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7 Questions with The Beast Must Die cast: 'It’s the best plot I’ve ever read'
The Beast Must Die cast members Billy Howle and Nathaniel Parker talk exclusively to BT TV about the gripping BritBox thriller.
New BritBox thriller The Beast Must Die brings together Jared Harris (Chernobyl, Mad Men), Billy Howle (The Serpent) and Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife) for a gripping tale of revenge, trauma and tragedy.
Set on the Isle of Wight, the story combines intense and magnetic characters and a tangled web of mysteries to make an unmissable five-part thriller.
An updated adaptation of Cecil Day-Lewis’s novel, the series shuns crime clichés for a brooding intensity that feels unlike anything you’ve seen before.
We caught up with two members of the show’s cast, Billy Howle, who plays detective Nigel Strangeways, and Nathaniel Parker (The Inspector Lynley Mysteries), who plays a psychiatrist and also executive produced the series, to find out more about this must-watch series.
1. What was the first thing that struck you about The Beast Must Die?
Billy Howle: First of all, it was different. Tonally it doesn’t feel like a procedural cop drama or crime drama. This detective character isn’t your bog-standard detective character. You always get the drinking or the long coat, a drink problem or whatever, but there’s something a little more to it here. It adds another dimension to it.
Nathaniel Parker: What drew me to it was reading the book 20 odd years ago. It starts with the fantastic moment: "I’m going to kill a man, I don’t know his name, I don’t know what he looks like or where he lives, but I’m going to find him and I’m going to kill him". Cush does it so much better than me. But I’ve always wanted to do this story, I’ve always thought it was the best plot I’ve ever read.
It’s the murkiest ending, it’s the cleverest characters. We’ve updated it, we’ve relocated it, we’ve changed sexes, but I was gripped. It’s always important to take a different look at things and we’ve got a fascinating three characters at the top of this. Jared, Cush and Billy, their characters are really powerful, each one of them and cast brilliantly.
2. How hard was it capture the intensity of Detective Strangeways?
Billy: I think to be honest, partly it’s my repertoire. Particularly the temper part, I have a temper myself. So it wasn’t an emulation, but it was about pertaining that for his circumstances.
I don’t have personal experience of PTSD, but I think it’s something people are a lot more aware of now, this idea of trauma and how it manifests.
Part of it was physical for me. I read a book about how trauma stays in the body in certain parts, so I spent quite a lot of time thinking about this trauma and where it sits. The visceral element of trauma, this explosive anger and flipping from calm to not so calm, I wanted to look at where that was coming.
It was all very visceral, sat in my gut and if someone said the wrong thing or the wrong thing happens, he flips.
3. How hard was it to sit as Billy’s therapist and have him shouting at you?
Nathaniel: There is one moment which I don’t know if you’ll have got to yet. Billy was so good in the scene, I almost came out of character and I did something that I’m sure therapists try not to do which is identify with a character in such a way that it made me cry.
I was fighting back the tears watching him go through stuff as he’s a very persuasive actor. I did a cop show for seven years and if I was able to do what Billy did, I’d still be doing it. He’s really good at this.
4. Why did you locate it on the Isle of Wight?
Nathaniel: Where do you get something now that was originally set in 1935 in Gloucestershire? Well, the Isle of Wight is the area with the least CCTV cameras and more sunshine than anywhere else. And I think it’s got the highest rate of accidents?
Billy: They have biker rallies, winding roads with no cameras, so people are going to let rip in their cars I suppose.
5. What was the Isle of Wight like for filming?
Billy: It’s a very quiet place as you’d imagine. It would be very easy to find it claustrophobic. You have the glorious landscapes and the sea either side of you, you feel kind of isolated. Potentially trapped. There is no real escape.
You have to get on a boat to get off the island. There’s something interesting about that and it drove me and my character towards a pressure-cooker environment. Although it’s beautiful and picturesque, I did feel trapped as an individual and as an actor. On top of that, everything was shut with lockdown. It felt like an escape and isolated at the same time – if that’s possible.
Nathaniel: It did have the brilliant feeling of isolation, but also gave us a brilliant sense of community, working together in that way. As an exec producer, it helped us keep Covid at arms-length and away from the horrors that were hitting the rest of England at that time.
6. Jared Harris is phenomenal in the show. What was it like seeing him bring this slimy character to life?
Billy: I think we shared two scenes. It was interesting. We exchanged a couple of lines. But the sliminess, the smarminess, the level of snobbery, it was very well done. It was completely lived in.
And there was a sort of knowingness, which made it even worse to be around. He knew exactly what he was doing.
The more he can make that convincing, the more it gives you to play off and it becomes a game and very exciting to be around. That knowingness is something I learned off him and I want to encapsulate that now.
Nathaniel: Jared is an old mate of mine and I first suggested this part to him five years ago. I said, I’ve got this part for you and his wife said, "Not another baddie!" I said, maybe, maybe not. He’s not a nicey - he’s smarmy, comes off the screen arrogant, but I don’t think this is a role I’ve seen from Jared before. I’m a huge fan, but I’ve never seen him do this. And when he read the script, he said that this was the best script he’d read in a while. And that was after he’d done Chernobyl.
7. The series makes lots of changes from the book. Why was that important?
Nathaniel: We had to update it. There is a lot of golden age thriller out there at the moment and it does place it in certain boundaries. Poirot and things are brilliant, but we wanted to make a different drama.
Changing the sex was fantastic, it brings a new perspective at the beginning with the loss of her son. To have a woman losing her son, who would become the image of his father, it’s a double loss. The update of the detective is vital. It’s harder to picture someone from the 1930s working something out than it is someone today with all the technology we have.
But I think the spirit is incredibly similar. They really bring that off the page, which is just fantastic.
Watch The Beast Must Die episodes 1 and 2 now on BritBox.