Exclusive: 'Bedlam' Co-Creator David Allison on Crafting a Scary Ghost Story for TV


Are ghosts the new zombies? That's just one of the questions I put to writer-producer David Allison when I spoke with him yesterday about his new supernatural drama Bedlam. Bedlam concerns a group of sexy British twentysomethings who live in an apartment building that used to be a mental asylum -- and is now haunted by the ghosts of its former inhabitants. The show's six first-season episodes were a hit in the UK, and a second season appears likely. You can see what all the fuss is about tomorrow, October 1st, when the first season begins airing on BBC America at 10pm/9c. Check out my chat with Allison after the jump.   

Can you talk about the genesis of Bedlam? What did you want to bring to a twenty-first century ghost story?

Sure. It's co-created and co-written by three of us – Neil Jones, Chris Parker and myself. We've known each other for over a decade. The show was in development for five years before it even got made, as is the way in television sometimes. Basically we wanted to co-write something. By American standards we're barely a team, but actually in Britain a lot of shows are written by one writer or maybe comedy-writing duos, but team-written things are quite rare. We wanted to write a genre show. We wanted to write something that was in our genre. What dawned on us was we didn't think there was any TV that was really scary. There's plenty of supernatural and sci-fi shows. There's obviously a huge amount out there. But I think we were interested in the idea of a ghost story and what a ghost story does in terms of making you feel frightened and scared. So we just got into a bit of a discussion about that. Bedlam is what came out basically.

Do you find it difficult to generate scares in a weekly TV show? Does the level of difficulty vary between cable and commercial TV?

We're on a cable channel in the UK, and I think a similar thing is happening in the landscape. Obviously the BBC is huge. I don't think America has a BBC. I think that's a different thing in the landscape. But there are a lot more cable channels. The cable channel on which we're aired in the UK, this was their first drama commission. So it was very exciting for us. We felt like we were part of something, part of the changing landscape. That channel showed Supernatural and Ghost Whisperer, so they had an audience and knew what they wanted to do. They knew who their audience was. I think we were quite influenced by some American shows, in terms of the storytelling. We kind of wanted to get in really early, hit the audience hard. We wanted a pre-title sequence. We didn't want to be polite. We didn't want to be too British about it. [Laughs.] I mean it's certainly a British show, and hopefully it's British horror. But we wanted it to be a ride kind of a thrill.

But it is definitely hard to produce scares every week. That's the challenge of the show. They're very hard to write. We all pitched in to help each other, and I think that's what's great about there being three of us, as well as the production company. We can all help bring those stories to life. It's something that's very hard to do on your own. It's great when someone can go, "How about doing it this way around?" We learned a lot on the show as well, and I think if we go into a second [season] we can do even better. It's a really exciting thing to do. I love it. I love writing it.

Since there are three of you writing the scripts, does each of you find yourself identifying with a particular character?

Yeah, I think when we first divided up the characters we even wrote a biography each. I definitely wrote Ryan. I remember that. So I think maybe you do have a sense of ownership a little bit about different things.  I suppose the kinds of stories you tell are the kinds of characters you're interested in. In episode 3, which I wrote, the ghost character is quite an interesting, damaged person. I'm interested in people like that. That's just a personal thing… The joy of it is you can pitch your own stories, but you can all help bring them to life. That's what really helps.

Each episode can stand alone, but there's an ongoing background story. Can you describe that overall arc for the first season?

[Laughs.] Yeah, it's been a while since I wrote it. It's about the building really. And the family that ran the building when it was an asylum. The son of the guy who ran the building is back; and he's now redeveloped it. It's his daughter Kate who's one of our main characters, who's helping sell or rent these apartments out. We always think of the building as a character. I think it's one of the main characters. It's about what happened in that building. Kate, the daughter, she doesn't really understand what goes on in this building. She doesn't understand what her family did. But she has a kind of malevolent side herself, that she doesn't really understand. I suppose it's a journey for her to understand what went on. She has this adopted cousin, Jed, and it's his journey too. I don't want to give any spoilers away. But he is inextricably linked to that building as well. So it's really about exploring what happened in that building and why this is a bad place. And why renovating it and turning it into luxury apartments was a bad idea. [Laughs.] In a nutshell, it's about the building.

Turning a haunted mental asylum into an apartment complex does seem like the worst idea since building a suburban neighborhood atop a Native American burial ground. [Laughs.]

I've been asked quite a few times, "Who would do such a thing?" There was a particular former asylum, a huge place… we did a lot of research of stories of people in asylums throughout different centuries. Some pretty gruesome stories. There was one place that had an online archive, so we were able to look at different stories, and some of the ghost stories really came from that archive. We actually went to look at the building, and this was after the show had been commissioned and we were writing it… We went out to look at the building, and they were turning it into luxury flats. They were doing it. It was completely Bedlam. It was crazy. We talked to a security guard who worked there, and he was like, "Yeah, I don't like this place at night." [Laughs.] And I was thinking, "Well I wouldn't live there…" So I guess this sort of thing does happen. We have a lot of old buildings, and a lot of them get reused in different places. It happens with churches a lot in this country. They'll become other things. So I guess it makes sense that a building can have a different use; it's just in this case the building has some very dark secrets in it.

How much inspiration did you draw from the Bedlam, the actual London mental hospital from which the word sprung.

That was part of our research. The name has come to mean all kinds of things, and it was based on a real hospital… I think what we were interested in, in Bedlam Hospital and many other asylums… There was obviously a time when the physicians and doctors who ran these places had just unlimited power. It was also a place on the margins of society, and people could be incarcerated there for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes people would be locked up and there was nothing wrong with them. They just flirted with the wrong person. And those physicians, they saw themselves as being at the forefront of medical science. So they were able to carry out the most untried and untested experiments. They were essentially experimenting on human beings in a way that was not acceptable in the rest of society. That's what's so interesting about these places. Of course it's not true of all asylums and not true of all patients. But if you think about lobotomies that went on until the 1980s, in the UK and in the US, people didn't understand fully what happens, and they're now being largely discredited. But that sort of stuff went on a lot, because there were people who wanted to try stuff out; and in asylums you could do that. Obviously that could also lead to disturbing and tragic consequences… We wanted the ghosts to have real backstories. To have a real resonance, like a real person who had something happen to them. You can't stand and talk to them now, but they are based on real stories.

Aside from the real history of such asylums, can you talk about the ghost stories that influenced you guys?

Yeah, there were a lot of things. Obviously as a horror fan, you're going to be influenced by the classics, like The Shining and stuff like that. But the one thing we all found we were interested in was the Japanese horror of the late ‘90s and 2000s, like The Ring and Audition and Dark Water. Often they have a great sense of suspense, but there's not a lot of gore in there. I mean, there is in Audition. But often it's about the fear of what's behind the door, or what's on the other side. I think they do it so well. They're so beautifully told. We were so influenced by that. We didn't want it to be gory. We wanted to have people in the palm of our hands, going, "What's going to happen next?" I think Japanese horror does that so well.

Can you talk about what's next for the show? You've apparently begun writing the second season, but have you been officially picked up yet?

[Laughs.] What can I say here… We are working on a second [season], and we're not able to confirm things, but we can let you know it's looking pretty good. Let's say that.

Good to hear. Is there a new direction you'd like the show to take in its second season?

Yeah. What we were all interested in was the ghost of the week, but we love the idea of clues and paying things off. There's plenty of stuff in the first season that we can run with. Part of what's in the building and some of the secrets that the building yields; we've had lots of ideas that we have not explored in the first season, that we want to take on further, definitely. We want people to have that enjoyment where they can turn up and watch the ghost story of the week and they don't need to know anything else, but if they want to invest in clues and, through repeated viewings, little things they might have missed the first time around, it's all there. We're really excited about doing more of that in the second season.    

With American Horror Story and the new Daniel Craig movie Dream House, as well as the buzz generated by the Locke & Key pilot, it seems ghosts are making a comeback in pop culture. Are ghosts the new zombies? Or the new vampires? And if so, do you guys take some pride in knowing you were at the front of this latest wave?

For all writers it's a really weird thing when you tap into a zeitgeist.  Because as I said, we were working on it for five years. So when you're coming up with an idea or working on it, you have no idea of why you were influenced by something or why you came up with it. But it's really fascinating when you start seeing other stuff. It's really exciting and really interesting. Of course we do feel that satisfaction. But why that is, why ghosts are so prevalent in stories now? I don't know. I love ghost stories, so I'm delighted. The more the merrier. But why that is I don't know. In Britain, we have such an enormously rich history of ghost stories, from literature and onwards. We have so much to draw on that I've always been surprised that we don't have more ghost stories on TV, and more supernatural  television. But that is changing, and obviously the success of Doctor Who and Being Human and various other shows… That is changing. But what we've tapped into, who knows why that is? It's very interesting.

With Shakespeare and everyone who influenced him, ghosts have been present since the beginning of English storytelling.

Most great British writers have had a ghost story appear in their work somewhere. It's just something we're fascinated by. We've got the climate for it maybe. [Laughs.]

True. [Laughs.] And also the history. Since you've been around so much longer than we have, you have more centuries of ghosts to draw on.

I think that could be it. And I think old buildings are spooky. That's a fact. Old buildings and dark nights, all of that stuff adds together very nicely.

Thank you very much for your time today, David.

My pleasure.