“Downton Abbey” producers are adapting “The Second Sleep,” a gripping mystery and a fascinating cautionary tale, for TV: “All civilizations think they are invulnerable. History warns us none is.”

From The Second Sleep book cover, courtesy Penguin Random House


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The new series is based on the upcoming thriller from Robert Harris, the internationally best-selling author of Fatherland.

Here’s what we know so far about the upcoming period drama from Carnival Films. 




What is the The Second Sleep about?

During the late Middle Ages, a young priest, Christopher Fairfax, arrives in England’s remote Exmoor village to conduct the funeral of his predecessor. The land around is strewn with ancient artifacts – coins, fragments of glass, human bones – which the old parson used to collect. Did his obsession with the past lead to his death? Has the new priest discovered something kept secret for centuries?

Fairfax becomes determined to discover the truth. Everything he believes – about himself, his faith, and the history of his world – will be tested to destruction.

Publisher Penguin Random House calls the medieval era tale chilling, saying that it is “unlike anything Robert Harris has done before.” Imprint Hutchinson adds that the story is “a genre-bending thriller that explores the devastating potential of misused and oppressive doctrine, whilst challenging our notions of liberty and history. With Harris’ characteristic mastery of suspense and intrigue, the series will paint a world that is both familiar and yet strangely alien, asking what price one must pay to uncover the truth.”

“The Second Sleep” will be published in September 2019. (Available to order now.)

When is The Second Sleep set?

The priest arrives in the village in the year 1468, but the action is set in what author Robert Harris calls “a speculative world that mingles past and future.”

Late 15th century England was a turbulent time: With the support of the Earl of Warwick, Edward IV was crowned in 1461 after the overthrow of the Lancastrian King Henry VI (think of the BBC / Starz period drama The White Queen, set in the 1460s), famine and a 1467 outbreak of the plague threatened survival, and private wealth was on the rise. Potentially relevant to this story, the Gutenberg Bible, the first substantial book printed in the West with moveable metal type, was printed in the 1450s, though only one copy is known to have been privately owned in the fifteenth century.

Will there be just one season of The Second Sleep?

Carnival Films is planning “The Second Sleep” as a long-running series.

Will this be faithful adaptation?

According to Harris, he was drawn to Carnival’s proposal because of its scope: “The television series will both dramatize my novel and take it one step further, exploring my imaginary world beyond the confines of my story.”

Period drama veteran Bill Gallagher (The Paradise, Jamestown, Lark Rise to Candleford) is responsible for the adaptation.

Carnival’s Gareth Neame said Harris’ “The Second Sleep” is “an extraordinary work in its vision and originality, creating a rich world that speaks directly to our own,” and called Bill Gallagher a “perfect writer for the project” because of his “inventiveness and sensitivity whilst telling stories in meticulously realized settings.”

Neame and Nigel Marchant (Downton Abbey, The Last Kingdom) executive produce, alongside Harris and Gallagher.

When does The Second Sleep premiere, and who stars?

Not yet announced. Stay tuned for updates. 

What else has Robert Harris written?

Robert Harris has been a television correspondent with the BBC and a newspaper columnist for the London Sunday Times and The Daily Telegraph. Harris wrote his first suspense novel “Fatherland” in 1992. He is the author of eleven other novels. His novels have sold more than ten million copies and been translated into thirty languages.

Several of his books have been adapted to film, including the period-set movies Fatherland (1994) starring Rutger Hauer and Miranda Richardson, and Enigma (2001) starring Kate Winslet and Dougray Scott. Most recently he wrote the screenplay for The Ghost Writer (2010), based on his novel of the same name.


If you enjoyed this post, you’ll want to wander over to The Period Films List. You’ll also want to read about the upcoming adaptation of Rebecca