Murder on the Riviera
What U2’s former manager Paul McGuinness did next: the glamorous and decadent world of his sexy new Sky thriller starring superyachts, billionaires...and Julia Stiles
When Paul McGuinness, the so-called ‘fifth member of U2’ walked away from managing the band in 2013 after 35 years of unwavering service, he did so with a fortune estimated at €120 million. Retiring to a sumptuous villa at Eze-sur-Mer on the French Riviera, McGuinness found himself with a lot of time on his hands. After a few months of idleness, he decided he wanted to write a story. He didn’t have to look too far for material.
‘The Riviera is known for its beauty,’ he says. ‘One of the most beautiful things is the light, the very thing that drew artists like Matisse and Picasso to the area. But it’s equally famous for its darker corners. Somerset Maugham described it as “a sunny place for shady people”. That’s never changed. Wherever I went along the Côte d’Azur, there was always something a little shady in the air – Russian oligarchs, art crime, money laundering... it’s part of everyday life in this part of the world.’
Slowly, it dawned on him that the bare bones of his story were staring him in the face. And so he started sketching the outline of a drama about ‘rich people doing terrible things’.
These were the birth pangs of Riviera, Sky’s highly ambitious ten-part thriller that McGuinness developed with two old pals, Oscar-winning director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) and Booker Prize-winning author John Banville (The Sea). A whopping €46 million budget, huge for a television series, means that the project has attracted a stellar cast including Julia Stiles, Jason Bourne’s sidekick in the blockbuster movies, as glamorous lead Georgina Clios, Game Of Thrones star Iwan Rheon and theatre/television veteran Adrian Lester, best known for his roles in Hustle and Merlin. Lester also directs two episodes of the series.
It is a sign of TV’s elevated status that it has attracted Hollywood stars. ‘When I first started out you were either a movie actress or a television actress,’ Stiles says. ‘That’s all changed now. Movies have got smaller and television has got bigger. Riviera is big in all respects. Too big and too juicy to turn down.’
The series starts with a bang, ramps up the pace and barely pauses for breath until the final high-tension twist-’n’-reveal ten hours later.
Revelling in the Riviera’s chic boutiques, superyachts and dizzying art auctions, Georgina Clios’s world is thrown into chaos and danger when her billionaire husband is killed by an explosion aboard the yacht of a Russian oligarch and arms dealer. In the wake of his death, Georgina learns that she has to be ruthless in order to protect the rest of the Clios family from their enemies – and from each other.
Over the course of ten episodes, the series lifts the lid on the decadent lifestyles enjoyed by real-life denizens of the Riviera, where six-figure sums are spent on lavish parties; swimming pools are filled with €250 bottles of Cristal champagne; local crime lords use priceless art to buy arms and drugs; and art forgeries are traded like playground football stickers. Hundreds of beautiful extras were drafted in for one eye-popping orgy scene that took place on a superyacht.
Much of the action takes place in the stunning €12 million Renaissance-style castle in Grasse being used as the Clios family home. Complete with turrets, ornate fountains and statues, two helipads and three swimming pools, the Château Diter is the wedding venue of choice for oligarchs with money to burn and party venue of choice for pop stars and movie stars who like to party loudly but discreetly.
On the morning of TV Week’s arrival, Iwan Rheon is describing his shock at encountering the French Riviera for the first time. ‘It’s a long way from sleepy Carmarthen where I was born,’ he says. ‘When I first arrived here for filming, I didn’t want to touch anything because it all looked so expensive.’
For Rheon, the role of laid-back Adam Clios could not be further removed from the part of sadistic Ramsay Bolton in Game Of Thrones that transformed him from respected actor to global sensation. Ramsay provided GoT with some of its most shocking scenes, including the brutal wedding-night rape of Sansa Stark. For a time, Rheon was known as ‘the most hated man on TV’.
‘For Ramsay Bolton I imagined a cross between Heath Ledger as Batman, Dennis the Menace and Liam Gallagher,’ he says. ‘Adam
‘Making TV drama is a different thrill from seeing Bono and the boys up on stage. But it’s a thrill nevertheless’
Clios takes all this luxury from fancy yachts to ridiculously expensive restaurants for granted. He’s completely at home in it in a way that I never could be.’
Julia Stiles is no stranger to rubbing shoulders with the fabulously wealthy in Hollywood circles but, as she admits, the sheer scale of wealth on the French Riviera took her by surprise.
‘It’s the ostentatious nature of the wealth that’s so attention-grabbing. In most parts of America, open displays of wealth are considered gauche and vulgar. We choose to be more discreet about it. On the Côte d’Azur, selfimage and status are wrapped up in how you display your wealth, whether it’s how women dress or the size of a guy’s yacht.
‘I don’t like accumulating stuff for the sake of it. I’d rather spend money on experiences, whether it’s a nice meal or a holiday. I do share Georgina’s love of art but there are no Picassos hanging in my hallway. I collect stuff that is sentimental or meaningful to me, like a piece of graffiti art I bought from the set of the last Bourne movie.’
In 1982, the writer Graham Greene provoked outrage when, as part of his campaign against organised crime and police corruption in the area, he denounced the French Riviera as, ‘a haven of sleaze’.
‘The area is drenched in intrigue,’ says Stiles. ‘Wherever you go and whoever you meet, there seems to be a story ready to unfold. During the shoot, we’d go up and down the coast in a boat and hear tales about the yachts and their owners. There’s the Pelorus, said to have been given to Roman Abramovich’s wife Irina in their divorce settlement. Then there’s the luxury motor yacht Eclipse, also owned by Abramovich, who apparently employs divers to check for bombs underneath.
‘Nothing is straightforward here. And the very rich seem to believe that their wealth protects them from the slings and arrows of life’s outrageous fortune. But the wealth they’ve accumulated doesn’t make them happy or more loved. It doesn’t make them feel more secure or less neurotic.’
The series nearly didn’t get made at all. On July 14, 2016, just days before filming was due to commence, a 19-ton truck was driven into crowds celebrating Bastille Day in Nice; 86 people died and 434 were injured.
‘Production wobbled for a bit,’ says Adrian Lester. ‘Everyone was asking, “Is it on? Is it off?” We are shooting a drama where people lose their lives in the city where that attack took place. But the governing body of this region didn’t want Nice to be remembered just for that awful tragedy. They bent over backwards to help us.’
Aside from those early concerns, the shoot has been a smooth one with the three main stars (Stiles, Rheon and Lester) bonding over a mutual love of music. Stiles has been taking music lessons and never travels without her ‘baby’ banjo. Lester is an enthusiastic guitarist; Rheon was lead singer of rock band The Convictions. ‘The three of us would be jamming until 7am at a mid-shoot party,’ says Stiles.
As for Paul McGuinness, he’s left marvelling that an idea he scribbled on the back of an envelope 18 months ago has made it to the small screen.
‘It’s like rock ’n’ roll but different,’ he says. ‘The buzz of producing a television drama is not the same as the buzz I used to get watching U2 play to massive audiences every night. The logic of a rock ’n’ roll tour is that everything that happens during the day is resolved by the performance. When the show is finished you move on. It’s visceral and instantly satisfying. Making television drama is a much slower burn. A different thrill from seeing Bono and the boys up on stage. But a thrill nevertheless.’
All episodes of ‘Riviera’ will be available from June 15 on Sky Atlantic. Sky Q customers will also be able to watch ‘Riviera’ in Ultra HD.