxing. “Her world is thrown up in the air when the father who had been out of her life walks back in. He can’t believe the transformation and becomes her trainer. It’s about a father and daughter trying to connect. Towards the end, we discover this isn’t as straightforward as they believed.”
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