Most poet laureates manage to elude pop-culture fame.
Sure, we’ve heard of a few of them – in England, William Wordsworth and Alfred, Lord Tennyson; in the U.S. some Roberts (Frost, Lowell, Penn Warren). But ask a friend to recite a poem by Colley Cibber or Allen Tate or Randall Jarell.
Still, the late Cecil Day-Lewis (England’s laureate, 1968-72) made two notable contributions: 1) His son, Oscar-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis; and 2) “The Beast Must Die,” a novel that has become an Argentine movie, a French movie and now a British mini-series, starring Cush Jumbo and Billy Howle (shown here), that debuts at 10 p.m. Monday (July 12) on AMC.
What about Daniel Day-Lewis? Wasn’t he interested in starring?
“Yeah, he was,” Jumbo said. “He wanted to play a female, Black schoolteacher. But I was better.”
She was joking about that, but she does give a potent performance as a vengeful mom, intent on catching her son’s killer. “I was pushed to my very limit on this job,” she said.
In real life, she said, “I don’t swim in the sea …. I don’t stand in the freezing cold and get pelted with rain and I don’t hang off the edge of cliffs.” Nor, perhaps, does she rage; that’s not the British way.
“You hold yourself back,” co-star Billy Howle said, “because, of course, we’re hopefully brought up to be polite and nice to each other. But then … the story dictates that you need not be likable or polite.”
He plays a gentleman detective with the way-strange name of Nigel Strangeways. Having trouble making money from poetry alone, Day-Lewis created the character and featured him in 16 novels, written under the pen name Nicholas Blake.
This was the fourth, published in 1938 and forever drawing movie attention. The Argentine film was in 1952, the French one (directed by Claude Chabrol) was in ‘69. (An unrelated horror film also used that title, in ‘74.) In 2015, Nathaniel Parker – best-known as an actor who starred in the “Inspector Lynley” series and more – bought the rights.
Parker produced this five-week series and plays Nigel’s therapist, in intense little scenes (one is shown here) with Howle.
Nigel was a big-city cop whose colleague was killed. Shattered by that, he took a police job in the Isle of Wight, far from the city. This becomes a story, Howle said, of “entrapment and escape.”
Except Nigel can’t escape pain. On his first day, he meets a teacher who was on vacation when her 6-year-old son was killed by a hit-and-run driver. Nigel is overwhelmed; soon, the teacher is disguising her identity, investigating the case and wedging herself into the life of the prime suspect.
In the book, that parent was white and male, but writer Gaby Chiappe changed that. “I was much more interested in that character as a woman,” she said.
The role went to Jumbo, 35 – Nigerian on her father’s side, English on her mother’s and ranging afar.
A Shakespearean actress who won an award in “As You Like It” and a nomination as Mark Antony iu an all-female “Julius Caesar,” she also did three seasons of support in the Irish cop series “Vera.” Then came American stardom as Lucca in “The Good Wife” and “The Good Fight.”
Jumbo still does the latter, but between seasons she tackled this fierce role. “It was a really intense shoot,” she said. “We had the whole crew and all of us actors kind of in a bubble on an island.”
They tackled the pain and rage that a poet laureate created in his unpoetic moments.