Sci-fi series Primeval is beaming in again with its time-travel tales of unnatural history. REBECCA BARRY visited the set of the show somewhere near London
Walking on to the set of Primeval is a bit like wandering through one of the show's space/time "anomalies".
On an industrial site in Surrey, just outside London, lies a patch of overgrown grass home to a stark future landscape: filthy cars with blacked-out windows, charred Romanesque buildings, a huge, black face that suggests something big and dangerous has beheaded a statue. (Actually, it's a prop swiped from the film V For Vendetta.)
Swanning around eating biscuits is an assortment of new cast members from the third series now filming (including Stardust's Jason Flemyng as a maverick cop and Footballers' Wives and Apron Strings star Laila Rouass as an Egyptologist).
But the real action is taking place inside a messy mechanic's garage. Primeval star Hannah Spearitt, who found fame 11 years ago in sugary pop group S Club 7, is executing vicious martial arts kicks at a dagger-wielding attacker.
Her opponent is a misplaced medieval knight convinced that her character, Abby, with her spiky modern hair and Iggy Pop singlet, is a demon.
Although we won't see the third series and its clever mythological themes for some time, the second series starts on TV2 next week.
Evolution zoologist Professor Nick Cutter (Douglas Henshall) and his team of quirky experts will continue to investigate prehistoric and futuristic creatures that are mysteriously showing up in 21st Century Britain, via shimmering time portals known as anomalies.
Last season, dinosaurs, giant centipedes and futuristic monsters charged through tears in the space/time continuum, ravaging their way through the London Underground and the suburbs and eating people in public swimming pools. Despite some critics slamming the CGI creatures for their cartoonish appearance - perhaps unfairly, considering the show doesn't have a Jurassic Park-sized budget - the fantasy series reinvigorated family viewing with its Dr Who-meets-Land of the Lost themes.
But it's the real creatures who have struck a chord with viewers. Alongside Henshall's quietly steely Cutter, is his chiselled assistant Stephen (James Murray), daft but brilliant student Connor (Andrew Lee-Potts) and fiery lizard expert Abby.
"We looked like a bunch of weirdos," says a cheery Lee-Potts, munching on a biscuit between takes as he recalls their first day on the job. "We were such an oddball group. I thought, well we've got the pretty boy, [Murray] and with Hannah, I could see they'd gone for the quirky, good-looking girl. And me and Dougie were like, what the [expletive] are we doing here?"
Henshall had never played the hero before and Lee-Potts had been playing TV psychopaths. After a lifetime of being "successful at being unsuccessful", Primeval was his first shot at a light-hearted role in prime time. Lee-Potts put his own spin on his character, veering away from the "nerd" the producers wanted him to play for something a little more eccentric and funny.
"I don't ever feel that I try to play my character for laughs," he says. "Maybe I'm just genuinely strange the way I deliver stuff. We thought 'this is either going to be brilliant or really shit'. In that first week we were like, 'can you imagine if people really like this? Can you imagine if we got toys?"'
Their pipe dream came true. Each of the main characters now has a plastic mini-me. "I'm very handsome," Lee-Potts says, handing over the proof.
That's not to mention the toys, sticker albums, DVDs, clothing and magazine merchandise that is also testament to the success of the show.
The first series was sold to 47 broadcasters in 35 territories, from the US to Romania.
"It has a very contemporary and wide appeal because it's about heroism, it's about good and evil," says series three producer Tim Bradley. "They're aspirational characters for a young audience. There's a moral and social dynamic that crosses through all language barriers. It's very accessible. It gets people excited in a bit of science and an action storyline. Apart from cracking through time through the anomaly, we try to make it as scientific as possible."
The risky casting of Henshall as Cutter is undoubtedly part of the show's success. Not exactly your everyday hero, his portrayal of Cutter borders on Mulder-aloofness. But he has a weight on screen that makes him a credible leader.
It helps that Cutter isn't just battling physical demons. In the first season he found his scientist wife, Helen (Juliet Aubrey), who had disappeared through an anomaly eight years earlier. That emotional storyline will continue to add a sense of Lost-style mystique to an otherwise action and FX-driven show as series two continues to explore the Cutter and Helen storyline, and the love triangle with Stephen.
There's also some brutal cast-culling to expect as a major character is killed off. Like the Harry Potter films, the series seems to be getting darker as it progresses. But as today's fight scene shows, even the baddies are spared a gory demise.
Cutter also finds himself struggling to discover what happened to his new love, Claudia Brown, who disappeared when he last came back from the anomaly, and seems never to have existed to his teammates. Time has been altered, which might help to explain who their foxy new PR person is.
Cutter's not the only one with romance on his mind. Foot-in-mouth Connor has the possibility of finding love this season, which provides an obstacle to his ever-growing affections for Abby.
"I'd be disappointed if they didn't get together," says Lee-Potter. "They've been getting closer and closer throughout the series."
Connor and Abby's will-they-won't-they relationship was never meant to feature so prevalently. But the pair had such palpable chemistry the writers couldn't ignore it. By the end of series one, they hadn't quite got it together on screen but they had hooked up in real life.
"Most people in relationships, they do have that gap but we don't have that. We have constant day and night. I would've thought that would've driven me nuts but it's been the opposite. I don't quite know how I'd survive without it. We're an ally on set all the time. You stick together and you suddenly become a little bit more listened-to. It's two people's opinions. I recommend it."
We can also look forward to anomalies popping up in theme parks, sports grounds and on the motorway and sabre-toothed tigers, deadly worms and highly evolved sharks terrorising the public.
What: Primeval second series
When and where: TV2, 10.15 Wednesdays