Interview: Dennis Kelly on 'Utopia'

Phil Harrison hears from the writer of the C4 thriller about Diana, sex and murderous babies

Prescient comic books, paranoid internet conspirators and a shadowy organisation called The Network, controlling the clinical drugs trade and torturing people with chillis. The blankly dystopian world of ‘Utopia’ is a far cry from Dennis Kelly’s last big TV project, the savagely hysterical ‘Pulling’. He tells Phil Harrison how it came about.

How long has ‘Utopia’ been in the making?

‘About two years.The production company came to me with an idea about a conspiracy hidden within a comic. I liked the idea of people trapped inside something they use every day. In conspiracy dramas, characters are usually people in the know. They’re spies or journalists or cops or whatever. They’re rarely just ordinary. I wanted more normal, crap characters! I thought you could do something that was more real but with elements that were completely unreal.’

That helps make it funny too. There’s a great nerd sex scene…

‘I thought I’d better put a sex scene in at some stage, but I thought: “I’m fucked if I’m going to put an erotic one in.” I don’t get the obsession with sex scenes. Given what we could look at on the internet, why do people need sex scenes in movies? It doesn’t make any sense to me.’

Yet despite the occasional humour, the atmosphere’s really unsettling…

Blinded by the light in 'Utopia' Blinded by the light in 'Utopia'

‘[The director] Marc Munden’s visual style has really enhanced my ideas. Right from the first scene in the comic shop, the look of the guys from The Network is all down to him. Things like that create this odd, atmospheric, moody world. Neil Maskell [the shadowy organisation’s chief enforcer] seems to be playing this sort of murderous baby. It’s terrifying. He’s a really nice guy, actually. When I first met him I was a bit scared because I’ve only really seen him when he’s been killing people with hammers and stuff.’

Is there a political dimension to ‘Utopia’?

‘I don’t know about political. But the idea of a utopia itself is interesting. Because the utopia that these characters want to bring about might be gruesome or disgusting to most people. So it’s trying to talk about a possible future. All dystopian and utopian fictions are, really.’

Are you a believer in conspiracy theories?

‘I’m not. But I’m really interested in them because so many people are believers. I know of smart people who would rather believe a conspiracy than an obvious truth. Maybe it’s our desire for fiction. Maybe it’s because we’ve had television for 60 years now. Although it would be great if one or two of them were proved right!’

Although if that happened, before we knew it, everything would be a conspiracy theory…

‘Yeah, if in 30 years time, we find out that Diana actually was killed by the Royal Family, then that’s it! Because that’s the most preposterous conspiracy theory in the world, that you’d use a drunken driver to kill someone like that. In “Utopia”, I initially had the idea that The Network might be responsible for the rise in conspiracy theories because  they figured it was the best way to hide an actual conspiracy.’

Aren’t conspiracy theories also a symbol of powerlessness, of people who are bored with their lives and need to feel that there’s something bigger?

‘Yeah, I think people do feel that need. Enormous things happened in the twentieth century. Maybe we need to feel like we’re involved in something that big. Culture has become less political. If you’re at university, you don’t need to be a card-carrying member of the Communist Party to get laid anymore. Thirty or 40 years ago, that’s how it worked. Now, if you’re a member of a party, you’re probably a dick.’

Did you know exactly where it was going when you started?

‘I didn’t know exactly how it was going to end, but I had an idea of it. I don’t like to know too much, because if I’m surprised by it then there’s a good chance the viewer will be surprised by it too. I sometimes find it frustrating with TV that you know where something’s going from pretty early on. The thing that’s interesting about telly is that you can develop a story over weeks and weeks.’

‘Utopia’ begins on Tuesday January 15 at 10pm on Channel 4.