Writing a digital murder mystery: The making of the BBC’s ‘The Last Hours of Laura K’

Writing a digital murder mystery: The making of the BBC’s ‘The Last Hours of Laura K’ Image

Ever felt you’re being watched? You might well do if you delve into the digital murder mystery world conjured up by the talented team behind the BBC’s new immersive drama The Last Hours of Laura K. We talk cyber sleuthing and how the project came about with Ken Emson one of the writers and creators of the project.

The Beeb calls its new online drama The Last Hours of Laura K a ‘digital crowd sourced detective story’. All I know is that it messes with your head – in a truly original way – and is a mind-blowingly complex piece of writing and storytelling

Hunting for clues

Launched online on the 30th of March this year, the drama contains 24 hours of fictional ‘SATURNEYE’ surveillance footage capturing the last hours of murdered 23 year old Laura Kitchens.  To find the killer, amateur detectives must immerse themselves in the characters’ digital lives via their Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram profiles and look for clues and motives seeded by the show’s writers.

The writers – part of the BBC Writersroom‘s Digital Innovation Lab – took as their cue whistleblower Edward Snowden’s words: ‘I don’t want to live in a world where everything that I say, everything I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of creativity, love or friendship, is recorded.’ And Laura K certainly touches on some pretty tricky territory like the future of surveillance culture and online privacy.

Fiction or reality?

A collaborative project two years in the making, the show sounds pretty cutting edge but Ken Emson, one of the four writers behind it, thinks that ‘experiencing’ Laura K won’t be so very different from how we watch TV today.

“We all act as TV detectives to a certain extent anyway.”

“We all act as TV detectives to a certain extent anyway,” he says. “When something comes on the telly we normally have a mobile in our hand. We might Google the actor to find out more, check a hashtag on Twitter to see what others are saying or ‘like’ the page on Facebook. We’re always wanting to find out more and Laura K is just a logical extension of how we experience TV now.”

But Laura K is different – Midsomer Murders it ain’t. It makes the participant participate – and in doing so blurs some slightly spooky lines between fiction and reality. In short – it’s meant to mess with your head.

“In one way or another, we all act as voyeurs when we use social media because we’re forever dipping in and out of other people’s lives – that was one of the main inspirations for the piece.  We also wanted to explore how ‘real’ people’s online personas are and how they behave with different sets of people on and offline,” says Ken.

Multiple characters

One of the more unsettling elements to the piece is the vast weave of multiple fictional characters that you must engage with if you are to find the clues to Laura’s murder. Many of these characters have their own social media profiles with updates all pre-written by the writing team – and they all feel exceptionally real.

“There are around 50 different characters in the piece and Laura has key relationships with around 40 of them,” says Ken. “We storylined every single character. Each has their own goals and their own individual wants, needs and complications. Some characters might not appear in the footage but we still hear about them from other people’s tweets, messages and photos. They still have a presence – and a character – even though they don’t appear. There was always going to be an aspect to this that’s going to be a bit creepy – but that’s what we hope makes it addictive.”

Immersed in events

The sheer number of characters together with a full 24 hours of CCTV footage to wade through doesn’t make Laura K an easy watch. But that’s intentional.  The makers of the show want to make the viewer work for their clues because that makes the whole experience more rewarding in the end – far more so according to Ken than when a killer is revealed to the viewer in episode 10 of a typical TV murder mystery.

What makes Laura K special is that in this, you are the detective – you are immersed in the events – so there are certain parallels to be drawn to how games are written perhaps. However, whilst the format might have different structure to the conventional five-act drama, strong storytelling and character lie at the heart of the show:

“If you don’t have a gripping story then no amount of digital trickery is going to make it an interesting day to watch.”

Laura K has a conventional story arc – it’s just more hidden and it’s spread over 24 hours,” says Ken.

“There are still all the usual hooks, events, and moments of change and surprise – they’re just mapped onto a far longer timeframe. If you don’t have a gripping story then no amount of digital trickery is going to make it an interesting day to watch.”

Story of a life

The writers are adamant that Laura K is far more than another drama about a woman getting killed – another cadaver found in the woods. For Ken and the team, it’s a story of a life:

“Laura’s not just a dead body found in the first ten minutes. She’s much more and that’s always something we’ve been very conscious of. She’s an active part of the story – the protagonist and the person who’s life we are really interested in. She’s fun, witty and she can be a cow – she’s alive and feels real.”

Amateur detectives who think they’ve solved the riddle of Laura Kitchens’ murder are invited to email the BBC with their explanations. More information about the murder will be released by the writers over time via the show’ Facebook page and Twitter stream.

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The creators of The Last Hours of Laura K

The creators of The Last Hours of Laura K

The last 24 hours of Laura’s fictional life were filmed over 16 days across London, from the Southbank to St Martins at Kings Cross, from Farringdon to Dalston. The small team of writers, film makers and actors behind the project were Gabriel Bisset Smith, who also directs; Rachel De-lahey, who plays Laura Kitchens; Ken Emson; and Ed Sellek. The project was produced by BAFTA-nominated Jon Davenport and overseen by BBC Writersroom founder and creative director Kate Rowland.

Chris Smith About the author: Co-founder and writer in residence at Prolifiko | Ex-philosophy lecturer | maker of unpopular short comedy films.