Fantasy, comedy and action-adventure TV fans, make June the month that you finally give The Watch a chance!
The series is based on Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, in particular the novels set in his central city Ankh-Morpork’s shambolic police force, The Watch. And it’s finally a DStv Box Set, which means you can watch it without breaks and gaps, and take in the insane level of background humour, visual jokes and plot details.
Now that all 8 episodes have finally aired, we dug into the details with South African actress Bianca Simone Mannie who plays one of the series major antagonists, Wonse, along with series showrunner Simon Allen and series producer, Johann Knobel.
They had plenty to say about adapting the books, shaping the characters, the incredible work from South African artists behind the scenes, visual jokes to watch out for, some South African locations that you might recognise, a certain very special dance scene, Karen From Finance… and the 2-metre tall South African stuntman who played both Sergeant Detritus the troll and DEATH himself…
It has taken blood, sweat, tears and years and years and years to get any kind of show based on Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels onto the TV screen. But the fantasy procedural genre has taken off in the US with series like iZombie and Sleepy Hollow, so there was a foot in the door for trying that sort of approach to the Discworld novels set in the world of The Watch, Ankh-Morpork’s raggedy and rundown police force.
“When I arrived in the process, they'd been trying to make sort of straight adaptations of these books for a very, very long time. They were looking for somebody to come in and try something different,” says Simon. “I adore these books, I think they're absolutely extraordinary. But a lot of what's special about them is entirely dependent on the fact that Terry Pratchett is present inside them as a narrator and a commentator on his own stories. I felt that we needed to take advantage of that and have something that that kind of spoke to that tone and that feel, but wasn't exactly going to be faithful. He wrote in a multiverse so I was sort of like, ‘Well, we'll set our show in a backwater (in the Discworld’s phrasing, down an alternate trouser leg of time). As Raymond Chandler famously said, the books will always be there, the books are fine, they're okay. And the show is its own thing.”
“BBC America… Terry Pratchett is obviously huge all over the world, but I think it's fair to say he's not as well known in America as he is in, say, the UK. They invested in the scripts as they were, without really knowing about their initial connections to these books. Then we were able to tell them, “Well, this is where it came from, and this is why it's amazing, and so on. There was a lot of latitude and license to be really creative, and really radical and inventive.”
The result is a show that a Pratchett fan could watch and enjoy for its own sake, while getting just that little bit more from the show’s humour and detail thanks to their familiarity with the stories’ world. But because it deviates so much from the books, there’s no been there, done that or The Book Was Better problem. The books are the books. The show is the show.
1 of the ways that thinking about adaptation in this way paid off, was in exploring the characters of the Watch in a way that speaks to life in 2020/2021, rather than being locked down in the time when the books that the series is based on were first published. Guards, Guards, for instance first went to print in 1989.
“We had a strong writers room that reflects the diversity of the world as it is now,” says Simon. “A lot of the books we were working with were written in the 20th century, and the way that they talked about things like gender, fluidity, queerness, and race as well, in particular, things have moved on. It was important to make something that felt fluid, felt dynamic, felt like every kind of known construct of how things should be in terms of relationships between the sexes, between gender identity, all those kinds of social constructs. We subvert and rewire everything. And I think that's one of its great, great joys really. it's a joyous show.”
This comes across particularly fluently in the character of Cheery Littlebottom the dwarf, thanks to the partnership between The Watch’s writing team and performer Jo Eaton-Kent’s immense charm. Cheery was (aside from being a character who had a lot of other things to do) originally the books’ way of looking at the position that women were put in of having to be “one of the boys” and having remove all signals of femininity to have any kind of shot at “equality” in male dominated spaces. The 2020-2021 Cheery takes aim at different aspects of gender politics, and takes a different aspect of Cheery’s approach to gender nonconformity. This is just 1 aspect of the character, though, since the Cheery we see on screen is also a person, not a tent pole.
“It was the greatest privilege of my career to meet a talent like Jo in the first place,” insists Simon. “Joe is non-binary is an incredible talent and I'm so, so proud of the fact that we got them to be in our show. Behind all of that you have the fact that one of the writers in our room is a non-binary creative and a drag artist, Amrou Al-Kadhi. 1 of the most extraordinary people I've ever met. And both of those 2 had a massive creative influence on the direction of The Watch, and on the aesthetics of The Watch, the tone of The Watch, and the messages of the show, and on me personally, I consider them both to be dear friends. So it was the greatest privilege of my life. And it was completely enthralling. That all obviously culminates in a wonderful sequence in episode 6, where we see queer magic made manifest in the form of the sort of Lip Sync Battle. There on the day we were rehearsing it, when we were choreographing it. I was pinching myself, ‘Are we really, are we doing this?” It was just wonderful.”
Wonse upon a time…
South African actress Bianca Simone Mannie walked a somewhat crooked road to becoming one of The Watch’s major villains, the magic user Wonse – a character whose gender ended up changing from the book and the script during casting. “It was actually quite a strange situation. I had originally been asked to read for the role of Angua (The Watch’s werewolf Corporal, eventually played by Maltese actress Marama Corlett). And so I'd gone in, and I'd honestly promptly forgotten about it. I got a phonecall saying the producers wanted to see me for the role of Throat (Ankh-Morpork’s premiere dealer of sausages in buns and street drug Slab) who is played by the very talented Ruth Madeley now. So I went in. And then I got a 3rd phonecall saying, ‘Look, the producers would love you to read for the role of Wonse. And when I got the brief, Wonse was a 45-year-old male, which was what was originally written by Simon Allen, the chief writer and executive producer on the show.”
“So I got the script as a male? (Bianca mimes hesitation and wariness) And they said, ‘No, no, they, they want you. It’s written like a male, we want you to just do it as a female’. So I made 1 or 2 changes, went in, had a meeting with the producers, and I read Wonse as a female. Probably about a week later, I heard that they’d decided to shift the scripts to make her female, and to change things about a bit. So that's how it came about. Very strange, but very cool,” Bianca explains.
“What I saw immediately was that it was somebody who had grown up in a gang, and who had been in jail for a very long time, and had been released and carried a lot of resentment and bitterness. But I think what resonated most deeply for me is the concept of being unseen. I've been in situations where I've felt unseen. And I think, as humans, one of the things we desire or chief desire is to just be seen for who we are. This was a character who had had a lot of terrible lots in life placed upon her and was struggling to be seen. Especially when the system puts you in jail, it’s quite hard to break out of that identity that people put on you.”
Casting a spell
Part of Wonse’s desire to be seen and her frustration with the world comes from how her magical gifts and education are handled in the world of the story. The first time we meet Wonse she’s working as a cleaner at Unseen University, the central hub in Ankh-Morpork for (strictly male, so far) magic users. “In the world and lore of Discworld, there's a huge divide between Witchcraft and Wizardry. The laws of this world dictate that if you're female, you're a witch. And if you're a male, you're a wizard. The way that you become a wizard is that you're the 8th son of an 8th son, which means that you're imbued with a certain amount of power called thaum, which is a kind of energy. You can see it throughout the episodes. I use a lot of blue powder, and they mix with my energy, thaum, I do magic spells.”
“I think at that point, she hates the label of being a witch, or being a wizard. It's a thing of if you're a female, you have this level of capabilities, and this is all that you can do, this is all you're defined by. There’s a pattern of women making difficult decisions because of what was put upon them. She’s (Wonse) quite desperate to break that image. And when Carcer (the series’ major antagonist, former street gang leader Carcer Dun, played by Sam Adewunmi) comes, it helps her to bloom.
“It is written in the script but it's not seen in the series, that she takes a lot from Unseen University, little books and little gadgets, and she goes into a workshop and she works on it. So there is a level of deception or treachery, where you need to be quietly, quietly teaching yourself and growing. She's been so used to being unseen, so in the beginning, she's quite hunched over. There's a part of it that doesn't want to be seen. And when Carcer comes she blooms and it changes her body language,” reveals Bianca.
Playing any kind of magic user on screen would have sent Bianca’s 10-year-old self into ecstasies. “I think that she would have gone ballistic, I think she would have gone absolutely ballistic,” says Bianca. “She would have gone careering with joy around the playground. I don't think I'm particularly cool, to be honest. But I think my 10-year-old self would have thought that I was so cool. So, so cool. Even from that age, I loved telling stories and hearing stories. So hearing that as a grown up, I'd get to be on television telling stories? I think I would have been beside myself.”
Once Bianca had Wonse worked out, it was time to play dress up with series costume designers Colleen Kelsall and Dihantus Engelbrecht. And there was 1 wardrobe item that Bianca would have desperately loved to have for herself. “In episode 6, I acquired a cloak. It’s a bit more prominent in episode 8. That cloak literally became my best friend. I remember putting it on it and going, ‘Why don't people wear cloaks?’ It's a revelation. People need to start wearing cloaks. If I could have gone out every day of my life wearing that thing, even now as winter's coming, I really, really would. It was so comfortable. The wardrobe designer, Dihantus, made that coat with such a level of finesse and love. It was like putting a thing of beauty on. It was extremely comfortable. People would come to me in between takes (and ask), ‘Do you want to take it off?’ And I was like, ‘No. I do not want to take my cloak off in any way,’ and I would put the hood up and just sink back into it. It was like being in a warm bubble bath all the time.”
Tango at Twilight Canyons
There is 1 scene in The Watch that has everyone talking. In episode 4, The Watch and Lady Sybil Ramkin (an Ankh Morpork aristocrat and dragon-crazy lady, played by Lara Rossi) go to the Twilight Canyons old age home on the trail of a missing sword – at the same time as their opponents, Carcer and Wonse. But this being AnkMorpork, the old dears are guarded by more than just tennis balls on the bottoms of their walkers. When the swords come out and bloodshed looms, a spell cast on Twilight Canyons comes into play, a disco ball drops from the ceiling, and the rivals are forced to dance away their aggression to the tune of the late George Michael and Wham’s 1984 pop hit Wake Me Up Before You Go Go. We spoke to Bianca, Simon and Johann for 3 different perspectives on the scene.