Creator Daisy Coulam Talks Deadwater Fell

Daisy Coulam (Grantchester), writer and creator of Deadwater Fell, talks about the four-part drama that made a splash with its U.K. run on Channel 4 earlier this year and has now arrived Stateside on Acorn TV.

Having made a splash with its U.K. run on Channel 4 earlier this year, Deadwater Fell has now arrived Stateside on Acorn TV. The four-part drama follows two families in the fictional Scottish village of Kirkdarroch in the aftermath of a horrific crime.

Deadwater Fell started as an obsession with true crime,” Coulam tells TV Drama Weekly. “Emma Kingsman-Lloyd, a producer I work with a lot, and I both loved The Staircase but had differing opinions on who we believed did it, so that was our starting point. We wanted to do something quiet and forensic and capture the style of those documentaries—focusing on the everyday lives of the characters rather than big dramatic police chases.”

The story follows as a seemingly perfect and happy family is murdered by someone they know and trust, and the small Scottish community they call home becomes divided with doubt and suspicion. Coulam explains that among its deeper themes, the series is about “the social media world we live in today. On Instagram and Facebook and Twitter, we portray our lives at their most ‘perfect.’ But the truth of it is, no life is perfect. We might look at our friends and think they have it all, but do they really? It’s about the front we present to the world and the lives we live behind closed doors.”

Alongside the exploration of the crime, the story examines two relationships: Kate and Tom, and Jess and Steve. David Tennant—whose long list of credits includes Broadchurch, Doctor Who and Good Omens—stars as Tom Kendrick, the local GP and a much-liked member of the community. His marriage to Kate, played by Anna Madeley (Patrick Melrose, The Crown, Utopia), and relationship with their three girls, appears nothing short of perfect. Kate is a beloved local teacher who works at the primary school alongside her best friend and closest confidante, Jess Milner. Jess, played by Cush Jumbo (The Good Fight, The Good Wife, Vera), is a former outsider who moved to Kirkdarroch ***Image***after finding love with Steve. Matthew McNulty (Versailles, Cleaning Up, The Terror) plays Steve, a police sergeant born and raised in Kirkdarroch, whose happy life with his wife is only marred by their struggle to have a child of their own.

“We were so lucky with the cast!” Coulam says. “As soon as David expressed an interest, it was clear it was always his role. And to entice Cush back from America was a real coup! As actors, they bring such subtlety and complexity to their roles. I was always in awe when we got the rushes; they take what I’ve written and make it a million times better!”

The backdrop for the show is the fictional village of Kirkdarroch in Scotland. “It’s a beautiful place—somewhere you might want to live,” says Coulam. “But it’s isolated and surrounded by pine forests, so there’s a sense of menace there too. In a way, the village becomes a character of its own. Picturesque on the surface but a place where everyone has secrets.”

The team worked closely with a forensic psychologist, who provided case studies and transcripts to work with, Coulam explains. “It was important to us to tap into the truth of these kinds of tragedies. She was fascinating to talk to and pushed us not to tell a ‘TV version’ of our story but to be subtle and honest. We also worked with a legal expert and police advisers who made sure we didn’t stray into the realms of fantasy.”

Coulam took on the task of writing Deadwater Fell and the fifth season of Grantchester at the same time, “which was quite intense!” she admits. “Although they’re very different shows, they do cover similar territory. They’re both whodunits, but they’re also whydunits. I’m interested in the psychology behind crime: what drives people to commit such horrific acts. Both shows look at the victims and perpetrators and try to make them as rounded and three dimensional as possible.”

The work on Deadwater Fell was also special for Coulam as it was heavily female-led behind the scenes. “I’ve never worked with so many women at the top,” she says. “The commissioner, three of the executive producers, the producer, director, writer and director of photography were all women. It’s definitely unusual. But to be honest, I’m not sure it was that different to working with men! At the end of the day, it’s all about communication and collaboration. We had some excellent men on this show too—this was David Tennant’s first executive producing gig, and it was great to work with him.”

Deadwater Fell is directed by Lynsey Miller (The Boy with the Topknot, Doing Money), with executive producers Emma Kingsman-Lloyd (Humans, Grantchester) and Karen Wilson (Utopia, The Tunnel), Tennant and Coulam with Caroline Levy (Beecham House, Hooten & the Lady, The Mill) producing. The series is produced by Kudos (Humans, Utopia, Tin Star), part of Endemol Shine UK, for Channel 4 and was commissioned by Channel 4’s head of drama, Caroline Hollick.

“When the show was broadcast in the U.K., people couldn’t deal with the fact they had to wait a week to watch the next episode,” Coulam says. “We’re so used to having shows on tap nowadays. I quite like the suspense of having to wait, but also, in these strange coronavirus times with everyone locked up in their houses, maybe treat yourself to a binge-watch!”