Set in 1940, British period drama The Halcyon focuses on a five-star hotel at the centre of London society and a world at war. With the release of the first season on DVD this week, we check in with stars Steven Mackintosh and Olivia Williams to learn more…
What was it that attracted you to The Halcyon?
Steven Mackintosh: There’s so much for people to enjoy. The scripts are great and the sets are amazing. The other day when we were halfway through shooting, we watched a trailer. Everybody came away elated. It was a great feeling. You get a sense of how things are going on set and you can feel it if something is working. But it’s wonderful to actually see all the elements come together like that.
Olivia Williams: What I love about this show is that my character, Lady Priscilla Hamilton, really goes on an emotional journey. One of her sons is doing war work, and the other is going through an identity crisis which she doesn’t understand. During the course of the series, she also falls in love. I hope that all the emotions from A to Z will pass across my face!
Olivia, how do we first meet Lady Hamilton?
OW: Our first acquaintance with her is when she arrives from the country to find that her husband has been using the hotel to see his mistress. She’s in shock. She realises that she’s been a patsy. Everyone except her knew what was going on, including the hotel manager.
How does she react to the news?
OW: She responds with a hatchet face. I played Eleanor Roosevelt in the movie Hyde Park on Hudson. Eleanor found out that her husband was sleeping with her secretary. She said she would stay with him on two conditions: that he never saw the mistress again and that Eleanor and Franklin would never have sex again. Thirty years later, Eleanor found out that the mistress was in the room when Franklin died. So, at the funeral, Eleanor had a hatchet face. I based my hatchet face on that.
Steven, can you tell us more about your character, Richard Garland?
SM: Garland is the hotel manager. He’s the ultimate host. He’s come up through the ranks. He started out as a porter and has worked his way up. He now finds himself at the pinnacle. He could get a position at any of the top hotels in London – he’s very highly regarded in his field. That’s an extraordinary position to be in. He has a lot of responsibility and a lot of different elements to control. He effortlessly straddles the worlds of the staff and the guests. That’s an important part of who he is. He can deal with the staff in the corridors and be able to be strong and authoritative with them. But he can also be sympathetic, gentle and diplomatic with the guests.
So, he’s quite unflappable?
SM: Garland can deal with lots of different situations while always remaining calm. There are points in this series where he’s pushed to extremes, but whenever he’s put in a corner, he’s unruffled. It’s all going on behind the scenes, but publicly he’s always able to maintain that front. It’s all about maintaining that air of “business as usual” front of house, even if things are falling apart in his office. It’s a fantastic part to play. Garland can juggle inside and maintain the well-oiled machine at the same time. To be asked to play all those dimensions in a character is a dream.
What other aspects of Garland do we see?
SM: He’s had to deal with all sorts in his life, and that’s made him the man he is today. The other element that’s crucial to his job is that he’s an international man of discretion. He’s the all-seeing manager and your secret is safe with him – unless you cross a line. The keeper of the secrets is a fantastically powerful position to occupy. He knows how to use the secrets if things get tricky. He has the power of knowledge up his sleeve. He’s very good at playing chess with people. It’s great – there’s so much to get your teeth into with this character.
So, there’s more to him than meets the eye?
SM: Absolutely. He has lots of secrets. On one level, he’s the genial host and a very smooth operator. But further down the line, there is more to reveal about this man’s past. At first glance, you see the surface of the character. But there is much more that lies beneath. The fact that he’s keeping things hidden makes him very interesting to play. Knowing that many secrets from his past will re-emerge is very enticing for an actor. There are a lot of layers there.
Olivia, why does World War II act as such a powerful backdrop to The Halcyon?
OW: Because during that period, people ran through the full gamut of emotions. It was an era of such intensity. Relationships were really accelerated – people went very quickly from joy to grief and back to joy again. What I love about this drama is that The Halcyon is a bright spot on the middle of blackout London. People are hitting town and dancing and listening to jazz in the hotel’s mirrored bar. It’s about love and music and dancing through a crisis.
Did that really happen?
OW: Yes. My step-grandmother, who has just reached 100, told me that during the war she would go dancing with G.I.s at the Hammersmith Palais. She would dance until her feet bled. They would keep dancing until the sirens went off. Then they’d get under the table – like that would save them! She told me firsthand that people would dance away their fear.
But The Halcyon doesn’t ignore the darker side of the war, does it?
OW: No. Not everyone in this drama is singing spirit-building songs. Some people are terrified of the bombs falling and are driven mad by the Blitz. The show doesn’t shy away from showing the harsh truth of the war.
Do you think there are any parallels with the world today?
OW: Absolutely. The Second World War has become an allegory. The news is beyond difficult to watch these days. But you can deal more easily with modern issues through the prism of the Second World War. We can process what we’re going through emotionally without having to face it full-on. We hear about the Second World War and say, “How awful it must have been!” It was. But there are many places today where people live with a similar fear that a bomb might land on them at any moment. Name me a country today that doesn’t have some connection with the fear of terrorism or war. There isn’t a country now that isn’t suffering something similar to what we’re portraying in The Halcyon. The parallels lie in the idea of people trying to survive in a time of war.
What does the set contribute to the drama, and how does it help you as performers?
SM: The set is fantastic. It really helps you get into character. The scale of it is so impressive – your imagination doesn’t have to do very much. It’s a complete hotel, rather than separate pieces. One room leads to another. The reception goes right through to the bar, and you can travel from the foyer to my office to the telephone switchboard room. When you can do that, it gives you the sense that this is a real place, and not just lots of composite bits.
OW: It’s not a stretch. The attention to detail is amazing. You open a drawer and see Halcyon headed notepaper and a fountain pen from that era. The costumes are the same. You instantly feel different when you put on these beautiful clothes. The workmanship, the weight and the fabric of the costumes all help you get into the period. The costume department are so on it!
Steven, what does that realism add to your performance?
SM: It’s really helpful. It’s all about movement, particularly for Garland, who is the roving host of the building. He is the eyes and ears of the building, constantly moving from one space to another. He’s a hub character – his eyes are on every single aspect of the hotel. It’s good to have that movement, rather than remaining static in one room. On this set, you can also cross from the staff area to the opulence and glamour of the front of house area. The drama is all about that contrast.
Why do you think the hotel works so well as an arena for drama?
SM: Because it emphasises the idea of contrast that lies at the heart of The Halcyon. The glamorous and opulent hotel interior is contrasted with the bombs dropping outside. The staff’s philosophy is that no matter what’s going on outside, we must continue as we have always done. It may be powdered egg on the outside, but it will always be caviar and partying on the inside – because that’s what we do.