The Woman in the Wall, a six-part BBC One mystery drama created by Joe Murtagh and starring Ruth Wilson and Daryl McCormack, is made by Motive Pictures. It launched this week.
This is a BBC interview with Joe Murtagh, the writer and creator.
Can you tell us about the premise of The Woman In The Wall and what compelled you to tell this story?
The show is a fictional story about a woman called Lorna Brady, played so brilliantly by Ruth Wilson, who was a former inmate of one of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries. The story begins in 2015, where we find her with quite a strange sleepwalking habit, and it really kicks off when she finds a dead woman’s body in her house and has absolutely no idea who this person is or how she got there. Or more importantly, if she herself is in any way responsible for what appears to be a murder.
She has no clear memory of the previous night’s event, but it soon comes to light that that this person may have been able to tell her what happened to the daughter she gave birth to in a Mother and Baby Home 30 years ago, and whom she was torn away from. She decides to conceal the body to give herself enough time to start a sort of amateur investigation to find out what happened to her daughter and if she’s in any way responsible for this person’s murder or not.
As for the inspiration behind the series, primarily it was coming across the real-life stories of the Magdalene Laundries. I just couldn’t believe what I was reading. It was Peter Mullins’ film The Magdalene Sisters that first introduced me to it. I couldn’t believe that it had happened, but I also couldn’t believe that I didn’t know that all this had happened.
Anyone I spoke to after that didn’t know what I was talking about, and most people outside of Ireland didn’t know that this has even occurred. And then I’d read the last one closed in 1996. And so, primarily, I was inspired to do this just by a sense of outrage, I guess you’d call it. And I wanted to do it in a very particular kind of way where, because it was so unknown, I wanted to kind of cast the net wide, and get the story out there to as wide an audience as possible.
Please introduce us to our lead characters in the series, Lorna Brady and Detective Colman Akande.
When we first meet Lorna Brady (Ruth Wilson) she has a strange sleepwalking habit, and we’re not really sure where it’s come from, or how this has begun. In the small fictional town of Kilkinure it’s become weirdly accepted in a way that people just whisper about it happening, and they make fun of her for it, but no one really openly acknowledges it. Her story kicks off when she discovers a dead body in her house and has no idea if she’s responsible for the murder or not. Because of her sleepwalking habit and because of her past, she can’t fully trust herself, so she’s the ultimate unreliable protagonist.
She then comes to learn that this dead person in her house has a very unique connection to her past and may well hold the key to knowing what happened to her daughter who was taken away from her at birth. She comes to conceal the body and begin an amateur investigation where she’s playing both detective and prime suspect – she’s sort of investigating herself and whether she was responsible for this woman’s death.
Colman Akande (Daryl McCormack) is a detective from Dublin, who begins our story, investigating what seems to be an unrelated murder case of a priest in Dublin. But when the priest’s car turns up in Kilkinure – the town that Lorna’s from – he has to go to Kilkinure for the investigation. It’s not long before we realise that the two cases are linked – the dead woman on Lorna’s floor and the dead priest in Dublin.
So, Colman starts out very much as an antagonist to Lorna, with him being the detective who is after her without even really realising he’s after her specifically. But it’s not long either before we’re going to realise that there is a really personal element to this for Colman too, where it’s revealed that he himself was born in a Mother and Baby home in Dublin. It’s this personal element that’s going to be driving him and getting him into lots of trouble, going a bit rogue.
The Woman In The Wall is multi-layered – examining a horrific tragedy in Ireland’s history, while also telling a compelling whodunit crime drama. Can you talk about how the two elements work side by side, and why you decided to take this approach as a writer?
In order to tell a story about Magdalene Laundries, I wanted to tell it in such a way that it would reach as wide an audience as possible. And so, I leaned away from doing a straightforward drama or social-realist peace, and I wanted to kind of blend it with genre, partly because that’s also my natural sensibilities as a writer. That’s the kind of stuff I like to write and the kind of stuff that I like to watch. But it also felt like an interesting challenge to try and tell a compelling ‘whodunnit’ crime drama, not just in a way that would sort of get the issues we explore out to as many people as possible, but in a way that it would hold its own too.
My hope is that someone in a random corner of the world, someone who’s never heard about the Magdalene Laundries is going to sit down to watch this show because they want to watch a heightened type of murder mystery, and it will totally deliver on that and they will be engaged by it but then by the end of all, they’ve also learned all about the Magdalene Laundries too. So, I wanted to do both of those things to make each element better.
What were your motivations and inspirations for the series?
There was definitely the subject matter of course, which is the Magdalene Laundries and the Mother and Baby homes, other similar institutions in Ireland which were state-funded and run by the church. It was also partly the fact that very little has been done around these institutions. There was a state apology to the survivors and victims in 2013, and there’s been compensation schemes but not much else beyond that. This still isn’t taught in the Irish curriculum.
We spoke to charities quite a lot during the research process for this series, and when you see that the way that these people were treated and the way they’re still being treated, it’s infuriating. I think there’s still a long way to go. When it comes to the tone of the series I was looking at Hitchcock and Coen Brothers, filmmakers like Martin McDonagh, who blend genre really well or do one particular type of genre really well. They were the inspirations for the storytelling, tone and genre.
Despite the fact that the drama is inspired by real-life events, the town and the events that happen to the characters in the story are totally fictionalised. Why did you take that route into the story?
For a couple of reasons. We didn’t want to link ourselves to any one particular place, person or series of persons. We wanted to protect the survivors in that sense. It was also to give ourselves the opportunity to collate as many of these stories. By setting it in a fictional town, we could imagine our own Laundry and Mother and Baby Home and could create a whole bunch of new characters who’ve had experiences very similar to many real different women from across the country.
That was the thing that probably excited me most about having a fictional town, was to allow us to tell as many of those stories from across the country, while still setting it in quite heightened world. It allowed for our town to be quite busy, and for there to have been quite a lot of terrible things happen there.
It’s such an incredibly dense and delicately layered piece, but with a lot of twists and turns. How was staggering that and structuring a thriller?
Having the writers’ room was a definitely a huge help. We had really cool writers involved, Margaret Perry, Courttia Newland, Miriam Battye, Jamie Hannigan, who helped me do exactly that. The way that I tend to go about it is that from the beginning that I have milestones set in my head, for example, I knew how episode three was going to end before I even started writing episode one. I knew that this scene would be in episode five, and that scene would be the middle of episode six, etc. etc… So, for me, it was setting up these milestones, and then tying up the gaps in between them.
The way I tend to work is sometimes I’ll think of a moment that just seems really cool or mad to me, and I think, okay, “How can I make this work?”, which is the exact opposite of what you’re supposed to do as a writer. You’re supposed to allow your characters to take you to that point, and we do do that. But there is something that comes out of just kind of painting yourself into a corner for a moment and seeing if you can work your way out of it. Because if you can, in a way that stays true to your characters and to the tone of the story you’re trying to tell, then you get to have your cake and eat it. You have an amazing moment that hopefully feels true to form, and not contrived. Because when that stuff doesn’t work, you just throw it out. That’s the benefit of being able to throw everything at the wall and think up some mad ideas.
What was your research process when writing the scripts? Did you speak to any Laundry survivors to gather first-hand accounts of their experiences?
Yes, we did. Initially we did our own research, and we had our own researcher on the project who was amazing. That was a case of trawling through all of the first-hand accounts that were available from these women. Watching all the films, all the documentaries, reading all the books and all the newspaper articles we could find. And after we felt like we had a solid foundation, we then reached out to a number of different charities and groups.
We had a consultant who was incredible, she was able to help guide us a little better and was able to answer our much more specific questions, and when we all felt comfortable we reached out to a few survivors via her and spoke to them first-hand about their accounts. That was just incredible. By that point, we’ve read dozens of accounts and we’ve watched interviews, but still nothing quite prepares you to hear those stories first-hand from another human being who’s actually been through this experience. What was really inspiring was who they were as people. I feel so fortunate to have been able to speak to them. It was also really, really inspiring for them to just be so behind the idea of the project.
The Magdalene Laundries began in Ireland in the late 1700s, followed by Mother & Baby Homes in the 1900s. Shockingly, the final Laundry did not close until the late 90s close to when this story is partly-set in the mid-80’s. Many people in Ireland will remember these tragic events but why do you think it’s important to tell this story to audiences today?
I would say that while people in Ireland know about this, I would argue that a lot of them still don’t fully know that all the details as much as they think they do. So, it’s important for that reason, of course, within Ireland, to tell this story. You can always know more. But then, for people living outside of Ireland, most don’t know about this at all. When I tell people that last laundry closed in 1996, and the last Mother and Baby home closed in 1998, they can’t believe it, because the stories sound so medieval – they are medieval.
It’s hard to say why people don’t know about this. It’s interesting that such an incredibly awful, harrowing piece of Irish history that ceased to exist relatively recently, isn’t more well known. It’s hard for that not to feel like an active act of repression, or covering this up, or brushing this under the rug. It’s this sense of shame that stopped people talking about this for years, and I feel like it’s still stopping people from talking about it. It is still affecting quite a lot of people, and there must be thousands more who don’t even know that they’ve been affected by it. The further you get into it, when you start reading about illegal adoptions, and falsifying death certificates in order to prevent birth mothers from finding their sons and daughters, this idea of “move on” just isn’t tenable.
What is your hope for the series?
If I have one hope, it’s that this will start a conversation about the events that took place. That would be my one hope – as simple as that. I have lots of other hopes, obviously I want people to enjoy the series, I want it to do well, I want people to watch it. I want them to be entertained by it as a thriller and as a detective story and all those things. But mostly, I just want to start a conversation.
As I mention earlier, I want someone to sit down watch the series, someone who has never heard about this before, and then I want them to start looking into it, and to start talking to their friends about it, saying “I can’t believe this actually happened”. I want it to start a conversation.
There is a lot of dark humour within the scripts, can you tell us about your decision to include it?
I don’t know if I’d call that a decision as much as that it’s just my natural instinct, my natural way to write – especially when it gets to anything uncomfortable. And this is deeply uncomfortable. Maybe that’s an Irish thing in general. It’s definitely my natural way of writing, just to go at it with some comedy. I also find that the dark humour, it’s weirdly more realistic – in my life experience anyway – than just doing a straight drama.
I find that in the most horrific experiences in life, there’s always weird moments of humour and things that don’t quite belong. Someone saying something the wrong way, or it not coming out quite right – that I think is just realistic. So, I would say it’s a natural instinct. But at the same time, if I stop and think about it, it’s probably the perfect way to tell a story like this.
There is an incredible ensemble cast supporting Ruth and Daryl, can you talk to us a bit about them and the casting process?
Yes. Oh, my God, I loved the casting process. It just makes you realise the level of talent in Ireland, it’s incredible for such a small country. Genuinely incredible. We were genuinely spoilt for choice in a way that kind of broke my heart. There were so many other actors that I just wished I could have written more parts for. I could not be happier with the entire cast, including Simon Delaney, Hilda Fay, Phillipa Dunne, Ardal O’Hanlon – these people are just incredible.
When you think of our two leads in terms of the POV of the show, 90% of it is looking either through Lorna or Colman’s POV. We only break away a few times here and there. But I think one of the really surprising things to come out of it is that the other characters all have really satisfying arcs across the series. There’s a few really standout performances amongst them all. So yeah, I really could not be happier with the casting.
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