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Trust Me - Writing Series 2

Dan Sefton

Writer (and Doctor)

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Trust Me returns on Tuesday 16th April at 9pm on BBC One. The drama's writer Dan Sefton spoke to us about the premise for this series, which introduces a new storyline and characters, but retains the first series' focus on 'the dark side of medicine'. He also talks about why he thinks doctors can make good screenwriters but why it also feels like "having an exam tomorrow for the rest of your life"!

Watch the trailer for Series 2 of Trust Me

In the interview we did with you for Series 1 of Trust Me you described a key element of a successful drama being that you create strong characters and place them in an interesting dilemma. Who is your key character in Series 2 of Trust Me and what is the dilemma?

Alfred Enoch plays Jamie McCain – a soldier who has a spinal injury. He’s also haunted by what happened before the accident and has undiagnosed PTSD. So when the seemingly paranoid kid who has told him that patients are being murdered dies, he has to decide whether he can really trust himself or anyone else? Is this all real or in his head? Also for me there’s so much tension and dramatic irony in a super fit and physically able soldier being suddenly made weak and vulnerable. So his battles seem small – to get from one side of a room to another – but for a man in Jamie’s position that’s like climbing a mountain. We see a lot of characters leaping tall buildings in a single bound! In this series we focus right down and show a different type of physical struggle.

Jamie McCain (ALFRED ENOCH) in Trust Me (Image Credit: BBC/©Red Production Company, Photographer: Mark Mainz)

Had you originally intended Series 2 of Trust Me to continue from Series 1 and feature Jodie Whittaker’s character Ally?

Yes, there were early plans to do that. However when it became clear that Jodie was not going to be available, we quickly saw an opportunity to create a new story. There may be a way to continue the original series one story if the show is reformatted with a new cast for another country. I’m open to offers! We never got to do the scene where the real Ally comes back from New Zealand and finds her best friend pretending to be her!

Jodie’s obviously moved on to exciting new projects! When did you discover that she’d been cast as Doctor Who? Had you already done any development on Series 2 when you found out? We’ve heard that there are few Doctor Who references in the new series…

I found out the same time as everybody else! There were early plans – a few pages, nothing more. The Doctor Who references just sort of popped up as the Danny character was a British sci fi fan. In the end we decided to keep them as a little bit of fun. Not a lot of fun, just a little bit.

Dr Archie Watson (JOHN HANNAH) in Trust Me (Image Credit: BBC/© Red Production Company Photographer: Mark Mainz)

Following that when did you decide to continue Trust Me with an entirely new storyline and how did you decide on your new story? Is the new story self-contained within one series?

I decided the minute there was no choice in the matter! The new story was one I’d had in my mind for a while. It seemed to fit well – a psychological thriller idea which explored the dark side of medicine. It’s a self-contained story and that will be the format if we continue with the show. It has advantages – the shows become a bit like a long movie so when you cast it you’re not asking actors to commit to a show for years and that helps.

Do you see that as a way Trust Me could continue – with new stories and characters in each series? Are there elements that the two series have in common?

Yes – and the idea that we lift the lid on the dark side of medicine is the link. Imposters, murderers, dodgy doctors. All based on things that have really happened. The series is supposed to be scary and tense and I think the idea of these things happening ‘close to home’ is a common link for the best thrillers. It could happen to you and that’s what’s scary. We’ve tried to draw on real-life accounts and motivations in coming up with the plot, although it’s obviously a fiction. But the idea of health workers deliberately harming patients is very real, and of course terrifying when you are in such a vulnerable position.

Was this story inspired by real-life events or your own experiences?

A long time ago I worked in a Neurological Unit where rehab was taking place. I knew it was a different kind of medicine, a much more multidisciplinary approach where nurses and therapists play a huge role. I wanted to show that. It’s not often seen on TV.

Both the director John Alexander and I visited a spinal injury unit before the scripts were written, and listened to the stories of the patient who have suffered these kinds of injuries. As far as possible we tried to reflect the reality of treatment and rehab in a specialist unit.

Dr Alex Kiernan (RICHARD RANKIN), Zoe Wade (KATIE CLARKSON-HILL) in Trust Me (Image Credit: BBC/©Red Production Company Photographer: Anne Binckebanck)

You seem incredibly busy - It’s recently been announced that you are also developing a series based on the last six months of Marilyn Monroe’s life and you have a show called The Mallorca Files in development too. Do you still find time to work as a Doctor too?! How do you juggle so many projects?

I’ve retired from medicine for the time being. The Mallorca Files is shooting now and has been written by me and a team I put together so that takes some of the strain. Juggling projects is tough but it simply requires organisation and hard work. There is no secret, apart from developing a way of writing that is efficient. For me that means outlining well, not trying to find it on the page. I’ve also had over ten years of experience – writing all the time. There’s no way I could have done the same amount of work when I was starting out. Being a screenwriter is much harder than being a doctor…

Debbie Dorrell (ASHLEY JENSEN) in Trust Me (Image Credit: BBC/© Red Production Company Photographer: Mark Mainz)

You’ve spoken to us before about how you set out to learn the craft of screenwriting – reading books and studying narrative. Did you work out the structure of the whole of Trust Me’s narrative and work out the story beats and turning points before writing the scripts?

Yes pretty much. It’s not an exact science because you always have to be open to a better idea that occurs to you as you’re writing. I think part of writing a mystery is that all the characters have secrets and each suspect could possibly have done it. So in the writing of this I did think – ‘oh, maybe we should make X guilty?’ – and it would have worked if we’d gone that way, but in the end I didn’t do it. For me this isn’t a ‘rug pull’ series. Maybe you’ll guess it, maybe you won’t, but it’s not supposed to just be a puzzle. There should be value in the character journey and the other aspects of the story that are revealed. The main thing is Jamie’s journey from a suicidal man to someone who finds meaning in life again. He just happens to do it by catching a psycho killer.

I do think there are two schools of thought on this. You can definitely write yourself into corners and detonate unplanned twists – something that make the story very unpredictable and hooky. However the down side is the possibility of an ending that seems rushed and implausible, with loose ends not tied up. Also if it’s not about anything except plot, it can feel like the narrative equivalent of junk food – superficially tasty, but ultimately just empty calories. I’m sure we can all think of shows like that! Maybe it doesn’t matter to the TV industry because by that time, you’ve watched it, sucker.

The counterargument is that a tightly plotted story inevitably risks being cliched and predictable and a smart audience are way ahead of the writer. Maybe the middle ground is where you need to be?

A four hour thriller is also very hard to pull off because the genre pushes you to keep accelerating to a climax. So I think structurally you do need to plan big moments that spin the story around and give it fresh impetus. I like to feel I have those before I start.

“People die in here” – Danny warns Jamie and has the evidence to prove it - watch a clip from Episode 1

What do you think is behind Doctors who turn to screenwriting (Jed Mercurio is another obvious example). Is there a science to storytelling that appeals to a medical mind?

I think if there’s any ‘science’ involved in storytelling it’s found in psychology - understanding how the human mind works and reacts. Plots work when characters act in recognisably human ways, but those credible actions then lead them deeper into trouble. As I get more experienced, I find the only real question you need to ask when writing is what would your characters actually do next? What makes ‘sense’ for them? Then you throw another rock and repeat the process. As soon as someone asks ‘why don’t they just..?’ you’re lost. A lot of stories that ‘don’t work’ hinge on a character making a psychologically implausible decision in a critical situation. So in other words the path of least resistance also leads to more problems and challenges. Easy to say, harder to do.

It’s no accident that the lead characters in Trust Me are both people who are doubting their own judgement and have had/are having mental health problems. Why don’t they just go to the police/authorities? Because they fear not being believed or being called crazy. And then when they do report their suspicions, those authorities try to undermine them for exactly those reasons. But that plot doesn’t work nearly as well with a tough, self-confident character. So a flawed, vulnerable protagonist allows the plot to work.

I think doctors are almost by definition tough people who can sit at a desk and study for tricky exams for years at a time. TV writing feels a lot like that to me. It’s basically like having an exam tomorrow for the rest of your life. I’ve learned to handle that but it’s not for everyone. On top of that, creating and running shows is another level of stress and responsibility. There are much kinder arenas to inhabit.

Danny Adams (ELLIOT COOPER) in Trust Me (Image Credit: BBC/©Red Production Company Photographer: Mark Mainz)

You’ve described the competition for the audience’s attention now on TV as a ‘blood sport’ as there is so much available to people. What have been your favourite shows of the past few years that have kept you hooked?

After being a Game of Thrones denier for a few years I really enjoyed the last few seasons. The zombie dragon is going to cause all kinds of trouble I reckon. Although I think if Daenerys had lent them one to fly in over the wall and grab a White Walker it could have saved a lot of bother (and about three episodes). Why don’t they just… see? I liked Cucumber a lot – it felt like someone telling the truth and not being afraid to. My total guilty pleasure is Entourage. I even like the movies, which I think is pretty unusual. In my head I’m an English version of Eric and Vince combined, but I suspect in reality I’m actually more Johnny Drama meets old fat Turtle…

Watch Trust Me on BBC One on Tuesdays at 9pm and on BBC iPlayer from 16th April

Read an interview with Dan Sefton for Series 1 of Trust Me

Read more interviews with the cast on the BBC's Media Centre website

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