Pure: Interview with writer Kirstie Swain
"My mum will not tolerate anyone doing a Scottish accent unless it’s Johnny Lee Miller"
Pure begins at 10pm on Wednesday 30th January on Channel 4
Tell us where the genesis of this project came from?
Roanna Benn (executive producer) and Jen Kenwood (producer) from Drama Republic came to me with the book. I read it and said “fuck” out loud loads of times because it really resonated with me. There were a lot of things in Rose’s experience that were familiar to me: a rural upbringing, a desire to write, moving to London, the 90s references… plus the crippling anxiety. I felt a real connection with it.
Did you suffer from anxiety when you were growing up?
Yeah. I still do. Although back then I didn’t really know that’s what it was. I used to have these panic attacks where I would randomly scream out loud because I was terrified for no apparent reason. It scared the bejesus out of my family, not just because I was screaming in an enclosed space! I was told it was epilepsy at first and it wasn’t until I much later that I was told it was a panic disorder. I’ve always been an obsessive worrier and a pathological over thinker. When I read Rose’s book, I related to her cyclical thought processes: the idea of spending so much much time in your own head but at the same time finding it hard to be in it.
The book clearly resonated but that doesn’t mean you necessarily want to go on and write it. Why did you want to get involved?
A few things. I wanted to write about something that drew on my own experiences of having an anxiety condition. Also, growing up in the rural Scottish Borders, I didn’t really feel like I ever saw myself or heard my voice on television. All I saw were predominantly cis male stories told in an English or American accents. This was a chance to tell a female story in a Scottish accent. There was an element of feeling like I owed something to a younger me - maybe as a way of appeasing all the anxiety and self doubt in retrospect. I also wanted to continue the conversation about mental health and specifically, how it doesn’t just affect the relationship you have with yourself, but the relationships you have with everyone else too.
How true is the series to the book? Did you take the condition and build a narrative around it?
Rose’s memoir is this frank, funny, savage but moving account of what it’s like to have OCD so it was an absolute gift to adapt. We really wanted to make a show that echoed her humour and candidness. There wouldn’t be a “Pure the TV Show” if there wasn’t a “Pure the book,” but we never set out to make a straight adaptation. We wanted to be true to the condition, but we wanted to make a great piece of television too, so we couldn’t just cut and paste what was in the book. As with any adaptation, not only do you need to bring your own agenda to it, you also need to find its legs, build to a return and ultimately, create a genre. For me, that was a relationship comedy drama and a bit of a fucked up romcom, so I created characters and developed stories that best served that. Rose’s memoir is a beautifully written, funny but painful series of non linear vignettes spanning over a decade and in various locations around the world. I wanted to write a coming of age gang show, so we needed to anchor the main character in a specific time and place. There was also the challenge of taking the very interior experience of mental illness and translating it into action on TV. That’s a common hurdle in any adaptation for TV but when the subject matter is a mental disorder like OCD, it’s even harder because so much of the ‘action’ happens in the sufferer’s head. OCD is also a very repetitive disease. It doesn’t have a beginning middle and an end. Intrusive thoughts don’t just neatly resolve themselves in a three act structure, and that was something that was also a big consideration when we were developing the show and in addressing the real condition versus the fictional stories.
How involved was Rose? Did you communicate with her, show her drafts etcetera?
I worked with the creative team (Producer Jen Kenwood, Script Editor Morven Reid and Exec Roanna Benn) to storyline the series, but we deferred to Rose when it came to the factual realities of having the condition. But her involvement was so much more than that. She’s lived and breathed this. It’s part of her. To have her insight was vital to the authenticity of the show. Yet another incredible woman to have on our team!
What other research did you do?
We spoke to mental health charities like Mind and OCD Action as part of our research for the OCD storylines, as well as other medical experts in that field. Getting that right was really important. We wanted to do justice to the realities of having OCD but also had to make a great piece of television so it was a difficult balance to find. Grounding it in fact was a way of helping us achieve that. We paid the same attention in our portrayal of porn addiction too. Although ‘Pure O with sexual obsessions’ and 'porn addiction’ are very different conditions, they’re similar in that they both focus on sex. It was important that we really understood the nuances of that so we could explore it through our characters.
Did you stay involved after you written the scripts?
As is the nature of television production, you often write up until they shout wrap an that was the same for me. I naively thought my job would be done when we wrapped, but I was in and out of the edit giving notes on cuts and writing the voiceover that would knit the show together. It’s ultimately all storytelling - every single part of it. I got a bit of a crash course in post production. The voiceover was the biggest challenge for me in post production. Some people say it saves your life in the edit, but at times it became the bane of mine! It was so tricky because it effectively plays the role of Marnie’s mental disorder so there was a lot of pressure on it. Marnie effectively lives two lives, the inner one of her psychological disorder and the outer one that is the one the everyone else lives in. The voiceover was the segue between them. I rewrote it a lot. I don’t want to count how many times but I’m really happy with what it became.
It’s a really funny show as well as dramatic – it’s important to emphasise isn’t it?
Mental health causes enough distress in the world without our show adding to it so the comedy aspect was really important to me. You can find humour in devastation and you should, because with laughter comes hope. It’s a release. Yeah if you put a joke in the wrong place it can go down like a Knock Knock joke at a funeral, but if you get it right, you can be funny and sad in the same breath and it can be kind of wonderful. I’d say the tone was tragi-comic - there’s as much humour as there is sadness. I think I’m quite quite an awkward person, so I put a lot of that in my writing as a way of making myself feel better about misjudged physical greetings or failed sexual encounters.
How do you make sure the comedy doesn’t cross over into bad taste or being exploitative?
That was a really hard thing to balance. It took us a while to find the tone and it was something we were constantly addressing during the writing, shoot and post-production. I think as long as it’s coming from a place of truth then you’re halfway there to making it right. You can laugh at something without ridiculing it. Voiceover can utterly change the tone of a scene so it was a useful weapon in our arsenal in helping us regulate the tone across the series.
How do you think scripted material like this adds to the conversation about mental illness?
I think it reminds people they’re not alone. Mental health is a very private experience and making a show about it makes it public. This is a relationship drama about someone who struggles to have relationships because she spends so much time in her own head. If she spent more time in the world with other people she’d realise that everyone else was struggling too - maybe not to the same degree, but they’re struggling all the same. She’s not as alone as she thinks. This show is ultimately about finding your people and if one person watches it and feels less alone then I’ll be happy.
How do you feel about the end product?
If I had to sum up how I feel about the end product in emojis, I would pick the dancing lady, a fist pump and multiple explosions. I love it. It’s the show I’ve always wanted to make, but the one I didn’t know I was going to make because it’s been such a collaboration. The production team, the directors, the cast and crew, the medical experts - we all made this. As a writer you have this idea of what something is going to be, but until everyone else gets involved it’s just your words on a page. I’ve never given birth, but you could liken the making a TV show to that in the sense that it’s your baby; you can’t do it on your own; no one tells you how hard it is; and then you forget because you have this brilliant thing at the end of it. Plus I got to work with a bunch of wonder women (and people) too, many of them Scottish!
How was Charly Clive?
My mum will not tolerate anyone doing a Scottish accent unless it’s Johnny Lee Miller - that was until she heard Charly Clive doing one. Now Charly has joined that very select list. She does my accent better than me! I can’t believe this is her first TV job. She’s a master. I’m like, “teach me your ways.”
January 22, 2019 6:07am ET by Channel 4