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Wolfe: Getting squeamish, laughing through the script and geeking out on wasps – Secrets from the Set
Babou Ceesay, Amanda Abbington and the other stars of Sky Max show Wolfe talk to BT.com about making the dark comedy-drama.
Wolfe is the forensic show with a witty script and beyond-gross crime scenes.
Each episode may have a standalone story, but the relationships between the characters makes it an ideal series for a binge – and it doesn’t shy away from important topics like mental health.
Babou Ceesay, Amanda Abbington and the other stars of Wolfe revealed to BT.com what the show was like to work on.
All about the gore
Wolfe probably isn’t the show to watch if you’re feeling a bit queasy. While it’s lightly humorous, some of the gore is unnervingly realistic – even for the actors.
Adam Long, who plays botanist and entomologist Steve, said of the third episode: “I kept forgetting that it was fake, and then I'd catch in the corner of my eye and just go 'argh!'.”
Other cast members recalled an episode partly set in a sewer was particularly difficult to film.
Amanda Abbington, who described her character Dodge as Professor Wolfe Kinteh’s “right-hand girl/man/woman”, said: “It looked like an actual sewer with actual stuff floating down in it. And that was deeply unpleasant. It was weird because I started to sort of smell things because we were in there for a while. You start to think, 'Oh, this is real'.”
Babou Ceesay, who stars as Wolfe, added: “There was so much goo that would spread absolutely everywhere. [It was an] almost phlegmy material, which doesn't matter what it smells like it, just to even step on it - it was awful.”
Naomi Yang, who plays team manager Maggy, enthused: “It was it was so realistic. That team just did such a good job.”
Bold on mental health
In one episode, Wolfe reveals that he has suffered from severe mental health struggles in the past – and Babou said that the show has helped him understand the subject more.
“Paul Abbott [the show’s writer] himself has dealt with bipolarity, manic depression,” he said.
“Working on this show, I'm having to read up on a lot of these conditions that I haven't [known much about].
“So for me personally it’s giving me a huge education on it. It made me realise that actually there's a whole world of mental health out there that we're not necessarily not dealing with - but we're not necessarily facing in a holistic way.”
He continued: “One of the things that can trigger bipolarity is just having a traumatic experience. Any of us could have a chemical imbalance based on just a very high level of trauma.”
He added that the role has even encouraged friends to confide in him about their own mental health.
“It’s amazing how many people have come forward to tell me - friends of mine - about their own mental health struggles since I started talking about Wolfe… including a friend who lives less than 100 metres away, who openly talks about the fact that he's bipolar now with me.
“It's important to show that people can function, be part of society and be welcomed in. And the way the team deals with [Wolfe], I think is even bigger. It's testament to that.”
Despite the blood and the gore, one of Wolfe’s strengths is its ability to make the viewer laugh at the most inappropriate moments.
Babou explained: “There's a murder in one episode, and these legs are sticking out of a de-boning machine. Now that's horrendous, but it's also slightly comic.
“I think that surprised me as I was reading it, and I thought, 'Wow, you get this machine and these two legs sticking out, how can that bring up this sort of tickle in ourselves?'
“When we spoke to the forensic team, they said, 'Listen, we see some really horrible things. If you're not able to at least have a sense of humour about it, you're going to be basically spinning around for the rest of your life. You have to be able to take life as it is'. So I think for me, I think that's what will make Wolfe stand out.”
Natalia Tena, who plays Wolfe’s ex Val, chuckled: “I p****d myself laughing. It was great. Especially during the read-throughs. We laughed a lot.
“I found it interesting how when I watched it, I liked how it translated and it wasn't as sitcom-y as we were kind of playing around when we were doing it in the read through. The humour's still there, it works, but it's not silly.”
Talitha Wing, who not only plays Wolfe’s daughter Flick but is also a writer and poet, said she felt she learnt a lot from the script.
“I think every script can teach you things. This came to me again when I watched the the first four episodes - how funny it is and how real that makes it, and how even though you know they're dealing with issues like a horrible murder or just these awful characters doing awful things, there's so much humour in it. And then being able to make fun of themselves and then being able to make fun of each other,” she said.
“I think sometimes when I write, I think this either needs to be tragic or funny. But a show like this has taught me that you can mesh those two things together.”
Big on research
While the cast stress that the show is not a documentary, they researched the science for their roles and had experts on set to help.
Amanda said: “We went to a forensic place and we got to ask as many questions we wanted. We walked around and we saw where people are trained to do it.
“And we had someone on the set all the time as well, which we asked for. So we always had somebody to hand if something came up.
“It's not a documentary so we take artistic licence… but at the same time we are trying to strive to make it as realistic as possible. We had a lot of help when we needed it.”
Adam admitted he got a bit carried away with his character’s specialist subjects.
“I read this book called Traces by Patricia Wiltshire. She is an entomologist and botanist. Specifically, her expertise was with pollen. So it really blew my mind when she's talking about how she'd crack these cases and she could [know] where something had been based on the pollen extracts from the area and how they blend in that one space.
“I sort of geeked out on all that stuff a little bit because I thought, ‘Well Steve geeks out on it’.”
He revealed that he even just reeled off his knowledge about a species of wasp for one take on set – though admitted that it never made it to the final cut.
“I remember particularly there was one day with the chestnut gall wasp. I spent a couple of days just really going in on this information about this chestnut gall wasp and I think Adrian [Shergold, the director] could see that I was amped up to tell some of this information.
“So, Adrian went, 'I tell you what - at the beginning of the scene, just tell this guy everything you know.' So I just rattled off a minute-and-a-half about this wasp. I just needed to get this information out. And it didn't get used!”
Away from the gore and the science, the background story of Wolfe’s family is compelling. He has a fascinating relationship with his ex Val and their daughter Flick.
Natalia explained: “I am Wolfe's soon-to-be ex-wife and a criminal lawyer.
“She's pretty forthright. She's very self-aware and, I think, quite sexually confident. They've been married for a very long time, and they have a great verbal sparring universe. They kind of really love each other, but I think she's just done a little bit with his outrageous behaviour and who he is and his work are taking over - and especially after our daughter was ill. I think she's just done. She's like, 'I'm out'.”
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Talitha believes that her character is often seen as the most sensible out of the three family members despite only being 16 – and has to juggle the desire to be a normal teenager, having missed out on some of her childhood when she was ill, with looking out for her parents.
“I think she feels a sense of responsibility to keep everyone together. But she does have a conversation with her dad, where she says, 'Look Dad, I missed out on years of my childhood and I want to do this and I want to do that'. And her dad is equally protective of her. So it's difficult for her, I think,” she said.
“I think the dynamic with her and both of her parents is really interesting, because I think she switches from being the daughter to sometimes having to be the mother to her dad and trying to pull him back to being on the right path.”
Wolfe also has his ‘work family’ – and the group’s tight bond was reflected off-screen.
Amanda said: “I laughed so much on this job!
“Because we came out of a pandemic... we just wanted to look after each other. We all genuinely love each other.
“By and large, we all just looked after each other and got on, and it was such a fun job to do. And I do miss this job a lot.”
Shaniqua Okwok, who plays mysterious team newcomer Dominique, joked: “I really miss not being judged for having four doughnuts. This team never judged me for going back to the snack tables - I really appreciate that!”
Watch Wolfe on Sky Max with a NOW Entertainment Membership from Friday, September 10.