Ashley Jensen in AGATHA RAISIN - Season 3| ©2020 Acorn TV

Ashley Jensen in AGATHA RAISIN – Season 3| ©2020 Acorn TV

AGATHA RAISIN is now streaming its first three seasons on AcornTV, with a fourth season commissioned. Based on the series of comedic murder mysteries by the late M.C. Beaton (real name Marion Chesney Gibbons), AGATHA RAISIN stars Ashley Jensen as title character, a well-to-do former p.r. woman who moves to the English countryside and finds herself compelled to investigate local crime.

AGATHA RAISIN has an unconventional production history. Season 1 premiered in 2014. It then was out of production until 2018, when Season 2 was finally made.

Executive producer Barry Ryan, who has been with AGATHA RAISIN since its inception, sits down to discuss the series. David Walton, Ryan’s producing partner on AGATHA RAISIN and in their production company Free @ Last TV, is also in the room, but chimes in relatively rarely.

ASSIGNMENT X: So you’ve been working on AGATHA RAISIN since 2014?

BARRY RYAN: Yes. Well, a bit longer. We bought the rights to the books probably in 2007. So AGATHA RAISIN was in development hell for seven years. Well, development hell for six years, really, and then in development bliss for a year [laughs].

AX: Was it originally made for one of the major English TV networks?

RYAN: We developed for a while with ITV, which wasn’t a happy experience, because the leadership of ITV Drama was changing at the time. So we fell into a kind of chasm. The direction that they wanted us to take the show in wasn’t a direction that we were going, because they wanted us to, more significantly than we have now, change the characters and precinct. And we like to kind of stay as close to the source material as we can, so that didn’t really go anywhere for us. And then we re-pitched it to the BBC to somebody who then moved to Sky, and two years after we’d had the BBC meeting called me and said, “AGATHA RAISIN. Do you still have the rights?” And I said, “Yes.” And she said, “Well, I’m at Sky now, and I’m very interested.” So that’s how it happened. We had a meeting that took two-and-a-bit years to bear any fruit.

AX: So it was on Sky, which is British pay TV, and now it’s on Acorn.

RYAN: Yes.

AX: AGATHA RAISIN had a 2014 season, and a 2017 season, and you have Season 3 now. What was the reason for the gaps between seasons?

RYAN: In 2014, we made the pilot, AGATHA RAISIN AND THE QUICHE OF DEATH, which was two hours long. Straightaway, Sky then commissioned us to make eight, but they commissioned them as hour-long episodes, which was always a bit of a frustration for me, because we were losing a third of each book in the adaptation. Also, a commercial hour in Britain is forty-five minutes, which means that, once you’re twenty minutes in, and you set everything up, it’s a race to the finish to tie up all the crime procedural. Therefore, you don’t have any space to work on relationships. At the end of the first series, Sky decided they didn’t want any more. Then we were picked up by Acorn for Series 2. And one of the things that we decided together when we came back was that we would make them as two-hour TV movies. Because Acorn’s a streaming platform. It doesn’t matter how long their content is. But if we made them as ninety-minute TV movies, then they could split them in half for two-part episodes in the rest of the world, if that’s what the rest of the world wanted. So it gave us the flexibility to be able to tell the stories that we wanted, one book per ninety-minute TV movie, with a longer timeframe. And therefore, we could dig deeper into the characters and their relationships, and other stuff that has to do with Agatha Raisin, that isn’t part of the crime procedural.

Ashley Jensen in AGATHA RAISIN - Season 3 - "Love Is Hell" | ©2020 Acorn TV

Ashley Jensen in AGATHA RAISIN – Season 3 – “Love Is Hell” | ©2020 Acorn TV

AX: What drew you to M.C. Beaton’s AGATHA RAISIN books in the first place?

RYAN: Agatha Raisin is a brilliant creation. She’s a woman who’s ahead and out of her time. She plays life on her own terms. One of the reasons that I was interested in the books in the first place was that she was from Birmingham, which is where I’m from. So I identified with her a bit. But the Birmingham bit is one of the things that, in the actual TV expression now, we’ve changed. We did that because we cast Ashley Jensen, and there was no reason to ask Ashley to pretend to be from Birmingham. She might as well use her native [Scottish] accent.

AX: How did you come to Ashley Jensen as your lead?

RYAN: Every show that you ever produce or make has a list of potential people [actors]. Ashley was on all of those lists. It took us a while to settle on Ashley, because we’d all assumed that, because of UGLY BETTY, she was still working in the States. It was a friend of mine who lived in Bath who said, “No, her kids are at my school.” So that was it, then. Ashley has what I would describe as a rare mix. She’s almost a natural comedian, but she’s also like a classical actress. If you put those two things together, that’s exactly the skill set we needed for Agatha Raisin. We needed her to be able to be funny, but we also needed her to be as painful and poignant as the role also requires. So it’s that unique combination of skills that made Ashley the perfect Agatha Raisin. Which is why we abandoned the idea that she had to be from Birmingham. Marion wrote the original stories as Scottish. I’ve always believed that they’re partly autobiographical. So when we said to her that we were going to go with Ashley, and what did she think, she was like, “I absolutely love her.”

AX: How closely do your other characters mirror the characters in the books?

RYAN: Some of them are [very close]. Some of them are amalgams, and some of them are inventions. Gemma the cleaner, who’s played by Katy Wix in Series 1 and Series 2, Agatha did have a cleaner, but she wasn’t a young woman, she wasn’t a single mother, and she wasn’t called Gemma. She was called Doris, and she was quite an old-fashioned character, So we changed Doris into Gemma. James Lacey [played by Jamie Glover], Charles Fraith [played by Jason Merrells], Bill Wong [played by Matt McCooey], Inspector Wilkes [played by Jason Barnett] are all quite faithful adaptations.

Some of what happens to them, some of their storylines aren’t necessarily directly lifted from the books. One of the reasons we do that is to give the TV series a piece of life that is separate from the books, and also give fans of the books something to look forward to in the show. If we were lifting the stories directly from the page, the TV show would be exactly the same as the books, so what’s the point? We kind of see them as two different universes. We use the same source material, but we then take them in different directions. So if you’re a fan of the books, the TV show is another way to look at it, in the same way that the radio versions are another way to hear, or to engage with, AGATHA RAISIN. And if you’ve never read the books, you don’t know them. And then with other characters, in Series 3, there’s a new character who’s called Toni [played by Jody Tyack], who’s Gemma the cleaner’s cousin. She is in the books, but she’s very different to how she is in the show, and we’ve done that because we wanted to give one of our regular characters, and I’m not saying who, a love interest. So #WatchThisSpace.

Ashley Jensen in AGATHA RAISIN - Season 3 - "As The Pig Turns" | ©2020 Acorn TV

Ashley Jensen in AGATHA RAISIN – Season 3 – “As The Pig Turns” | ©2020 Acorn TV

AX: Where do you shoot the series?

RYAN: We shoot in a beautiful village called Biddestone, which is halfway between the city of Bath and the city of Bristol. It’s kind of a one-street town, by farms, and it’s away from the tourist trail. The Cotswolds is a big draw for international tourists, but this village is off the beaten track. So it hasn’t been discovered by tourists. But it is being discovered by the kind of tourists that watch the show. So they’re getting visited by the people who recognize Biddestone. It’s not on the general tourist map.

AX: So it’s getting specifically AGATHA RAISIN tourism …

RYAN: Yeah, essentially. Every show has a thing that they call “the hero village.” It’s where you shoot all the [exteriors], and this is what your home is going to look like. That’s a two-way path, because once you decide on that place, you have to make sure that the people who really live there, all day, every day, spending three hundred and sixty-five days a year, are happy for you to be there. And you have to work with them to make sure that they continue to be happy to have you there. So we’re very lucky that we get on very well with the people there. But the more episodes that we make, the more time we spend there, the less patience they have [laughs].

AX: Well, presumably they’re compensated for any inconveniences …

RYAN: Let’s just say that we work with them in various ways.

AX: At least in Los Angeles, New York, and Vancouver, there’s a concern about “shooting areas out” – that is, not using the same locations too many times – so everybody is trying to find different alleys and things that they haven’t used from one episode to the next. Do you have that issue?

RYAN: There are always new people in each show, and also, Marion has set the books all in different places. So we have our base, which is where Agatha’s cottage is, where Sarah’s [played by Lucy Liemann] parish is, it’s very near where Sir Charles’s house is, and the house next door is owned by James Lacey. Outside of that, we veer off into other areas of the Cotswolds, like Eavesham. Sometimes Marion’s made the names up, so there’s no such place as Fritham. We’ve got a location called Snoth-on-Sea, which somebody in our office spent the week looking for on a map of Britain, but actually, it was invented. It’s an amalgam of places. And so when we have those places, we’re spoiled for choice in the Cotswolds as to where we can go. So we can just choose somewhere that we haven’t been to before.

AX: There’s discussion of some major events that happened in Cyprus. Has the show gone to Cyprus, will it go to Cyprus, or will this remain something the characters just talk about?

RYAN: This is an episode that we haven’t made yet. The reason is, because there was such a gap 2015 and 2017, we needed to remind people of Agatha’s story, that she was in this village, isolated. At the end of Series 1, she goes off trying to find James Lacey in Cyprus. And then, at the beginning of Season 2, we just find her coming back alone, without James Lacey, to the village. When people questioned characters in the show, they were all like, “Whatever happens in Cyprus stays in Cyprus.” But it’s always been our intention to make that episode. We’ll probably make that as a standalone special, with flashbacks to the characters now, deciding to tell their stories of what went on.

AX: Do you do one book per episode, or have you run out of books …?

RYAN: We’re a long way from running out of books.

AX: How many AGATHA RAISIN books are there?

RYAN: Thirty. But also, Marion’s got a couple of story-lined books that she was writing with a ghostwriter that are incomplete that will be finished. We also have about six short stories and two Christmas books that don’t fit that plan. So we’ve got no shortage of source material. When we buy adaptation rights, I always buy spinoff rights, which means that, when we get to thirty, and I pray that we do, that we can then make individual episodes, we can commission writers to make those.

AX: When did Marion Chesney Gibbons, aka M.C. Beaton, pass away?

RYAN: She died on the 30th of December [2019]. She was eighty-three. She’d written over three hundred books, which is incredible. She wrote a lot of Regency romances, and those kinds of things, under pseudonyms, but her two big brands were HAMISH MACBETH [previously made into a ‘90s TV series starring Robert Carlyle] and AGATHA RAISIN. And so up until her death, we were working with Marion on a new adaptation of HAMISH. That will continue. It’s always been our intention to remake that.

AX: If M.C. Beaton wrote thirty AGATHA RAISIN books, presumably she started a few decades back. How much do you have to change to make it seem as though it’s happening now?

RYAN: Well, there are a lot of things. Mobile phones weren’t prevalent in Marion’s writing. Even when they were prevalent [in the real world], she doesn’t make use of them, so even in the later books, she’s not a fan of that kind of technology. We’ve had to look at those things. There are very different attitudes to social class, and race, and feminism, all of that. So some of the references in the books can be a bit dated. We had to spruce them up a bit. Up until her death, though, we were working with her on that. It’s never been the case that we take them away and do what we want. She was always been a part of the editorial process. So that’s what’s going to be strange this time around is, we don’t have Marion to call on.

DAVID WALTON: One of her favorite characters was Sarah.

RYAN: Yes. And actually, that was a thing. She only gave us two notes, and the two notes were, “Don’t eff up Sarah Bloxby, Mrs. Bloxby, because the fans love her, and so do I.” But her absolute favorite character was Bill Wong. So we’re not allowed to veer anywhere off – we have, we’ve given him a relationship under Marion’s approval, but we have to really be careful about what we do with those two characters.

WALTON: They’re precious.

AX: Do you have anything else you’re working on that we should know about, besides the new HAMISH MACBETH?

RYAN: Well, we are up to a lot of things. We have a large-scale series called CLASSIC CRIME CLUB. At the minute, there are two hundred and sixteen books published in this series, which were Golden Age crime books written by contemporaries of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers – some amazing books in that series. So we’re adapting those as an anthology of TV movies. The idea is to replicate the Agatha Christie model, where they have high-profile castings. What we want to do is interrelate all the characters and decades. We’re also doing a Reginald Hill thriller, DEATH OF A DORMOUSE, and David’s producing a four-part mini on Benny Hill [LONELY BOY: THE BENNY HILL STORY].

AX: And what would you most like people to know about AGATHA RAISIN Season 3?

RYAN: That it’s streaming on AcornTV. It’s a wonderful series. I hope you like it. We had such a great time making it.

This interview was conducted during AcornTV’s portion of the Winter 2020 Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour.

Related: Exclusive Interview with actress Ashley Jensen on Season 3 of AGATHA RAISIN

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Article: Exclusive Interview with Executive producer Barry Ryan on AcornTV’s AGATHA RAISIN

 

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