‘Bedlam’ creator David Allison talks ghosts

CraveOnline sits down with "Bedlam" creator David Allison to talk about the supernatural thriller.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

UK viewers probably know what happens on Bedlam already, but in the U.S. we’re just getting started as the show airs on BBC America. Over the summer, we spoke with series creator David Allison at the Television Critics Association press tour about his take on the supernatural thriller.


CraveOnline: What were the rules you had to establish for how ghosts could interact, how they’d be perceived, how Jed would react to them?

David Allison: What we wanted to do was, the three of us who created it – Neil, Chris and I – were really clear that we wanted it to be scary, so it was important not to make it too easy to solve the ghost stories. I think when you fear a ghost, you should fear the unknown. You don’t know what they’re going to do. Actually, the other fear is how do you deal with it. If you know how to deal with it, if there’s one really simple thing and you go, “I have to do this,” like with a vampire you’ve got a stake or garlic. Whereas we didn’t want that to be the case. Also we wanted the ghosts to feel like it is a human story. They were people, so you’re not battling aliens. You’re battling malevolent remnants of a human soul. So the rules were Jed could see them, the other characters couldn’t. And that he had to work out a unique response to that ghost depending on who the ghost was. And, this is the important thing, he might not always succeed. So we didn’t want to give him a super power. We didn’t want to make it easy for him, because we thought that was the best way to enrich that ghost story, to make it as complex as possible.

CraveOnline: And they can’t be too specific because that would be too easy.

David Allison: Yeah, exactly. The haunting will manifest itself in whatever way. You don’t know who that is. You don’t know who they are. You don’t know what they’re doing there and most importantly, you don’t know what’s driving that kind of malevolence. It’s like a flip side. What I like about Jed’s relationship to the ghost is that he has to defeat them but he kind of almost empathizes with them because their stories are awful and he sees how they died, so he sees their grizzly end. He sees the terrible thing. So sometimes it’s almost like he’s almost feeling empathy towards them. Other times they’re just things to be feared.

CraveOnline: How did the cell phone enter your thought process?

David Allison: We just thought this is the 21st century. We’re all big fans of things like The Ring, the Japanese film, and obviously that uses the phone. I just think that if ghosts existed now, they would be using whatever means available and we live in this incredibly wired age where you have so many ways of communicating with each other and it seemed obvious to us that this is the way you update the story. So they can text on the phone, messages can appear on the TV. There’s a whole load of ways. Things on the computer screen, because that’s how we spend our lives. Look at what’s happening with our little mobile devices. I think also, one of the great fears, and sci-fi does this a lot, is the fear of technology. It’s almost like 2001, what if the computer no longer listens to you. I think there’s a fear about what if these things are doing things you don’t know what they’re doing? They’re sending you messages and you can’t control what the message is. There’s a fear in that as well.

CraveOnline: Is Bedlam a real institution or based on a real institution?

David Allison: The word Bedlam comes from the Bethany Hospital which is a real institution, but that’s not the place that we’re basing that on. So Bedlam has become a catch all word for an asylum. What Warren is doing, Kate’s father, he’s almost using it as this ironic cachet as the building. I was interested how there are so many things being converted into different uses. In Manchester, where we filmed, there’s a very famous nightclub called The Hacienda, one of the most famous nightclubs in the world that then closed and now they turned it into luxury flats. They sell it partly as “there was this club…” So I think there’s a lot of that going on. What we did do is we did a lot of research into different asylums and we found one asylum in particular in the city I live in, we found patients records. A lot of our stories are inspired by those ideas because they were really, really grim. What we didn’t realize was, we went out to look at the building and we did this quite late on, it was being turned into luxury flats. That’s what was happening to it. We had no idea. So we’d come up with this story, develop this whole series and there we were. Some people were like, “Who would do that?” We were like, well, it’s happening.

CraveOnline: I guess they don’t have a problem selling them, despite that backstory.

David Allison: I don’t know about that. I have no idea. It was still being developed while we were doing it.

CraveOnline: Isn’t calling it Bedlam asking for trouble?

David Allison: Yeah, I think the word Bedlam is being used in an ironic way as kind of a weird selling point, kind of a cachet. He’s not hiding it. They’ve got patients’ photos on the wall. It’s their postmodern attempt at selling apartments basically.

CraveOnline: Was the idea you could introduce a different spirit and a different guest star each week?

David Allison: In 1 and in 6 we use our regular cast, but for the rest of series, yeah, because it’s a huge apartment complex, we were very clear that we wanted a ghost of the week. That wasn’t the whole thing. We’ve got a big serial story that unfolds that’s probably just as important and probably just as much screen time almost, but we wanted a casual viewer to be able to tune in and know they were going to get that fix of a ghost story. It forced us to look into the issue of storytelling about ghosts and horror and all the stuff that we really love. So you could have these great debates. Sometimes you might start, in episode 3, it’s basically what’s in the box? You start with the box and then you can build. You know you’ve got your motif. You think what is the most terrible thing that could be in that box?

CraveOnline: And it’s also nice that some of those guests can be love interests for Jed.

David Allison: Completely, that’s also true in episode 3. He’s such a loner, he’s such a closed character and he’s so suspicious of people because of the life that he’s had. We thought she’d have to be someone special to really break through that. The most obvious part of that would have been that she has had her own problems. He’s so lonely in his life and it’s so difficult for people to understand what he’s been through. If he meets somebody else who has literally just come out of a mental health unit and she’s just taking her very fragile first steps in her road to recovery, you see, they have a conversation when she’s doing her artwork and they talk about both having as part of their therapy doing artwork. You see them like that, it’s a collision course. I do think that damaged people often are attracted to other damaged people. I think that’s a truism. I don’t think it’s very healthy but I think it’s what happens.

CraveOnline: Oh, I’ve been working on that with my therapist.

David Allison: [Laughs] Exactly, exactly.

CraveOnline: What thoughts do you have about a second series of Bedlam?

David Allison: We are working on ideas for that right now. We are really excited by the ideas that we’re coming up with. It’s all looking really good. Obviously we’ll always have a ghost of the week but the three of us always set out to create a long running series. If it didn’t happen, it didn’t happen but that was our end. We didn’t want to pay everything off in series one. We wanted to set up clues that we could work with. There’s the inscription above the door, the biblical inscription. We don’t pay that off in series one. We don’t tell you what that means but we always had a plan about what that is. Neil, my cowriter, is a big Lost fan and he loves the idea of clues and that kind of stuff. So series two is going to be about who is that guy that Jed sees face to face at the end of series one. It’ll uncover a load more stuff about who he is, who the Bettanys were, what happened in the building. For example, there’s the brand, the B brand you see on Zoe’s body when he finds out that you see also in the ironwork of the building. We like the idea for those people who are paying attention or want to enjoy repeated viewing, there’s stuff in there to really see. If you want to just watch the ghost story and have a good time with it, great. But if you really want to spend some time looking, there’s other stuff you can pick up. I love TV that does that.

CraveOnline: Kate is an interesting character because she’s a little more aggressive and even meaner than the female leads in many ghost stories. Are we going to find out what made her that way?

David Allison: Yeah, completely. We were very conscious that we didn’t want a female character who was just bland and anodyne and nice and likeable. We wanted her to be as rich as Jed is so they’re a counterpoint to each other. She can be really unpleasant. She can be really vile. What she does in episode 4 is terrible. So we always wanted the viewer to think, “Is this because of just the way you are or is this about you being a Bettany, about your relationship to this building, to your father, to your grandfathers, all the stuff that’s gone on?” As the series unfolds, I hope you start to feel sympathy for Kate as well as thinking, “You can be terrible.” You start understanding why. I think that’s the whole key to a character who’s got some malevolence in them or can be unpleasant. If you start to understand why they do something, you can start to empathize with them.

CraveOnline: She even had a paranormal experience in episode one, but she still doesn’t believe Jed.

David Allison: No, because I think her entire belief system is a rational one. Also she defines herself in opposition to Jed and Jed is the freaky guy who says he sees ghosts and da da da da da. I think she has a gnawing unease in the back of her head about this place, about her dad’s project, about having been involved in it. She’s not listening to those voices so I think she seeks to rationalize what happened to her. If you didn’t believe in ghosts, if something happens to you, your first explanation is not, “Oh, there must be ghosts.” You have to change your whole worldview, do a 360 degree turn on what you believe. The first thing you would do is try to find an explanation. That happens to a number of our characters. They can’t accept the reality of what’s their experience. It’s like Sadie in episode 3. Because she has mental health issues, it’s almost like it’s obvious to her that she must have got the dirt on her own hands since she just got off her meds. That’s the first thing she does.

CraveOnline: How quick would you be to believe in the supernatural?

David Allison: It would take an awfully long time. Seriously, I would be one of those characters who wouldn’t believe it, who would find another explanation. Definitely. It’s interesting, I had this conversation with a lot of people and they’ve all had very different reactions. I think that’s a good sign.

CraveOnline: I read a lot of spiritual philosophy anyway so I’d make that leap.

David Allison: I’m a cynical Brit.

CraveOnline: But I like when fiction explores the real world explanations of supernatural, like in The Exorcist they take her to doctors and have to rule out medical possibilities.

David Allison: Absolutely, it’s true. It’s interesting, as a culture we have an enormous history of ghost stories. The number of ghost stories written in Britain in the last 200 years is like phenomenal, like a large percentage of the number of ghost stories in the world. We just are obsessed with ghost stories from Dickens on. That says something about our culture, but what that is I’m not entirely sure.

CraveOnline: What other shows are you developing?

David Allison: I have actually just written a five part legal series for the BBC. It’s filming right now and it’s called The Case. That’s going to be on the BBC in the autumn. That couldn’t be more different to this. It’s so different. That’s been a real blast and a very different experience. I write comedy as well so I have a number of interests, but I would say the thing that brought the three of us together is our love of this genre. We would love to do more stuff like this. It’s very exciting being on a show that you feel like has life. It’s like a juggernaut, you can feel it. It’s going somewhere.

CraveOnline: How much do we learn about Kate’s roommates?

David Allison: I hope that we know them well as people I think. I think we spend a lot of time with them. You don’t want every character undergoing this insane journey because it’s actually quite tiresome for all four characters to do that. Obviously Jed and Kate are driving that. Actually all the characters have undergone serious changes. Molly and Ryan’s relationship disintegrated really by the end of the series. I think what we’re trying to get at is it’s almost like being in this place is bad for you. It’s going to screw things up. You can’t control yourself. The building is doing something to you.

CraveOnline: Would The Case be a mystery like Bedlam is?

David Allison: Yeah, it is. It’s like a 360 degree telling of one case. It’s told over five episodes, it’s going to be spread across a week and it’s about an assisted suicide or is it a murder? It’s told from the point of view of the defendant and the flashback of the whole story, the courtroom and the barrister’s chambers. So you get to see every angle of that thing. I think it’s like a thriller because you’re being asked do you want to invest in this defendant or do you feel he did or didn’t do it? The story is very morally complex and it’s only at the very, very end that it all comes to fruition. So there are similarities. In the way you plot out a story and when you reveal what you reveal, actually there are a lot of similarities, even though the genre is completely different.

CraveOnline: What is the climate for producing shows in England right now?

David Allison: That’s a good question. I would say it’s improving actually. I think a few years ago, things slowed down a lot. I think the recession hit the TV industry earlier than it did the rest of the country. I feel like things are maybe not quite so bad now. I do always think, I know it’s a cliché, but if you’ve got a really good idea, you’ve always got a chance of it happening. It’s always really hard to get TV made. I’m sure it’s the same here. It’s hard to get TV made anyway. In relation to Bedlam, it’s a really exciting time to be doing this kind of genre because it’s very exciting to be part of BBC America’s Supernatural Saturdays. We get this prime time slot out here because we feel like a part of something. It’s Doctor Who and Torchwood and Being Human and Misfits. There are a bunch of shows now that are sci-fi/supernatural genre and we feel like we’re part of that family. Britain has an amazing history of that genre and for many years it was dead. So it’s come back to life.


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