The Version Interview... Jim Sturgess on Close to the Enemy

BBC Two's flagship period drama, Close To The Enemy, by multi award-winning writer and director Stephen Poliakoff will air this November.

The seven part series is produced by Little Island Productions in association with Endor Productions and is mainly set in a bomb-damaged London hotel in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Jim Sturgess (One Day, London Fields) heads a stellar cast including Freddie Highmore (Bates Motel, The Journey), Charlotte Riley (Peaky Blinders, In the Heart of the Sea), Phoebe Fox (NW, The Hollow Crown), August Diehl (Inglourious Basterds, Le jeune Karl Marx), Robert Glenister (Paranoid, Hustle), Alfie Allen (Game of Thrones, Pandemic), Charity Wakefield (Wolf Hall, The Halcyon), the legendary Angela Bassett (American Horror Story, London has Fallen), Lindsay Duncan (Birdman, Alice in Wonderland), and Alfred Molina (Love is Strange, Show Me a Hero).

Close To The Enemy follows intelligence officer Captain Callum Ferguson (Sturgess), whose last task for the Army is to ensure that a captured German scientist, Dieter (Diehl), starts working for the British RAF on urgently developing the Jet engine. With the background of the emerging Cold War, it is clear to all that it's crucial for British national security that cutting edge technology is made available to the armed forces as quickly as possible. Callum uses unorthodox methods in his attempt to convince Dieter to work with the British and eventually a friendship develops between the two men, but soon tensions arise as all is not as it seems.

Jim Sturgess tells us more...

What made you so eager to be part of Close to the Enemy?

It was the script, as it always is. I was given the first three episodes. When I read them, I was so struck by the way Stephen writes. His screenplays are so different from anyone else’s. It felt as if you were reading a novel – I was really drawn into the world that he creates so articulately. I really wanted to know how it ended, and the only way to find out was to be in it!

It’s brilliant because it is so delicate. It is very different from American TV scripts which are full of twists and turns and shocks and cliff-hangers. There is none of that in Stephen’s writing. His work is so enthralling. You want to continue down the corridor with him and have a peek. You think, “I have to know what’s going on down there”.

Stephen creates such a rich world. It is about a young English officer who thinks he’s about to finish work on the war when he is given one last assignment – to mollycoddle a German engineer, and get him to work for the British. But there are so many other characters bringing things to the table, too.

Stephen is also very good at setting up this hotel as a stage – it has a rich, theatrical quality to it. I really like that. Often in his work he has a central place where all the characters keep bumping into each other, like the photo library in Shooting the Past or the family reunion in Perfect Strangers.

What other aspects of Close to the Enemy make it so compelling?

I love the idea of music coming up from the basement. It’s as if this music is appearing from underneath the rubble. The idea is that any destruction has something creative underneath it ready to explode. When people are at their lowest ebb, they are trying to pull themselves back up again. There is everything to play for. That’s a brilliant metaphor for the post-war period.

Why is the setting of this drama so effective?

It reflects a key moment in our history. It is the aftermath of the most horrific war our country has known – which is a very good starting point for drama. There are so many stories that haven’t come out about that period. Stephen has done a great job because it’s not a classic war movie. It’s a new way into it. We have all seen a lot of war films, but this is a very delicately woven story about what people are feeling after the war.

How would you describe Callum?

He’s many different things. I think of him as charming and obnoxious, vulnerable and broken. As soon as I read the character I thought, “Wow, what an amazing guy to have on the screen.” But he is also somewhat enigmatic. I think it’s interesting that you don’t ever truly know what’s going on inside him. He wears his charm and charisma like a suit of armour and doesn’t let anyone in. Stephen was very particular about that. He didn’t want anyone to see a chink in Callum’s armour. He wanted to keep the pretence going that he is 100% in control. He’s giving a performance.

I regard him as broken because he has seen so much in the war. All the characters in Close to the Enemy are dealing with the residue of war – whether it’s guilt for not doing enough, or rage or post-traumatic stress disorder. Everyone is dealing with something. Callum has seen such an awful lot of atrocities, and he’s raging about it. To make matters worse, he knows that a lot of it could have been prevented.

How would you characterise Callum’s relationship with Dieter?

They have absolute mutual respect for each other as engineers, but at the beginning it is a difficult relationship. Once complete enemies, they are now attempting to reach common ground, which they find through their work on the jet engine.

Callum admires Dieter hugely, and eventually they become friends. We also grow to like Dieter. He is a funny and brilliant mind who was involved in horrific things at a horrific time. War does terrible things to people. Callum guides us through that, but is not judgemental. He keeps his emotions to himself.

What do you hope that viewers will take away from Close to the Enemy?

I hope they will have lived and breathed with these characters. The drama is not about shock factors – “Oh my God, I didn’t see that coming, I have to watch the next episode.” It is far more nuanced than that. It is a delicately painted drama which throws up many crucial questions about the moral tightrope people had to walk back then. It guides you through this world quite brilliantly.