‘Lilyhammer’ Director Øystein Karlsen on Injecting a ‘Scandi’ Sensibility into Acorn TV’s ‘Whitstable Pearl’

Whitstable Pearl
Credit: Acorn TV

Made by “Marcella” producer Buccaneer Media as an original for AMC’s BritBox rival Acorn TV, “Whitstable Pearl” has all the ingredients of a travel-friendly crime series with a female lead in a picturesque English town.

And while the six part, 45-minute series slots in neatly with the streamer’s other small town crime canon, including Cotswold’s based “Agatha Raisin” and “Queens of Mystery,” Buccaneer execs Tony Wood and Anna Burns were keen to give the seaside town of Whitstable a Scandinavian edge.

Enter Norwegian filmmaker Øystein Karlsen, whose writing/directing credits include hit dark comedy dramas “DAG,” “Exit” and “Lilyhammer,” who was duly drafted in to adapt Julie Wassmer’s series of seaside mystery novels.

Karlsen’s vision for the show, based on Wassmer’s stories, he says, was “a whodunit served on a bed of warm interpersonal drama sprinkled with black humor.”

The series will premiere on Acorn TV on May 24 in the U.S, Canada, the U.K., and Australia/New Zealand. It focuses on a former policewoman-turned-seafood restaurant proprietor Pearl Nolan (“After Life’s” Kerry Godliman) who witnesses her old friend’s body being washed up in the nets of a fishing trawler in the opening episode.

This incident sparks a series of events that inspires the character to open up her own detective agency – much to the chagrin of Kent police detective Mike McGuire (Howard Charles), although the two become closer as the series progresses.

“I think my contribution to the story was to go deeper into the psychology of the characters – they are both tough but also scared and beaten down by life. They are not used to opening up,” says Karlsen.

“I find it very interesting to write about romance between people that age – rather than being 25, because in middle age you know what the consequences can be, and it can be much harder to let go,” he adds.

According to Karlsen, both lead actors “knocked it out of the park” in terms of combining toughness and vulnerability – but their performance was something that he had to enjoy from a distance, due to international travel restrictions imposed by COVID-19.

“I was supposed to direct between three and six episodes but I ended up doing none.  I’ve never actually written anything before and handed it over to someone else [“Line of Duty’s” David Caffrey became the show’s lead director]. That experience of having to trust other people with it was new to me.”

The situation also left Karlsen in the position of writing TV series set in a town that he has never visited and he believes he must now hold the world record for having Googled ‘Whitstable” having travelled there, street by street, on Google Earth.

“I grew up in a small South Eastern coastal town in Norway, diving for scallops and fishing on a boat from when I was old enough to walk. So I knew the world and the characters and the environment, what it smelt like and what it feels like,” he adds.

Karlsen is also used to portraying characters trapped in small towns, as a regular director on hit Norwegian/U.S. series “Lilyhammer,” about a former New York gangster who relocates to rural Norway.

“One difference with ‘Whitstable’ was that I had to learn how to write for a more broad, pre-watershed Sunday evening audience. There could be no crabs crawling out of mouths, I got a crash course in how to tell the same story without the explicit shot or language,” Karlsen adds.

Karlsen has now returned to the more debauched lives of Norway’s super rich following the resumption of the second season’s production of his hit show “Exit” (following a brief postponement due to the pandemic).

He reports that the first episode of the NRK show was viewed by over 40% of the Norwegian population.

The filmmakers other projects include an international show in development about the early years of singer songwriter Leonard Cohen, as well as two shows in development based on the crime novels of fellow Norwegian, Jo Nesbø.

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Oystein Karlsen Credit: Stephen Butkus