Olivia Colman and David Nicholls Talk The 7.39

David Nicholls, novelist and screenwriter of Starter For 10 and One Day, is returning to BBC1 on Monday 6 January at 9pm with two-part drama The 7.39, an unconventional love story. Happily-married Carl (David Morrissey) finds his monotonous daily commute disrupted by a chance encounter with fellow passenger Sally (Sheridan Smith). Carl has a happy home life with wife Maggie (Olivia Colman) and Sally is newly engaged to fiancé Ryan (Sean Maguire), but over time they find themselves drawn to one another as they form a friendship on their busy commute, and before long they have to start questioning what is really happening between them.

David Nicholls and Olivia Colman sat down to talk about the show, what makes a romantic drama, and upcoming projects!

“[It’s] a story of lives in a rut and how they might break out. [I think of it as] a love story,” says Nicholls. “People call it a relationship drama. I started working in television on Cold Feet, which was a relationship drama – with elements of comedy and more serious drama and issues – but I wanted this to be pure, old-fashioned love story because there are so few of them on television. I think love stories get a bad press. For one thing, men are forbidden to watch them. And also, falling in love is more common than meeting a serial killer.”

It must be stated that The 7.39 is far different from the many kinds of serialised TV shows out there. Instead it brings to life original characters with subject matter that is rarely explored on television in a two-part one-off drama, which is another reason Nicholls thinks you don’t get to see many on TV anymore. “For valid reasons – it’s very difficult to get right. If you’re doing a long-running series as a love story, you’d go crazy pretty quickly. When you’re writing a thriller or police procedural, you have these terrific plot twists – and plot and story is very important on television. So, it’s very easy to come up with an end of episode twist week after week after week – and it’s very hard in a love story to do that without feeling as though you’re artificially sustaining it. Having said that, I hope there’s an appetite for it.”

The two main characters in the show have a relationship that echoes Brief Encounter, but the show also portrays their home lives – which are surprisingly happy. It’s an unusual and intriguing dynamic to explore. Colman talks about why the characters are so interesting: “I can sympathise with Sally. She’s with a lovely man, but he’s the wrong man. And Carl – I can understand his journey too – he’s unappreciated at all times. Foolishly, he wants to feel everything again. He’s just forgotten that the life he has is really quite nice. [Sally] is taking charge. She’s realising what she needs and wants and where she’s headed. And I think there’s something terribly brave about realising and changing that. Maggie [Colman’s character] is a rock. But that’s the fallout of an affair, isn’t it? That someone who hasn’t done anything gets hurt. Maggie is that person and so is Sally’s fiancé. What’s so beautiful about it is you do see the repercussions.”

“We set out to go in a different direction,” says Nicholls of the comparison to Brief Encounter, “to deal as much as possible with the aftermath. In Brief Encounter, the cards are very much stacked against their home life. I wonder how Brief Encounter would be if you saw Trevor Howard’s wife and she was terrific. It would be a very different film.” The 7.39 certainly sets out to bring rich, complex characters to the screen with various desires and motivations, and humanises a story which isn’t often explored so deeply. Colman agrees: “In Brief Encounter – I must be careful, I keep saying Close Encounter! – [the home life] is sort of brushed over at the end. Here you do see that fallout.”

Choosing the busy London commute was partly a nod to Brief Encounter and partly a way of capturing a familiar experience. “We wanted it to be a more universal experience,” says Nicholls. “[The location] is never specified, but it’s an hour and a bit out of London in that commuter belt.” As a commuter for years herself, Colman found the setting apt. “I spent years working as a temp and I hated the commute so much. The doors open and you have fists in your back and people can have B.O. at eight in the morning! I hated it and the monotony of it and you can see how, if there’s a little outlet there, you might go for it.” The crew actually hired a train to film on, “like royalty” the producer confirms. “Can you hire them for parties?” Colman asks excitedly.

Casting was a fun process for Nicholls: “Often I have actors in mind, but they’re archetypes. Once you know who’s been cast you can tweak the script to their voice. I worked on a television show about ten years ago and Olivia was brilliant in that, so she was in my mind from quite early on.” But Colman’s meteoric rise to success in the last few years surely makes it difficult to squeeze in new projects amongst her current busy schedule? “No,” she laughs, “I just had four months off! Some things you film years before and then they all come out at the same time. It’s all slotted in quite nicely.” And filming The 7.39 seems to have been quite a relaxing job at times! “There was lots of lying in bed and whenever I’m in one of those scenes I really was fast asleep.”

Nicholls and Colman both have plenty of new projects coming up. Colman is filming Lobster, a film by an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter that has “a bonkers script” and promises to be something unique, before “hopefully the second Broadchurch.” With so many scripts coming her way, how does she choose her roles? “If I read a script and I think ‘Oh that’s good, but I’d be rubbish at that,’ I try to avoid those. There’s no great theory going on.”

Nicholls too is working on his new novel and hopes to have the first draft finished before the New Year, and is starting work on adaptations of Edward St Aubyn’s Booker-nominated Patrick Melrose novels. He was most recently filming his adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd, where he visited the setting of Broadchurch – the famous West Bay cliffs. “The cliff that the body’s thrown off in Broadchurch,” Nicholls says, “is the same cliff that we throw sheep off!”

“Not real?” Colman jokes. “No, no, not real sheep,” Nicholls confirms.

So what do they hope the audience take away from watching The 7.39? Colman sums it up nicely: “Hopefully it will remind people to appreciate each other.”

The 7.39 is on BBC1 on 6 January at 9pm, with episode 2 airing on 7 January also at 9pm.