Belfast Telegraph

'You are not just guilty if you are the bully...you must intervene'

Doctor Foster creator Mike Bartlett explores the impact bullying can have in ITV drama Sticks And Stones

Ken Nwosu as Thomas and Alexandra Roach as Jess in Sticks And Stones
Ken Nwosu as Thomas and Alexandra Roach as Jess in Sticks And Stones
Susannah Fielding

By Georgia Humphreys

An unassuming business park in Reading is perhaps not the setting you'd expect for a psychological thriller. But writer Mike Bartlett (39) wanted viewers of Sticks And Stones to see that the corrosive effects of workplace bullying can happen anywhere.

Across three episodes, the ITV drama centres on the personal and professional life of Thomas Benson, who works in the competitive world of sales.

And Ken Nwosu, who portrays the hard-working father and husband, drew on his own personal experiences of being bullied at school.

"It's really difficult to fight back because, as a kid, I didn't have the verbal dexterity to respond in a way that would end any kind of name-calling and teasing," he recalls.

"You just become angry and isolated, which I think is definitely what happens to Thomas in the show."

He adds emphatically: "I have a huge disdain for bullies and bullying. Whenever I see it, I would never join in.

"I always want to try and stop it in any way I can, or at least tell somebody who can."

In terms of the plot, we see Thomas, who often finds himself leading the team when trying to secure new business, freeze during a pitch.

The fallout is monumental and the salesman goes to increasingly desperate lengths to remain successful.

As he does so, he begins to feel undermined and under attack and questions whether his own team is now out to get him.

Discussing the story, Oxford-born Bartlett notes: "I was very keen that we keep the focus on the almost arbitrary nature of bullying, that this can happen to anybody; it's not happening to him, because he's a certain age, or because it was a woman, or anything like that.

"It's happening and he doesn't know why it's happening."

Leading man Nwosu is an experienced stage actor, who has also had parts in BBC's Killing Eve and the 2018 film Christopher Robin. This series could well be his breakout role on the small screen.

What was it about Sticks And Stones that appealed to him?

"A big thing is that Mike Bartlett wrote it. I'd seen the play that it was based on, Bull (also by Bartlett). It was about 55 minutes long. If it had been any longer, it would have been too much, it was so intense, which I hope we've captured in this.

"The character seemed to be going through such psychological drama within himself and I thought, 'That is something I would love to explore, try my hand at.'"

What's interesting, Nwosu elaborates, is that we see how Thomas - "someone that wants to fulfil his role as a breadwinner, protector, a good man, an ambitious man" - can't discuss what's happening to him at work with his wife.

"He doesn't want to tell her these things that will make her look at him differently. I think it would devastate him."

Bull was first performed at Sheffield's Crucible Studio Theatre in 2013 and Bartlett, who also created hit drama Doctor Foster, found adapting it for telly quite emotionally challenging. "It's always a balance, particularly on television, between wanting to not shy away from putting things on screen that happen in life, but also having a responsibility to not propagate the very behaviour that you're analysing, or criticising.

"So, that was a constant process, to tread that line," he says.

Considering the dark subject matter, the series is not an easy watch at times.

Bartlett knew he and the producers had to take a "huge amount of care" of the people involved in the bullying scenes, because "even though we know it's fake, it's also horrible".

Nwosu echoes this. "I remember my co-stars, who were worried about my character, 'Is that okay? Hope this is okay.' But I myself was okay.

"When you're trying to achieve a certain story beat, the more emotional it is, it can get quite consuming. You have to deliver that for camera so it's truthful and, inside yourself, create those feelings, which was quite easy, because the other actors around me are so good at turning it on and off."

He also found the experience of filming in an old office block "claustrophobic".

"I hope the series captures this element of windowless work, work, work," he muses.

"I have never had an office job, so it was really good to do the research, talking to friends. Just being there, it almost forces you into that role in a way. It was crazy, because the light is the same the whole day, just the artificial light."

Asked about the message of the series, Bartlett says he wants viewers to think about their actions more.

"If I make that joke, I won't see the effect now - the effect on that person will happen at two in the morning when they're crying in their bed."

While Bartlett hasn't experienced bullying himself, reflecting on scenarios he witnessed while working a temp job after university helped drive his script.

"There was a group of us and I realised somebody had become the butt of the joke and it took me a few days longer than it should have done to put my hand up and say, 'I think we should stop,'" he confides.

"You're not just guilty of this stuff if you're the one doing it; you're also guilty if you know it's happening and you're standing on the outskirts, not stopping it. You're complicit."

  • Sticks And Stones, ITV, Monday to Wednesday, 9pm

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