Interview: Toby Whithouse on Cast Changes for ‘Being Human,’ ‘Doctor Who’
CAUTION: SPOILERS AHEAD: You’re an acclaimed TV writer, and you’ve worked hard to make fans fall madly in love with your characters. You’ve cast charismatic actors in the roles, and they’ve brought great dimension to your creations, realizing them far beyond what you had imagined. Your show is a success.
But what happens when those stars walk away, seeking new opportunities? Do you pack it all up or do you risk starting anew, rebuilding your relationship to the audience with new characters?
Toby Whithouse has chosen the latter with his creation Being Human, the original UK supernatural drama that has its fourth season premiere on BBC America this Saturday (February 25) at 9/8c. The epic finale of Season 3 saw the tragic, wrenching departures of vampire Mitchell (Hobbit-bound Aidan Turner) and werewolf Nina (Sinead Keenan), and original cast member Russell Tovey (Nina’s werewolf lover, George) will follow them out the door early in the new season. Lenora Crichlow‘s ghost Annie remains as the only link to the show’s original roommate trio, with two new lodgers, vampire Hal (Damien Molony) and werewolf Tom (Michael Socha), taking up residence alongside her.
Meanwhile, Whithouse is a contributing writer on the long-running sci-fi series Doctor Who, which will see the exit of the Doctor’s married companions Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill) in its upcoming season. Among TV fanbases, Whovians are uniquely accustomed to change. (Doctor Who‘s lead alien protagonist “regenerates” or shifts physical forms, which has allowed 11 actors to play the role over 50 years.) But for the new fans brought in during Matt Smith‘s current run as Time Lord, the departures of his beloved cohorts Amy and Rory may be heartbreaking.
In light of these massive changes, we spoke to Whithouse about what we can expect in the upcoming seasons of both series, including a hint of his upcoming Doctor Who episode.
ANGLO: What was the greatest challenge that you faced when dealing with the departures of not one but three primary cast members on Being Human?
WHITHOUSE: I think the major challenge I think, to be honest, was to manage the panic of the fans. Because creating new characters wasn’t a problem in as much as creating characters is my job. And every time I sit down and write an episode of Being Human, there are new characters in it. That wasn’t the daunting part. I was worried that fans would lose confidence in the show, and they would be unwilling to tolerate such a drastic change in the DNA. And certainly there was a lot of concern from them when it came out. Which, you know, is understandable.
But to be honest I was always relatively sanguine about creating a new show or creating a new generation of the show. Its essential DNA, its tone, its levity, and its character, and its humanity, — I knew that that was going to remain the same. So many of the ingredients were still intact: I was still writing it, we were going to have the same producer. I was kind of confident that we would be able to survive this transition and still make a show that people would like.
And I have to say the response – ‘cause what we’ve seen now where we’re nearly halfway through transmission in the UK – the response has been absolutely fantastic. And the new characters have gone down an absolute storm, which is obviously a huge relief for us because that was a big concern. But so far the changes seem to have been much smoother than we kind of dare imagined. And there have been a couple of fans who’ve rather guiltily confessed that they don’t miss George or Mitchell or Nina at all. And the new characters are so compelling – the new actors are so extraordinary, they are – that it feels as though the transition has been pretty smooth, despite everyone’s concern.
ANGLO: Were you laying the groundwork for all of these departures in previous seasons, and with Tom appearing in Season 3, did you know he was going to take a leading role when you created him?
WHITHOUSE: To a degree. The thing is, the problem with having actors as extraordinary as Aidan and Russell and Sinead and Lenora is that other people are gonna notice [them]. And to have held onto them for as long as we did was much more than we expected. We’ve always known that we were just borrowing them from super-stardom. The fact that they stayed with us all those years was fantastic, and for which we’ll always be very, very grateful. So it really didn’t come as any surprise to us that they felt it was time to move on.
In terms of laying the groundwork, because we always kind of knew that that day would come – and it would be a bit reckless of us to assume that we’d be able to hang on to Aidan Turner for 12 series – and so I think in a way you’re always slightly preparing yourself for it. For example, in Series Two, I involved Mitchell in the Box Tunnel Massacre. I knew that that ultimately would be why the character left the show. Now whether [he left at] the end of Series 3, or Series 33, I didn’t know. But by doing that, I knew that would ultimately provide the route out of the show for that character. Similarly, when we introduced Tom, we knew that Russell would at some point move on, and so we wanted to create a safety net for us, so that we could move a new character in. We had to prepare ourselves for that inevitability.
ANGLO: Tell us about Michael and Damien Molony (Hal). What do they bring to the show?
Well, I think you have to look at it in context of the new lineup. Because Michael works fantastically well with our new vampire character. And similarly both of them work wonderfully with Lenora, who is still around for series 4. The whole dynamic has changed of the show. When you lose one character, it’s slightly a bit of a domino effect. You can’t really [just] slot a new character in; everything changes. But what Michael has and what the character of Tom has is a kind of brutality and physicality that the character of George never had. Because Tom is somebody who has no recollection of being anything other than a werewolf. He is somebody who is completely immersed in the supernatural world. Whereas George was someone who was relatively new to it and still struggling to adjust to it. And certainly for all of Series 1 was in denial of it, whereas Tom obviously doesn’t know anything else.
Similarly, with our new character Hal the vampire, he is somebody who’s been a vampire for over 500 years. She doesn’t really understand or remember anything else. And what that allows us to do is kind of refitting the essential drive and motor of the show, because ultimately, at the very beginning, this show was about people who wanted to re-discover their humanity, and for one reason or another had had their humanity taken away from them. And it was a quest for them to re-discover it. And by introducing these new characters, who’ve spent much longer in the supernatural world, that opens up a fantastic new story dynamic, because it means that journey to humanity for them is infinitely longer and infinitely harder, and involves much more deconstruction of their beliefs and opinions and so on.
Going back to your first question, in terms of the challenges of losing the cast, it was more than a challenge, it was an extraordinary opportunity, because it allowed us to reboot the show and to re-find the essential and original headline of the show, which is about people finding their humanity.
ANGLO: Luckily, Lenora Crichlow remains as Annie, who has really been the heart of Being Human? How important is she as a character?
WHITHOUSE: Lenora is the heart of the show. As we’ve lost George and Mitchell and Nina, Annie moves center stage in Series 4. The way that she has grown as an actress over the last few years has been absolutely jaw-dropping. I think that she is without doubt one of the best comedy actresses of her generation. In episode 2 of Series 4, she gives one of the funniest performances I’ve ever seen. And I remember watching the first executive screening. She left us absolutely breathless and slack-jawed. She was stunning. I think part of the reason she’s the heart of the show is she can turn on a dime. She can have you crying with laughter and then crying with sorrow in the next breath. She’s an extraordinary actress. And we’re incredibly lucky to have her.