We cooked up the outline plot in Café Rouge in Westbourne, Bournemouth over lunch. Me, Karen, Rob Maidment (director and producer) and Martyn Hobbs (script editor). We had been discussing how a mystery story, continuing through a series, provided the right language for the level. Structurally we were going to need to contextualize past perfect, conditionals, speculation, deduction. We’d found that all worked with Mystery Tour Activity Book, summarising the plot, guessing where it was going. Putting key events in sequence.
Then we were chatting about past projects that didn’t get made. An alternative idea for Mystery Tour had been the discovery of a lost Shakespeare manuscript in an Oxford college. It was a credible place to find one. When the theatres were closed in London in 1642, at the start of the English Civil War, the royalists fled to Oxford which became their capital. The actors, disliked by the Roundheads, and with aristocratic and royal patrons, would perhaps have fled with them. College libraries are huge and ancient. When I was studying drama at Hull University, I’d performed in A Yorkshire Tragedy, an alleged “lost” play. Some believe Shakespeare may have written the comedy bits, though the only line I recall as a comic bumbling servant is “Slid! I hear Sam” which is not hilarious. It received attention because I don’t think it had been performed for years (if ever!)
What would the play be called? As a film fan, The Maltese Falcon was a film I’d seen again recently. I suddenly said The Falcon of Malta and everyone fell about laughing. Then we listed similar titles: The Merchant of Venice, Timon of Athens, Merry Wives of Windsor, Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta. Then someone added Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Two gentlemen? Ah. That’s when the other idea came. Steve Steen had played five brothers in English Channel One’s A Day In The Country. We had been saying how the classic Shakespeare comedy plot involved two people separated at birth … twins in The Comedy of Errors, twin brother and sister in Twelfth Night. So the plot should have Steve Steen playing brothers separated at birth. The title then came. Someone said so Steve will have a double identity. The Maltese Falcon link brought another Hollywood classic to mind, Double Indemnity, a switch to Double Identity, and we were on our way.
From The Activity Book
As a footnote, it’s known that Shakespeare wrote a play with Fletcher called Cardenio which has been lost. In the 18th century, Lewis Theobald presented a play called Double Falsehood, which he claimed to be a lost play by Shakespeare. It was dismissed as a forgery at the time. The story is taken from Don Quixote, which was published in English translation the year before Fletcher & Shakespeare wrote Cardenio. In 2011, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) filled in the missing bits in the story, and presented a re-created Cardenio at the re-built RSC Swan Theatre at Stratford-Upon-Avon.
Genetic engineering and cloning were much in the news when we were writing Double Identity, so we decided that Steve should play brothers who had been cloned. One would be a scientist who had invented a biological microchip, one which could be grown, and the other would be a librarian at the college where the play was found. The kidnap plot came, where a gang are out to kidnap the scientist, but kidnap the librarian instead. Everyone thinks he’d disappeared with the play, but in fact the gang were after the scientist’s secrets. A little extra was making the chief librarian a pedant with a love for quoting apposite Shakespeare lines.
A major difference from Mystery Tour was that we introduced a lot of humour into the drama. Jim Sweeney became the villain, and had his hair cropped short for the part.
The Falcon of Malta: The book is a genuine 1620s one.
The locations around Oxford were places in the university that film companies couldn’t pay to get in. Dr Burbage’s office had genuine 16th century panelling. For attention to detail, we asked the library at OUP (which has every OUP publication dating back to 1478) for a “book that looked as if was made in 1628” (five years after the First Folio) which got translated as “A book made in 1628” which meant that we had to be very careful with it. They were worried that it wasn’t actually 1628 but five or six years out. We assured them no one would notice. It was kept wrapped and boxed until the moment the cameras were switched on. Everyone was terrified of dropping it.
A little in-joke was that we named the fictional Oxford College “Ethelred College” after the obscure and amusingly-named Anglo-Saxon king, Ethelred the Unready. The sign we used for filming had a Latin motto which translates as “Always ready”. There are few towns where people would get the little joke. Every academic walking into the college that day noticed it and tittered.