Stolen Hearts: How We Made a Guy Ritchie romcom

  • 22.02.2023

Fatal shoot-outs, sawn-off shotguns … star-crossed lovers? Novel’s Andrew Dickson got together with Stolen Hearts producers Tom Wright and Anna Sinfield to talk about how the unlikeliest of ingredients came together in this new hit podcast

Stolen Hearts. Artwork: Novel
Stolen Hearts. Artwork: Novel

What with Valentine’s Day and all, there's been a lot of love in the air recently. But there aren’t many romances more surprising than the story narrated in Stolen Hearts, the latest release from Novel and Wondery, which dropped on all podcast platforms a few weeks ago and swiftly made its way to global number 1 in the charts.

Over six episodes, it narrates the tale of Jill Evans and Dean Jenkins – a police officer from rural west Wales and a London bank robber who, unlikely as it seems, began dating and fell deeply in love.  Opposites attracting? Check. Sexting on stake-outs? Check. Sawn-off shotguns, non-sexy handcuffs and hiding novelty sex toys before police raids? Check, check, check. Even more improbably, it’s all true; as more than one interviewee observes, this stuff is stranger than fiction.

Another dynamic duo – Novel producers Anna Sinfield and Tom Wright – have been living with the material and wrangling it into six episodes for the last year or so. So how did it come together? And is it really true that Dean had his own line of gangster-themed grooming products?

ANDREW DICKSON: Can we start with you, Anna? What’s Stolen Hearts about to you? What are its big themes?

ANNA SINFIELD: I haven't thought about this for a long time, I’ve been so buried in making it! But I think the series is about a woman, Jill, who’s desperately looking for love in all the wrong places. Eventually, she finds something good – except it’s not so good. He’s a bank robber. And it’s about what happens next.

TOM WRIGHT: The story is rooted in Jill's perspective, but not exclusively so. It's told from lots of different angles. And I think it's about what happens when the person you think is the person of your dreams, someone you’ve been looking for all your life, turns out to be the opposite. And you’re in too deep to be able to get out.

AS: It’s a romcom of sorts: girl likes boy because he’s a bit of a bad boy, only he really is a bad boy. And she clings to him, despite all the signs that this is a terrible idea. Not many of us fall for bank robbers, of course, but it fits lots of tropes. I've got so many friends who’ve been in relationships a bit like that, or who are still in those relationships and find those people very attractive.

AD: What did you think when you first heard about the story, Tom? How did it come to Novel?

TW: It was via Willard Foxton, our creative director of development. He was talking about it to the filmmaker Johnny McDevitt, who’d been working on the material. When me and Anna got involved, it was very much the story of Jill and Dean, not much else. There’d been a bit of reporting about the case at the time – it happened in 2006 – but that's all we had. What we had to do is try and work out who the other characters were, and how we’d tell it over a longer six-episode structure.

AD: Did you have an immediate sense of how you’d want to handle it, Anna, or did that only emerge slowly?

AS:One back-of-a-fag-packet version of this story is that it’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, right? There are bank robbers and shoot-outs and gangs. So my first reaction was, oh god, are we going to have to make something that feels like a Guy Ritchie film? That was exciting but also daunting. But as someone who likes very character-led and intimate audio documentaries, I thought about whose head we were going to get into. What led Jill into that relationship? What led Dean into doing what he did, not just the crime but in pursuing a relationship with a police officer? It felt like we needed to spend a lot of time digging deeper into who these two people were. And as Tom says, also finding out who the other people who were impacted around them were and what that story really was. But you’ll need to listen to find out …

AD: It’s also interesting, isn’t it, the geographical contrast in these locations – rural Wales, where Jill lives, is so different from Kent and the outskirts of London, where Dean was robbing banks. Even though it’s only like 300 miles away or whatever, it’s a different world. Was it hard to bring them together.

AS: Oh, totally. They’re so different. The South London and Kent part of the story fits the British gangster tropes really well. But the world of Jill and her friends and family in Pembrokeshire didn’t align with that style of storytelling: you can’t really tell a gangster story in rural west Wales, as we realised when we started doing development work across there. And because we decided early on that Jill was going to be our protagonist, that’s where we focused. Through interviewing her, we found that her story really started with a lot of hopeless dating anecdotes. She and Dean met on a dating app and that’s where it all began. And it led to something a little funnier because she saw it in a funny way, at least at first.

Jill photographed in police uniform. Photograph: Jill Evans
Jill photographed in police uniform. Photograph: Jill Evans

AD:You get into this in the podcast, I know, but what attracted Jill to Dean? Who did she think he was when they first met online?

TW:What Dean’s profile showed was the image that he showed to the world – a successful businessman in the beauty industry. He’s rough around the edges, but also there's a kind of metrosexuality there, too.

AD: Wait, so the battle-hardened bank robber was posing as a male-grooming mogul?

TW:Dean really did have a beauty business, and it was pretty successful; he was a self-made man. The crazy thing about it was that some of his beauty products, shower gels and those sorts of things, had a gangster theme: there was a range called The Guvnor, and a hair gel called It’s A Stick-Up with the tagline “For Hair That’s as Sharp as a Sawn-Off Shotgun”. You couldn’t make it up.

AD: How about Dean? What was going on there? Did he know that he was dating a police officer? Why did he stay in the relationship?

AS: He didn’t at first, but he knew pretty quickly. As we hear, Dean isn't the sort of man to really think about the consequences of his actions before he does something. He also enjoys attention from women. He isn't the first person to have an affair and he won’t be the last; the thing that makes him unique, though, is that the consequences kept on coming quite early on in his relationship with Jill, yet he never stepped away. Honestly, we really struggled to get an answer from him that made any sense. It’s still a bit of a mystery.

AD: Tell me more about the romcom thing, Anna. Is that really how you see the story? I guess it’s interesting because this is reality, right. These people are real.

AS: Yeah, we were super-aware of that, of course. And while we do call it a romcom, it's really more of a romcom that becomes a thriller. A lot of the material is quite gentle: small-town stuff, little quirky things. It’s full of people saying things like “it’s stranger than fiction”. A lot of it was stranger than fiction. But there was trauma there too, of course: when Jill discovered who Dean really was, the consequences were terrible for her. She lost a lot more than her relationship. So when we were wrestling with the material and trying to turn it into six episodes, I felt like I was continually knocking on Tom’s door, saying, “I don't think this is funny. I don't think we can do this, because it feels too raw.” But then that's the amazing role of editors and also what happens when you collaborate closely with interviewees, as we did here.

TW: When this story has been told before, the idea that Jill's a police officer and Dean's a bank robber has always been played for laughs. It’s a punchline – cop and robber, ha ha ha. But the moment where Jill finds out that what Dean's actually done is not in any way funny; it’s probably the most traumatic moment of her life. But the key thing we tried to do is follow these real-life characters. When they find things funny, the listener does. When they don’t, hopefully the listener won’t. We’re on that journey with them.

AS: And that journey is a rollercoaster ride. One way of describing this story would be that it's about the things you do for love and how far people are willing to take that. Because it's not a mistake that Jill makes once or twice. She makes mistakes around her love for Dean over and over again. While we’re on Jill's side, at some points we get really frustrated at her for not seeing what’s so obvious.

AD: Listening to the podcast, one thing I was really interested in is how you handle the darker stuff. I mean, Dean is a bank robber. He’s a violent criminal, he’s done and witnessed some pretty dark things, and he ends up serving a substantial prison sentence. You devote a whole episode to that.

TW: It felt really important to include that angle, too, not to airbrush it. Dean isn’t just some kind of Jack-the-lad character, he’s done some really grim stuff. The weird thing is when you hear him talk about that – and we spent a lot of time interviewing and re-interviewing him – he’s so emotionally closed. You sense that in a way he can’t quite go there, he’s closing down. Maybe that’s how he copes with it.

AD:I was struck by the fact that you seem to have so much material, especially given that most of it happened over 15 years ago. You lucked out in terms of archive!

TW: Yeah, we were really fortunate there. We had all of the documentation around Jill’s case, her notes, her hearing, phone calls that people had made. It helped us paint a really precise picture of what happened when. Both Jill and Dean both kept everything, even their old mobile phones. Because a lot of that relationship happened over text, we were able to reconstruct it quite accurately, I think.

AD: Was it fun making this series together as a duo? Did it help having a … partner in crime?

AS: [laughs] Oh yeah, absolutely. We did hang out a lot together, particularly when we were on location in Wales for weeks on end. We’d end up having breakfast, lunch and dinner together, and all we’d talk about was this story. Whenever you're trying to make anything funny, it's really hard to be funny in a vacuum; you need an audience. And so we kind of acted as each other's audiences. I think we also have different strengths: Tom's an incredible journalist and is fastidious in a way that I’m not, and whereas I'm a bit more keen on the creative writing elements. I keep pushing to work with Tom again. Though maybe you had a terrible time, Tom …

TW:[laughs] Ha, no not at all. Anna’s amazing, and the scripting process was really collaborative, as with the wider editorial team. We worked with a screenwriter called Kim McCaskill, who was great. I don’t think we had disagreements, really. There was an obvious challenge with this story in that the first two episodes were very clear, but after that point it was harder to shape it. The final two episodes were a puzzle that we had to unlock, and we spent quite a long time tussling over that.

AD:Sounds a bit like a romcom, guys …

AS: [laughs] Sadly, Tom and I did not fall in love. World exclusive.

• Episodes 1–3 of Stolen Hearts are available to listen now, or you can hear in full on Wondery

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