Casting the Ankh-Morpork City Watch

Posted Wednesday, April 6, 2011, 1:31 PM

When it comes to a successful movie or TV series, getting the right cast is crucial. Not only do they have to look the part in themselves, but they have to be able to perform the character as written, with their own personal twists allowed, and then fit in as part of an ensemble, who they'd have to work with in very close quarters for weeks or months at a time. I would say that it succeeds about 75% of the time, and a lot of failed films and TV shows are due to poor casting.

I've often wanted to sit in on casting sessions. Not the auditions, they're tedious and boring and drive me nuts, but discussing potentials, looking at the finalists, matching up partnerships to get the roles filled perfectly.

I was recently involved in a small way with helping out casting a short film that we'll be filming very soon, and that was quite a fun thing to participate in. I imagine that there'll be more opportunities in the future for me to involve myself in casting decisions, which I look forward to.

The Discworld is Terry Pratchett's universe, that he has been writing about for twenty-five years, with over 40 books and other publications. Its main city is Ankh-Morpork, a pseudo-mediaeval era metropolis, filled with not just humans, but trolls, dwarfs, vampires, zombies, and a lot more besides, all trying to get along and work together. Friction is inevitable, so the local Police force, known as the City Watch, are on hand to keep the peace.

A new TV series is being planned showcasing the City Watch as the main characters. Like procedurals and crime shows before it, such as The Bill, Law and Order, CSI, etc, it will deal with domestic and street crime, but in a comedy fantasy world.

There have been other TV adaptations of Pratchett novels, and they have stayed relatively faithful to the plots, with characters cast and modelled from a wide history of archetypes found in British comedy, such as that portrayed in The Goon Show, Monty Python, or The Goodies, and those extracted from Shakespeare, Dickens, and even cartoons from 18th and 19th Century newspapers. More specifically, they tried to match the artwork of Paul Kidby, who has been drawing Discworld characters, getting them almost definitively right in even Pratchett's estimation, for fifteen years. His Art of Discworld is one of my favourite books, and I love to flick through it a couple of times a year.

The TV series of the City Watch will not be a straight adaptation of any of the books, though I'm sure certain plot elements will be borrowed from time to time, perhaps used as story arcs through the spine of a year's episodes, but the characters will be utilised very thoroughly.

I'm very excited by the prospect of this show, and, like a lot of people, have a lot of ideas for potential casting. None of these are necessarily practical. Some of the actors won't be available, or are inappropriate for other reasons, such as age or even nationality (the archetypes are uniquely British, so a UK cast is preferred I'm sure, at least in my estimation). Some of the casting ideas I've seen thrown around have included a lot of American names, which is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. My list are almost exclusively British or European.

I'm not sure what part of the established timeline the series will set itself in. Following the path of Carrot from new recruit to Captain would make sense, especially to see the way he transforms the Watch from a ragtag bunch of useless layabouts, to a full fighting force of criminal investigators. But even if they did that, they could bend the history to fit their own potential storylines and introduce secondary characters where they wish.

Commander Sam Vimes
Vimes is a man who loves his job, but none of the people in it. He is wholly dedicated to being a "Copper" but the criminals disgust him, the other officers disappoint him, and the Bureaucracy frustrates him. At every turn he tries to buck the system to make his part of it work the way he feels is more effective. Occasionally he succeeds, but more often his failure proves how right he is. A stubborn, proud man, he is prone to drinking and bouts of depression.

He is the linchpin of the series, so has to be played perfectly. A tough but fair man, with few social skills or outside interests. A few unimaginative names get bandied around as actors to play him, such as Hugh Laurie (far too busy in America to do this) or Philip Glenister (already played the same role in Life on Mars). My choices are Jack Dee, whose schtick is to play sad and miserable characters; Ben Miller, who is a comedian who plays awkward and uncomfortable authority figures; Danny Webb, who has not played too many high profile roles but has the look of a weathered beaten down, tough policeman; and impressionist Alistair McGowan, who is a tall and quiet man, but has a grim, tightly clenched jaw look to him.

Paul Kidby draws him as a Clint Eastwood type, but Terry Pratchett saw Vimes as being a younger Pete Postlethwaite, and I think Alistair McGowan fits that description quite nicely.

Captain Carrot Ironfoundersson
Carrot was adopted by dwarfs, and grew up in the mines of the Ramtop Mountains amongst people considerably shorter than he was. He has an outgoing, friendly, charismatic, authoritative air of someone who knows what he's doing so people follow him, yet has a country bumpkin unorthodox approach of assuming everybody is decent deep down, and you just have to know how to bring that to the fore in each of them. This makes him an ideal Watchman, as he knows virtually everybody in the city by name, and can pin them down with some simple references to their lives that shame them into obeying.

He is a redhead, but that's not why he's called Carrot; instead it's due to his conical shape of broad shoulders and narrow hips. He is a fine, handsome physical specimen, and everyone loves him, even the people who don't. Also, there is an element of myth behind his origins, some claiming he is the rightful King of Ankh-Morpork.

He's a difficult one to cast for. Most Americans seem to think Brendan Fraser is the right guy for the role, but apart from his nationality, which is all wrong, he's now too just old for the part. Someone younger and more fresh-faced is required. I have narrowed it down to two: Rupert Grint, known as Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter films but he has had many other roles outside of that franchise and proven himself a capable actor, avoiding the dopey stereotype; and relatively unknown Tom Hopper, who had a small role in the recent Doctor Who episode Eleventh Hour, where he was a neighbour of Amy Pond's, and will be in the next season of Merlin as Sir Percival.

What makes me think Tom Hopper is so perfect is how closely he matches Paul Kidby's art.

Not sure why those two are bare chested in those pics. Wasn't intentional. Promise.

Captain Angua von Uberwald
Angua is Carrot's girlfriend, but more importantly she is a Werewolf. Not only is she arguably the most intelligent member of the Watch, she has a few extensible physical attributes that aid in tracking criminals and intimidating them, making her indispensable.

She is conflicted over her relationship with Carrot, constantly second-guessing its future, and trying to find excuses to split up. Unfortunately for her, they love and respect each other too much to let it end.

The character of Angua was in the most recent Discworld adaptation of Going Postal, where she was somewhat miscast and portrayed as being vicious. But Angua is never wantonly vicious; her inner conflict with her wolfishness is one of her distinctive traits. Her home country of Uberwald is based on Romania, Czech Republic, Germany etc, so she should have a certain Eastern European look. I can't pin down a good British actress for the role, but here are a selection of actresses from other nationalities that kind of look how I picture her.

Very attractive, with long blonde hair and a certain canine cast to her features, she has to be part Katee Sackhoff, part Yvonne Strahovski, without being either one of them; Katee is too manly, Yvonne is too girly. Anna Torv isn't physical enough; Milla Jovovich has become too American, and too famous; Saoirse Ronan is still too young; Diane Kruger is too old.

I think I'd pick Saoirse Ronan or Katee Sackhoff out of those choices, but I expect better options are out there.

Sergeant Fred Colon
Fred is one of life's Sergeants. Around the same age as Vimes, he has not really risen up the ranks in the same way. Or, indeed, at all. But that's okay, because he likes it where he is, and I can relate to that. Not especially bright, or useful, or really anything but an obstacle, and something of a traditionalist (i.e. a racist and sexist from the old school), Colon is a family man, though we know very little about his family, and generally speaking, is a coward who doesn't have much to say that is worth listening to.

He is most often assigned duty alongside his friend Nobby, where the two of them hide out in the least likely spots for crimes to be committed, pontificating on the odd things in life, not realising they are quite a source of oddness themselves.

He is a tubby fellow, in his early fifties. I imagine him a lot like Mel Smith's characters in Alas Smith and Jones. In the school of Really Obvious Casting Choices, I include: Mark Addy, who is just about perfect; Nick Frost, who is too young; Timothy Spall, who is too good to be wasted on such a minor character part; and Johnny Vegas, who is completely inappropriate, but looks the part.

Mark Addy it is. He's doing another Fantasy right now, though, Game of Thrones.

Corporal Nobby Nobbs
Nobby is a ne'er-do-well, but friendly and sociable, even though you don't really want to get too close to him. As a boy he was a pickpocket, and that hasn't really left him, being somewhat light-fingered. He's brighter than he looks, often underestimated, but somewhat naive, and tends to approach life as an optimist, but with very low expectations. He is loyal, and honest (to a point), and he loves his colleagues in the Watch like a family.

He is described as being quite unattractive, with skin conditions and various grime cultures living upon his body in various crevices. He carries an authenticated note, signed by the Patrician, that proves he is human. The doubt stems from his stunted growth, putting him on a par with dwarfs, and his unappealing appearance, making his country of origin hard to determine.

Casting a role so specifically unpleasant is hard. Americans seem to want either Tony Robinson, who played Baldrick in Blackadder, or Steve Buscemi, the go-to actor for physical ugliness. Both inappropriate choices. They're too old, and one is way, way too American and just not right.

I imagine Nobby as being a lot like the creepy old men who wear sports jackets and flat caps at the greyhound races, nicotine-stained fingers, pencil behind their ear, never far away from scamming a free drink from somebody. Short, unattractive, with exaggerated facial features: large ears and nose, prominent adam's apple in a goose neck, big hands and feet.

To me he's 20% Frank Spencer, 30% Pippin from Lord of the Rings, and 50% Baldrick. The best I have come up with for casting are Toby Jones, who isn't quite right, and is now something of a sought after actor; Andy Serkis, who is a great character actor but way too tall; and, of all people, Dominic Monagahan, who is too young.

Not sure who I'd pick. Probably Toby Jones would be closest.

Other characters include: Lord Havelock Vetinari the Patrician, expertly portrayed by Charles Dance in Going Postal, and I say stick with him as he was brilliant; Lady Sybil Vimes, Sam's wife, who is a horsey lady of a Princess Anne kind of bent but who looks after miniature dragons, can be played by Liza Tarbuck, who is almost exactly perfect; while characters like Cheery Littlebottom (a female Dwarf forensics expert), Constable Visit (a religious zealot from the Church of Om), Reg Shoe (a zombie whose limbs fall off), Detritus (a huge troll made of stone), the Canting Crew (an eclectic group of tramps, including talking dog Gaspode), Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler (an enterprising salesman), and various other incidental characters, can all be portrayed by unknowns.

I imagine none of my picks will be cast, and they'll all be lesser known actors or some I haven't imagined, but it's fun to speculate.