This article contains spoilers for all episodes of Archie.
Archie is BritBox’s newest limited series focused on exploring Cary Grant’s life beyond the lights of Old Hollywood. Grant’s real name before he adopted his stage name was Archibald “Archie” Leach. He created the suave upper-class British gentleman persona to escape childhood trauma and to ease the struggle to climb the acting ladder. Once the cameras were off, these early troubles affected his real-life marriages and relationships.
Throughout the four episodes in the series, Jason Isaacs plays Grant as an older man focusing on his struggle with followed by eventual acceptance of Archie, the man who is the opposite of his public persona. Archie’s instability and early chaos led to Grant being married and divorced several times. The series highlights Grant’s third marriage to Dyan Cannon (Laura Aikman) and their daughter Jennifer, both of whom are Executive Producers of Archie.
GBH Drama interviewed series creator Jeff Pope, actors Jason Issacs and Laura Aikman, plus BritBox CEO Reemah Sakaan to find out more about how over 80 years of Grant’s life was condensed into four hours, as well as how Archie is part of a bigger plan to create more British drama fans.
“I didn't want to play Cary Grant and when I was offered the role, I just said no immediately,” Issacs said. “Then I read the scripts and realized it's not about Cary Grant, it was about Archie Leach. Leach was a very damaged, very troubled, very scarred man who hid himself behind a character he created. But when he shut the front door and got home, certainly inside his marriage was the very, very opposite of what the world knew as Cary Grant. That man, I felt I could play.”
Jeff Pope purposely structured the series to move between the different stages of Grant’s life because focusing on one aspect or only a few years would not give the audience a complete picture of Grant’s personal life and his career. “Archie is not a biopic and it's not a story of ‘this happened and this happened and this happened.’ It's a story about what can happen to a kid whose parents destroyed his life as a young boy,” Pope said. “He's told his mother's passed away. He's devastated. Decades later he is one of the most famous, most glamorous, most desirable men on earth, and at that point, he's become someone else. He was born Archie Leach. He's now become Cary Grant, and at that point, he's told, ‘Your mother's still alive.’ That story is something Dickens could have written.”
Aikman’s challenge in playing Dyan was that she filmed the most emotionally challenging scenes from Episodes 3 and 4 at the beginning of her time on set. “For me, what felt important — and what I felt a strong sense of responsibility to — was to convey how alive Dyan is and how full of charisma and life she is when you first meet her, because Dyan is a force of nature,” Aikman said. “I knew that if I could get that in those first two episodes, then you would see them sort of drain out of her as Cary starts to control more and more aspects of her life — what she eats, what she wears — and just sort of stops her being herself; zaps her from herself. I knew that if I could pack the beginning with energy and love, and then sort of slowly see that taken away, you could understand how she was so in love with Cary. I wanted that to come across strongly, that she stayed for as long as she did because she wanted to try so much to make it work.”
With only four hours and a set budget to cover so many life events, there were of course difficult choices made in the editing process. “Dyan's parents were in the early script, her agent was in there and she had her own home,” Aikman said. “I was sad that those things went because I really wanted people to understand that she wasn't some young girl. She was a working actress, she had a life, and she was an interesting woman in her own right. I hope that we managed to give enough of an indication that she had stuff going on. We still have two job offers that she gets within the piece. So I think you can kind of see that she is at least a working actress. She's not a nobody who has stars in their eyes just because he's Cary Grant.”
Archie has quite a few familiar faces to MASTERPIECE and BritBox viewers as guest stars. Ian MacNiece (Inspector Lewis, The Mystery Of Edwin Drood) plays iconic director Alfred Hitchcock. Jason Watkins (Around The World In 80 Days, McDonald & Dodds) and Harriet Walter (Downton Abbey, The Cleaner ) plays Archie’s mother Elsie.
Grant finding out the truth about his mother also affected Dyan. “Dyan doesn't know the full history until after that first meeting,” Aikman said. “I approached the scene in like, okay, imagine going to meet your mother-in-law for the first time, or your partner's parent for the first time. It is scary, that's quite a universal kind of thing of like, oh God, I've got to impress her. I was also a bit scared because Harriet Walter is an icon. She plays that role so beautifully and cleverly because on paper it felt like it was going to be much more aggressive. And the way she played it, there was a real sort of vulnerability to her.”
Archie is a biographical drama that is a departure from some of this year’s BritBox releases. Although the BBC and ITV founded BritBox as a streaming service that brings Americans and international audiences a wide variety of classic and new British TV series, there’s a perception that the service is mostly devoted to crime & mystery dramas.
“Archie is the perfect BritBox series because while Grant is a classic American icon, he's a Brit.” Sakaan said. “We’re looking to work on a bigger budget, bigger scale dramas, with really recognizable talent so that our fans can access us in a way that they may not have expected to before. More contemporary stories on a bigger scale, and not just just crime and mystery and those sorts of things, but these iconic stories as well.”
BritBox diversifying the genres and types of stories in new releases has already paid off with March 2023’s premiere of The Confessions Of Frannie Langton“Our fans loved it and the really interesting thing about it was the series was an incredibly modern story within a very period setting,” Saakan said. “At its heart, the story is a courtroom case, but [has] themes of illicit love, slavery, all of the very modern hooks and was doing something quite different from a classic period drama.”
Drama fans should not be afraid of this change because these moves are designed to ensure that BritBox survives the constantly changing streaming television landscape. Although BritBox’s release schedule was unaffected by the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes earlier in 2023 (their productions are under separate UK union contracts) they are still dealing with the continuing pandemic, changing audience habits, and financial pressures. New audiences mean more money that goes back to supporting the existing and upcoming productions fans want to see. MASTERPIECE also benefits from this change because BritBox’s parent company BBC and ITV are responsible for Moonflower Murders and other upcoming MASTERPIECE series.
Archie is not only a good introduction for people who are unfamiliar with Grant but also will illuminate the perspective of longtime classic Hollywood fans. It’s also an excellent hook for friends and family who are normally not interested in UK dramas to try out, because Grant’s films are such classics.