When writer Nick Leather’s daughter was a baby, she was so ill when he had to make the call every parent dreads – to 999.
“Her eyes were half open and we couldn’t wake her. It was this horrible thing that made you panic, so we called for help,” he recalls.
“I had never called 999 before – I had only seen it on TV before. So we called, they called an ambulance for us and by lunchtime she was perfectly fine.
Nick’s new high-octane and utterly original BBC1 thriller The Control Room is an unexpected outcome of that phone call.
Nick Leather’s new high-octane and utterly original BBC1 thriller ‘The Control Room’ is the unexpected result of a call to 999. It stars Iain de Caestecker and Joanna Vanderham
“As I sat down to write a script set in an unusual place, I thought back to the conversation I had on the phone about how to call this number just because you’re desperate,” he says.
“It’s such an intense relationship with someone you don’t know, have never spoken to before, and probably never will speak to again. And yet you are so dependent on them – the person you are addressing is an everyday hero.”
The Control Room focuses on two completely normal people who find themselves in an extraordinary situation. Scottish actor Iain de Caestecker, best known for starring in the hit superhero series Agents Of SHIELD, returned to his homeland to play Gabe, a rookie 911 dispatcher for the Strathclyde Ambulance Service.
When we first meet him, he helps soothe his first father-to-be whose wife is giving birth, but then the phone call comes that will change his life.
From the first scene there’s this big twist that gets you pumped and then the action just keeps building
A woman is on the phone, afraid she may have murdered someone, and then she recognizes Gabe’s voice. With Gabe under pressure to find out who she is, he makes a decision that threatens to have devastating consequences.
Circumstances quickly spiral out of his control and he teams up with his childhood friend Sam (played by Joanna Vanderham) to cover up a serious crime committed by detectives.
Meanwhile he still works in the control room, which often has to do with the police.
“I was intrigued by the idea of what if an 911 operator was called in an emergency,” says Nick.
“What if the professional situation suddenly turned into a private one? I love those ambulance shows on TV, but I was wondering what would happen if it became a personal story.
Gabe (Iain De Caestecker) and Leigh (Taj Atwal). The Control Room focuses on two completely normal people who find themselves in an extraordinary situation
“The other thing I really wanted to think about was that while I love watching thrillers, I think the hero often loves them a little too much. I’m not an alpha male at all and if I got dragged into a thriller situation it would be my worst nightmare.
“So I thought my hero should be something like someone who wants to be in a romcom but finds himself caught up in a terrifying adventure.”
In order to understand what life is like for people in real-life 911 operators, Nick spoke to three call handlers to hear their stories and took part in online training.
“It was interesting to learn what they hear in their ear, what they see on their screen, how much information they have and how accurate the computer system is. It can find your zip code in seconds from your phone and they can see you on a map on the screen,” he says.
One of the elements of the story that emerged from his research was the idea that call attendants often have to offer advice when someone is giving birth. “I’m told that having a baby named after them is a rite of passage for all call handlers,” he laughs.
“That’s why they’re everyday heroes — in our most desperate moments, they’re the people we call begging, ‘Please solve my problem, please make things better.'”
“Murder, someone getting hurt or hurting someone else is horrific, but sadly it’s a common situation that all call workers have to deal with, even though our story is completely fabricated.”
The hero is someone who wants to star in a romcom but finds himself caught up in a terrifying adventure
The control room scenes were filmed in a former police control room outside of Glasgow and Iain spent several shifts in an ambulance control room learning how it all worked.
“They’re really the invisible side of emergency services,” he says.
“But while we have a responsibility to make the series authentic, we were also faced with the parameters of a television show. Some real calls might have taken an entire episode, but hopefully we’ll show what an amazing job these guys are doing.
He says he was immediately drawn into the story as soon as he picked up the script. “While researching being a call handler is one thing, trying to put yourself in the shoes of someone whose life is spiraling out of control is quite another,” he says.
“From the first scene there’s this big twist that pulls you in and then the action just keeps building.
“When I read the script, my heart was really racing. The story doesn’t stop, it’s relentless, with no time to breathe.
“The interesting thing is that Gabe is a pretty normal person, but he gets drawn into this situation. He’s completely out of his comfort zone and that almost increases his bravery.
“There are certain things that happen and you think, ‘What would you realistically do? I personally think I would have a panic attack.”
- The Control Room begins Sunday at 9pm on BBC1.