It was a two-parter for BBC1, two hours long, and starred Ray Stevenson (Titus Pullo in Rome), Joanne Whalley (Edge of Darkness, The Singing Detective, Scandal, and many a young chap’s fantasy), and Jemima Rooper (The Famous Five, As If, Hex).
It’s not my job to make claims for the writing, but in the execution it was among the best-crafted of my TV stuff to date. It had some real money thrown at it, and it shows. Jamie Payne‘s direction was imaginative, able, and respectful of the script (qualities rare in combination!) and cameraman Mike Southon did awesome, feature-quality work at TV-shoot speed (Mike is a features/music video guy whose credits include Ken Russell’s Gothic and Jodie Foster’s Little Man Tate, as well as oodles of stuff for the likes of George Michael and Guns’n’Roses). Chris Farrer was the script editor and Tim Bradley produced. If you ever find yourself working with any of this gang, consider yourself blessed.
It shares the premise (a haunted chat line) of my short story of the same title, but it isn’t the short story.
It started with a call from Gareth Neame, who was on a fairly urgent search for genre material. The BBC had three slots to fill and Gareth, in his capacity as the new MD of Carnival Films, was going after the commission. They were looking for contemporary fantasy singles but the possibility of further series development would sweeten any idea’s chances.
What I pitched was a modern take on the Orpheus and Euridice tale, with the chat line playing a similar role to the car radio in Cocteau’s Orphee – a bridge between the two worlds, echoing with enigmatic exchanges which could generate any number of further narratives if they wanted a premise for an anthology series.
To be honest I was barely interested in the series angle but if it was gonna get me through the door, fine. I’d already adapted the short – once for radio’s Fear on Four and again for the unmade second series of Chillers for TV – and wasn’t interested in going there again. Whereas I’d been wanting to do a modern Orpheus for yonks and had my ideas mostly worked out and ready to go.
I offered them a different title but they liked Life Line.
It changed somewhat in the making – the visual modernism takes it into a different territory than the semi-documentary settings of my imagining – but I liked the result. David Pirie, author of the landmark study Heritage of Horror, praised the show and predicted that it would get up the noses of ‘the realist brigade’, as I imagine it probably did.
If any of them saw it.
Everyone involved was proud of the show, right up to the exec levels within the BBC. Word came through that the schedulers were rushing it forward to an earlier slot. I thought, Wow. They must really love it.
Imagine my joy when I opened The Radio Times to see that we’d been ‘rushed forward’ into a slot to run against live football on ITV… a small matter of Manchester United versus A C Milan.