For Merman’s new Sky comedy drama, Dreamland, the team headed to Margate to create a show filled with bright seaside colours, but with a dark edge too. Pippa Considine reports
Dreamland, which releases on Sky in April, is the latest in Merman’s slate of comedy drama series. It follows in the footsteps of hits Motherland for the BBC and Bad Sisters for Apple TV+.
Based on a BAFTA-winning Sky short and named after the Kent town’s amusement park, the six-part series is firmly in the Merman mould, with interesting, mostly female characters, directed, produced and written by women.
“That blend of comedy drama is quite a delicious mix to us,” says Clelia Mountford, co-founder of Merman and executive producer for Dreamland, “darker secrets, but always navigating through comedy.…It starts with this family dynamic that we all recognise.”
Dreamland is the story of a working-class family living in the seaside town of Margate. When one of the sisters Mel, played by Lily Allen, returns home, her revelations threaten to destroy fragile relationships. Sister Trish played by Freema Agyeman is pregnant with partner Spence’s (Kiell Smith-Bynoe) child. Her two sisters, Clare (Gabby Best) and Leila (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) rally round with mum (Frances Barber) and Margate legend, nan (Sheila Reid).
A lot has changed since the short, released in 2017. While producer Jane Bell and cast members Frances Barber, Gabby Best and Aimee-Ffion Edwards are still on board, Morgana Robinson and Sheridan Smith are replaced by Lily Allen and Freema Agyeman. Co-founder of Merman Sharon Horgan wrote the original; a team of women writers took on the series. “You could see that there would be other stories to tell,” says Mountford. “It was a good springboard.”
“We had to work out what the central dramatic question was, who the family were,” says Mountford. “We looked at possibly making it more relevant to contemporary life and casting a mixed-race actor…So we could explore that family dynamic.” As well as a seaside fun town, Margate is an erstwhile UKIP stronghold.
Sky head of comedy Jon Mountague and Sky commissioner Alex Moody (who worked on Motherland at the BBC) supported Merman, “all of us trying to struggle to find the show,” says Mountford. “But once we found it, it was full steam ahead.”
Mountford and Horgan had sounded out Lily Allen after her success in the West End. Dreamland is her first major TV role. “She’s an interesting, original choice and we have to think in an original way for Sky in terms of casting,” says Mountford. “But it’s not the Lily Allen show, it’s an ensemble. Equally important was the casting of Freema.”
With cast in place and script coming together, Ellie Heydon was brought in to direct. Heydon is an actress-turned-director, who has directed theatre and award-winning short films. Dreamland is her first long form TV directing gig.
Merman loved her shorts, her ideas, her enthusiasm. “She really understood the characters and the show,” says Jane Bell. “She spoke the same language as the cast,” adds Mountford. The plan was to surround her with trusted crew. “It was key to get those relationships where there’s the experience, but not necessarily the ego, so what you get is just a lovely bunch of people,” says Bell.
While Heydon didn’t have the TV experience, her time in the theatre gave her practical insight. “Theatre directing is more hands on, you have the creative reins, it sets you up for TV in a brilliant way,” she says.
She was involved early in the writer’s room and made a point of asking each cast member to share a meal with her. “As soon as I met them, I could lean into their sense of humour and see how to make the most of the dynamics between each sister.
“It took about a week and half to gauge what each individual actor needed… facilitating the actors so they feel that they can have valuable input, rather than paint by numbers.” Gabby Best and Kiell Smith-Bynoe, “both very good improvisers and really fun… they needed a lot more freedom and looseness.” With Sheila Reid, “everything’s funny, she’s a wonder woman of humour.”
Costume, design, make-up fed into each character through careful planning.
Heydon created a production bible that she describes as “a pitch document, with the tone, framing, the look, the colour, the feel, key references… So, we were all on the same page.” Costume designer Helen Woolfenden, make-up artist Jo Jenkins, production designer Simon Walker “took it and ran with and created vision boards beyond my wildest dreams.”
The colours were largely bright and garish, “an injection of a summer holiday,” says Heydon. She worked with Walker on a colour scheme based around a beach ball. “It manifested for each sister with a colour on the ball, each colour a jumping off point for the palette for their houses…. The tone and personality of each sister distilled to a colour.” The palette stretched from French noir for Allen’s character Mel, to animal print for Nan. Each sister had their place on the spectrum.
The grade leaned into the brightness, with flashbacks being cloudy and the look slightly redder when the setting is Margate.
Bright, but not too bright. Working closely with DoP Rob Kitzmann, they added texture and something slightly softer, by using dappling light as much as possible, “so the sun felt it was there without becoming a blanket of light,” says Heydon.
Merman fought for a week of rehearsal time before the six-week shoot, which was divided between Margate and London, with most of the exteriors being shot in Kent. They were on location in the record-breaking heatwave of July last year.
Margate became “a central heartbeat for the shape, style, shooting of the show,” says Heydon. She spent several weekends in the town beforehand, describing its “gorgeous eccentricity and uniqueness…. I wanted to make sure the show was rooted in authenticity, specific to Margate, not a generic British seaside town.”
The crew were as supportive as Bell and Mountford had hoped. First AD Chris May was a “lifeline.” Heydon calls Kitzmann “a calm, sensitive and collaborative presence.”
They shot on a Sony Venice with spherical lenses, Cooke S4, aspect ratio 1:2:39, “which was a choice to get those wide, expansive shots and make the most of bringing the exterior in and trying to involve as much of our ensemble in juicy group shots,” says Heydon.
Editors Mark Henson and Garrett Heal were “super collaborative and supportive. It felt like we were creating something together.” Heydon found the daily assembly from Henson a comfort. “He cut really tight, and I found that helpful to see which comedy would land.
“Sometimes a scene wouldn’t be working and they’d flick through a music library and the scene would be elevated.”
“Music was key in setting the tone against all of those lovely colours,” says Jane Bell. “The brief was fairground, but with darker tones, minor chords to hint that it’s not all sunny seaside town without a care in the world.
“It’s a Merman show We didn’t want to go too bright and shiny” she notes. “There’s darkness in it as well.”
It’s also a Heydon show and, as such, is a flag in the ground for giving opportunities to breakthrough women directors. “For a while I thought I’m going to have to learn to be more dominant, more of a ball basher,” says Heydon. “But this job gave me the confidence to think they employed you because of the way you are.”
In the searing July temperatures, she kept her cool, and took her team with her. “She was leading the heads of department and crew into the sea at the end of the day,” says Bell.
Production company Merman
Writers Emma Jane Unsworth, Gabby Best, Sarah Kendall, Sharma Walfall
Cast Frances Barber, Freema Agyeman, Lily Allen, Gabby Best, Sheila Reid, Aimee-Ffion Edwards, Kiell Smith-Bynoe
Commissioner Jon Mountague, director of Comedy, Sky Studios
Director Ellie Heydon
Executive producers Sharon Horgan, Alex Moody, Clelia Mountford, Alex Moody
Producer Jane Bell
Showrunner, Associate producer Emma Jane Unsworth
Cinematographer Rob Kitzmann
First AD Chris May
Production Design Simon Walker
Art Direction Ellie Jones
Costume design Helen Woolfenden
Make up Jo Jenkins
Locations Mandy Edwards
Editors Mark Henson, Garrett Heal
Colourist Joe Stabb
Sound recordist Simon Dyer
Re-recording mixer Gavin Allingham
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