The Brexit and Covid parallels in Emily Watson’s new drama The Third Day

An eerie oddball islander is the latest meaty role for Emily Watson. Adrian Lobb asks her why isolation loomed large in the new series

Emily Watson has always been a barometer of quality. Since her film debut in Lars von Trier’s Breaking The Waves, for which she received a Best Actress Oscar nomination in 1996, through her performance as Jacqueline Du Pre in biopic Hilary and Jackie two years later which garnered another nomination and films like Angela’s Ashes, Gosford Park, up to recent TV greats Little Women and last year’s Chernobyl, Watson has consistently proved she has a radar for good writing.

Only the best scripts pass Watson’s eagle eye. So when she was inked in to join Jude Law, Naomie Harris and Paddy Considine in The Third Day – an eerie, unsettling series set largely on a small island inhabited by oddballs and eccentrics with differing views on outsiders – it was a fair bet that it would be worth watching. And it doesn’t disappoint. Another bold, ambitious and beautifully filmed drama to add to Watson’s collection – this one with hints of The Wicker Man in its sinister undertones.

“It’s quite unusual, isn’t it?” says Watson, with huge understatement. “Strange things happen at every turn. It goes down a thriller or mystery path, has elements of horror but is also quite allegorical about religious isolationism. It is such a mixed pot. And I love the way Marc Munden [director of episodes 1-3] sees the world. There’s a sharpness and a clarity and a beauty. You don’t feel like we’re in a normal world when he’s looking through the lens.”

Watson plays Mrs Martin, who, with her husband (played by Considine) runs the local pub.

“Before we shot last summer, I went with my family on a safari and I decided that she was a rhino,” Watson says. “She’s a very bold person who has this disgusting mouth on her – she swears at the drop of a hat, she’s rude to people but at the same time is very in touch with the emotional realm. She can read people. Her moral compass is probably not one that you and I would share – so that’s quite dangerous.”

Watson’s reading of the series has evolved, she says, since filming it last year. When it was filmed, Brexit was the only game in town – so characters choosing between opening up their island or remaining closed to the world had obvious parallels.

“The people of the island are convinced that if something goes awry on the island, things will go wrong for the whole world. They see themselves absolutely as the centre of the universe. And that gives them permission to behave in ways that are beyond the pale.

“But unintentionally, it is also about what being isolated does to relationships and your sense of place. So you know how when somebody is wearing a mask you can’t just exchange a glance that means everything? In the show, you can never really tell who anybody is because everybody presents this front that you can’t read.”

The pre-Covid plan for The Third Day involved a massive live festival – set on the island and featuring the key characters – to be filmed and aired live between episodes three and four. It was to be masterminded by the Punchdrunk theatre company, who are renowned for their pioneering immersive events on a grand scale and whose founder Felix Barrett co-created the series with Utopia writer Dennis Kelly. Viewers were going to be able to enter a lottery to win tickets to be part of it.

“I literally just came off a call with Marc and Felix about what we are now calling the ‘as-live event’. We are filming it on October 3. Originally it was conceived that the islanders were throwing a music festival and there were going to be 2,000 people on the island,” says Watson.

Everybody presents this front that you can’t read

“That can’t happen now. So they have redelivered the concept of it to be a sort of ritual coming-of-age, ceremonial, pastoral passion play. It’s not live broadcasting, but it’s ‘slow cinema’. There is one camera. You will be staying and lingering with one thing for a long time. It’s being rehearsed and put together by Punchdrunk, who make everything so alive and seductive.

If the islanders in this drama are wary of ‘outsiders’, then Watson could not be more different. She talks with passion about the Citizens of the World Choir, of which she is a patron. Watson describes their work and music as “like taking a bath in the opposite of hate”.

“It is a choir of asylum seekers, refugees, migrants and friends,” says Watson. “There are really talented musicians who bring different influences – so there’s Iranian rap, folk music from different places, a lot of African influences, an Indian dancer.”

Last year, Watson’s co-star Jude Law, who she has admired since their paths crossed in Anna Karenina, introduced her to Peace One Day, the non-profit organisation promoting an initiative to see a day of global ceasefire and non-violence on September 21 each year – leading to the Citizens of the World Choir singing with Basement Jaxx at the Globe Theatre.

“This year, Felix Buxton [from Basement Jaxx] has written a piece called The Love Trilogy which they are recording together along with The London Contemporary Voices to go out on Peace One Day,” says Watson.

“It has been hard for them in lockdown. Becky [Dell, the musical director] has spent the summer trying to get private landlords housing asylum seekers to fix showers when they’ve had no hot water for weeks and helping people struggling to get food.

“When everyone is struggling, the people right at the bottom of the food chain are really falling through the cracks. It has been tough on them but they have this gig coming up.

“It’s not just the singing but the people. They have been through all these traumas, arrive to the ‘hostile environment’ but here they find real community. They have been keeping each other going through lockdown, because that’s their family.”

The Third Day is on Sky Atlantic