Complicit production notes


The first inkling of the idea that was to become Complicit came to producer Kevin Toolis when Gordon Brown made a statement in 2009 saying that the British state was not involved in torture.

"British Prime Ministers generally don't make negative statements - they don't say things like "We're against child-murder," because you just assume that they are. Why would they need to state it?" posits Toolis. "There have been a number of allegations made by individuals that they have been visited in foreign prisons by members of British intelligence, and they've been, not tortured by them, but tortured by others and then subsequently interrogated [by British intelligence]. This is a huge and important national and moral issue, because democratic states should not engage in the torture of people, and they should not condone the torture. It is against the laws of our country, and therefore when you're overseas, the same legal principles should apply to the treatment of prisoners. Even if they may be bad people who are terrorist suspects."

Toolis began a long research process. Much of the material was already familiar to him, after his documentary series The Cult of the Suicide Bomber and The History of the Car Bomb. "These are areas that take you very much into the field that Complicit covers - the intelligence services, the threat of terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism and people who are obviously sympathetic to Islamist terrorist agendas. It's fascinating material." But with the majority of his work having been in documentaries, Toolis was keen to bring on board a drama writer.

In 2010, Toolis was part of a Newsnight panel reviewing Guy Hibbert's Northern Ireland-based drama Five Minutes of Heaven. Fortunately (both for Hibbert and for the future of Complicit) Toolis reviewed the film favourably (Producer Jolyon Symonds jokes it was a "brilliant bit of producing on Kevin's part").

Toolis invited Hibbert on board, and the two began an intensive period of research together. "We met former members of the intelligence services, we met senior members of the British security establishment - people on the joint intelligence committee," recalls Toolis. "We went up to Leeds and met members of the Muslim community, we had a look at some of the places that the 7/7 bombers had come from, and we spoke to members of the Muslim community in London and visited Mosques. It was a very extensive factual trail."

Towards the end of 2010, Hibbert and Toolis took the idea to Channel 4, who gave the project the green light. Soon after that, producer Symonds came on board, with his extensive experience of producing dramas.

Now the spotlight fell on Hibbert. There was an outline for a script, but little more. In 2011, holed up in New York, he sat down to write Complicit.

"The big challenge," he explains, "was to make a drama that didn't feel like it was an issue-based drama. And also, we all know that torture's bad, so to write a drama that explains that torture is a bad thing seems pretty pointless to me, so I wanted to make it a bit more interesting. Once I decided to make Edward a black, British intelligence officer, it kind of opened up all sorts of possibilities for a drama that is about being British, about identity, and race and character."

He was also keen to make the drama a nuanced debate, with Edward's actions plausible and, in his mind, to some extent defensible. "I wanted to engage us in an intelligent argument about that. You want to understand why Edward does what he does. It's a complicated moral issue. If you are absolutely certain that somebody is going to kill innocent people, but you can't even interview them because there are legal steps that you have to tread, you think "You have to do what you can." But as it turns out, and as we know, torture is an unreliable means of getting the truth. But when he says "What else could I do?" you kind of understand his position. It's certainly not a pro-torture film, but you want the audience to really consider that wider moral question.

Hibbert wrote the script with David Oyelowo in mind for the part of Edward. The two had worked together on Blood and Oil for the BBC, and were also looking at another project, set in Botswana. "Coincidentally, the day I finished writing the first draft of Complicit, I was flying to Los Angeles from New York to actually meet David to discuss this other film. So as we were driving back from our meeting that night, I told him about the drama and asked if he would read it and let me know what he thought of it - without telling him I wanted him to play the part. And he emailed back and said he'd loved it, and would love to be in it."

But if the casting of one if the two main roles was simple enough, the other went right down to the wire - two weeks before filming was due to start, he still wasn't in place.. "It was really close. We were just struggling to find our Waleed. We were all getting quite nervous," admits Symonds. "And he just came in and there he was."

The ‘he' in question was Arsher Ali. "I'd met Arsher for a previous project and loved him" says Symonds. "We'd seen a lot of good actors for the role of Waleed yet not really found our ideal. Arsher hadn't been available to meet until a week or so into our pre-production. He came straight in off the back of a long flight and was just so exciting and compelling. Only too aware of the difficult and often clichéd perception of this type of role, Arsher's was a scarily intense reading that left us captivated. We had our man."

Filming took place over a few weeks in May and June of 2012, with Morocco doubling for Egypt. Toolis, ever the factual programme-maker, had wanted to film in Egypt. "As events subsequently proved, that would have been very foolish. Clearly Egypt continues to be in political turmoil. Given the nature of the film, all manner of untoward things could have happened that just would have made the production process much more difficult."

The director was Niall MacCormick. "I think Niall's done an excellent job on it," says a delighted Hibbert. "I felt that what he can do, and what makes him an extremely good director, is he can read a script and find the atmosphere and tone of the script, and bring that to the screen. I thought he'd be the right guy for this because of that, and it turned out to be true."

Hibbert isn't the only one satisfied with the results. "I'm really proud of it," says Symonds. "You always go into every project trying to make the best of it, and for whatever reason, it rarely comes out as you'd hoped, whereas this exceeded my expectations. It really stands on its own two feet. I love the fact that it's a difficult topic that we haven't drawn any glib conclusions about. Channel 4 has been pretty brave to back this. There's been no concession made, no "Now here's the chase" or "Now here's the twist". It's been amazing to have that level of support, that backing for a drama that is so grown up."

Toolis concurs. "I'm incredibly proud of Channel 4 for commissioning a film like Complicit. I think it's what drama should be, in that it's both an act of entertainment, but also opening up and telling us about a whole area of activity of our time, telling us a story that can only be told in drama. I think it's very much what Channel 4 was made for. There's a space for Fresh Meat, and there does need to be a space for films like Complicit, which reflect upon our world, and are a challenge for our audience. They're the kind of films that make you think."

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