What would you do if you discovered millions of pounds worth of drugs washed up on a beach? Would you call the police – or sell the lot to the highest bidder? That’s the question at the centre of Boat Story, the BBC’s latest crime thriller with a comedy twist, and its moral quandary that feels particularly relevant amid the cost of living crisis.
“If anyone has been on the breadline, it’s me, I’ve had thirty years of trying to be an actor,” says Craig Fairbrass, best known for playing various hardmen and gangsters.
“But I'm going to be brutally honest, I never looked at [Boat Story] like that. I just read an incredibly entertaining script.”
Boat Story centres on two down-on-their-luck strangers who, while walking along Yorkshire’s coast, accidentally stumble upon a washed-up vessel containing a ton of cocaine (and two dead bodies).
Rather than call the police, Samuel, a Londoner with a secret gambling addiction played by Paterson Joseph, convinces Daisy Haggard’s Janet, a former factory worker who lost her hand, that they should take the drugs and sell them.
While Fairbrass, who portrays mob boss The Tailor’s right-hand man, did not focus on the parallels between the characters and Britain’s current climate, co-star Joanna Scanlan, who plays a woman accidentally caught up in the whole affair, did.
“All the time, there are people who are struggling with terrible financial crises, either through debt, addiction, lack of work, or ability to work, disability,” she says.
“Many people find themselves in really dire straits and I think that's very relatable. It's very easy to lose touch if you're not in that situation. Our world is not very kind to people who haven't got very much.
"How do you get out of the situation that you're in? It’s the conundrum both characters have – it seems pretty un-get-outable of except for this seeming miracle, this pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. There's a moral seesaw in that moment.”
“There are so many people right now who can identify with a feeling of struggle and despair,” Haggard agrees. “The cost of living is out of control. You have these two characters who are just at the lowest point in their life, so when this happens, you're with them.”
Though Boat Story deals with a serious story, the series has a certain whimsy; there’s a narrator who delivers lines like he’s reading a bedtime story, policemen who don’t understand emotional boundaries, and plenty of jokes. The writers and directors, brothers Jack and Harry Williams, have talked about the series being “Tarantino in the North”.
Our world is not very kind to people who haven't got very much.Joanna Scanlan
“The danger of the show is that it could fall into the slapstick violence but it doesn't, ever,” Joseph says.
“People who die properly die. Even in the first episode, there are two coppers in the police station, and you think, ‘Oh, is this a romance? Wait... you can't...’ And they die. So immediately, you feel like no one's safe.”
“It's a lot of fun,” Baptiste’s Tchéky Karyo, who plays The Tailor, adds. His character has a particularly gruesome scene early on where he removes a person’s tongue while he’s on the phone.
“It's like a music sheet. You just follow. It's so well written. That's what brings this complexity, these edgy moments and we [actors] are surprised by ourselves because suddenly you realise what the scene looks like. It's like a musical jam, we’re all musicians playing together.”
The result is a BBC series that feels like nothing else. “The police station [moment in the first episode], you've never seen that on a British drama ever, and shot so graphically, with impact,” Fairbrass says.
“There were no holds barred. It's loud. There's blood everywhere. It's panic. In a small northern town, to do that, you just don’t see that in British drama.”
“And the characters were really well drawn,” says Haggard. “You don't know what's going to happen next. [When I read it], I was thinking, ‘Well, I'm going to watch this.’ You don't always do things that you would watch.
"And so, when you do want to watch the thing you’re going to be in, you get really excited.”
The hardest part of the shoot, Haggard and Joseph explain, was not the cold weather, or acting out violent scenes, but simply being away from family. “The easy stuff is playing the scene and that hard stuff is like, ‘Oh, God, I didn't make spaghetti for the kids’,’” Haggard says.
“I would get a car in two in the morning so I could put my kids to bed on a Sunday and shoot on Monday. Selfishly, they didn't set it near my house!”
Even if Boat Story is not like anything else on television, it sounds like this is a very British story after all.
Boat Story airs on BBC One at 9pm on Sunday, 19 November, and will stream on BBC iPlayer and Amazon Freevee in North America.