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A community of comic book fans believe the graphic novel The Utopia Experiments predicted several disastrous epidemics, such as mad cow disease (BSE). A rumoured unpublished sequel supposedly contains further information on future world events. When one Utopia enthusiast procures the manuscript, he invites four of his friends from an online forum to meet in real life. However, after getting their hands on the manuscript, the four – Ian, Becky, Wilson, and Grant – find themselves in over their heads, as a secret organisation only known as “The Network” is after it. They find their lives systematically dismantled, while Network operatives kill anyone in their way as they hunt for the manuscript and someone named Jessica Hyde.
Jessica, who has been on the run from The Network her entire life, meets with the group and helps them evade capture. Meanwhile, other characters find themselves ensnared in The Network’s orbit, and through their interactions with its agents, the organisation’s purpose and secret plot come into focus. The closer people come to understanding what’s truly going on, the more dangerous things become. As rumours of “Russian flu” proliferate worldwide and a variety of groups and individuals close in on the protagonists, they try to solve the web of mysteries and conspiracies around them.
In April 2012, Channel 4 announced that it had commissioned a six-episode drama series titled Utopia. The series was written by Dennis Kelly and produced by Kudos Film and Television. Marc Munden was chosen as the director, Rebekah Wray-Rogers the producer, and Dennis Kelly, Jane Featherstone and Karen Wilson the executive producers.
Conception and development
Kudos Film and Television approached Kelly with an idea about a conspiracy hidden inside a graphic novel. Kelly liked some of the idea, but some of it he changed. The story involved a shadowy organisation called The Network, and Kelly initially came out with an idea that The Network might be responsible for the rise in conspiracy theories because they thought it would be the best way to hide an actual conspiracy. Kelly said he does not believe in conspiracy theories, but is fascinated by them. The series took about two years to come to fruition.
To emulate the graphic novel printing process, Marc Munden chose to use a Technicolor palette: “The three-strip Technicolor process we use is comprised of the opposite colours – yellows, cyan, magentas. I was interested in Doris Day films from the 1950s that pushed those distinct elements.” Colourist Aidan Farrell used grading software Nucoda Film Master to paint bolder colours into the shots. By the second series the production crew were preparing the film sets for grading.
Utopia is set in London, but was filmed mostly in Merseyside and Yorkshire between April and October 2012, while the panning shot of the Mercury Hotel in the first episode was filmed in Westhoughton. Producer Bekki Wray-Rogers claimed the reason for this was that no other area in the UK could have provided them with such a variety of locations. Some scenes, such as the office of Conran Letts, were filmed at Scarisbrick Hall near Ormskirk. Scenes for the school shooting in episode 3 were filmed at Alsop High School in Walton whilst the school was closed for summer in July 2012. The empty red sandstone stately home the group make use of from episode 4 is filmed at Woolton Hall. The café scene in the fifth episode is filmed at TC’s Cafe & Take-Away on Southport New Road near the village of Mere Brow. Many scenes were filmed in Crosby and Skelmersdale. Scenes set in the office of a fictional newspaper were shot in the offices of the Liverpool Echo newspaper on Old Hall Street in Liverpool. The final scene of the first series, with Jessica and Milner, was shot atop the Cunard Building, one of Liverpool’s “three graces”.
In the second series, locations used included Barnsley Interchange in Barnsley, Temple Works in Leeds, The Chocolate Works in York, the Yorkshire Dales National Park, the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield, and various spots in Leeds city centre, which doubled as London by superimposing London landmarks on the horizon. The scene in which Mr Rabbit and Philip Carvel meet was filmed at Allerton Castle near Harrogate. The abandoned building in the second episode of series 2 was shot in Abbotsford School in The Gorbals, Glasgow.
Referencing real world events
The TV drama referenced a number of real world events, and incorporated these events into the story of the conspiracy. In the second series, the show used various news footage from the 1970s including the assassinations of Aldo Moro, Carmine Pecorelli, Richard Sykes, and Airey Neave. The TWA Flight 841 disaster is also referenced in this episode. In particular, several events from a 10-day period in 1979, including the Three Mile Island accident and the collapse of the Labour government, had been combined as a jumping off point for the second series.
Utopia was cancelled by Channel Four on 12 August 2014. The network’s official statement was:
Utopia is truly channel-defining: strikingly original, powered by Dennis Kelly’s extraordinary voice and brought to life in all its technicolor glory through Marc Munden’s undeniable creative flair and vision, the team at Kudos delivered a series which has achieved fervent cult status over two brilliantly warped and nail-biting series. It also has the honour of ensuring audiences will never look at a spoon in the same way again. It’s always painful to say goodbye to shows we love, but it’s a necessary part of being able to commission new drama, a raft of which are launching on the channel throughout 2015.
The first series was generally well received by the critics, with some high praise for its striking visuals, but also some expressions of concern about its violence. Aidan Smith of The Scotsman noted both its “astonishing visuals” as well as its “astonishing violence”, while Tom Sutcliffe of The Independent thought it a dystopian fantasy “delivered with great visual style” but was not convinced that its violence is necessary. Mark Monahan of The Daily Telegraph described it as “a dark, tantalisingly mysterious overture”, while Sam Wollaston of The Guardian called it “a work of brilliant imagination”, “a 21st-century nightmare” that “looks beautiful”, but also wondered about the gratuitousness of its violence.
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