A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES
NEW FANTASY SHOW A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES IS MADE FOR OUR TROUBLED TIMES, AS STEVE O’BRIEN FINDS OUT ON SET…
Deborah Harkness’s bestselling tales of sorcery and vampirism are coming to TV. We go where the magic happens.
As love stories go, a passionate amour between a lapsed vampire and a reluctant witch isn’t exactly from the Catherine Cookson school of literary romance, but it’s still an affair that has enraptured 3.5 million readers worldwide since Diana Bishop – she’s the witch – and matthew Clairmont – he’s the vampire – made their inky debut in 2011.
it seems only fitting then that SFX is on set for sky one’s bounteously budgeted adaptation of Deborah Harkness’ bestseller A Discovery of
Witches on valentine’s Day 2018. though what’s lensing today isn’t a torrid sex scene, nor a candlelit dinner of oysters and Canard-Duchêne. no, for teresa palmer, who plays Diana, it’s being hung upside down over a well by an evil witch while caked from head to toe in mud.
“sorry, i’ve got really dirty hands,” she says sheepishly as she reaches out to shake SFX’s hand half an hour later. no worries, we offer, it looked pretty hairy hanging there. “that scream you heard was real,” she cracks.
if you’re thinking there’s something a little tennant-era Doctor Who about that stunt, maybe it’s not surprising. A Discovery Of Witches is the first drama to emerge from the high-pedigree stables of Bad Wolf, a Cardiff- and la-based production outfit founded by former Doctor Who supremos Julie gardner and Jane tranter. not only that, but all this is taking place just seven minutes’ trot from Doctor Who’s roath lock HQ, in the Welsh capital’s newest film and tv centre, Wolf studios, a massive production space managed and designed by the two Js.
so this isn’t the first time gardner and tranter have found themselves launching a fantasy brand with an unshakably loyal, built-in fanbase. since its publication in 2011, Harkness’ doorstopper has been translated into more than 36 languages and birthed two sequels – Shadow Of Night and The Book Of Life – to make up what’s known as the All Souls trilogy.
a long-time aficionado of magic and the occult, american academic Harkness made her debut as a fiction writer with A Discovery Of
Witches, set in a world where witches, demons and vampires live, mostly anonymously, alongside humans. through the centuries, the three groups have remained defiantly separate, until now, that is, when Diana Bishop meets matthew Clairmont…
“she’s not at all interested in being a witch at the beginning of the series,” palmer tells us, her sunny la face still streaked with Cardiff mud. “she’s running away from that aspect of her life. she has a really dark past. Her parents were very well-known witches, and their lives ended because they were witches. there’s like bad juju surrounding that whole world for her, and she just doesn’t want to have any part of it.”
on the lam from her witchy heritage, Diana Bishop took up an academic career, becoming a history professor (rather like Deborah Harkness) at oxford university. Yet it’s here, in oxford’s hallowed
Bodleian library, that the past catches up with her when she chances upon an ancient manuscript that chronicles the origins of the supernatural creatures of the world, a book that’s coveted by demons, witches and vampires alike.
enter 1,500-year-old vampire matthew Clairmont, played here by the velvety matthew goode. although Clairmont has a bloody past in terms of feasting on human prey, in 2018 he’s content to gorge on stags instead of people. “He’s in a period of his life where he’s trying to control that side of things,” goode tell us, in between heavy puffs on his ever-present vape, “and his main thrust of the story is to try to find the book of life.”
although the story is rooted in a pictureperfect oxford (think of the city through a honeyed richard Curtis lens), A Discovery Of
Witches wastes little time in jetting off to France, italy, Finland and new York state, giving the show a sumptuously international feel. in fact, Woodstock, nY looms large in the series, being home to Diana’s deliciously oddball aunt, sarah (played by alex Kingston) and sarah’s lover, emily (valarie pettiford). and it’s in their cosily rustic, books-strewn, cat-infested, wine-stained cottage that SFX finds itself, drinking in the tiny details that the set dressers have spent weeks adding, including childhood photographs of the young Diana, that, we’re told, come straight from the family collection of teresa palmer.
A Discovery Of Witches is the first drama to be lensed at Wolf studios, which, at 250,000 square feet, is now one of the country’s largest production spaces. it’s an indicator then of the dough sky are throwing at this series, and its confidence to take on the big beasts of the fantasy genre. it’s perhaps fortunate that Warner Bros never got to make their planned movie trilogy (the rights elapsed in 2015, allowing Bad Wolf to snap them up), as the books are too rich, too thick with characters and subplots to survive being boiled down. post-Game Of Thrones, authors are looking to tv, as opposed to cinema, as the medium that will do justice to their literary work with the least amount of compromise and castration.
But Game Of Thrones this new series isn’t. instead, this is a bright and bold, proudly
we don’t treat witches, demons and vampires like they’re monsters
romantic, mass-audience prestige drama, that feels much more suited to the realm of sky one than sky atlantic.
“it’s not Game Of Thrones,” clarifies Jane tranter, “but no way is it Twilight either.” instead, she argues that the unfolding story in
A Discovery Of Witches becomes “a metaphor for an acceptance of the other.
“our world is divided into four different species – humans, witches, vampires and demons – and we treat them all equally,” she says. “it doesn’t show witches, demons and vampires as monsters, it shows them as a different species.”
realism is one of the tonal watch-words on this set. vampires are a difficult species to master in 2018, without appearing camp or arch. so there are no vampiric fangs in the more grounded world of A Discovery Of Witches, and goode politely bats away any idea that his matthew echoes any of the other great screen vamps. instead, he found his inspiration not in nosferatu or lestat de lioncourt, but swiss tennis ace roger Federer. Well, duh.
“Federer looks like a vampire in a weird way,” grins goode. “i’m supposed to be the most formidable assassin of all time, certainly from the vampire world, and he’s an assassin on the court. i thought he was quite a good person to base the performance on, physically.”
For teresa palmer, A Discovery Of Witches’s Diana is not only her first telly lead, but her first tv period. and make no mistake, this is Diana’s series.
“Without even knowing it, she’s the most powerful witch that’s ever existed,” palmer explains. “Her parents realised what an insanely powerful little person she was, so they spellbound her for her own protection.”
What are her powers though? is she more Willow rosenberg or professor mcgonagall? “she has the power of witch wind,” she explains. “she sort of opens her mouth and a tornado-like wind comes out of her and she can blow anyone away. she can witch water, which is essentially like she can cause a tsunami, and she can make things move.”
the powers that manifest in this first series, are, we’re assured, just grazing the surface of Diana’s supernatural talents.
“i haven’t read the second book yet,” palmer confesses. “i will – but i know that they delve more into her powers.”
ah, that second book. the eight episodes of series one tell the story of the first book, and the plan is, viewing figures permitting, for two more series to finish off the literary trilogy. after that, who knows. tranter is open to the idea of the show doing its own thing post series three, but even she, as a “relentless optimist”, isn’t taking anything for granted.
“i would rather make three seasons perfectly – well, as perfectly as possible – than i would make four seasons less well,” tranter says, “so i think we’ll just have to work our way through and see.”
although it’s been in development for three years now, it seems that the time has never been more right for a female-fronted drama, penned by a predominantly female body of writers, produced by two of the industry’s starriest woman producers and based on a bestselling series of novels by a female academic (“we’re nicely female driven, but it wasn’t entirely deliberate,” smiles tranter). and in this politically brittle time where fear of the outsider, fear of the different is now sadly part of the social zeitgeist, A Discovery Of Witches is putting a simple, but positive message out there for these troubling trump-era times.
“it’s a dramatisation of the need for acceptance and tolerance and for all to be treated equally,” says tranter proudly, adding, “it’s a love letter to our world, but one told through a species other than human, a love letter to the world as a beautiful place but one where darkness lies…”
Diana runs from her witchy past to become an Oxford historian.
To be a vampire, perfect the art of glowering.
He’d watched 8 Mile far too many times.
Neck kisses are just how you say hello as a vampire.