The show that was too bleak for TV

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Dennis Kelly made a TV show about something no one wants to talk about. He tells Chris Schulz why it failed - and how it might make a comeback.

By Chris Schulz

Unique. Groundbreaking. Out of the box. Bleak as all hell. And violent. So violent. Cartoonish amounts of blood would frequently splatter all over the place in new and grisly ways.

This was a show that thought nothing of torturing people, gassing children, removing an eye with a spoon, slicing someone's neck open and watching them bleed out in an office cubicle, and sending a heavy-breathing hit man on a rampage through a school.

It was brutal. It was genius. And then it was cancelled.

Fiona O'Shaughnessy starred as Jessica Hyde in Utopia. In HBO's planned remake, the role was said to be taken by Rooney Mara.
Fiona O'Shaughnessy starred as Jessica Hyde in Utopia. In HBO's planned remake, the role was said to be taken by Rooney Mara.

It's been three years since Dennis Kelly's Utopia was cut short by UK network Channel 4 after two seasons, and it's late at night when the Herald calls him.

But Utopia's creator is happy to take the call. And he's more than happy to talk. Kelly, it turns out, has a lot to say. About Utopia's themes, its high levels of violence, why it was canned, and against all the odds, how it could still make a comeback.

* Warning: Major spoilers for Utopia follow. Do not read if you haven't seen the show, and plan to.

But first, what happened? Utopia ended abruptly in 2014 after two nail biting seasons that followed the owners of a graphic novel that contained a high-level government conspiracy to curb population rises using secret sterilisation methods.

Utopia creator Dennis Kelly says his show's not dead, despite being cancelled after two seasons.
Utopia creator Dennis Kelly says his show's not dead, despite being cancelled after two seasons.

Those big ideas were delivered through a group of conspiracy nerds - hacker Wilson Wilson, sick student Becky, nervy geek Ian and troubled kid Grant - who were forced to go on the run from killers hired by a group of corrupt politicians called "The Network".

Utopia felt like the bleakest episode of Black Mirror ever, and it quickly developed a cult following. Reviews were overwhelmingly positive, it inspired internet think pieces and fans created their own art. People were, says Kelly, "buzzing about it".

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Why didn't it work? "It was just numbers," says Kelly. "We didn't get enough people watching it in the UK. The people who watched it really liked it. It had a small but intense fan base, but it just didn't hit large numbers, and unfortunately that's really what it comes down to."

Paul Higgins as civil servant Michael Dugdale in Utopia.
Paul Higgins as civil servant Michael Dugdale in Utopia.

A small audience for a big show. It's an uncanny irony, but Utopia's central premise - the overpopulation of the planet - might have led to its demise. Everyone's talking about the environment, says Kelly, but no one's talking about the underlying cause of global warming. It's a tough topic to tackle - and he knew it.

"We're sleepwalking into something very difficult. [When] I started writing it ... I knew we were coming up to seven billion and it seemed like no one was talking about this. We were all talking about the environment, but we weren't talking about the obvious thing, which is that the pressures on the environment are largely caused by ... having a large population."

Alexandra Roach as Becky in Utopia.
Alexandra Roach as Becky in Utopia.

He mentions Europe's 2015 migration crisis and wars in the Middle East as potential issues stemming from overpopulation. "When resources become scarce, we do strange things. We elect Donald Trump, or Britain votes Brexit. When we're squeezed, we get extremer, we get harder, we get scarier. What's coming up in the future is a period of squeezing unless we find a solution."

Phew. A chat about a cult TV show suddenly became something much more involved. On that level, was Utopia too much for viewers?

"For some people it was difficult," he admits. "There was a conspiracy element, and then it went into something quite big. Some people baulked at that. Some didn't though. Some embraced it and loved that idea and wanted it to go there."

Game of Thrones star Rose Leslie as a young Milner in season two of Utopia.
Game of Thrones star Rose Leslie as a young Milner in season two of Utopia.

It was on Kelly's mind when he was making the show too. He says he'd often look at young actor Oliver Woollford, who played Grant, on set and wonder about his future. "I'd think, 'All the problems I'm talking about, you're probably going to have to deal with'."

Continued below.

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Then there was all that blood. Set against a backdrop of vibrant characters, cartoonish landscapes, black humour and jaunty, circus-inspired music, Utopia's brutal outbursts of cruel torture and blood-spurting mayhem became all the more jarring.

Neil Maskell as Arby, a heavy-breathing hit man from Utopia.
Neil Maskell as Arby, a heavy-breathing hit man from Utopia.

Kelly admits he deliberately included "broad, big, violent, aggressive stuff" - especially at the hands of The Network's emotionless hit man Arby, played brilliantly by Neil Maskell. But he's instantly defensive if anyone suggests it was extreme.

"I don't understand people that complain that violence is shocking because, to me, violence that isn't shocking is appalling. Violence is always shocking. If we're going to represent it on television or on screen, it should shock us, because it's an appalling thing," he says.

"There's nothing that we put on screen that comes anywhere close to the kind of things we're doing in the world. Nothing that I can possibly put on screen will come anywhere close to the things we will face if we don't sort out some of the things that [Utopia] is talking about."

Conspiracy theorist Wilson Wilson and hired hit man Lee, characters from Utopia.
Conspiracy theorist Wilson Wilson and hired hit man Lee, characters from Utopia.

He might have moved on from the show, but Kelly obviously isn't quite over its themes. He admits it used to keep him up at night. But once the show was made, he felt he'd "written it out of my system". Where was it all heading? Could it get bleaker? Would it get more violent? Or could Utopia offer a solution?

Kelly knows, but he isn't telling.

"I never tell anyone, because I'm a dick," he laughs.

He's not angry about it. He understands Channel 4's decision to cull Utopia to make way for new shows, but calls it "a shame" the story wasn't wrapped up.

Since then, he's moved on, reportedly working on the World War Z sequel with Brad Pitt, and "a couple of strange weird TV things that hopefully will work".

Oliver Woollford as Grant Leetham in Utopia.
Oliver Woollford as Grant Leetham in Utopia.

But he still gets asked about the show. Recently, he was in Italy having dinner with four directors. Three had seen Utopia, and loved it, despite it never screening there.

"They downloaded it illegally," he laughs. "They've all nicked it because it's not been shown." He says the same thing happens when he's in America.

That the show can only be found in illegal torrent sites seems fitting, considering its themes. Lost in the internet - that's where Utopia's story should end. But it doesn't. The show never screened in America, but HBO had big plans to remake it, signing on moviemaker David Fincher to direct and Rooney Mara to play Jessica Hyde.

Reportedly, those plans were scrapped over a disagreement over its direction. It hasn't happened. "I spoke to [Hollywood writer Gillian Flynn] and saw some of the scripts," says Kelly. "They were brilliant. There were bits of it I was really jealous of. They changed it, but in a really smart way."

Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Ian Johnson in Utopia.
Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Ian Johnson in Utopia.

Kelly's ready to put the phone down. For now, he's finished talking about Utopia.

But not before delivering a cliffhanger of his own, one that rivals those that end each of Utopia's too-short seasons. Despite reports to the contrary, Kelly says the HBO remake "is not dead".

"They're still talking about doing it ... it's not gone, it's still sort of there. I can't say too much because they might do it ... you never know what's going to happen."

Who: Dennis Kelly

What: Utopia

Where and when: Entire second season screens this Sunday on SoHo from 2.50am.

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