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'The exact opposite of social distancing': The makers of Normal People on bringing Irish sex to TV screens

Based on the best-selling Irish novel of the same name, the show has generated huge hype.

Normal People
Normal People
Image: Twitter/BBC

IT’S DIFFICULT TO remember an Irish-made TV show that has arrived with as much hype and anticipation as Normal People.

Based on the New York Times best-selling novel of the same name, the show is to be broadcast on the BBC in the UK, Hulu in the US and RTÉ here. 

The wheels were already in motion on the show even before the book became a runaway success. That was on the back of Element Pictures producing the series, Oscar-nominated director Lenny Abrahamson being on board to direct and author Sally Rooney giving approval. 

Mayo’s Rooney has been showered with numerous accolades since her debut novel Conversations with Friends was published in 2017 and she was also part of the show’s production. 

The result is a 12-part series that is out tomorrow in full on the BBC iPlayer and starts broadcasting in both the UK and Ireland this week. 

The series sticks very closely to the text on which it’s based and follows the love story of Connell (Paul Mescal) and Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) as they make the transition between school life in a Sligo town and their university life in Trinity College. 

Often describing in lucid detail the thoughts running through the heads of the main characters, the book is about their intense relationship and how they seem constantly drawn apart and back together. 

Such is the praise that has seen Rooney repeatedly being hailed as somewhat of a voice for her generation, the book has also garnered a devoted following that has contributed to the hype around the series. 

“I think there was a moment through the process where we suddenly went, ‘Oh, gosh, this really is a very big book’, but we started before it even came out,” executive producer Emma Norton explains over Zoom. 

She says the buzz around the book only served to heighten the excitement and challenge they felt in adapting it for television. 

“The idea of adapting a book that not only seemed to capture the spirit of generation but particularly captured a version of Ireland that we hadn’t seen on screen before – that was another thing that really appealed to us,” she says. 

It was a very international book showing a contemporary version of Dublin life from a company based in Ireland. We felt like we were the right people to do it, so that kind of gave us confidence as well. 

Norton works alongside Ed Guiney at Element Pictures and it was he who first sent the book to Abrahamson with the intention of developing it. 

Abrahamson directs half the episodes in the series and the other half are directed by English director Hettie Macdonald.

“The BBC greenlit the show on the basis of the book itself and Lenny’s interest” Guiney says. 

“It was a very powerful thing for us to be able to say back to Sally. To say to her, if we get the rights to this book, we’re gonna make it as a TV show. There’s no ifs or buts about it, we’re doing it.”

Speaking about making the programme with the BBC rather than Ireland’s national broadcaster, Guiney is honest about the constraints RTÉ operates under. 

“Obviously RTÉ is kind of in a very difficult position. I mean, you can only imagine the kind of hit that advertising is taking at the moment,” he says.

“We didn’t develop it with RTÉ, we developed it with the BBC and with Hulu in the States, so it’s a piece of Irish literature, Irish filmmaker, Irish production company, bringing an Irish story to the world, and it will be seen on RTÉ obviously. But it’s something that’s made for the world. 

I think sometimes we get a bit obsessed by RTÉ’s lack of ability to do things, and we don’t really see that changing that quickly into the future. I think they could be an awful lot more clever about how they interact with drama, I think they could do a lot more clever about how they develop stuff, but they have limited resources, is the truth. 

PastedImage-79064 Kildare actor Paul Mescal plays the lead male character in the series. Source: Twitter/Hulu

Guiney and Abrahamson have worked together on most of the director’s films but they both felt the book being played out in different places over a number of years would work better on the small screen. 

“I agreed it felt very much suited for television because it is episodic and progresses in these distinct phases over a period of time,” Abrahamson says. 

I think also that television gives you the advantage of having a lot more screen time to go into real detail. To look at the really small shifts that occur between the two main characters, and really spend time with them in each of the phases of their relationship. 

The first episode of the series is set largely in the two main characters’ school and shows Connell’s GAA prowess and Marianne’s frustration at still being there. 

Connell’s mother (played by Sarah Greene) is a cleaner who cleans Marianne’s house and the awkward situation provides the setting for the early stages of their relationship.  

Much of the book is about what’s not said between the two characters but the series is not narrated to give this insight to the viewer. Instead, it’s up to the actors to portray how their chemistry progresses. 

“I found that slightly scary at the start, because obviously you have all that information in the book for all those big scenes, you can kind of jump between their perspectives,” Mescal says. 

Whereas in the filming of it, you’ve just got to hope from a playing perspective that all that internal monologue is banked somewhere inside of you. I think both Lenny and Hettie were really supportive in terms of not trying to show that or not trying to over-explain to an audience what’s exactly going on in both Connell and Marianne’s heads.

“I think that’s why the characters are both so infuriating and so accessible from an audience perspective because you see them miscommunicating but they’re not aware of it. Because if you were showing those things to each other, you’d pick up on it. And I think it was just about kind of dialling it back and dialling it down and making it as naturalistic as possible.”

PastedImage-37913 English actress Daisy Edgar-Jones plays Marianne. Source: Twitter/Hulu

Edgar-Jones agrees that the way the two lead actors were shot is key to telling the story of the on-screen relationship. 

Lenny has a very special sort of way of telling a character’s perspective. When you watch Room where he manages to adapt a story which is all from the little boy’s head into a kind of visual form where we really access the boy’s mind. I think he’s just got an amazing way of filmmaking that he lets you into a part of a person that you don’t usually see. So I really found his filmmaking fascinating and really helpful. 

“Paul and I were very in touch with the choices of camera that they were using because they spoke quite openly about it. I learned a lot about filmmaking just from working on it.”

Intense

Source: BBC Three/YouTube

As the reviews for Normal People have come out after the past week or so, the realism and intimacy of the sex scenes in the show has got people talking, with praise for how this side of the central relationship has been shown.  

The book was not shy about going into this either, but it only described these encounters on a couple of occasions. Instead, the couple’s internal thoughts showed the passion between them. 

On TV this had to be shown in a different way and when the first trailer for Normal People was released in January, the fifty-second clip showed at least five separate sex scenes. 

The makers of the show all say it was important they didn’t shy away from tackling this and that it is now a central part of how the story.

“A huge part of Marianne and Connell’s relationship is how they connect sexually and they have a really intense sexual connection right from the beginning,” Norton says.

It was really important that we got that right, that we didn’t shy away from it or hide it. And I think we also felt that there was a chance to show sex in the way that we didn’t feel that we saw in TV shows very often, especially for characters of this age. There’s lots of sexual content around about young people that is kind of played for laughs or undermined in that way. So we wanted to do it naturally and honestly and Lenny and Hettie put a huge amount of thought into setting the tone of how the sex scenes play, and doing it in a way that would feel real and serving our purpose. You know, you’re not just watching sex scenes for the fun of it.

In filming these scenes, the actors worked with intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien who took charge of the choreography while Abrahamson could concentrate on making it look right for the show. 

“These scenes were was a huge, huge part of the story, it’s where things occur in their relationship,” he says.

It’s not like you can have this story with or without the sex scenes in the way that sometimes they’re superfluous. Like in movies or drama where it’s ‘okay, here’s the sex scene’. It was actually part of the story. It was really interesting and challenging and exciting to do, you can’t just suddenly make beautiful pictures, you’ve got to continue to tell this psychological story and this love story through those scenes.

“I’ll be really interested to see what Irish audiences feel about it. Go back to the Late Late Show in 1985 or something and think about that and you will see how much has changed in Ireland,” he adds. 

Love in a time of pandemic

When talking about the show’s setting in contemporary Ireland, or indeed anywhere, it’s impossible to ignore that it’s being released at a time that is anything but normal. 

Unlike many shows whose production has been brought to a shuddering halt by Covid-19, Normal People’s release has not been affected. How it is received by people could certainly be, however. 

Norton says the hope is that the show will “offer some escapism” to people and Guiney describes it as “the exact opposite of social distancing”. 

Abrahamson agrees: 

“It’s a show about intimacy and connection and physical intimacy, so it’s completely the opposite to the experience that we’re having right now which is talking to each other over Zoom. I think people are spending a lot of time watching screens because they have a lot of time and I hope this show is quite a rich kind of experience and I hope it provides some relief from that state.

I don’t know if anyone else feels this but watching things right now, all the behaviours you’re watching suddenly feel amazing, things you wouldn’t have questioned before, people hugging each other when they meet, shaking hands, sitting closely, being in queues packed in small restaurants.

“So I’d be really interested to know what people feel watching this and whether they feel that contrast, particularly because of how much intimacy is in it.”

The first two episodes of Normal People are on BBC One at 9pm on Monday and on RTÉ One on at 10.15pm on Tuesday. 

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Rónán Duffy

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