Keeley Hawes: 'I know what the world's like when it's run by children, I've got three of them!'

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Keeley Hawes attending the Royal Television Society Programme Awards 2022
Keeley Hawes attending the Royal Television Society Programme Awards 2022

As thrilling new sci-fi series The Midwich Cuckoos arrives on our screens, Danielle de Wolfe learns more from stars Keeley Hawes and Synnove Karlsen.

It's been eight years since actress Keeley Hawes landed the part of Gemma Webster in the thrilling BBC drama The Missing.

At the tender age of 38, she was playing the untimely role of grandmother to her young co-star Indica Watson. Now, more than half a decade on, the Bafta-nominated actress is set to do it all again - albeit as part of a tale even more bizarre.

Swapping the world of dark detective dramas for the mysteries of science fiction, Hawes takes the lead as part of forthcoming Sky Original drama The Midwich Cuckoos.

Seated beside co-star Synnove Karlsen, whose other roles include TV series Medici and Clique, wearing a buoyant black tulle top and sleek side-swept bob, the It's A Sin and Line of Duty actress looks the picture of poise and glamour.

It's an image that stands in contrast to her latest on-screen character, Professor Susannah Zellaby, whose world is unexpectedly turned upside down in the show's opening episode.

"I haven't really done sci-fi since Ashes To Ashes, I suppose. Well, it's a version of sci-fi, it's got time travel," says Hawes, now 46.

Her latest project is one the actress describes as "really fresh" and "unusual", putting the change of direction down to a desire for something "very different".

Set in the sleepy commuter town of Midwich, the series is a modern-day adaptation of John Wyndham's renowned science fiction novel of the same name.

It also follows the 1960 film adaptation entitled Village Of The Damned.

The story sees life in the quiet and affluent British town turned on its head as residents begin passing out without warning. With panic naturally ensuing, the localised blackout sees all communication to the town is cut off.

"I feel like we kind of just had a blackout," reflects Scottish co-star Karlsen, 25, noting the show's parallels with the real world. "For me, it felt like the perfect project to be working on off the back of this global pandemic, which felt like a complete blackout in itself. Just waiting. Sat at home."

It's a point Hawes expands upon, noting the short-lived mass exodus from urbanised areas during lockdown.

"I think a lot of people were leaving the city to go to towns like Midwich," says the actress. "And then, as we found, everybody realising that it might not be all it's cracked up to be."

With Susannah trapped outside the zone while her daughter remains inside, fate unknown, the race is on to understand the cause. Police officer Paul Haynes, played by Suits and Mad Dogs star Max Beesley, is tasked with maintaining order. Yet, as quickly as the blackout began, it lifts, with residents of childbearing age awakening to a very new reality.

It's a bleak yet intriguing framework that sees Hawes' character, Susannah, become an expectant grandmother. "She's on the backfoot for a bit there," smiles Hawes, raising her eyebrows. "Susannah becoming a grandmother is, well, a sort of spanner in the works."

It's at this point Hawes notes the modernisation that's taken place when it comes to revamping this modern-day fable. Pointing out that her character was a male doctor in both the book and film adaptation, the star says a male-led project about the female body instantly left the source material "feeling quite dated".

"It's a story about women and their bodies and their bodies being taken over," says Hawes. "So, it was quite sort of odd that a male was at the centre of all that."

A trained psychotherapist, Susannah is brought onboard by the local police in an official capacity to help with the aftermath of events. Except, as you might expect, nothing in Midwich is quite what it seems.

"Cuckoos hijack other birds' nests," notes writer David Farr rather cryptically. "They enter a bird's nest, and they take it over; and they actually remove, rather violently, the eggs of the original mother. The mother doesn't seem to notice, until it's too late."

It's an eerie analogy reflected in both the show and its title. With a new generation of children, all conceived on the night of the blackout, harbouring dark and dangerous tendencies, chaos begins to ensue from the inside out. Working together, it's not long before the next generation of children are the ones in control.

"Oh, I know what the world's like when it's run by children," exclaims Hawes. "I've got three of them!"

Describing how the miniature on-screen army was whittled down from an initial group of 2,000 children, actress Indica Watson (Sherlock, Radioactive) found herself reunited with Hawes as her on-screen miracle grandchild. It was a moment that saw the 12-year-old's career come full circle nearly eight years on, having played Hawes' granddaughter - her first major television role - in the second series of The Missing.

The successful child auditionees found themselves donning wigs and false teeth in a bid to "unify their look". It's a terrifying sight, with oversized, perfectly symmetrical teeth crammed into the tiny mouths of primary school children.

"It adds this sort of oddly heightened aspect to it," says Hawes. "Children of that age generally look quite scrappy and they've always got missing teeth."

Describing how the gaggle of children were constantly distracted by their new sets of dentures, the actress says the scare-factor was quickly dispelled courtesy of the group's "hilarious" on-set antics.

"They sing a lot," says Hawes. "They're not actually terrifying at all. They do TikTok dances all the time. The combination of the script and the children, no-one could have predicted just how brilliantly creepy they were going to be."

The Midwich Cuckoos comes to Sky Max from Thursday, with all episodes available to stream on NOW

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