I was delighted when I was sent Phil Rickman’s Midwinter of the Spirit by producer Phil Collinson with a view to my adapting it for ITV as a three-part mini-series. I’d been all too aware of his best-selling Merrily Watkins novels, but actually had avoided reading them because they sounded so much my cup of tea – single mother and “exorcist” in rural Herefordshire, crime stories with a supernatural twist – I didn’t want to love them and then find out somebody else was adapting them!
From the first page, with Huw Owen’s voice described as “David Hockney on downers” I knew this wasn’t remotely going to be Max Von Sydow territory, and Rickman is so clever in making his trainee “Deliverance Minister” Merrily not just un-vicarly but a modern British woman who is strong and forthright but full of self doubt about her abilities, as a Christian and a mother. I immediately knew I could write that. I loved her spiky relationship with her daughter Jane and with Huw, her grouchy old mentor full of tough love, and with Lol Robinson, the other series regular, a decent guy with a dark past.
Midwinter is essentially a kind of Dennis Wheatley thriller brought marvellously up to date, the supernatural and satanic infiltrating ordinary life in a way that you are not sure if it is supernatural at all. Our job was to try to make sure these things are psychologically well-wrought and gripping for the screen time. Whether you believe in these things is up to you. The threat of evil should feel tangible nevertheless.
Of course it is a 550-page book and we only have three hours so we had to make some very hard decisions about what we had to lose, and tighten, and clarify, and that was about finding the emotional spine of the story and focussing what was really essential. Also in an adaptation part of the job is to be a negotiator, so whereas I have my own quite strong ideas about how I want to approach the subject, there is also huge input from producers and execs on several levels during an enormously protracted process of development. Of course the main voice I have in my head is Mr Rickman, but quite honestly if I thought of him looking over my shoulder I wouldn’t be able to write a word! So my duty, strangely, is not to the author but to the book and I have to transfer that to the page and then the screen – you almost have to pull it apart, quite destructively, in order to piece it together so that tonally and thematically it feels like the same thing. But of course it never can be really. All we can hope for is for it to have the essence, an approximation, and to do it well, and for the characters to be compelling, and for people to watch!