The Watch star Richard Dormer grew up reading the work of author Terry Pratchett, whose Discworld books form the basis for the series. Although, as he told Rotten Tomatoes during a recent interview, his regular diet was interrupted, ironically enough, just after the first City Watch novel, Guards! Guards!, was released.
“I went to drama school, I was about 17, and I gave the book to a classmate and I never got to find out about Sam Vimes,” he said.
Now 30-odd years later, Dormer stars as Vimes in the BBC America program.
The premise sees Vimes as the captain of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, a police force in a city where organized crimes guilds are more-or-less legalized. The toothlessness of the Watch leaves Vimes plenty of time to drink while his subordinates — werewolf Angua (Marama Corlett), female-presenting dwarf Cheery (Joe Eaton-Kent), and troll Detritus (Ralph Ineson) — wrangle loose chickens and other small-time miscreants not licensed to commit crime. As the series begins, new recruit Carrot (Adam Hugill) arrives with a very different impression of the Watch’s purpose, while the sudden appearance of a dragon in Ankh-Morpork forces Sam to be a lawman once again.
And if that wasn’t enough trouble for the Watch Captain, “a ghost from Sam Vimes’ past turns up and pulls the world out from underneath him,” Dormer added. It’s the loose threads of Guards! Guards! with various characters (and character names) from later novels subbed in as the show takes great pains to remind viewers it’s not directly based on any one novel. Sadly for readers, this means Nobby Nobbs will be waiting in the wings a little longer, but Death (voiced by Wendell Pierce) will make a few appearances in the sprawling city.
(Photo by Hayden Phipps/BBCA)
For Dormer, discovering Vimes from the inside out was a chance to see the qualities which endeared him to readers in a whole new way.
“He’s pretty broken [at the start],” he said. “Something happened to him 20 years ago that broke his soul, his spirit, his belief in human beings and in himself.”
Despite that sense of being fractured (and for reasons that are different from the novels), Vimes still does something noble in assembling the Watch’s current roster.
“He doesn’t see color or religion [in our sense of the terms]. If you’re a werewolf, as long as you’ve got a good heart, you’re in. If you’re a troll, who cares, as long as you’re a good person,” Dormer explained. “He doesn’t realize it, but he’s actually a facilitator and able to bring together these unique people to create something that will, ultimately, change the world.”
Of course, that change is not easy to deal with sometimes — particular for Vimes, who vacillates between a drunken stupor and something Pratchett termed as “knurd,” a soberness beyond soberness.
“When we wake up and we see the world for what it is,” Dormer explained. “We’re all intoxicated in some way by something, whether it be social media, whether it be the news — fake news — all these things that we see around us, we’re all numbed to the reality of the world.”
Vimes is cursed with the ability to “see [the world] with a clear head and wipe away everything that’s in there and declutter, [he] sees things for what they truly are, and it’s not easy,” the actor said.
If not for the circumstances of the city’s leadership, Vimes could be an effective town sheriff. For one thing, as Dormer put it, he can “tell where he is anywhere in Ankh-Morpork by just the feel of the cobblestones through the worn, thin soles of his boots.” And, for another, he has that golden gut TV detectives often rely on.
(Photo by Ilze Kitshoff/BBCA)
It is those qualities, Dormer surmised, that appeal to Lady Sybil Ramkin (Lara Rossi), a member of the city’s aristocracy who comes to associate with the Watch as events unfold. According to the actor, she is “this extraordinary creature … [who] completely challenges his whole worldview and his view of himself.”
Like the other characters, she has been remixed for the series — more of a vigilante than an eccentric breeder of small dragons — but she “enables him to look around him and see that actually, he’s not alone and forsaken and useless.”
Nevertheless, Vimes still spends plenty of time in his cups, which presented Dormer with a unique acting challenge: “As an actor, your mind’s got to be crystal clear, because you’re ‘spinning plates.’ You’re reacting to people, you’re living in the moment of your own truth, but to do it with kind of a glassy-eyed thing where you can’t actually focus on who you’re talking to [is] a really good acting exercise,” he explained.
Dormer noted viewers also will see Vimes initial “gnarled” posture straighten out a bit as his outlook changes: “He starts to unfurl, and he almost starts to gain a little bit of height.”
One aspect of the performance which came naturally to Dormer, though, was the voice. While he admitted it is easy to imagine Vimes with more of a London quality, the producers wanted Dormer to use something closer to his own Armagh accent. He described the opportunity to use something very close to his own voice as both “delight” and “freer,” noting, however, that “in Discworld, there is no Northern Ireland … There’s no Scotland, or England, or America, it’s just this landmass on a flat world.”
As in the novels, The Watch takes place in Pratchett’s Discworld … or, at least, a Discworld somewhere in the multiverse with a few stylistic changes.
(Photo by Alex Telfer/BBC STUDIOS/BBCA)
Eschewing the more medieval atmosphere described in the books, the look of The Watch is something Dormer describes more as “punk rock, crazy, [and] irreverent.” Beyond that aesthetic, a tinge of New Wave music and styling invades the proceedings, as does a certain sci-fi-by-way-of-magic feel. There is even a dash of the modern British police drama in some of the sets and costumes.
“It has hints of Terry Gilliam, and it’s got that edginess,” Dormer added. He also pointed to the spirit and tone of the 1980s comedy series The Young Ones, which revolved around four punk-leaning students living in a dilapidated flat, as something “we tried to do with this.”
The liberties taken with the look of the show, its plot, the Watch’s lineup, and just what happened to Vimes 20 years ago all proved controversial with fans of the author.
“I can understand. I do, I understand,” Dormer said. “I mean, I’m a fan of Star Trek, I’ve actually got communicators, phasers, I’ve even got the costume.”
Nonetheless, he hopes Pratchett fans will still give the series a shot even if it doesn’t match the Anhk-Morpork they envision in their heads.
“The version that we’ve done — and I’ve seen a lot of it — I’m immensely proud of it, I can’t imagine a different version of it. So I think what people have got to do is run with it. It’s like meeting somebody new for the first time. They may look different from what you’d imagined in your head, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to hate them,” Dormer said.
“At first, I think I was a bit, ‘Aww, I don’t have chain mail and a truncheon and a silly metal hat,'” he added, referring to the Night Watch gear the characters use in the novels. But soon, he was in love with the look of the costumes. “Really now I look at it, and I think all of the characters, they look already iconic even though the show hasn’t even gone into the world. I think that’s a testament to the creative people, and everybody involved, that we’ve created something I know that if I live for another 20 years, I’ll look back and go, ‘Wow, they couldn’t do that now, and they couldn’t have done it 30 years before it was done.'”
(Photo by Helen Sloan/courtesy of HBO)
The Watch represents Dormer’s second go with a notable character from a beloved author’s fantasy series. He played the seemingly unkillable Beric Dondarrion on Game Of Thrones since its third season — a role he tends to get recognized for in airports or, as he joked, “when I grow my beard and wear an eye patch.”
Reminiscing about his time in Westeros, Dormer recalled talking with author George R.R. Martin at the season 8 premiere about the nature of Beric as a Fire Wight. As outlined, Beric is as dead as any of the mindless ice zombies in the service of the Night King, but since he was reanimated with fire by Thoros of Myr (Paul Kaye), he seemed more alive even if his heart never started beating again. During this conversation, Martin pointed out scenes in previous seasons where Beric was seen sleeping or drinking.
Dormer had a perfect response: “In order to make people comfortable, Beric will lie in the shadows, but his eye is always open. When you see him with a flask, he’s not drinking, he’s miming.”
Martin has since broached the topic of Fire Wights in some discussions of the Song of Ice and Fire novels, but it remains to be seen if it will effect the story of Beric’s successor, Lady Stoneheart, for whom he sacrificed his unnatural life to save.
(Photo by Helen Sloan/HBO)
On the Game Of Thrones TV series, however, the Lightning Lord’s final end had nothing to do with Lady Stoneheart. Instead, he saved Arya from the Night King’s horde within Winterfell.
“I was very happy with that,” Dormer said. “And that whole thing in the doorway just happened, that was just something that myself and the director, we came up with. Basically he’s a protector, isn’t he? He’s protecting the innocent and those who can’t defend themselves. So I loved it.”