Gemma Whelan and Jimmy Akingbola, known for their roles in “Game of Thrones” and “Kate & Koji” respectively, make their return in this highly praised crime drama. The series is based on Kate London’s gripping second novel and has been skillfully adapted by screenwriter Patrick Harbinson, known for his work on acclaimed shows like “Homeland,” “Fearless,” “24,” and “ER.” The production is handled by Windhover Films, Patrick Harbinson’s own company, in collaboration with the esteemed production house Mammoth Screen.
Joining Gemma Whelan as DS Sarah Collins and Jimmy Akingbola as DC Steve Bradshaw, we have Tahirah Sharif, who recently received a BAFTA nomination for her portrayal of PC Lizzie Adama. Additionally, Emmett J Scanlan takes on the role of DI Kieran Shaw.
Gemma Whelan discusses her role as Detective Sarah Collins in ITV’s The Tower, sharing insights on handling death messages and complex investigations.
Can you explain what a death message is?
A death message is when as a police officer you go to the home of the immediate next of kin, and inform them of a death, which is what Tahirah Sharif’s character PC Lizzie Adama has to do this series.
What conversations did you have on set with the show’s police advisers about such sensitive procedures?
A lot of the supporting artists on The Tower are ex-police officers and detectives, so they are a rich field to plough during downtime. A few of them shared some desperate situations they found themselves in and messages they had to deliver. They were very clear that when you are doing that kind of message there has to be no ambiguity. Nothing like, ‘They’ve gone to a better place.’ You simply say that they are dead. It seems to be very important to not be ambiguous. It’s not a job I would like to do in real life.
How has the investigation into what happened at Portland Tower in series one affected Sarah?
She feels resigned to the fact that it went the way it went. She knows that a crime was covered up – by police officers – and she knows Lizzie Adama was part of it. At the same time, she understands why Lizzie acted as she did and the pressures she was under. Almost despite herself she’s impressed that Lizzie stayed in the police and now she’s waiting for her to prove herself.
What is Sarah’s reaction when she sees Lizzie for the first time since the internal inquiry at a crime scene?
Very quickly it appears that Lizzie can be quite useful because she is part of the investigation that Sarah has been called to. She says to Lizzie, ‘You were in the house. Come in and see if anything has been moved.’ Sarah gives her a chance. I don’t think Sarah is one to hold a grudge. She’s like, ‘You’re here. Let’s get on with it.’ She is obviously going to test her, and she does test her. She doesn’t give her an easy ride, but Sarah is very much a ‘get on with it’ sort of woman.
Sarah has discarded her orange duffle coat. What discussions did you have about her wardrobe for series 2 with costume designer Darren Finch?
We did give the duffle a moment, but it ends up being left in the back of Sarah’s car. Darren has absolutely nailed it. It was quite difficult last season because I was pregnant so they had to try their best to cover up a woman who clearly would not have children at this juncture in her life. This year everything that Darren brought along felt like Sarah. It was great to be able to move it on without doing anything drastically different. She’s looking smart and the clothes aren’t getting in the way. But there is no more orange duffle coat.
How does Sarah feel about being given a missing girl cold case from 1997 on her first day at Homicide Command? Everyone else is getting excited about a chicken shop shooting…
She would definitely like to be part of the chicken shop shooting case, and she knows that being handed a 25-year-old cold case is a thankless task which everyone, especially her new boss, expects her to fail. But I think she rises to the challenge. She thinks outside the box and fairly quickly – just by looking at people, thinking about people in a different way – she develops a vital new lead. She prides herself on that. Even though she knows she’s being disrespected, she says ‘Right, I’m going to prove myself, I’m going to crack this.’ And she does.
What is Sarah’s reaction when she spots DC Steve Bradshaw in the office?
She was really betrayed by Steve. They had Lizzie Adama on the ropes and could have nailed her but for his own reasons Steve decided that wasn’t a good idea. Steve was more lenient with Lizzie because of her inexperience, and that clashed with Sarah. In Sarah’s world, that’s a matter for the courts to decide, not the police. They had been good partners, close partners, but at the final moment he let her down badly. So she’s surprised to see him at Homicide Command and that, somehow, he got there.
Sarah has a new work partner. What can you tell us about DC Elaine Lucas (Ella Smith) who also answers, to Sarah’s horror, to the nickname Fat Elaine?
Ella is just perfect. We had great fun. Elaine is so cantankerous and grumpy. They don’t initially get on because Sarah is very much dedicated to the job and thinks how dare Elaine also have a family life outside of work. It’s all about the job with Sarah. But slowly, slowly Elaine begins to prove herself. Elaine comes alive with the excitement of solving the case. It’s an interesting partnership. We struggled at first playing those scenes because we got on so well.
“What surprises me is how untouchable some people think they are.” That is Sarah to DI Shaw. Has she still got her eye on him this series?
Yes absolutely. She knows something went down there. Something was not right about the way that case was handled by him, but she can’t put her finger on it. She’s got her eye on him because he is slippery. I don’t think that she thinks underneath that Kieran is a good cop. She thinks he is a wrong ‘un. She can explain away most other people’s behaviour – Lizzie’s for example, and even Steve’s – but I think she finds Kieran very, very difficult.
Sarah bumps into Portland Tower victim Farah Mehenni’s teacher Julie Woodson (Camilla Beeput) at her local supermarket. Is Julie a better match than Sarah’s ex-partner Angie?
I think so. I think Julie is more understanding and more aware of what the job is. She doesn’t seem to be so demanding but what is also quite nice and what I think Sarah finds quite refreshing is that Julie calls her out on her behaviour. At one point she says, ‘This isn’t good enough. I’m going.’ And that kind of shocks Sarah. She’s always been able to get away with that. It’s the job first but if someone is going to ask more of her maybe that’s what she needs. Julie challenges her in a good way to step out of her work sometimes, to enjoy a glass of wine.
Do you have a favourite interview scene this series? Sarah does a respectful & empathetic one with park keeper Robert McCarthy…
I really, really enjoyed that one. The actor Benjamin Beresford who plays Robert McCarthy was wonderful. To work with someone with special needs was something new for me. Something we are often asked to do as actors is to be present, but we are sometimes so caught up in ourselves. Benjamin was so present and so professional. He knew his dialogue, he was really directable, and I just really enjoyed working with him. He was really nice to talk to off set. His dad is an Oscar winner, Bruce Beresford (director of Best Picture Driving Miss Daisy). He was on set as well and it was just a really special day. I learned a lot from Benjamin. I also enjoyed interviewing Shonagh Marie who plays Marley Daniels. I just think she’s brilliant. It was fun to spark off her. She’s so nice but onscreen she is so hostile and impenetrable as Marley. A great challenge. We were very fortunate with our guest cast this series. Watching Tamzin work was also fantastic and every scene I had with Niamh was wonderful. She’s a very special woman and we got to play some quite strong emotions together and she was so accessible and easy with that.
Sarah gets into the thick of the action in later episodes tackling an armed criminal. Do you enjoy working with a stunt coordinator?
I really enjoy it. We did a bit of the fight at the end, which was shot very cleverly from our bumbling around. It’s nice to be part of the physicality of that and the pod-car driving where the driver is on top of the vehicle and you are underneath. You are driving really fast, but someone is doing it all for you: it’s weird but exhilarating.
What has series two director Faye Gilbert brought to the series?
It’s all about detail. You can decide as an actor that this is probably how Sarah would behave but then Faye would come in with a detail or suggestion and just set you alight with something else. Faye is patient as well. When everyone around us is going, ‘We’ve got two hours to shoot 10 scenes!’ Faye would take the time to sit and talk through with everyone.
What is it about the whole atmosphere of set life that you love?
You are being told what to say, what to do, what to wear and you are fed and watered and driven everywhere. You are kind of like a little baby. I love it. (laughs) Also wonderfully I was allowed my little baby Freddy on set this series. They provided an amazing Winnebago facility so we could feel safe and comfortable every day where we were. I was a bit moved by how kind they were to me as a working mother. It is an extra thing to have a breastfeeding mother on set. Obviously, you should be welcome as you are in every other workplace, but it requires more thought. There was so much thought and attention and kindness and checking in. I was of course happy to meet them more than halfway. ‘I’ll bring the nanny, I’ll bring the milk.’ You can really make it work.
I was doing pick-ups for the first series of The Tower five days before I gave birth. We were filming in Camberwell, and I live down South-East, so I finished my pick-ups and then I walked to the hospital for my first sweep. It was that close. Freddy arrived five days later. The thing is I’m not an invalid. I felt well. As long as they were happy to shoot around it, I’m game. Again, they were lovely and accommodating and nobody viewed me as a liability.