Thirteen: BBC Three’s first online drama is far from unlucky
James R | On 27, Feb 2016
Earlier this month, BBC Three became the UK’s first online TV channel, using an innovative mix of BBC iPlayer and short-form content to cover everything from UFC to Death Row. On Sunday 28th February, though, the channel faces its first major test: launching a new original drama. Thirteen, though, should prove far from unlucky.
The show follows the tale of Ivy Moxam, who escapes from the cellar where she has been help captive for 13 years. Picked up by the police to be interviewed, her claims to be the girl who went missing over a decade ago are met with both sympathy and scrutiny. The former comes from her parents – the now-estranged Christina (Natasha Little) and Angus (Stuart Graham) – while the latter comes from DI Elliott Carne Richard Rankin) and DS Lisa Merchant (Valene Kane), as well as her skeptical younger sister.
With evidence suggesting that Ivy’s account of events may not be entirely true, the result is a drama that recalls ITV’s Broadchurch – not just in terms of its gripping mystery, but in its sensitive and moving exploration of the impact of the crime upon Ivy’s circle of loved ones.
“There are lots of stories of real-life imprisonment, but it wasn’t so much those that interested me, it was more what happens afterwards,” says Marnie Dickens, who wrote the series. “A lot of focus is put on periods of imprisonment and I wondered what happens when someone does miraculously escape, and how it can’t possibly be happily ever after.”
Dickens did lots of research into real-life cases, as well as consulting the police advisor and psychologist attached to the show. “I felt a massive burden to get it right, especially for people who may have been in a similar situation,” she explains.
But Thirteen will also be examined as BBC Three’s first original production since its big switch – the show was originally commissioned back when the channel was still on air, but has now become a flagship for BBC Three’s online future.
“The great thing about BBC Three was there was total freedom to write the scripts the way I wanted to,” Dickens says.
Indeed, while BBC iPlayer’s original films have become known for their relative lack of creative restrictions, BBC Three has also long been associated with nurturing young and upcoming talent. The channel may have undergone a groundbreaking transformation, but that commitment remains visibly at the heart of Thirteen, from rising star Dickens herself – who has previously penned five instalments of Hollyoaks and an episode of The Musketeers and Ripper Street – to its lead actress, Jodie Comer.
“Often in development we thought, are we asking this actress to do too much, playing so many different levels of truth and memory,” adds Dickens. “When Jodie auditioned, I got sent the casting tape and I thought she was fantastic – the perfect Ivy.”
Comer is certainly more than a match for the material. Her wide-eyed face is an endlessly twitching enigma, as she recounts events on tape for the police and hides in her bedroom at home; she looks happy, sad, scared, relieved, curious and shy all within seconds of each other, making her impossible to read, but also impossible not to feel sorry for.
“It’s completely different to anything else I’ve done and nothing like the characters I played in My Mad Fat Diary and Doctor Foster,” comments Jodie.
The whole show hinges on her excellent performance, as her potentially unreliable revelations both complicate the family fallout and muddy the police hunt for her kidnapper. In the middle of it all, one moment with Aneurin Barnard, who plays Ivy’s old teenage crush, Tim, is heartbreakingly awkward and sweet.
“When they are together, it’s the only time we see Ivy enjoy herself, forget what she has been through and be a young woman, starting to enjoy the things she has missed,” says Jodie. “It’s an intense filming schedule and subject matter, so when we did the Tim and Ivy scenes, it was a great relief to break free.”
One of the things Ivy would have missed is the rise of streaming video: BBC Three, BBC iPlayer and YouTube have transformed the way we engage with TV in the last 10 years. Thirteen will launch tomorrow with a parallel, interactive web story – Find The Girl – that will interweave a digital character with the show.
Promising to take the audience deeper into the world of Thirteen, Dickens embraced the separate online story as a “different challenge”. While the exact form that online story will take is being kept closely under wraps, though, the first of Thirteen’s five episodes proves that BBC Three has lost none of its ability to produce brilliant drama from exciting new talent. In an online age, that’s all the innovation you could ask for. Luck? That doesn’t come into it.
Thirteen is available on BBC iPlayer until October 2019.
Main photo: BBC/Todd Anthony