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Tom Burke and Holliday Grainger speak about the BBC's latest crime series, Strike


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At a special preview event at the BFI Southbank on Thursday, the actors and creative team of the BBC's latest drama series spoke about the challenges of bringing a story by one of the world's most famous authors to the small screen. 

Strike is a new three-part crime drama based on the novels by Robert Galbraith - otherwise known as Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling. 

Following a screening of the first episode, The Cuckoo's Calling, actors Tom Burke and Holliday Grainger were joined by writer Ben Richards, director Michael Kellior and executive producer Ruth Kenley-Letts to discuss how they brought Cormoran Strike to life.

The intellectual property of such a huge writer is hard to come by, especially when there's so much competition in the industry. When asked about how the series ended up as a TV series on the BBC, Bronte Productions' Ruth Kenley-Letts said that it seemed like the "natural" choice.

"Neil Blair [Rowling's agent] did get a number of calls from Studio and Hollywood and lots of people, actually, but because we knew that J.K. Rowling is planning on writing quite a few books in this series - we still don't know how many - it just lent itself to TV, and when the BBC said that they'd be really keen to commission it, we chose to go that route."

Having found a home for the material, the next step was finding the right team to bring Cormoran Strike to life. "Ben Richards, who has adapted it - he and I worked together previously on The Tunnel," said Kenley-Letts. "Ben popped into my head because he's a brilliant writer who is particularly good at doing both character and genre, and this felt like a book that needed both. Then Michael came on board, along with all our HoD's, and it all came together from there."

Speaking of adapting the Galbraith novels, Richards revealed the challenges that he faced: "There are a number of challenges about adaptation; it's about keeping the essence of the book, the essence of the story, whilst making it suitable for the slightly different demands of television in terms of pace and shape. The characters were fine - they were faithful to the brilliant characterisations in the book."

"It was more a case of making sure that [the books] fit into three hours of television and the ordering - which was something we had ongoing discussions with J.K. Rowling about. It was mainly logistical stuff - there are a lot of characters in the books, so we had to have fewer characters to make it more easily accessible, particularly in the third episode. So, the big challenge was how do you do that, whilst staying true to the book? And I really think we managed to do that with the amazing support of Tom and Holliday by making those characters come alive - they are the essence of this series."

In the series, Tom Burke leads the cast as Cormoran Strike - a war veteran turned private detective, who also happens to be the estranged son of a famous rock star. Casting such a larger-than-life character proved tough - particularly as readers have developed such a clear-cut image of the sizeable character. 

When asked whether the character's perceived size was an issue, Burke disagreed. "I think when you read a book instead of a script, you come at it from a slightly different angle. I've played all sorts of parts - I was aware that he had a size to him, but it's something you can do if you do it in an imaginative way."

Quipping in, Kenley-Letts added: "I have to admit, after I read the books, I did google 'tall British actors over 6 ft"2' - there weren't that many!"

Director Michael Kellior also chimed in on Strike's on-screen characterisation: "There were some tricks deployed to give him some heft - but once you get into it, you go with it. He's such a charismatic character. A big part of the way Tom captures Strike is his stillness."

"There's quite a few factors [about Strike] in the book that were removed, that Ruth and I discussed at length - on screen, we didn't want his hair to appear "wiry like pubic hair" - that's not something we wanted to recreate!" (Amidst the laughter, Burke chimes in: "I did offer to get a perm.")

Speaking about the tone of the series, Richards expressed his adoration for it's "old-school" vibe: "It's a whodunnit, it's a private investigator - it's not trying to be Scandi. It absolutely knows what it is, but it also has a contemporary sensibility and a character that feels familiar but also new and rooted in the modern world."

The show's female star, Holliday Grainger, added her own perception of the books and of her character, Robin Ellacott. "I loved the books - I felt I knew who Robin was. She's so compassionate and lovely - I think you recognise the best aspects of yourself in her. She feels like your mate or someone you want to be your mate. And I love the way that you get to know Strike and Robin through Strike and Robin and how they perceive each other."

Speaking about Strike and Robin's friendship/chemistry as another Holmes-and-Watson-esque TV pair, Grainger continued: "The way that Jo writes, her world is so 'you know it, when you read it'. We know each other's characters from reading the books. There's an ease to that from the first day, so you don't have to question who you are."

When asked about Rowling's involvement in the series, Burke spoke generously about the author: "We were both very aware of her communication at a script level, and of certain things she said along the way. She's very good at getting the team she wants and then going 'go away and have fun.' I think that's part of her enjoyment of it  - having this whole world she's created and seeing how other people interpret it."

Richards also spoke kindly of Rowling's involvement as an executive producer on the show."She was involved at every stage, but she was also quite hands off. She would intervene when she wanted to, but it was normally very specific. She was very generous about allowing changes - she's a screenwriter as well so she understands that you can't just take a book and shove it onscreen. At each draft, she would give notes and we'd talk about those and... I'd do what she said."

The series' over-arcing plot centres on the mysterious death of a popular supermodel, showing a darker side to celebrity culture. "It feels familiar. There are reference points in the real world - though it isn't based on it all, the death of Amy Winehouse strikes a chord," said Richards. 

However, despite the series' darker themes, there is still a lot of humour embedded in the show. "Shows that have no humour just enevate me," sighed Richards. "I think you can have serious themes and serious characters and serious topics and still have jokes. You can still have detectives who smile. There is a bit of a tendency to do these things Poe-faced. Strike's got problems, but he can still smile. That's what I like about the books. He's got his issues, but he gets on with it - he doesn't have to be tortured."

Finally when asked what Rowling thought about the finished product, Kenley-Letts seemed positive. "She absolutely loved it. But she's been involved all the way through - she wasn't a lazy exec at all. She read all the drafts of the scripts; she came into the cutting room and saw each episode; she was involved in the casting of our leads. She was very present throughout the process."

"I know that she thinks Tom and Holliday have done a fantastic job. The chemistry is great between Strike and Robin - a lot of people who loved the books love Strike and Robin and, it feels to me, that [Jo is] writing a love story - this relationship is going to develop, so we're all thrilled that those two work so well."

Strike begins on Sunday 27th August on BBC One. 

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