I knew little about the birth of America before I ended up on the set of Sky 1’s Jamestown. Founded by the most extreme risk takers plus a few criminals who were given the choice of journey to the New World or face the noose, the task placed upon the few hundred inhabitants was an unenviable one. King James 1 wanted to establish a new colony and was driven by the desire to find gold, as rumoured the Spanish had done elsewhere on the continent.
Jamestown is an epic historical drama, described by the scriptwriter Bill Gallagher as a Jacobean western. That description alone defines the boldness of this production.
A whole village has been built to resemble what the first British settlement in Virginia, America would have looked like. The set was built in Hungary, a place that is proving popular for filming due to its rural, unspoilt beauty.
I arrive at the village – I say village because calling it a set feels inadequate. The dust covered ground weaves in between quaint thatched cottages that look ancient and opens out into a clearing with a well. In the distance, I can see a green field of crops that I am later informed are tobacco plants. Tobacco was one of the most important goods the settlers traded with the Native Americans, they even used it as payment for their wives. I’m told that they aren’t allowed to sell the tobacco for legal reasons so as soon as filming ends, it will all be thrown away.
I’m greeted by noisy pigs who have grown up on set whilst producer Sue de Beauvoir shows me around and tells us that they have flown in historical experts from around the world to ensure that everything, including all of the furniture, is historically accurate. No detail has been missed. There is even a tavern with mugs that have some sort of liquid in, possibly alcohol, but I’m about to interview the actors so I decided that it was not the right time to find out.
We are invited in to the different houses, decorated to show the status of each character because in 1619 Jamestown everyone firmly knows their place in the class system. As I pass the tavern I feel like I’ve stepped into a western film and at any moment I expect to see Clint Eastwood albeit in Jacobean garb strut out. Instead a group of dishevelled, dark haired Hungarian men with long beards and guns appear in sight. I flinch for a second but then I notice Jason Flemyng leading them with a gun in one hand. “We’re shooting a battle scene,” shouted a director from behind the pigsty.
I get to conduct the interviews in Jocelyn’s house and I’m scared to touch anything as all the furniture looks like it came from the very best antique shop. I’m informed by the cast that series 2 is darker. Although at first I’m not sure how that’s possible. In the first series the three women are sent off across the Atlantic to become brides, their passage is paid for by their future husbands who are unknown to them and after newly arriving in Jamestown, Alice (Sophie Rundle) is brutally raped by her future husband.
In this series Angolan slaves are brought to Jamestown and through the characters Maria and Pedro we are given insight into the power structure of Jamestown and the parallels in oppression that both women and slaves faced. I pass the noose hanging in clear sight of the clearing where people would have gathered. I’m informed that this series does not shy away from the brutal reality of the harshness or cruelty of society then. Slaves are whipped and people who steal have no right of appeal.
Filming some of the scenes made the actors feel uncomfortable; Jason Flemyng spoke of how it was difficult to go for a drink afterwards with an actor who you have just tortured.
The show succeeds in demonstrating the parallels in repression that transcend gender and class through an obvious power structure where only heterosexual, white wealthy men are the ones with the most power. Jocelyn is only protected by her wealthy husband who is well established in the political sphere of Jamestown but as soon as he dies, she realises that her position in the hierarchy of Jamestown is pushed down to almost as vulnerable as the slaves. Even homosexuality is explored through the power hungry character of Nicholas Farlow (Burn Gorman). His lack of freedom, although not as restrictive as the women’s or the Angolan slaves, demonstrates another way in which people of that time period are controlled by the societal values of the time.
I speak to the actors to find out more about filming this Sky1 drama in Budapest.
Q and A with the Jamestown cast.
BEN STARR – CHRISTOPHER PRIESTLEY
They have upped their game hugely this year. They’ve given me an apothecary with herbs hanging from the ceiling and hammerhead sharks. You open up the draws and there’s stuff in there. You almost don’t need to act as the set does it all for you. I think this year deals with possession and what it means to possess someone. Jocelyn and Verity and Alice are women that do not need to be possessed. Jocelyn came into his life like a thunderbolt, I don’t think he realised he needed a woman before. It’s nice to see a woman in a drama who isn’t playing the doting wife of the dashing hero. They are not these strong women, they are flawed people with strengths and weaknesses. It’s refreshing that it’s a full spectrum. It’s great to be back for series 2. We are all best mates and will continue to be friends for the rest of our lives.
MATT STOKOE – JAMES READ
My character is at a low ebb at the end of series one, he is just existing without a sense of purpose. Pedro takes a shine to him but he can’t even bring himself to be friends with him because he feels like he betrayed him by making the chains he wears. This year my character is a conduit for talking about male loneliness. People think the men have turned into beasts but actually they have all been really lonely waiting for the women to come. I think Jamestown is like taking people who like period dramas and giving them a really violent shake. I signed up because I liked the idea of doing a western, I have no interest in doing a period drama. I think there’s enough of them. We are told to think of it as noblemen with flags on their boats. It’s not that, it’s these hard working labourers that set up shop. I had a three hour session with a blacksmith making pokers and handles for buckets. I think the subject matter of slavery and oppression can be a real minefield to navigate but I think it has been handled sensitively.
DEAN LENNOX KELLY – MEREDITH RUTTER
We are spoilt: the set, the costumes and the city. Nothing has come close to Shameless until this: the writing, the people. There was something quite special about this job. It’s tough to get it right when playing a drunk. I filmed myself being drunk once to see what it was like. The drunk thinks he’s alright. It’s fun. I did a thing called Cranford and it’s the same hat that I’m wearing now and that I wore then. And I used it on stage in The Crucible. I’ve got three kids and it’s tough being away for months so I’m picky about what I do now. I think it’s better this year, the last two episodes are electric. I’m looking forward to getting rid of the beard.
NIAMH WALSH – VERITY
Verity feels for the first time like she may be able to put down roots and have a home. She tentatively starts trying to settle down. She wants to make a life for herself. I think there is a tendency to neaten things up around the edges and show women in either one of two ways: a lovely corseted person or a feisty character, which is tedious. There are six very complex women, no one fits the mould.
When she arrives, she’s sarcastic and a bit gobby so they try to burn her as a witch. Verity doesn’t have the patience to hide her intelligence. She shouts at people and has a rage she can’t filter. There are women in other countries in the world that are even more suppressed in a way that is not dissimilar to the women in Jamestown and they still find ways to be strong and run the show, so the criticism (of the outspoken nature of the female characters) seemed short-sighted to me. I had this fear before the show started that it wouldn’t be done accurately, I thought please hire Native American people and we have sixty-five Native American actors which is the largest amount that any show has ever had. Carnival make sure that everything is entirely historically accurate. They’ve brought in historical experts and resurrected this dead language that the Native Americans used. There’s a beautiful book called Dark Enough to See the Stars which is written by an actual descendant of someone who came off the boat and she talks about the journey and what it felt like to be hungry.
STEVEN WADDINGTON – REDWICK
Everyone has their needs and weaknesses. My character was out here when it was a military garrison and suddenly the women flood in and I think he had ideas of what he thought his life would be like and the women change that. If you isolate every character you can find a need that they have which isn’t a bad thing. Something that they need to survive which makes their character seem more understandable. It was really tough in the first place to make that journey, you would have to be running from something or want a brand new start. It’s a hostile environment and ripe for drama. He’s a terrific writer, to write for fifteen characters and to keep everyone’s characters interesting is a feat in itself. He always seems to find a point in the script to allow a character to show a different side to themselves that you weren’t expecting.
NAOMI BATTRICK -JOCELYN
Jocelyn needed the other women desperately. There’s nothing class can do when you’re up against death.
I’m loving it and having a wonderful time but it’s not good for my character. It starts out with something very bad happening to my character. It’s very dangerous and unless you have protection, if you are a woman, you are up against death and rape. She uses her intelligence to help her. She flirts, she’s sexual, even though at the time a woman wasn’t really meant to be but Jocelyn isn’t really a woman of that time in anyway. I think it’s interesting that when men were recording everything in a different time period, we don’t have a record of feisty women. It’s a lot of fun here. We are best mates, we sit on the balcony and drink gin until 2 o’clock in the morning.
Although Jocelyn is manipulative and uses her husband and the governor I believe she is a good person. She tries to help people who aren’t in her class, she wants to be governor. I saw this person that believes in equality and has an incredible mind. If Jocelyn was around now she would be president. Bill said to me if she had a penis, she’d be governor.
Having a character that is multi-layered is important and we still have a long way to go in terms of how women are portrayed in the media but thankfully there are more women writing, producing and directing things so we are going to get more well-rounded characters.
MAX BEESLEY – HENRY SHARROW
This is probably one of my favourite jobs I’ve ever done. It’s rare to get a script this good.
It’s very challenging. It’s an important part of history. There are so many hot potatoes; the issue with the Native American tribes, the slavery, we venture into it quite seriously in series 2 and we have a responsibility to do it right and let people see what atrocities occurred in those times. All of those nuances are really well thought out and put under a magnifying glass. Bill tries to find a bit of a heart in my character.
This year I marry a Native American woman. I found learning the Native American language difficult. It was an hour a day for about a month. I would write the lines down and mark it rhythmically because I’m a drummer as well. I would mark notes phrasing high or low and then I would listen to tapes. It’s really difficult but it helps me believe I’m really with these guys. Bill’s use of Jacobean language is beautiful.
I was a little bit more sensitive about the rape scene but the minute you’re self-conscious, you’re out of the moment. I’ve not watched it. When I was first offered the part I said I would like to do the job but I also said to the writer, if we can create some form of empathy for this character, then we have climbed a mountain.
JASON FLEMYNG – SIR GEORGE YEARDLEY
Series 1 was about getting to know everyone whereas this year you get straight into it.
You can’t judge them by modern standards, so he could still be a nice guy even though he hangs people. Everyone did but this year I’ve had to stop thinking like that because he is a complete villain. Basically he was like Jeremy Corbyn in series 1 but turned into Trump in series 2. At first I tried to find a way to justify it but I can’t. How can a man who is so religious commit the atrocities that he does? The way he treats the Angolans…you can’t brand someone in the face and then after finishing a scene have a drink with them in the pub later. Historically they are militant about getting it right. I don’t think you ever get used to the clank of chains around someones wrist. I come from a single parent family and what I love about it is that it’s a female centric story and they are the heroes. I enjoyed seeing the women win the scenes. We have a female producer and I think it’s down to her efforts and endurance that it got made. Most of the time I act opposite Naomi and she has the show on her shoulders and she never lost her temper, she has never been anything but lovely to everyone.
STUART MARTIN – SILAS
My character Silas is stuck in a hard place because he’s torn between the love of his life, Alice, and his brother. They have to work together to survive. He wants to protect her and his family but it gets harder to do that in series 2 because there are more forces driving them apart. We get straight into the brutality of that world when a character is punished in a brutal way early on and when I read it I thought excellent because that’s how the world was. You’ve got the noose hanging outside the gate which features heavily because they are so isolated, if anyone steps out of line a mutiny can happen.
I loved researching that time period. We’ve read so many history books about what was happening in the UK at the time. I’ve even watched a few farming documentaries because Silas owns a tobacco farm.
I remember going in thinking I could be Scottish and then they were like no, there were no Scottish people there. Jamestown was so culturally mixed. I think in Jamestown in 1619 they had about one thousand people living there. I think there were about twenty farms at that point. They were spreading and colonising at the point when they were expected to go.
SOPHIE RUNDLE – ALICE
It’s nice to be back. We all fell in love with the characters and the story. Motherhood is her next thing which fundamentally changes a woman. This is still the same hard, violent world but her relationship provides her with happiness. She was one of the dreamers about what this new life would offer. At this point we are more invested in the other characters as well but fundamentally this is a show told from the perspective of the three women. We are all craving more female led dramas in the UK and in television in general. I think it’s vital we tell these stories. I’ve been lucky that a lot of dramas I’ve done have had gritty, feisty women. I love period dramas. I love reading them and I love watching them. Maybe it’s because when you read a script you have to respond to it. So there’s some chemistry there. I always seem to be at some point in history!
Jocelyn’s character is a huge part of her storyline, they are both too intelligent for the time they are born in but their steeliness and determination can go against them. They are stronger together than apart and they are very aware of that. In a world of men, it is more sensible to support themselves as sisters than to compete. There is always someone ready to go, do women really behave like that? I understand where the argument is born from but it is a pile of nonsense.
I would miss my rights as a woman and the sense of isolation from not being able to communicate and share information. I would also miss modern dress, it’s so restrictive wearing these corsets and dresses. I would miss being able to put on jogging bottoms.
One of my favourite moments ever was when I was running through the Hungarian woods with wolves. I even had to see a man about wolves. It was very cool.
I totally understand the impetus of what would cause someone to cross the Atlantic. I understand the advertising of it. It takes a huge amount of faith and hope. Faith in what could be. It’s a gamble.
PATSY FERRAN – MERCY
I got a bit nervous starting the second season. When you start something there’s no need to sustain it but she’s a lot of fun to play and Bill has given Mercy another dimension.
It’s my character’s role to balance the darkness in the world which I’m happy to do instead of squeeze a tear out of my eye.
The sets are extraordinary. Claire Cox, who plays Temperance, has these little diaries, they are fiction but written by a historian and told by the point of view of a twelve year old girl who comes over and that is near my character’s age. It was really helpful as it is an insight into the high stakes involved in just staying alive every day. You think ‘Christ I have it quite lucky.’
I do admire how there is a long process to do one thing. So if I had to clean my clothes as Mercy, I’d have to walk to the well, I’d have to spend hours scrubbing the dirt out. It’s refreshing to read something driven by women. It’s refreshing to see three women who love each other and there’s an amazing love story between the three of them.
BURN GORMAN – NICHOLAS FARLOW
My character Nicholas Farlow is threatened by the power of women and he’s scared of Jocelyn.
I’m looking to be challenged and pushed. This is a man that I don’t identify with as well. His sexual politics, his relationship to women, it’s pretty abhorrent. I don’t want him to be a moustache twirling baddie. He does unforgivable things. He tortures a man and he’s intoxicated by physical power and dominance. Bill gives a little window into that. I actually went to Jamestown, it’s the worst place to have a colony. You can’t grow anything, the fish are much further out.
Working here is a real pleasure. We each have a house and you get used to the pigs. The other things Bill writes are big scenes which we are all in. My character says ‘my desire is so much that if I open the floodgates that will be it.’ That’s interesting to play. We’ve explored his homosexuality in this series, he is intoxicated by a young man but it’s never consummated. They are never able to communicate, he can’t do it.
ABIOLA OGUNBIYI – MARIA
Everyone has come into Jamestown for a new start but the difference with these characters (Pedro and Maria) is that they did not choose to be there. They have been stripped of who they are. It’s a constant fight for her to hold on to whatever she has left. Their identities and religions were stripped from them. It stays true to a lot of what happened in history.
I enjoyed finding out about the civilisation of Africans before slavery. It was really wonderful looking at the relationship African women had in their culture in Africa. That came under the identity of the character because she’s trying to hold onto that, so it’s helpful to have an understanding of what her life was like before slavery. I hope there is discussion about slavery and cultural appropriation. Naturally there will be discomfort from a number of sources but it is about sitting there and analysing why there is that discomfort there.
I think it shows a lot of characters going through a lot of tests with regards to their humanity and their loyalty and it is set in a time period where a lot of people have everything to gain.
CLAIRE COX – TEMPERANCE
Temperance says early on ‘a woman has no power unless she has a husband.’
There’s a scene where the slaves come over and Temperance realises all the big choices are made by the men and she is powerless. It’s interesting for her to say that out loud and acknowledge that with Jocelyn. Her husband is becoming more and more ruthless and she became powerless. It’s definitely darker. I have scenes that are very traumatic. I’m riddled with grief and guilt. It feels tiring to play.
I think he has captured the way people have of speaking in the 17th century. The way they speak is very different depending on their class and he has developed the characters and relationships a lot more with this series. I think she is terrified by these modern women. Temperance is God fearing and she eventually realises that the patriarchy is dangerous and that’s why she comes round to wanting to save Jocelyn.
The propaganda of it was look at this new world but the reality was when people got there, there were dirty tracks, they were ill, there was the starving time. I would have had to feel very vulnerable and lost in my situation in England. They probably didn’t sell it as honestly as they could have done.