In The Tower, DS Sarah Collins (Gemma Whelan) and DC Steve Bradshaw (Jimmy Akingbola) are called to investigate the death of teenage civilian Farah Mehenni (Lola Elsokari) and PC Hadley Matthews (Nick Holder) in London. This police procedural, which debuted on BritBox on December 1, leaves plenty of interesting twists and turns for viewers to navigate. One of Collins’ biggest challenges is to engage with Matthews’ surviving partner, PC Lizzie Adama (Tahirah Sharif), who witnessed what transpired.
The mini-series is a BritBox Original, adapted from Kate London’s novel Post Mortem by executive producer and writer Patrick Harbinson. Harbinson has a distinguished career in television, serving as executive producer of Homeland and co-executive producer of 24, Law & Order: SVU, and other hit series. I spoke with him recently to hear more about his work on The Tower.
First as an icebreaker, I asked Harbinson if he learned a lesson early on that became useful in his career. “The general one is to never give up. The more practical and technical one that I learned was to be able to rewrite,” he answered.
Harbinson was very interested in adapting Kate London’s books around the time he was wrapping up with Homeland. He wanted to get back into UK projects. Others were also trying to secure a deal for London’s books. “I think because I was into both writing and producing, it was a much simpler decision for Kate to make. As good as a producer as the others were, they would have had to look for a writer. I was a one-stop shop,” he told me on our call.
The Tower shifts quickly between different points in the story timeline. When I suggested that that could be tricky at times, Harbinson agreed. However, he’s used to working through those challenges since he’s done it before. He compressed the timeline in The Tower to three days in the present. “It’s what I said in the beginning about learning to rewrite. In the end, I was really confident that we’d done a really good job.”
Post Mortem was published in 2015 by London, a former detective who spent eight years in the Metropolitan Police’s homicide squad. Harbinson pointed out, “The story still works. Everything about it was still very current.”
He informed London that he wanted to make one major change. Originally, Collins and Adama—the latter was named Griffiths in the book—were both white. Harbinson changed Adama’s character to a young Black officer, which works “psychologically, morally, and intrinsically to the story.”
Also, he added, “It made it harder and infinitely more interesting to write and to act.”
I asked Harbinson to tell me what he thought Gemma Whelan and Tahirah Sharif brought to their characters, DS Sarah Collins and PC Lizzie Adama. “Gemma can embody all of these contradictions in a character,” he said. “She can be disciplined to the point of ruthlessness. But she can be quite warm, so there is an underlying kindness to her personality that makes everything she does really layered.”
Sharif brings a lot to her performances as well, encompassing two sides of Adama: a sort of before and after the “cataclysmic event” that The Tower opened with. Adama is quite happy with her job and her co-workers in the days before circumstances shift leaving her feeling like no one has her back. “I knew Tahirah could do big with guilt- and grief-ridden stuff from her other work,” said Harbinson.
In early discussions with Sharif, Harbinson noticed that she had a great laugh. “I should write that into the script,” he recounted to me. “She helped me, quite accidentally, create the two Lizzies. She’s a great, young actress. She brought the power and the humility to it.”
When I asked which scenes were his favorites, Harbinson quickly named the interview scene as one. “Kate came to [the] set with another detective still on at the Met [who] was acting as an advisor. I remember watching these two women watching as Gemma and Tahirah fought and sparred. I could see they were both completely gripped.”
His other favorite scene is the final exchange between Whelan and Akingbola, who played DC Steve Bradshaw, DS Sarah Collins’ partner in the special investigation. “It was a really lovely twist in the story and in the characters’ relationships. The way those two actors delivered it was magnificent,” said Harbinson.
The Tower is available now on BritBox, a streaming service from BBC Studios and ITV.