The 2×90 minute drama bio-pic, from The Missing and Requiem producer New Pictures, will chart Merrick’s extraordinary story from his working-class beginnings in Leicestershire, through the work-houses, music halls and freak shows that punctuated 19th Century culture to his time at the London Hospital and his friendship with Dr Frederick Treves.
Commissioned by Piers Wenger, Controller of BBC Drama, and Charlotte Moore, Director of BBC Content, and written by Neil McKay (Moorside), the series will be directed by Richard Laxton (Mum). Executive producers are Elaine Pyke and Charlie Pattinson for New Pictures and Tommy Bulfin for BBC. Producer is Tom Mullens (Poldark). all3media will handle international distribution and is associate producer.
The series will be filmed in Wales with transmission due next year with additional casting under way.
The iconic Merrick has been the subject of countless medical studies, screen and stage performances. Born in the UK city of Leicester in 1862, at the age of five he began to develop physical deformities to his skin, face, arms and feet. When he was 11, his mother died from bronchopneumonia, his father soon remarried and by 17 he was a resident of the workhouse after his relationship with his father deteriorated. Seeking to escape the workhouse several years later, Merrick found his way into a human oddities show in London where he was exhibited as ‘The Elephant Man’. He met Treves in 1884, after the doctor had witnessed Merrick being exhibited in a shop across the road from the London Hospital. Treves brought Merrick to the hospital where he lived until his death in 1890, aged 27.
Among the many performers to portray Merrick have been David Schofield, David Bowie, Mark Hamill, and most recently Bradley Cooper in his West End theatre debut. In 1980, David Lynch famously directed John Hurt in a haunting classic which won BAFTAs for Best Film and Best Actor and scored eight Oscar noms.
Heaton, who plays Jonathan Byers in Netflix smash Stranger Things and recently wrapped on 2019 Marvel pic The New Mutants, said, “I’m extremely excited and honoured to be given the opportunity to take on the portrayal of Joseph Merrick in the BBC’s adaption of The Elephant Man. This is such a special role and a challenge for any actor. Joseph has such an incredible story and I can’t wait to go on this journey and bring him to life.”
Pyke, executive producer for New Pictures, added, “Joseph’s determination to be his own man, to earn a living, to find a sense of freedom and to express himself is inspiring to all. Neil McKay’s beautiful script captures this extraordinary story and we are thrilled that Charlie Heaton is going to play Joseph.”
Heaton is repped by Brillstein Entertainment, Gersh, Sloane, Offer, Weber & Dern; and Tom Norcliffe