Matt Baker Talks Finding Freedom in Writing 'Professor T' Season 2

Barney White as Dan Winters, Ben Miller as Prof T and Emma Naomi as Lisa Donckers in the classroom in 'Professor T' Season 2

Barney White as Dan Winters, Ben Miller as Prof T, and Emma Naomi as Lisa Donckers in 'Professor T' Season 2

Laurence Cendrowicz/Eagle Eye Drama

The most popular of the Walter Presents English-language remakes, Professor T, ends its second season run on PBS on October 8, 2023. This season has been more fun and gripping than the first, with series co-writer Matt Baker allowing the audience to dig into the main character, Professor Jasper Tempest, played by Ben Miller (Death in Paradise). A brilliant criminology professor with OCD, germaphobia, and a host of other issues, Season 2 of the series expanded from the original Belgian show from working as a consultant with the Cambridge police while deciding to go into therapy to explore his childhood traumas.

The therapy sessions are marvelous tete-a-tete battles of two brilliant and wildly different minds. The show continues to offer a quite comedic set up of characters and quirks juxtaposed against often tragic crimes and pulls it off.  

In addition to co-writing Season 1 and writing Season 2 of Professor T, Baker also wrote the English language remake of Walter Presents favorite, Before We Die, starring Lesley Sharp, which aired two seasons on PBS. He's also the writer behind the James Nesbitt-Richard E Grant starrer Suspect (a remake of Walter Presents' Face to Face), which is streaming on BritBox, and Eagle Eye Drama’s first original English Language drama, Hotel Portofino, which premieres Season 2 on most PBS stations in mid-October 2023.

Mr. Baker indulged us in a chat about all things Professor T, including insights from Season 2 and teasers for Season 3 (and a potential Season 4!). He elaborated on how to keep a four-time remake interesting and on striking a balance between entertainment and exactness when writing for a broad audience. Read on for all the behind-the-scenes morsels!

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Ben Miller as Professor Jasper Tempest standing on the roof of Oxford in Professor T Season 2

Ben Miller as Professor Jasper Tempest in Professor T Season 2

Eagle Eye Drama

Telly Visions: The version of Professor T you worked on is the fourth remake of the show. What did you want to keep from the original? And how did you want to differentiate it from the other versions?
Matt Baker: Eagle Eye [Drama, the production company] was keen to pick Professor T as their first adaptation from a subtitled drama into an English-language remake. The proof was in the pudding; it had been adapted in other markets, they knew that it worked. At its heart, it’s got a very solid crime base. Crime procedurals are the sorts of shows that sell very well internationally.

I love the original show. The character is extraordinary; he has so much quirky Belgian humor. What you deal with in adaptation is that A) you’re trying to take it and adapt it to a different audience because although the Flemish version of Professor T is played both in the UK and the States, there’s a much smaller audience for subtitled drama than there is for non-subtitled English language dramas. So there was the potential to bring it to a bigger audience, B) adapt it culturally, but C) take the crime stories as the root, but then build out the backstories.

I felt there was more we could do with the backstories, but also a way of focusing them down a bit. The original seasons are 13 episodes long; sometimes, some backstories can meander a little bit. Understandably, when you’ve got 13 episodes to fill, you can take your time, but sometimes, having less time is a bit of a boon. You’ve got to concentrate on what the heart of the story is. When you’re adapting, you’re working on something because you see its potential, but you always believe you can improve it.

TV: In researching Professor T’s various quirks and syndromes, did you learn anything about OCD or germaphobia, etc., that surprised you?

MB: I wouldn’t say I’m either of those things, but I have tendencies towards certain kinds of compulsive behavior. I’m not for a second suggesting I’ve been diagnosed, but I feel I understand that in talking to Ben Miller as well. Ben was diagnosed with OCD. There was quite a lot of to and fro between us when we were working on Season 1. There’s a lot of stuff in the original version to choose from; it was almost like they threw a lot of behaviors at the wall. I think it was that sense of focusing, talking to him about what he felt was authentic, but also doing my research in terms of listening to people and reading up on subject matters.

But I want to be clear: this is a broad brush depiction. We’re not trying to do a detailed portrayal on TV of what it’s like to be OCD or germaphobic. We’re trying to communicate to a broad audience aspects of those behaviors, how they might impact an individual’s personality, and their way of seeing the world. I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole. It’s difficult; you want to portray stuff that feels authentic, but equally, you don’t want to turn it into a science lecture. It’s part of a character you’re trying to communicate, and we didn’t want to make it so dominant that it became the only filter through which you can see the character.
TV: Along the same lines, OCD UK has criticized the show for perpetuating stereotypes. Do you ever worry that Professor T’s behavior could be viewed as astigmatic, or have you found yourself drawing back from having a character do something because of that aspect?
MB: I think we were very conscious of it. I’m aware that there have been some criticisms, although I have to say, I think the criticisms have been limited. Some of the criticisms I was aware of were based on some very early reactions to Season 1. I’m not dismissing the criticism. But as someone who’s worked in this industry for a very long time, there is always going to be comment, and there’s always going to be discussion around the portrayal of issues on television. It happens whenever you’ve any dimension to a character you’re trying to reveal or perpetuate. I don’t want to dismiss it; we were aware of it. I’m not aware of us having massively changed anything in response to that, but it’s something we were aware of the potential for as we went along.

Ben Miller as Jasper Tempest, Frances de la Tour as Adelaide Tempest go to therapy with Juliet Stevenson as Dr. Helena Goldberg in Professor T Season 2

Ben Miller as Jasper Tempest, Frances de la Tour as Adelaide Tempest, and Juliet Stevenson as Dr. Helena Goldberg in Professor T Season 2

Eagle Eye Drama

TV: Pivoting off that, what was the most challenging part of the writing?
MB: The most challenging thing about Professor T is trying to get the balance between the backstories and the crime stories. Because of the model, we were writing simultaneously for the UK market, where a commercial hour is 46 and a half minutes, and PBS, which is 50-52 minutes. But the bottom line is, although it sounds like a lot of space, with a crime procedural, you want the crime stories to be sufficiently knotty that the audience is engaged, and you want to lead them to certain points where it’s a red herring; through a maze of complexity, dropping clues along the way, which they may or may not pick up, and then summing it all up in the end. The crime story has got to work.

But you’ve got to find space for the interactions between the characters to develop. There’s such a rich tapestry of characters in Professor T. You’ve got the professor and his relationship with the police: Christina (Juliet Aubrey), Lisa (Emma Naomi), Rabbit (Andy Gathergood), and Dan (Barney White). There are individual nuances in all those relationships, particularly with Adelaide (Frances de la Tour), who has a rich source of elements for me as a writer to play on, [plus] Miss Snares (Sarah Woodward) and the Dean (Douglas Reith) as well. The difficulty is when you’re trying to cut down, and you’ve got so much material, you can’t play around with the crime story. If you take out key bits, it doesn’t make sense. 

But that’s a very technical answer. The challenge of writing any drama is always to make believable characters. Particularly with Jasper, the challenge is to make a believable character who’s a sympathetic character at the same time. He is quite a strong flavor. That’s what we’re pleased with; the audience has related to him. Maybe that’s why it’s been remade so often because, at the heart of it, there is this sympathetic character you have to sort of unpeel to find your point of connection, which is a rewarding thing for an audience to do.

Ben Miller as Professor Jasper Tempest and Juliet Aubrey as Christina Brand work together on a case in 'Professor T' Season 2

Ben Miller as Professor Jasper Tempest and Juliet Aubrey as Christina Brand in 'Professor T' Season 2

Eagle Eye Drama

TV: I want to get into the characters a little bit now. In the second season, they had room to grow. What were your favorite developments?
MB: I loved introducing Helena, particularly having an actress of Juliet Stevenson’s stature agreeing to play that part felt like a real affirmation for the series. I think it gave the Jasper character a different dimension to him. I think it was a difference in the power relationships. In the first series, he was quite controlling; of course, you still see that in relation to the students. But suddenly, meeting someone whose intellect is as great as he is and who has an insight into him that perhaps he doesn’t. The dynamics of it, I think those scenes are absolutely beautiful.

The scenes with Adelaide as well. We could have a bit more fun with Adelaide this season. We probably stuck to the original lines more in the first season because we were finding our way with it. This time, because I was writing on my own, I had a bit more freedom to introduce humor into the scenes within a strict framework. I enjoyed the relationship between Dan and Lisa. That was a lot of fun to write because you felt it move on, and you understood the characters’ relationship with each other better; it felt like there was more of an arc to it this season in the original.

When we concentrated on establishing the characters and setting up the premise, the background stuff was less focused. This season, there was the ability to focus on key relationships more and make those scenes zing on the page and the screen.

Ben Miller as Professor Jasper Tempest ast a club crime scene in 'Professor T' Season 2

Ben Miller as Professor Jasper Tempest in 'Professor T' Season 2

Laurence Cendrowicz/Eagle Eye Drama

TV: Do you have a favorite character?
MB: They’re all my favorite characters. I’m very fond of Miss Snares and the Dean; they’re the purest comic part of it, and that’s why it’s such fun to write them. The crimes we’re dealing with are serious; there are issues around Jasper and his past. But at the end of the day, when I write stuff, I like to think about it being entertaining. Having the ability to play between dark and light and color and shade is a lot of fun for a writer. I’ve got Professor T’s voice in my head permanently, telling me off, so I love the voice and the way Ben portrays it.

That was the other thing; the easiest thing this time around was having seen Ben, Frances de la Tour, Emma [Naomi], Barney [White], and all the wonderful actors bring these characters to life; the second time around is easier as a writer because you’ve got a much clearer sense of those voices when you’re coming to the page.
TV: In the same vein, was there a particular episode that was the most fun to write?
MB: The episodes were a bit more varied this time, but that’s what I liked about it. A couple of episodes broke the mold; procedurals follow a pattern, you’ve got a certain number of suspects, you’ve got a certain unpeeling of the onion. I hope Professor T’s not predictable in that respect, but with crime procedurals, there’s a path to follow. “The Family” is quite a dark episode because it’s about familicide. But the staging is quite complex, and I thought the team did a really good job with that. 

Similarly, “The Trial” is told differently; the professor is outside the crime and tells it from a case study viewpoint. I like the way it plays around with the format. I think it’s a strong season. From what I’m hearing from this side of the pond, it seems like audiences are reacting well to it in the State; it’s been well received.

Stream Now

Before We Die

DI Hannah Laing persuades a confidential informant to help solve her lover’s murder.
Before We Die: show-poster2x3

TV: You’ve worked on Suspect, Professor T, Before We Die. What is it about the police procedural genre that draws you to that?
MB: It’s popular, and I don’t think there’s any shame in that. Television is a medium for entertainment. People talk about “too much crime on television,” but there’s so much crime on television because it’s what viewers want. I enjoy the discipline of it, of trying to write the structure of a crime and then fit other stories around that. But I would say they’re very different canvases. I mean, Professor T? It’s “cozy crime.” Suspect is anything but cozy crime; it’s dark, “Bristol Noir,” as we call it, a British version of a noir. Before We Die is a thriller, but there’s a crime. They’re all similar; in some aspects, you could call them crime, but I think they’re all quite different.

TV: The German series made it to four seasons. What do you think the UK version is going to make it to? Or do you think you’ll surpass them?
MB: I don’t know. We have written and filmed Season 3. So it’s there, it’s in the can. That’s not to say it’s been broadcast in the States.
TV: Not yet, no.
MB: But it’s there. It exists. I think Season 4 is being worked on. Once we get past Season 3, we’re into territory where it becomes more of an original. We’ve played out some of the tracks set up with the Flemish version. There is work being done on a potential fourth season, but I’m not involved in that at the moment.
TV: Any teasers for Season 3 that we can talk about?
MB: If you know the Flemish original, in the season premiere, the professor is paying the legal cost of his actions at the end of Season 2. We’re taking it in a similar direction. You’ll find the professor on the other side of the law, as it were. Given his peculiarities, it will be a challenging and strange milieu for him. So that’s something to look forward to. I don’t think I’m giving away a lot by saying that.

The Season 2 finale of Professor T airs Sunday, October 8, 2023, at 8 p.m. ET on most PBS stations. (As always, check your local listings.) Seasons 1 and 2 are streaming for members on PBS Passport and Amazon’s PBS Masterpiece Channel. Season 3 is expected to arrive in 2024.

Stream Now

Professor T

Professor T's world is slowly undone after agreeing to help solve a difficult case.
Professor T: show-poster2x3

Marni Cerise headshot

A writer since her childhood introduction to Shel Silverstein, Marni adores film, cats, Brits, and the Oxford comma. She studied screenwriting at UARTS and has written movie, TV, and pop culture reviews for, and Wizards and Whatnot. You can usually catch her watching Hot Fuzz for the thousandth time. Find her very sparse social media presence on Twitter: @CeriseMarni

More to Love from Telly Visions