Lilies by Heidi Thomas - a new drama series for BBC One: Liverpool, 1920. Three girls on the edge of womanhood, a world on the brink of change
Inspiration for the series
Lilies is a fictional drama, firmly rooted in a very real past.
Series author Heidi Thomas (Madam Bovary, I Capture The Castle) was inspired by stories told to her by her parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts – who all came from Garston, a dockland district in the south of Liverpool.
"My family were all terrific raconteurs, and I grew up hearing tales that could make you weep, and rock with laughter. They evoked a hard world, but one that thrilled with energy," she says.
Thomas herself was born in Garston, which made her family history all the more immediate: "I lived within touching distance of the past."
Thomas's maternal grandmother was a particular source of inspiration, and she kept a photograph of her - "wearing a drop-waisted coat and a hat with a turned-down brim" - on her desk throughout the writing process.
Raw material came from many sources: Thomas's paternal grandmother was one of four sisters, who saved for years so that they could be buried in one grave.
This makes its way into Lilies – so, too, does her herbalist grandfather, the nightgown made into a wedding dress and the vicious rooster that lurked outside the backyard privy.
"There is not one single episode that doesn't contain something handed down in anecdote," she says.
Drama makes its own demands, however, and Thomas shaped her characters and plots accordingly.
She says: "The end result is not a series about my family, but a series about the family that might have lived next door."
She drew from her own experiences too: three years as an assistant in a ladies underwear store led directly to Ruby's profession as a corsetiere.
"I learned more about life in that job than I did in all my time at university," she says. "Women get quite confiding when they're stripped down to their knickers."
Producer Chrissy Skinns, whose credits include Auf Wiedersehen Pet, The Rotters Club and Pie In The Sky, was immediately attracted to the series.
"The Lilies scripts were quite unlike anything I had read before," she says.
"They were funny, surprising, and made me cry. Above all else, I knew that the Mosses were a family I instantly cared about, and wanted to spend time with."
Skinns was also intrigued by the notion of a contemporary drama which is actually set in the past: "It has a bold, dangerous edge that makes it very modern – the sense that at any moment, the rug might be pulled from under you."
What most impressed Heidi Thomas about her family's stories was the sheer joie de vivre that they conveyed.
"They were tough times, but they were not dark. For example, Garston Swimming Club provided the entire ladies swimming relay team for the 1920 Olympic Games – a source of huge excitement and pride," she says.
This historic event provides the backdrop for Episode one.
Thomas comments: "People seemed always to be reaching forward, consumed with a sensual appetite for life."
She was also keen for Lilies to convey the sheer joy and terror of coming of age: "In those days, every emotional action had consequences – a kiss had consequences, sex had consequences, being gay had consequences.
"It makes for great drama – but the female quest for happiness has been a constant throughout history. Iris, May, and Ruby are universal girls in a very particular setting."
The search for the three sisters was spearheaded by Skinns.
Casting directors Beverley Keogh and David Shaw scoured the agencies, drama schools and theatre workshops of North-West England in search of suitable candidates.
Skinns says: "David wasn't above spotting girls in shops and asking them in to audition."
Over two months, an initial shortlist of 150 was whittled down to a top 20 and all were invited to a final, eight-hour audition workshop.
Catherine Tyldesley, Leanne Rowe and Kerrie Hayes still shudder at the memory, referring to the process as "that day".
Skinns had to take unsuccessful girls to one side, in groups of five and six.
"It was awful," she recalls. "Like something out of 42nd Street."
Heidi Thomas had hoped that the series would be filmed on location in Garston itself. However, the district is currently undergoing massive regeneration and the decision was taken to reconstruct the area elsewhere, rebuilding history brick by plastic brick.
The end result stunned Thomas: "I stood on the finished set and felt I had been physically transplanted into my family's past."
She was suddenly convulsed with nerves.
Just then, a little miracle occurred.
"Catherine Tyldesley, who plays Iris, turned into the street and came walking towards me – wearing a drop-waisted coat and a hat with a turn-downed brim. She was the absolute double of my grandma in the photograph. And I knew then that everything would be all right."