You’ve heard of television magic, but there’s something more arcane and elemental happening on the set of A Discovery of Witches.
In the confines of a medieval fortress, two vampires and a witch hash out the implications of a romantic relationship between magical creatures. Handwoven tapestries cover the walls, and the space bathes you in its ancient scent — a heady blend of stone, musty tomes, and whispers of history with an almost imperceptible hint of magic.
This castle isn’t in the verdant French countryside, but instead on a chilly soundstage in Cardiff Wales, where it shares a wall with a New England cottage and is a stone’s throw from a Venetian witches’ archive and an Oxford DNA lab. In one corner, artists are carving real pumpkins for a Halloween scene, while across the hall the art department makes their own vellum and hand-draws the alchemical manuscripts at the heart of the story like the mysterious Ripley Scroll.
The magic of the old Hollywood studio system is alive and well here as art department, writers’ room, wardrobe, and a bevy of sets butt up against each other — a special kind of alchemy in miniature as producers Jane Tranter and Julie Gardner (Doctor Who) launch their new production company, Bad Wolf, with their adaptation of Deborah Harkness’s best-selling novels in partnership with Sky One. The series aired on Sky last fall in the U.K., but it comes to the U.S. on both Shudder and Sundance Now on Jan. 17.
Harkness’s 2011 novel—which was the first installment in her All Souls trilogy—was inspired by the author’s own work as a historian. She seized upon the early modern world’s inability to separate magic from science and the possibility of continuing to view the world through such a lens. What if, she wondered, vampires and witches were real? How would they operate in today’s world hidden in plain sight?
It’s this almost imperceptible line between fantasy and reality that underscores the television adaptation, making a damp soundstage pulse with the sights and sounds of history and magic. Production designer James North describes it as “fantasy realism,” noting that so much of the series was grounded in real places as described in the pages of Harkness’s books.
“It’s almost like just a slightly heightened reality,” he explains. This naturalism included building a 1-to-1 model of Oxford’s iconic Bodleian library that felt so accurate it brought Harkness to tears. “It’s f—ing staggering,” star Matthew Goode (Downton Abbey) says of the sense of realism on set.
Goode, who portrays Matthew Clairmont, a DNA scientist and centuries-old vampire, explains the story’s grounding in reality drew him to the project. Initially, he was uncertain about playing a vampire, calling the Twilight series “ludicrous,” until friend and fellow actor Bill Nighy (who has played a vampire in the Underworld franchise) convinced him to put his aversion to the supernatural aside. “My favorite thing is the love story. That’s the thing I really enjoy is trying to find the truth that we have in our relationships, our everyday marriages, and then, transmogrifying them and throwing it into a fantastical element,” Goode notes. “[There’s] folklore around these lives, [but] it feels very truthful and normal.”
Teresa Palmer (Hacksaw Ridge) portrays Diana Bishop, a historian and witch who has long denied her powers until the discovery of a missing magical manuscript draws her into unexpected danger and romance. Palmer jumped at the chance to play a female lead at the center of a television series that defies expectations at every turn. “I love that she’s really intuitive and hyper-intelligent and warm and open, and she’s a feeler,” says Palmer of Diana. “There are ways that you stereotype an academic. They’re reserved and quiet and very into their study, and I love that she, not dissimilar to Deb [Harkness], is all things – she’s extroverted; she can also be introverted; she can be confident; she can also have her moments of vulnerability. She’s just so complex and layered and sunny, and I wanted to be around her. I wanted to embody this character and live in her.”
Also serving as an executive producer, Harkness made regular visits to set and was an essential source for the entire cast and production team, with many dog-eared copies of her novel scattered about the studio. To play Diana Bishop, Palmer had to learn to row, as well as tackle the ins-and-outs of being a historian. “I got to handle 16th-century books and touch the pages and smell them and just look at the bindings,” she explains. “Deb talked me through it — the things that excite her about old texts and how to have reverence and how to show the book respect, but also get the information that you need.”
Handling a book with respect, while also getting the information you require from it could be the mission statement for A Discovery of Witches, a show handled with such clear love for its source material one could almost say it cast on a spell on everyone involved. As Teresa Palmer puts it, “There’s a little bit of extra magic dust on this series.”
Note: This article previously misidentified Bill Nighy as belonging to the Resident Evil franchise.