Premieres Wednesday, April 29 at 8PM

Part 02

Interview with Sarah Phelps

HBO

How did you first encounter ‘The Casual Vacancy’?

Sarah Phelps

I was very aware that there was this book being published called ‘The Casual Vacancy,’ that J.K. Rowling had written her first book for adults. Then I got the call to say, “Can you read ‘The Casual Vacancy’ and think about it in preparation for meeting with J.K. Rowling?” There was a moment where I went: Should I freak out about this? So I read the book very, very quickly. I went up to meet J.K. Rowling and talked to her about her novel and talked to her about how I’d responded to it and how I would adapt it if I adapted it. You know that thing where you think: Should I be freaked out by meeting this incredibly successful and amazing author? Or should I just go and say, “Hello, it’s really nice to meet you. You’re a writer, I’m a writer, so let’s talk about your work.”

HBO

What had you thought of ‘The Casual Vacancy’ when you read it?

Sarah Phelps

I turned the pages really, really fast. It’s a real page-turner. It’s got really telling, extraordinary kind of moments around people’s interior lives. Obviously it’s a very, very big book, and it’s a multi-layered, multi-narrative story of a town, and it reminded me very much of 19-century novels, industrial novels like ‘Middlemarch,’ like ‘Cranford’ in a way, Thomas Hardy or [Charles] Dickens. It had that real flavor of those great big reforming, passionate 19th century industrial novels, which kind of bridged the gap between the rural and the town. When I was talking to J.K., and I said, “Look, Krystal is the beating heart of the story for me. The story, really, is about Krystal.” She is the woman who bears the brunt of what society cannot admit about itself. She just really grabbed my heart, Krystal.

HBO

How did Rowling factor in when you were writing?

Sarah Phelps

I’ve done a couple other adaptations of Dickens and people say, “What’s it like? The difference between adapting a writer who’s been dead for 100 years and a writer who’s alive?” You kind of tell a joke and say: “Well, Dickens doesn’t have wi-fi.” But the point is that J.K. is incredibly generous, and it’s probably very hard to do your job as someone doing an adaptation because you are going to take liberties and you are going to make changes. If a writer was going to be like, “No, you can’t do that, you can’t do that,” your life is going to be very, very difficult.

But J.K. was brilliant. I made my pitch and I think she trusted me that I’d really got the story that she was really passionate about telling. She was amazing. She stepped back and she let me get on with it. Obviously, she’s had a lot of experience with all the ‘Harry Potter’ novels adapted and creating this massive franchise, but in TV it feels like people are watching it with a microscope. But she was amazing, she was very, very generous, and I’m very, very grateful for that generosity and that trust.

HBO

Where can we see the Sarah Phelps in this piece?

Sarah Phelps

My stamp is all over it. My stamp is everywhere. And I think that what was really cool was J.K. and I saw eye-to-eye on the things we cared very passionately about. But that meant that I was able to take J.K.’s book, and she allowed me to take a lot of liberties and to change quite a lot of it in order to, first of all, make a 500 page book fit a three-hour TV series. But I’d say that my stamp is all over it. I feel that I’ve got a real personal and emotional investment and involvement in all those characters. No point in writing if you’re not in there.

HBO

Was there any change from the book to the screen that was particularly difficult?

We never said, “Let’s make something that’s really, really the right wing.” But the right wing responded very vociferously. What I say is: If it’s touched a raw nerve, then that nerve is there to be touched.
Sarah Phelps

There’s lots of things I worked on. In the book, for a start, Barry dies in the first couple of pages. By page two, Barry is gone. But I wanted to keep Barry around longer because I wanted to, in the TV adaptation, really see what Barry meant to everybody, whether they loved him or they loated him, so we could see what his absence really means. The book is called ‘The Casual Vacancy,’ and that can mean an empty seat on a parish council and all about local politics or, perhaps, actually what Barry’s death does is send shock waves of sudden death through the village. And what it actually becomes about is the casual vacancy as a grave.

Also I changed what they are arguing about. In the book, the parish council are debating a boundary line, but a boundary line is fine in a book, but in a TV adaptation, it means you are pointing at a map. In terms of the change, I asked myself: What if a person, a long time ago, had donated a house to the people who worked in their field? And what if 150 years later, when property is through the roof and that village is now reliant on tourism, what is that house is still for the people of the field, but now the fields is a really rundown estate? And now they've got all these rundown people walking through their village and ruining their property prices. What if we do it like that?

HBO

What did you think of the reaction to the airing in the U.K.?

Sarah Phelps

That was really interesting. Some people really hated it. “How dare you show us this on our Sunday night!” And the weird thing was that when [director] Jonny [Campbell] and I discussed it, we never said, “You know what? Let’s make a really left-wing thing.” We talked about films with timeless stories that are sunk down into the landscape. We talked about the 19th century novels and the great industrial novels. We never said, “Let’s make something that’s really, really the right wing.” But the right wing responded very vociferously. What I say is: If it’s touched a raw nerve, then that nerve is there to be touched.

What was really kind of interesting was that, despite the fact that we got some flack from people, we also got people responding in a really positive way, from sometimes really surprising quarters. Like, letters from people who said, “This is how our parish council behaves.” We heard about really dirty tricks in local politics. One woman I ran into reacted so strongly, telling me with tears in her eyes, “But there are so many Krystals. So many Krystals. There are just too many Krystals.”

HBO

How do you feel about how the miniseries turned out?

Sarah Phelps

I’m extremely proud of it. I’m incredibly proud of the way that Jonny created that absolutely seamless world, and I’m so proud of the cast as well. Abigail Lawrie who plays Krystal is absolutely unbelievable. That’s her first job acting. We all sat there and said to each other, “How are we going to find someone to play the Krystal role?” There was Abigail Lawrie, and she suddenly looked up and, before she even opened her mouth, I knew she was Krystal.

Watch The Casual Vacancy

  1. NOW & GOAvailable