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Fortitude creator Simon Donald reveals inspiration for Sky Atlantic's new Arctic thriller

Fortitude, featuring Holmfirth actress Jessica Gunning, begins on Sky Atlantic on Thursday January 29

Michael Gambon as Henry Tyson; Richard Dormer as Dan Anderssen
Michael Gambon as Henry Tyson; Richard Dormer as Dan Anderssen


A thrilling crime drama set in the Arctic Circle will debut on Sky Atlantic next week, featuring Holmfirth actress Jessica Gunning.

Fortitude, starring Michael Gambon, Christopher Eccleston, The Killing's Sofie Gråbøl and Stanley Tucci, begins with a feature-length episode at 9pm on Thursday January 29.

Ahead of the premiere, the series' creator, award-winning playwright and screenwriter Simon Donald, revealed why he chose the frosty location for his thriller and spoke about what audiences can expect from the drama.

What inspired you to write this series?

I’m interested in crime thrillers and I wanted to write one that was as distinctive as possible from all the others. I was keen to find a place where I could set a dark, twisted thriller that was unlike any location we’d seen recently – and that took us right up into the Arctic Circle.

"I also wanted to write something set in a very small, pressure-cooker community where people are left to their own devices and have to sort things out themselves when something goes wrong. And finally, I wanted something that moved into a different thematic area from a traditional police procedural; I wanted to go into some dark, urgent, real-world science, and all of that ended up being Fortitude."

Fortitude has been described as unsettling. Do you agree with that?

Very much. In police dramas we usually see a lot of the police work we know they do in real life, but we wanted to construct this story in such a way that even when they follow all the normal routine investigative paths they get nowhere. They continually head down blind alleys, because whatever is causing all the dark murderous mayhem that’s gripping this little town doesn’t surrender itself to any of the investigative tools the police are familiar with.

Allied to that, we set it in a community where there’s a very small police force that is brilliant at search and rescue, but they’re not investigative detectives. So they’re trying to solve a crime without any of the routine choices that cops make in big city shows, where their responses to murder are driven by experience and tested procedures. Our cops don’t have any of that about them. And they’re in a small town with a population of 780, so they know everybody. They’re not used to investigating dark, hidden motivation in people they know well."

Tell us about the town of Fortitude and its rules.

The rules are based on those of the Arctic towns on which Fortitude is modelled. We were astonished when we got there and heard about the rules of these places, which change the nature of who lives there and the kind of life you have quite extremely. You’re not allowed to be unemployed and you’re not allowed to stay there if you’ve no means of supporting yourself. There’s very little crime. It’s a relatively high-earning community because it’s in an extreme place – the rewards for working out there are higher than for the mainland equivalent.

If you’re caught with drugs or become too dependent on alcohol, you’re off the island because it’s such a dangerous environment. There’s no welfare system on the island at all, which means there’s very little maternal care and there is no palliative care at end of life, so you’re not allowed to give birth or die there. I’d never heard of anywhere like that before and I found it compelling.

Click below to meet the cast of Fortitude


Why are there so many different nationalities in Fortitude? Does that reflect the real towns you’ve modelled it on?

Yes, there’s a small, highly specialised university that pulls in experts from all over the world, and that makes it cosmopolitan. There’s a burgeoning tourist industry and no indigenous population so it’s a complete melting pot. Everybody speaks English because of the Western academics, and the Norwegians speak English as well. Everyone we met spoke fluent English and they conduct most of their business in English because the people they’re dealing with are incomers, they’re tourists and scientists.

You’ve approached the writing of the series differently to other dramas, haven’t you?

We’ve tried to work much more like the big American shows and it’s a process we don’t have too much experience of in the UK. The US system puts a team of writers in a writers’ room and breaks down the episodes and stories over a long period. All the writers work together and you have a story brainstorming environment where you cook everything up. So we put together a room of writers and we worked together for a few months, working out the stories and the plots of all the episodes, and I think we ended up learning an awful lot about how you do that.

A key character is killed in the very first episode. Why did you choose to do that?

Audiences are sophisticated and the audience I’m writing for watches the kind of shows I love: The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Deadwood and Game of Thrones. A feature of those shows is that you just don’t know who’s going to get knocked off next. Nobody is safe simply because they’re a famous actor or because they’re playing a likeable character. So I was looking to find the most unexpected combination of murderer and victim that I could come up with in this little world, and that was important because it’s great fun to be wrong-footed.

We also find out who the killer is quite early on in the series. Again, why did you make that decision?

Who did it is never the full story – why they did it is what you care about. The reveal of who did it in this instance is pretty shocking,

so the puzzle isn’t solved by identifying who did it at that stage, the mystery is still there. There will be more that takes the audience down a chilling route until the very end, and the conclusion is pretty extreme.

Fortitude begins on Thursday January 29 at 9pm on Sky Atlantic.


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