Killing Eve – creating a top TV show

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Killing Eve is one of the most talked about shows on TV and has been a sensation both here and in America. Executive producer, Sally Woodward Gentle, gives Pippa Duncan an insight into how the hit programme was created.

Sally Woodward Gentle exudes artless creativity. She’s always beautifully dressed, understatedly chic with some little quirk – silver shoes, four or five earrings in each ear – and is obviously passionate about her work. Before founding Sid Gentle Films (named after her beloved Basset hound) in 2013, which has made hits such as Killing Eve and The Durrells, she was creative director at Carnival Films – responsible for successes such as Downton Abbey, Whitechapel and Any Human Heart.

How do TV programmes, whether they’re hits or not – she was also responsible for SS-GB, which died a death after ‘Mumblegate’ – get created in the first place? Not surprisingly, Killing Eve started with a good script, based on the Villanelle novellas by Luke Jennings.

‘The novellas are darkly comic and have this great dynamic between these two women. Female assassins aren’t unique, but what we didn’t want was a little pixie woman who felt like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo or Nikita. I’d recently met Phoebe Waller-Bridge as I’d read her play, Fleabag, and loved her energy and outlook and thought it would be interesting to put that material through her vision.’ Waller-Bridge grasped the project with both hands.

The next step was to find a broadcaster to pick it up so they could develop the script. ‘It was an idiosyncratic project – two women, one an intelligence officer and the other an assassin, with an obsession for each other – but BBC America read it and completely loved it. It was a risk for them – but they genuinely loved its tone and didn’t want to turn it into something else.’

Once they were on board, Sally, who lives in Kew, and her production team could start casting. As executive producer, Sally’s role covers everything from how a script is developed (the Eve role was bumped up) to casting and contracts, locations, distribution – and everything in between.

With an American partnership, an American lead was needed, which they quickly decided would be Eve. It had to be a middle-aged woman, well known, feisty and funny. A lot of names came up, but when someone suggested Sandra Oh, star of Grey’s Anatomy, they knew they’d found their character.  ‘She had other commitments, but we fought really hard for her.’

Finding the right person to play Villanelle took just as long: ‘We looked at a lot of people, but there was something about Jodie Comer that just stood out. She flew out to LA and did a chemistry read with Sandra and we were just so impressed with how she could flip her character within one scene. Stunningly beautiful smile one moment and then she just disappears – that sociopathic stare. She perfectly inhabits the role. She takes her work really, really seriously but she wants to keep everything fresh, so she comes in on the day and she’s always got a sort of extraordinary vitality and originality.  She’s just brilliant.’

After our interview, Sally is flying out to Corfu for the end of the final season of her other hugely popular series, The Durrells. It will be a sad parting for the whole set after four years shooting on Corfu, as the actors and crew have really bonded: ‘There is something very special about it – the island, the people in Greece who we’ve become friends with. I think it’s quite unique. We’ll all be sobbing on the last day.’

And of course, there are other projects she is working on, which are under wraps. ‘As a company we like shows that are entertaining but that have got something to say. We always seem to set ourselves up doing shows which are really difficult – but we quite like doing that…’

The second season of Killing Eve has already started filming on location in London, Paris, Amsterdam and Rome. Waller-Bridge is swapping her writing role for one of producer and the new writer is actress and author Emerald Fennell – best known for her TV role as the redheaded nurse, Patsy Mount, in Call The Midwife.

With – spoiler alert! – a couple of main characters already killed off, how will this season develop? ‘You want some twists, but people can’t just be expendable all the time. And the problem is that you can make decisions like that and then you fall in love with the actor and the character and wish that you hadn’t killed them off! And if they are great story generators, then you actually create a bit of a problem for yourself. So, for the second season we were constantly thinking about what’s an interesting thing to do, what will have impact.’

It looks like we’ll just have to wait and see – Season 2 isn’t released until next Spring.

You can see Killing Eve on BBC iPlayer.

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