You never know when you spend a long time on something, and everyone puts in a massive effort whether it’ll come out and be seen by one man and his dog,” says film-maker Lenny Abrahamson on a crackly line from his home in Dublin. “So it’s nice when it all comes off.”
We’re talking the day after the BBC screened the first episode of Normal People, which he directed, the adaptation of Sally Rooney’s acclaimed second novel. To call the response “nice” is an understatement, the show was met with universal praise from critics. “A small screen triumph, said The Guardian. The Telegraph called it “A rare treat” .
What’s more, the first episode felt like a TV event, in a way that had become unusual until lockdown. The narrative is about the intimate relationship between two young people Marianne (played by Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) through school and university, and Abrahamson thinks that the intimacy “tapped into people’s lives now, that sense of what is important.”
He has lived with the project for a long time, reading the book before publication when the production company he almost always works with, Element Pictures, sent him an advance copy. “When I read it I knew we had to get the rights. And I knew that I wanted to direct it.” As well as the intimate nature of the story, he loved Rooney’s “powerful and simple prose”. He was drawn to the character-led narrative, and could see the way it would translate to screen. Determined “to do it justice” he assembled a “great team”. The result is a series that is beautiful to look at as well as emotionally tender and honest. He admits to being delighted at how the final version turned out. “I watched it over my wife’s shoulder as she viewed for the first time and I could sort of see it properly from that distance and it looked good”.
The JC last interviewed Abrahasmson in 2018 when he was following up Oscar-nominated Room with an adaptation of Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger. Then he told James Marriott: “I’m not at all religious. But culturally [being Jewish] had a profound effect on me, in ways that are so hard to unpick; it’s a big part of my formative years.”
Now, we talk about how being an outsider — a theme that runs through Normal People — is a “useful way to see things,” how, although he feels very Irish, there has always been a way in which he felt different growing up in “such a monocultural place”, and that helps him draw institutions and behaviours “into the inquisitorial light”.
The recent debate over abortion in Ireland, when he spoke out in favour of women’s rights to choose, drew antisemitic abuse on social media, although he stresses it was from “a very small minority of people with a virulent right-wing agenda. The last gasp of a certain strain of Catholic far right nationalism.” His reaction was to call it out. “I don’t feel worried,” he says, although he’s aware that “these things can expand with terrifying rapidity.” The lesson he takes from the experience is that right-wing antisemitism remains “as always the greatest danger” and that inequality and austerity can feed resentment and hate. He thinks Jews should “fight austerity. I’m much more worried about the Tories than I was about Labour under Corbyn.”
He’s in lockdown with his wife and two children who are nine and 12 — “old enough to not drive us crazy all day, young enough not to go crazy about all the parties they are missing.” His elderly mother lives near enough that they can go for a chat from the pavement outside her house.
His next project, though“I keep on saying no more literary adaptations” just had to be Sally Rooney’s first novel, Conversations With Friends. “I just couldn’t imagine not being involved.”
Normal People is available on BBC iPlayer and BBC1 on Mondays at 9pm