EXCLUSIVE: The first call Stephen Garrett made after acquiring the rights to suspense-fuelled book Culprits: The Heist Was Just the Beginning was to writer and director J Blakeson, who he hailed as “the real deal.”
Blakeson “has seen every crime movie and thriller. You can’t catch him out really,” Garrett pronounced sagely. He was ideal, then, to write and direct the TV adaptation of the multi-layered, heart-stopping anthology, edited by Richard Brewer and Gary Phillips.
The result is Culprits, an eight-part thriller starring Nathan Stewart-Jarrett in a career-changing role, and Gemma Arterton, about the maelstrom that swirls after a gang of ruthless thieves pull off an ingenious heist.
Disney+ streams Culprits in the UK and Ireland on November 8 and in the U.S. on December 8 on Hulu. Garrett is executive producer, as are showrunner, writer and director Blakeson, and Johanna Devereaux. It’s produced by Morenike Williams.
The two men had met 14 years ago, around the time The Disappearance of Alice Creed, Blakeson’s first feature as a double hyphenate, was released. Arterton was its star.
They developed a movie together that “didn’t happen” but Garrett saw Blakeson as “the real deal” and “one of those rare people” who excels at both writing and directing. He said he’d “cheerfully” have him take on both tasks “in a shot.”
The two were well matched.
Garrett, for as long as I’ve known him, from the days when he ran Kudos Film and Television with Jane Featherstone, has been intrigued by spies and powerful criminals.
And Spooks, set inside the world of Britain’s domestic secret service, known as MI5 in the States, was his first professional entry into that world.
When he was eight he bought a reference tome called The Book of Spies “and I’ve always just been obsessed,” he tells me.
Garrett said he “grew up” on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and it was “one of the ones that really made me love a certain kind of TV drama, but also got me very excited about how cool it would be to be Napoleon Solo.
“And then of course I get to work with Napoleon Solo [Robert Vaughn] on Hustle, so how thrilling was that?,” he exclaimed.
Spies & inspirations
At Oxford University, a favorite recruiting ground for the British intelligence services, he joked, “I was just sort of waiting for the so-called tap on the shoulder.” “I thought, ‘how could they not know I’d make a most brilliant spy?’,” he added, sarcastically.
It didn’t happen, he assured. ”And so I think there was this sort of seething resentment. If I couldn’t be one then I’d tell stories about them,” he reasoned.
An early effort called Psychos starring Dougie Henshall (Shetland) playing a bipolar psychiatrist was “brilliant,” but he soon realized that “people don’t want to watch mental illness on screen. You can watch any kind of physical illness, but,” he believed, “mental illness is just too unsettling.” Psychos garnered prizes but it didn’t get renewed.
Not long afterwards, Channel 4 asked a few companies to pitch for a new precinct drama. “I hadn’t even contemplated what a precinct drama was. And so I literally looked it up, of course they’re cop shows and doc shows,” Garrett explained, because I was ignorant of the term.
But Channel 4 wanted neither cop nor doc shows. “And I thought, ‘Easy, there must be lots of other precincts.’ And then I realized,” he recalled, “why of course there were so many cop and doc shows, because jeopardy walks in through those doors 24/7, which doesn’t really happen in a pet shop or even a hotel or cafe.”
Scanning bookshelves for titles he thought could be other precincts, he paused at sci-if because he felt that spaceships were a sort of precinct, where jeopardy happened, and upon reaching for John le Carré’s, he was reminded of MI5, the U.K.’s domestic counter-intelligence and security agency. Plenty of jeopardy there.
“And at that point, I was amazed, because now the world is full of spy shows. Literally you can’t turn on any stream without falling over 10 of them,” he said laughing.
That was before 24. “Literally on either side of the Atlantic, there was nothing,” he lamented.
“So I came up with Spooks [MI5] and the title Spooks,” and brought in David Wolstencroft, who’d written Psychos, to develop it.
However, Channel 4 rejected it, as did the BBC. Eventually, the BBC had a change of heart and greenlit it in 2001, a month before 9/11. “That was my spy thing coming out,” he said.
Back at the bookshop, he continued to hover over le Carré’s oeuvre and thought “wow, this is a world I loved.”
The other inspirational show for Garrett, along with The Man From U.N.C.L.E., was the original 1979 TV version of le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy “which of course is one of the great TV masterpieces” with Alec Guinness effortlessly capturing George Smiley, the inscrutable master spy.
“But le Carré was genuinely an inspiration,” he said. “So then to have ended up working with him and his family on The Night Manager was just like a kind of schoolboy dream come true,” he enthused.
Full disclosure: I’m a le Carré junkie. My study bookshelves strain under the weight of multiple hardback and paperback copies of every le Carré tale from Call for the Dead, published in 1961 [filmed as The Deadly Affair in 1966] all the way to Silverview. Le Carré’s son Nick Cornwell completed his father’s manuscript after he died, and it was published in 2021.
Errol Morris’ Apple TV+ and The Ink Factory documentary The Pigeon Tunnel features priceless in-depth exchanges between the master documentarian and the master espionage storyteller.
My current obsession is with all things Mick Herron, who some regard as an heir to le Carré. Herron’s Falstaffian Jackson Lamb is surely Smiley’s scruffy, outcast cousin? And Gary Oldman plays him to perfection in Apple TV+ Slow Horses thriller series. I just watched all six preview episodes of forthcoming Season 3 in one sitting.
As we further discussed le Carré and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Garrett remarked, ruefully, about what’s happening “to pacing in television and storytelling”, and we dissected the episode where Hywel Bennett’s Ricky Tarr heads to Gibraltar for a meeting and he’s literally pacing around the ramparts of a castle ,smoking, while nothing happens. “And you think, ‘Oh my God, even with the most thoughtful and artistic of television drama, you could not do that now.’ And we really have sped up. Malcolm Gladwell was right, it’s just our attention span. You can feel it just eroding on a weekly basis.”
Garrett sighed,noting that the glance back to how it used to be in 1979 makes him wonder: ”Oh my God, no, I’ve become so commercial.”
What Culprits does so well, is that it makes us sit up and pay attention to a tale that hurls us into a world of tension.
At times the tension was so tight that I sat on the edge of my seat when the first two episodes of Culprits were shown during the BFI London Film Festival. It was great hearing an audience gasp in union at moments of high jeopardy involving our seemingly unlikely hero Joe, played by Stewart-Jarrett, who until now I have known mostly through his work on stage.
He was superb, for instance, in director Marianne Elliott’s magnificent National Theatre revival of Tony Kushner’s Angels In America, which also played Broadway where Stewart-Jarrett made his debut.
Like Odysseus in Homer’s The Odyssey, all Joe wants to do is to get home, “so he has to go through all this kind of life-threatening, jaw dropping mayhem, just to lead a quiet life,” Garrett said.
Garrett remembered a conversation he had with Frank Spotnitz, who for a long time was X-Files exec and birthed Ransom, The Man in the High Castle and Medici. And one of the things he and Spotnitz talked about was was tension, jeopardy and storytelling.
“Frank said, ‘It’s all about creating in the audience, an expectation and fear of what could go wrong. That’s what you start by doing, that tension. Nothing needs to have happened. It’s what could go wrong?’ Of course, Hitchcock invented this, and then you make it go wrong. Some people don’t make it go wrong, you just create tension and don’t deliver on it. But in Frank’s world you create the tension …it goes wrong. And then that wrong thing goes wronger still,” Garrett said.
“So that’s sort of what happens with Culprits. And in a way it’s sort of like Pinocchio. The bigger the lie, the longer your nose. So the bigger the stakes, the worse the complications are that come from it. It’s a game of consequences to some extent. You do this thing and it doesn’t matter however much time has passed, it’s going to come back to bite you,” he warned.
And if you’re a fan of Uncut Gems, Culprits has, at times, that same level of what I term, ‘Oh my giddy Aunt kind of tension.’
Laughing, Garrett observed that some people don’t like being made to feel tense “but then they shouldn’t watch thrillers” but “if you like them, it’s a kind of masochistic pleasure.”
Stewart-Jarrett’s Joe is also known as Muscle and he looks as if the James Bond stunt team transformed him. Smiling, Garrett responded that the actor “was working out every day to bulk up so that he could live up to the name Muscle.”
Scenes were shot out of sequence, so occasionally he’d go “from being super bulked up to less super bulked up. So we had just have to make sure the wardrobe disguised that. But he was such a trooper and was probably working twice as hard as anyone else to train.”
Although, he added, Niamh Algar (Calm with Horses),who plays the Specialist, kept wanting more training than the character she plays.
Keep your eye on Algar. Spoiler alert: actually, nope, I’m not going risk revealing what she pulls off in her very first scene where she’s dressed top to toe in white.
Equally, when her character’s introduced, Gemma Arterton appears attired in a white coat that exudes power.
The actress Kirby Howell-Baptiste (Cruella) will also demand your attention.
“An eight-hour movie”
Garrett spoke admiringly of working with Disney+ on Culprits. “I’m not here to puff Disney+ needlessly, but one of the very brilliant things they did when commissioning the show occured,” he explained, after he and Blakeson had worked out a three season arc for Culprits. “And when Disney+ greenlit it, they said ‘We want it to end, we want a closed-ended series.’.”
“And interrogating that, and if you think about our experience as viewers, how often do you sit through a six, eight or 10-part first season and you get to the end of it and you think, ‘It hasn’t ended,’ and it hasn’t because it’s setting up another season,” he said.
“So Disney’s research had told them that audiences were increasingly pissed off with us for that, which I get. And so, oddly, when they said,, I know you pitched this three season arc ,we just want a close ended season,’ J and I kind of punched the air because it meant we could make an eight-hour movie, which is what we’ve done.”
To be told, “no second season, let’s satisfy the audience” is “really thrilling for us,” he said.
Wasn’t that frustrating from a business point of view, I wondered?
He did “kind of fine” out of Kudos “and now I genuinely just want to make the shows I want to make with the people I want to work with. And I’m not trying to grow an empire again.”
Drolly, he added, “I mean, if that accidentally happens, fine, but I’m not trying to do it.”
Wouldn’t one make twice or three times the money with more seasons? “Yes, but that’s not really why I do things.”
Like all the TV and movies made in those first months following the initial long Covid-19 lockdown, there was a scrum as dozens of shows got greenlit almost on the same day in December 2020. “Suddenly you couldn’t get cast, crew or studios and facilities or cameras, or lenses for love or money.And so began the single most stressful experience of my professional life,” he revealed.
He had what he called “a fun little thing” on his phone, which was “the daily Covid Culprits WhatsApp group where the “first thing I’d do when I woke up was get to see who was sick.” “And our rules quite rightly stated that if you tested positive, come what may, you were off for 10 days. And if you think of all the moving parts of production, cast and crew, the miracle of our shoot was that we kept going. It was sort of like The Hunger Games where you are with a group of people fighting your way through an invisible enemy, and someone falls down a hole next to you and someone else gets hoisted up a tree and you think, ‘Can we make our day?’ Yep. Let’s carry on.”
He teased that when they were shooting the exterior scenes for the heist, three of the seven Culprits had Covid.
The characters had to wear masks for the break-in “so if you don’t shoot them in closeup, frankly, they could have been anybody. And we were able to carry on. But I defy you to spot those body doubles.”
The crew was augmented, to Disney’s credit, Garrett said admiringly, with 25 to 30 people from underrepresented communities in training and apprenticeship posts across all disciplines “because rightly our world has been seen as a place where you can only get in if you know people, we’re trying to smash down those doors.”
Again, to their credit, with Disney’s backing, there was quite a “chunk of change” in our budget to make that provision, he said.
Culprits shot for 135 days on locations in Canada, the UK, Norway and Spain. Blakeson directed five episodes and Claire Oakley, who directed the well-regarded 2019 film Make Up, shot episodes five, six and seven.
Garrett’s Character Seven production company has a handful of productions based on novels in various stages of development, including a new interpretation of le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, but that’s a way away. “It’s something that those involved would like to happen and hope passionately that it will. It’s not impossible.”
When mulling over what to name his company, Garrett came up with Character Seven as Pirandello’s Six Characters In Search of An Author came to mind. “And I thought, ‘I spend my life in search of authors and writers, I’m Character 7.’ So that’s where it began.”
However, with my Smiley Lamb hat on, I fathomed that letter seven in the alphabet is G – representing G for Garrett.
G, my fellow wannabe spy, brightened at my remarkable feat of code-breaking.
Slipping on his winter jacket, a herringbone number from Brunello Cucinelli, that I eyed enviously, G exited The Union Club in Soho’s Greek Street, bumped into a man sporting a fur hat, and disappeared out into the cold.