Sex – wanting it, not getting it, and having it (badly and passionately) – is explored in a new BBC One drama.
Wanderlust, a six-part series filmed in Manchester earlier this year, is already being dubbed the corporation’s ‘most X-rated’ project yet. And it’s no wonder. The first episode alone includes lacklustre fumbling, masturbation, extra-marital trysts and sexual fantasies.
Nick Payne started writing Wanderlust around 2009 as a play for the Royal Court Theatre (“I think I just wanted to write about sex and relationships,” he recalls) and then turned it into a television series following discussions with the show’s producers, Roanna Benn and Jude Liknaitzy.
“I found writing a TV show exhausting and thrilling in equal measure,” admits the award-winning playwright who’s achieved huge success with Constellations and The Same Deep Water As Me on stage.
The series revolves around a married couple: Joy, a therapist, and Alan, a teacher. They still love each other but find themselves in a sexual rut and begin to question how they can move forward when they don’t want to want to end their marriage.
There are “huge differences” between the TV programme and theatre show, says Nick.
“Theatre is a comparatively small endeavour; a relatively small number of people working together to make a show that only a finite amount of people will ever get to see. And then it’s gone,” he explains.
“Making a TV show seemed to be a huge undertaking. It takes years, hundreds of people are involved, and so on. And I guess unless there’s some kind of archiving issue, a TV show will be ‘live’ forever.”
Although he didn’t visit the set as much as he would have liked, he still made it up north.
“There’s a gig in episode two, I went along to watch that,” he says. “Also, I saw a really beautiful scene being filmed in a church in Bury for episode six. But that’s about it.”
When we first meet Joy, played by Toni Collette, she’s recovering from a cycling accident.
“More often than not, it takes a serious or confronting event for people to contemplate how they actually want to live their lives,” says Toni, who came to prominence in 1994’s Muriel’s Wedding and has since starred in films such as Little Miss Sunshine, About A Boy and Hereditary.
“This is what happens to Joy. She now wants more. This is her way of exploring a deeper, more meaningful life. She’s a therapist, already quite aware and able to see and help others, but there are parts of herself she’s repressed. I guess the story is Joy exploring those darker corners.”
Although she’d not come across Nick’s work before, “now I want to see and read everything of his,” she says. “He’s a genius.”
“When I first read Wanderlust, I could hear and feel the dialogue very clearly. Nick’s writing felt so real and warm and familiar. It’s both moving and very funny. I also very much enjoy the idea of people waking up and living the life they really want to live. It’s brave and inspirational in that way.”
Filming ran through the winter months but Toni, who hails from Australia, “loved” working in Manchester and “can’t wait to do it again”.
“Manchester was great and a very cool city. I imagine it’s even better when the sun comes out,” she jokes. Now, months on from when they wrapped, she can’t wait to see the reaction.
“Wanderlust is so honest and funny in how it looks at some aspects of living that are not often talked about. It’s going to excite people and start conversations.”
Like Toni, her co-star Steven Mackintosh, who plays her husband Alan, hadn’t caught any of Nick’s previous work but was instantly drawn to the script.
“It was insightful and intelligent, but also witty in a very unusual way,” says Steven, who’s appeared in A Song For Jenny, Stan Lee’s Lucky Man and The Halcyon.
“His writing seems to represent characters in a way that life does. There are no clear heroes and villains; they are all people with their own desires, motivations and longings. They are all muddling through everyday life. It’s quite rare to see a story like that.”
Despite the story’s more intimate scenes, he had no reservations.
“It’s is ultimately about relationships and love and people who are on a quest for very similar things in life,” he notes.
“The [sex] scenes are funny too in their own way. They’re not earnestly trying to represent sex in a generic, soft-focus way. It presents it in a way that feels real, much like the people are, with all of their clumsiness and idiosyncrasies. It shows how the oddest encounter can turn into a sexual moment.”
Although he’s originally from Cambridge, Steven has filmed in Manchester several times over the years. “I’m very fond of it,” he says.
“It was nice to visit some of the old haunts and discover some new ones. The crews are amazing – they are incredibly efficient. They have such a high standard of work. It’s a great town to be in. It’s so compact but culturally so diverse. I had a lot of fun.”
And that’s despite filming when the Beast from the East brought a spell of unusually cold weather earlier this year.
“It was as harsh as it gets,” he remembers. “But when you made it through the blizzard to work, there was a lovely, glowy warmth in general.”
Wanderlust begins on BBC One on Tuesday 4th September.