Raising Films caught up with screenwriter Andrea Gibb on her latest work ELIZABETH IS MISSING. Andrea talked to us about transferring Emma Healey’s novel of the same name to the screen and how her personal experience of caring was reflected in her approach.
ELIZABETH IS MISSING stars Glenda Jackson as Maud, an elderly woman living with dementia who sets about trying to solve the mystery of her friend’s disappearance. Available to watch via the BBC website.
Here’s our interview with Andrea, please be warned there are spoilers…
Could you tell us a little about what first attracted you to the story and its themes?
I was drawn to it because of the subject matter. Both my father and my grandfather had forms of dementia so I have personal experience of losing loved ones to this brutal disease. I loved the fact Emma had written the book entirely from Maud’s point of view. Here was dementia from the inside. How often are we told that story from this perspective? So that and the challenges it threw up, made it even more appealing.
While the book beautifully articulates how Maud feels to be losing her grip on reality, it also gives voice to her daughter Helen, who cares for her. This really resonated with me as I cared for my dad before he went into a home. Emma doesn’t sugar coat the daily grind and heartbreak of caring for a loved one who can’t even remember who you are. Helen just gets on with it because she has no other choice and she loves her mother.
Dementia is a disease that affects both the sufferer and their family profoundly which is made far harder because our social care system is severely underfunded. So many carers can’t get the support they need. Dementia isn’t an inevitable by-product of ageing; it’s a progressive disease of the brain, yet so many people who have it are forced to sell their homes to pay for care. If they had cancer they’d get benefits and support from organisations like Marie Curie. This is a disgrace and we need to keep pressuring this government to do something about it.
What resonated for you when you first began working on the script, and what approach did you take to the adaptation?
I approached it in the way I do all adaptations. I worked out what the essential story was and which scenes and events had to remain. The iconic moments, if you like – the peaches, the post-it-notes, Maud’s constant digging, the bus stop scene, the restaurant for example, then set about exploring how best to tell it for screen. I worked incredibly closely with Claire Armspach, Head of Development at STV, throughout. She’s an amazing editor and kept me on track so many times, with robust and intelligent questioning. I always knew she was on the side of the story and believed entirely in my ability to tell it. Exactly what every writer wants from their script executive. Sarah Brown, our Executive Producer, was also heavily involved during the development process and both these women were invaluable in helping shaping the script.
The biggest challenge with this book was finding a way to tell the story without sacrificing Maud’s point of view. I didn’t want to use a voice over so had to find a different way of letting the audience know what was going on inside her head. That led to being incredibly rigid with the script’s POV. Nothing could ever happen that Maud did not witness. It didn’t matter that she’d forget it as soon as she knew it – in fact, the memory gaps helped to keep the tension going in the two mystery stories. The audience only discovered at the end that Maud had known where Elizabeth was all along, that Helen had told her millions of times, but the disease had taken that knowledge away.
Flashbacks are always tricky in screenplays and I banged my head on how to weave the past and present together for ages. Then, thinking about my dad one day, it suddenly occurred to me he often existed in the past and present simultaneously. That gave me the idea of putting Maud physically in the scenes that were memories. We all carry our past with us but for someone with dementia it can feel more present than the present. Once I found that, we had the style and tone of the script. When Director Aisling Walsh came on she embraced this wholeheartedly and shot the film entirely from Maud’s point of view. I was so lucky to have a director of her talent and sensibility who translated what was on the page to the screen but who also brought her own distinctive style to it.
Did the nature of the story affect the way you chose to tell it?
I started work on this book in 2014, we finally made it in 2019. During those four years the format changed completely. It started out as a three parter – each 60 minutes long – but there were no obvious end of episode hooks and when we tried to create them it unbalanced the dementia story and took away from the central themes. We needed to stay with Maud throughout and experience the story inside her head. Breaking it up into episodes broke this spell. It became very apparent that the story lent itself better to a single re-telling and, luckily, the BBC were right behind this change.
In terms of the production and the making of the film, were caring needs discussed for cast and crew?
Chrissy Skinns who produced the film would be able to answer this question better. I do know that the women in the core creative team, who have children, relied and rely on their partners and family to support them with childcare. It’s a perennial problem for parents and carers who want to work in the industry and organisations like Raising Films are doing so much to draw attention to this issue. Amongst other things, we absolutely need crèches on sets and in production offices.
During your career, has caring affected any specific project you’ve worked on and if so in what way?
I’ve cared for both my parents in the late stages of their lives and for my partner who died last year. It takes its toll mentally and physically and makes it very hard to find the time and headspace to write. I’ve been very lucky with my producers who’ve done everything they can to support me by giving me extra time on deadlines and being prepared to wait for scripts. I will be eternally grateful to them as it allowed me to maintain some degree of normality at a really difficult time. I do realise that this is not necessarily the norm and is not always possible because of the pressure of production schedules. There’s a definite need to have conversations about how we make film and television, to allow for the needs and practicalities of our lives.
Elizabeth talks specifically about dementia – and the role of care is of course something that affects not just those working in film and TV, but are there any issues you think your film specifically raises and that you think could help bring about significant change?
We hope it contributes to the conversation about the lack of care provision in this country, particularly for people living with dementia. Our care system is broken and it’s important to hold our politicians to account. Glenda Jackson did a huge amount of publicity when the film came out which certainly helped to highlight the issue. Whether it will have any effect is open to debate. I don’t have much faith in the current government. While the film deals directly with dementia, it’s also about ageing in general and how isolation and loneliness can affect so many elderly people. If watching our film prompts just one person to connect better with an elderly relative or neighbour then that would be something very positive indeed.
Andrea Gibb is a BAFTA-nominated writer; her credits include DEAR FRANKIE, SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS and CALL THE MIDWIFE. You can find Andrea on Twitter.
ELIZABETH IS MISSING is a TV drama from STV, directed by Aisling Walsh and starring Glenda Jackson as Maud, an elderly woman living with dementia who struggles to piece together a double mystery. It was broadcast in December 2019 on BBC One.
Header image: Glenda Jackson as Maud in ELIZABETH IS MISSING. Photograph: Mark Mainz/BBC/STV Productions