Column: This TV creator has never met his stars. But his show is making waves in Hollywood
Speaking with Simon Evans on Zoom, it is difficult not to wonder when Michael Sheen, David Tennant or (wouldn’t it be glorious?) Judi Dench is going to drop in and yell at you.
Never mind that Evans has never met Sheen (“Frost/Nixon,” “The Queen”) or Tennant (“Doctor Who,” “Broadchurch”), at least not in real life. (He has met Dench, which obviously counts double.) For more than a year, “real life” has been a memory; life has been conducted to a large extent over Zoom and, as co-creator, writer and co-star of “Staged,” a BBC One comedy shot entirely on laptops and other personal devices, Evans is a maestro of Zoom. Meeting him there is a bit like walking down the main street of a small Maine town with Stephen King — it seems very normal and familiar except for the nagging feeling that anything, or anyone, could pop out at any time.
For the record:
7:14 p.m. March 22, 2021An earlier version of this column said the first season of “Staged” consists of eight episodes. There are six.
In Evans’ case, it’s more likely to be, say, Samuel L. Jackson than vampires. But still.
“Staged,” available in the U.S. on Hulu, is arguably the most successful series to emerge directly from the COVID-19 pandemic and one of the best examples of creative lemonade-making in a long while: If life forces a theater director and a bunch of high-profile actors into shutdown, make a show about a theater director attempting to wrangle theater rehearsal from a pair of high-profile actors.
Then in the second season, take it to Hollywood.
The premise of the show, which is scooping up awards in Britain, is simple: Having been scheduled to direct Tennant and Sheen in a play that is indefinitely postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Evans attempts to begin rehearsals via Zoom.
The reality it reflects is a bit more complicated.
Finally, a TV show filmed during the COVID-19 lockdown that deserves a second season.
Evans really is a British director who was supposed to have a pretty big year in 2020: He was scheduled to direct a play and his first feature film, though neither involved Tennant or Sheen. When both were derailed by the shutdowns, Evans and the film’s producer, Phin Glynn, wanted to keep working on something that would keep their names “out there.”
“We tossed a number of terrible ideas around,” Evans says. “I was in lockdown with my sister [Lucy Eaton], who is an actor, and I said to Phin, ‘Is there something I could do with me as a director trying to keep rehearsals of a play going?’ Because I had heard of other actors and directors doing the Zoom thing to keep things going. He liked the idea.”
They decided it would have to be two famous actors and a rather hapless director trying to get through what at the time everyone believed would be a few months of isolation.
“We had seen a few things that had been done already during the pandemic that were very worthy, very serious, and I thought that is not what I wanted to do. I wanted to be very ironic, if it wasn’t too soon for that.”
Glynn had worked with Tennant, so he took this one-sentence idea to him. Tennant had recently co-starred with Sheen in “Good Omens” and, Evans says, they were “secretly hoping he would want to take it to Michael, just because the two of them have such great chemistry.”
Both men signed on and Evans began sketching out a script.
“Originally, Lucy was going to be the director, but we realized that they just couldn’t be as mean to her but that they could be horrible to me.” So Evans became the weasely director and Eaton his exasperated sister, who in the midst of her own personal crisis comes home to find that her brother has moved into her house.
Tennant and Sheen are each married to actors — Georgia Tennant and Anna Lundburg, respectively — which meant the story could be broadened to include the issues faced by three households during the shutdown, as well as the rehearsal narrative. So with a sextet of characters, Evans writing, Glynn producing and Alex Baranowski composing, “we decided let’s just make it. If we hate it, we’ll just lump it in a drawer and never speak of it again. But we liked it, so we showed it to the BBC and they liked it and we were off to the races.”
Audiences liked it too, so much that the show — like, unfortunately, the shutdown — got a second season, which was recently met with critical jubilation in the U.K. and arrives on Hulu Tuesday.
The first season consists of six episodes, and the new season, eight, which run about 20 minutes each. Every minute is, astonishingly enough, DIY television.
“David had a ring light but that was the only ‘tech’ we had,” Evans says. “We did it all on laptops; we had to download some software that runs behind on Zoom to record better quality. We had phones recording sound and a few scenes. My sister’s fiancé had a drone, not a really good professional one but good enough to shoot outside scenes of me cycling.”
“My sister’s fiancé had a drone” are not usually words associated with award-winning television, but, Evans says, “that was it. There was nothing else. It was very fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants. And it had to be quick because David and Michael both had 1-year-olds so they couldn’t guarantee time away. There would be times when I would be writing a script and I’d get a text from one or the other saying, “I’m sorry but that window we had to film that was once two hours is now half an hour.”
From slapstick comedy to snooty stoicism, British television is a soothing escape from troubled times. Plus all those great accents.
Working with the BBC offered access to archival footage, and Evans had a friend who was a professional director of photography who would go out into London with his phone “when it was allowed.”
He also had a few connections (cough, Judi Dench) and the collective desire within the acting community to somehow keep working.
“Everyone was in the same boat, no one could do anything, so asking them was actually the easiest thing.”
Including Jackson. “We needed someone who could demolish David and Michael, and someone said, ‘Let’s get Samuel Jackson.’ I said, ‘That’s ridiculous,’ but he said yes.”
As did Adrian Lester and Nina Sosanya who, as Evans’ fearsome producer Jo, was the only actor in Season 1 not playing a version of herself.
But most of the series focuses on Sheen and Tennant’s highly dramatic and very co-dependent battles with the shutdown. (Sheen, Lundberg and their daughter recently contracted, and are recovering from, COVID-19.) Though Evans drew from the pair’s actual friendship as well as real-life shutdown situations (a storyline about Sheen being embarrassed by the number of liquor bottles in his trash was rooted in an incident involving Glynn), it is very much a scripted series.
“I wanted viewers to feel like they’d clicked on a link and somehow accidentally got into a call with David and Michael and, during the first season, I would be writing, editing and filming concurrently, so while it was very tightly scripted, I was writing about two people I was spending a lot of time with.”
Evans succeeded so well that many people believed the show was either improvisation or reality. During early episodes of “Staged,” the character of David Tennant whinges and mopes while the character of Georgia Tennant not only keeps the household running and helps a friend through childbirth, but also writes and sells a novel. (After the show came out, people would approach her asking about her novel, which of course was a figment of Evans’ imagination.)
In a deft twist, the second season of “Staged” presents the first season of “Staged” as a television show. And one so successful that Hollywood wants an American version, which will involve Evans and everyone else except Tennant and Sheen. They are not considered well-known enough in the U.S. to continue starring as themselves.
The ensuing arguments over who “made” the show — the actors or the writer — should resonate with many practitioners of the cinematic arts, and their union reps, while further confusing viewers who think they are watching a fancy version of reality TV.
“I used to be a magician,” Evans says. “I always love stories where the audience doesn’t know what is real and what is not.”
The success of the actual first season may not have resulted in an American version (thank God), but it did draw the attention and ardor of a panoply of A-list actors, including Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Ewan McGregor and Cate Blanchett, who show up with hilarious regularity throughout Season 2.
“I was known enough in theater that actors would reach out, agents would reach out. Simon Pegg was a huge fan of the show, Michael Palin was a big fan,” he says, adding, “Michael Palin is famously the nicest man in British show business, so I said, ‘I want you to be really horrible to Michael and David.” (Which he is.)
A mode of communication designed to get us to stay home, often skewered as the “boob tube” or “idiot box,” TV kept its lights on as others flickered out.
Though she denies it during one episode in the second season, Evans says: “I did actually work on a play with Phoebe. Sending the script to her was terrifying,” he adds. “But she is such a lovely person.”
Now, of course, he is even better known in the theater and Los Angeles, where he was visiting his girlfriend briefly between shutdowns while Season 2 was being “shot.” Now he is a television writer and director who has worked with some of the biggest names in the business.
Including, of course, Dame Judi Dench.
“We worked a lot on her position; she’s looking down at her laptop because I wanted her to be sort of looming over Michael and David. And I did actually give her a note. She was talking about playing strip poker, and I asked if she could do that as if you know you’re going to turn David on, so she did it very sexy. So, yes, I directed Judi Dench to be sexy; I can die happy.”
Evans hopes to return to L.A. now that COVID-19 cases are declining and restrictions easing; not only is he eager to spend time with his girlfriend, but he also has several new projects in addition to the ones halted by the pandemic.
While he is not announcing any more seasons of “Staged,” he is not discounting the possibility. “There’s not yet an idea for making more, and everyone is getting busier. But we’ve talked about everyone’s movements in the future. So we’ll see; everyone’s really touched with how it’s been received.”
“I talk to David and Michael and Georgia pretty often,” he adds, “but I am really hoping to actually meet them. In person. At some point.”
When: Any time
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
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