Silent Witness: Bloodlines
Silent Witness is a rare thing on British television, a two hour show. Two hours is the length of a film, and we've tried to approach each SW script we've written as just that - a movie. To carry an audience through a two-hour story you need a strong concept at its heart, and a good pay-off. If the audience has stuck with you for 120 minutes you better not leave them less-than-thrilled at the end.
Yet this was Silent Witness' 14th series. How to keep it fresh and stirring? For a while we'd been talking about making a 'Euro-thriller' in the vein of the recent Jason Bourne movies, or contemporary French films like Tell No One. So when series producer Richard Burrell said there was interest in setting an episode in Hungary, where he worked on BBC's Robin Hood, we shook him warmly by the hand.
From the outset, we liked the idea of Harry Cunningham, the show's pin-up boy, and a character wholly confident and competent in his English world, suddenly alone in a country where he knows no one, doesn't understand the language, and people want to kill him. We wanted to take the character to the limit of his endurance, pushing him darker than the audience was used to, and perhaps comfortable with. It would be a classic 'man-on-the-run' thriller. And like our previous campus shooting episode, far from your typical Silent Witness.
But we needed a concept, something at the heart of the story to give it intrigue, veracity and excitement. We needed a hook.
We're two writers who write together. It works like this. We sit in a room and write every action line, every dialogue line, every scene. Together. Having known each other for more than two decades, there's a familiarity that breeds much respect and minimal contempt. We have a simple rule. If there are two rival ideas at stalemate, we have to come up with a third idea that's better. It works. Most of the time.
Over copious coffee a clear and simple hook emerged.
Who better to fake their own death than a pathologist?
The Silent Witness pathologists spend all their working lives (and it seems much of their leisure time) deciphering how someone died. What if they needed to disappear long enough to solve a crime? Surely they'd be able to fabricate evidence that would suggest they were dead.
So Harry would 'die'. And for part of the film all the other characters would believe he was dead. For this to work, we felt, we needed not only the people in the film to think our leading man was dead, but those watching the film too.
In short, we wanted to kill off a lead character in one of the BBC's most popular dramas. And then bring him back to life again.
To their credit, the series producers and executives agreed (with some trepidation). Now we had to pull it off, to convince people Harry had been killed and then show, convincingly, how he faked his death. Both sides of the mirror had to be rigidly believable.
Next up, we needed a reason for Harry to go to such lengths. So we gave him a Hungarian girlfriend who is murdered while he's upstairs in her flat, making Harry the prime suspect in her killing. On the run, trying to discover who killed her, he is himself almost killed. Then he learns his girlfriend was pregnant. Each development in the film takes Harry further from his comfort zone, and closer to the truth.
And so, at the end of the first hour, Harry is 'killed'. We see an assassin pointing a gun at him. Gunshots ring out as, from a taxi, Leo sees a hooded man shooting Harry in the head. Leo rushes to the burning body, its face shot to pieces, a Ukrainian gang killing. Only Harry's passport survives the inferno...
But would the audience actually buy that Harry was dead?
On transmission day, instant online reactions told us most viewers believed wholeheartedly that we'd just killed Harry. Yet our relief quickly became fear. The fans were mad as hell. How dare we kill off hunky Harry? One female Tweeter (most comments were from women, strangely) declared: "Silent Witness, you're dead to me!" The next day a Daily Mail headline screeched: 'Silent Witness fans left reeling...'
The next night, Part Two brought jitters. Would they forgive us when Harry resurfaced alive? Not long into this second hour, Harry reappears and explains what happened. The 'killer' was clipped by a passing truck, hit his head on the concrete and died. A shocked Harry switched identities, shooting the dead man's face and burning the body, mimicking the gangland execution.
There was euphoria from (female) viewers. Harry was alive. And people seemed to accept the premise that Harry had faked his own death. We were not going to be lynched. At the end of the film, viewers seemed genuinely excited that they'd been put through the mill.
Sometimes, it seems, you don't give the audience what they want and they like you for it.
Jim Keeble and Dudi Appleton are the writers of Silent Witness: Bloodlines - Parts 1 and 2.