Belfast Telegraph

Jamie Dornan: How playing serial killer Paul Spector changed my life

Jamie Dornan tells Ivan Little of the debt he owes to Allan Cubitt for giving him his big break despite opposition and how he had never heard of the book on which his new BBC Two historical drama is based before being offered the part

The English producer who's filmed a new TV drama with Jamie Dornan in Northern Ireland about the religious divide here in the 19th century has revealed that one of his ancestors was a victim of the infamous Phoenix Park murders in Dublin around the same time.

Lord Frederick Cavendish was stabbed to death by a republican organisation in the Dublin park in 1882, just three years before the action in Jonathan Cavendish's new drama Death and Nightingales takes place in Fermanagh.

The story revolves around Dornan's character Liam Ward and Beth Winters, the young stepdaughter of Protestant landowner Billy Winters whose Catholic wife had conceived her with another man before her marriage.

Producer Jonathan Cavendish says he'd had the rights for Eugene McCabe's acclaimed book Death and Nightingales for 20 years and tried unsuccessfully to make a film out of the story.

But now a new three-part series is to air later this month on BBC Two after it was filmed in counties Down and Derry.

Jonathan says: "Eugene McCabe still lives right on the border and he has seen many terrible things happening literally in his backyard.

"In Death and Nightingales the story is set in 1885 in a world where England rules Ireland and it's a world of spies spying for the British because the nascent Republican movem ent is growing in strength." Jonathan says that Jamie was the "obvious and brilliant" choice for Liam Ward who is suspected of being part of that group of republicans.

The producer's ancestor Lord Frederick Cavendish had come from England as the newly-appointed Chief Secretary of Ireland but he was assassinated by the Irish National Invincibles, a breakaway group from the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

Says Jonathan: "It was a bit unfair on him because he was one of the few good guys who had come out here to re-organise the Irish land system. He was cut to pieces with knives on the steps of a statue in Phoenix Park in Dublin for his troubles."

Jamie Dornan is upfront about Eugene McCabe's 1992 book from which Allan Cubitt, the creator of The Fall, adapted the storyline.

He says: "I'd never heard of Death and Nightingales. But when Allan mentioned it to me a couple of years back, I probably did that actor thing and claimed it was one of my favourite books. I've obviously read it now and I love it."

What attracted Jamie to the drama was Cubitt who gave him his break in The Fall.

He admits he never looked back after he played serial killer Paul Spector and his roles in the Fifty Shades of Grey erotic movies ensured that Holywood's newfound Hollywood A-lister could demand millions for movie roles all over the world.

But Jamie didn't have to think twice when Cubitt asked him to work on Death and Nightingales, even though his pay cheque for the BBC drama isn't anywhere near what he could be pocketing from a movie.

Jamie says Cubitt changed his life by casting him in The Fall despite opposition from other people behind the production.

"I will be eternally grateful to Allan for that. Without The Fall there's nothing really. I don't know what I would be doing now, to be honest.

"I trust Allan implicitly. And I'll keep working with him as long as he wants to work with me. We love each other and love working together. "

Jamie describes Death and Nightingales as a well-crafted, classy drama and all the action takes place in a tense 24-hour period.

"Liam is the unknown part of the story, the person that comes in and turns Beth's world around. And he is the catalyst for every major turning point and dramatic event within the story.

"But it's not all deceit and danger. There are nicer aspects to his character so it's fun to play those too. I hope people will warm to him."

Jonathan Cavendish says it was Jamie Dornan who suggested producers should think about County Wexford actress Ann Skelly for the part of Beth Winters.

"She is a star in the making," says Jonathan. "She is quite extraordinary. She is luminous in front of the camera."

Ann, who starred in the Dublin soap Red Rock and the 2017 movie Kissing Candice, written and directed by Omagh's Aoife McArdle, says she was thrilled to get the role of Beth and to have the opportunity to work with Cubitt and with Dornan who she thought was "incredible" in The Fall.

"He's really funny and always doing devilment between takes, the most recent of which was playing a game called roof potato that involved him and Martin McCann who's also in the film throwing a potato and catching it," says Ann.

Billy Winters is played by Welsh actor Matthew Rhys who won an Emmy award for his work on the massive US television series, The Americans.

He says he loved working on Death and Nightingales - the title comes from a John Keats poem - though the Fermanagh accent was tough, adding: "I'm used to a Belfast accent but the nuances of a Fermanagh accent were sometimes lost with me."

Matthew says his proud and staunch Protestant landowner character was complex, with confusing and conflicting feelings about his stepdaughter whom he'd brought up as his own child after the death of his Catholic wife.

Matthew, who says the drama is faithful to Eugene McCabe's story which wasn't black and white for any of the three main characters in it, has been working extensively in America before filming in Northern Ireland.

"I'd spent a weekend in Belfast but that was about it," he says. "But the craic on this production has been fantastic. The cast and crew have had a whale of time.

"The sense of irreverence here is great and people don't treat it all like a religion which I think is very healthy. I enjoy the banter enormously."

He says he'd never worked with Dornan before but they had enjoyed a drink or two down the years. Matthew says he grew up with the Northern Ireland Troubles on his television in the Eighties but he had no real understanding or grasp of them.

He described being in Northern Ireland over the 11th and 12th of July this year as "interesting and eye-opening" and he says it had shown him just how fervent people here still are. The scale of the commemorations surprised him too.

Matthew and his partner, award-winning actress Keri Russell, who co-starred in The Americans, spent time in Northern Ireland with their children during the filming.

"They especially loved the three days we had on the waterways and loughs in Fermanagh. It was stunning. It couldn't have been better but no I didn't try out my accent. That could have ended badly."

He says he and Keri had no plans to act together again after the end of the sixth and final season of The Americans and his next project after Death and Nightingales was a film called You Are My Friend in the US with Tom Hanks.

"It's about Mister Rogers who was an iconic children's TV presenter," explains Matthew."

The interior scenes for Death and Nightingales were filmed at Springhill House, the sumptuous National Trust property near Moneymore and the farmyard scenes were shot at Myra Castle between Downpatrick and Strangford, not far from where Jonathan made his last film in Northern Ireland - December Bride - 30 years ago based on a story by Sam Hanna Bell.

"The locations have been amazing," says Ann, who added that the fine weather throughout the summer filming was a welcome bonus, though having to wear a corset wasn't particularly comfortable at the start.

She'd had to wear a corset for a small part in a TV mini-series of Little Women last year and knew that "when you take it off all your internal organs go back to their original place. It's a nice feeling."

Death and Nightingales is on BBC 2, Wednesday, November 28, 9pm.

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