Luther Creator’s New ITV Series The Sister Premieres Tonight
One of my favourite things about chilly autumn evenings is curling up on the sofa with a tense crime thriller, the sort that keeps your eyes locked to the telly throughout.
With The Sister, ITV doesn’t disappoint. I gobbled up the four-episode mini-series far too quickly, utterly compelled by this Poe-esque tale of guilt, trauma and the unrestful dead.
Penned by acclaimed Luther scribe Neil Cross, The Sister is a starkly terrifying portrayal of an everyman left teetering on the edge of a precipice after the shocking deeds of his past come back to haunt him – both figuratively and literally, it would seem.
You can watch the trailer below:
As with Luther, The Sister has a distinctive gothic edge to it, with a sinister yet charismatic antagonist who will linger in your thoughts between each steadily escalating episode.
Drawn from Cross’s novel Burial – he dislikes the term adaptation – The Sister stars Russell Tovey (Him & Her) as Nathan, a married man who has committed unspeakable acts in his youth.
One fateful rainy evening, Nathan gets an dreaded knock on the door from an old acquaintance, Bob (Bertie Carvel). A knock that will send his comfortable, ordinary life into freefall, with long-buried secrets threatening to shatter his marriage and the future family he longs for.
Speaking with UNILAD and other members of the press during an online event, Tovey said:
Nathan is fundamentally just a really simple, nice man and just wants to have a lovely life, fall in love, have kids and be normal.
[…] This is fundamentally a love story for him, and he feels like something happened and he’s put Pandora in the box. Suddenly, we start this show and Pandora is just completely running around and going crazy, and he’s trying desperately to get her back in.
Then you’ve got the Grim Reaper which is Bob, just like hanging out, filing his nails on his scythe, waiting to step in.
Bob is an entirely different creature entirely. A ghost hunter living out a rather solitary, shadowy existence, the viewer cannot help but feel a sense of disquiet whenever Bob comes into frame. A crackling storm threatening to break overhead.
This is the sort of role Carvel relishes, having previously played a string of fantastically nasty characters. As deceitful husband Simon Foster in Dr Foster, Carvel had us chucking our remotes at the screen in fury, but in The Sister, he brings us something altogether more dangerous.
Carvel – who has come to embrace his reputation as a ‘character actor’ – plays Bob with an untrustworthy glint in his eye and an uncanny watchfulness. A figure on the edges of ‘normal’ society, he’s a chaotic force that threatens to disrupt Nathan’s quiet, anxious domesticity.
For Carvel, acting revolves around the idea that ‘It’s yourself what if’, with Bob offering particularly fertile ground for grimmer imaginative scenarios:
What if you had done this thing? It’s convincing when you contact the part of yourself that could have done it. So that makes those characters really interesting, you’re travelling at a greater distance from yourself, but it’s still yourself ‘what if’.
My imagination is my playground and it’s where I feel very powerful, it’s where I can do anything. It’s safe place because it’s imaginary, and it’s really fun to go to strange places in it, and it means I can be really boring in real life.
Nathan and Bob are two very different men sharing a hopelessly intertwined path. Within this charged and poisonous orbit, we meet two other significant characters, Nathan’s beloved wife Holly (Amrita Acharia) and her police officer best friend, Jackie (Nina Toussaint White).
Like Nathan, Holly inspires great empathy, even if we’re not sure what we want for her or how much of the full truth we want her to know.
Holly raises a time-old question of whether you would rather live out your life in blissful ignorance, or learn to live with the bleak and devastating truth.
With the three separate timelines, we see Holly at various stages of grief, making for an interesting character study for Acharia, as she discussed:
Trying to kind of go, ‘How did that feel when it first happened? How did that feel three years down the line when ‘have you lost hope or haven’t you lost hope?’ – that can be quite challenging, I think.
[…] Then there’s this whole thing of Holly just being kind of really resilient and picking everyone else up. Whether it’s Nathan or her mum or dad or whoever. She just sort of gets on with it.
That mentality of, who is that person that’s suffered so much? Who’s now chosen to hang on to Nathan and this hope of a normal life so to speak? What happens when that’s put on the line? Because she’s not dumb, she knows somethings happening. That’s challenging.
At Holly’s side is close friend Nina, a sharply observant police officer who has harboured doubts about Nathan from day one. In Cross’s words, she is the ‘nightmare best friend of your partner’, the ‘one who might just know the secret you’.
Described as a ‘lone wolf’ by Toussaint White, we first meet Nina as a young officer just starting out, and we see her progress in confidence and authority over the 10-year time span, always with one careful eye fixed on Nathan.
Her conflicting interests as officer and friend make for an interesting dynamic, with Nina being just as driven to shield Holly from any further hurt as she is to solve the case at the heart of the show.
Toussaint White revealed she was ‘blown away by the script’, explaining:
Obviously when the audition came through and it had Neil’s name attached to it, I wanted to throw my hat into the ring without even reading the script.
Then I read it. The script was phenomenal. It was a bit of a page-turner for me, which I do find doesn’t always happen when you get an audition script through, so I wanted to jump on it straight away.
Cross has described The Sister as being his most autobiographical work to date, and – as ‘the most English man who ever lived’ – can relate to the feelings of anguish and guilt that plague Nathan from the first scene.
The narrative itself was inspired by a horrifyingly vivid dream Cross had as a youth, after a few too many pints of rough cider out in Bristol.
I just woke up the next morning, not with any sense that I’d had a dream of any description, I woke up with a very, very clear memory of coming across a homeless man on the steps who I randomly stabbed to death.
[…] There was no blood on my knife, no blood on my clothes, there was no blood anywhere, but I still I was listening out for the police, I was scanning the news. I was absolutely certain that I remembered randomly killing this man.
For many years afterwards, Cross found the dream difficult to discuss, and even to this day admits that there is still around ‘1%’ of him that remans troubled by the memory.
In The Sister, this gnawing guilt and dread manifests in a ghostly manner, and although Cross is fundamentally a rationalist who doesn’t believe in the ‘discarnate spirits of dead human beings’, he’s still very intrigued by the concept of ghosts.
Cross has stated that he has ‘absolutely experienced a haunting’, and – speaking with UNILAD after the press event – revealed that this haunting took place while he was staying at his sister’s house as a teenager.
Whether or not you believe in an afterlife – and Cross firmly does not – he remarked that a high percentage of bereaved people do indeed see their deceased loved ones, an occurrence that can be interpreted in various different ways.
As Bob observes in the show, the question is ‘are ghosts real?’ Of course they’re real, because eight or nine out of ten of us experience one in our lives. The question is, what are they?
Cross has never been particularly scared of the great gothic novels of the 19th century, with their enormous, eerie castles. He is instead more disturbed by hauntings which unfold in the most seemingly mundane of settings.
I think what frightens me is that moment when the everyday – the everyday life we lead of waking up in the morning and putting on the radio and cleaning your teeth and having a cup of tea and going to work, getting the bus home – that life intersects with the numinous and the supernatural.
That’s why I find hauntings so very terrifying. And that’s why I don’t find big haunted castles terrifying, because I don’t live in a big haunted castle. I find haunted council houses terrifying, because I grew up in a council house.
Cross is fascinated by the ‘natural history’ of ghosts, and the various historical and cultural contexts that shape such sightings.
He is particularly interested in the small, claustrophobic houses of Japanese ghost stories, where ‘the ghost is there on top of you, sharing your space’. A particularly pertinent fear in an age when so many of us are spending more time indoors, left to brew over our own anxieties.
Cross is well known for penning psychologically terrifying TV narratives, with Luther introducing various memorable villains who stay with you, making you jumpy about spaces as ordinary as the top deck of a bus.
Fans have long been hoping for news about a widely-rumoured Luther spin-off movie, which Idris Elba himself appeared to confirm to members of the press back in July at the BAFTA Awards.
Addressing this subject, Cross affirmed:
Ask Idris! We are – I don’t know what I’m allowed to say, which is an answer in of itself! Words are my job and I’ve lost them all [laughs]. We wanna make more Luther. We’re gonna make more Luther. The how and the why, that’s all to come, but we’re gonna make more Luther.
Speaking exclusively with UNILAD after the event, Cross added:
I will say that, you know, that people can expect an announcement about Luther very soon. We’re all very excited, Idris is excited and we can’t wait to tell you.
Reflecting on how much the character of Luther means to him, Cross continued:
No matter what I’m doing, and I’m always doing something, there is never a day that goes by when I’m not thinking about Luther. It’s a really big part of my life, it’s a really big part of my imagination.
My wife has mentioned more than once that I’m never happier than when I’m writing Luther. And if I’m not actually coming up with ideas, part of me is wondering where is he now? What is he doing?
So yeah, he’s always around. And Idris is very much the same. […] We both care about him, we both want the best for him. Both want to go back and see him. So he’s a really big part of my life.
One of the greatest TV detectives of the 21st century, Cross doesn’t attribute Luther’s popularity to his great intellect, or even to the fact that ‘he always gets the bad guy’, explaining:
It’s what he is willing and compelled to go through to do it. People like Luther’s suffering. They like Idris’s suffering. Because of his essential selflessness, people know they can trust him.
Cross recalled how, in the early days of the show, the team would receive letters from old ladies who were keen to have Elba over for a cup of tea and some cake, wanting to look after the ‘big, wounded God’ they’d seen on telly.
Despite having created one of the most iconic fictional detectives of all time, Cross believes he would make a much better villain than he would a police officer, having ‘the imagination of the bad guy, but not the amorality of a bad guy’.
Recalling a conversation he’d had upon first meeting the police advisor for Luther, Cross revealed:
At the end of the second or third pint, he just looked across at me and said, ‘You’d make such a good murderer.’ And I took that as the biggest compliment.
Fortunately, Cross has only ever committed one crime in his life, having pinched a soft porn mag from a newsagents as a 10-year-old. The incident left him ‘crippled with guilt for years’, with Cross lacking the necessary ‘lack of conscience’ needed for a life of crime.
He does, however, have an extraordinary capacity for imagining the most nightmarish scenarios a human being could possibly find themselves in, forcing viewers to consider the lengths they would go to keep a dark secret buried.
You can catch the first episode on The Sister on Monday, October 26 at 9pm on ITV and the ITV Hub.
If you have a story you want to tell, send it to UNILAD via [email protected]
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