Why did a Muslim teenage girl and a white police constable plummet to their deaths from the roof of a London tower block? Before Detective Sergeant Sarah Collins (Gemma Whelan) and her colleague, Detective Constable Steve Bradshaw (Jimmy Akingbola), can find answers in the BritBox drama The Tower, she must track down her key witness: the deceased officer’s partner, Lizzie Adama (Tahirah Sharif), who’s gone AWOL.
The tense three-part procedural, filmed in Liverpool, was adapted by executive producer Patrick Harbinson (Homeland) after he devoured former police detective Kate London’s novel Post Mortem. “What struck me was the authenticity,” he says. “It starts with this tragedy, but the steps to that tragedy are so small and relatable and ordinary.”
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Although cops come under Sarah’s scrutiny, Harbinson doesn’t see the series as a critique of policing. “I wasn’t interested in sending messages,” he says. “I was interested in telling a plausible, compelling, moving story.”
One change Harbinson made from the source material: Lizzie’s race. In the book, she’s white, but in The Tower she’s played by a Black actress because the writer wanted to reflect the diversity of present-day London and its police force.
“It is immediately a much more interesting story to me and a much more interesting journey for the actor to take,” Harbinson says. “It allows me to bring up a lot of issues, almost unsaid, and of course having a Black actor in that role allowed the character to speak with some anger and pain to the issues which are bedeviling every police force at the moment.”
“Gemma has this strange combination of almost contradictory qualities,” he praises. “She’s kind and steely at the same time, which is such a difficult thing to pull off, and in a funny way she’s like that herself.”
Sharif, who appeared in the Netflix series The Haunting of Bly Manor, was one of the numerous actresses who auditioned for the role of Lizzie.
“She just blew us away,” Harbinson says. “Lizzie’s journey is the real roller coaster of the series. There’s two Lizzies. There’s the Lizzie before the fall, this happy young woman loving her job. Then there’s the guilt-stricken, grief-stricken woman on the run afterwards. She had to capture those two people and I think she did that beautifully.”
The Tower, Season 1, Streaming Now, Britbox