Sunday sees the start of an exciting new drama series on BBC1. What Remains is a mystery drama with a difference. When a young couple move into a new flat they are shocked to discover the body of a young woman in their attic. Who is she? How did she die? Why has no one reported her missing in two years? It’s a fascinating piece as much as about the neighbours and human nature as it is a whodunnit. In this interview for the BBC former Shameless actor David Threlfall talks about his role as investigator Len Harper.
What kind of a man is Len and what did you particularly like about playing this character?
He’s very quiet. He’s a good man. A quietly moral man is what I would say, someone who has an empathy with the way we live, particularly in a metropolitan borough, the way that we do or don’t look after each other, pay attention to each other or even care about each other, in an urban setting.
Len’s situation is that he lost his wife about a year prior to the start of the story from cancer, he’s got a brother that’s not very well, which gives an opportunity to soliloquise, if you like, to his brother about what he’s thinking. He’s a Detective Inspector on the lip of retiring but he feels that if this case is passed to uniform it’s not really got a high priority. There’s a desire in him which means that he cares about finding out the truth of why this woman has been left to rot for two years. It’s very different from what I’ve done previously, which I require really to stave off any moments of boredom.
What attracted you to this role?
The fact that it was work was very strong! It was just very different so that’s what attracted me to it. I couldn’t quite believe that Coky (Director) and Grainne (Producer) had come to me to ask me to do it. The writing hits you straight away and also the way Coky described what she wanted to do with it, the psychology of it. It’s not just about who has done this particularly heinous crime. I also didn’t spot the ending which is good!
The fact that it’s four episodes long and has a pace that you stick with. During the time the piece plays out I think you get to know all the characters that are involved in that particular block of flats, and what their back stories are, which come out very gently. It’s a very gentle process.
I’ve never been a detective before, the other interesting thing about that was to get in to the mindset of somebody who asks those kind of questions. There’s a certain logic or a persistence, that doesn’t come easy to me, so it was very interesting to play someone very meticulous.
I’ve seen a couple of episodes and I’m very very pleased to be part of it. I think the way it looks and the casting and the rhythm of the piece is great. We wouldn’t be here if Tony hadn’t written such a fantastic script. When you get scripts like that, actors smell it and they just want to be part of it and it’s great being part of that group and that I was able to do it.
Did you do much research into detective work before filming? If so, what did you do? Did anything from it stand out particularly?
As much as I could. I particularly watched a lot of interview techniques and that made me think about what kind of interviewer he was, how he would go about asking questions. He’s not good cop/bad cop, he’s not aggressive, he’s more the type to try and tease things out of people by asking if they can help him out in a situation. He’s got years of experience so is able to deal with all different types of people, from mouthy teenagers to people who are much more guarded about telling him the whole truth.
Why do you think Len is determined to resolve this case and why do you think he is so reluctant about his retirement?
Because of what he’s gone through personally. Policeman are human beings too. I think there’s just a compassion as a human being. You get a glimpse of his background as well as everybody else in the flats who are involved. You get a glimpse that it’s a rather solitary life and that he doesn’t quite know what to do with himself. He’s really not that happy about retiring, hence the suggestions about what he should do when he retires ,and I can relate to that. Acting is a job where you don’t have to do that, but when people get to that point where you go, one day you’re working the next day you’re not, what do you do with your life? I think that’s bothersome to him and at the same time he wants some kind of proper resolution, to discover whether there has been any foul play or whether this has just been a case of neglect, or whatever it might be. There are lots of plates spinning and he wants to be thoroughly meticulous and to really try and inhabit the world he’s investigating.
Melissa didn’t seem to have any friends. I think that’s something that Len identifies with because I don’t think he’s got many friends. For example in his interaction with his neighbour, he says how long have you been here, he says nine years, and of course he hasn’t seen him and he lives across the street.
What do you think Len’s relationship with Vidya is? Why does he let her get so involved in the case?
I think there was an instinct that, there’s one person who has died and one that’s about to be born as Vidya is pregnant. It might be an easy call but probably there’s a certain father daughter relationship. He and his wife never had children so maybe he’s just got to a point in his life. It came up because I remember asking why he would ask her to come up and have a look. I can only feel it’s to do with an instinct he has and a desire to start thinking about people. He still believes that even with computers, people still want that visceral contact as he’s naturally like that. It would naturally be a case for him of making human contact.
What was it like working with the other actors?
I’d wanted to work with Steven Mackintosh for years as I have a very high regard for him and I just did a couple of scenes with him, same for other people. I got to work with some people more than others but they were all delightful.
How does this part compare to other roles you’ve played in the past and what was it like playing such a different character to Frank Gallagher, especially so soon after finishing filming as him?
Yes. It was a great antidote to that, to move on to something so completely different. He looks different, sounds different and was born in a different area. As I say, I couldn’t believe my luck really because I landed on something that was just the antithesis of what I’d been doing previously and to go on from there to the other roles I’m now playing, they are all very different and I can’t complain about the variety of the stuff I’m getting, it’s keeping me interested. It’s good to be able to jump from one thing that’s different to another.
The whole idea of playing somebody very different after having played Frank for so long was a huge boost to my confidence. It’s more difficult to get satisfaction these days with the ways things can be structured. Not all the time, but in terms of the way things are cast to try and guarantee success. I’m not necessarily one of those people. There are luckily people out there who think: “Oh he’d be interesting, let’s see what he’s going to come up with and if it works, great.”
Do you think the premise of What Remains is reflective of society today? Similar incidents have been reported in the news.
Yes, there was a similar case that came up while we were filming. The beauty of doing the work that I do is that you get to drift and pop in to people’s lives and try and learn as much as you can about it, and then the beauty of it is you pop out again. But the good stuff makes you stop and consider how we do pay attention, or not, to each other’s lives as neighbours, or how we look out for each other. The good stuff has a resonance that makes you think about what’s going on in your life.
What can audiences look forward to with What Remains?
It’s a nice reminder that perhaps we should think about the helter skelter way we live these days, now and again. What it represents is this young girl that came to live in this place and for two years she was dead and, apparently, nobody, not just the people that live in those flats, but people around her, noticed. It’s a reminder about that and, I don’t necessarily think it will change people’s outlook, but it’s a nice reminder that, perhaps now and again, we may just want to keep a look out. Because of course people do that today and people feel you’re being intrusive.
I think the thing about the piece is that it is a whodunit but it’s got a thriller quality about it. It’s been beautifully and rhythmically handled, both in the way it looks and its pace. It’s been beautifully written and directed.
What Remains starts Sunday 25th August on BBC ONE