The Shadow Line: Getting the shot

Thursday 5 May 2011, 12:13

Johann Knobel Johann Knobel Producer

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Scene 1:

Aerial shot of two lines of torchlight sweeping across the screen like searchlights. Then they both come together. On a stationary car.

So what are we looking at?

It's 8.07pm on Thursday, 2 September 2010 and we're about to start shooting the opening image of The Shadow Line. And with his usual economy and wit, our writer-director Hugo Blick has indicated in the script exactly what the shot should be.

But we have a problem.

For the shot to work, we need complete darkness and we need it soon.

It's the last day of the Isle of Man portion of the shoot and, having already shot the next scene the previous night, it's vital that we get this shot and this scene in this location - and before midnight, too.

But it's not working at the moment, due to the faint glow on the horizon behind the location, courtesy of the floodlights at the Isle of Man Airport, Douglas, about half a mile away.

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There's a hurried huddled conversation about different angles, black-out shades and other possible solutions but we quickly realise the best and speediest option is to ask the airport authority to dim the lights, or even better, turn them off.

All eyes turn to our intrepid location manager and with an imperceptible shrug, he sets off in the direction of the airport.

In so many ways, the scene embodies the spirit of the whole piece.

It orients the audience, tells them to pay close attention to even the smallest thing now, because it's likely to mean a great deal later on.

And the beautiful spare language that Hugo has given Sergeant Foley as he describes what exactly it is that they are looking at, tells us that the world we're entering is different from what we might be expecting - slightly heightened, elevated but hidden.

As Gotham is to New York, so is our world to London.

Thus far, we've managed to achieve it here on the Island, finding, amongst other hidden gems of locations, probably the only street in Douglas that could double for a street in London.

And it's all been conducted with good humour and in a spirit of camaraderie, whether it's scouting for locations while the Isle of Man TT Motorcycle Race takes place around us or cramming just over 15 cast and crew (and their equipment) for a whole day into a hermetically sealed hotel room on what turned out to be the hottest day of the year, without any of them passing out.

Or the day we (intentionally) caused an explosion that landed us on the front page of the Manx Independent and gave the people of Peel a night out to remember.

From left to right: DCI Gabriel (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Gatehouse (Stephen Rea), Joseph Bede (Christopher Ecclestone)

Or shooting a scene in a church graveyard, with Charles Kay (Pendleton in Edge Of Darkness) giving a brilliantly sinister, yet humorous performance, and just as the camera cranes upwards for the final shot, a sheep nonchalantly ambles out from behind a gravestone as if on cue, adding to the slight surrealism of it all (and it made the final cut).

Or the day when several cast and crew members hugged the ground behind a low wall out of sight while the cinematographer raced to the top of Snaefell Mountain to get the last panoramic shot.

Snaefell Mountain, from which local legend states that one can see six kingdoms: Man, Scotland, England, Wales, Ireland and the sixth, Heaven. But only if the fog stays away and that day, it had been threatening to roll in, all day.

But we got that shot with minutes to spare and now, we need to get this one.

Because, just as the two sides on either side of the line slowly converge in the narrative, so the two lines of flashlight should converge on Harvey's car.

The shot is the embodiment of the whole story, all seven episodes of the series. So, we really do need it to be dark.

The location manager returns. Yes! They'll do it, but only for an hour, there's yet one more flight coming in later on.

And as the camera turns over, I hear a crew member saying under his breath, "They'd better let that plane land, 'cause it'll be the one that we have to get in the morning to get to London to finish the shoot."

Well, we got the shot, we got the plane and we got to London.

Where we would get to the first day of shoot, only to discover it's the first of what will be several tube strikes that late summer and spend several days running around Victoria Park, with a camera buggy struggling to keep up with an actor who probably could've qualified for the British Olympic 100m squad.

But that's another story.

Johann Knobel is the producer of The Shadow Line.

The Shadow Line is on BBC Two and BBC HD at 9pm on Thursday, 5 May.

For further programme times, please see the upcoming episodes page.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    "courtesy of the floodlights at the Isle of Man Airport, Douglas, about half a mile away. "

    If you were filming in Douglas, the IoM airport is at Ronaldsway - about 13 miles away.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    With all those excellent actors on board , I was so looking forward to this. Sadly
    the dialogue was so stilted and unbelievable it became reliant on mean looks and lighting for it's drama. After watching the beautiful simplicity of "Exile" earlier in the
    week, this was a let down. We turned it off.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    The story shows promise after episode one but the dialogue,(particularly that between the Police Officers) is so unrealistic that I am put off watching the next part. The unnecessary attitude from the female Police Officer is also tiresome to watch.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    The Shaddow Line what a load of rubbish, again the BBC seem to have spent my license fee on just about everything other than a script. Dear BBC try watching The Wire and see where you're going so horribly wrong.

    P.s. I agree with Bothbands re. Exile, it exemplifies my point exactly, the script has to be the most important aspect, not the opening titles, moody music, DoP lighting, and plethora of expensive big name actors

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Shadow Line and EXILE in the same week. BBC drama is excelling itself. More like like please. I enjoyed Exile more but love the fact that Shadow Line is playing over 7 weeks, gives it time to grow.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Shadow Line had a spare script with not a word out of place, and plenty of space between the words. This, with excellent acting, made it a joy to watch.
    Christopher Ecclestone was stiller than usual, demonstrating that for him, as in the programme, less is more.
    Exile was also a riveting watch, with three great central performances. What a treat to see something where the plot grows from the characters, not the other way round.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Agree with comment about unrealistic police dialogue, Chewitel's boss in particular. I'm all for offbeat and different, but I want it to ring true as well. It felt like the scriptwriters were so determined to imbue every character with a hidden agenda, even matter-of-fact transactions are punctuated with dramatic pauses and unnecessary weirdness. I don't doubt that there are hidden agendas involved, but why make a big deal about his ID when he's crossing the police tape? Would the chief constable really talk to him in such a conspiratorial fashion? It just felt like they were laying on a bit thick at times, but I'll keep watching for now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    I thought I would give this programme a try as it had so much publicity but I thought it was awful. The opening scene where there were constant closeups of the dead man's face were purely gratuitous. Then I thought it was never going to start with the monsyllabic comments of the policeman rummaging through the car in a most unlikely manner. It was totally unrealistic and the scenes between the police at work were all antagonistic - was that too create tension? Well it did I shall not watch part two

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I was eagerly waiting to see the first episode, not knowing what to expect. From the brilliant opening sequence to the end scene i found it an excellent and gripping peice of drama. Credit to everyone involved from actors to all those involved in the making of it. Can't wait to see the next installment!!!! Well done, more please.......

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Thanks. I much enjoyed the obviously 'auteur' signature of this piece (unusual in BBC no?) Of late, I've found BBC dramas so formulaic & cheap-looking. Exile did not appeal; very aggressively male perspective, predictable dialogue/story, no visual narrative nor directorial inventiveness.

    My friend Kevin Woodhouse was the Art Director for Shadow Line. I love the cool, calculating, slick Euro cinematic feel to it. And the dialogue is engaging and hauntingly spare. The story may be kinda old hat but it definitely has a few twists to keep it turning...

    Even though the cast is predominately male, it's such a relief not to have endless drug addled women prostitutes, or other abused women central to the narrative. 'The Killing' was thrilling but woman-hatred/sex crime was at its core. Gets tiring.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Can't agree with the above comment. Exile was far superior to Shadow Line and here's why - it was a tightly told story about fathers, sons and childhood. Shadow Line is fascinating rather than gripping. It looks very nice but is very theatrical, episode one could easily be a stage play. Exile was filmic, beautiful, epic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Heh, heh, clues and hints all over the place. Connect - the Hamlet country-matters pun. Then go back and watch sc.1 again. A Shakes prologue directed by Trevor Nunn - hah! Macbeth refs everywhere. Jack in in silhouette in the basement car park, doing the out-damned-spot hand-rubbing, but so reminiscent of Freddy Kruger's shadow. And the white set around the scene-of-crime: a Peter Brook ref?? All great fun - and the guy playing Jack is a wonderful actor. More please?

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    I LOVED the first episode of The Shadow Line. Fantastic script, and the acting - particularly Christopher Eccleston and Rafe Spall - is faultless. This is the sort of drama we've been lacking for so long. Exile was good, but petered out at bit at the end, didn't you think? I hope The Shadow Line continues to enthrall with its creepy characters for the entire series. Great job, BBC.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Hello everyone. I’d like to thank you all for your comments on The Shadow Line. It’s heartening to see that drama can still evoke such passion (even when it’s passionately disliked) and I think the BBC deserves a huge thank you for being at the forefront of delivering ambitious and authored homegrown drama.

    But before I respond to the criticisms and praise, a correction. Septic, forgive the typographical/geographical error – we were filming at Castle Industries in the industrial estate across the road from the airport, which is of course, at Ronaldsway, outside of Douglas.

    Bothbands, DonDraper (love the name), simon4858 and jk80, you all seem to be in agreement in your disappointment with the script. Personally, I think it’s an incredibly deft piece of writing, with character and plot seamlessly integrated (but then I would say that…). I agree that our world is a heightened one and that we don’t have a pure naturalistic approach, but that is very much the intention of the piece. It’s regretful that comparisons with The Wire has found their way into the press, because The Shadow Line is not, and was never, intended to be that (and just so you know, I’m a massive fan of The Wire). I think the opening scene declares its intentions very clearly and had hoped it would guide the audience into the world we’ve created. Very early on, Sgt Foley says “My world… my rules…” in response to his constable’s question about the procedural aspects of the investigation (“I thought we weren’t supposed to touch the body”), and that, together with the fact that they don’t wear identifiable British police uniforms, should tell us that these characters operate in an “other” world (much like Gotham is to New York in the Batman universe, so is our world to London).

    Of course, it won’t be to everyone’s taste and that is partly why it’s on BBC TWO, but, simon4858, I would like to take issue with your statement that the BBC is “again’ wasting your license fee. Over the past few months, with shows like The Shadow Line, Exile, The Crimson Petal and The White and the upcoming The Hour, the BBC has shown incredible ambition and verve where British drama is concerned. All of them authored pieces by writers working at the peak of their powers – it’s the kind of approach that in the past has given us classics like Our Friends in the North, State of Play and Edge of Darkness and we should applaud and support the BBC without reservation for this. It’s been too long…

    Jacquee, you picked up on the fact that we are unflinching in our portrayal of the effects of violence, but I don’t accept that it’s gratuitous (in the sense that it does not have a dramatic purpose). The juxtaposition between Foley’s seemingly nonchalant examination and the horrific injuries sustained by Wratten tells us again what kind of world we are in and is, I think, very illuminating about Foley’s character.

    And bevy, dil77, RAJI B, tesselaine, moondust123, I’m thrilled that you enjoyed it and I fervently hope you continue to do so. I find myself drawn into it and discovering new joys every time I watch it (and I’ve seen it a lot…).

    But I think Linda wins this week’s prize for the person who’s watched it the closest. It’s brilliant that you picked up on so many of the influences on the piece, some of them intentional, others less so (but I’ll never tell and we’ll always claim the credit…).

    Once again, thank you for your comments and keep them coming. Hope you enjoy the second episode as much (or in some cases, more) than episode one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    luv it!!! completely hooked!....... :o) best drama I've watched since Luther... roll on BBC.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Totally gripped by this series. Its sad to see it compared to the Wire, its just lazy journalism, the Wire is a brilliant show but I assume the press are comparing quality with quality. The pacing of Shadow Line is absolutely spot on, people say the first episode was slow, and preferred the second episode. Both were paced to perfection. The characters are excellent as is the cast and casting. Even Raif Spall's character is growing on me, he was hilarious in episode 2. Good to see silence used so effectively making the viewer look at every little detail for clues. The most tense series i've seen in a while, superb direction.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    I was fortunate enough to watch some of The Shadow Line being shot. I think it is a true testament to the quality of writing and acting that I was totally absorbed in the plot despite knowing the outcome, not just of the episode but the whole series. Television drama has become flaccid with a few rare exceptions and as for the 'reality fodder' that appears to be the staple diet of the masses, surely we should be applauding the return of intelligent, well crafted productions. I'm already looking forward to episode three and sadly there will probably be very little else to tempt me between now and next thursday.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Haha - loved ep 2 - a celebration of pantomime villains (or Commedia del' Arte villains if you want to go back a bit). And I loved the homage to League of Gentlemen when Spall held the cat in the bucket; excellent. And the Godfather scenes where they all tried to scare the driver's mum into telling all. The running-bobbies-and-baddies chase in the park was a hoot - and a nice nod to The Thick of It when Ejiofor runs out of the traffic jam, swearing. And what about the scary face that Ejiofor makes in the interview room? Could that be a ref to the Queen in Johathan Miller's Alice in Wonderland? I like this game. Do I care who dunnit? Of course not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    A really first class drama. Good production values, terrific acting and a script worthy of H.Pinter.
    Can't wait for the next episode. Thank you BBC.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Am loving this one, telling other half to shush while I concentrate on the storyline. But especially Raif Spall's character is so frighteningly psyochpathic - fine acting...


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