"The more diversity in all its senses - gender, race, class - we have leading shows and having responsibility for creative decisions, the better TV will be."
As well as being a familiar face on our screens, Emer Kenny who most recently was seen starring in Channel 4's crime comedy The Curse, is also a fantastic television writer who began her professional career writing for EastEnders spin-off E20 in 2010. Since then she has written on a number of television dramas including Red Rock, Harlots and Save Me Too.
Karen Pirie, which launches Sunday on ITV, is Emer's first project as showrunner and sees her bring one of Val McDermid's most loved characters, Karen Pirie to life in an adaptation that stays true to the original character, whilst bringing her and the story up to date for a younger audience.
The result is a crime drama that feels fresher and younger than the sea of crime dramas on television. DS Karen Pirie is a young and fearless Scottish investigator with a quick mouth and tenacious desire for the truth and is played brilliantly by Lauren Lyle a role that feels like she was born to play.
The first series of Karen Pirie is based on Val McDermid’s first Karen Pirie novel The Distant Echo, and sees Karen tasked with reopening a historic murder investigation that has been the subject of a provocative true crime podcast.
When teenager Rosie Duff was found brutally murdered in the Scottish university town of St Andrews in 1996, suspicion fell on the three drunken students who were discovered at the scene of the crime, claiming to have found her body; Sigmund ‘Ziggy’ Malkiewicz, Tom ‘Weird’ Mackie and Alex Gilbey. But with a lack of forensic evidence, no charges were brought and the police investigation floundered.
Twenty-five years on, someone appears to be willing to risk everything to keep the secrets surrounding the case hidden. Do the three men know more than they previously revealed? How flawed was the original investigation? And can Karen uncover the truth of what happened to Rosie that fateful night?
I recently caught up with Emer to discuss the decisions she made early on to make Karen Pirie stand out in a crowded crime drama market, the joy of casting Lauren Lyle, the importance of new voices writing stories for television and so much more.
You’ve been writing for TV since 2010 and this is the first drama you’ve written on your own. Now, it’s not for me to say whether 12 years is a long time for that to have happened - or a short time - how do you feel about the journey you’ve gone on as a writer?
That's an interesting question because it's both, I think. I'm young to be a showrunner, especially with the level of control they let me have creatively, with this show. Also, to do something which was on a mainstream channel, two-hour-long episodes.
I always thought my first project as the lead writer would be a half-hour on BBC Three. So in some ways, it feels quick, but in other ways, I have hit every run on the ladder. I've been plugging away with the writing and the acting for, I think, 15 years now.
The good thing about that is that you feel ready to take on the responsibility, creatively. I really feel like I know what I'm doing now, which is nice. But yeah... it's been a journey!
How does writing on your own differ from the other writing for television you've done so far?
The difference for me actually, was much more in the Executive Producer element, rather than the writing. Because writing is kind of the same. You have to sit and get through all the drafts and make sure all the stories and the characters work.
The responsibility where the buck stops with you in terms of what happens in the story. The tone. All of that. That stuff, I found both completely thrilling and my favourite thing about it. But also, a real burden because it was my first time doing that. You're just hoping that your instincts and your own choices are the right things.
When I'm working under Lennie James on Save Me, every single choice he makes is amazing. He's so talented and I just trust him so much. It's quite relaxing working on that show, because you know he's going to make all the right choices. Whereas it was me this time, and you just hope you have the same ability to make the right choices.
There's no shortage of crime drama in the UK, but Karen Pirie does feel new and different. How conscious were you to make it feel different?
My absolute number one priority in the whole process was making sure that this felt different. I was under the umbrella of two big brands. Val McDermid, who is such an established crime writer with so many fans and ITV, who make lots of crime drama for a slightly older audience than I have maybe written for before. I'm young for their audience.
What I wanted to do was satisfy those two things, but also bring a lot of myself to it. My mantra was - and I must have bored people senseless by just saying "Cool and fresh. Cool and fresh. Cool and fresh." constantly. Because you can get dragged into the tropes really easily.
That came into the tiniest details. I was obsessive about it in every element of the writing - with the humour and all I could put into the scripts - the cast, making sure that a lot of them were just right for the part and we'd never seen them before and then costume choices, make-up choices, music choices. Right through to right now with the poster and the trailer. I'm going "We have to do something that doesn't feel like Vera or The Bay, or any of the other ITV shows out there." - and for three years I have been determined to do that.
Did bringing the story forward to 1996 and 2021 help with that?
Exactly. But also being really aware of what else is out there. It could have been really similar to Unforgotten because it's the cold case show - so we were really aware of making it feel different to that.
A lot of detectives we've seen on TV are in their late thirties, so I was looking at The Bay and Marcella, then Happy Valley and Prime Suspect, they're in their forties so we were like - let's bring that right back to the twenties and make this character feel unlike any other detective. And just go at it from that angle.
Also, that's my age when I started writing it as well, so I was trojan horsing a lot of new stuff into an old format.
Were there any crime drama tropes in particular, that you were keen to avoid?
In the book, she starts off young - although, I must stress, the show is very different to the book - she's only in about 20 pages at the end of the first novel, but she doesn't have any of that baggage we often see with detectives in a crime drama.
She's massively underestimated by those around her because she's so young and looks like a very normal woman. I was quite excited by the fact that she didn't have a drink problem or demons or a divorce or any loss or grief in her life - because it felt different.
And I know that was difficult for ITV because when I went in to talk about it, they went "What's the serial story if she doesn't have any demons?" and I was like "Well, this is the serial story, it's something I can relate to, it's proving yourself. It's coming up against something and having to show what you're made of."
I remember saying to them "I promise you, people will relate to that. I promise you. You don't need a drink problem to be relatable!"
How much of yourself then, have you written into the character of Karen?
So much! It wasn't that I wrote it into her so much, it's that things were already there that rang true with me in the character. Then I brought a little bit of myself and Lauren (Lyle) brought a little bit of herself in the performance.
Humour was the big thing there for me, in that I find it really difficult to write dialogue without having some jokes in there. I've done a lot of comedy acting and when I was writing police scenes, I'd find it easier to get through all the jargon and dark talk about murder, if there's some kind of - not necessarily funny - but something that feels human and unconventional.
In the third episode, there's a scene where they're talking about the case, but The Mint - one of the characters - is eating hard-boiled eggs the whole way through, because he's a gym bro. Karen's quite put off by that. And to me, that reflects real life more than just talking about the case in front of them. People are always talking about other stuff alongside it. That's probably the biggest thing that came from me because I can't not write like that.
When did you first become aware of The Distant Echo and Karen Pirie as a character?
I was writing on the second series of Save Me with World Productions and Simon Heath sent me the book and said "What do you think?" - so I read it, and just went back and said "Yeah, let's talk about it."
I went in and said "I think this is great. I think there's something there. How much room is there for me to change and update this?" Because it was written in 2004.
I think it had been around the houses with production companies and channels and everyone was a bit baffled about how to adapt it because there are a lot of things about the format which wouldn't really work on TV.
A lot of it is inside the character's heads, the time jumps are quite difficult - so I said if I can have the freedom to keep the character the same but really remix this, with my take on it, then I would love to do it. And they said "Absolutely! Go for it. Put your mark on it."
Val (McDermid) was really cool with that as well, so that's how it got made in the end. Let's make this feel really 2021.
How closely did you work with Val?
We spoke the whole way through, but you need to keep some distance because I think she's so close to the book, and I'm so close to the TV series, so you want to keep some separation. But she was really supportive. We ran every single thing by her. She read every single draft and fed back. If she had a note, I really wanted to hear what it was, because she's got an amazing mind for lots of things - but for writing and crime, in particular.
She said to me when she came onto set "I don't want to write TV. It's not for me. It's not my format, so I'm completely happy for you to be doing it!" - and I was like "I don't want to write novels!" which meant that we had a mutual respect for the different processes and products.
A lot of changes - as you say - have been made from the novel. But what were some of the things you had to keep?
The two timelines. In the book, it's set in the seventies and 2004 and I really really liked the story she had in the past about a group of university friends, who are found by the police, at the scene of a murder - and then the rest of their lives are changed.
I think university friends is something that felt young and fresh, so I was really excited to write their dialogue and their friendships. I wanted to make sure that it wasn't just set in modern with some flashbacks and really make the past feel full of story.
Also, the main regular characters - Karen, The Mint, Phil, River - although most of them weren't in the first book, they were in the late books that I read, so I pulled them forward. Again, they're a group of young people and through everything that I write, I often end up with a group of young people, there's often a party involved. That's where I always gravitate to and even though this is slightly more grown up, it's still where I feel comfortable.
So those were the things that I wanted to keep that were already part of the book and I just adapted.
How difficult was it to write the two timelines? Often these can be confusing - for the viewer, let alone the writer - but I didn't feel confused at all watching Karen Pirie.
Oh I'm glad you weren't confused. It was SO confusing for me. I have notebooks and notebooks and notebooks and notebooks. There was a point where Simon (Heath) asked me "Do you want to write the whole thing? Or would you like to have another writer involved?" - and it's not that I was against having another writer involved, because I'm very keen to put the ladder back down.
I've been brought on other people's shows and love writing on other people's shows, but I just said to him "It's so confusing. The whole thing is so confusing, and it's been in my head for such a long time, that I don't even know how I would communicate that to another writer. So I feel like I've got to try and do the whole thing myself."
It just needed a lot of fine tuning. I quite enjoyed that process actually. It's a good challenge. We did lots of things in the making of it, which helped. Gareth (Bryn) our director was really really brilliant at helping me keep those timelines looking really distinct, and their moods quite distinct. Also making sure that the characters who were in both timelines looked similar enough that there was no confusion over who anyone was.
There's actually a section in episode one, where it's set in one house and it goes from the past to the present, in the same house and it's similar characters who are older and younger - and when I wrote it, it was a 10-15 page section that I sent in. I thought Gareth, the director would go "Oh my god! We can't film this. It will look ridiculous and no one will understand what's going on." - but he came back and said it was really exciting and that it would look really cool.
So it was a nice challenge for him and now when you watch it, I don't think it is confusing. He's done an amazing job. It's quite satisfying to watch, in a way.
I think it helps that different actors were cast for 1996 and 2021 - why were you keen to avoid using same actors?
Our Casting Director (Ross Barratt) was amazing, Gareth was amazing and we were lucky that we were able to cast who we wanted, rather than having to tick any kind of big name box for ITV.
We got really lucky in the end of having people who looked similar, but also gave brilliant performances. They met up, went through their performances together and worked out little things they could do, how they'd hold their bag - and I think it all worked out brilliantly in the end.
The casting was one of the most challenging parts of the whole process, but also one of the parts I loved the most. It was one of the most important parts that I made sure I was involved in. As an actor, I just felt like I had to watch every single minute of every single audition tape... several times! I was so keen to make sure that we got it right. And I'm so glad I was involved in that.
Lauren Lyle, for me, is perfect in the role of Karen Pirie. When did you know she had to play her?
A lot of Karen Pirie fans from the books will be surprised and will have things to say, because the Karen Pirie they have in their head, will look different - because of the description in the book - and a lot of the really popular books are the later ones, where she's in her forties.
I think people do have a different idea, so they will be surprised, but if you go back to the first book and read what's in that first book, it makes sense where this has all come from.
When we came across her, she was in Vigil which Simon had also executive produced. He said to me "There's someone that we should see." so we were auditioning and she sent in her tape and it was - people talk a lot about chemistry between actors, but I think there's another type of chemistry, which is as important and that's the chemistry between certain writers and actors.
When you hear your dialogue said by a certain actor who just gets it, it's magic. It just takes it off the page. Her chemistry with the humour in my writing was instant. She just got the jokes. She brought wit to lines that I didn't think were funny. Then as soon as I had her voice in my head, I found myself writing to her voice. The rhythm in the way she spoke came into my writing. It was a match made in heaven, me and her.
Then when we met, it was like we'd known each other forever. It was such a magical fluke of casting. I can't really imagine anyone else doing it. In some ways, it feels like a part written for her but I didn't really know her before.
I love that she's not as well-known as other lead actors on ITV - so you can really believe her as a character.
I love that too. A lot of actors, you're watching and thinking - that's Julia Roberts playing... - they're such big movie stars or TV stars that you can't help thinking about what you know about them. I love watching actors you've never seen before, making a role their own. You just lose yourself so much more.
It's rare these days to get to cast someone who isn't a massive billboard name. Lauren has her fans, she's been in a massive show called Outlander, it's not like she's never done the job before, but it's just unusual to get that 'Name in the title' part in your twenties.
Also, she was so hungry because it's her first big thing which meant she was as committed as I was. After work, we'd talk about scripts and go over things. We just became a real alliance through our passion and fire for the job.
You're also in Karen Pirie as River. What's her role in the story?
She's Karen's best friend. She's her flatmate. She's also a forensic anthropologist. The reason I wanted her in the show - because she's not actually in the first book, she's in the later books - I just really wanted a chance to see Karen outside of that police environment,
When you see Karen and River together, you remember how young Karen is. They're talking about boys or sexting or whatever. They live together. And I don't think you see that often with detectives either.
It was important to have a female friendship that was central to the show because there aren't that many women because it's a male-dominated environment. Also, because she's involved in a similar world, she does become involved in the case, in that Karen uses her for her connections and her know-how. She becomes quite instrumental at the end, in that final episode.
It's a small part overall, but I really wanted to be in there and as soon as I met Lauren, I knew that me and her would work as best mates.
In 2018, ITV came under criticism for just one of their dramas being written by a woman. How much do you think the industry has changed since then?
That's really interesting. I didn't know that. I do remember a study a few years ago that was across the channels and the number of female lead writers was way lower than men, but also the amount of women that were doing adaptations, was way bigger.
The amount of women that were commissioned to do original ideas was tiny. I mean... it didn't feel particularly surprising to me. But at the same time, it was really shocking. And here I am doing an adaptation, so that makes sense.
I don't know why that is. It's terrible. I think ITV have made a big effort since then. I hope they have. But when I look around actually - and I'm thinking now about some of the big shows coming out and those that have come out in the last year or two - there are a lot of male writers.
I think it's really important that we get more female showrunners because this show has a different attitude to it, a different attitude to there being a murdered woman at the centre of it and a different attitude to the main character. All that makes it feel newer. The more diversity in all its senses - gender, race, class - we have leading shows and having responsibility for creative decisions, the better TV will be.
And it's the same thing with those actors, who are brilliant, and are big names who can keep getting these big parts, it's not that I have any problem with them as actors - they are brilliant and there's a reason they're famous and successful - but it's the same with writers. You need to get fresh voices in there, otherwise TV becomes stale.
I think channels rely on well-known, proven voices because they think that will deliver the audiences and I don't necessarily think that's always true.
Without giving away the ending, is there a resolution at the end of this first series. And are you already thinking about a second series?
I think the final episode is the best episode of the whole series. I'm really confident in that. That was really important to me because we've had a lot of crime dramas which are brilliant but at the end you're left a bit confused or not satisfied.
I understand that. It's really hard to do. So there is a resolution to this particular story, but there's absolutely scope for Karen to continue solving crimes. There are six books and Val is writing a seventh, so there are all the possibilities there.
Two-hour drama episodes on ITV tend to be standalone, you've decided to serialise it...
ITV originally suggested that I do one book per episode. The book's 600 pages though. Also, if I'd done that. All of the humour. All the character. All of that texture. WOuld have gone and it would have been pure plot and that's just not what I wanted to make.
There's no way that I'd want to write just pure plot so I'm glad they let me do it the way we did and give it space to breathe. Truthfully, I think what people will come back for and what they'll hopefully love about this, is Karen and The Mint. Loving those central characters gets you multiple series and builds a fanbase. Being able to have the space to develop those was just a joy.
Karen Pirie starts Sunday 25th September at 8pm on ITV