The BBC has commissioned a 12-part series based on Sally Rooney’s hit debut novel Conversations with Friends in the hope that fans of the young Irish author will bring in younger audiences.
The BBC is to show its forthcoming adaptation of Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, suggesting the corporation is already banking on the series being a hit when it is released by the online-only BBC Three service in April.
The BBC said many of the team members who worked on Normal People, starring the relatively unknown actors Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, will transfer across to Conversations with Friends, which traces the relationship between two university students and a couple living in Dublin.
Rooney will remain involved in the second series along with the director, Lenny Abrahamson, and the screenwriter, Alice Birch. In common with many BBC dramas, the cost of making Conversations with Friends will be shared with a US streaming service, Hulu.
“We will commission work from Sally Rooney for as long as she’s writing, because she’s got such an exciting voice and is able to write about young people lives in a direct and authentic way,” said the BBC drama controller, Piers Wenger.
Explaining why the BBC chose to film the two books in reverse order, he said: “Conversations with Friends was in development elsewhere. Sally had seen how well Normal People had played out as 12 half-hours because it allowed you to get inside the minds and lives of the character. Normal People is a different piece with a different tone and a different set of characters.”
Rooney said she wanted to “find fresh and interesting ways of dramatising the novel’s dynamics”. The adaptation was unveiled alongside a run of forthcoming BBC drama commissions from first-time writers, including Nicôle Lecky’s one woman Royal Court show, Superhoe, about a young woman who dreams of being a singer before turning to online sex work.
The BBC also announced a six-part crime drama called The Responder, written by the ex-police officer Tony Schumacher and starring Martin Freeman as a police officer in Liverpool.
Speaking at the event, Wenger said young audiences needed programmes that spoke directly to their interests and that collective TV viewing did not necessarily require families to gather together in the same room. “Talking with your parents after watching something is one way of having a communal viewing experience, but so is talking on social media,” he said.
He also rejected a suggestion the corporation was adopting a “woke” stance by choosing to put a prominent female character in War of the Worlds and a black character in A Christmas Carol, saying it was necessary to ensure adaptations of classic stories remained relevant to a contemporary audience.
He said: “I really object when I hear the word ‘woke’ used in a pejorative way. If it means equality and fair representation being important, that is more important to me. Representation and portrayal of diversity are things that matter hugely to the BBC and we would be in dereliction of our duty if we own those particular initiatives.”