May 27, 2024

Forget the fear of flying. In the upcoming six-episode thriller “Nightsleeper,” the real danger awaits on a train travelling from Glasgow to London.

“When we were developing the show, we got all these experts in one room and asked: ‘How do you hack a train?’ An hour later, they said: ‘This is scary. We could easily do it now, between ourselves’,” says writer Nick Leather. 

“We will do for trains what ‘Jaws’ did for sharks.” 

Produced by Fremantle’s Euston Films and set to premiere on BBC One and BBC iPlayer in early 2024, “Nightsleeper” is directed by Jamie Magnus Stone and John Hayes. 

While Abby Aysgarth (Alexandra Roach) at the U..K’s National Cyber Security Centre is trying her best to stop the train, some remaining passengers also join forces – including off-duty cop Joe Roag (“Peaky Blinders” actor Joe Cole). But they only have six hours and one satellite phone. 

“When I first read the script, that’s what was interesting to me: the relationship between Abby and Joe. I was curious how we were going to make it work,” admits Roach. 

“It was a real test to find that chemistry when you are not in the same room. Abby and Joe don’t know each other, but there is immediate trust and respect. Also, there is intimacy that comes from getting to know someone just by their voice.”

As time goes by, their relationship is tested. But despite the ongoing crisis, they still manage to bond – also over Kate Nash’s 2007 hit “Foundations.” 

“It’s a big action thriller, but because of such moments I felt I already knew Abby. She is funny, she lets her guard down, she is super anxious, which, at least to me, makes her relatable. When I was explaining the premise of the show, lots of people said to me: ‘It’s like ‘Speed.’ I made a conscious decision not to rewatch it,” she laughs.

“This is the most high-pressure situation Abby has ever been in. At the beginning, she is trying to prove to everyone she is the right person to lead this. There is a lot of self-doubt, but I liked her spiky energy.” 

Alex Ferns, Sharon Small, James Cosmo, David Threlfall, Daniel Cahill, Lois Chimimba, Gabriel Howell, Katie Leung, Leah MacRae, Ruth Madeley, Adam Mitchell, Pamela Nomvete, Scott Reid, Sharon Rooney and Parth Thakerar also star. 

“We knew we were making a big action thriller, but you still need it to have heart, humor and warmth. I can’t write any other way,” says Leather. 

Also behind “The Control Room,” he serves as executive producer alongside Kate Harwood (Euston Films), Jamie Magnus Stone and Gaynor Holmes (BBC). Laura Grace co-writes, while Jonathan Curling produces. Fremantle is handling global distribution. 

“That’s how people operate: they connect through humor. Particularly Joe uses it to deflect a lot. He has to learn that he is a hero. Joe Cole is so terrifically good and whenever I watch him, I really believe it’s a real train because of the way he interacts with it,” adds Harwood, admitting that the setting of the show posed some challenges. 

Nightsleeper
Courtesy of Fremantle

“There is no actual train, so we had to create everything. We had a video wall, which was the first time I used that technology. We actually put someone on that train, with a camera, and they filmed the entire journey.” 

“Which means that the world whizzing by is the real world. I take great pride in this,” notes Leather. 

“When I was thinking about doing a real-time thriller, I was wondering what could take the same amount of time as the show. Then I thought of that overnight sleeper train. It allowed us to go through all these cities, have characters who are from everywhere and include classic references from ‘Speed,’ ‘24’ or even ‘The Poseidon Adventure’.” 

But finding a “fresh, contemporary” spin on such stories – and ensuring the diversity of the cast – was a priority.

“My mum is wheelchair-bound and when I was telling her about the story, she said: ‘Well, it would be no good if I was there, they would never get me off that train.’ I thought we should see that, because it’s something people don’t really think about,” he says. 

“Also, I love a locked-room mystery, but what if that locked room is actually moving? Years ago, I was on a train to Manchester and it broke down. At first, nobody spoke to each other. Three hours later, you talked to the people you would never talk to.” 

“In the first episode, we know nothing about these characters. Six hours in, we know everything. They have been through something that has changed them forever.” 

With only one satellite phone connecting them to the outside world, unlikely alliances form.   

“I like that we have something as high-tech as a cyber-attack and on the train, we are actually pulling things back digitally. I didn’t want all them to just sit there and pen emotional Facebook posts,” he observes. 

“This phone is like the conch in ‘Lord of the Flies’: you only get to speak if you have it, so everyone tries to get it. Which makes for a very lively six hours,” adds Harwood. Noting the team has more ideas involving various “cyber security scenarios.” 

“It’s happening all the time. There are all these big institutions being hacked, like the British Library, so there are certainly other stories to explore.” 

Roach also wouldn’t mind revisiting “bold, brave and instinctive” Abby. 

“I would like to push her to more extremes and, given that the story takes place over the course of one day, see what other outfits she has in her closet! I remember feeling a desperate need to be the voice of this character. It’s rare to have such an instinctive reaction as the one I had to ‘Nightsleeper.’ When you do, it reinforces your love for the job.”

Nightsleeper

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