Anna Symon wrote and executive produced the unsettling gothic drama, The Essex Serpent. It’s an emotionally evocative show that drips with the best sort of tension. It stars Claire Danes in her first role since Homeland as Cora Seaborne and Tom Hiddleston as the vicar Will Ransome. You can stream the finale of the 6-part series today. Check out our full review for all the details.
Symon is an immensely talented writer and has been nominated for BAFTA, BIFA, and Writer’s Guild awards. She was kind enough to sit with us and chat about the show – including how the team adapted Sarah Perry’s hit novel, the show’s message for today’s audiences, and collaborating with Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston.
You can listen to the full audio of our chat below. After an interview with producer/screenwriter Anna Symon, an interview with costume designer Jane Petrie starts at 16:45.
Transcript of Interview with Anna Symon – Executive Producer/Screenwriter for The Essex Serpent
All right, cool. So, you know, I’m going to hop right into it because I know we only have so much time. And I want to be respectful of that. So I’m, you know, I’m so excited to talk to you know, I love the show. I love how character-driven it is. And you know how it showcases very complicated people. I have a lot of questions for you about that. Okay. All right. So I want to talk a little bit about how you first came onto the project. You know, had you read the book before coming in? What was that process like? And what kind of drew you to this project and Cora’s story.
Anna Symon: I had read the book; the book was a really big hit when it came out in the UK; I think it was 2016. And I’d already read it, regardless of work or anything. And I absolutely loved it. I mean, like it was my favorite book that I read that year. I just felt like the characters in it were fantastic. Cora was so strong but so fallible. There’s this incredible relationship between her and Will, who is a man of God, and they have this incredible sort of hot, hot relationship. Aggressive. So yeah, and also, it’s a novel of so many ideas about what was going on in the world in the 1890s, this kind of battle between new ideas about medicine and science and established religion. And yeah, it was just a novel fizzing with ideas and sensations. And yeah, I was desperate to be a part of it.
Now you kind of reach out?
AS: Oh, I didn’t, actually. Clio Barnard, the director, was already attached on the project. And that been an existing script. And so I was developing something else with the production company. And I saw the manuscript on their desk. This is a couple of years later after I had read the book. And I was asking about it. I was like, Oh, I love that book. I love that book. And they were like, Oh, well, you know, what, what do you think kind of thing? Because, you know, they were looking for a writer. So yeah, we worked, like amazingly well, and I jumped on board. And like, we got going.
Oh, that’s awesome. So, I kind of posed this question to Twitter, saying that I’d be talking to you. And I wanted to know if anybody had any questions. And I also had this question. So it worked out. Can you talk about how you approached adapting the book? Because adapting IP is not, it’s not easy. There’s dealing with the source material and keeping that essence, and also, you know, dealing with the limitations of television, or, in this case, six episodes? Can you talk about that a little bit? And what does that looks like?
AS: Yeah, I mean, actually, it was a difficult book to adapt because there’s so much in it. And about in lots of different worlds. So there’s like the world of Essex, which is like the main world, obviously, which is incredibly atmospheric. And you’ve got this kind of mystery story going on. That’s quite supernatural. But there’s also large sections of the book in London, with a different set of characters.
So we had a writers’ room, and we had some brilliant writers come join me. And we basically broke the book down across the six episodes. I mean, Apple wanted it to be six. So that was never like a question of, is it this many episodes, or that many episodes, it was like, right, we’re doing six episodes.
So we looked at where the book naturally fell. And the story naturally fell. And then obviously, when you’re in that process, you then look at, you know, moving stuff around, which episodes feel like they’ve got need a bit more developments, making sure that the characters don’t just kind of disappear for ages and come back again, which you can do in a book.
Spent a lot of time thinking about how to visualize or not visualize the serpent because it’s both a real threat to the village of Aldwinter. But it’s also kind of something that’s much more mysterious, particularly for Cora, who’s on this kind of journey of discovery and a sort of psychological psychologically traumatized woman. So lots of different things to balance. We literally just sat down and talked, and it was so fascinating and mapped it out. And then went away and did some writing and then came back and read stuff and did more writing and did research, and you know, it took about a year probably to write the episodes during which we were in COVID. So all the kind of script meetings after we’d done the writers’ room on Zoom. So that was another challenge.
Yeah, it sounds very challenging. And I’m glad you brought up the like the writers’ room. Can you talk a little bit more about that? How you staffed it, how you figured out who was going to be a part of it, like what you’re looking for? Because I think, and, correct me if I’m wrong, it’s all women. Right? And I think that’s really unique and awesome.
AS: Yeah, thank you. Um, I mean, it was a mini room in the UK. We don’t tend to have very long writers’ rooms like you do in the US. So we only had three weeks. And really, I looked for writers along with the production company, who are obviously a part of that staffing process. We decided we wanted it to be all female. We had a female director and a female producer as well. So it just felt like a really, a really kind of important part of it. Such a female lead story. So yeah, I guess as in staffing, any room, you read the work of writers that maybe writers you’ve already met, that you’ve worked with before, although in this case, I hadn’t worked with any of the writers before. But their existing specs, you know, the sample scripts felt to be in the right tone. And then we had interviews and asked them about the book and about the pilot scripts and what their thoughts were on it. And, you know, just we’re looking really, for people who were, you know, really vibed with the material, and we felt like could add something to the room.
As far as, as research, obviously, this is a very, you know, this is it takes place in 1893. This is, a very historic time. In approaching the writing and approaching the show in general, can you talk about the research process? And how that informed your writing? Were there particular resources, books, shows, or consultants that helped you? I assume there’s a lot.
AS: Yeah, we had, we read a lot of books and just looking along my bookshelf right now and seeing Blood and Guts – A History of Surgery. Equal Difference, women in Victorian England, Inventing the Victorians. Yeah, we read a lot of books about sort of thought that, you know, the ideas that were swirling around at the time, that are really crucial to the show, I mean, the book is such a book of ideas. So you know, it wasn’t just, I think it involves more research than your typical period drama because it’s not just bonnets, and, you know, who’s marrying who. Our main character is a naturalist who’s, you know, studying fossils. And is absolutely fascinated by science. And there’s a surgeon, and there’s a vicar, and there’s, you know, this local myth about the Essex Serpent that you know, that was real. So we had to really do our homework to get all of that right. And we had, you know, as we went along as Surgical Consultants, and so on. So there was a lot of research into the political world and so on. But at the same time, I think it’s important to say it is a fictional story. So at the end of the day, the biggest resource was Sarah Perry’s novel because that is where the characters live. And it was bringing the character to life that was the most important thing to do.
Did you work with her? Did you get her input? How did that all work?
AS: We didn’t get her input as we went along. Because I think that, you know, in a way you need to be, you need to kind of distance yourself to start with to kind of form your own ideas so that you know, you’re not constantly kind of checking in because I think that would that would be difficult round. But, you know, we knew, obviously, I had contact with Sarah, and she read all the scripts and was very happy with them. And, you know, she gave some notes, which were very useful. And, you know, As the process went on, she was very sort of integral to it. She came on set, she you know, we showed her the films that all the all the episodes in a kind of private screening when they were done, so that she could, you know, see them all in advance if we’re going to Apple and so on. So yeah, she was, you know, very intrinsically important to the whole process.
Did the scripts evolve when you were on set? And with the actors’ input? Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston are both phenomenal. Did they have insight kind of into the development of their characters and how that all worked?
AS: Yeah, I mean, Claire and Tom rehearsed together, and I went along to those rehearsals, and they definitely had questions about the characters. I think they both emailed Sarah Perry separately. And there are a few, you know, bits and pieces where they sort of find something in the book that they found really helpful that wasn’t in the script. So I put it in, or, you know, a couple of moments where they just wanted to know more about something or wanted a little bit, you know, more or less of something, but they weren’t, you know, they were incredibly collaborative. They weren’t sort of asking me to change loads of stuff or anything like that. It was more just a discussion about the ideas that are in the book and are in the scripts. And, you know, wanting to really understand they’re both such great actors and so intelligent, that they really wanted to do justice to, to the ideas that Sara had put in the book, originally, that I hope I brought into the scripts. So yeah, there was a lot of discussion. And yeah, it was a very creatively rich experience, I think.
Can you talk about Cora’s journey a little bit in her arc? Because it very much feels like her story. And she’s the central character. And I’d love to hear how you develop that what things you wanted to make sure that you, you covered and how that process was?
AS: Yeah, I mean, Cora is a fascinating character, when you first meet her, her husband is dying. And within the first few minutes of the show, you understand that he’s a violent man and that she’s been very repressed in her marriage. And so really, the story of the whole series, I guess, starting in those first few minutes of the show, is seeing a woman develop from being restricted and repressed and unable to express herself, or even really, to go out of the house very much. And we see through the, through the events of the story, that she develops a sense of identity. She does this by, you know, she’s been very interested in fossils and paleontology, but she’s really just been able to do that via collecting fossils and having them sent to her in the post. But when she hears about this mystery of this serpent that’s been spotted down on the coast, she decides this is what she needs to really sort of start her life again. So she heads down to Essex to investigate. And that journey that she goes on meeting Will played by Tom Hiddleston. And meeting a lot of suspicious villagers that starts to suspect that she might have something to do with the serpent. And the way that she overcomes those obstacles and learns about herself learns about how to how to be with other people, learns about the serpent, develops a better relationship with her young son. All these things happen through the series and through the events in Essex, so that by the end of the series, without giving any spoilers, I think you find her in a much better place than you do at the beginning.
It is tricky without spoilers, and I see that this is my last question. Can you talk a little bit about Will’s journey? You know he’s the vicar; he’s being struck over this fear of the serpent. Can you talk about, you know, how he is when he’s the show starts versus where he is at the end?
AS: Yeah, we’ll run some led by Tom Hiddleston is he’s a very unusual vicar, I think because he’s very forward-thinking. He’s very intellectual. He’s read a lot of books that maybe some men of the cloth would find heretical. He’s very interested in science and Darwin’s ideas. He’s not just sort of held back by sort of very old-fashioned ideas about the world, as a lot of his parishioners are. So at the beginning, we see him sort of trying to strike a balance between listening to those around him in his community and reassuring them that the serpent isn’t real. And then, as the story goes on, I think his own sort of self-belief becomes a bit challenged. And he starts to even question himself and what he thinks as the events go on as his relationship with Cora develops; we see everything that he holds dear his family, all being sort of thrown off-kilter by these events that are happening in his village. So he goes on a really big journey and questioning his faith, questioning everything around him. And yeah, I think his journey is just as big as Cora’s, actually.
Is there anything that you want people to know about the show that we haven’t covered? Or, you know, that we haven’t said today?
AS: Um, oh, that’s such a big question. Um, I think it’s just that the show is made up of, of many parts. It appears to be about a serpent, but it’s actually about so many other things, one of which is very relevant today, which is just what do we do when we’re scared? Who do we turn to? And what does what we start to fear when we sort of fear itself? Because I think that’s something that is very relevant at the moment. Do we start to fear outsiders? Do we start to fear the unknown? And can we live with uncertainty? That’s very deep. I’ll leave you with those thoughts.
That’s, that’s brilliant. I love it. Thank you so much. And thank you for your time.
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