Q&A with writer and producer: Di Burrows
Tell us how BitterSweet came about and the thinking behind it?
The project came about because RTÉ wanted to make a positive, upbeat piece centred around contemporary Dublin women. They wanted something with an optimistic attitude that reflected the lives of real, grown-up women. And that’s what we’ve done.
The central characters are three female friends. They’re all from Dublin, in their late thirties, and all very different. There’s Carmel who is the focus for this story. She’s happily married with four kids and a full-time wife and mum. And then we’ve got Gerry who was widowed very young, is now married to her career and finds it very hard to form attachments. And then Marie - newly divorced and wondering what happens next. She’s seemingly all prepared to grab life by the throat but if she’s honest, she’s a little bit worried about being on her own as well and wondering where to go from here. So all three are in quite different situations. They’re reunited at the beginning of BitterSweet when Marie returns to Dublin to start her new life – so you could say she’s the catalyst.
All three approach things with a ‘glass-half-full’ attitude. They want to get the best out of life and to have a good time. They get their strength from their friendships as much as from their family.
They have to deal with a range of things life throws up at them, form the pitfalls of dating when you’re approaching 40 - to the problems - and joys! - of getting tangled up with younger guys or juggling a successful career. At the more serious end of the scale there’s infidelity, betrayal and even financial ruin. But we didn’t want to mine the dark side of all this. The mood is upbeat and there’s fun, humour and optimism at the heart of the show, but the unifying factor is the friendship of these three women. The problems the characters face are common to all kinds of women – and let’s not forget the men. Lots of people will be able to identify themselves in the show. Although it’s a female focused drama, there’s plenty here for a male audience – and we’re not down on men, far from it.
It’s a positive upbeat optimistic show about women in Dublin today and, most importantly, the power of friendship.
The show has a distinctive look – tell us about that?
Yes, that was a positive choice. We wanted our characters to look good and feel good. We had fantastic costume and make-up and lighting. The sets and locations look great - Dublin looks amazing. The look for each character was very clearly thought out. We wanted to make them glamorous and confident. I’d call it lush.
Of the three, Marie’s the one who is finding her feet with her wardrobe and dress sense, still finding an identity for herself, so she’d be the one who might make a few mistakes. But the others are classy, stylish, fashionable women who always look great.
You have a long list of credits on some very high-profile drama including ‘Coronation Street’, ‘Bad Girls’, ‘Footballers Wives’ and ‘Prime Suspect’?
I’ve worked on all of those shows in a variety of roles. Before I started writing I used to be an assistant director so I’ve worked on all kinds of projects from drama to documentaries.
To come from that side of production really helps with the writing process. It gives you an overview of how everything works – how all the departments work. That on-the-floor experience is invaluable. To know how a scene can work, how it will play out, how a director will actually be able to achieve it. It was all really good experience.
I’ve written a lot for established series before but this is my first piece that’s a stand alone original.
I’d worked for years as an assistant director mainly at Granada. Then the crossover came with ‘Coronation Street’ when I became a storyliner and then onto script editor and then I went on to be a producer. I also storylined ‘The Ward’, which was a children’s series created by Russell T Davis, who people would know as the creator of ‘Dr Who’ and ‘Queer As Folk’. It was my first ever writing for television credit. He’s a great person to work with and learn from, very generous with his time and encouraging of new people coming through. .
And you’ve produced it as well. That’s quite unusual – was it hard to cross from writing to producing something you had been working on for so long?
It was a great experience. I’d spent about eighteen months writing it from start to finish. That process started off with a lot of feverish storylining, followed by several drafts and then I came over here and we did some rewrites closer to filming. It just meant that in pre-production there were a couple of weeks where I was frantically busy and being pulled in different directions writing, looking for locations and casting. But again, one of the big disadvantages of being a writer is the isolation. You spend a lot of time locked away in a room on your own, so a plus side with this role (as producer) is that you get to be right in the middle of things and part of a team.
As the writer it was a great feeling to see some of the scenes play out exactly as I’d imagined them. When you see the emotion and the dialogue coming over exactly as you thought, that’s a good moment.
But also we had such a great cast - they breathed a whole life into the piece which just lifted it right off the page. I think the script was a starting point, but it’s a whole team effort to bring all the elements together and make them work. The cast all brought something very individual to three very different women. I think it’s interesting that Deirdre and Risteárd are known more for their comedy because they are fantastic in these straight roles.
So you were quite open to the process and to the input?
Yes, of course. As much as it’s fantastic when things happen the way you hoped, equally there are times when they don’t and that can be great too. Sometimes you encounter problems and you have to find a way around them - which can throw up some good surprises. We had one example of that when we were shooting at the caravan site. We needed it to be a rainy, miserable day and, of course, when we got there we had clear blue skies and a beautiful sunrise. But actually the way Owen McPolin, the Director Of Photography shot it, it looks like some kind of magical fairyland. It looks completely different to the way I envisaged it but it looks so amazing that it just works.
Tell us about making the show
Obviously I was working away from home in a different country so it was a whole new experience – different crews, actors... locations. It has been a really good learning curve to be in Ireland and get to know all of that. If I was working in London or Manchester I’d have had a million location ideas but here I wasn’t familiar with the city and indeed with the talent. The crew that we had were really fantastic, particularly Owen (McPolin, the Director Of Photography), what a fantastic guy! He worked very sympathetically with the leads and he’s made them and the whole thing look great.
We were shooting in winter which was a real challenge because we wanted to keep that warmth and light that you normally get during spring and summer but again Owen did a fantastic job.
Sometimes it’s been hard to let go and hand it over to someone else. But in Declan (Eames, the director), for a bloke we had the best man for the job! I was glad that we had a male director, I think it was important to have some male perspective in the mix. He was great – very in touch with his feminine side! We also had a male make-up designer who helped create the glossy sophisticated look for Deirdre, Una and Catherine.
Tell us about the name?
I’d been waiting for an age for the light bulb to go 'ping' with something blindingly obvious, but it’s so hard to get the right name. We couldn’t find a punchy, original title that summed up what it’s about. It’s only when we saw the completed piece that we came up with 'BitterSweet ', which seemed to sum things up perfectly. So 'BitterSweet ' it is. A bit like life.