Georgia Humphreys gets the lowdown on new BBC drama Dark Money
'It's about what happens to small people in a world full of big people'
In light of the MeToo movement, new BBC drama Dark Money feels undeniably timely. The four-part series tells the fictional story of a working-class couple from north London whose world is shattered when youngest son Isaac heads to LA to shoot a movie and, on his return, reveals he was abused by a renowned filmmaker.
But Bafta-nominated writer Levi David Addai, who also penned Damilola, Our Loved Boy, actually came up with the idea for the show long before the allegations of sexual misconduct against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein first emerged in late 2017.
What unfolds throughout Addai's script is an exploration of the damage that runs deep in the Mensah family, especially after they decide to accept a substantial pay-off to keep silent about the abuse.
It was a story that Jill Halfpenny, who plays Isaac's mum Sam, felt invested in as soon as she read the script.
"It was about what happens to the small people in the world of the big people and that's what we are," suggests the Geordie actress, known for Coronation Street, EastEnders and Waterloo Road.
"It's about power, it's about control, it's about coercion. It's about regret and sadness and healing. I'm always attracted to the human, emotional process of things."
In the first episode, we learn Sam has never been quite as excited as her husband Manny (played by Babou Ceesay) was by the idea of their son heading to Hollywood and entering the film industry.
"She's not against it, but it doesn't sit well with her," says Halfpenny (43). "She doesn't really like the fact that her son has to be away from home."
His parents immediately know that something is wrong once Isaac gets back, especially after he hides away in his bedroom during his welcome-home party.
"He builds up the courage to give us his phone, which has a recording of him being abused by the producer of the film, the person who owns the company that makes this film - a high net-worth individual," explains 40-year-old Ceesay, who was born in London but largely grew up in The Gambia.
"What Levi had done fantastically is taking that massive ideological dilemma and putting it into a bedroom with two parents and their child, and the impact of that."
After watching the clip, there's no doubt in the pair's minds as to what has happened to their son.
Halfpenny, whose career began on Byker Grove, describes her character's reaction as "just pure devastation".
"I think if your child was to tell you something like that had happened, you'd be mortified. You mainly hear audio, but you do see a bit of in-vision stuff on the video, so it's just a huge burden. And a huge amount of shame is just immediately within Sam and it really just gets worse from there."
When Manny and Sam are offered a cheque in return for them signing a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) about the abuse, they weigh up that taking the money will enable them to start a new life, plus it means avoiding the publicity hell of pressing charges against a celebrity.
But do both parents feel the same way about taking the payment? "Neither of them knows whether what they're doing is right, or wrong. What they know are the options that are available," notes Ceesay, whose other notable roles include the film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Sky Atlantic drama Guerrilla.
"It happened in LA, so you have to go to the LAPD and report it - you can't hire a lawyer in the UK and therefore get legal aid."
Another issue with the option of going to America, the star discusses, is that it "involves exposing their son to media and the fact that he is the victim" - and Isaac is insistent he doesn't want anyone to know about what happened, for fear of being judged.
Halfpenny confides the scene where Isaac opens up to them was "so intense and so unpleasant" to film, especially as a mum herself (she has one son with ex-husband, actor Craig Conway).
"I've not watched it back," she adds. "I lived it for the seven hours that we filmed it."
Interestingly, director Lewis Arnold made the decision not to show the actors the content of the video before the cameras were rolling.
"He wanted to see if we could get some initial, immediate reactions," recalls Halfpenny. "Then you end up doing it another 20 times anyway. It was a very distressing day. It needed to be like that, because that scene really is the crux of the whole four hours.
"We need to know why they've made the choices they've made and why they go on to do the things that they do."
On the challenges of acting out such heavy material, Ceesay, who is a father himself, says: "What I like about the way Levi's approached it is it's non-judgmental. We're not making any big political statements about anything, really.
"We're saying, 'Here's a family, here's a trauma, there's the decision they made, here's how they lived with it, here's what it means when you're sat at the dinner table'."
Halfpenny thinks it's impossible to know what she would have done if she were in her character's situation.
"It's a terrible decision, but I don't believe for a minute they're motivated by greed," she goes on to say. "I think they just think in the way that people do in life, 'Let's just pretend that didn't happen. And the money surely will mean that we can just have a happy life.'
"But that's kind of the sadness of it. You watch them and you see them in this big house with all the trappings and the trainers and the TV and they've just never looked unhappier. It's so depressing."
"I think a lot of people turn around and say, I would fight, I would go to court and so on and so forth," says Ceesay. "But then the research shows over 90% of people, something like 96%, settle - most cases in all sorts of things settle.
"I'd like to think I'm more of a doer than Manny is. I'd like to believe I would do-do-do-do. But, who knows?"
Dark Money, BBC One, Monday, 9pm