How do you tell a story so horrible, involving so many cover-ups and so much abuse, yet still make it palatable as entertainment?
The Woman In The Wall, a six-part mystery drama starring Ruth Wilson and coming to BBC1 this week, has done just that.
It’s both a gothic horror story and a psychological thriller, with a police investigation that brings the Keystone Cops to mind thrown in, and the result is a spookily compelling, highly emotional and occasionally darkly humorous series that will have you gripped to the end.
At its heart is the grim true story of the Irish women forced into Roman Catholic institutions known as Magdalene Laundries (as well as the often-connected Mother and Baby Homes) in the 19th and 20th centuries.
They had their children taken from them and were put to work washing clothes. About 30,000 women and girls, including unmarried mothers, rape victims and troubled teenagers, were incarcerated in them until as recently as 1996.
The Woman In The Wall, a six-part mystery drama starring Ruth Wilson, is coming to BBC1 this week
The series is the brainchild of Joe Murtagh, whose family come from County Mayo where he based the fictional town of Kilkinure, the setting for the harrowing events.
He first learned about this tragic episode in Ireland’s past from Peter Mullan’s 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters.
‘The film was horrifying and when I read up about it I couldn’t believe it had happened,’ he says. ‘Almost as horrifying was that every single person I mentioned it to had never heard of it.’
Joe held back from writing about it at first, but as more came out – including the discovery in 2014 of a mass grave containing the bodies of up to 800 babies and young children in Galway – he felt a burning desire to make sure the story was told. ‘Writing it wasn’t easy.
I was conscious that if I went too dark – and it does go dark – it might turn people off. It was important to me to get the viewers to engage with it in the most effective way.
I wanted to trick people, especially those who don’t know about what happened, into watching this very weird gothic murder-mystery detective story.’
It wasn’t an easy sell though, until he sent the pilot script to Luther and The Affair star Ruth Wilson, who promptly signed up to both star in and co-produce it, ensuring it would get made.
‘I felt it was unique, fascinating, that it had something really vital about it,’ says Ruth.
‘I’d watched The Magdalene Sisters but I didn’t know a huge amount about this, and I thought the script was a really interesting and creative way to bring it to a wider audience.’
Ruth plays central figure Lorna Brady. We first meet her lying on a road just outside Kilkinure in a white nightdress surrounded by cows.
‘That was difficult to film,’ recalls Ruth. ‘Cows are scary. There was food just behind my head drawing them in and I remember that for ages they weren’t coming towards me, but then they came too close.
‘It was freezing too. But what a great way to start the show – it sets the tone of the piece. It’s not a straightforward drama – it pushes boundaries.’
We follow Lorna home and realise she’s been sleepwalking. A painting of Jesus has a knife through it, and she places it in a locked room she seems too frightened to enter.
Then, after a strange night out, she wakes to find the room unlocked, and peering in she sees the dead body of a woman. She has no idea who she is.
Meanwhile, just outside Dublin, a priest has been found murdered. Detective Colman Akande (Good Luck To You, Leo Grande star Daryl McCormack), who knew the dead man, starts to investigate.
The priest’s car is found in a field just outside Kilkinure – cueing up some amusing moments with the local police, who aren’t used to such drama – which eventually leads Akande to Lorna.
Ruth plays central figure Lorna Brady. We first meet her lying on a road just outside Kilkinure in a white nightdress surrounded by cows
She’s already known for her erratic behaviour, and for having had her child taken away from her at a Mother and Baby Home.
But she’s not the only person in the small town who’s been hurt by the horrors of such institutions that should have been protecting young women.
As the series progresses we discover not only how many other victims there are in Kilkinure, but how they impact on Detective Akande’s story. Meanwhile, Lorna is desperate to hide the dead woman from him, and to find out what happened to her child.
One of the show’s most compelling aspects is that we’re never quite sure whether Lorna is a killer, a wronged woman, or both.
‘Our director shoots very intimately so you feel emotionally attached to Lorna,’ says Ruth.
‘Her mental health is an issue and that comes from the society that put her in the institutions and made her feel shame about it. People told her what happened to her wasn’t wrong – and that she should go away, keep quiet and stop being weird.
‘As the show goes on you realise how many people were complicit in creating this environment. She’s furious but she hasn’t been allowed to be furious, so perhaps it’s no surprise that her rage comes out in a different way.’
There is a redemptive edge to the story as Lorna and Colman connect in a profound way. ‘They’re victims of a similar wound,’ says Daryl.
‘They both have missing pieces, but coming together creates a healing for both of them – like they’re spiritual magnets. As he begins to understand more about her, and her pain is revealed, there’s a lot more empathy and a hope he can help her along her journey.’
To help prepare for filming, Ruth listened to testimony from many survivors and read books on the issue. ‘A lot of people on set had personal histories or attachments to someone this had affected,’ she says.
‘It’s filtered down through the community and I realised how wide it had spread, how many people were touched by it.’
Ruth also researched sleepwalking to make sure Lorna’s night-time behaviour didn’t look too odd.
‘I found that lots of people record themselves sleepwalking,’ she says. ‘It’s mad, strange and funny because they walk like babies and talk to themselves. Along with the director, I came up with a weird way to approach that which was idiosyncratic to Lorna.’
Ruth was raised a Catholic and says working on the show has made her think about her faith. ‘My grandmother was a devout Catholic and I went to church every week, I was an altar girl.
‘There is so much great stuff about it but I remember when I was 16 hearing some of the sermons and thinking, “I don’t quite believe that,” or, “That makes me angry,” and it was usually something about women. But I’m also interested in people’s attachment to religion. I’m fascinated by the complexity.’
The series also touches on attempts to get the scandal properly acknowledged. In 2013, after a report containing testimony from many of the committed women was published, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny issued an apology saying, ‘This is a national shame.’
But there’s still a feeling it hasn’t been properly explored. Sinead O’Connor, who died last month, was vocal about her incarceration in a Magdalene Laundry at the age of 14. ‘We were told we were there because we were bad people,’ she recalled.
‘Some of the girls had been raped at home and not believed. It was a prison.’
Daryl says society has internalised the shame. ‘I grew up not too far away from where our show is set and although I was born in 1993 there were still laundries open,’ he says.
‘I don’t remember people talking about it but through osmosis and the power of the church you’re met with a kind of Catholic guilt. The church has had a profound effect on the country – it’s shaped it for good and bad, but this feels like a cloud that overhangs it.’
He hopes the series will be the start of a bigger conversation that can create more healing.
‘It’s a risk to go into a sensitive topic inspired by true events, and there’s extra risk when you come in with a creative approach.
‘I hope people enjoy it, but I’m also grateful that it’s opening up a conversation about an area of Ireland’s history that’s been neglected.’
- The Woman In The Wall, Sunday, 9.05pm, and Monday, 9pm, BBC1 & BBC iPlayer.