All posts by Inigo Alexander

Abbey days

With two new shows in the works, Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes and executive producer Gareth Neame look back on the period drama’s success and discuss their partnership.

Remember a little show called Downton Abbey? It’s hard to shake off the memory of a series that captured the hearts of audiences across 250 countries, picked up 12 Emmys and somehow got the average viewer interested in 20th century British social hierarchy.

Over the six years and six seasons that viewers followed the Crawleys’ lives, the series was a ratings smash hit and a gold mine for the broadcasters that brought it to our screens. In the UK, Downton reached an average of 11 million viewers over the duration of the series, while on PBS’s Masterpiece in the US it became most viewed drama of the past 45 years and reached an average of 13.3 million viewers per week at its peak.

However, for the brains behind the project – creator Julian Fellowes and executive producer Gareth Neame – there was an element of luck in getting the show off the ground.

“We were very fortunate that [former ITV director of television] Peter Fincham really believed in it despite everyone telling him he was mad, that the audience for period drama was dead and there was no one there to watch it,” states Fellowes, speaking at Content London at the end of last year. “There was something in it that just spoke to him. I love that because it’s nice when people are brave and go out on a limb and get rewarded.”

Neame, the executive chairman of Downton producer Carnival Films, is grateful to ITV for taking a chance on the show despite the broadcaster being in the midst of a difficult period when it was first commissioned. “Fortunately for us, they embraced it as soon as they saw the idea,” he says. “It was the middle of the advertising recession following the global crash and they had almost no money to buy new drama, but they committed to doing this, fortunately for us, and it all happened quickly.”

The exec producer admits he and Fellowes were caught slightly off guard by the show’s immediate success as they saw it spread across the globe, amassing devoted viewers along the way. A greater surprise came when the first season won four Emmys, including the Outstanding Limited Series prize.

Julian Fellowes (left) and Gareth Neame at C21’s Content London event

“We were there at the Emmys the first year and there’s no denying that, of the 3,000 to 4,000 people in that theatre, very few had actually heard of the show until it started to win all these awards,” Neame reveals.

“We were sort of warned that we wouldn’t win that year – ‘You mustn’t be disappointed, it’s marvellous to be nominated’ – and then we won practically everything!” Fellowes adds.

Critical acclaim continued and the series went from strength to strength each season. And as the show evolved, so too did Fellowes’ writing, with the Downton creator finding himself adapting the scripts according to the cast.

“The actors do change the writing  – not what they ask for or suggest, but simply you write [according] to their performances because you start to see their strengths and begin to understand what they will do best,” he explains. “Obviously, you try to make opportunities in which they will shine their brightest.”

The writing was also influenced by the fans, as Neame explains:  “We started to have very similar opinions to the fans. There were never any original plans to have Mr Carson [Jim Carter] marry Mrs Hughes [Phyllis Logan] – that was Julian responding to the chemistry those two actors had.

“So we were thinking the same thing the fans were thinking, that there was a great chemistry and it had to happen. There were many examples like that, and that’s what makes it all so fun – the inventions coming from all sorts of different places.”

Jim Carter and Phyllis Logan in Downton Abbey

As is often the case when a hit drama series comes to an end, viewers started asking about a possible feature-length adaptation of Downton, eager to see the Crawleys and co on the silver screen following the TV finale in 2015. Fellowes initially dismissed the idea, as he felt they had been able to tie all loose ends together and give the series a worthy send-off.

“I felt when I’d written the end, I’d made everyone as happy as I could,” he says. “We said goodbye and I thought it was goodbye. We all went to the Ivy Club and we cried and drank champagne and, as far as I was concerned, we’d come to the end of the road. But no, and gradually over the next year or two, the idea of a film took root and I finally came to see that it was going to happen.”

The plans finally came to fruition last year when the long-awaited Downton Abbey film hit cinemas across the globe, four years after the series’ conclusion.

“We didn’t want the show to go stale and wanted to quit while we were ahead. Having the possibility of the film sweetened the pill for the millions of fans around the world who didn’t want it to end and who really loved those characters. The idea that they weren’t lost forever was definitely positive,” says Neame.

The exec producer adds that while “it wasn’t a massive leap to take it to the big screen,” there were still obstacles to be overcome, particularly in ensuring the show’s stars were fully on board with the project.

“There were a lot of challenges in getting all of the cast back. Everyone had a sense they wanted to do it, but that’s not quite the same as saying you are going to commit,” he says. “Getting everyone to make that commitment did take an awful lot of work, but I was pretty determined to do it.”

The Downton Abbey cast, including Maggie Smith, reunited for last year’s movie

That desire to get the film off the ground paid dividends, with the Downton movie grossing more than US$190m globally, making it Focus Features’ second highest-earning film ever. Does this now mean Downton devotees can expect a second feature-length instalment?

“We said at the time we launched the film that we would like to keep going with it if it works, and fortunately, it has worked. The actors enjoyed doing it. So hopefully we’ll find a way to come back for more,” Neame teases.

“We’ve done it once, so I suppose we can do it again,” adds Fellowes, although nothing concrete is in the works at present.

Since the show’s conclusion, Fellowes and Neame have busied themselves with a number of different projects, including working together on two new period dramas: ITV and Epix copro Belgravia and HBO’s The Gilded Age.

Premiering this month, the former is based on Fellowes’ novel of the same name and follows the lives of the nouveau riche Trenchard family and the aristocratic Brockenhurst dynasty. For Neame, the decision to adapt the work to the screen was a no-brainer.

“When I read it, I thought it was fairly obvious that we should turn it into television. If I didn’t, there was going to be a queue of people who would want it,” he says.

Fellowes and Neame’s next ITV period drama Belgravia

Fellowes says the new projects have benefited from the fact the creative duo have honed their working relationship over the years, enabling them to work more swiftly.

“I’m pleased with the way Belgravia turned out. Obviously Gareth and I have now made quite a lot of television, so in certain areas we have developed a kind of shorthand. It doesn’t mean we always agree, by any means, but we don’t waste time trying to find out what the other one thinks, because it’s pretty clear what they think. It makes it quicker and easier.”

The Gilded Age, meanwhile, is set in the boom years of 1880s New York as the city experiences an influx of wealth and the establishment of a new bourgeois class. At first glance, it looks to be in a similar vein to Downton, but Fellowes is quick to point out the differences between the projects.

“Downton was quite deliberately the dramatisation of what was bound to be the decline in power of the British upper classes,” he explains, “whereas in Gilded Age, they’re going full steam ahead, they’re right in the middle of it. In fact, they haven’t yet reached their golden years, it’s still pouring in, and that seems a different dynamic and rather fun to approach.”

The new shows represent further additions to the period drama genre with which Fellowes has become synonymous, but being chiefly associated with historical series doesn’t bother the writer. “I seem to have become someone who does period drama,” he admits. “I don’t feel particularly committed to doing period drama but, on the other hand, when doors open for you, you’ve got to go through them. Usually you have to get known for doing something to then try to build on that and do slightly different things.”

The English Game focuses on the origins of football

Like many other major players in the industry, both Neame and Fellowes have found themselves getting into bed with Netflix. Neame, who is working with the streamer on ongoing historical drama The Last Kingdom, says: “It’s really been an excellent experience. Every creative wants to be completely supported and feel that encouragement when you deliver the episodes, and that’s exactly what they’ve been.”

Fellowes’ project, meanwhile, is another period drama, but this time focusing on a somewhat surprising topic. Dramatising the origins of the modern version of football (soccer) in the late 1800s, The English Game will launch on Netflix later this month.

Described by Fellowes as “charming,” Netflix will surely be hoping Downton’s army of fans will be there for the show’s kick-off.

 

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Sharpening Sabre

The next project from Goran Stanković and Vladimir Tagić, the creators of popular Serbian dramedy Morning Changes Everything, centres on a pivotal moment in contemporary Serbian history.

Last year, Goran Stanković and Vladimir Tagić found success with their very first TV series, a dramedy named Morning Changes Everything – and the show did just that for the pair of old friends. Their first foray into TV proved hugely popular in Serbia, as well as attracting viewers in nearby Bosnia and Croatia. However, it also made the creators realise they were ready to move on to what they hope will be a bigger, better project. Enter Sabre.

Vladimir Tagić

“Instead of doing a second season, for which there was huge demand, we decided to do a new story. Something different to jump out of that genre we were doing and into something a little different,” says Stanković, who is writing and directing the new show alongside Tagić.

Their new series delves into one of the most important events of Serbian history, the 2003 assassination of prime minister Zoran Đinđić. The political thriller will follow a female journalist and police inspector (played by Fargo’s Goran Bogdan) investigating the murder. Stanković’s This & That Productions, which was also behind Morning Changes Everything, is producing.

Tagić weighs in on the impact the assassination had on Serbia, and how they are going about structuring the new show. “It was the most important thing to have happened in Serbia in the past decade or 30 years,” he says.

“Our main focus is to know as much as we can about everything that happened. We’re reading a lot and watching a lot of documentaries and stuff like that, but we are making fiction. So we are taking those elements and making it our own, changing it in order to make it more universal, more authentic to really make it more personal, in a way. That’s what is important for us.”

It was not an accident that Stanković and Tagić found this project on their desk. The success of Morning Changes Everything led the general director of the national broadcaster RTS, Dragan Bujošević, to propose the idea to the pair.

Morning Changes Everything proved popular in Serbia as well as Bosnia and Croatia

“He told us he was thinking about making something about Đinđić and that he’d offered that story to a bunch of people, but nobody wanted to do it because it’s a really hard topic,” Tagić says. “We started thinking that that’s the perfect thing for us, and we were like, ‘OK, we’ll do it.’”

Stanković and Tagić are still at the early stages of bringing the project to light and are currently in the scriptwriting phase, though they already have the pilot episode in the bag. But they are aware there is a long road to go before Sabre starts to properly take shape and of the possible obstacles they may face along the way.

Goran Stanković

“In Serbia, development deals are very rare at this point,” Stanković admits. “We are now at the stage where we really need funds to move forward, to do more research, to hire more writers and get to the next stage.”

Luckily, one of these hurdles has already been partly overcome, with Sabre winning the Film Center Serbia CineLink Drama Award at this year’s Sarajevo Film Festival in August, giving Stanković and Tagić €10,000 (US$8,800) to further develop the project. On top of that, the production was recently approved for funding from the EU’s MEDIA programme.

Though the funding award and MEDIA backing will be a load off the production team’s mind, Stanković and Tagić aren’t looking too far down the line and are working progressively to get their project off the ground. They’re keeping a simple but hopeful outlook on the project.

“For us, the most important thing is to really be sure we make the screenplay and the concept as strong as we can, and feel good about it,” Tagić concludes.

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Blame game

As Jack Thorne’s The Accident hits screens, DQ speaks to stars Adrian Scarborough, Genevieve Barr and Mark Lewis Jones to discuss the themes behind the Channel 4 miniseries and find out how it balances grief and humour.

In 2016, UK broadcaster Channel 4 and screenwriter Jack Thorne partnered on National Treasure, a miniseries that followed an ageing comedian accused of a historical sex crime. Then last year, they reunited for Kiri, which shone the spotlight on foster care via a story a young girl’s abduction.

Now, for the final instalment of his loosely connected, issue-led trilogy, Thorne has created what is arguably his darkest work. The Accident is a four-part miniseries that unfolds in the fictional setting of Glyngolau, a small Welsh town long since deserted by major industry.

While the location may seem peaceful, the series is tainted with tragedy, with Glyngolau finding itself torn apart after a group of teenagers sneak into a large construction project designed to revitalise and breathe fresh life into the town. The rebellious teens unwittingly trigger a devastating explosion that causes the building to collapse, killing all but one of those who ventured in.

And so the finger-pointing begins, embroiling the town in a quest for justice as its close-knit community threatens to completely unravel.

Welsh actor Mark Lewis Jones stars as a local councillor

For Mark Lewis Jones, who plays local councillor Iwan Bevan, justice lies at the story’s core. “Certainly this one is about justice, as well as many other things, obviously. But one of its main threads is justice, and I think that was Jack’s intention,” he says. “A lot of people don’t have a voice, and I think what the people in this community try to do is get their voice heard.”

The sense of community within the story and the close bonds between the show’s characters – with an ensemble cast that also features Sarah Lancashire (who also starred in Kiri), Sidse Babett Knudsen (Westworld) and Joanna Scanlan (No Offence) – struck a chord with the actors, as well as adding a layer of complexity to the story.

“The women [in the show] knew each other from when they were children and they all had their children together, and they all grew up together,” Lewis Jones points out. “That’s part of the small community ideology and small community culture, and I think it’s very attractive to tell a story about people who’ve known each other for generations.”

Genevieve Barr’s character, Debbie Kethin, is left widowed after the explosion kills her husband Alan, who was responsible for the construction site’s security. Highlighting how being part of such a small community impacts the apportionment of blame, she says: “There’s this sense of how a community looks at outsiders when we start to touch on blame – how quickly a community will look outside for the responsibility or blame rather than looking internally at its own people.”

Genevieve Barr’s Debbie is left widowed after the titular accident

Though Thorne’s latest story takes place in sleepy Glyngolau, it is by no means a regional tale, as the themes explored are universal, while the disaster at the show’s centre echoes the horrors of recent real-life tragedies such as the Grenfell Tower fire in London in 2017.

“I think the impact the accident has on the history of each of these families and the history of the community as a whole is something that will have an international impact. In all countries, there are communities that have been built like that,” says Lewis Jones.

“Jack tells human stories and they will always, hopefully, have a big impact on an international audience as well as the UK audience.”

Thorne – one of the busiest writers in the business, with film and theatre credits alongside his extensive television work – is often touted as one of the UK’s brightest writing talents, and the script for The Accident (previously titled The Light) lives up to that reputation, according to Adrian Scarborough (Killing Eve), who portrays community outsider Philip Walters.

“I just kept reading it, that was the extraordinary thing,” he says. “I got sent the first three episodes and I just stayed in bed and finished it. I didn’t get up, I didn’t make a cup of tea, I didn’t have any breakfast – I just I was just glued to it.”

Sarah Lancashire (left) and Joanna Scanlan (centre) also star

The actor describes the writing as “delicious,” adding that it was “worth staying in bed for.”

Barr (Press) offers a similar take, claiming Thorne’s work is the kind of content actors itch to get their hands on. “I knew that with Jack’s writing there was going to be tragedy, light touches of humour and complexity,” she says. “As an actor, you crave that; you crave those characters that are multi-dimensional. Whenever you read Jack’s scripts, it’s always an absolute privilege.”

Lewis Jones also touches on the comedic elements of what is ultimately a dark and serious programme. “Through the humour, you kind of fall in love with the characters. It really shows humans in all their wonderful three-dimensional nuttiness, that they’re all flawed and funny and sad.

“[Humour and grief] are not oil and water; they mix really well because what they do, actually, is make the pathos stronger.”

The project, from producer The Forge and distributor All3Media International, is laden with sensitive issues and thus requires a steady operator in the director’s chair. Scarborough believes it found the right person in Sandra Goldbacher (Ordeal by Innocence, Victoria).

“The director was incredibly sensitive about making sure that those moments landed because it’s very, very hard to do that every day. Sandra balanced that beautifully – and she really took care of people along the way,” he says.

The praise for Goldbacher is echoed by Lewis Jones, who adds: “This story and these people and everything they go through required real sensitivity, a firm hand and careful handling. It couldn’t have been in better hands.”

With The Accident hitting British screens tonight on Channel 4 ahead of arriving on US shores via streamer Hulu, what can viewers expect?

“It’s really shocking, and I know what happens! If it can do that to me, it’ll have a profound effect on the audience,” Scarborough says, warning: “It packs a mighty punch.”

“There’s a bit of a roller coaster coming!” Lewis Jones chuckles.

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Carnival atmosphere

As Carnival Row premieres on Amazon Prime Video, stars Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne discuss the importance of the noir fantasy thriller’s message and unravel their characters’ complexities.

With a hefty budget and established stars like Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne topping the bill, Carnival Row would have fit the criteria for a blockbuster Hollywood hit had it been released five years ago. So the fact that it’s actually the latest original series from Amazon once again highlights streamers’ increasingly tight grip over the content industry.

Nonetheless, the show’s London premiere this week was a relatively discreet affair, hidden away at the Ham Yard Hotel on the edge of London’s Piccadilly Circus, with just a poster of the show propped up beside a stairwell next to the reception letting any passers-by know what was taking place. Diners sitting at the hotel’s adjoining restaurant wouldn’t be to blame if they were unaware the show’s high-profile cast would be enjoying champagne downstairs later in the evening.

For Carnival Row, Amazon Prime has teamed up with Legendary Studios to bring to life a story written 20 years ago by creator Travis Beacham. The show presents the audience with a bleak Victorian fantasy world that resembles a steampunk mash-up of Oliver Twist and Warner Bros’ recent Sherlock Holmes film franchise.

Carnival Row takes its name from the bustling street at the centre of the action

The drama explores a world in which humans and mythical creatures coexist, yet with a palpable level of racism and division that bares striking similarities to issues apparent in contemporary society. Years of war have displaced many Fae (fairies) and Pucks – Minotaur-type hoofed creatures – and sent them seeking refuge in predominantly human-inhabited territories. In turn, this has led to a recurring series of targeted Fae murders and landed Bloom’s character, troubled detective Rycroft Philostrate, with the job of catching the killer. Delevingne portrays his former lover, a fairy called Vignette Stonemoss.

“I think people are scared to have this conversation because people want to be ignorant about how many people are struggling in this world right now,” Delevingne (Suicide Squad) says, highlighting the importance of themes touched on in the series. “I’m actually so glad that [the show] is episodic because I think with something that is this important, especially with the social commentary, the love story and the crime aspect, it’s a lot to digest. After each episode ends, you can have a conversation about it.”

The series is set in the bustling port town of Burgue and revolves around what takes place on one of the city’s busiest streets. Picture the famous Harry Potter side street Diagon Alley, add a Waterloo Station rush-hour crowd, toss in a number of top hats and mythical creatures and blanket it all in a cloud of smog. The result is Carnival Row, part red-light district, part flea market.

Model-turned-actor Cara Delevingne plays a fairy in the Amazon original series

“It smelt just like it looked, there was so much detail,” Bloom says. “That’s the kind of level of detail you want as an actor.”

For her role as Vignette, a refugee fairy-turned-housemaid, Delevingne adopts an Irish accent, which she believes came naturally to the flying character. “I think just making her Irish made it more fun. Well, I don’t know – it just made sense to me,” she says. “The way Irish people speak is so beautiful and lyrical; it seemed to go so well with that type of character.”

Beyond the accent, Delevingne says the script appealed to her because “there was more depth and more emotion than I’ve ever seen out of any character I’ve ever read. I was so in fear of it but also so fascinated by that character and I knew if I hadn’t got it [the part], I would have been thinking about it probably until this day.”

Meanwhile, Bloom (The Lord of the Rings) does away with his natural Received Pronunciation English and dons a husky Danny Dyer-like cockney accent, perhaps in hope of giving his character – known as Philo – the necessary street cred to survive the Row and earn the fear and respect of its locals and frequenters. Like Delevingne, Bloom was drawn to the depth of his character.

Orlando Bloom’s Philo is charged with investigating a series of murders of Fae (fairies)

“I was intrigued by Philo, this man who was born an orphan, raised in an orphanage, then served in the military and went on to be a police detective. I thought about being raised in institutions and what that would do to the psyche of a man,” he explains.

“He has this secret and I think it is something that gives him a super power, which is that he is empathetic and a man who is trying to do the right thing. You know, in this day and age, actually just doing the right thing is heroic enough.”

Carnival Row was shot on location in Prague, which Delevingne describes as “a brilliant place” to recreate the show’s fantasy world. The cast ventured into the Czech mountains as well as a 600-year-old church for additional shooting.

In addition to tackling themes of racism and societal division, Delevingne says the series also offers valuable parallels between the Fae’s struggles and those of women today.

“The part that really spoke to me a lot was when the fairies had their wings strapped down, because that’s kind of how women were treated for so long,” she says. “Because you’re told you can’t move your body in so many ways, it’s a complete restriction. So that commentary on women and being the second-class citizen for so long was also really beautiful and clever.”

Delevingne and Bloom pose at this week’s London screening of Carnival Row

Though reviews series of the series have been lukewarm, Amazon has already commissioned a second season of Carnival Row, with the production returning to Prague to begin filming next month.

Bloom seems excited at the prospect: “I think the world-building is just growing and getting better, and honestly I think the first season is always going to be finding its feet. From what I’ve read for season two, it’s really exciting, and we’ve got an amazing cast of actors.”

Delevingne puts it more plainly: “Something about it sparked a fire inside of me, I suppose.”

The cast and production team behind Carnival Row will be crossing their fingers that the show causes the same instant reaction within viewers as it did with Delevingne, with the bizarre creatures of this noir world promising to take viewers deeper into the Row in season two.

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