All posts by James Rampton

Winter sun

The Mallorca Files aims to be the bright and breezy antidote to the trend for dark, melancholic crime dramas. DQ visited the set on the Balearic isle.

If you heard the word ‘Mallorca,’ your immediate reaction might well be to imagine Magaluf (or its ruder nickname) echoing to the sound of wall-to-wall British stag dos dressed in matching Viking helmets and singing ‘ere we go!’

What you might not think of is breathtaking scenery, marvellous architecture, picturesque town squares, delightful restaurants, historic churches, gorgeous coastlines and mighty mountains.

Ben Donald

But that’s exactly what you get in The Mallorca Files, BBC1’s sunny 10-part daytime detective drama. Created by Dan Sefton (The Good Karma Hospital, Trust Me, Delicious), the series offers less of the lager louts and more of the luscious landscapes.

A variation on the theme of the buddy cop movie, The Mallorca Files centres on a mismatched pair of detectives, Miranda (Elen Rhys) from the UK and the German Max (Julian Looman). They reluctantly team up to investigate crimes on the otherwise idyllic Spanish island.

In this series, which is produced by Clerkenwell Films and Cosmopolitan Pictures and distributed by BBC Studios, the twist is that Miranda and Max overturn the national stereotypes: Miranda is uptight and efficient, while Max is charming and easy-going.

Ben Donald, the executive producer, is sitting on a bench in the capital city of Palma, outside the splendiferous Gothic Cathedral of Santa Maria. Known locally as La Seu, this stunning edifice commands a spectacular view of the glistening blue sea.

It is a stone’s throw away from the Port Authority building that is doubling as the exterior of the police station in The Mallorca Files. Over more decades in this job than I care to remember, this may well be the most glamorous location for a fictional police station that I have ever visited. It certainly beats an industrial estate on the outskirts of a gloomy London suburb.

Donald, who has previously exec produced such BBC hits as Wolf Hall, Death in Paradise, Parade’s End and Spies of Warsaw, begins by outlining what he hopes to achieve with The Mallorca Files, which starts on BBC1 on Monday. “Mallorca is not all Kiss Me Quick hats and lobster-red, sunburnt Brits on the lash. It’s a beautiful island.

Elen Rhys as Miranda Blake and Julian Looman as Max Winter in The Mallorca Files

“When Miranda is posted here, she starts off very buttoned up. But quickly we begin to explore every aspect of the island through her eyes, and she soon grows to love it. She is very happy to stay because it’s so gorgeous and there are so many different facets to it. She sees that it’s a great place to be, and we want viewers to feel the same thing. When they see the show, I want everyone to go, ‘Wow! I would love to be Miranda and Max!'”

Like many feel-good dramas filmed in sunlit foreign locations – Death in Paradise, The Good Karma Hospital or Wild at Heart – The Mallorca Files is cannily scheduled in the bleak British midwinter. “Winter is often a depressing time of year. They call the last Monday in January ‘Blue Monday,’” Donald notes. “We hope that The Mallorca Files will cheer people up in the way that Death in Paradise does. It’s the time of year when series like this do well and when holiday companies start to advertise. People think, ‘Ooh, I wish I was there and on holiday.'”

The Mallorca Files certainly makes the most of the island’s ravishing scenery, also a draw for the makers of upmarket commercials and series as diverse as The Night Manager, Mad Dogs and, of course, reality series Love Island. “We thought about filming this on the Isle of Sheppey,” jokes Dominic Barlow, the show’s producer. “Mallorca is a unique island. It’s got so much going for it. I’m always surprised by what you see around the next corner in Mallorca. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”

Dan Sefton

Donald is keen to emphasise that The Mallorca Files – which is also heading to BritBox in the US and Canada and Germany’s ZDFneo – could not have been filmed anywhere else. “We are not in generic Spain. The stories in this series are very much connected to this place and embedded in the local culture. Mallorca has got a very proud history and a strong cultural sense of its own identity, which is reflected in the cuisine and the dialect.

“The Mallorca Files is not a parallel universe of expats. What you get is a very strong sense of this particular island, as opposed anywhere else in the Mediterranean. It’s not an invented island.”

The production has shot everywhere from the airport, a vineyard and an oligarch’s yacht to a nightclub, a bike race, a bullfighting arena and a judge’s house in a TV talent show.

Bryn Higgins, who directs the opening and closing blocks of The Mallorca Files, has found the island an eye-catching and extremely versatile backdrop for the drama, 95% of which is shot on location.

“Mallorca is the third character in the drama after Miranda and Max,” he observes. “It’s an island of great variety and history, and it allows you to go into so many different worlds. In 20 minutes, you can move from the ancient history of the old town to the modernity of the marina. It offers a huge range of locations. The island is a giant film lot.”

Higgins, who has also directed Black Mirror, Garrow’s Law, Casualty 1909, Inspector George Gently and Silent Witness, says what distinguishes this series is its cinematic feel. “In my very early conversations with Dan, most of our references were to American movies of the 1970s. There is a retro movie feel to it. It has pace, style and energy, and each episode draws on a different genre.

“The first episode is a chase movie like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The second is a western set in the world of bullfighting, which borrows from Sergio Leone. Then we did an episode about drugs in the clubs using handheld cameras, which has an element of The French Connection. We also did a wonderful satire of The X Factor. It’s wild, funny, intense and has references to Dog Day Afternoon, Network and The King of Comedy.”

The show has a ‘bright and breezy’ tone, according to its producers

The producers go on to underline that, in contrast to many fashionably dark cop dramas at the moment, the tone of The Mallorca Files is bright and breezy.”Sometimes police dramas can be very serious, gritty and depressing. But this is fun and has a lot of energy. It’s like Moonlighting or Dempsey & Makepeace,” Barlow says.

“The police station is not important in The Mallorca Files. It’s not a procedural show. Miranda and Max solve cases in cafés and sitting on the seawalls. We try to keep the island in view all the time. It’s like The Holiday Programme, where you just love looking at the locations. This is Dempsey & Makepeace mashed up with The Holiday Programme.”

Sefton chips in: “The tone is very clear. When we created the show, we said there is going to be no sex crime or missing children – just good, wholesome murder!

“It’s full of interesting themes – drugs, death and bullfighting. It’s not anodyne, but we haven’t gone to the places other cop shows go to – that’s just not my thing.”

One blot on the landscape is the memory of BBC1’s last drama set in Spain: the late and very unlamented El Dorado. Unsurprisingly, the producers of The Mallorca Files think there is no comparison between the two series. “The only similarity is they’re both set in Spain,” asserts Higgins.

“That was a soap. This has genuine cinematic ambition and style. It’s a beautifully written piece, and every film is very distinctive. Yes, it’s a detective series, but it doesn’t settle into familiar detective tropes.”

Before we go, there is one character trait of Miranda’s that we have so far neglected to mention: her piano playing. Might we see more of that in the second season of The Mallorca Files, which the BBC has just announced? “Why not?” laughs Rhys. “We could have The Mallorca Files: The Musical. Who wouldn’t enjoy that?”

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , ,

Out of time

As the time-travelling romantic drama returns for a fourth season, DQ visits the set of Outlander to find out the secrets behind ‘the biggest show ever made in Scotland.’

If you love your period drama costumes to be pristine, look away now. You’re not going to like the following: the costume department on Outlander deliberately sets out to do damage to the immaculate outfits they have spent weeks creating. It’s all in the cause of art, darling.

Co-costume designer Nina Ayres is taking Drama Quarterly on a fascinating tour of her department at Wardpark Studios, the vast former circuit board factory in Cumbernauld on the outskirts of the Scottish city of Glasgow, where Outlander is filmed. She shows us room after room filled with rails carrying clothes with signs such as ‘1970s Ladies’ Stock Blouses’ and ‘18th Century Ladies’ Bum Rolls’ before welcoming us into her secret lair: the ageing and dyeing department.

Time-travelling 20th century doctor Claire Fraser is played by Caitriona Balfe

In this room, a small army of women work diligently with dye, mud, sandpaper and even cheese graters to age the previously spotless costumes worn by the characters in this hugely popular drama, which began its fourth season – ‘Book Four’ – on US cable channel Starz yesterday and rolls out on Amazon Prime Video today.

Based on the immensely successful bestsellers by Diana Gabaldon, which have sold an eye-watering 28 million copies worldwide, the show focuses on a time-travelling 20th century doctor called Claire Fraser (played by Caitriona Balfe) and her 18th century Highlander husband, Jamie (Sam Heughan). In this season, they are trying to carve out a life for themselves in the hostile environment of colonial North Carolina on the verge of the American Revolution.

Ayres explains there is very much a method to her apparent madness. “Every costume in Outlander comes through the ageing and dying department – even the posh stuff. We use grease, sandpaper, cheese graters and a spray gun to spray mud,” she explains.

“Everyone was so much dirtier back then than we are now. Every outfit on this show has to have life in it. It has to have a wear to it. In the 18th century, nothing was new. Everything was repurposed. We call the people in this department the women of mass destruction!”

A poster on the wall of the costume department bears this out. It reads: “There is a kind of beauty in imperfection.”

It is this very attention to detail that has helped make Outlander a global hit. Made by Tall Ship Productions, Story Mining & Supply Co and Left Bank Pictures, in association with Sony Pictures Television, each episode is watched by more than five million multi-platform viewers around the world.

Outlander S4 director Jennifer Getzinger on set with co-executive producer Maril Davis

Created by Ronald D Moore (Electric Dreams, Battlestar Galactica), Outlander takes a similar degree of care over its props. Walking around the two gigantic warehouse-sized prop stores at Wardpark Studios, producer Michael Wilson points out piles of farming implements, champagne bottles, period furniture, Scottish flags, station signs, street lamps, chandeliers and (fake) dead stags. Stacked neatly in one corner are hay bales with the warning notice: “Not for horse consumption.” (They have been treated with distinctly un-horse-friendly fire retardant.)

Wilson proceeds to gesture towards the love token that Jamie gives to Claire in this season: an 18th century medical box. “Some girls like diamonds,” he reflects. “Some girls like medical boxes.”

There are four different versions of the medical box, including an ultra-light one that Claire can carry on her horse (which, don’t worry, has not been feeding on the prop hay bales).

The production has had an enormous effect on filmmaking in Scotland, which makes the perfect backdrop for everything from the 18th century Highlands to colonial North Carolina.

Outlander’s Caitriona Balfe and co-star Sam Heughan

David Smith, a director at Scottish Enterprise, confirms: “Outlander makes a significant contribution to the almost £70m [US$90m] in film and TV production spend in Scotland last year, as well as employing around 300 crew in Cumbernauld and taking on nearly 100 trainees to develop their industry skills.

“Scotland’s tourism numbers are also being boosted, with Outlander showcasing Scotland’s landscapes and tourist attractions and some attractions reporting a 92% rise in visitors.”

Wilson underscores that Outlander has transformed employment prospects in the industry in Scotland. “When we walked into these studios five years ago, they were empty warehouses. Now this is the biggest show ever made in Scotland.

“The majority of people on this production are Scottish, but in the past they had to work outside this country. Shows that required their skills weren’t made here. Now they can’t believe they are getting employment in their own backyard.”

Outlander has taken on 23 production trainees this year. The assistant script supervisor on this season was a trainee last year. Wilson, who has also worked on such renowned Scottish productions as Taggart and Rebus, stresses: “It’s about building crew bases in Scotland. Also, you have to give something back.”

Sam Heughan plays an 18th century Highlander

The show has also attracted a very dedicated – and vocal – fanbase. It might seem overwhelming to some actors, but in fact the Outlander cast say they embrace the fans’ passion.

“99.99% of them are positive and fantastic,” affirms Balfe, who has won several gongs for her performance as Claire, including two People’s Choice Awards and a Scottish Bafta.

“It’s lovely to see people connected to what you’re doing and see your work having an effect on them. It’s so nice to be part of a community. Someone showed us a video of the Outlander babies. The show had something to do all of them being born. It’s crazy to think that has happened because of something we’re in – it’s wild!”

The very high production values have clearly played a major part in the fans’ love of Outlander, but several other key factors have helped make it such a gigantic, ocean-going hit.

“At its heart,” Balfe muses, “Outlander is a beautiful love story. That is an element which everyone can connect with because it’s something everyone is yearning for or has experienced or has lost. But the show has many other appealing aspects as well. It’s wonderfully written – without that foundation, you can’t go anywhere. If you have got a great story, you’re good to go.”

Outlander made a major contribution to the £70m spent on film and TV production in Scotland in 2017

The final reason for the popularity of Outlander may be that, in these turbulent times, we yearn to lose ourselves in such a richly imaginative, fictional world.

Balfe concludes: “Outlander offers a sense of escapism, which a lot of people need right now. Life is really tough for people at the moment. They’re struggling to make ends meet. That is one reason why the opioid crisis is spreading throughout the world.

“People are feeling disconnected from each other, and the idea of community is breaking down. So shows like Outlander, which have at their centre the idea of family and community, are something that people are really longing for.”

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Into the darkness

Witches, vampires and daemons battle for power in A Discovery of Witches, a supernatural fantasy drama based on Deborah Harkness’s bestselling All Souls novels. DQ visits the Cardiff set to meet stars Teresa Palmer, Matthew Goode and executive producer Jane Tranter.

It’s the supernatural equivalent of an arm wrestle. Satu, a bad witch, is testing the power of Diana, a good witch. How is Satu doing this? In the usual way that witches test each other – by dropping her rival down an oubliette.

It is not every day that you see a witch being propelled into a muddy dungeon, but then again it’s not every day that you witness a ‘witch off.’

This is a pivotal scene from A Discovery of Witches, Kate Brooke’s adaptation of Deborah Harkness’s best-selling All Souls novels. Launching on Sky1 and Now TV in the UK this Friday, the drama conjures up the existential battle between three types of supernatural creatures – witches, vampires and daemons – who walk among us entirely unnoticed.

A Sky Original Production made by Bad Wolf and distributed by Sky Vision, the series focuses on Diana Bishop (Teresa Palmer). She is an Oxford University academic who has no inkling that she is the most potent witch in the world. When she happens upon Ashmole 782, a bewitched ancient tome that contains the secrets of the creatures’ existence, all hell breaks loose.

Before you can say, “pass the garlic,” she is receiving unwanted visits from Professor Matthew Clairmont (Matthew Goode), a magnetic, 1,500-year-old vampire. He has spent centuries searching for Ashmole 782, which he believes will help revive the vampires’ fading powers. But he also issues Diana with a warning that she will attract the attention of other, more venal creatures who will stop at nothing to get hold of the book.

In the creatures’ realm, relationships between species are strictly forbidden. Despite that, Diana and Matthew find it hard to suppress their growing feelings for each other. It’s a supernatural take on Romeo and Juliet.

In between scenes, Palmer and Goode sit down to chat on a soundstage at Cardiff’s Wolf Studios, the largest studio space in Wales. Palmer, who has also starred in Hacksaw Ridge, Warm Bodies and Lights Out, has not had time to change and is still caked in mud after her unfortunate fall down the oubliette. Downton Abbey’s Goode jokes that she is “post-mud pack.”

Palmer clarifies that she is actually “post-confrontation with another witch, Satu [Malin Buska],” adding: “Diana and Satu are good and evil. Satu has taken her powers to a dark and sinister place and is lured by the idea of being in control. She and Diana are battling it out. Satu wins the battle today, but not for long. This look is the aftermath of today’s battle.”

“Thrown down an oubliette – never a great place to be!” Goode interjects with a laugh.

Jane Tranter, the executive producer on A Discovery of Witches, joins the discussion. The former head of drama at the BBC now runs her own production company, Bad Wolf, which is also currently making a major new adaptation of Philip Pullman’s acclaimed cycle of novels His Dark Materials. Also responsible for such well-regarded dramas as The Night Of, Luther, Torchwood and Succession, she begins by explaining why Harkness’s novels lend themselves so well to television.

“The rights to the books were originally taken by a film company, but I never thought A Discovery of Witches would work as a film,” she says. “If you can’t have breadth, you get a skinny story. So I always thought it was perfect for television.”

Teresa Palmer plays Diana, who discovers that she is a powerful witch

Her belief was strengthened by a single game-changing programme. “Game of Thrones changed a lot,” Tranter continues. “It enabled me to get the rights for both A Discovery of Witches and His Dark Materials. Authors suddenly realised that TV could capture their work in a way people previously thought only film could.

“So when Deborah decided not to go with the film company, I was ready to give her work safe passage onto television. I’m a tremendous waiter, and I had to tremendously wait for A Discovery of Witches. But it was worth it!”

Part of the appeal of A Discovery of Witches is the fact that the creatures are hiding in plain sight. So the actors have to create characters who do not stand out from the crowd. Goode, who played Lord Snowdon in the first two seasons of Netflix’s The Crown, elaborates: “We’re trying to do something not too exotic.

“A lot of these dramas in the past have been very Gothic. But we’re avoiding that. For instance, the vampires in A Discovery of Witches don’t have teeth like Dracula. The producers were adamant about that, which I think is very clever. A lot of the stuff the creatures go through is very human, like falling in love with someone they shouldn’t. The creatures exist in the same world as us.”

As they walk the earth, it is vital that these creatures possess a chameleon-like ability to melt into the background. “They want to blend in,” muses Palmer. “You could be in a local café, look around and have no idea who the creatures are.”

Matthew Goode as 1,500-year-old vampire Matthew Clairmont

“That’s probably why A Discovery of Witches is set in the UK,” Goode grins. “There are a lot of pale people here.” He adds that he very much enjoyed filming at Oxford University. “When the students are there, you get all sorts. It’s the best people-watching you’ve ever seen. You go, ‘He could be a vampire!’”

The fantasy genre – as manifest in dramas such as A Discovery of Witches, Game of Thrones and True Blood – is immensely popular right now, and Palmer believes the reason is simple. “It’s very exciting to delve into an unknown and scary world. You can let your imagination run wild,” she says.

“It reminds you of your own childhood,” Goode chips in. “Stories about magic are hugely important when you’re developing your imagination. Also, any great story provides terrific escapism from all the terrible things that are going on in the world at the moment.”

One very strong message to emerge from A Discovery of Witches is the power of women. According to Palmer, “what is particularly enticing about this story is the fact that Diana is the most powerful witch in the world without even knowing it. In general, there is a great movement towards showing strong women on TV and film. It’s really nice to play someone who has a lot to say and is stronger than the guys.

“I love the fact that Diana can be all things. She can be vulnerable, divine, feminine and strong, as well as having these insane powers. I’m very excited that in the current climate we’re seeing more and more of these female characters come to life.”

A Discovery of Witches also has something to say about accepting people who are ‘other.’ “That’s absolutely at the centre of this,” asserts Goode. “With a story like this, you can’t help but reflect on our world. This drama is a metaphor for living peacefully alongside every different creed, colour and race. But it’s done intelligently. It’s not a case of, ‘Oh, let’s just drop this in gratuitously.’ It doesn’t feel like someone is trying to educate you.”

Tranter says A Discovery of Witches is “a dramatisation of the need for tolerance and acceptance. It doesn’t show witches, vampires and daemons as odd. Above all, the response I had to the book was that it’s a love letter to our world, told through non-human species. It’s a beautiful world, but it still has some dark places.

“In order to appreciate the light, you have to go through the dark.”

tagged in: , , , ,

Inside the Wolf’s lair

Home to British dramas A Discovery of Witches and His Dark Materials, Wolf Studios Wales offers more than 250,000 square feet of studio space for high-end series just minutes from Cardiff. DQ takes a tour with Bad Wolf CEO Jane Tranter.

With shooting underway on BBC1’s epic adaptation of Philip Pullman’s hugely popular His Dark Materials trilogy, the author recently came to look around Wolf Studios Wales, the immense new filming facility that has been built in a former Nippon Glass factory in Cardiff Bay.

Pullman, an Oxford alumnus who still lives in the area, was particularly eager to see the studio’s recreation of the university’s Bodleian Library. This exquisite medieval interior features both in his work and in A Discovery of Witches (pictured above), Deborah Harkness’ bestselling novel, the forthcoming adaptation which was also filmed at Wolf Studios.

Pullman was not disappointed. Jane Tranter, the CEO of Bad Wolf, the production company responsible for the TV versions of both His Dark Materials and A Discovery of Witches, recalls the author’s reaction to the impeccably detailed set: “He simply said, ‘OK, that’s the Bodleian Library. It’s perfect.’”

Production designer James North, who has also been called upon to recreate upstate New York, Venice, Finland and France for A Discovery of Witches, lets the light in on the magic of filmmaking: “We’re supposed to be in some of the most beautiful places in the world, but we’re actually shooting them in a former factory in Cardiff!”

Of course, such effective trickery requires an extraordinary attention to detail. As an example, North outlines the meticulous work that has gone into the impeccable reconstruction of the Bodleian.

L-R: Bad Wolf chief operating officer Natasha Hale, CEO Jane Tranter and MD Julie Gardner

“It’s virtually impossible to film in the real Bodleian,” he says. “They were brilliant and really helpful, but it’s a working library and the scholars must come first. Also, in the Bodleian, you’re not allowed to touch the books or light fires or throw people around – all of which we needed to do! So instead we recreated one of the reading rooms, Duke Humfrey’s Library, here.”

North, who has also worked on Doctor Who, Line of Duty, Da Vinci’s Demons, United and Outcasts, admits that recreating the Bodleian at Wolf Studios “was a big old build. It took eight weeks to construct.”

And the hardest part? “Building 600 metres of book spines. We took 150 metres of real book spines and moulded them to make fake versions from spray foam. We individually painted each spine.” The sacrifices people make for their art…

But such painstaking work coheres with the high standards that are being set at Wolf Studios. Conceived by Tranter, who was previously head of fiction at the BBC, and her former BBC colleague and partner in Bad Wolf, Julie Gardner, it is the biggest film and TV studio in Wales.

It contains seven studios and covers an area of 250,000 square feet. Its biggest soundstage, Studio 6, has a height of 17.5 metres, making it the tallest in Wales and rivalling the size of the 007 stage at Pinewood.

Wolf Studios comprises seven studios, including one with a height of 17.5 metres

Wolf Studios is a major financial undertaking. The site was acquired by the Welsh government for a reported £7m (US$9.3m) and leased to Bad Wolf for an initial 10-year term. But there should be very healthy returns: over the coming years, Wolf Studios is projected to deliver a £120m boost to the film and TV industry in Wales.

A Discovery of Witches alone, which is being made for Sky and NOW TV and debuts on September 14, has a reported budget of £25m. Rumoured future productions include an adaptation of Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles, and Harrow Alley, a drama set during the 17th century plague and starring Dame Emma Thompson.

Even though A Discovery of Witches, a supernatural drama about a witch and a vampire who team up to battle dark forces, is the first production to be shot there, Wolf Studios is already creating a buzz throughout Wales.

A graduate of the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, North explains: “We are very blessed at Wolf Studios. There was a big cost involved, but it’s worth doing properly. We have an awful lot of studio space here. Having these facilities outside the south-east of England is massive.

“Also, the construction has been exceptional. We have the same standard of soundproofing as they have in cinemas. There is a workshop in the corridor outside the studio. They can have 20 builders working there with saws and hammers and, at the same time, through just one door, we can be filming a beautiful, quiet two-hander love story without hearing any of their work.”

Bad Wolf is currently working on the BBC’s version of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials

North continues: “The best thing about Wolf Studios is that it’s been built by Jane and Julie, TV production practitioners. It’s not been developed by property developers simply to make money. It’s designed to be practical. It feels like the sort of space where you can make amazing TV. It’s not just about rocking up and filming in a shed, which people have had to do a lot in this industry.”

It is true that Tranter and Gardner are very much hands-on producers with the expertise to tailor-make a user-friendly studio. Tranter sits down with DQ in the immaculate upstate New York drawing room that North and his team have constructed for A Discovery of Witches on a soundstage at Wolf Studios.

The lively, highly intelligent executive, who has had enormously positive experiences of working in Wales on dramas such as Doctor Who, Torchwood and Da Vinci’s Demons, reveals that it was making the multi-Emmy-winning thriller The Night Of on New York soundstages that first gave her the idea for Wolf Studios.

“During that time, I learned to love filming in a studio,” she says. “British TV drama has traditionally not been so studio-based. We love our locations, partly because in the past they’ve been cheaper, but mainly because we love our social realism.”

But, Tranter adds, “working on The Night Of really made me think about what a studio could offer. I liked the fact that it was a very big employer in the city. Generations of people in New York worked in the same studios.

Wolf Studios occupies a former factory site in Cardiff

“It also made me think of our experiences filming in studios in Wales on Doctor Who, Torchwood and Da Vinci’s Demons, and I realised that New York crews are like Welsh crews. They both have a passion, a commitment and a conviction that carries them through. So I thought, ‘If New York has that, I don’t see why Wales can’t have it too.’”

Tranter proceeds to explain how they found this particular site in Cardiff Bay. “Because we were making His Dark Materials, we knew the studio had to be on a very large scale. But it took us 12 to 18 months to find this location. At first, we looked at various others. But when we found this one, we knew it was right immediately.

“I thought it was really appropriate that we were building a studio in a factory that was closing down. That is so much part of the contemporary story in so many places in the UK. It seemed that if one door was closing, maybe another could open. So we were very privileged to take this place.”

One aspect of Wolf Studios that Tranter insisted on was an education department. “We built a classroom because I felt we needed to create a place where employment can happen,” she reveals. “The sooner we start telling people there are lots of jobs in this industry, the better.

“People can work in front of or behind the camera as writers, directors, producers, drivers, cooks, accountants, electricians, carpenters, hairdressers, costume-makers and make-up artists. Drama production is a big, industrialised business.”

So, the executive continues, “I said, ‘Send us children from nine years old, because within 10 years they can be working here.’ We’ve already had hundreds of all ages through the door. We’ve also had lots of trainees – we have had 41 on A Discovery of Witches. If we keep doing it and repeating it, think how many people we will train for this industry.”

The executive, who co-founded Bad Wolf with Gardner in 2015, was also anxious to make people aware that Wolf Studios would be a year-round operation. “I felt very strongly that we should have a studio that is open 52 weeks of the year,” she says. “When a production comes to town, it fills the hotels, B&Bs, shops, pubs, bars and dry cleaners. But then the production leaves and you have tumbleweed and empty crisp packets blowing down the street – the circus has left town. In this case, the circus won’t leave. It becomes a place of employment.”

Looking back on the events of the past year, Tranter expresses satisfaction. “We christened the studios with A Discovery of Witches and it confirmed that, as a couple of crazy producers, Julie and I were right to open Wolf Studios. You could say that it was an act of insanity, but creating this arena that allows for maximum creativity has been one of the proudest experiences of our lives.”

Tranter concludes that her sincerest desire is that Wolf Studios will be able to carry on regardless of her. “I hope that it continues and continues and grows and grows and eventually has absolutely nothing to do with me. For a period of time, it will have quite a lot to do with me.

“But one day I’ll drive away and everyone will just keep going.”

tagged in: , , ,

Third time Lucky

James Nesbitt heads to the Far East for a third season of Stan Lee’s Lucky Man, which continues the story of a man bestowed with the power of eternal luck. DQ meets him in Hong Kong to find out more.

This is a first. Drama Quarterly is invariably transported to a television set in the back of a cramped and slightly run-down production minibus. But today is rather different; we are being taken to visit a location on a sampan from Hong Kong Island.

As we look out over a marina filled with the sort of superyachts that even Russian oligarchs might covet towards some of the most expensive property on the planet, we could get used to this.

The sampan deposits us at The Jumbo Floating Restaurant, the most famous eatery in the country. The giant six-storey barge, festooned with elaborate carved wooden animals, is being used as a location for a key scene from Stan Lee’s Lucky Man.

Hong Kong is “full of noise, people and bustling street food stalls” says Nesbitt

At the venue, which has also been employed as a location in movies such as Skyfall and Internal Affairs 2, more than 50 supporting artists have gathered. They are being dressed up to play waiters and market traders selling fruit and vegetables, cooking utensils and dumplings. Meanwhile, a stunt rider is revving his motorbike in preparation for a daring sequence along the upper deck of the restaurant. The producers are really giving this scene some welly. The whole scene is redolent of authentic Hong Kong life.

The barge is the location for a complex fight sequence at the restaurant between the show’s hero, Harry Clayton (James Nesbitt) and new enemy Samuel Blake (Rupert Penry-Jones).

In this entertaining series created by comic book genius Stan Lee (who is also behind Spider-Man, The X Men and Iron Man), Blake has arrived in Hong Kong in search of Harry. This implacable baddie will stop at nothing to take possession of the bracelet that gives Harry the superpower of being eternally lucky. The fact that Blake is impervious to pain only helps his villainous quest.

Pausing for breath between scenes while wearing both shin and forearm guards for rehearsing the fight sequence, Nesbitt says that he couldn’t be happier to be in Hong Kong. “We’re here today in the home of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan doing fantastic stunts,” he says. “It’s absolutely brilliant!”

Stan Lee’s Lucky Man airs on Sky One in the UK

This third season of Stan Lee’s Lucky Man, currently airing on Sky One in the UK, captures the vivid essence of Hong Kong, a breath-taking mixture of Eastern and Western cultures. It is a unique ambience that would be simply impossible to conjure up at Shepperton.

Nesbitt underscores that this Hong Kong-set season could not have been shot anywhere else. “This place is a one-off,” enthuses the actor, who has also starred in Cold Feet, The Hobbit, The Missing, Bloody Sunday, Five Minutes of Heaven, Occupation and Murphy’s Law.

“It’s so exciting to be filming here. You have the joy of immersing yourself in a new and vibrant culture. Hong Kong is a fabulous city to set this show. The entire place has a real sense of urgency. Visually, it’s stunning too. It has these extraordinary skyscrapers and also this astonishing street life. You only have to look out of the window to see the real collision between the wealthy and the not so wealthy. It’s teeming with all kinds of life.

“Yesterday we were filming at the famous Temple Street Night Market,” the Northern Irish actor explains. “It’s a fascinating place, full of noise and people and bustling street food stalls. Then you peer into a backstreet kitchen and you see topless male chefs smoking. It’s a place like no other. Hong Kong is one of the leading characters in this series of Stan Lee’s Lucky Man.”

James Nesbitt sees the character of Harry Clayton as “at his core a good man”

Chen On Chu, a producer on the series – produced by Carnival Films in association with POW! Entertainment and distributed by NBCUniversal International Distribution – agrees that it would be unthinkable to recreate the atmosphere of Hong Kong anywhere else: “If you shoot in a live location like the Temple Street Night Market, there are elements that you just can’t replicate anywhere else in the world. You can never reproduce the density of the people or the look of the Hong Kong buildings on a backlot in the UK. The texture of this show is very authentic.”

Which is not to say that there are not immense challenges involved in filming in Hong Kong. Chu, who has previously worked on many enormous Hollywood productions in Hong Kong, including Batman: The Dark Knight, Transformers, Battleship, Ghost in the Shell, Geostorm, Lara Croft and Pacific Rim, is all too well aware of the difficulties. “It is really challenging filming here because it’s such a busy place,” he adds. “We might have 50 trucks on a production, and it’s really not easy to find a parking space for them. We have to tell the crew they can’t drive to the set.

“Also, the space here is very limited and it’s really hard to divert traffic, so it’s very difficult to close roads for filming in Hong Kong. We had a joke that the only time you could film The Fast & the Furious in Hong Kong would be when there was a street protest and the roads were closed anyway!”

Rupert Penry-Jones (right) plays new villain Samuel Blake in season three

Nesbitt concludes by reflecting on just why Stan Lee’s Lucky Man has proved so popular over the past two seasons. He reckons that one of the principal reasons is because Harry represents a very British type of superhero. “At his core, Harry is a good man,” the actor muses.

“But he is still the very last person who should be a modern-day superhero. He is flawed, of a certain age and a gambling addict. He is a very unlikely superhero. It’s especially unlikely to have a 53-year-old Northern Irish superhero who says, ‘Fecking eejit’!”

Finally, are there any similarities between Nesbitt and Harry? “Clearly there are bits of me in him,” the actor admits. “I recognise the isolation he feels. There are certainly times in my life when I’m away from home and on my own. I also really love his dryness. But unlike Harry, I have never been a big gambler.

“That’s one of the few vices that has escaped me – thank God!”

tagged in: , , , , , , , ,

Family matters

British period drama The Durrells returns for its third season with more fun in store for the eponymous family. DQ caught up with star Keeley Hawes and the production team on the set at the world-famous Ealing Studios.

In the green room at Ealing Studios, we are surrounded by the most unusual props: vintage bird cages, ancient posters of beetles and butterflies, old hamster cages, lots of pressed flowers, distressed wooden shutters, an antique garden bench covered in ‘lived-in’ throws and cushions, and a period microscope.

You do not have to be Sherlock Holmes’ long-lost Hellenic cousin to work out that we are on the set of The Durrells, ITV’s enormously popular adaptation of Gerald Durrell’s bestselling memoir, My Family and Other Animals.

Scripted by Simon Nye (Men Behaving Badly), this easy-going series set in the 1930s follows the trials and tribulations of the Durrell family – long-suffering widowed mother Louisa (Keeley Hawes), struggling novelist Larry (Josh O’Connor), awkward, gun-obsessed Leslie (Callum Woodhouse), embryonic feminist Margo (Daisy Waterstone) and budding naturalist Gerry (Milo Parker) – as they move from stuffy Bournemouth and strive to carve out a new life for themselves in Corfu.

In the third season, which begins on March 18, Louisa has resolved to renounce her quest for romance and instead concentrate on her family. But with Larry battling to complete his third novel, Margo desperate to find a new vocation, Leslie careering between three different girlfriends and Gerry continuing to expand his menagerie, Louisa has an awful lot on her plate.

The Durrells stars Keeley Hawes as Louisa

Ealing Studios is a place redolent of filmmaking history. It has been home not only to such recent productions as Downton Abbey and Beauty & the Beast, but also such timeless Ealing Comedies as The Lavender Hill Mob, The Ladykillers and The Man in the White Suit.

But just why has Britain gone daft for The Durrells? Hawes, who has also starred in such acclaimed dramas as The Missing, Line of Duty and Spooks, believes the series has struck a chord because it appeals to a very wide audience: “I had an email from a woman recently. She told me that she sits down every Sunday night to watch The Durrells with her grandson, who is nine, her daughter, who is in her 40s, her mother, who is 94, and her husband, who she couldn’t get to watch anything else.”

The actress adds: “From the age of nine to 94, all these generations sit down together for this show. It’s something the whole family can watch together. That’s very rare these days because it’s very difficult to make it work. I can’t think of anything else that does that. This has captured everyone’s imagination.”

That impression is reinforced by the sense that Nye’s scripts have a dual effect. Hawes continues: “What Simon does so well is that fabulous Pixar thing of making jokes that work on two levels. He writes jokes which will go over children’s heads, but which make us adults laugh at the same time. So when children are invited in to these cheeky jokes, they feel very excited about it. It’s the same reason why we can all watch The Simpsons together.”

The Durrells, which is made for ITV by Sid Gentle Films as a coproduction with PBS strand Masterpiece and distributed by BBC Worldwide, also taps into a deep communal yearning for a mythical, more gentle and less threatening past. This instinct is perhaps fuelled by a desire to lose ourselves in a realm far removed from the horrors of the real world.

The show follows a British family who have relocated to the Greek island of Corfu

The scheduling also helps a great deal. As Britain is battered by storms and snow, what could be more relaxing than luxuriating in the flawless blue skies of Corfu? It is classic escapist Sunday evening drama.

Hawes affirms that theory: “The Durrells is one of those feel-good nostalgia shows that people want to watch on Sunday night before getting ready for the week ahead.”

But it is not just in this country that The Durrells has had an impact. It has also caused a stir in Corfu. Producer Christopher Hall observes: “The series has had a huge effect. British tourism [in Corfu] has gone up 15% since we first went out. There is a big spike every year just after transmission. On the easyJet flight from Gatwick to Corfu, pretty much everyone has watched The Durrells.”

It has not all been positive for the production, however. Hall notes: “Some tourist operators have been selling tickets to The Durrells Experience and promise a visit to the house where it’s filmed. One day, coach-loads of people turned up to look at our location. We had to tell them, ‘Sorry, this is a private house. You can’t come and look at our set!’

“Two years ago, we had signs up everywhere in Corfu saying, ‘The Durrells’, but we had to take them down because people kept stealing them and putting them on their own house!”

For the producers, there is one other problematic by-product of the show’s popularity. Hall, who also produced Critical, Dracula and Trial & Retribution, says: “The local hotels in Corfu are also doing very well – much to our cost. We say to the hotels, ‘We do a lot of work on the island – can you give us a discount?’ And they reply, ‘No, we can’t give you a discount because we’re full!’”

The Durrells returns to ITV this Sunday

In addition, The Durrells bears out that old filmmaking maxim: never work with animals. The creatures that make up Gerry’s substantial and ever-increasing menagerie are generally very well behaved, but inevitably there are still rogue elements.

Liz Thornton, who works as the animal coordinator on the production, reveals that the most difficult animals she has had to deal with on The Durrells are – quite surprisingly – pelicans. “Out of all the animals, you really don’t know what they’re going to do.

“They’re characters. They will suddenly take a dislike to someone, and that’s it – they’re off. All the animal handlers are standing just off camera. They try to persuade pelicans to do things with fish, but it doesn’t always work!”

The show has also thrown up some intriguing tests for production designer Stevie Herbert. She says her most demanding task is sometimes working out precisely what things are. “The agricultural equipment on Corfu is fascinating,” she says. “There is a guy in the village whose house is like an agricultural museum. You look at an implement and think, ‘What is that?’ They’re uniquely Corfu.

“A lot of it is to do with collecting olives. There are many strange tools you wouldn’t even think of. There are specific baskets that taper down according to the size of the donkey carrying it. Greece was built by donkeys.”

For all the challenges, the cast and crew have clearly relished working on the Greek island. Herbert speaks for everyone on The Durrells when she declares: “Corfu is so beautiful. The sun and the sea and the scenery are all amazing.

“Scrape back the modern world and the old Corfu is still there, just beneath the surface. Terrapins leap in the river, bask in the sun and cross the road at their own pace – they even have road signs warning drivers about that.”

She concludes: “On Corfu, we have a breakfast club where we eat sandwiches, watch the sunrise and think, ‘Yup, another day in paradise.’”

It’s a feeling no doubt shared by the millions of viewers who tune in to The Durrells every week.

tagged in: , , , , , , , ,

Lennie’s round

Lennie James wrote and stars in Sky Atlantic drama Save Me, about a father’s hunt for his missing daughter. DQ joins him on the set to hear why one of its stars is also its setting – a pub.

They don’t make boozers like this anymore. The Palm Tree in the heart of an east London estate is a classic, old-fashioned pub. The regulars, for all we know, may well have been sitting on the same bar-stool for several years without moving.

The Palm Tree also features a karaoke booth that has very much seen better days, gravy-coloured wallpaper that appears to predate the invention of beer itself and fairy lights desperately clinging to the walls. These decorations are for life, not just for Christmas. “Gentrification” is not a word in this pub’s vocabulary.

For all that, The Palm Tree makes an excellent precinct for Save Me, an absorbing new drama that starts in the UK on Sky Atlantic on February 28. Outside of the soaps, this is not a setting we have witnessed very often before on mainstream British TV.

Lennie James (right) alongside Stephen Graham in the pub in which much of Save Me unfolds

In this new six-part series written by and starring Lennie James, this is the court where the drama’s central character, Nelson “Nelly” Rowe (played by James), holds sway. Nelly is in the Palm Tree every night regaling his fellow punters with colourful tales of his previous night’s exploits. It may have been amusing 20 years ago, but now that Nelly is pushing 50, it’s bordering on sad. At his age, this is a man who really should know better.

Living hand-to-mouth from a series of cash-in-hand jobs, Nelly never stays long in one place, moving in with whichever woman is foolish enough to tolerate him that week.

Chatting to DQ between scenes, James makes for magnetic company. It is easy to grasp why the actor, who was raised in Tooting, south London, has proven such a mesmerising presence in everything from Line of Duty to The Walking Dead.

“I wanted to write a thriller in a place I really knew well,” says James, when asked why he chose this unlikely pub as the principle locus of his drama. With a winning grin, he adds: “Basically, I didn’t want to do hours of research.”

Researched or not, the Palm Tree is the ideal arena in which the drama can unfold. Random people flit in and out of it, but whatever else is going on, you can guarantee that Nelly will always be there, centre stage, playing to an adoring audience (including characters played by Stephen Graham, Susan Lynch and Kerry Godliman).

The thriller also stars Doctor Foster’s Suranne Jones

James reflects: “The pub is a very important part of the story because you go there both to drown your sorrows and to celebrate. Both things can happen at the same time and over the same pint.”

Crucially, the Palm Tree and its motley crew of regulars also smack of authenticity. James observes: “In any pub, there’ll always be a Nelly. People like that do exist. All the core characters in Save Me are based on real people. They’re not 100% depictions, but they’re versions of people I’ve come across.”

Lynch, who plays barmaid Stace, confirms that when she served in bars to make ends meet early on in her career, she came across many Nellys. “I worked in nearly every pub on the Finchley Road when I was at drama school. Many were just like the Palm Tree. You always had your regulars. You would start your shift by saying, ‘Really, Tommy, I’m sorry to hear she’s not very well.’ By the end of the shift, you’d be thinking, ‘I can’t engage with Tommy tomorrow or else I’m never going to get my glasses washed and get home.’”

The actor, who was also had leading roles in From Hell, Waking Ned and Enduring Love, continues: “A pub is a very good setting for a drama as all the stories can cross over there. All the stories start to merge in The Palm Tree, and by the end, there is a huge collision.”

Nelly’s bibulous ‘we’ve got tonight, who needs tomorrow?’ approach to life is rudely interrupted one morning when the police burst in and arrest him on suspicion of kidnapping Jody, the 13-year-old daughter he hasn’t seen for 10 years.

After Nelly had a brief, summer fling with Claire (played by Suranne Jones) more than a decade ago, Jody was born. But when she reached the age of three, Claire decided to move away from their London estate to a bling mansion in the suburbs to start afresh with her flashy record producer husband. That was the last time Nelly saw Jody. Determined to prove his innocence, Nelly discovers hidden depths within himself. But will it be enough to save him?

It is the very fact that Nelly is so singularly ill-equipped to take on the task of establishing his own innocence that makes Save Me so compelling.

James, who has also starred in Jericho, Critical, Low Winter Sun and Snatch, muses: “This is a thriller, just set in place where no one sets a thriller. And the hero of the piece is completely unqualified to be a hero.

“But in attempting to prove his innocence, Nelly finds some sort of redemption. This is a story about the cost of redemption and what it does to him, his ex-lover, his friends and his community.”

Save Me premieres on Sky Atlantic this Wednesday

For all that, Save Me is very far from an irredeemably grim ‘woe is me’ drama. It is replete with vibrancy, vim and vigour. Jones, who drew widespread acclaim as the titular character in Doctor Foster, comments: “People love dark stories because they take you to a place you think you don’t want to go, but really you do.

“Having said that, the reason Save Me is so different is because it’s also so full of the humour and the history of these people. It portrays a community you’ve never seen before. It’s so warm.”

The estate depicted in Save Me undoubtedly overturns our expectations. Jones continues: “This world is sometimes painted as depressing. But this is very different. When you watch Save Me, you want to be there. Even if you haven’t grown up on an estate like this, you want to go to that pub and meet these people.”

Writing and starring in Save Me required a lot of effort from James. But it has all been worth it. Made by World Productions and distributed by Sky Vision, this is a riveting drama about a man desperately attempting to rescue himself from a life of self-medication, muddling-through and mediocrity.

James declares: “I’m proud that I’m the first person to get a thriller set on a south-east London estate made. I don’t know if it will spawn a new genre, though.”

Perhaps the best part of Save Me, though, is that its producers evaded the easy option. They avoided the temptation to turn out another Richard Curtis-lite version of London. This is perhaps a more accurate reflection of the capital city most people know. It is not prettified and full of red post boxes and red telephone booths, but red in tooth and claw.

Save Me shows us a London we will never glimpse in a tourist brochure.‎ Simon Heath, head of drama at World Productions and executive producer on this series, concludes: “This is a world we don’t see on our TV screens outside EastEnders, but that’s a very different genre. To set a drama in south-east London feels fresh and surprising. We’ll see a different side to London in Save Me.

“It’s not the London of Notting Hill and red buses and black cabs.”

tagged in: , , , , , , ,

Back in town

Sky1 is revisiting the American frontier for a second season of historical drama Jamestown. DQ travels to Budapest to meet some of the cast and creator Bill Gallagher on set.

Inside a Native American tepee that has been painstakingly constructed from dried reeds, we are chatting to a group of Pamunkey warriors in striking red warpaint and feathers in their hair. Behind us, a magnificent ceremonial cape made out of the gorgeous black and white plumage of an eagle is hanging from the roof. Nearby, the giant carcasses of a deer and a fish are draped over a sturdy wooden tripod. This feels – and smells – just like early 17th century America.

But it is, in fact, just one part of the spectacular set that has been built in a field outside Budapest for Jamestown, the Sky1 period drama about the beleaguered frontier town, which returns for its second season this Friday. So now there is a corner of modern-day Hungary that is forever 1619 Virginia.

The second season picks up the story of this battling settler community through the prism of Alice (Sophie Rundle), Jocelyn (Naomi Battrick) and Verity (Niamh Walsh). At the start of the series, these three intrepid women became the first females to set foot in Jamestown for 12 years.

But the second run of Bill Gallagher’s drama, which is produced by Carnival Films, does not just focus on the women. It broadens out to take in such dramatically rich areas as the effect of the settlement on the Pamunkey and the beginnings of the slave trade.

Rundle, who has also shone in Peaky Blinders, Dickensian, Happy Valley and The Bletchley Circle, takes a break between scenes and comes over to talk. We find a shady spot out of the broiling Budapest sun, which feels just about hot enough to cook a goulash.

Dressed in Alice’s splendid flowing dress, the 29-year-old actress begins by emphasising that the drama simply cannot overlook the subject of the treatment of the Pamunkey. “It would be a real failing if the Native Americans weren’t central to the story,” she asserts.

“It’s really important, otherwise we’d just be whitewashing history. In this season, there are many amazing scenes about the two communities interacting that you might not have expected. It’s vital that we get this storyline absolutely right.”

In Jamestown, authenticity is king. Kalani Queypo, who plays Pamunkey man Chacrow, is pleased the producers have gone to great lengths to ensure the accuracy of their portrayal of the Native American characters. “That’s one of the aspects of this production that’s really good,” declares the 31-year-old, who has also appeared in Fear the Walking Dead, Slow West, The Royal Tenenbaums, Aspen the Series and Saints & Strangers.

“When you tell Native American communities you’re shooting a drama featuring Native American characters in Budapest, the first thing they say is, ‘Oh no, it’s going to be a bunch of Eastern European actors with spray tans and bad wigs!’ But that’s not what we’re doing on Jamestown. The producers have brought over 60 Native American actors from the US and Canada. That’s amazing.”

Jamestown star Sophie Rundle (centre) also has a major role in Peaky Blinders

Perhaps even more astonishing is the fact the production has revived the Pamunkey language, which had not been spoken in many decades. Queypo adds: “For the descendants of the Pamunkey to hear their language for the first time is incredible.

“It’s a great responsibility for us because when we speak that language, we’re calling upon those ancestors. We’re channelling a way of life. It’s very challenging to learn, but it’s been an absolute privilege.”

In addition, Jamestown may also help to correct the way some elements of Native American history have been spun. Raoul Trujillo, 62, who portrays the Pamunkey tribal chieftan Opechancanogh in the drama, observes: “History has always been told to us by the victors. They call a victory for the Native Americans a ‘massacre’ and a massacre of the Native Americans a ‘victory.’”

Trujillo, who has also starred in Apocalypto, The New World, Riddick and Sicario, continues: “For instance, the Native American victory at Little Big Horn has been described as ‘a savage massacre.’ Come on!

“Balance in the recounting of history has long gone. There have been 500 years of colonialist history, so this re-balancing has been a long time coming. Of course, we need to do far more, but dramas like Jamestown are really helping.”

The new season of Jamestown tackles the beginnings of the slave trade

Queypo picks up: “Historically in Hollywood films, Native Americans have just been a device to push the story forward. As a result, Native American characters have been very one-dimensional in the past. They have either been peaceful or warriors who want to kill white people for no reason. But Jamestown is very different. Here, the Native Americans are not just a device; they are multi-dimensional characters in their own right.”

The other major subject that is tackled in this season of Jamestown is slavery. Again, it is imperative for the cast and crew that the production does not try to gloss over the horror of the slave trade. Rundle affirms: “It’s vital to address slavery. And it’s not OK to get it wrong. You’ve got to tell these stories, or you’re rewriting history. We don’t want to be saying, ‘White people, how was it for you?’ We want to be saying to the people forced into slavery, ‘What was it like for you?'”

Jamestown, which is sold worldwide by NBCUniversal International Television Distribution, does not flinch in its depiction of the sheer brutality of life in the settlement. It underlines that the people who survived there had to be exceptionally tough. Nigel Marchant, exec producer on the show, calls it “a mixture of Jacobean drama and a western.” It certainly contains both those traits. It possesses a welcome sense of humour and is unfailingly entertaining, too.

But it also has many striking parallels with the world today. Gallagher, previously responsible for Lark Rise to Candleford and The Paradise, says: “Of course, I appreciate the times we live in. In the UK today, we’re free. But I also think the way people behaved in Jamestown can be a mirror to the way we behave now. We have still some fantastical beliefs and our ideas of justice are not always sensible.

More than 60 Native American actors feature in the production

“We don’t live in a time free from horrors. The idea of colonising countries in order to make money could be a reflection of the global economy today. There are all kinds of regimes these days which are not a million miles from the Jacobean way of inflicting order on people.”

But can drama ever really teach us anything? The Jamestown team believe so. Abiola Ogunbiyi, who plays Maria, one of the slaves brought into the settlement, muses: “I think viewers will learn something from Jamestown because they’ll identify with the characters. But what would be really awesome would be if audiences also got a sense from the drama of why things are this way now.”

The 27-year-old actor concludes: “The need for power and influence has very contemporary echoes. People have always used their religions and traditions to dehumanise other people and justify their actions.

“I’m afraid the desire to dominate other people has never, ever gone away.”

tagged in: , , , , , , , , ,

Break-in bad

A real-life multimillion-pound heist was the inspiration for Hatton Garden, a new ITV miniseries about the elderly gang behind the ‘crime of the decade.’ DQ goes on set to meet the cast and producer.

Two well-mannered, smartly dressed elderly gentlemen are being shown around the notoriously impregnable vault at Hatton Garden Safe Deposit in central London. These would-be clients are very courteous and are wearing suits so sharp you could cut your finger on them – but appearances can be deceptive.

These well-groomed and seemingly sophisticated pensioners are in fact Brian Reader and Terry Perkins, a pair of ruthless career criminals. They are in the vault to scope it out in preparation for what would become known as the ‘crime of the decade.’

The Hatton Garden robbery, an audacious heist in which a band of superannuated crooks stole jewellery and cash valued at an estimated £200m (US$267m), caught the public imagination in April 2015.

Hatton Garden stars Timothy Spall (left) and Kenneth Cranham

Over the Easter bank holiday weekend, the gang of criminals led by Reader drilled through the 50cm-thick wall of the vault and made off with the swag. It is thought to be the largest burglary in English legal history.

However, the crooks were unable to resist blabbing about their blag and they were soon arrested and convicted. Despite the fact that they had committed such a terrible crime, the pensionable age of the felons continued to fascinate people. The press even called them ‘Diamond Wheezers.’

As such, it’s no surprise that this inherently dramatic robbery has attracted a lot of interest from filmmakers. It has already inspired four movies: Hatton Garden the Heist!, One Last Heist, The Hatton Garden Job and Night in Hatton Garden.

Now the theft is being given its first TV dramatisation in the form of ITV’s Hatton Garden. This engrossing four-part series is co-written and co-executive produced by Jeff Pope (Little Boy Blue, Cilla) and Terry Windsor (Hot Money, Essex Boys). Made by ITV production arm ITV Studios with Jonathan Levi from Renegade Pictures acting as a consultant, it is directed by Paul Whittington (The Moorside, Mrs Biggs).

The show dramatises one of the UK’s most famous robberies

On the set of Hatton Garden, the aforementioned dapper gents, 76-year-old Reader and 67-year-old Perkins, are played by the compelling duo of Kenneth Cranham (Shine On, Harvey Moon) and Timothy Spall (Auf Wiedesehen Pet), respectively.

The series also stars David Hayman (Crime & Retribution) as 61-year-old Danny Jones, Alex Norton (Taggart) as John ‘Kenny’ Collins, 75, and Brian F O’Byrne (Little Boy Blue) as their mysterious and never apprehended associate ‘Basil.’

Meanwhile, the vault – complete with 50cm-thick walls, ready for drilling by the cast – has been meticulously recreated at West London Film Studios in Hayes.

O’Byrne, who has also appeared in Prime Suspect USA, Mildred Pierce and FlashForward, emphasises how the Hatton Garden robbery struck a populist chord on both sides of the Atlantic.

The actor recalls driving around LA, where he lived until just recently, outlining the premise of the drama to his family. “I started telling my wife about it. I said, ‘There was this huge heist in London. They thought it was going to be this crack team assembled from around the world, and it turned out it was all these old guys.’

All but one of the real-life Hatton Garden robbers were apprehended

“And from the back of the car, my nine-year-old daughter goes, ‘Oh, it’s the granddad robbery!’ I couldn’t believe it. I thought, ‘Wow! Obviously, there’s something about it that captures people’s imaginations.’”

The production team would dearly like to have filmed in the real vault, but Imogen Cooper, the producer of Hatton Garden, explains why that was just not possible. “We’ve recreated all of it here [at the studio]. We will film in Hatton Garden, on the street. We will also use the actual corridor that comes out onto Gregory Street, where the gang’s van arrives and where Basil gets into the main building and lets them in through the side entrance. We would have loved to do more, but unfortunately they’ve now got works in the building, so we can’t access any more.”

The other reason the show could not be filmed at the actual location is that the section of the wall that was drilled is going to be exhibited in a museum – yet more evidence of the way this crime has grabbed attention.

However, Cooper continues, the cast and crew were able to go on several very useful recces at the original building. The producer, also responsible for Quacks, Yonderland and Horrible Histories, says these visits were very productive.

The series debuts on December 11

On one such trip, Hayman was even able to emulate what the slender Jones did during the actual robbery. “David did delight in slipping through the hole they had drilled when we were in Hatton Garden!” Cooper notes.

The drama also depicts the sheer hard slog that the crime entails. Spall reflects: “It’s about real graft. What you’re seeing are men getting tired doing physical labour. So if you turn the sound off and you just watch it, you think, ‘These are just poor geezers, a load of old construction workers, who are having to work in their 60s, down a hole in a vault.’

“These blokes are old and knackered, you know. So that is a big part of what you’re seeing in this process. And that side of it, I think, makes us intrigued. It’s old-fashioned, isn’t it? That’s the human quality of it because it’s not about pressing a button and just taking 10 billion quid off someone. It’s an analogue crime in the digital age.”

For all that, the producers are quick to point out that Hatton Garden, which begins on ITV on December 11, makes no attempt to glamorise the criminals. Viewers will be left in no doubt about the catastrophic effect of their robbery on the people who owned boxes in the vault.

Pope says it was vital to stress that this crime was in no sense “victimless,” adding: “The research threw up some fascinating detail and blew away many of the misconceptions about this story,” he explains. “It was not about a bunch of ‘loveable old blokes.’ Many box holders lost everything in the raid, and we reflect that.”

So, having played a robber for several weeks, does Spall think he could have made a successful criminal in another life? “Unlikely,” deadpans the actor. What criminal attributes is he lacking, then? A pause. “All of them.”

tagged in: , , , , , ,

From Russia with cash

James Norton and Juliet Rylance lead the cast in McMafia, the BBC and AMC’s global crime drama about a family of Russian ex-gangsters struggling to stay respectable.

Langleybury House, a splendiferous stately home on the outskirts of London, oozes opulence. The drawing room boasts a set of matching statement chandeliers and enough oil paintings to fill several rooms at the National Gallery. There are two classical columns in the middle of the room and a gigantic marble fireplace across one wall. The room screams megabucks.

When DQ visits, however, ‘megaroubles’ might be more accurate, as the sumptuous home is doubling as one of the residences of the fictional Godman family, a clan of former Russian gangsters who have made serious money from illicit activities around the world.

When you look around their home and eye items such as the incredibly ornate drinks table – where surely they only mix White Russians – your first thought is, ‘Who says crime doesn’t pay?’

On the back of their dodgy dealings, the family have turned respectable. They have whitewashed their stained past and become a worldwide corporation, with a lucrative franchise on every continent. They are the McMafia.

Hossein Amini

This sweeping new eight-part drama, also called McMafia, is produced by the BBC, AMC, Cuba Pictures and Twickenham Studios and distributed by BBC Worldwide. It’s adapted by Hossein Amini and James Watkins from Misha Glenny’s bestselling 2008 non-fiction book, McMafia: Seriously Organised Crime.

The story centres on Alex Godman, played by James Norton with the same suavity he brought to the role of another powerful and charismatic Russian, Prince Andrei in War & Peace. Now an upstanding businessman, the English-raised Alex has spent his entire life attempting to extricate himself from the tentacles of his family’s mafia history. Forging a legitimate business as the head of an ethical hedge fund, he is trying to escape his background and build a law-abiding existence with his girlfriend Rebecca (American Gothic’s Juliet Rylance).

But when the Godmans’ criminal legacy comes back to haunt them, Alex swiftly becomes enmeshed in a sinister underworld and is obliged to reassess his values in order to shield those he loves from peril.

This ambitious thriller investigates how the rise of globalisation has dramatically narrowed the gap between the corporate and the criminal. When businessmen and gangsters wear the same hand-made suits and inhabit the same first-class lounges, how can you tell the difference?

Amini, who previously wrote the highly regarded screenplays for The Dying of the Light, Jude, The Wings of a Dove, Drive and Our Kind of Traitor, takes a seat in the luxurious mansion to explain what drew him to McMafia. “The book is factual and there are no storylines as such, but what was really exciting is that the world Misha’s book painted was so interesting,” he says. “It was such a potentially exciting canvas. The book gave us great characters and a great world, and it’s easy to invent scenes for that.”

The Iranian-British filmmaker continues: “I’ve always loved the gangster genre, but even shows like The Sopranos, which I loved, are all about the end of that genre and the end of the gangster. They told us about the death of that in the 1990s.

McMafia stars War & Peace’s James Norton as Alex Godman

“But then I read this book, and it was all about how gangsters were being reborn globally. Suddenly the triads were dealing with the cartels who were competing with the Russian mafia. It was like Game of Thrones with mobs.”

The authenticity of McMafia is underlined by the fact the producers insisted Russian actors played Russian characters, Israeli actors played Israeli characters, and so forth.

Watkins comments: “There was a big conversation we had with AMC and the BBC first off, which is that I didn’t want to do that thing where, not naming any other productions, you cast a big-name British actor to play Alex’s Russian dad.

“It feels false straight away – I can smell it. It’s costing us quite a lot to fly all the actors in, but it’s worth it in terms of the reality it gives. When you’ve got four actors from Tel Aviv playing a scene in Hebrew, you can’t fake that.”

The director, whose other works include The Woman in Black, Eden Lake and The Take, adds that this approach has enhanced the verisimilitude of the project. “It’s fantastic, because as a director you want truth. This is not about heightened drama, it’s about truth. It’s about understated performance, and I think some of those European actors really bring that. I don’t know what’s in the water, but it’s really amazing. Less is more.”

The drama was partly filmed in Mumbai

The Russian cast members have clearly relished the experience of working on a British drama. A big star in her own country, Maria Shukshina plays Alex’s Russian mother, Oksana. “I’m very happy James is now my son,” she says, laughing. “He has a big following in Russia, a lot of fans. When I was coming over here, all the ladies were telling me to say ‘Hi’ to him and saying, ‘Give him a hug.’ So I said, ‘Of course!’”

Shukshina says she has found very little difference between the shooting techniques in the UK and in Russia. “It’s absolutely the same, apart from the lighting. It’s a lot darker on set here, there’s no light. It’s only natural light, really.

“I gave a Russian doll to the director of photography as a celebration of International Women’s Day and now he puts up a light panel when they’re doing wide shots of me – I know what I’m doing!”

Filmed in no fewer than 11 countries (including the UK, Russia, India, Israel, Turkey, Qatar and Croatia), the project is conceived on an epic scale and Watkins has evidently had to summon up great depths of energy to make it.

He spent seven weeks just filming in India, for example, and has also been leading the McMafia crew all over London. “We’ve shot in the Sky Garden at the top of the Walkie-Talkie building [the distinctive skyscraper officially named 20 Fenchurch Street] and we had a huge Russian banquet scene in the Victoria & Albert Museum. We’re trying to use London as this city where anybody can buy their way in.”

McMafia is produced by the BBC, AMC, Cuba Pictures and Twickenham Studios

Norton, who has also starred in Happy Valley, Black Mirror, Grantchester, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Life in Squares, pulls up a seat beside the filmmakers and chips in: “When we talk about the Mafia, it is so tied up with those portrayals that we’re so used to in The Sopranos and The Godfather. But what’s so lovely and fascinating and so relevant about this story is that it shows how the mafia is a totally new phenomenon.

“It’s now a globalised corporate entity. It straddles all these different countries and financial systems. It’s no longer just a protection racket. It’s the Panama Papers, it’s corrupt presidents and prime ministers, it’s even in the possible link between the Kremlin and the White House and how that’s facilitated. That was a real eye-opener for me, and I hope that’s what the show will reveal.”

Another intriguing aspect of McMafia is the fact that even though Alex is very much an anti-hero, viewers are – almost in spite of themselves – still drawn to the magnetic central character. Watkins describes him as “The Russian bear in the bowler hat.”

So is it a case of ‘the devil has all the best tunes?’ Norton believes it’s more nuanced than that. “It is fascinating, and it’s kind of sexy and empowering because there is this whole underworld of people who don’t abide by the rules and do what the hell they want – and it’s exciting. You get seduced by it, but you’re never quite sure how much you’re being seduced.

“Alex convinces himself that it’s about protection and survival, but there’s another side to it, and the beauty of Hossein’s writing is that he and the audience are never quite sure. Each choice Alex makes – is it to do with survival or is it a bit more to do with the fact that he just wants to go deeper and deeper and gather more control and money? So, McMafia is brilliant because it’s never about villains and heroes – it’s all about that wonderful mess in between.”

Before he is called back on set, Watkins expresses his hopes about what viewers will take away from McMafia. “You look around you and realise crime is everywhere. The point of the book and the series, really, is that it’s invisible, but that it’s all around us. We’re all, in some way, complicit. If someone buys a fake watch, say, they’re part of the problem.

“Or look at illegal labour. That affects people in ways that they don’t necessarily realise. McMafia is about the blurring of those lines between governments, corporations, intelligence, police, criminals. Particularly in a ‘post-truth’ world, people aren’t clear what those boundaries are.”

The director continues: “I think McMafia is very timely. For me, the best drama has some kind of grip on the world and touches on that. I hope that it’s not only entertaining, but also that on the way home, or in the pub, people talk about it. It’s not Chekhov, but you’re hoping it has something that has a little bit of grit.”

Amini closes by homing in on one tiny detail in McMafia that underlines the authenticity of the drama. “Misha told us about a gangster whose hobby is going to dog shows. I could never have invented that.” Did that make it into the series? “Yes, it’s in. You can’t ignore a thing like that.”

tagged in: , , , , , , ,

Pitch black

Swedish noir Modus is back for a second season, with a cast that now includes Kim Cattrall as the US president. DQ visits the Stockholm set to find out why this drama has global appeal.

TV drama doesn’t get any more glamorous than this. We are crouching in Stygian semi-darkness beside the monitor in a dingy corridor at the Swedish Defence Ministry in Stockholm. We can barely see our hands in front of our faces.

To add to the sense of doom and gloom, the windows are blacked out. Suddenly, with no warning, out of the gloaming come marching two very scary-looking, thickset heavies in smart suits wielding machine guns. They are clearly not here to sing Happy Birthday to anyone.

Unsurprisingly, this is the set of a Nordic noir offering – and this one is literally noir.

Melinda Kinnaman and Henrik Norlén return to lead the cast

Ever since the magnetic Danish crime story Forbrydelsen (The Killing) broke through internationally, winning a Bafta in the UK in 2011, and was immediately followed by the overseas success of series such as Borgen, The Bridge, Beck and the Swedish version of Wallander, Scandi dramas have been drawing huge and passionate audiences everywhere.

DQ is in Stockholm observing the filming of the newest such series to make waves globally. We are watching the white-knuckle denouement of the second season of Swedish drama Modus. Broadcast last year, the first season made a major impact around the world.

Its co-star Henrik Norlen, who has also appeared in such well-regarded Scandi dramas as Beck, Stockholm East, My Skinny Sister and Hotel, takes a break between scenes of this intense series to consider why Nordic noir has struck such an international chord.

“I think it’s because there is a lot going on behind these characters. They’re not just policeman or criminal profilers – they are also people. They have great depth.

“You get to go inside their head and see what they’re thinking. These dramas are also a bit darker than British or American series. It is a tradition in Nordic countries of telling stories that are dark, mystic and pagan.

“People from all over the world used to come up to me and say, ‘Oh, you’re from Scandinavia – that means Abba and Volvo.’ Now they come up to me and say, ‘Oh, you’re from Scandinavia – that means The Killing, The Bridge and Modus.’ Of course, Modus is better than all of them!”

In the second season of Modus the leading duo are an item

Tobias Åström, the line producer on Modus, chips in: “In the past at television trade fairs, the only thing people wanted to see at the Swedish stall was what meatballs we had. Now they come up and ask, ‘What programme can you give me?’”

The second season of Modus is an eight-part adaptation by the Emmy-winning Danish screenwriters Mai Brostrøm and Peter Thorsboe of Madam President, the novel by the bestselling Norwegian crime author (and former Minister of Justice) Anne Holt.

Holt’s work coheres with the sepulchral prevailing mood of Nordic Noir. As the British crime writer Val McDermid has observed, “Anne Holt is the latest crime writer to reveal how truly dark it gets in Scandinavia.”

In this gripping season, intuitive Swedish criminal profiler Inger Johanne Vik (played by Melinda Kinnaman, My Life as a Dog) and compassionate detective Chief Ingvar Nymann (Norlén), both returning from season one, are now an item.

But the pair, who made a big splash when they first appeared together in the widely acclaimed first season, have little time to enjoy their life together as they are immediately plunged into another life-or-death investigation. They have to scramble when the first ever female US President, Helen Tyler (Kim Cattrall, Sex & the City), is kidnapped during a state visit to Sweden.

As the US and Swedish authorities struggle to rescue the president and indulge in a bitter blame game, Inger is reluctantly forced to work closely with her former mentor, the Machiavellian FBI director Warren Schifford (Greg Wise, The Crown). When the details of their troubled shared past slowly start to emerge, Inger’s entire mental stability is put at risk.

Melinda Kinnaman returns as Swedish criminal profiler Inger Johanne Vik

A coproduction from SVoD platform C More, TV4 Sweden, Miso Film Sweden and FremantleMedia International, the second season of Modus makes for a compelling tale of revenge, recrimination and retribution. It is due to premiere on C More later this year before airing on TV4.

British actor Wise is delighted to be dipping his toe into Nordic noir for the first time with Modus. He says what distinguishes this kind of piece is its willingness to treat its audience with respect. “What I’ve really enjoyed about working on this drama is the time spent developing the story and the characters,” he says.

“Very often, programme makers rush through their storytelling because they don’t trust the audience to get it. Things have to happen very fast – cut, cut, cut. Those productions imagine that we are the MTV generation and have memories like goldfish.”

But, continues the actor, who has also had leading roles in such memorable British dramas as Sense and Sensibility, The Outcast, Cranford and Madame Bovary, “viewers of Scandi dramas are really given time to invest in their relationship with the characters. They are allowed a proper glimpse into another world. It’s like the slow food revolution” – only in television.

International audiences are also attracted by the strangeness of the universe conjured up by shows such as Modus. Cecilia Bornebusch, the show’s production designer, comments: “It’s more exciting as a viewer if you don’t really understand what’s going on and you have to read between the lines. It’s more enticing than your own language because it seems exotic.

“Also, I think in Scandinavia we are very good at portraying relationships. We have never had great problems with war, so we have had other things to write about, like relationship difficulties. That’s in our blood.”

Like all the best Scandi dramas, Modus depicts a heightened world. Åström, who has also worked on The Bridge and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, reflects: “As in fairytales, in Nordic noir you draw on things from the margins. Normal people are greyer than the characters in drama. So when you tell a story in a drama, you can make it more colourful than real life.”

But, he adds with a smile, “Of course, in reality Sweden is not that dangerous a place. It does not have a serial killer hiding in every bush. Have you ever been to Ystad, where Wallander is set? It’s so quiet in reality. If that drama were true, there would be no one left in that town!”

Modus also employs another of Scandinavia’s great resources: its pellucid natural light. Bornebusch observes: “The Nordic light is wonderful. The light in Southern Europe is earthier, whereas we are influenced by the snow and the winter. It’s always so dark here – that’s why we like bright colours.”

In addition, the drama makes tremendous use of its Swedish backdrops. Wise remarks: “One of the really appealing things about Modus is that it shows the world how beautiful Stockholm is. It’s a stunning city. But it’s also a place full of secret tunnels that people have forgotten about.”

The city’s duality mirrors a key theme in this season: the contrast between our private and public faces. Holt has written several more novels about Inger, and the production team are eager to make further series tracking this fascinating and complex character.

But, equally, they are well aware that the best way to maintain the audience’s interest is to keep Modus fresh.

“If we made another season,” Åström concludes, “we would want to make sure that we could add something to it. We wouldn’t want to just keep milking the same cow and producing the same milk.

“We would want to make a new flavour – like banana!”

tagged in: , , , , , , , ,