As the creator of Channel 4’s acclaimed vampire drama Ultraviolet, Joe Ahearne is no stranger to mixing the occult and modern day.
Here he discusses his new BBC One drama Apparitions which stars Martin Shaw as a Roman Catholic priest drawn against his will into the world of exorcism.
Where did the idea for Apparitions come from?
Martin Shaw approached the BBC with the idea of playing an exorcist. The BBC put him in touch with Lime Pictures who were developing an idea from Nick Collins about a priest who investigates miracles. I was approached later on to write a first script based on this central concept of a priest who is working to promote candidates for sainthood. I discovered in research that the issues in exorcism and possession were much more exciting than the usual horror approach. I loved the idea that extreme sanctity and extreme evil were interwoven.
What can we expect from Apparitions?
Thrills, scares and an engaging, powerful central performance from Martin Shaw – supported by a first-rate ensemble. It’s a tense and sometimes shocking thriller with supernatural overtones, not unrelenting horror. It’s properly researched with no projectile vomiting or heads spinning 360 degrees. This is a story where the exorcist is centre stage – not the possessed victim. Parts of it are terrifying but we don’t lose sight of the human drama amid the battle. I hope the treatment of this subject is genuinely unexpected and will make people think, not just jump out of their seats.
How did you find being both the writer and director for Apparitions?
It’s easier directing something you’ve written because you can change it more freely on set when the actors discover what works and what doesn’t. And it’s easier writing something you know is going to be in your own hands to realise and your own responsibility if you screw up.
How did you find working on Apparitions in comparison to some of your other projects such as This Life or Doctor Who?
It’s not quite as technically complicated as Doctor Who – although we do have stunts and wire work and prosthetics and CGI they are used much more sparingly. The camera style is more complex than This Life. The subject matter is far darker than either This Life or Doctor Who. What they all have in common are a fantastic cast with total commitment who make you believe the most bizarre situations.
You tackle some difficult subjects in Apparitions – where does your inspiration come from?
Apparitions is first and foremost a drama series, but the inspiration comes from the Catholic Church itself, its theology and beliefs. Because many of those beliefs are out of place in a secular society like Britain and it creates great conflict which is the engine for drama. Where Apparitions becomes exciting is when those core beliefs are taken on board and interrogated. Not just the belief in hell and demons but here-and-now ethics and morality. The inspiration for the stories have largely come from Catholic history of the saints or recent situations like the apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Medjugorje, Croatia.
The Catholic Church appears to have great influence in a lot of your work – why is this?
It’s a fluke! I did vampires 10 years ago and you can’t do vampires without the church. Then I did something about parents pretending to be Catholics last year and now this which was not my idea. So that’s only three times in 10 years! It’s not like an obsession or anything…
What research have you done for this programme?
I have a new shelf of literature at home relating to miracle investigation, histories of the saints, exorcism (two books written by the real Chief Exorcist of Rome) and the nature of evil as well as books from the current wave of atheist writers denouncing religion as poison. Many Catholic writers will share my view that holding contradictory opinions at the same time is part of the process. The argument is what matters not the conclusion.
Has researching subjects such as exorcism and possession forced you to challenge your belief system?
No I’m a devout atheist and endlessly fascinated with the issue of faith in the impossible. It’s true I bought a cross when we were shooting in Rome and I’m still wearing it. And it’s true some of the actors had unnerving stories to tell during the shoot. My unfaith remains unshaken however. I need big miracles to make me believe. So far I’ve just been teased by the paranormal.
Are you pleased with the finished product?
The actors and crew have transformed the script into something truly exciting and moving which surprised even me. So a big yes!
BBC One, Thursday 13th November