The Essex Serpent Writer Anna Symon - 'Claire just brought it all off the page and made my words absolutely sing'

13 Jun

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Anna Symon is an acclaimed writer of such TV shows as Deep Water and Mrs Wilson. Screen Times Contributing Editor Jonathan Reed sat down Anna to talk about her most recent project, the Apple TV+ Original series The Essex Serpent. Anna had much to say about the complexities of adapting a much loved novel and working with Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston.

Screen Times: With a show like this, which you've worked on for some time, do you find it easy to let go of it personally and put it out into the world for people to view and, inevitably, judge.

Anna Symon: I think it's quite a process, actually. As the writer, your biggest engagement with the project is before it starts filming when you're actually, really deep in it and the scripts exist in your mind and on the page, and in discussion with the director and producers and then the cast. So there's a letting go process that happens. Once the actors then take it on and it goes into production then what was in your head and on the page comes together on film. So the process starts there and in this case that was quite joyous because it was so wonderful to see the way it was being brought to life. That's the first part of letting go. And then I, think by the time it goes out into the world, you've watched it so many times and then met it.

And you've had so many thoughts about it, yourself that. So it's quite surreal when it goes out in the world and you see other people coming to it completely fresh and getting bad reactions. So yeah, it can be quite confronting time. But it's also great for people to see your work and to just see this, you know, what is an amazing story created by Sarah pirate outline and well,

So the book, as you mentioned by Sarah Perry, how did you come across it and how did it come to be adapted by yourself for TV.

Well, as is often the way the book it was a very successful, but when it came out in 2016 it won a lot of awards in the UK so, I think there was a very hot bidding war for it. This was won by See Saw films. So I was really delighted when I kind of came onboard to write scripts.

What's your process for adapting a novel then? Do you try to break it apart into acts or do you delve into it and look at the themes and try to lay that out as a story?

The process of adaptation, I guess, is quite different really to your own original work. You read the book and first of all, you're thinking about what the book says to you, what do you like about it? What do you not like about it? What would be the challenges in bringing it to screen and really whether you connect with it as a story. Normally that happens to me quite quickly. And I know quite quickly, if it's something I want to do or not. And then once you've decided to go for it then I guess the hard work starts when you're actually breaking down, something that works really well in a novel and thinking, well, how can I make that work for screen? In the case of the Essex serpent, we had a writer's room, which I always find to be a really creative process. So we had three incredible writers; Hania Elkington, Jess Brittain and Elenor Cook. And we sat in a room for a few weeks with the producers and we just broke the story, which basically means there was a big white board. There's one to six up along the top, and then breaking down how that story might lay out across the us. Maybe spending a day or two on each character looking at themes. So it's a kind of back and forth process where you're looking at it as a whole, but then looking very forensically at individual beats within each episode. Also, looking at the characters journeys across the season and in the case of this, looking at the setup and in particular, what did the serpent mean? How do you tell a story about something that may or may not exist but that's one of the key storylines of the whole series. In a novel you can very easily say, "is there something in the mist? I don't know, but it's exciting." Whereas in a TV show or film, you have to make a decision about what exactly you are going to see. So you can't live with the ambiguity in quite the same way.

What's your overall role within the show? Are you involved directly within production and filming as well?

Yeah. So in this case I was also an executive producer on the show. So I was very much involved in obviously designing the story overall and leading that writer's room and bringing the other writers scripts into line with the whole vision of the show, making sure that the series as a whole from, the script point of view, was consistent and was compelling across the six episodes. Then from the executive producer point of view that was then being around during production and post-production, looking at cuts of the show and being an editorial voice along with the producers and the director across the whole span of production.

What was your working relationship like with the director Clio Bernard? I noticed she was credited as a writer on the first episode.

Clio and I had very close collaboration. So she would be very much involved in looking at the scripts - Clio was actually attached to the project before I was so she'd done some work on the script before I joined. So she was absolutely at the heart of it. TV's a very collaborative, medium. The writer, the director and the producers are always coming together to refine the work and to discuss what's on the page to make sure that we're all singing from the same hymn sheet, so to speak.

I think it definitely has a very singular vision. Along with the cinematography by David Raedeker.

The cinematography is amazing. Isn't it?

Absolutely beautiful. I grew up in the countryside and there's something about seeing a TV shows like this, where the countryside is depicted in such an amazingly beautiful way. This makes you very proud to be English.

Claire Danes it's really fantastic on this show. But for those people who don't know the history of the show, Kiera Knightley was originally cast and then had to pull out. I wondered whether when the role was recast, whether Claire brought a fresh approach to the character that maybe adjusted some of the writing or the character of Cora herself?

Yeah, it was obviously a shame when Kiera pulled out, but I think we were all absolutely delighted when Claire joined and there was never, ever a backward glance. And she just felt absolutely right for the part and her energy and her enthusiasm played so strongly into the role of Cora, such an incredible character that Sarah Perry created. She's very contemporary in the way that she questions things and she pushes herself and she sometimes doesn't make friends because she's such a strong character. But at the heart of it, has so much compassion and so much love. And I think Claire absolutely inhabited that role and we didn't need to change a single word for Cora. Claire just brought it all off the page and just jumped right in and made my words, Sarah's creation, absolutely sing. There was never a doubt that she was our Cora.

She's amazing and that accent is absolutely bang on as well for an American to pull off that British accent. That's incredibly impressive.

Her accent is incredible. And when you watch the rushes, she will be absolutely note perfect as she's in the part. And then when, when the scene cuts and she might just be, you know, talking to the cast or director and you just catch a few words before the film actually cuts, she goes straight into American and as she can go straight into British again, and it's just incredible. It's such a skill.

Yeah, it's amazing. It was great to see her as well. I think so many people have become accustomed to her being in Homeland. And I think if you ask a lot of people who Claire Danes is, they would say, oh, that's the actor from Homeland. So I guess that shows how much of a great actor she is, that she comes into this part. I was not thinking about Homeland at all.

She's so versatile isn't she? Yeah, Really shows her range. Because it's often very hard for an actor who's been so associated with such an iconic role to jump into something else and the audience not to question it really. I think in this case, it's a real testament to how strong her acting is.

You can't get much further away from a worldwide terrorism, CIA thing than going back into the 18 hundreds and running around in the mud!

So with the shooting were you on set then for some of the shooting and the, did you go to the marshy locations? What was that like?

I did go on set as much as I could. I mean, it was very strange because we were all masked up in these incredibly wind-swept landscapes, full of boggy marsh and absolutely freezing cold winds that you just thought COVID wouldn't have a chance with that's going on. But obviously protocol meant that we had to keep masked up. The production team did such an amazing job finding these locations, which, as someone who's lived in London all my life, I just couldn't believe that, within an hour and a half in a car, you could be out on the very Eastern edges of the country. And in this landscape, that's just sort of otherworldly, which feels like time forgot.

Was particularly difficult with filming in all the boggy marshes?

It was really difficult. As a writer, in a scene, and you kind of say 'it's night' or 'at sunset' and just sort of say what's going to be the most atmospheric or what's the most logical time to place a scene for the story. And then you actually see problems that you've given to the production team because the tides only rise at 7:00 PM in the evening and once a month for whatever it is. And so there was this constant logistical battle between getting the light right, the tides right. Not too much rain. Sometimes we wanted a kind of gloomy scene and it was sunny. And sometimes we wanted the tide to be low and the tide was high because it was spring. It was a real business. And I guess for people like me, who was not there all the time, it was something to behold, but for the actors who are outside in these sort of freezing winds, 12 hours a day, it was quite an endurance test.

So at the start of the show we see a young girl seemingly dragged underwater by a possible sea creature. It's a very haunting opening scene. I think going into that show, you would be maybe forgiven for thinking that this was going to be some sort of creature, monster mystery whereas it's very much not. It's very like a character drama focused on these other people. And the serpent is sort of this, this overarching theme and threat.

How do you go about writing something like this and not letting the serpent takeover from these characters and their relationships?

Yeah, it was tough actually. We have the novel as our guide and in the novel, the serpent sort of slivers its way in and out of the pages in a, quite an ambiguous way. And we had to pin that down really. So I think we, we looked when we were doing the writer's room, trying to understand all the different people's points of view about the serpents. Cora is very much a scientist and a rationalist and she wants to go to Essex to look for this beast that has been talked about. The people in the village are scared of it, and they are erecting barricades in the water to try and keep the beast away. And Tom Hiddleston, his character is the local vicar and he's very much trying to put the local villages fears at bay. So I think that was our sort of starting point, but then really as the book goes on and as the series goes on, you see that really the story is a lot about people's attitude to change and people's attitude to faith and the relationships between the characters.

So I think it was just about posting out those different things. And then as we went through it just to keep looking back to check that we were serving each part of the story as well as we could, but it is tricky because it's called 'The Essex Serpent'. And as you say it's about so much more than that. If you're going to watch this show thinking it's going to be Jaws, it's not!

There's lots of different themes running through the show. One thing that really jumped out at me was, the theme of consent. And, whether it's about Cora being able to pursue a passion that she has or whether, if you're a mother of a family, whether you should wait for permission from the man of the house to give consent about the health of your child.

I wondered if that was a big theme that was running through your head when you were all writing it? And was there any other big themes that really jumped out at you from the book that you tried to bring to the fore of this show?

There are a lot of themes in the book that were really resonant with what's going on today. And I think the place of women in the world, and as you highlight, that sense of power was something that we talked about a lot. Cora has been in a very oppressive marriage and hasn't really had the freedom to do what she wants at all in her life. And she's a very bright woman that's being held back. And how her companion Martha, is also a very competent headstrong woman who's trying to campaign for social change. Although we, as a viewer may see her as someone with a lot of confidence. She says at one point to a friend, Spencer, "you have no idea how it feels to have no power of your own." And I think this idea of the kind of gender politics behind power is something that came out very clearly. And I guess also, the sense of what we as human beings do when we're confronted by change by outsiders, by things we're scared of, by things we don't understand. Whether that be an outsider to your community, a woman who does things in a different way than you're used to people doing, whether it's a railway line being built, new machinery, new ideas, surgery. This was such a time of progress. And that brought up fears with it for people and, potentially we're in a similar place today.

So I'm interested by how people react when they're confronted by those new ideas. And I think as the series goes on, I think you begin to understand that. By the time you get to the end of the series, you kind of understand that they're all just reaching ready for knowledge and for truth and for human connection, which is, I guess, what we're doing all the time.

So on international women's day this year, you tweeted '#TheEssexSerpent written, directed and produced by three women. Clio Barnard, Andrea, Andrea Cornwell and me. With an all female writer's room, based on the novel by Sarah Perry.' I think it's clear to all sensible people, why representation and diversity matters in media. But I wonder if you could talk a bit about why it was so important for this particular project to have such a strong female presence in the production staff?

I think for this particular project, it felt really important that we had women front and center of the production team. I think people have traditionally looked at the 1890s that late Victorian time as being a time that was very male dominated. That great discoveries were made by men. Politicians were men, women were doing things, but we didn't hear about it. And so this was an opportunity for us as women to tell a story, but really also tell a story that meant something and was relevant to that Victorian time. And to bring forward those female voices. And I think it's quite hard to exactly quantify how that translates, because obviously there are a lot of men who absolutely can, can do that as well. But maybe it's just a sense that as women, we will look at things. From a female perspective. And from a sense of just being a little bit, maybe deeper under the skin of how it might've felt to be a Cora or a Martha who was having to sort of battle quite a lot in society, maybe to get things done. Representation in the film industry is improving hugely, but it's not perfect by any means yet. And female directors, female writers of high-end television drama are still in the minority. So I think whenever we can come together and really celebrate that we should. And that's why, I tweeted that on International Women's Day, because I wanted to say, look, this is great! I don't think this would have happened a few years ago for a project to be so female. And it was a wonderful, compassionate, caring environment that Clio nurtured on set. And again, I think that not without exception, but often women can bring that to their work in a way that maybe some men can't.

Just to quickly jump onto some, casting you mentioned Hayley Squires before who I really loved in 'I Daniel Blake'. And I wondered how you came to cast her, and also I think a real breakout role was the the role of Naomi played by Lily-Rose Aslandogdu. How did you come to cast both of those actors?

Well, we have a fabulous costing director called Shaheen Baig. Hayley's read for the part of Martha was absolutely stand out. I remember the moment I saw her just thinking she is outstanding. She had such a twinkle in her eyes, such conviction in her thinking, but also such warmth and I believed her instantly. So I think that was a really straightforward decision. And similarly with the part of Naomi Banks, I certainly know that as soon as she, she came on board, as soon as people saw her work, they were really keen on her. Again, she just absolutely nailed the part of this girl who was, grief stricken, traumatised, confused, and absolutely at the mercy of the rumours in this very small community. I know that Tom Hiddleston and the more experienced members of the cast said they really enjoyed acting with her because she was great. She just absolutely inhabited that.

Two of your biggest shows that you wrote were Deep Water and the really wonderful Mrs. Wilson, which me and my wife really enjoyed that a lot. They're both adaptations of books, just like The Essex Serpent is. Would it be fair to say that you're more drawn towards adapting existing works for the screen? Is there a certain attraction or challenge that you find in doing that?

Just to say, Mrs. Wilson, wasn't an adaptation of a book. It was a true story, but I drew on lots of different sources, mainly interviews with Ruth Wilson's family. But essentially that is the piece of original work. But I guess it was based on something that existed. Deep water was based on a series of books by Paula Daly, set in the late district but neither of them were my original ideas that came just from my head, I do have those! There's a couple of things that I'm hoping are going to go this year. So it's not that I'm more drawn to adaptations. I think it's just that those things that have been made so far, I do love adaptation. I love the creativity of taking something that exists and moulding it into something that works on screen but it very much has to be the right project. It has to be something that I feel I can bring something to. Even if it's an amazing book, if it doesn't really chime with me and what my thoughts and preoccupations are about the world, then I'm not going to want to do it.

It almost seems to me like maybe doing an adaptation would be harder than an original piece because you're trying to break something apart and find what the themes are. Look at the characters themselves, adapt onto the screen. Like you were saying earlier about the mystery of the serpent - you can just say, "oh, it's in the mist" But then you have to adapt that to screen and that's well, how do you do that? It almost seems like a bit more of a challenge to me. Though, I'm not a writer!

It's a real challenge. I think every project that I take on, whether it's an original piece of work or an adaptation or true story, you always get to a point where you're like, 'this is the hardest thing I've ever done'. Like having a baby -  as you come out the other end of it, that part of the process kind of fades and you just start to enjoy it and it becomes part of you and you start to sort of think and dream about these characters, even if they're not characters that you created. It's wonderful when you first start, because there's a story there and you're not grappling around in the dark but very quickly you realise just because someone else has created a story that works in a book, that's just as much work to do to make that into a script as the risk for an original piece.

Well, hopefully we'll see some of those new work in the near future!

Keep your fingers crossed for me.

Fingers crossed. Indeed. So, a tough question. It's of pure objectification - who is the hottest priest? Is it Tom Hiddleston or Andrew Scott in Fleabag. It's the question that everyone needs to know the answer to!

Well, a hundred percent Tom Hiddleston in The Essex Serpent! I mean, I think he redefined the hot priest. What I love about what Tom has done with Will's character is he's so thoughtful and so compassionate. And he's brought so much texture and love to that role. But at the same time, you know, he's Tom Hiddleston and he's in a love story with a very beautiful woman. It's something people want to see watch! I'm all a fan of Fleabag and Andrew Scott, but no, it has to, it has to be Tom Hiddleston as Will Ransome!

There is something about Tom Hiddleston. You look at him, you think, "oh yeah, you are a movie star!" But then you watch his performances - in all of his roles, really - but especially in roles like this, and you realise how great of an actor he is as well as just looking, being a huge movie star.

Yeah. And I think it's because he really, really believes in the work and he puts the work into inhabit the role. He spent a lot of time talking to Sarah Perry, talking to me. I think he drove down to the Essex coast as soon as he got the job and, went to look round, he read lots of poetry, you know, he really, doesn't take his film star status for granted. He wants to make good work and give a hundred percent.

By all means seems to be incredibly charming man, as well. Which I guess makes it, makes working with him very, easy.

Yeah, he is very charming. There was a very funny moment where we were filming some, I can't remember which scene it was, but it was something quite intense and he's striding along with the camera man, and someone was out walking their dog and they just interrupted and said "Are you Tom Hiddleston?" "Yeah, I am but we're actually doing some filming and then I'll talk to you in a minute." Another actor might not have responded or might've been annoyed that their flow had been interrupted, but he was able to graciously talk to this woman after she interrupted right in the middle of shooting.

Before we go, we normally we like to give out recommendations. So do you have any TV shows or movies or music or books that you've read recently that you could maybe recommend to our readers?

There's a book I'm reading at the moment and it's called Open water by Caleb Azumah Nelson and it's a really beautiful love story set in London. I'm just seeing that it won the Costa book award last year, so I don't think I'm wholly original in choosing it, but very enjoyable.

Open Water Okay. Right. Well go check that

Continuing with continuing the watery theme!

Well thank you so much for taking the time to chat to me today. This was a, this is a real pleasure and really great to learn what goes on behind the scenes of this wonderful TV show. And we'll keep our fingers crossed for those other projects. Hopefully we'll see something more from you in the near future. Thank you so much.

Thank you so much. It was a pleasure to talk to you.

The full series of 'The Essex Serpent' is now available to stream on Apple TV+. This interview transcript has been edited for clarity.

‍Jonathan Reed
Jonathan, ScreenTimes’ Contributing Editor has been lucky enough to work on Apple products his whole life, ever since his Dad brought home a Mac Performa aged 11 (him, not his Dad). Apple is just engrained in his life, especially nowadays, as a graphic designer. His nerdy enthusiasm for Apple is only matched by his love of TV and film. Whether a buzz-worthy new show or blockbuster, a small cult show or an indie film, he’ll watch it. So Apple TV meets right in the middle of that Venn diagram! He also writes on his personal site, He lives in London and is writing his own bio in the third person.