“Little Women” is a highlight of the BBC’s Christmas schedule, and the adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel appropriately puts women front and center on screen and behind the camera. The team behind the three-parter is helmed by Vanessa Caswill (“Thirteen”), written by Heidi Thomas (“Call the Midwife”), and produced by Susie Liggat (“Fortitude”).
Former HBO executive Colin Callender’s production company Playground made the show and, along with the BBC and PBS Masterpiece, is hoping for a big family hit beginning Tuesday evening in the U.K., although the story resonates particularly strongly with women, executive producer Sophie Gardiner said.
“We sought out the best people for the job, which in this instance resulted in a female-led team,” she said. “Whenever you are casting, you need people who can properly connect and engage with the material. With ‘Little Women’ it seemed the people who connected with it most simply and most clearly and knew what it was really about – how girls become women – were women.”
The series follows the March sisters – Meg (Willa Fitzgerald), Jo (Maya Hawke), Beth (Annes Elwy), and Amy (Kathryn Newton) – while their father (Dylan Baker) is away fighting in the American Civil War. Emily Watson plays family matriarch Marmee and Angela Lansbury the girls’ cantankerous wealthy aunt. Michael Gambon, as the Marches’ neighbor, and Jonah Hauer-King, as his grandson Laurie, round out the cast.
Elwy said the bond between the actresses playing the sisters was incredibly strong from the start of shooting. “It is a bit insane. They know more about me than anybody in the world and I think likewise,” she said. “We started off on Day 1 sharing things that we’d never shared with anybody before, and from that point on there was no point having any less interesting conversations.”
Hawke said she felt a strong connection to the pivotal character of Jo. “When I was offered the role, I didn’t feel any pressure. I’m like, ‘I’m obviously the right person to play this part,’” she said. “It was only after, when I realized everyone else thinks that they’re Jo, too, did I start to feel the weight of the world upon my shoulders.”
Asked whether the male cast members felt outnumbered, she said to laughter and applause at a special screening in London: “We did not pick on the men! We’re not turning the tables or anything. It’s just equality.”
“Little Women” bows on flagship channel BBC One on Tuesday at 8 p.m., with the following two episodes airing on Wednesday and Thursday. PBS Masterpiece has yet to confirm its air date in the U.S.
The series was shot in eastern Ireland, which stands in for Concord, Mass., across four seasons. Nailing the look of 19th-century America was tougher than creating fantastic new worlds from scratch, said producer Liggat, who has worked on such series as “Doctor Who.”
“It was probably the biggest challenge I have ever had to face,” she said. “Planets? Easy, fine. Different galaxies? Fine, because you don’t have people with a native interest in [the location]. But I’d like to think nobody watched this and said, ‘You shot this in Wicklow in August.'”
Tonally, director Caswill has deliberately eschewed the tropes of big period drama in favor of a more immediate and naturalistic feel. “I wanted to feel like we were there and we weren’t objectifying these women, we weren’t sitting back and watching them, and it wasn’t a period drama that felt really grand,” she said. “The camera was sort of the fifth sister, and that was really my approach.”
“Little Women” was one of BBC Drama chief Piers Wenger’s commissions when he joined the pubcaster from Channel 4 last year. “It comes at the end of a year of some truly superb drama featuring women at the very heart of the story: ‘Apple Tree Yard,’ ‘The Moorside,’ and ‘Three Girls,’” he said at the London special screening.