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…

Binge The Watch as a Box Set until Wednesday, 30 June (exclusively on DStv Premium) on Catch Up. To get DStv or to upgrade your package, click here.

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Which Watch?

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.

Modern fantasy

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.”

Bewitching wardrobe

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.

Bianca: “That was probably 1 of the best shoot days of my life. A lot of the joy was due to the fact that I was doing it with Lara Rossi, who plays Lady Sybil. A couple of weeks before we shot that scene, we got some training with a choreographer. It was clunky in the beginning and we had to figure each other out. Wonse and Sybil are sworn enemies throughout the whole series, but there was this wonderful moment of connection, which dance does. We rehearsed it for quite a while because Laura and I are both theatricals and we have that culture of doing things until we get it right. There were many days when we didn't really have anything to do while we were waiting between takes, so we rehearsed again and again and again. When we were actually filming in the area which was Twilight Canyons, we were our base set for the day. It was sweltering hot and the only place that we had to rehearse was in a field. Because we were determined to get every single little dynamic right, we did that thing so many times we were both running with sweat. What we didn't realise is that the extras (playing pensioners), who were the lovely ladies and gentlemen of Twilight Canyons, were creeping around the corner to watch. They were adorable. I don't think they knew that we were doing it for a scene. I think they just thought that we were sort of dancing for the joy of it. They gave us a little (Bianca mimes applause) every time we did it, which is great. I mean, thank you, thank you. When we shot it, it was just go time and we had to go. When you're in the space with the lights and the makeup and the camera, it’s a completely different dynamic. We spent the whole day shooting that scene. Lara and I were kind of in a dream. We just got to dance. There's something about the sheer abandonment of it, which was made quite funny and humorous by the fact that we both hate each other when we're in character. When we finished doing it, they said cut, and I stepped away into 1 of the little rooms and actually had a little cry because I was so happy. Those moments in life where you just abandon yourself to share joy are so precious aren't they? I literally cried for joy. So that was a good day.”


Simon (asked to talk about his favourite comic scene from the series): “Oh, it'll have to be in episode 4. There is a moment of magic where Carcer and The Watch are about to come into conflict. There is a magical intervention by our Lord and Saviour, George Michael, in the form of Wham’s Wake Me Up Before You Go Go. There is a curse on this retirement home that prevents people from fighting and compels them to dance to ’80s classics. We had great fun trying to pick the right ’80s classic. At 1 point, it was going to be Phil Collins. I had to write letters to everybody (to request music rights). And Phil Collins, he felt we were being disrespectful towards his seminal ’80s track Sussudio. But George Michael’s estate were keen to be associated with the show. And we got Wake Me Up Before You Go Go. I think it is joyous, so yeah, that's my favourite moment.”


Johann (asked for 1 of his favourite comic scenes): “There's 1 that stands out for me particularly, which is episode 4, where Carcer breaks into a retirement home. There's a confrontation that happens between him and the hero, Captain Sam Vimes (head of The Watch, played by Richard Dormer). Unbeknown to them, there is a spell on the retirement home, which means that no violence is allowed. But dancing is! So when they start to attack each other they are forced to dance. And they dance through the whole place to the sounds of Wham which, when I watch it, is the thing that makes me laugh out loud and summarises the anarchic, and frankly bonkers kind of humour of the show, which is 1 of the things I love about it so much. That scene was shot in a school near the side of the mountain (Table Mountain). 1 of the challenges we had there was keeping the baboons at bay, and keeping them away from the craft table (film catering). We had some Baboon Wranglers, who were walking around making sure that the baboons weren't eating the craft services food.”


Location, Location, Location!

The Watch was filmed primarily in South Africa (more on that later, promise), so it’s full of fascinating little Easter Eggs for local viewers. Some places will be instantly recognisable, while others have undergone a magical transformation – thanks Unseen University!

If you look at the series’ poster, for example, you might recognise the brutalist building towering behind the cast as The Watch headquarters, as the Cape Town Civic Centre (also seen in 2012 science fiction movie Dredd).

Bianca says, “The BBC were just brilliant at finding the most strange, beautiful, unique spaces that were so relevant to Ankh-Morpork, and so relevant to our characters. There's something quite visceral when you're on location. I had never actually been on Atlantis Dunes before. It was the most extraordinary, unique, powerful experience, getting ourselves one site by piling into 4-by-4 and racing across these dunes. It was extraordinarily atmospheric. I've never actually travelled to most of those locations. Being in it was like discovering my country again for the 1st time. In episode 3, I go and have a look for the tombstone for 1 of the assassins who stole the sword. They shot that in Franschhoek (at the Huguenot Monument). It was such a beautiful night, the moon was shining down and it was really, really, really, really magical. They had big fires next to us, and we're running around. And when I saw it on camera for the first time, it looked strange and mysterious and magical in a way that I didn't see when I was doing it, purely because you're trying to make sure that your cloak doesn't catch on fire when you pass the fire!”

Johann adds, “The 1 that tickled me the most, having grown up and gone to school in South Africa, was the fact that we turned the Taal Monument into a Lord Vetinari’s (the Machiavellian leader of Ankh-Morpork, played by Anna Chancellor) Palace, the leading villain’s power palace! And in Franschhoek, the Huguenot Monument was turned into a place where the assassins bury their own. Those 2 particularly tickled me because it “sticks it” to quite a big holy cow. They’re institutions of especially Afrikaans history, and I grew up as an Afrikaner. That was a lot of fun for me.”

“And we went to Atlantis Dunes, which is an extraordinarily beautiful place and it looked incredible on screen. When the execs first saw the rushes for those scenes, they were completely blown away by it because it was so epic, and it looked so incredible,” says Johann.

He adds, “We built the main set in the Werdmuller Shopping Centre (a rundown, dis-used building where, coincidentally, spy series Deep State filmed its command centre), which is in Claremont. We turned almost the whole of that shopping centre, the weird slightly brutalist building, into the centre of Ankh-Morpork, the city in The Watch. And then the last 1, I think that was interesting was the Maitland Abattoir, which is no longer in use as an abattoir. We used that as where the cells of the police station were. It looks pretty spectacular. We also built a part of the prison there, and a part of the interior of the mine there. We got very good use out of it.”

But there was a tiny COVID complication with the locations. “It happened right at the end, we were filming until March 2020. We had to stop filming 7 days before the end of the shoot because we had actors who were from other parts of the world. And when countries started to announce that they were going to close their borders, we had to make sure that we could get the actors back to their home countries,” reveals Johann. “So we had to suspend production. Then we had to wait until September of 2020 so that we could remount and complete the shoot. And we had to do it here in the UK because it wasn't possible to have access to Africa at the time. That was an interesting and challenging time but we managed to do it and I'd like to think we managed to do it seamlessly. I don't think anybody could pick up, when you're watching the show, which bits were shot in the UK, and which bits were shot in South Africa, or which sets had to be rebuilt. It was mostly the prison set from episode 7, and a few of the market streets from episodes 6, 7 and 8. And also Lady Sybil Ramkin’s mansion exterior. We had to find a new “previously unseen” part of her mansion for a terrace or balcony kind of place, which we've managed to do all in one place just outside of City Airport in London. So we're very lucky. We had a fantastic designer who managed to do it in a really clever way.”


Watch out for South African talent

From the production side, both Simon and Johann were singing the praises of their behind the scenes South African talent. For Johann, it was a return to welcome ground after he worked as producer on the science fiction young adult series Noughts & Crosses in 2018 (see it on Showmax now). “I was born in the UK, but I grew up in South Africa and I lived there for quite a long time. But I had never worked there until Noughts & Crosses,” he reveals. “So it was like a homecoming for me. I met extraordinary crew and cast members there, quite a lot of whom I used again on The Watch. There is a real sense from everybody who is not from South Africa who worked there, that the crews in Africa are among the best in the world. It was a real joy to work there. They're about to start a second series of Noughts & Crosses. Unfortunately, I'm not involved in that because I'm doing something else. But they've gone back to Cape Town and they're gonna do a second series, and quite the same people are working on it again.”

Johann encourages anyone bingeing that Box Set of The Watch to really take in the incredible talent that he got to work with.

“When they see the character of Sergeant Detritus (the troll Watch Sergeant voiced by Ralph Ineson), for example, they should know that the person who is in that suit (yes, it’s an actual physical effect, a prosthetic suit, not CGI) is a South African actor stuntman called Craig Macrae (who’s 2-metres tall) who made Detritus a proper character. We use a voice actor well known in the UK to do the voice, but all the movements and stuff as everything was Craig. The physical embodiment of the character, Craig. Not only that, but also the person who made that suit, and who created it, is South African (Cape Town-based prosthetics designer Clinton-Aiden Smith). All the hair and make-up designers and team were South African. The costume designer was South African. I certainly was incredibly proud that I was making it because I think that the quality of the talent both in front and behind the camera was exceptional.”

Simon agrees. “The depth and reserves of creative talent in South Africa is off the charts. I don't think, historically, they've had the credit they deserve for the things that they're able to create and conjure with limited budgets, limited time, all the pressure that always goes with making television,” he insists. “The first day I got here, they'd had the scripts for a while and then set up the production office. I walk in and there's all these people scurrying around making things. They were genuinely making their own things. They've made creatures, and they've made prosthetics and they've made sets and what you see in The Watch was as much theirs as anything else. I think it is really precious. The lovely thing is you see South African talent expressing itself on a scale that I don't think you've seen before. So much of it was people would bring me things and I would just say, ‘That's going in, we're doing that.’ It was just wonderful. By the end, I was kind of saying to them, ‘Look, if you think you've gone too far, you haven't gone far enough. Keep going, keep going.’ (Simon gestures with manic delight) I think you can see that in the costumes because they get more and more expressive and more outrageous. And by the end, we're doing a rock concert. Some people probably think we lost our minds on this show. Maybe we did a little bit. But it was a wonderful kind of loss of sanity and creative expression unleashed. It was great.”

Simon continues, “Dihantus Engelbrecht, who was on the costumes, Shane Bunce who was the Art Director was incredible. Amanda Ross-McDonald, who was on make-up… There's too many to list. You know that Craig Macrae, who is an incredible actor, plays DEATH. DEATH is voiced by Wendell Pierce, but embodied by Craig Macrae, who also plays Detritus.” At this point, Simon points out that the shirt he’s wearing for the interview (which, he quips, fit him better at the start of lockdown) featured an image of Craig as Detritus.

Dirty details

The Watch is filled with the sort of little visual jokes that make it immensely rewarding to watch as a Box Set. “The show is so frenzied and insane, it is hard to keep track of all the things that are going on in the background,” says Simon. “1 of the key things to look for in episode 2 is when the camera tracks across the Arch Chancellor (James Fleet) office (at Unseen University), you'll get a glimpse of Round World. And he says, ‘This is where I get all my best ideas’. That is a reference, obviously, to the books. But all of the technology in the city is basically created by the Arch Chancellor and Unseen University. He's repurposed it because he's been spying on Earth. But in the “Round World” that he's spying on, it's 1983, which explains a lot of the technology you get, like the kind of Hoovers (vacuum cleaners) that eat children that you’ll see in the background, and the phones that don't quite work. So that's worth looking out for.”

“There's a lot of tracking shots and visual gags. Like in episode 4, there's a tracking shot, where there's a Keep Out sign, and when the camera keeps going, the sign keeps telling it to Keep Out and Go Away. There's a lot of map jokes. But my favourite one – I can't believe I had to get clearance from the head of AMC (which broadcast the series in the US) for this – was the “The Watch House” sign. We were trying to think of a swear word so that when The Watch House sign malfunctions, you only see the letters that spell a swear word (certain letters go dark and the remaining ones spell out the word). It's on the posters, actually, if you look at it as well. This went right to the top of AMC. There were lawyers involved! My amazing script editor, Ella Tayler Baron, spent hours working out that you could get “****” (sorry kids, watch episode 1, at 4 minutes, 19 seconds in) there, right? Which is what the city thinks (of The Watch). We had to dial it back, because it was going out in different places at different times. And then by the end of the series, when the city takes them a little bit more seriously, it just says The Watch House. So that's quite a nice one,” says Simon.


What’s in a name

Sharp-eared The Watch viewers might have had a bit of a laugh at the names the members of the Assassin’s Guild choose for themself to hint at their ruthlessness and guile. But 1 in particular, Karen From Finance, will have pricked the ears of drag fans in episode 3. It was a coincidence the show ran with.

“I wasn't aware of Karen From Finance the (Australian, Melbourne-based) drag artist!” admits Simon. “When we named the assassins, we used a few names from the books, but then we had to sort of invent quite a lot of characters. There were wilder names in there than Karen From Finance and Sex Party Ben, whose speciality is attending sex parties and murdering people at them. But I worked in an office in a former life. And there (really) was a Karen who worked in Finance, and she was ruthless! Particularly with spreadsheets. So the minute I got that opportunity, I thought, ‘Well, we'll do this and we’ll bring it back a couple of times’. And Ingrid Oliver (who plays head of the Assassin’s Guild Dr Cruces) makes great comedic capital out of doing those kind of deadpan, ‘Karen From Finance, what have you found?’ (lines), It just felt like a really fun thing to do. I became aware later that there is a Karen From Finance, who has not yet sued us. So I think we're okay,” Simon jokes.

See The Watch S1 the finale on Wednesday, 2 June on M-Net (DStv channel 101) at 22:30 and binge the Box Set (exclusively on DStv Premium) until Wednesday, 30 June on Catch Up

NB! M-Net (DStv channel 161) is available exclusively on DStv Premium. To get DStv or to upgrade your package, click here

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