All posts by Stephen Arnell

Rule Britannia

Britannia, Sky Atlantic’s epic Romans-in-Britain drama, debuts early next year. Ahead of the show’s world premiere at Mipcom this week, DQ talks to Sky drama chiefs Anne Mensah and Cameron Roach.

After the success of Sky Atlantic’s Penny Dreadful and sister channel Sky1’s Jamestown, period drama appears to be working well for Sky drama commissioners Anne Mensah and Cameron Roach.

It’s been 10 years since HBO’s classic Rome (and four since Starz’s Spartacus), but the satcaster looks to be taking advantage of a renewed interest in classical history on TV, with Britannia set to debut in January 2018.

Kudos (Sky Atlantic’s The Tunnel) is also developing a take on Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy, with the possibly of a long-rumoured reboot of Robert Graves classic I Claudius coming from Bad Wolf (His Dark Materials).

Bad Wolf’s Jane Tranter was, of course, responsible  for overseeing Rome for HBO and the BBC alongside Anne Thomopoulos

David Morrissey and Kelly Reilly star as Aulus Plautius and Kerra respectively

And while it isn’t set in the same era, BBC1’s upcoming £8.5m (US$11.3m)-per-episode show Troy: Fall of a City certainly shares some of the appeal of these ‘sword & sandal’ drama series.

The success of Game of Thrones, with its dynastic bloodletting, treachery, hedonism and epic battles, has probably helped spark an increase in curiosity about Ancient Rome, while HBO’s 2005-07 series was felt by industry insiders to have been something of a dry run for Thrones itself, brought to grief by budgetary issues.

Rome stars James Purefoy (Mark Antony) and Kevin McKidd (Lucius Vorenus) went on the record saying they wouldn’t join former colleagues Ciaran Hinds, Indira Varma or Tobias Menzies in the hit series because they thought Rome was cancelled to set up Game of Thrones’ success.

More recently, two cinema releases used the Roman occupation of Britain south of the Antonine Wall and the disappearance of the Ninth Legion as subject matter – 2010’s Centurion (directed by regular Thrones helmer Neil Marshall), which coincidentally starred Britannia’s David Morrissey (The Walking Dead) as a veteran legionary, and the following year’s The Eagle with a cast led by Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell.

Britannia scribe Jez Butterworth has also previously tried his hand at the Roman era, co-writing 2007’s The Last Legion with his brother Tom. The film was set in the dying days of the Western Empire and starred Colin Firth, Ben Kingsley and Rome’s Kevin McKidd.

Zoe Wanamaker as Queen Antedia

The movie also featured no fewer than five prominent Thrones castmembers – Iain Glen (Jorah Mormont), Owen Teale (Alliser Thorne), Robert Pugh (Craster), James Cosmo (Joer Mormont) and Alexander Siddig (the gout-ridden Prince Doran Martell).

For Britannia, Butterworth has once again partnered with his brother Tom and James Richardson to create a story set in AD43 that follows the Roman army as it returns to conquer the land held by warrior women and powerful Druids who claim to channel the forces of the underworld.

Kelly Reilly (True Detective) plays Kerra, daughter of the King of the Cantii, who is forced to put her differences with arch-rival Queen Antedia (Zoe Wanamaker) aside to face their invaders. The Romans, led by General Aulus Plautius (Morrissey), are determined to succeed where Julius Caesar failed and conquer this mythical land at the far edge of the Roman Empire.

As tribes and Druids, led by Mackenzie Crook’s Veran, unite to fight the Romans, Kerra is thrust into the most important role of her life as she spearheads the resistance against the might of the Roman army.

The show is produced by Vertigo Films and Neal Street Productions and distributed by Sky Vision. It will also air on Sky Atlantic in Ireland, Germany and Italy, while Amazon Prime holds the US rights.

Mackenzie Crook plays Druid Veran

Asked if there were any particular influences that led to the commissioning of Britannia, Roach says: “The fact that period drama in the shape of Penny Dreadful worked for Sky Atlantic led us to look at something similarly experiential, with Britannia offering a truly original experience – one that doesn’t ape other shows.”

Mensah is also keen to emphasise the “visceral” nature of Britannia: “It combines epic scale with a human, personal level – some of the communal pagan rites that the Britons and Druids go through bear comparison to modern-day festivals such as Burning Man.”

Mensah is confident the show’s presumably hefty budget will all be up on the screen for viewers to see. With more than 200 people working on the production and reconstructions of Stonehenge and the Celtic underworld (which included animating hundreds of life-size skeletons and disembodied skulls), Britannia doesn’t aim to stint on arresting visuals.

Flashes of unexpected Burning Man-type modernity will apparently not be reflected in the show’s dialogue, which Mensah and Roach assure will stay true to Butterworth’s “unique voice,” rather than attempt a cod-Classical or a slangy contemporary style.

Although Butterworth did not consciously base Britannia on any specific contemporary account of the Roman invasion of Britain (the third after Julius Caesar’s two abortive attempts a century earlier), he did consult with historian Jonathan Stamp – a BBC History producer and a consultant for HBO’s Rome – to ensure the look and veracity of the series was generally accurate.

Britannia is set to debut on Sky Atlantic in January

In terms of casting, Mensah and Roach stress how happy they to secure such familiar and audience-friendly names as Morrissey, Reilly, Wanamaker, Crook (The Office), Ian McDiarmid (Star Wars) and Julian Rhind-Tutt (Green Wing), with fresh faces including The Enfield Haunting’s breakout star Eleanor Worthington Cox.

Crook previously co-starred with Mark Rylance in Butterworth’s hit stage play Jerusalem.

The visual style of Britannia is also going to be a change from some of the bleakness and windswept vistas seen in similar genre pieces such as the aforementioned Centurion, with Roach promising “a look to the show that really hasn’t been seen before, with lush primary colours and a vibrancy not usually associated with period drama.”

Both Roach and Mensah stress that amid the carnage of the invasion, Britannia will not be without humour, and that the Romans, although understandably the antagonists in the series, will possess shades of grey, as will the native Britons and the Druids.

“Complex characters and believable motivations” are key, according to Mensah, hence Britannia’s presence on Sky Atlantic – which, according to Sky Entertainment director of programmes Zai Bennett, is primarily the home of “heavily serialised, smart, grown-up storytelling,” in contrast to Sky1, where series such as Stan Lee’s Lucky Man have “really clear heroes and villains.”

And while Mensah and Roach are wary of comparisons with Game of Thrones, they are upbeat on the prospect of Britannia extending beyond season one, with story arcs mapped out at least to a possible third season.

In Mensah’s words: “The ambition is to be big.”

With speculation rife that Thrones’ eighth and final season will not appear until 2019 and the attendant spin-offs in the following years, Britannia may have the potential to provide Sky with a homegrown show appealing to a similar audience, which could score a swift season two pick-up (as have Tin Star for Sky Atlantic and Jamestown for Sky1), echoing the success of Vikings for History.

tagged in: , , , , , , ,

A house divided

Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and DB Weiss have ruffled some feathers by revealing their plans for life after Westeros. Stephen Arnell analyses their proposal for a new alternative-history drama about the Civil War.

The announcement by HBO of Game of Thrones (GoT) showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss’s new alternative-history drama Confederate has generated headlines.

With the final, truncated six-episode season of GoT still a year off, Benioff and Weiss (pictured above, Benioff on the right) appear to have lost no time in lining up their next project for the cablenet.

Coming off the back of their successful world-building in GoT, Confederate presents another scenario where the duo can create their vision of a complex society from the ground up.

According to HBO’s press release, the show “chronicles the events leading to the Third American Civil War. The series takes place in an alternate timeline, where the southern states have successfully seceded from the Union, giving rise to a nation in which slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution.”

Weiss and Benioff’s Game of Thrones is currently in its penultimate season

Tackling an original concept without source material (differing in this regard from GoT), Benioff and Weiss obviously believe in giving themselves enough time to map out the story in a considered fashion, especially now they have reportedly relinquished any role in the many mooted GoT spin-off series and movies.

The subject matter of Confederate is inherently controversial and the pair have already responded to the criticism they have faced since the series was announced by drawing attention to the fact that their writing partners – Nichelle Tramble Spellman (The Good Wife) and Malcolm Spellman (Empire)– are black.

In an interview with Vulture, Spellman commented on the genesis of the show: “You’re dealing with weapons-grade material here.” But in acknowledging this, he also said: “As people of colour and minorities in general are starting to get a voice, I think there’s a duty to force this discussion.”

Tramble Spellman continued: “There is not going to be, you know, the big Gone With The Wind mansion. This is present day, or close to present day, and how the world would have evolved if the South had been successful seceding from the Union.”

In the same interview, Weiss stated: “It goes without saying [that] slavery is the worst thing that ever happened in American history. It’s our original sin as a nation. That sin is still with us in many ways. One of the strengths of science fiction is that it can show us how this history is still with us in a way no strictly realistic drama ever could, whether it were a historical drama or a contemporary drama.”

British actor David Harewood (Homeland, Supergirl) echoed the thoughts of some on social media that African-American and non-US Black performers may well boycott Confederate. On hearing the announcement of the show, Harewood commented on Twitter: “Good luck finding black actors for this project.”

The reboot of Roots aired on History last year

The current polarised situation in the US recently led Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein to opine that the country was experiencing a ‘Cold Civil War,’ which gives some idea of the background to the furore surrounding Confederate.

Meanwhile, the arguments over the removal of monuments to the Confederacy in the southern states continue to rage, with sporadic acts of violence, illustrating the toxic atmosphere into which Confederate will launch.

Last December, TNT dropped Civil, its planned take on a contemporary US civil war, due to concerns that it may have felt “too close to home,” given the agitated mood of the US after the election of Donald Trump as president.

With the recent reboot of Roots (History), the movie Free State of Jones (2016) and 2015’s miniseries The Book of Negroes (BET), Confederate’s depiction of a fictional modern-day slave society could be viewed as insensitive, if not regressive – depending on how the material is handled.

Although blindsided by the immediate reaction to Confederate, Benioff and Weiss must now be fully aware that they will be under intense scrutiny and are presumably cognisant of the pitfalls that lie ahead of them.

Although alternative-history TV adaptations such as Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime) and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu) have become increasingly popular, the subject of the slave-owning South either winning the Civil War or remaining in a stalemate with the North has proved understandably contentious in terms of TV and film, although it has spawned a cottage industry of novels.

The Man in the High Castle’s marketing campaign caused controversy

The granddaddy of these was Mackinlay Kantor’s 1961 If The South Had Won the Civil War, which led to a slew of American Civil War alt-history books from writers including Alex Scarrow, Larry Niven and Stephen L Carter.

The lack of a source novel of critical repute for Confederate leaves Benioff and Weiss relatively exposed – there’s no original author to use as a shield.

Confederate’s closest comparator is 2004’s low-budget feature-length mockumentary CSA: The Confederate States of America (presented by IFC Films and Spike Lee).

Written and directed by occasional Spike Lee co-writer Kevin Willmott, CSA combines jet-black humour and social commentary to explore what life would be like in the present day if the rebel South had won the Civil War.

Due to the biting satire of the movie, which includes mock online Slave Auctions and racist TV adverts, it has been rarely shown outside festivals and IFC, but is available on DVD.

Aside from CSA, there are two US dramas that have a passing resemblance to some of Confederate’s themes: HBO’s 1997 parodic The Second Civil War and Amerika, an ABC miniseries from 1987.

Penned by Martyn Burke (The Pentagon Wars, Pirates of Silicon Valley) and directed by Joe Dante (Gremlins/Small Soldiers), The Second Civil War played the setup of a US “overrun” by immigrants and refugees pretty much for satirical laughs, although one wonders what kind of reception the TV movie would receive if shown today.

The Handmaid’s Tale is another example of the current trend for depicting alternative societies

Amerika was a much more serious proposition, centring on a Soviet EMP attack on the US that disables all computer equipment and electronic communications followed by the subsequent turmoil when the country faces occupation, division and possible nuclear extinction as resistance to the Russians grows.

Playing over seven consecutive nights and apparently attracting up to 100 million viewers during its run, Amerika is a curious relic of the 1980s late Cold War era, although some may find in the series an element of prophecy, bearing in mind the cyber-wars currently being waged across the world.

Possible alternate outcomes to the Civil War were tackled in a broader fashion in TV series including The Time Tunnel and The Wild Wild West, while action movie Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter improbably gave the author of The Gettysburg Address a side-line in slaying the undead.

As Confederate has yet to reach script stage, the burden of expectation the show faces is perhaps unfair – but could HBO in effect be ‘lancing the boil’ by announcing it so far ahead of its likely 2019 transmission date?

One potentially major problem will be in the marketing of the show. Back in 2015 the first season of The Man in the High Castle’s ad campaign proved extremely controversial and Nazi and Imperial Japan-themed subway ads in NY had to be pulled.

How will HBO promote Confederate? It’s going to be an unenviable challenge, but HBO has always prided itself on its ability and willingness to break new ground.

tagged in: , , , , , ,

Will power

With TNT’s Will and ABC’s Romeo & Juliet sequel Still Star-Crossed airing this summer, Stephen Arnell looks at William Shakespeare’s record as a drama character in his own right.

From the BBC’s recent The Hollow Crown and Russell T Davies’ Midsummer Night’s Dream (pictured top) to Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, Michael Fassbender’s Macbeth and Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus, TV or movie adaptations of the William Shakespeare’s work always seem to be in production.

And, of course, spoofs (Gnomeo & Juliet, Hamlet Goes Business, Strange Brew), present-day versions using Shakespeare’s plotlines but ditching the verse (My Kingdom/King Lear and My Own Private Idaho/Henry IV and V) and teen comedies based on his work but similarly verse-free, such as 10 Things I Hate About You (The Taming of The Shrew), Get Over It (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and She’s The Man (Twelfth Night) have become cottage industries in themselves.

Movie classics Forbidden Planet, West Side Story, Akira Kurosawa’s Ran and The Lion King were not-so-thinly veiled takes on The Tempest, Romeo & Juliet, King Lear and Hamlet respectively.

Will is coming to TNT in the US next week

But recent years have seen a new twist, with Shakespeare the man making increasing appearances as a character on TV and in movies.

This month will see US cable channel TNT debut the ‘young Shakespeare’ series Will, which launches on July 10. Originally intended for the now defunct Pivot, Will is part of TNT’s ongoing transformational drama drive, led by ex-Fox boss Kevin Reilly.

Apparently presenting the feisty iconoclastic ‘rock ’n’ roll’ side of the Bard, the tone of the series looks set to mirror writer and creator Craig Pearce’s previous work as the scribe on fellow Australian Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby.

Echoing these movies and other period dramas such as Peaky Blinders, Will boasts a contemporary soundtrack, although veteran composer Stephen Warbeck will be handling the score.

Coincidentally, Warbeck was responsible for the score to Shakespeare in Love, as well as the Henry IV section of The Hollow Crown.

Back in January, Pearce was quoted at the TCA Winter Press Tour as saying that his models in the show for the playwriting fraternity of Elizabethan England were rock stars Mick Jagger and David Bowie, adding: “Theatre back then was like punk rock.”

Still Star-Crossed, on ABC, has received lukewarm reviews

The show boasts an excellent pedigree behind the camera, with the renowned Shekhar Kapur both directing and executive-producing Will. Having helmed both Elizabeth (1998) and its sequel The Golden Age (2007), Kapur obviously has a feel for the era.

To some, Kapur’s statement that: “If today Shakespeare was around he would’ve been a rapper on the streets,” may ring alarm bells for those who prefer their historical drama straighter than the likes of Reign (The CW) and Casanova (BBC3).

Looking at the acting talent on display, Will has balanced the casting of the largely unknown young British stage actor Laurie Davidson as the lead with a strong supporting company grounded in period drama.

This includes Colm Meany (Hell on Wheels), Ewan Bremner (T2 Trainspotting, Elizabeth I) and Jamie Campbell Bower (Anonymous, Camelot) as Shakespeare’s rival playwright Christopher Marlowe.

ABC’s Still Star-Crossed, the ‘sequel’ to Romeo & Juliet based on the popular Melinda Taub novel, made its debut in May. Produced by one-woman production powerhouse Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder), the show’s Brit-skewed cast includes relative newcomers Lashana Lynch (Death in Paradise) and Wade Briggs (Please Like Me), together with old hands Anthony Head (Buffy The Vampire Slayer) and Grant Bowler (Ugly Betty).

The role of Count Paris falls to doublet and hose go-to guy Torrance Coombs, familiar to viewers as Thomas Culpepper in The Tudors (Showtime) and as Sebastian (Bash) in Reign (The CW). Reviews have been mixed, whilst audiences have declined from a soft 2.29 million launch, necessitating a schedule move from Monday to Saturday, typically the sign of imminent cancellation.

Variety commented: “While there’s pageantry aplenty, the dialogue is littered with too many lumpy Shakespeare-lite lines and some jarring uses of slang.” The Los Angeles Times wasn’t any kinder: “Parting with Still Star-Crossed after one episode isn’t likely to bring sweet sorrow, but rather the relief of a tragedy averted.”

Shakespeare has featured as a character in a fair few movies over the years, including Roland Emmerich’s Was Shakespeare a Fraud?, drama Anonymous (2011) and the Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love (1998), the popularity of which tempted the French to try their hand with less success in 2007 with the similar Moliere.

On television, Shakespeare is currently the subject of Ben Elton’s sitcom Upstart Crow (BBC2), a show which has gone some way to restoring the writer’s reputation, harking back to his fondly remembered Blackadder – interestingly, the millennium special Blackadder Back & Forth featured Colin Firth as The Bard of Avon. And, of course, the period-drama-friendly Firth played Lord Wessex in the aforementioned Shakespeare in Love.

Recent comedy shows that have featured the playwright as a character include Comedy Central’s Drunk History (where he was played by John Cho) and The History Channel’s Great Minds with Dan Harmon, where in a bar conversation Shakespeare (Thomas Middleditch) praises the reviled De Niro/Efron comedy Dirty Grandpa at the expense of Harmon’s own Community.

In April 2016, Tom Stourton (Loaded) played Shakespeare in the popular BBC children’s history sketch series Horrible Histories. Prior to this, the Horrible Histories team were behind the little-seen 2015 comedy movie Bill, with Mathew Baynton (You Me & The Apocalypse) as the titular character, together with support turns from Damien Lewis (Billions) and Helen McCory (Peaky Blinders).

Doctor Who’s 2007 episode The Shakespeare Code

Shakespeare has also featured as a character in the long-running sci-fi series Dr Who, notably in 2007’s The Shakespeare Code, an episode that spoofed The Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown and the Back to the Future and Harry Potter movies.

The episode sees the Doctor suggesting some of the playwright’s most famous lines, including “All the world’s a stage” and “The play’s the thing” – which, to some, consciously mirrors Back to the Future’s controversial scene where Marty McFly’s guitar riffs ‘inspire’ a young Chuck Berry.

One has to go back to 1978 for the last fully fledged series with the Bard as the main character, ITV’s Will Shakespeare, a six-part series starring Tim Curry (The Rocky Horror Picture Show, It) in the lead role and Ian McShane (American Gods, Deadwood) as his peer ‘Kit’ Marlowe.

Writer John Mortimer (A Voyage Around My Father) based each episode on the creation of a particular play, with Shakespeare often introducing autobiographical details, such as ‘The Dark Lady’ and a supposedly homoerotic relationship with the Earl of Southampton (played by Nicholas Clay).

Possessing the handsome production values typical of Lew Grade’s ATV (Jesus of Nazareth, Moses the Lawgiver), the series may gain a second life if Will proves a hit.

tagged in: , , , , , , , ,

Return of the King

As Spike launches its adaptation of The Mist, DQ explores how TV and film versions of Stephen King’s work have become more popular and prolific than ever.

The title of this piece is something of a misnomer as, especially over the last few years, Stephen King’s literary creations have rarely been absent from either or TV or cinema screens.

With a TV and film career spanning 41 years since the release of Carrie in 1976, the author shows no sign of stopping, with around two-dozen verified screen projects in various stages of development, production and completion since 2014 alone.

King is a phenomenon, especially when compared with other writers in what can loosely be described as the horror genre.

Stephen King

His contemporaries such as the late James Herbert (The Secret of Crickley Hall, BBC1, 2012), Dean R Koontz (Odd Thomas, 2013), Whitley Strieber (Hunters, Syfy, 2016) and Clive Barker (Hellraiser, 1987) have largely failed to achieve a similar level of exposure on screen.

Indeed, the only real challenger to King’s crown has been Neil Gaiman, who has thrived in both TV (American Gods for Starz, Likely Stories for Sky Arts) and film (Stardust, Beowulf, Coraline and How to Talk to Girls at Parties), with his co-created Sandman comic book character also used as the basis for Fox’s hit series Lucifer (2015).

As could be expected with such a fecund author with attendant TV/film adaptations, the success of King’s properties on screen is mixed.

Looking at book-to-movie adaptations, reportedly his own favourites are Stand by Me (1986), The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and 2007’s The Mist.

In terms of the general critical evaluation, for every praise-worthy The Shining (1980), Carrie (1976), Misery (1990), 1408 (2007) and Dead Zone (1983), there seem to be at least two of the derided likes of Thinner (1996), The Mangler (1995), Dreamcatcher (2003) and umpteenth Children of the Corn sequel.

Unsurprisingly, the rule appears to be the better the director, writer and cast, the better the Stephen King movie, although this doesn’t explain the failure of the aforementioned Dreamcatcher, which flopped despite the presence of Lawrence Kasdan (Silverado/The Big Chill) as director, William Goldman (All the President’s Men) as writer and a talented cast that included Damian Lewis (Wolf Hall), Morgan Freeman (The Shawshank Redemption) and Timothy Olyphant (Justified).

This year sees a step change in film adaptations with the big-budget version of King’s The Dark Tower, a fantasy blockbuster starring Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey, which unusually, is also planned to kickstart a TV series in 2018 linked to the film.

Presumably the series version of The Dark Tower (in which Elba is said to return) will depend on the box-office performance of the movie this August, which means production will have to proceed at a fair clip to meet a 2018 transmission date.

James Franco in 11.22.63

If so, it’s an atypical move, with the only analogous example in recent years being the apparent budget-prompted plan to have the final film in Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, Ascendant, redesigned as a TV movie, which has apparently now been cancelled due to the rights expiring last month.

Another King would-be blockbuster will be the first part of a movie take on It (previously a 1990 ABC TV miniseries with Tim Curry), popularly – although evidently erroneously – linked with kicking off the notorious ‘clown scare’ trend of 2016.

Netflix has bought into the Stephen King brand, with two movies to be released on the service this year.

Gerald’s Game stars Carla Gugino (Nashville) dealing with the consequences of a sex game gone wrong with husband Bruce Greenwood (The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story), while 1922 features Thomas Jane (Hung/The Mist movie) and Molly Parker (House of Cards) in a Nebraskan pastoral horror.

Among the numerous upcoming movie adaptations of King’s works are reputed to be Doctor Sleep, The Breathing Method, The Stand (also a popular ABC 1994 TV miniseries), The Jaunt, In the Tall Grass, The Long Walk, Revival, My Pretty Pony, The Ten O’Clock People, The Things They Left Behind and Joyland, plus remakes of Pet Sematary and Firestarter.

1990’s Misery starred Kathy Bates in an adaptation of King’s novel

Turning to TV versions of King’s work, the pace has picked up over the last few years, as series have come thick and fast, including Haven (Syfy 2010-2015), Under the Dome (CBS, 2013-15) and 11.22.63 (Hulu).

As the years have progressed, King’s TV works have acquired a more sophisticated veneer, a million miles away from the (relatively) cheap and cheerful adaptations of the 1990s.

Consequently, reviews have tended to become increasingly positive since his TV shows began to take themselves more seriously, in the process attracting bigger-name talent such as James Franco and Chris Cooper in 11.22.63.

As with King’s movies, due to the sheer volume of work, there’s going to be variance in quality, with still watchable miniseries such as Salem’s Lot (CBS, 1979), It and The Stand holding up relatively well, aided by especially spot-on casting of their respective villains.

Thus, we had James Mason (Straker) and Reggie Nalder (Barlow) in Salem’s Lot, Tim Curry (Pennywise) in It and Jamey Sheridan (Randall Flagg) in The Stand.

On the other side, the pointless TV remakes of The Shining (ABC, 1997) and Salem’s Lot (TNT, 2004) showed that people didn’t know enough to leave well alone.

As is widely known, King was prompted to take a second crack at The Shining due to his disappointment at Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 take on the book.

This year will see three TV adaptations of King’s novels. To some acquainted with the movie, Spike’s eagerly anticipated 10-episode version of The Mist, which launches tomorrow, will have a tough time measuring up to Frank Darabont’s 2007 bleak big-screen classic. The series’ reported US$23m budget compares to US$18m for the movie.

Also coming up is JJ Abrams’ Castle Rock (Hulu’s second Abrams-produced King tale after 11.22.63), which is set in the fictional Maine community familiar from many of his novels and the onscreen credits of Rob Reiner (director of Stand by Me)’s production company of the same name.

In a similar fashion to Dickensian (BBC1, 2015-16), the show will feature characters from the various King ‘multiverse’ stories that have a nexus in the town.

Last but by no means least is David E Kelley (Ally McBeal/Boston Legal)’s Mr Mercedes (pictured top) for DirecTV’s Audience Network, a 10-episode excursion into hard-boiled detective drama, with a strong cast that includes Brendan Gleeson (The Guard) and Harry Treadaway (Penny Dreadful).

And coming down the pike, apparently, are TV series based on King’s Grand Central, Ayana, Sleeping Beauties (written with his son Owen) and sinister government agency-focused The Shop, which features in his novels Firestarter, Langoliers, Tommyknockers and The Stand.

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

Chain reaction

Social media is having an increasing impact on the success or failure of television drama, as Stephen Arnell discovers.

For many broadcasters, the advent of social media has been a decidedly mixed blessing, especially in the world of TV drama.

A flurry of positive tweets can increase a new show’s profile – and viewership – but heavily negative reactions can have the effect of strangling it at birth.

Back in 2013, comedy writer Ben Elton’s comeback vehicle The Wright Way was effectively cancelled before the end of the first episode, such was the overwhelmingly poor social media response from critics and viewers alike.

BBC Comedy chief Shane Allen complained that instant social media criticism put paid to any chance of the show bedding in and improving, but those, as they say, are the breaks.

An apparently ‘bruised’ Elton (Blackadder, The Young Ones) returned to the fray with his Shakespeare comedy Upstart Crow (BBC2), so all’s well that ends well.

BBC1’s Jamaica Inn led to the so-called ‘Mumblegate’ inquiry

But with the exception of longer-running US dramas and soaps that are in production as the show is transmitted, there is little broadcasters can do after the event to combat social media flak until the next season.

The BBC in particular has come in for heavy criticism over recent years for what viewers perceive as ‘mumbling’ from actors and generally poor sound levels.

Back in 2014, BBC1’s two-part adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn made the front pages and caused a Twitter blowout due to ‘Mumblegate’ – viewers complaining in their droves about some of the actors’ unintelligible dialogue, particularly that of lead Sean Harris (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation), and inferior sound quality.

Viewer numbers fell from 6.1 million for the first episode to 4.5 million for the second and the BBC swung into action with a Mumblegate inquiry, finding that “technical issues,” combined with overloud incidental music and Harris’s performance, rendered that drama a less than ideal experience for many viewers.

Some viewers complained of being unable to comprehend Tom Hardy’s dialogue in Taboo

Du Maurier’s son Christian ‘Kits’ Browning commented: “Thank God Sean Harris’ character gets killed. I blame the director and the sound man – and an actor who just mumbled. If anyone else feels the same way I just suggest you go and read the book. In the end I had to resort to subtitles.”

After this debacle, one would have thought the BBC would be alert to these kind of issues, but recent weeks have seen more Twitter meltdowns and tabloid headlines over mumbling – the culprits this time being serial murmurer Tom Hardy (Taboo, BBC1) and Sam Riley (SS-GB, BBC1).

Twitter reaction to the shows from viewers included: “I wish Tom Hardy would speak up a bit sometimes #Taboo,” “SS-GB – The subtitle department should have kept it up for all the dialogue. Head melted trying to understand this,” and “Why is Sam Riley playing Archer of the Yard with a voice like Patty and Selma?” – the latter referring the famously gravelly voiced Simpsons characters.

Taboo’s viewing figures decreased steadily over much of the show’s run, but it may be overstating the case to solely blame negative social media reaction for this.

Many fans were appalled when the The Walking Dead killed off two beloved characters in this scene

SS-GB (pictured top) has also seen a decline in viewing levels, with episode two falling by two million to record an audience of 3.9 million as complaints about Riley’s intonation continue.

After other complaints about dialogue clarity in the dramas Happy Valley, Rillington Place and Poldark last year, BBC director general Tony Hall told his chiefs to sort out “audibility issues.”

And good luck to the BBC executive assigned to tell Tom Hardy to speak up.

That said, there are more positive ways for social media reaction to actually benefit shows – for instance in the groundswell of support that caused Amazon to pick up the BBC’s Ripper Street and Netflix to revive cult comedy hit Arrested Development.

The Good Wife’s showrunners changed a storyline in response to audience disapproval

Studies show that positive Twitter buzz can boost viewership, which is said to have aided shows including Empire (Fox) and Modern Family (ABC).

Live twitter conversations during dramas such as Game of Thrones, Lucifer, The Walking Dead and Vikings are known to increase engagement with dramas.

On the other hand, negative social media feedback was felt to be a contributory factor in the cancellation of ABC’s The Muppets revival last year. High opening ratings declined precipitously as viewers thought early episodes unfunny or mean-spirited. Despite a talked-up midseason revamp, audiences continued to fall.

The deaths of popular characters Glen (Steven Yen) and Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) at the beginning of season seven of The Walking Dead, meanwhile, saw adverse Twitter reaction, followed by a viewing decline for the following episodes. But now, after its mid-season break, the drama is taking on a much more redemptive tone, which looks to be reflected in a ratings bump.

Episode 10’s reunion of fan favourites Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Carol (Melissa McBride) saw an outpouring of emotion in social media.

Sherlock showrunner Stephen Moffat regularly responds to fan reaction

In hit legal drama The Good Wife (CBS), adverse reaction to character Kalinda’s storyline in the season four premiere saw showrunners Robert and Michelle King prematurely discontinue the arc.

Talking to TV Guide, Robert King said of the decision: “I do think the audience teaches the storyteller and this is a case of the audience teaching the storyteller.”

Viewers have also successfully changed show content in other instances, including Lena Dunham accepting criticism of her drama Girls’ all-white cast and adding a minority character to the HBO series in response.

Some writers are playful with social media, with Doctor Who and Sherlock showrunner Stephen Moffat actively responsive to fan reaction.

Doctor Who episode The Time of the Doctor included a plot device that gave the Time Lord another dozen ‘regenerations,’ resolving the problem, much discussed on fan sites, that the Doctor was permitted only 12 incarnations according to the original canons of the show.

Sherlock co-writer Mark Gatiss also included a continuing gag in the script for The Empty Hearse, teasing online speculation about how Holmes may have been able to fake his death at the end of the second season.

Social media is a double-edged sword for broadcasters, where the benefits of instant feedback in boosting some dramas are balanced by the premature deaths of others, which means there’s no real hiding place for either mediocre or just plain bad shows.

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

Who’s next?

With Peter Capaldi revealing he plans to leave the Tardis at the same time as showrunner Steven Moffatt also departs Doctor Who, Stephen Arnell considers the future for the long-running sci-fi drama.

The old adage ‘be careful what you wish for’ may strike Doctor Who star Peter Capaldi (above) as particularly pertinent in the light of his decision to leave the show later this year.

Especially so since Capaldi was a devotee of the series in his youth, even going to the extent of writing a fan letter to the Radio Times way back in 1974 when he was just 15.

When he landed the role in 2013, it must have been something of a dream come true for the actor, hitherto best known in the UK playing the foul-mouthed spin doctor Malcolm Tucker in the BBC comedy The Thick of It (2005-2012).

Since Capaldi became the 12th incarnation of the Doctor after the exit of Matt Smith (The Crown), the show has suffered a noticeable decline in ratings and sniping from both critics and fans concerning the quality of scripting – and occasionally the acting.

Matt Smith as the Doctor alongside Jenna Coleman

Back in November 2015, Capaldi blamed declining viewing figures on what he felt was erratic scheduling by the BBC, for what is still essentially a family show. The series was moved from its previous family-friendly teatime slot and frequently finished after the 21.00 watershed. “I feel it’s slightly used as a pawn in a Saturday night warfare,” he said. “I feel as if it should go out at 19.30 or around that time.”

“And once you get past 20.15, you’re getting yourself into adult territory and although a lot of adults really like it, at its heart, it’s designed to do a lot of entertaining of children as well.”

Also departing with Capaldi following the 2017 Christmas special is showrunner Steven Moffat, who suffered flak for what was seen by some as overcomplicated plotting, subpar effects, pointless gimmicks, shouted dialogue and weak attempts at humour – criticisms that also dogged him across the Matt Smith era.

Even Doctor Who’s music came under fire, with the score at times tipping into parody with its recurrent intrusive bombast.

Stunt casting of guest stars also drew criticism, harking back to the dying days of the original series when comedians such as Ken Dodd, pop stars like Leee John from Imagination and light-entertainment hosts including Nicholas Parsons all made appearances in the show.

Chris Chibnall

The revived Doctor Who has also seen some distracting guest stars, including soap actress Barbara Windsor (in character as EastEnders’ Peggy Mitchell), James Corden and comedian Frank Skinner.

It’s possible that in acting as showrunner to both Doctor Who and Sherlock, Moffat had taken on too much – to the detriment of both shows.

Older fans dubbed Capaldi the Colin Baker (the sixth doctor) of the rebooted Doctor Who – a capable actor felt to have been let down by the creative team.

But as long as the series is a relative cash cow for distributor BBC Worldwide, the corporation will continue with the show, hoping that incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall can breathe new life into the ailing franchise.

Chibnall has a resumé that mainly comprises sci-fi and fantasy, although it does include the hit crime drama Broadchurch (and its failed US counterpart Gracepoint), plus a UK version of Dick Wolf’s Law & Order, Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood, and episodes of Doctor Who itself.

Back in 2011, alongside Vikings’ Michael Hirst, he co-created the shortlived Starz series Camelot, which chimed with his earlier unsuccessful attempt to get his 2005 take on Merlin commissioned by the BBC.

The BBC will no doubt ramp up expectations around the casting of The 13th (unlucky for some?) Doctor.

The betting seems to be going in the direction of either a female or non-white (or both) actor for the role, representing a clean break from the white male casting of the role to date, although conversely Ben Wishaw (Spectre, London Spy) is currently the favourite in terms of odds.

It’s difficult to see Wishaw giving up his varied and successful career in film and TV for the part, but stranger things have happened.

Chibnall created crime drama Broadchurch, which starred Doctor Who alum David Tennant

Both David Tennant (Broadchurch, Jessica Jones) and Matt Smith (The Crown) have by and large managed to escape being pigeon-holed by the role of The Doctor, which tended to be the case for previous leads in original 1963 to 1989 run of the show.

So far, other names in the frame include Olivia Colman (The Night Manager, Broadchurch), Hayley Atwell (Conviction, Agent Carter), Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd), David Harewood (Homeland, Supergirl), Rory Kinnear (Penny Dreadful), Miranda Hart (Spy, Miranda) and Sophie Okonedo (Undercover).

Going by previous casting for the role, it’s probably unlikely to be an actor who is too familiar to viewers. The only real exception to this was Christopher Eccleston, who launched the rebooted show for one season back in 2005, when the BBC presumably felt a ‘name’ was necessary to give Doctor Who a fighting chance against the competition.

Which indeed it did, as an average audience of eight million viewers tuned into the series, with strong audience appreciation figures of 80-plus throughout the 13-episode season.

Eccleston left soon after the conclusion of his sole season, with a number of conflicting rumours continuing to this day as to exactly why – depending on which member of the production team one talks to.

So how will Chibnall approach the task of kickstarting the franchise? Will he re-invent the character and bring the Doctor down to earth, as happened literally in the original series, when the third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) was exiled to Earth and denied use of the Tardis by his fellow Time Lords for his first 25-episode season in the role?

Billie Piper and Christopher Eccleston took the lead when Doctor Who returned to TV in 2005

There may be further tie-ins with the BBC3 spin-off Class, or possibly the return of Torchwood in some form.

Resurrecting old villains is also a way of igniting the fan base, so perhaps we can expect some of the lesser-known baddies to return – the Quatermass-influenced Daemons (season eight of the original series, with the third Doctor) being a particular favourite among Who aficionados.

Whatever happens, there will always be the challenge of pleasing a family audience – keeping it exciting and scary for the kids but maintaining enough character, humour and knowingness for the adults.

Whatever happens, expect some radical changes – going by the usual trends in TV drama, Doctor Who’s waning ratings will herald steeper falls in the not-too-distant future if unchecked.

tagged in: , , , , ,

Kings of the wild frontier

Period dramas are never far from our screens, but they currently appear to be more popular and diverse than ever. Stephen Arnell examines the current trend for costume series.

Drama series based on historical events and set in eras gone by have always been popular, more so than ever in the current ‘golden age’ of television, despite the obvious expense involved in terms of scale, design, costuming and on- and off-screen talent.

The American West has long yielded rich pickings for both period series, most recently with Hell on Wheels (AMC, 2011-16), and those with a more contemporary setting, including Longmire (A+E/Netflix, 2012-present) the much-admired Justified (FX, 2010-15), and the western/sci-fi hybrid Westworld (HBO, 2016, pictured above).

Cinemax’s Banshee (2013-16) should also qualify as part of the genre, as, notwithstanding its present-day Amish Pennsylvania backdrop, the show possesses a narrative that harks back to the ‘psychological’ westerns of the 1950s, including Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954), 3:10 to Yuma (Delmer Davies, 1957), Warlock (Edward Dmytryk, 1959) and Marlon Brando’s sole directorial effort One-Eyed Jacks (1960).

Last year the UK’s ITV attempted to inject western DNA into 1870s Yorkshire with the viaduct-building drama Jericho, but poor ratings saw it fail to gain a second season.

Tim Roth in forthcoming Sky Atlantic drama Tin Star

The granddaddy of the western TV series since the 1990s is, of course, HBO’s Deadwood (2004-06), which despite being cancelled in season three retains a huge affection among the cognoscenti, enough perhaps for the mooted one- or two-part TV movie conclusion to the show to finally be given the nod.

As of August 2016, Deadwood creator David Milch was reported to be working on a script that aims to bring some sense of closure to the show.

The contemporary strain of western will see a new entrant into the field this year with Sky Atlantic’s Tin Star, a revenge thriller located in the Rocky Mountains of Canada, starring the always-busy Tim Roth (Rillington Place, The Hateful Eight) as a former London Met detective now plying his trade as a law officer in the previously sleepy but now crime-ridden town of Little Big Bear.

Co-stars include Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks, who most recently graced our screens in SundanceTV’s underrated James Purefoy/Michael K Smith crime drama Hap & Leonard.

After the ratings failure of The Young Pope in the UK, Sky Atlantic must be hoping that Tin Star can stake a larger claim for the potential audience, with a narrative that appears more immediately appealing than what some felt were the arthouse affectations and longueurs of the Jude Law starrer.

Another area that appears popular is the ‘pre-western,’ generally taken to be the New World in North America before the Civil War (1861-1865).

The success of 2015’s endurance epic The Revenant may have given some inspiration for new dramas to explore the times before the ‘Classic American West’ period of 1865-1900, set as it was in the ‘unorganised territory’ of the 1820s.

Two upcoming shows also set in the years preceding the Wild West include Sky1’s Jamestown and Netflix’s appropriately named Frontier.

At first glance, Jamestown, located in the North America of 1619 among the first English settlers, owes something to some relatively recent dramas, including Terence Malick’s film A New World (2005), Peter Flannery’s New Worlds (Channel 4, 2014) and Jimmy McGovern’s Banished (BBC2, 2015).

Strong similarities also appear noticeable between Banished (based in a New South Wales penal colony of 1788) and Jamestown, in the narrative hook of having both the predominately male inhabitants of the two communities learning to deal with an influx of women into their lives.

The recent teaser trailer released for Jamestown suggests creator Bill Gallagher (The Paradise, Lark Rise to Candleford) will be a taking a slightly less gritty approach than that adopted for Banished.

As for the Jacobean setting of the show, UK producers have a mixed record with dramatic depictions of the Stuart era, with successes including Charles II: The Power & The Passion (BBC1, 2003), Gunpowder, Treason & Plot (BBC2, 2004) and The Devil’s Whore (C4, 2008).

But less popular were the aforementioned New Worlds (C4, 2014) – a sequel to The Devil’s Whore set in 1680s colonial Massachusetts (61 years on from Jamestown’s Virginia) – and ITV’s The Great Fire (2014), which to many critics was more of a damp squib than a raging inferno.

Debuting in the UK on Netflix later this month after a Discovery Canada transmission (incidentally that network’s first scripted commission) in November and December last yaer, Frontier stars Jason Momoa (Game of Thrones, Red Road) in an adventure drama centred on the late 18th century North American fur trade.

Anyone expecting a gruelling Revenant-style experience may be disappointed, as the trailer gives the impression of a fairly uncomplicated period action-adventure, a few shades less complex than, say, Black Sails (returning to Starz for its fourth and final season this month).

The Revenant star Tom Hardy’s eagerly anticipated period drama Taboo made its January 7 debut in an unusual Saturday peaktime slot for BBC1, unusual in that light entertainment and other less-demanding fare tends to dominate the evening.

BBC1 chief Charlotte Moore will be hoping the gamble pays off and viewers stick around for something more full-blooded than they’re used to on the channel at that time.

And on the evidence of the overnight ratings for Taboo’s debut (4.8 million viewers and a 22.9% audience share), there is certainly some justification for its scheduling, which was fortunate in going against weak opposition. The performance of subsequent episodes will be the real test.

From the evidence of the trailer and to the likely pleasure of his legions of fans, Hardy seems to be in his default pyscho/masochist mode in the show, which will be familiar to viewers from his previous work in The Revenant, Bronson, The Dark Knight Rises and Peaky Blinders, the latter produced by Taboo co-creator Steven Knight.

In contrast to Frontier, where the villains are the Hudson Bay Company, the corporate bad guys in Taboo are the 1814 iteration of the East India Company.

Other interesting period dramas coming up in 2017 include season two of the Sean Bean starrer The Frankenstein Chronicles (ITV Encore), which may help assuage some pangs for the loss of Penny Dreadful, and the same channel’s Harlots, with Samantha Morton (Rillington Place) as a brothel keeper in Georgian London, set a few years earlier but in the same locale as Bean’s show.

Away from the grime and fog of London, fans of costumed spectacle can also look forward to BBC2 epic Troy: Fall of a City; the Roman drama Britannia (Sky1); Les Misérables (BBC1); season two of The Last Kingdom (BBC2); the final season of Reign (The CW); The White Princess, the belated follow-up to The White Queen (Starz); Julian Fellowes’ The Gilded Age (NBC); The Alienist (TNT); and Ridley Scott’s The Terror (AMC).

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

Stranger than fiction?

As Donald Trump prepares to move into the White House, Stephen Arnell questions the future of political dramas under the new president.

It’s no understatement to say the election of Donald Trump (pictured above in The Apprentice) as the 45th president of the US has had reverberations around the world.

Although hardly on a scale with the anxieties related to areas of such importance as global security, the world economy and climate change, Trump’s elevation has caused an almost immediate effect on US political drama.

After being repeatedly being delayed before the November 8 election, Unstoppable – an episode of Law & Order: SVU starring Gary Cole (The West Wing, Veep, The Good Wife) as a Trump-like presidential candidate who faces damaging sexual allegations – may now have been scrapped for good, or at least been kicked down the road for the foreseeable future.

Alec Baldwin lampoons Trump on Saturday Night Live
Alec Baldwin lampoons Trump on Saturday Night Live

Is this a worrying sign of self-censorship on the part of broadcaster NBC, or the simple recognition that the network can’t afford to alienate those who elected Trump, despite Hilary Clinton winning the popular vote?

After all, Alec Baldwin’s parody of Trump on NBC’s Saturday Night Live (SNL) already earned a tweeted rebuke from the then candidate: “Watched Saturday Night Live hit job on me. Time to retire the boring and unfunny show. Alec Baldwin portrayal stinks. Media rigging election!”

This past weekend, the president-elect renewed his attacks on SNL and opened up a new front on the cast of the popular stage musical Hamilton.

So there appears to be a delicate balance for NBC and other network broadcasters in the US. Is it time to tread lightly?

Previous experiences under Republican presidents such as Richard Nixon and the Bushes have shown they or their surrogates have not been not afraid to push back against the media.

Nixon, of course, was a hater par excellence, whose notorious ‘enemies list’ included actors Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Jane Fonda, Tony Randall and Gregory Peck.

Homer squares up to George Bush Sr in The Simpsons
Homer squares up to George Bush Sr in The Simpsons

He frequently criticised the broadcast media, so it must have been with some satisfaction that ABC adapted Nixon henchman John Ehrlichman’s novel The Company as the scathing Washington: Behind Closed Doors in 1977.

A thinly veiled portrait of Nixon’s administration, the miniseries was notable for the magnificent performance of Jason Robards in the role of the paranoid, hard-drinking President Richard Monkton, which gained him a Primetime Emmy nomination.

Back in 1992, then-POTUS George Bush Snr said: “We are going to keep on trying to strengthen the American family, to make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.”

This prompted The Simpsons’ writers to goad the elder Bush in several episodes.

George Bush Jr had his critics too, and for the first six years of his presidency liberals had the comfort blanket of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, where Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett (Bill Clinton without the scandals) presided over an idealised version of a Democratic presidency, in a world where even the occasional Republican was portrayed sympathetically, most notably Alan Alda as Senator Arnold Vinick.

At the pre-9/11 dawn of George W’s presidency in 2001, the South Park team of Trey Parker and Matt Stone created Comedy Central’s short-lived sitcom That’s My Bush, which gently lampooned the president, being more of a spoof of sitcom conventions than a biting satire.

The West Wing
The West Wing aired during George Bush Jr’s administration

Wisely, Bush Jr preferred to outsource his attacks on broadcasters to the likes of Fox News, rather than engage directly – with some success, as evidenced when CBS was forced to drop biopic The Reagans back in 2003.

Rather more seriously, prior to this month’s election, Trump was also firing shots across the bows of Amazon/Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos for perceived bias against him.

Bezos, who had heavily criticised Trump, has unsurprisingly become more conciliatory after the Apprentice star became president-elect, as evidenced by a recent tweet: “Congratulations to @realDonaldTrump. I for one give him my most open mind and wish him great success in his service to the country.”

Trump has also laid into the proposed AT&T/Warner merger, saying before the election that he would block the deal. He has accused Comcast-NBCUniversal of “trying to poison the mind of the American voter” and has stated that he would not have allowed the companies to combine if he had been in charge.

The election of such an overshadowing character as Trump has presented TV’s creative community with a host of dilemmas, both in terms of shows already on air and those in development.

Trump’s sheer outlandishness, unpredictability and cartoonish persona have seemingly rendered much, if not all, of current US political drama obsolete.

Graves
Graves, starring Nick Nolte as a former president, began airing in October

Recently, Robert De Niro likened the president-elect to the character of General Jack D Ripper from Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove. Needless to say, this was not a flattering comparison.

Some have seen echoes of other fictional characters in Trump, including Martin Sheen’s unhinged presidential candidate Greg Stillson in The Dead Zone (1983) and Barry Morse’s Reagan-esque president Johnny Cyclops in the UK comedy series Whoops Apocalypse (1982).

The sheer volume of coverage of the US political scene may make viewers averse to watching a fictionalised version at the end of their working day.

This must be particularly dispiriting to new shows such as Graves (Epix) and Designated Survivor (ABC).

Graves, which began in October, stars Nick Nolte as a guilt-ridden former POTUS seeking to right the wrongs of his terms in office, reminiscent in some ways of the Starz comedy Blunt Talk (starring Patrick Stewart).

Peppered with political cameos from the likes of Barney Frank, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Steele, the show has earned only mediocre reviews, while the idea of a conscience-stricken president seems quaint in an age when Trump has publicly stated that he has never felt any need to ask God for forgiveness.

Designated Survivor’s premise of a low-ranking, soon-to-be-sacked cabinet member becoming commander-in-chief after virtually all branches of government are wiped out at the State of the Union address is a strong one, but audiences have tailed off since the show debuted on ABC, with live ratings falling from 10 million for episode one to 5.6 million for episode six.

Madam Secretary
How will shows like Madam Secretary react to Trump’s tenure?

Despite the star power of Kiefer Sutherland in the role of president Tom Kirkman, some clunky dialogue and a very conventional approach may be in part responsible for this decline, in addition to possible general fatigue with all things political in the US.

It will be interesting to see how established shows such as House of Cards (Netflix), Veep (HBO) and Madam Secretary (CBS) will cope with the Trump presidency. Do they up the ante to reflect the new political orthodoxy, or pivot, West Wing style, to an alternate reality?

It’s unlikely House of Cards can do much other than weave in some Trump-esque references before season five debuts early in 2017.

Producers and writers with new political dramas in production or development in the US such as HBO’s Capitol Hill (Washington graft) and TNT’s Civil (conflict after a hotly contested US election) are presumably in a state of some anxiety – what could possibly be more dramatic than real-life events?

All things considered, it’s probably safer to stick to reboots of familiar franchises such as MacGyver, Magnum PI and Lethal Weapon.

tagged in: , , , , , , , ,

The bumpy road to success: Drama’s most troubled productions

With HBO preparing to debut the much-anticipated Westworld, Stephen Arnell finds that, despite its troubled production history, the show looks certain to be the cable channel’s latest hit.

Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s eagerly awaited re-imagining of Michael Crichton’s classic sci-fi movie Westworld premieres on HBO on October 2.

The 1973 hit film has already spawned both a lacklustre sequel (1976’s Futureworld) and a short-lived CBS TV series, Beyond Westworld (1980).

Now Nolan and Joy’s Westworld (pictured above) has been plagued by production woes – including a two-month shutdown earlier this year, the departure of cast members Miranda Otto and Eion Bailey and a protracted development process since HBO ordered the pilot way back in August 2013.

At one point it was reported that HBO had persuaded Nolan to ‘put aside his ego’ to get the show back on track.

Earlier rumours of graphic rape and sex scenes in Westworld also gave fuel to widespread condemnations of HBO’s depictions of sexual violence against women, with critics citing other shows such as The Night Of, Game of Thrones, Rome, Deadwood and The Sopranos, in which this appeared to be a recurring theme.

Anthony Hopkins (left)
Anthony Hopkins (left) and Jeffrey Wright are among Westworld’s high-profile cast

Despite this, word of mouth around the show is exceptionally strong. Early reviews have given Westworld an aggregated score of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, with some critics predicting a Thrones-style worldwide success for HBO.

In his September 19 review, IGN Movies’ Eric Goldman wrote: “From its standout cast to its excellent visuals to one hell of a hummable score by the great Ramin Djawadi (Game of Thrones), this is top-notch television in every respect.”

In SFX magazine on September 14, Patrick Goss also heaped praise on the show, commenting: “The first hour audiences spend in this park is, to my mind, one of the finest pilots of the last decade. A stellar cast certainly helps.”

With a cast that includes Anthony Hopkins, Thandie Newton, James Marsden, Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright and Ed Harris, the series is certainly not stinting on talent, while the trailer’s eye-popping visuals confirm Westworld’s hefty budget (rumoured to be north of US$54m) should be plain to see on screen.

Of course, troubled TV productions are hardly rare – and a fair percentage defy initial misgivings to go to become hits.

Game of Thrones original pilot was branded 'shit'
Game of Thrones’ original pilot was considered disastrous

Indeed, the original unbroadcast Game of Thrones pilot was deemed “a piece of shit” by Craig Mazin, a screenwriter associate of showrunners Dan Weiss and David Benioff, whom the duo asked to give his thoughts on the show.

After rewrites, reshooting and some recasting, Winter is Coming (the pilot’s title) hit the ground running and the rest, as they say, is history.

BBC2’s epic ‘state of the nation’ drama Our Friends in the North (1996) gave Daniel Craig his breakthrough role and is generally regarded as a TV classic, but production was anything but smooth.

Numerous re-shoots, re-writes, apparent clashes between cast members, directorial changes, legal complications, budget problems and an off/on attitude from senior BBC management should have created a disaster, but the alchemy of the cast and its ambition created a show remembered fondly by many, albeit with the acknowledgement that Our Friends could be a trifle po-faced at times.

In the same year, with the epic period drama Rhodes, BBC1 unhappily experienced some of the same problems as it did with Our Friends – this time without the upside of either high audiences or favourable reviews.

In development for the best part of a decade and costing £10m (US$13m) for 10 hour-long episodes, Rhodes was one of the UK’s most expensive dramas but found little traction with viewers.

Christopher Eccleston alongside Billie Piper in Doctor Who
Christopher Eccleston alongside Billie Piper in Doctor Who

Perhaps this was unsurprising, as the titular character of empire builder Cecil Rhodes (played by Martin Shaw) has a dubious place in British history, regarded by some as a racist imperialist fuelled by greed, with an alleged unhealthy penchant for underage male company.

So, all in all, a difficult character for viewers to warm to, especially in a Sunday evening timeslot usually reserved for undemanding period drama.

The Sunday Times critic AA Gill wrote: “Rhodes, the epic story, started with everything against it and then they made it all worse,” while David Aaronovitch in the Independent on Sunday said: “The BBC’s Rhodes is a man who cannot take a leak without the assistance of the Berlin Philharmonic.”

“It was very odd,” added Lynne Truss in The Times.

Back in 2005, the rebooted Doctor Who suffered from on-set tensions and the exit of star Christopher Eccleston (who had also starred in Our Friends) after just one season, with additional rumours of budget problems due to the then relative inexperience of showrunner Russell T Davies (Queer as Folk, Casanova).

Despite these setbacks, the show went from strength to strength, with the Doctor now in his fourth incarnation (played by Peter Capaldi) since Eccleston’s sole season.

Netflix's The Get Down cost US$120m to make
Netflix’s The Get Down cost US$120m to make

Downton Abbey is a genuine copper-bottomed international hit, but the show had more than its fair share of problems, including the sudden departures of stars such as Dan Stevens, together with unresolved and increasingly soapy storylines all adding to the impression of a production that was seen by some commentators to occasionally be running on fumes.

The worldwide success of Sherlock is belied by the troubles surrounding the pilot, A Study in Pink, which was junked (at a cost of almost £1m to the BBC) and completely reshot, seeing its running time extended from 60 to 90 minutes in the process.

Most recently, Baz Luhrmann’s 1970s rap/disco drama The Get Down has been seen as something of a folie de grandeur. Its huge US$120m budget is the highest ever for a Netflix original drama – caused in part by a lengthy production process, music costs and frequent changes in creative direction as the show progressed – and earned it the nickname ‘The Shut Down’ among the writing team.

And finally, AMC’s The Walking Dead, the most popular drama series in the US and a huge show around the globe, has at times had almost as much drama behind the scenes as on screen.

The firing of showrunner Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) before the debut of season two, when the show had already become AMC’s breakout hit, was a shock, with multiple explanations circulating as to exactly what happened.

Accusations of budget cuts and interference from executives beset The Walking Dead’s early seasons, also leading to a parting of the ways with Darabont’s successor Glen Mazzara after season three.

So Westworld is not alone in its travails – but on the strength of initial reviews, it will have been worth the struggle in getting the show to our screens.

tagged in: , , ,

A farewell to kings

As HBO says goodbye to Game of Thrones for another year – and edges closer to the show’s end – it’s time for the storied network to look towards life after Westeros.

With the sixth season of Game of Thrones (GoT, pictured top) now concluded, rumours abound that the final two chapters of the fantasy drama may only run to a total of 13 episodes. It’s time for HBO to contemplate life after Westeros.

For HBO (and other channels that air the series, like Sky Atlantic in the UK), the prospect of saying goodbye to such a ratings juggernaut must be daunting, with thoughts of what – if anything – can take its place.

Doubts have been raised about the appeal of some HBO’s upcoming slate of shows. Sci-fi series Westworld and 1970s/80s New York-set porn industry drama The Deuce (from The Wire’s David Simon) should attract high sampling, but others may fall by the wayside.

HBO will have high hopes for forthcoming series Westworld
HBO will have high hopes for forthcoming series Westworld

Succession, about a super-rich dynastic American family, and Somali-American drama Mogadishu, Minnesota could find less traction, as might historical miniseries Lewis & Clark and American Lion (starring Sean Penn as the seventh US president, Andrew Jackson), which might struggle outside the US.

Back in 2008, the UK’s Channel 4 played HBO’s other presidential biopic miniseries, John Adams, to critical praise but few viewers.

For Sky Atlantic, some of HBO’s more US-centric shows – such as public-housing drama Show Me a Hero, Olive Kitteridge, The Brink and the recently cancelled Vinyl – have failed to resonate with viewers.

Political dramas based on real-life events such as Game Change, Too Big To Fail and Recount have also struggled to connect with audiences outside the US, as have biopics You Don’t Know Jack (about assisted-suicide advocate Jack Kervorkian), Temple Grandin (the autistic inventor of the ‘hug box’) and Phil Spector (the famous The Beatles producer now in prison for murder).

So for Sky Atlantic, GoT is an essential part of its long-running deal with HBO, wisely beefed up earlier this year by a similar agreement with Showtime.

Returning to the show itself, its approaching end in 2018 has prompted inevitable speculation about a possible prequel, with two distinct possibilities.

Vinyl has been cancelled after a single season
Vinyl has been cancelled after a single season

Through the visions of the Three-Eyed Crow (played by Max Von Sydow) and other flashbacks, season six has already given us tantalising glimpses of King Robert’s rebellion against the Mad King Aerys Targaryen, including Ned Stark’s epic duel with Ser Arthur Dayne and Jamie Lannister’s slaying of Aerys.

For a GoT fan, the prospect of seeing the young (non-corpulent) Robert Baratheon and his deadly clash with Rhaegar Targaryen at the Ruby Ford must be enticing, as well as earlier incarnations of Tywin Lannister, Stannis Baratheon and Jon Arryn, the latter seen only as a corpse in the series.

Another possibility would be to adapt other work from GoT author George RR Martin. Novella series Tales of Dunk & Egg, set 90 years before the events of the books on which GoT is based, is somewhat lighter in tone. The stories provide further insights into the complicated world of Westeros and how the seeds of rebellion were planted decades before Robert Baratheon began his campaign to oust the Targaryens and avenge the ‘abduction’ of Lyanna Stark.

If so, will current showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss be heavily involved, or will they take a backseat and explore other, non-Martin projects?

Furthermore, will the success of the show prompt HBO to develop works in similar territory? This is a risky path but one that may be worth treading, despite the inevitable comparisons to GoT.

After all, GoT started well but it only become a phenomenon in season three, a fact that may persuade HBO to persist with the long haul involved in commissioning another serious fantasy show.

Vikings has performed well for History
Vikings has performed well for History

Other networks’ attempts to exploit the success of GoT with dramas of a similar style have had varying levels of success.

History’s Vikings has carved out a distinct identity and proved a ratings winner, but others have paled in comparison, including The Bastard Executioner (FX), Beowulf (ITV/Esquire), The Last Kingdom (BBC2/BBC America), The White Queen (BBC1/STARZ) and ABC’s Of Kings & Prophets – all of which have failed to ignite the same interest as GoT.

Bernard Cornwell, who wrote the books on which The Last Kingdom is based, took a swipe at HBO’s fantasy behemoth in the Radio Times, saying of the show: “This is very, very dull. So they put a lot of naked women behind it all, they’re called ‘sex-planations’ in the trade. My programmes won’t need sex-planations.”

Sky and BBC1 are going back to the fantasy/sword-and-sorcery well, with The Last Dragonslayer and Troy: Fall of a City respectively, but industry expectations are currently not especially high for either show.

Long-gestating plans for a film followed by a TV series adaptation of Stephen King’s popular Dark Tower series of novels have now been abandoned solely in favour of a cycle of movies, with stars including Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey attached.

There are also a number of serious fantasy novels in development as series; the trick for HBO will be to order something that shares some of GoT’s DNA without being a copycat. Perhaps a fresh take on a known property may do the trick.

Could there be mileage in looking at ‘classics’ of the fantasy genre that could benefit from a new HBO-style spin without the accusations of aping the GoT formula?

Possibly one of Robert E Howard’s characters Conan, Kull and Soloman Kane, or Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars, which has a legion of fans despite the poorly received 2012 movie adaptation titled John Carter. Maybe even Michael Moorcock’s lesser-known Elric could also get a TV spin.

After all, Elric’s blade is referenced in GoT – when the obnoxious King Joffrey Baratheon is presented with a new sword at his wedding feast, he asks the crowd what should he name it, and someone shouts out “Stormbringer.”

For a more female-skewing audience, Ursula K Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea novels, which possess a unique aesthetic, clearly distinguishable from the world of GoT, could be worth a pop. Syfy’s 2005 miniseries did little justice to the books and was quickly forgotten.

To some minds, HBO’s Rome and Starz’s Spartacus acted as trailblazers for GoT – perhaps HBO will return to the apparently shelved remake of I Claudius.

With their dynastic blood-letting, perversion and intrigue, the time may well be ripe for a big-budget take on Robert Graves’ novels.

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

The shape of things to come: what next for sci-fi and fantasy?

Stephen Arnell casts his eye over the television landscape and finds there are plenty of science-fiction and fantasy series in the works to keep genre fans happy.

At the same time as a tide of comic book and graphic novel TV adaptations have hit the screen, there has been a less trumpeted but increasingly visible trend in series based on ‘hard’ science fiction and ‘serious’ fantasy.

With the recent announcement of Bryan Cranston’s new Philip K Dick anthology series Electric Dreams (produced by Sony Pictures Television for Channel 4), there seems to be an unmistakable head of steam behind adaptations of ‘hard’ sci-fi – coming hot on the heels of Amazon’s critically lauded The Man in the High Castle (also based on a Philip K Dick novel) and Syfy’s miniseries version of Arthur C Clarke’s downbeat Childhood’s End.

This resurgence of more serious-minded sci-fi is demonstrated in the UK, with Channel 4 leading the way with the AMC coproduction Humans and the less viewed, but well-regarded, Utopia.

The alternate-history Axis victory premise of Amazon’s High Castle will be mirrored by BBC1’s upcoming SS-GB, which itself harks back to 1978’s BBC2 production An Englishman’s Castle, which starred Kenneth More as a TV soap writer in Nazi-occupied Britain.

Broadcasters and OTT providers have discovered a new vein to mine, as evidenced by a slew of shows being developed or in production, including HBO’s series version of Michael Crichton’s Westworld (pictured top), best known to older readers from the 1973 movie starring Yul Brynner, James Brolin and Richard Benjamin.

The alternate-history premise of The Man in the High Castle (pictured) is mirrored in SS-GB
The alternate-history premise of The Man in the High Castle (pictured) is mirrored in upcoming BBC series SS-GB

The successful movie was followed by the sequel Futureworld (1976) and short-lived 1980 series Beyond Westworld (CBS), both unfortunately following the law of diminishing returns.

Despite reported production problems, 2016’s Westworld’s stellar cast (including Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris and Thandie Newton) and strong proposition should guarantee high initial sampling when it debuts this autumn.

Westworld creator Jonathan Nolan (co-writer with his brother Christopher of The Prestige, Interstellar, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises) is also apparently developing a series version of Isaac Asimov’s classic Foundation trilogy (also for HBO), which is surely a prospect that will have sci-fi fans salivating.

Back in 2009, Sony reportedly tried to crack the novels with director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, White House Down) attached, but when the project stalled, HBO stepped in to acquire the rights.

Along with JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Frank Herbert’s Dune, Foundation was regarded as ‘unfilmable’ due to its epic scope but, following Game of Thrones’ success, epic is something HBO can confidently handle.

Other sci-fi classics reportedly in development include Stephen Spielberg’s Amblin’s take on dystopian Aldous Huxley novel Brave New World and Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, produced by aficionado Bradley Cooper.

Both have been ordered by Syfy, which is also teaming with Battlestar Galactica writer/exec producer David Eick for the series version of Frederik Pohl’s 1977 Hugo and Nebula award-winning Gateway.

On the SVoD front, Hulu has given a straight-to-series order for a 10-part adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a feminist story set in a grim US of the future, ruled by a Ted Cruz-style totalitarian Christian theocracy, starring Elizabeth Moss (Mad Men, Top of the Lake).

Syfy miniseries Childhood's End
Syfy miniseries Childhood’s End

A movie of the novel was released in 1990, boasting an all-star cast that included Robert Duvall, Faye Dunaway and Downton Abbey’s Elizabeth McGovern, but the film suffered from script problems and was generally felt to be an interesting failure.

Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, Noah) is said to be developing a TV series with HBO based on Atwood’s post-apocalyptic novel trilogy Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam, set in a world where most of humanity has been wiped out by a pandemic and the survivors fight to find a reason to continue.

Back in 2011, there was talk of a remake of Ray Bradbury’s 1980 movie The Martian Chronicles (starring Rock Hudson), but this appears to have been abandoned. The revival of interest in the genre may see it resurrected, though.

US cable channel Spike has commissioned Kim Stanley Robinson’s hard sci-fi classic Red Mars for a 10-episode series debuting in January 2017. Dealing with the human colonisation of the Red Planet, the series features Vince Geradis (Game of Thrones) as exec producer.

And speaking of Mars, the daddy of all sci-fi stories – HG Wells’ War of the Worlds – is currently being developed by ITV-owned Mammoth Screen for an ostensibly authentic period version of the classic novel, scripted by Peter Harness (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, City of Vice, Doctor Who).

Neil Marshall (Game of Thrones, Dog Soldiers, The Descent) is on board to direct, while reports earlier this year of Poldark star Aidan Turner taking the lead role of the narrator have since been denied.

HG Wells features as the protagonist of ABC’s Time After Time (based on Nicholas Meyers’ 1979 movie), which involves the author travelling from Victorian England to the present day. Kevin Williamson (The Vampire Diaries, The Following, Dawson’s Creek) is showrunner for the series.

Sky's adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Likely Stories
Sky’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Likely Stories

Although Robert A Heinlein’s Starship Troopers was successfully transferred to the cinema screen by Paul Verhoeven in 1997, it remains doubtful whether a TV version of his most famous work, the controversial 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land (once promoted as “the most famous sci-fi novel ever written”) will ever see the light of day.

In terms of the serious fantasy genre, the BBC’s upcoming version of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy should benefit from having writer Jack Thorne (The Last Panthers, Skins, The Fades) guiding the show, which will hopefully avoid the pitfalls of 2007’s movie adaptation The Golden Compass and maintain more of an adult tone.

Scheduling and advertising will be important for the series, as the excellent Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell suffered from misleading promotion, which gave the impression of a Harry Potter-style fantasy – and aired on the wrong channel, BBC1, when BBC2 would have been far more appropriate.

Fantasy legend Neil Gaiman has certainly been a busy lad, with no less than four TV adaptations of his writings in the works, as well as his mooted big-screen version of Gormenghast, which was last seen as a BBC2 series in 2000.

Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Looper) was due to direct a movie version of Gaiman’s Sandman, but that recently hit the buffers.

First up is American Gods for Starz in the US, which has an impressive cast including Ian McShane, Peter Stormare, Jonathan Tucker and Crispin Glover.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Would BBC1’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell have fared better on BBC2?

Sean Harris (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Jamaica Inn, The Borgias) has since left the production to be replaced by Pablo Schreiber (Orange is the New Black, The Wire) in the role of troubled Leprechaun Mad Sweeney, with Bryan Fuller (Hannibal, Pushing Daisies) as showrunner.

Gaiman’s Anansi Boys, which occupies the same fictional universe as American Gods, was optioned by BBC1 in the UK back in 2014, while his anthology Likely Stories has been commissioned by Sky Arts in the UK, featuring a cast that numbers Johnny Vegas (Benidorm, Ideal) and industry veteran Kenneth Cranham (Rome, War & Peace, Layer Cake), with a score by Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker.

Directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard helmed and co-wrote the critically acclaimed 2,000 Days On Earth, a portrait of Aussie Renaissance Man Nick Cave.

Good Omens, Gaiman’s end-of-the-world collaboration with the late Terry Pratchett, is also being considered by the BBC for a miniseries, while Lucifer, the Fox show based on Gaiman’s character from Sandman, has recently been renewed for a second season.

Other fantasy projects with adult themes on the horizon include NBC’s Midnight, Texas (due to be transmitted this autumn), based on the novels by Charlaine Harris (True Blood), and the BBC’s The City and The City – Tony Grisoni (Red Riding, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Southcliffe) developing China Mieville’s cult novel about the cities Beszel and Ul Quoma, which occupy the same point in space and time.

And last, but by no means least, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, said to be the highest-selling serious fantasy novels since The Lord of the Rings, are rumoured to be under consideration by Sony for either AMC, Netflix or Amazon.

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

Upfronts 2016: Networks perform the safety dance

As the dust settles on the US networks’ Upfronts week, Stephen Arnell casts his eye over the new shows set to hit our screens in 2016/17.

In the main, innovation appeared to be in short supply at last week’s Upfronts – reboots, legal and cop dramas and the dispiriting trend of making TV versions of hit movies are the order of the day for the nets.

Despite the poor performance of Minority Report, Rush Hour and Limitless (which were all cancelled after one season), we’ll see series versions of films including Lethal Weapon (Fox), Training Day (CBS), Taken (NBC), The Exorcist (Fox) and lesser-known properties Frequency (The CW) and Time After Time (ABC).

Sci-fi thriller Frequency was a medium-sized hit for Dennis Quaid (who’ll star in season two of Sky Atlantic’s upcoming Fortitude) in 2000, while Time After Time was released way back in 1979, with Malcolm MacDowell and David Warner as HG Wells and Jack the Ripper respectively, Wells pursuing the Ripper through time to then present day San Francisco.

NBC cablenet USA Network is taking a punt on Shooter, based on the 2007 Mark Wahlberg actioner, starring Ryan Phillippe (Cruel Intentions, McGruber, The Lincoln Lawyer).

Turner’s TNT also unveiled its adaptation of acclaimed crime drama Animal Kingdom, with Ellen Barkin (The Big Easy, Happyish, Ocean’s 13) taking the lead role as matriarch Smurf.

Fox seems to be the home for budding Satanists, with a series reworking of William Friedkin’s classic The Exorcist joining a schedule that includes Lucifer (returning for a second series) and reality format Hell’s Kitchen. Incidentally, A&E’s Damien (based on The Omen movies) will not be returning for a second season.

The Exorcist
Will Fox’s The Exorcist be able to shock and scare in a 21.00 slot?

It will be a challenge for Fox to deliver a 21.00 network show that will bear any comparison to the original X-rated Exorcist movie, which still has the power to shock.

To a lesser extent, this also applies to the 20.00 slot given to Lethal Weapon (pictured top), which presumably won’t give the character of detective Roger Murtaugh (played in the series by Damon Wayans Sr) the chance to exclaim his signature catchphrase, ‘I’m too old for this shit.’

‘Too old for this stuff’ it is then. Gosh, darn, as they say.

Still, as long as there are successful film-to-TV series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, M*A*S*H, Fargo, Bates Motel (a prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho) and Stargate, there will always be the temptation for producers to exploit their IP library and rely on name recognition attract a least a high initial audience.

On a similar tack, series revivals are also in vogue – coming off the back of the successful X-Files (Fox) six-part run and the not-so-popular Heroes Reborn (NBC). The 2016/17 season will see the return of Prison Break (Fox) and MacGyver (CBS), with Lucas Till (X-Men: First Class, Apocalypse) in the titular role.

After the original 1939 movie, 1985’s Return to Oz, James Franco’s Oz the Great and Powerful (2013), the Sci-Fi channel miniseries Tin Man (2007) and The Witches of Oz (2011) comes NBC’s Emerald City.

Promising a darker take on Frank L Baum’s Oz novels, Emerald City boast the distinctive visuals of director Tarsem Singh (The Cell, Immortals) with a cast lead by an on-a-roll Vincent D’Onofrio (Daredevil, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Jurassic World) as the wizard and Ardia Ajona (True Detective) as the now adult Dorothy.

MacGyver
MacGyver, coming to CBS, is one of a number of series reboots

Dick Wolf’s ever-expanding Chicago franchise (NBC) will see Justice added to Chicagos Fire, PD and Med. Funny or Die has already parodied the meta-sizing brand with Chicago Sanitation.

NBC’S hit show The Blacklist has spawned the spin-off/’companion piece’ The Blacklist: Redemption, starring Famke Janssen (X-Men, Taken), while 24 gets a reboot with the 12-episode 24: Legacy. Corey Hawkins (The Walking Dead, Straight Outta Compton) tops the bill as former army ranger Eric Carter.

Time travel has emerged as a fashionable sub-genre, with the aforementioned movie-to-TV shows Time After Time and Frequency, together with Timeless (NBC) and comedy Making History (Fox).

The 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare has prompted a number of dramas, including Still Star-Crossed (ShondaLand) for ABC and Will for cablenet TNT; while in the UK there is the Ben Elton comedy Upstart Crow (BBC2) and last year’s little-seen BBC Film comedy Bill.

Among the slew of formula network dramas, there are a number of interesting shows that could stand out. Kiefer Sutherland stars as the US secretary of housing and development in Designated Survivor (ABC) who finds himself propelled to the position of acting president after the president, vice-president and much of the cabinet are blown up by a terrorist attack at the State of the Union address.

Midnight Texas (NBC) is adapted from the novels by True Blood (HBO) author Charlaine Harris and helmed by Mr Robot’s Neil Arden Oplev. The official synopsis states: “From vampires and witches to psychics and hit men, Midnight is a mysterious safe haven for those who are different. As the town members fight off outside pressures from rowdy biker gangs, ever-suspicious cops and their own dangerous pasts, they band together and form a strong and unlikely family.”

Network censors won’t be permitting any True Blood-style boundary-pushing, so the show may lack the edge expected by fans of the novels.

24: Legacy
24: Legacy stars The Walking Dead’s Corey Hawkins

Fox’s Shots Fired could well prove controversial in this US presidential election year, concerning as it does a racially charged shooting in North Carolina, with memories still very fresh after Ferguson, the killing of Trayvon Martin and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. A strong cast includes Sanaa Lathan (Boss, Nip/Tuck), Helen Hunt (As Good as it Gets, Mad About You), Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws, W, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), Will Patton (Armageddon, Falling Skies) and Stephen Moyer (True Blood).

The CW’s mid-season Riverdale is a subversive Twin Peaks-style take on the characters from the Archie comics – something that could either catch fire or fall flat. The presence of showrunner Greg Berlanti (Arrow, The Flash) gives Riverdale a fighting chance.

Turning briefly to the networks’ cable and SVoD siblings, NBC’s Syfy teased David S Goyer’s (Blade trilogy, Dark Knight trilogy, Constantine, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice) long-gestating Superman prequel Krypton.

The show concerns the struggles of Superman’s House of El family in the 200 years before the destruction of Clark Kent’s homeworld.

Unlike Gotham (Fox), where viewers have at least heard of many of the characters before the arrival of Batman on the scene, it might be a big ask for the audience to take much interest in the travails of Kal-El’s grandfather and his various Kryptonian enemies.

Presumably the forebears of Superman villain General Zod will feature at some point in the show – as either foes or allies of The House of El. Though there are echoes, perhaps, of Syfy’s Battlestar Galactica prequel Caprica, which lasted one season back in 2011.

CBS’s own SVoD service CBS All Access debuted the logo and some space effects footage of Bryan Fuller’s (American Gods, Hannibal) Star Trek prequel series, rumoured to be an anthology show, with each possible season covering a different Enterprise crew and era.

Turner’s Kevin Reilly also revealed his ambitions for the family of channels, with comedy-based TBS continuing its quest for younger viewers and TNT upping the ante with a number of drama projects, including an adaptation of Caleb Carr’s best-selling period crime novel The Alienist and Good Behaviour, with Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery starring as a con artist and thief, based on Blake Crouch’s (Wayward Pines) Letty Dobesh books.

tagged in: , , , , , , ,

November reign: How did the now ex-ITV drama boss do?

Following Steve November’s exit from ITV, Stephen Arnell assesses his tenure as the commercial broadcaster’s head of drama.

The news of ITV drama director Steve November’s departure brought to a close the first stage of new ITV director of television Kevin Lygo’s shake-up of senior commissioning roles at the network.

For the commercial broadcaster, drama is the most important genre in terms of cost, peaktime value and ratings.

Although Lygo’s background is chiefly in entertainment (his skills will be crucial in reinvigorating that critical part of the schedule), one shouldn’t forget that he was, under pseudonym Ruby Solomon, the writer of the one-off comedy-drama Walter, commissioned and broadcast by BBC1 in 2014.

And when Lygo was Channel 4’s director of television and content, drama successes under his regime included Shameless, The Devil’s Whore, Skins, Elizabeth I, Dead Set and Any Human Heart.

With characteristic speed, Lygo poached BBC drama chief Polly Hill to replace November – no doubt fulfilling a dual purpose in both attracting proven talent and inconveniencing the BBC during a period when drama is its strongest genre.

So how should we assess November’s tenure at the helm of ITV drama?

November oversaw some expensive flops, including Jekyll & Hyde - but the show has been picked up abroad
November oversaw some expensive flops, including Jekyll & Hyde – but the show has been picked up overseas

He was very fortunate in inheriting a department in rude health thanks to the previous team of Laura Mackie (director) and Sally Haynes (controller), who were responsible for a slate of hits including Downton Abbey, Broadchurch, Whitechapel, Appropriate Adult, Mr Selfridge, Scott & Bailey and Vera – all contributing to ITV’s Channel of the Year win at the Edinburgh Television Festival in 2013.

The pair rescued ITV’s reputation for quality drama, which had taken a major hit under then ITV director of television Simon Shaps, when new series such as Rock Rivals, Harley Street, Demons, Brittania High, Moving Wallpaper, Echo Beach, The Royal Today and The Palace proved major disappointments for both viewers and critics.

At the same time, Shaps axed ratings bankers Foyle’s War and Rosemary & Thyme in an attempt to change perceptions of the then-beleaguered network.

Once Shaps left ITV in 2008, his successor Peter Fincham swiftly recommissioned Foyle’s War, which continued to enjoy healthy ratings until the series eventually ended last year.

November’s tenure hasn’t had the same level of critical or ratings success as the Mackie/Haynes era, but neither has it plumbed the depths of the Shaps years; so it’s more of a qualified success.

November (pictured top at last year’s C21 International Drama Summit) was dealt a good hand in inheriting shows that still had a lot of mileage left in them; the reception given to his commissions, however, was mixed.

November's tenure ended on a strong note with the launch of Marcella
November’s tenure ended on a strong note with the launch of Marcella

He enjoyed critical success with the likes of Peter Morgan’s The Lost Honour of Christopher Jeffries and Jeff Pope’s Lucan, while new commissions including the single film Cilla and the series Grantchester, Home Fires, Safe House, Prey, Unforgotten and Black Work all attracted strong ratings and broadly favourable notices.

All these achieved audiences high enough to warrant sophomore seasons.

The strong 6.4 million (29% share) debut enjoyed by The Durrells on Sunday, April 3 will give ITV hope for a long-running pre-watershed hit in the vein of the Darling Buds of May and Wild At Heart.

With a very healthy 6.1 million viewers (27.6% share) for it’s opening episode, Nordic Noir-style crime drama Marcella also gave November a high note on which to bid farewell to the network.

But balanced against these achievements were a run of high-profile misfires. The strategy of commissioning early-evening drama for a move into territory previously solely occupied by the BBC (Doctor Who, Atlantis, Merlin and Robin Hood) proved a costly misjudgement.

Both Jekyll & Hyde and Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands returned low ratings accompanied by poor reviews, with many feeling the dramas fell between the two stalls of early-evening and post-watershed drama; too adult in tone for younger viewers and too juvenile for more mature audiences.

One wonders if doubts were expressed during development over whether commissioning apparently family-friendly ‘light’ takes on Penny Dreadful (Jekyll & Hyde) and Game of Thrones (Beowulf) would work for the Sunday early-evening ITV audience, but other considerations no doubt came into play.

With US cable-style orders of 10 and 12 episodes respectively, the underperformance of Jekyll & Hyde and Beowulf left sizeable holes in ITV’s peaktime share.

Both shows found a home in North America, with Jekyll & Hyde on Canada’s CBC and Beowulf on The Esquire Network – both transmitted post-21.00.

Doctor Thorne was well received but struggled to compete against the BBC in the schedules
Doctor Thorne was well received but struggled to compete against the BBC in its slot

It appears unlikely that ITV will venture this far from its comfort zone in the near future, as the last attempt to crack the pre-watershed weekend drama market was also a bust – the aforementioned Britannia High (2008) and Demons (2009).

Some of November’s dramas also failed to connect with audiences over the most recent Christmas holidays, avalanched by the traditional dominance of BBC1 over the period, which appeared to be the case with both Harry Price: Ghost Hunter and Peter & Wendy, which were otherwise critically well received.

Period miniseries The Great Fire, which aired in 2014, was seen as an attempt by ITV to explore an area not usually associated with the channel, but unfortunately for the network, reviews and audiences were largely indifferent.

Scheduling has been a problem for ITV when launching new dramas, with BBC1 able to overwhelm the opposition with an unusually strong slate of shows. Midwinter of the Spirit was crushed by Doctor Foster, Jericho was taken out by established hit Death in Paradise and Doctor Thorne was similarly dealt with by the huge success of The Night Manager.

In some cases, such as Doctor Thorne, ITV introduced shows after BBC1 had already established its new dramas in the slot with a number of episodes, making the task of winning viewers more difficult than if they had simply clashed head-to-head on their debuts.

With pay channel ITV Encore, it’s difficult to quantify what counts as a success in the limited universe of Sky subscribers – 2015’s Sean Bean starrer The Frankenstein Chronicles returned respectable consolidated figures and was picked up by A+E in the US.

Reviews were generally favourable but there’s no word yet on season two.

In recent weeks, Encore’s Edwardian detective mash-up Houdini & Doyle’s opening episode was given a preview on ITV to kickstart the show. It’s probably too early to see if this has paid off in terms of the ratings for the series on Sky, but reviews have been fairly poor, although production values were praised.

The casting of comedian Stephen Mangan as Arthur Conan Doyle in particular came in for criticism; it was also noted that this was the second ITV drama in to feature Doyle as a character in a year (Arthur & George being the first).

Now with Hill in the top drama job at ITV, Lygo will be hoping she can continue her run of hits, which include The Night Manager, Poldark and Doctor Foster.

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

Everything old is new again

As UK networks continue to mine classic stories for new dramas, Stephen Arnell asks whether international coproductions are the key to unlocking creativity.

It’s fair to say last week’s announcement that BBC Studios is planning a six-part series based on John Buchan’s popular adventure The 39 Steps – just eight years after the corporation’s previous Bourne/Bond-style stab at the novel – hardly set industry pulses racing.

In fact, unless the approach to the source material is radically different from previous adaptations, one can’t imagine the atmosphere in the BBC production meeting to discuss the idea when it was broached was exactly electric.

With the recent transformation of BBC Production into BBC Studios, this was perversely exactly the kind of show calculated to reinforce prior negative expectations of what the new entity would be – safe, traditional and rather unimaginative.

The exit of Studios head Peter Salmon after six months to Endemol Shine may see BBC Studios leave its comfort zone – if a non-corporation insider is chosen to replace him.

Coupled with the plethora of Agatha Christie adaptations, younger takes on popular characters such as ITV’s Endeavour (Inspector Morse) and the upcoming Prime Suspect prequel Tennison (incidentally, there’s a Young Marple in development for CBS in the US), as well as reboots of Poldark (pictured top) and Maigret, new versions of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White and EM Forster’s Howards End, there is a feeling that mainstream drama in the UK is playing safe and becoming atrophied, although I’m sure production executives at the time felt that reviving a 1970s show such as Poldark was genuinely taking a risk.

The low figures attracted by recent series such as Jericho (ITV) and Dickensian (BBC1), which, despite familiar period drama elements and literary antecedents, at least attempted something a little different, may increase the caution displayed in TV drama commissioning in the UK for the big channels.

ITV's Jericho focused on 1870s Yorkshire
ITV’s Jericho focused on 1870s Yorkshire

If we are going to pillage the past for source material, maybe producers can consider some other authors than the usual roll call of Austen, Dickens, Trollope (ITV’s Julian Fellowes-penned Doctor Thorne) and the Brontes.

Will the upcoming BBC1 retread of Homer’s Troy stumble in the same way as ITV’s fantasy actioner Beowulf?

Both shows, and BBC2’s The Last Kingdom, smack of a desire to emulate Game of Thrones, as did the flop BBC1 War of the Roses epic The White Queen back in 2013.

To some critics, BBC1’s choice to adapt 20th century classics last autumn (Lady Chatterley’s Lover, An Inspector Calls, The Go Between and Cider with Rosie) resembled nothing so much as an English literature A-level syllabus circa 1973.

Despite the likelihood of negative comparisons to Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, the BBC’s upcoming series based on Len Deighton novel SS-GB promises something a little off the beaten track from recent network drama.

Julian Fellowes' new ITV series Doctor Thorne
Julian Fellowes’ new ITV series Doctor Thorne

With his works coming out of copyright, the oeuvre of HG Wells seems ripe for revival, judging by Sky Arts’ recent anthology series The Nightmare Worlds of HG Wells and the upcoming Mammoth Screen (Poldark) version of The War of the Worlds, which aims to hue closely to the novel. With Peter Harness (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell) adapting the story, we can be fairly certain that we’ll finally see something resembling Wells’ original vision.

There are, of course, some shining exceptions to the general air of caution, not least of which is The Night Manager (BBC1). Although never adapted for TV before, it does come from the pen of John le Carré, responsible for a string of successful movies, including The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The Constant Gardener, A Most Wanted Man, The Tailor of Panana, the 2011 film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and TV series/one-offs (Smiley’s People, A Perfect Spy, A Murder of Quality).

The Night Manager is truly something different for BBC1 – the sheer luxury on display in terms of locations and casting, the sumptuous photography and even the Maurice Binder-style title sequence lift the show into another sphere, almost one of decadence, especially considering the ongoing budget cuts at the BBC.

Now perhaps there’s a glimpse of where the money saved from BBC3’s linear demise is heading – and also of the advantages of coproductions.

Co-funded by AMC, which likewise coproduced Channel 4’s Humans, The Night Manager perhaps demonstrates that only international financing can release the creativity for UK drama productions of real scale and ambition.

Does The Night Manager prove that international coproductions are the way forward for UK drama?
Does The Night Manager prove that international coproductions are the way forward for UK drama?

Former C4 drama commissioning editor Peter Ansorge voiced his frustration last month, commenting on the difference in television drama between here and the US: “You can’t argue against HBO, AMC, Showtime and Scandinavia being the new gold standard in TV drama. Even Germany has got in on the act with Deutschland 83.

“I’d question whether this is the case in the UK. These international shows have one thing in common: they are all original and contemporary works, with challenging things to say about their recent history and their countries’ social and political realities. HBO and AMC dramas challenge US audiences to look at themselves in new, often breathtaking ways.

“In contrast, the UK typically looks back, or towards crime. Downton Abbey tops the ratings on Christmas Day, Agatha Christie is catapulted into the ranks of our greatest novelists, the writing team on EastEnders are suddenly on a par with Dickens, a Tolstoy period adaptation feels like an Austen, writ large.”

If this sounds like a blanket dismissal of UK drama, it’s not – but it’s beginning to look like only international coproduction money and ambition can lift the country’s homegrown drama into binge-worthy series that can play well in the US.

Peaky Blinders has, to an extent, proven that uniquely British subject matter can – given the budget, casting and swagger – translate to overseas markets (admittedly shielded from some of the heat of the ratings war by its presence on BBC2).

BBC1 must surely be hoping this is the case for the upcoming Tom Hardy eight-part miniseries Taboo (from Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight) and Steve McQueen’s as-yet untitled drama about the lives of a group of black Britons from 1968 to 2014.

The news that Julie Walters is to star in a TV series based on her role in the surprise BBC Films hit Brooklyn also raises hopes that there will be more ambition for the genre at the corporation than relying on rehashing popular classics.

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

Dramatic decisions

Former ITV executive Stephen Arnell shares 10 points drama commissioners should consider in the search for their next big hit.

If there were a sure-fire way of creating a drama hit, you can be sure I wouldn’t be writing this article – I’d be making the show. However, there are a few things gleaned from a fair few years in (or commenting on) the TV industry that may be helpful to executives, despite some admitted contradictions and statements of the obvious.

Admittedly, the following contains more don’ts than dos but that, of course, is unfortunately the nature of the beast.

So, in no particular order:

Game of Thrones has spawned inferior imitations
Game of Thrones has spawned inferior imitations

1. Fight the temptation to ride the coattails of others’ hits. More often than not, by the time your version is aired, the market will have moved on. In the UK we have Game of Thrones (Sky Atlantic) wannabes such as The Last Kingdom (BBC2) and its junior cousin Beowulf (ITV), while Penny Dreadful (Sky Atlantic/Showtime) has led to The Frankenstein Chronicles (ITV Encore) and another ‘junior’ version, Jekyll & Hyde (ITV). AMC’s Mad Men resulted in short-lived series such as Pan-Am (ABC), Breathless (ITV) and The Hour (BBC2). Downton Abbey (ITV) spawned BBC1’s lacklustre reboot of Upstairs Downstairs. With the exception of The Hour, which some felt was prematurely cancelled after two short seasons, many of these imitations were seen for what they were and have been largely ignored.

Tuppence Middleton is appearing in two BBC dramas simultaneously
Tuppence Middleton is appearing in two BBC1 dramas simultaneously

2. Try to cast according to the role and not what talent is currently hot. Back in the late 1990s/early 2000s, ITV drama boss Nick Elliott attempted to create a stable of then-popular stars such as Ross Kemp, Robson Greene, Martin Kemp, John Thaw and Sarah Lancashire and divide most of the drama schedule among them. The result, as Elliott admitted, was a slate of mediocre projects and public boredom with the limited repertory company of highly paid in-house stars. More recently, the seeming ubiquity of certain actors over the Christmas/New Year period has been noted, with two current BBC1 shows (Dickensian and War & Peace) sharing cast members in Stephen Rea and Tuppence Middleton. A lack of joined-up thinking at the corporation, or simple indifference? Sometimes one must realise that great talent has to find the right vehicle.

3. Make sure you have sufficiently knowledgeable script readers – or, in the case of some UK broadcasters pumping money into original drama, any script readers at all. Rumours abound of budget-busting commissions going ahead on the say-so of one or two senior executives who may lack the experience to really understand the mechanics of plotting and characterisation. Time permitting, try to read as widely as you can. Not too long ago, one senior TV commissioning executive had to confess to me that they didn’t know what the word ‘steampunk’ meant – which, in a way, says a lot about a supposedly creative industry.

4. If you’re a channel controller, make sure your drama commissioners/executives have a real breadth of experience – preferably some international chops that would help when producing shows with the intention of selling them outside the British Isles. Too often in the UK, drama executives tend to come from a background mainly in precinct series and soaps, which may limit their perspective, especially in terms of the high-concept shows that are now in vogue.

5. While understanding that it’s wise to keep established writing talent, try not to over-indulge them, as both broadcaster and writer may both rue the day when a long-cherished passion project, rejected by other networks, finally sees the light of day – to popular indifference. There should be no blank cheques, but you must also avoid the pitfalls of micro-management and too many notes. Don’t be risk-averse, but understand what you’re getting into. As the saying goes, ‘success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.’

Stanley Tucci in Fortitude
Stanley Tucci in Fortitude. Was its marketing strategy wide of the mark?

6. Too much, or inappropriate, marketing can have a negative effect on the intended audience. Some felt that the push behind Sky Atlantic/Pivot’s show Fortitude was Brobdingnagian in scale – animatronic polar bears and mass poster, cinema and TV advertising was fundamentally unsuited for a niche, leftfield, almost Lynchian thriller.

7. Bigger isn’t always better. The emphasis internationally tends to be on splashy, high-concept shows and some commissioners have even claimed that a high-profile failure is preferable to a modest success. Go figure – but there will always be a place for under-the-radar hits and comfortable, smaller shows. The Mysteries of Laura (NBC) is one that has worked well both in the US and the UK, proving a surprise hit for 5USA. Not every drama has to be game-changing. Witness the success of Sky1’s gentle detective pilot Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death, which led to a full series commission, compared with mediocre figures for some of the network’s more ambitious shows such as You, Me & The Apocalypse and Critical.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, based on Susanna Clarke's book
Would Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell have fared better on BBC2 instead of BBC1?

8. In the linear world, make sure you’re playing your show on the right channel. Recently in the UK, we saw a quintessentially BBC2 show, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, struggle on mass-appeal sibling BBC1. Similarly, back in 2009, ITV came a cropper with an ill-advised remake of the decidedly esoteric 1960s show The Prisoner, which was fundamentally unsuited to the UK’s biggest commercial network. The show had been passed on by Sky1, but perhaps the lure of star names (such as Ian McKellen) and the perceived glamour of a coproduction hook-up with the then Mad Men-boosted AMC tempted ITV drama executives to take the plunge.

9. Scheduling is crucial. Yes, an obvious point, but recent weeks have seen some interesting decisions from programmers in the UK, with the aforementioned 20-part Dickensian (BBC1) doing an erratic tour of the timeslots and consequently halving its audience. ITV’s Jekyll & Hyde was moved away from pre-watershed to escape the ire of parents upset by apparent violence and scariness, while ‘Wild West in Yorkshire’ period drama Jericho (ITV) debuted (and was pummelled) against an established BBC1 hit, Caribbean-set comedy-sleuther Death in Paradise (pictured top). To some, in dreary post-Christmas January, the choice between Paradise’s balmy Guadeloupe (the fictional island of Saint Marie in the series) and Jericho’s freezing Victorian Yorkshire Dales was a no-brainer. In fairness, however, there’s a reason why scheduling is likened to ‘3D chess’ by some of its practitioners.

10. Consume more TV. Another statement of the obvious, but you’d be surprised how little some senior executives actually watch the tube, relying on precise notes and reviews for their knowledge and opinions of many of the most important shows of recent years.

What the Dickens? The art of the shared universe

As BBC1 prepares to air Dickensian, which brings together multiple characters from across Charles Dickens’ works, DQ highlights some of the other shows to have taken the shared-universe approach.

At first glance, Tony Jordan’s mash-up of some of Charles Dickens’ most memorable characters in BBC1’s upcoming Dickensian (pictured above) appears particularly novel. However, the idea of multiple characters from writers’ various works appearing in a wholly original script is, in fact, not especially new.

Red Planet Pictures' Tony Jordan
Red Planet Pictures’ Tony Jordan

And the idea of spinning-off or reimagining Dickens’ characters has actually been undertaken before – witness the late John Sullivan’s four-part series Micawber (ITV, Christmas 2001), which starred David Jason, and the previous year’s modern-day take on A Christmas Carol (also ITV), with the network’s then ‘actor de jour’ Ross Kemp.

Back in 1998, Gravity director Alfonso Cuaron helmed a contemporary version of Great Expectations, boasting a cast including Robert De Niro, Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke.

But with 20 30-minute episodes over the Christmas period (echoing Jordan’s EastEnders origins), there is certainly a risk for the BBC in commissioning Dickensian. The corporation must be hoping that viewers will make the commitment to watch at such a competitive time of the year.

Furthermore, there’s always the risk that the series will merely be a clever pastiche, when compared with viewers’ recollections of the novels or previous TV versions and films.

Dickens’ work has long provided a steady stream of adaptations for TV, the episodic nature his novels ideally suited to the medium. Most recently there has been the BBC’s Mystery of Edwin Drood (2012) and 2011’s three-part Great Expectations, which starred Gillian Anderson and Ray Winstone.

Gillian Anderson in Great Expectations
Gillian Anderson in Great Expectations

John le Carre’s Circus spy novels provide an example of an author’s shared universe of characters appearing in multiple stories – sometimes in leading roles, sometimes as support. For example, George Smiley’s relatively small amount of page time in The Honourable Schoolboy and The Looking Glass War contrasts with his dominance in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People.

Returning to the subject of mash-ups, these shows have become increasingly popular recently, no doubt aided by the fact that many of the characters featured now reside in the public domain, meaning no fees are due to the estate of the authors.

Both Penny Dreadful (Sky Atlantic/Showtime) and Jekyll & Hyde (ITV) feature or will feature a number of the characters from the novels of Oscar Wilde (Dorian Gray), Mary Shelley (Dr Frankenstein), Bram Stoker (Dracula) and generic figures or urban myths such as werewolves, witches, Spring Heeled Jack and other supernatural beings.

Season three of Penny Dreadful will apparently see the debut of HG Wells’s warped geneticist Dr Moreau.

Penny Dreadful features an array of classic characters
Penny Dreadful features several classic characters

The progenitor of these shows was, of course, Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novels, which were unfortunately marred by a weak movie version back in 2001 (incidentally providing a rather sad finale to Sean Connery’s on-screen career).

Recent rumours over the summer were that the books were going to be re-booted as a TV series by The Blacklist producer John Davis – this time with a brief to stay faithful to the source material. Fans are waiting with bated breath, but don’t expect Alan Moore to be involved in the production process – numerous bad experiences on previous movie adaptations of his work having soured him on the idea.

The world of the police procedural has always been fecund in terms of shared universes, with the CSI/Law & Order franchises, Hawaii Five-O and others featuring crossovers; the character of Detective John Munch (Richard Belzer) has incredibly managed to appear in Homicide: Life on the Street, The X-Files, The Wire and Law & Order: SVU.

Similarly, Dick Van Dyke’s Dr Mark Sloan has featured in both Diagnosis: Murder and Jake & The Fat Man.

Diagnosis: Murder also showcased a bewildering array of characters from other shows, including Ben Matlock (Matlock), Cinnamon Carter (Mission: Impossible) and Joe Mannix (Mannix).

The X-Files is on its way back to TV
The X-Files is on its way back to TV

The Simpsons have met Family Guy and Futurama, while Aliens have battled Predators on the big screen. Fox’s The X-Files, meanwhile, had a phenomenal tour of duty in its first nine seasons, sharing an on-screen universe with Millennium, The Lone Gunman, Picket Fences, Homicide: Life on the Streets and, of course, the aforementioned Simpsons.

But the real market leader in terms of cinematic/TV shared universes is Marvel, with company president Kevin Fiege’s long-term strategy paying off in spades, judging by the stellar box-office returns achieved by Marvel-produced movies since 2008’s ground-breaking Iron Man.

When Marvel made a serious move into TV with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC) in 2013, it was generally felt to be a rare misstep, as although the show has made it to a third season, it has never really set pulses racing.

Rushed writing schedules to capitalise on the success of the movies may have had something to do with season one’s perceived problems.

Generic storylines and a rather dated approach (reminiscent of Marvel’s Mutant X in the early 2000s) have hampered what on paper looked like a sure-fire hit.

As ever, Marvel learned from its mistakes, and when Netflix ponied up for a number of series, the company rose to the challenge, with the first Daredevil hitting a home run in terms of critical and fan reaction, which has since been overtaken by the recent release of Jessica Jones, which has prompted talk of Emmy nominations.

The Flash
DC Comics’ The Flash

The two series, together with upcoming shows Luke Cage and Iron Fist, will culminate in the team-up miniseries The Defenders, which will apparently have a wider role in the Marvel Universe than the environs of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen district.

And, of course, an honourable mention should be made of ABC’s Agent Carter, a series filler that is felt to have surpassed its bigger-budget sibling, boasting some critically praised performances and a strong sense of place in its late-1940s US setting.

Never one to miss an opportunity, DC Comics has recently enjoyed great success in TV, with Arrow, The Flash and Supergirl all performing well internationally. Interestingly, unlike Marvel, the DC cinematic universe will be standalone, so there’ll be no Arrow, Flash or Supergirl appearances in the current movie production slate – or at least not in their TV incarnations.

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

Out with the new, in with the old

As more original dramas are produced than ever before, DQ finds there’s still a place for classic series to find new audiences.

In the ever-changing world of TV, there are few things that can be termed a constant – but one enduring trend is the appeal of ‘classic’ drama, especially the detective genre.

Back in 2004, the executives of ITV’s digital channels were charged with creating a new channel to help stem the network’s ratings decline, particularly among upmarket ABC1 viewers.

Looking at the wealth of ITV-owned library drama available, the answer came quickly enough, although there were some doubts over the appeal of repeating hits from the network’s past.

Confounding these qualms, ITV3 launched to instant success – and 11 years later regularly ranks as the sixth most watched channel in the UK, behind only the five former terrestrial channels. That’s all with a schedule that differs very little from its opening year and, one suspects, a similarly meagre budget. So why does it work?

ITV3 succeeded through the choice of quality detective shows such as Inspector Morse, Foyle’s War, Agatha Christie’s Poirot (pictured top) and Midsomer Murders that benefited from self-contained storylines within each episode and a certain timeless aspect. The series were also aided by being shot on film, avoiding the tired look of many re-runs.

Despite viewers knowing the denouement of most episodes, they stayed for repeat viewings because of the characters, scenery and the programmes’ ability to function as ‘comfort TV’ – easy for viewers to unwind in front of at the end of a long day’s work.

Nordic noir drama Jordskott
Jordskott has performed well on ITV Encore

From the beginning, these series and others of their ilk have dominated the ITV3 top 10, often scoring audiences of more than one million. In terms of its on-screen look, ITV3 went for a cleaner, more contemporary style, which helped differentiate it from other repeats channels in the UK such as Gold, Granada Plus and UKTV’s Drama. ITV3 also tried to provide bonus material with behind-the-scenes documentaries and special seasons.

Last year, ITV attempted to build on the success of ITV3 with the Sky pay TV channel ITV Encore. But even accounting for the smaller available pay audience, ITV Encore has proved a severe disappointment to the network – “a learning curve,” in the words of CEO Adam Crozier. Audience levels have rarely surpassed the 100,000 mark. But why?

At its launch, those behind ITV Encore believed there was an appetite for recent ITV drama in peak – often short-run events and miniseries. Unfortunately for the channel, series such as Broadchurch are not particularly well suited to repeat viewing – and, being episodic, demand the commitment of viewing over a number of evenings and weeks.

Unlike the relatively gentle sleuthing of Morse, Broadchurch was an emotional experience for viewers and lost impact on repetition. Gracepoint (Fox), the lacklustre US remake of Broadchurch, sunk without trace on Encore, furthering the belief that these kinds of event dramas can’t command the same kind of viewership as the more self-contained series.

One bright spot for the channel has been the relative success of the Nordic Noir series Jordskott, which confirms the popularity of the genre in the UK – and a possible way for the ailing Encore to successfully evolve. Jordskott has headed the ITV Encore weekly top 10 since its launch on June 10, with consolidated audiences tracking an average of approximately 145,000.

It can’t be too long before the ITV acquisitions team scouts similar Nordic Noir titles for the Encore schedule as the channel gradually morphs into a very different animal. Further evidence of this is that Encore has acquired Twentieth Century Fox’s The Americans seasons one to four (flagship channel ITV canned the show due to low ratings after season two).

And belying the channel’s name, Encore is also moving into original commissions, the foremost being Sean Bean-starring The Frankenstein Chronicles, which launched this month. The supernatural element of this series is continued with another original drama announced, Houdini & Doyle.

Both in the UK and internationally, the relatively low audiences commanded by repeats of event/high-concept dramas such as Lost, Rome (playing on TCM in the UK to audiences of less than 15,000), The Pacific, Battlestar Galactica, Life on Mars and Band of Brothers reflect the problems faced by Encore, where viewers appear to be tempted more by the umpteenth showings of self-contained episodes of Columbo, House, Law & Order, Magnum PI and Marple, which power channels such as Top Crime in Italy and Universal’s 13th Street in various territories.

Law & Order
Law & Order is a popular re-run choice among viewers

With procedural investigation series NCIS being the most watched drama in the world, the genre continues to play extremely well internationally and is a staple of many broadcasters’ schedules. Channel-surfing around the globe, it’s extremely rare not to find a US or UK detective series playing at any time of the day.

But with UK drama spend dropping by 44% since 2008, distributors are now having to sweat their drama back catalogues more than ever, demonstrated by the widely predicted push from FremantleMedia International, ITV Studios Global Entertainment, BBC Worldwide, Endemol Shine International and others.

As evidenced by Cozi TV and TV Land in the US, there is a nostalgic appeal to older titles such as Fremantle’s Baywatch (which launched on Cozi TV in August). But this can sometimes wear thin after initial viewings and broadcasters then become stuck with dozens of episodes of series that are eventually shuffled off into late-night slots. However, the news that Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Zac Efron are planning a 21 Jump Street-style comedy take on Baywatch should help revive interest in the original show.

FremantleMedia International launched its Classic Catalogue at Mipcom this year, highlighting a vast library of comedy and drama and for the first time curating in one place the output of its constituent companies (including Euston Films, Grundy and Alomo). The firm is focusing on spotlighting key titles over the coming months, including both reversioned classics and formats/remake opportunities for shows such as Love Hurts, Pie in the Sky and Rumple of the Bailey.

Fremantle’s ambitious Kate Harwood-led revival of Euston Films will see not only original productions but also the possibility of new versions of such hits as The Sweeney and Widows, as well as lesser-known titles including family drama Fox (1980, starring Peter Vaughan and Ray Winstone) and intense thriller Out (1978, Tom Bell and Brian Cox).

Love Hurts
Could classics like Love Hurts be remade, or sold as formats?

After the success of Channel 4’s Indian Summers and the general appeal of period drama, there may be interest in another take on the 1910s Kenyan coffee plantation saga The Flame Trees of Thika (1981).

The success of ITV’s resurrection of comedy Birds of a Feather has seen a higher profile for the writing team of Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, who are now heading the Fremantle-backed LocomoTV and, like Euston, are looking at producing both new shows and possible re-boots of golden oldies such as Goodnight Sweetheart, this time for the US market.

Fremantle’s Sarah Doole, director of global drama, says: “We’re extremely excited about our heritage catalogue of classic comedy and drama. Having looked at the titles from our back catalogue, we realised we have some real crown jewels in there.

“It’s a distinguished collection bursting with iconic hits penned by legendary writers, not to mention the raft of classic characters who have gone on to become household names. We can’t wait to showcase the titles to buyers from across the globe.”

Returning to the appeal of older drama, the audience for repeated soaps tends to be very niche, as they tend to travel badly from the originating countries with production values that can vary from mediocre to poor.

US soaps have never really worked in the UK (and vice versa) – the most recent attempt being ITV2’s transmission of the campy Sunset Beach in the early 2000s.

The Sweeney
We could see a remake of the hit series The Sweeney

UK state broadcaster BBC2 has used long-running US series such as Cagney & Lacey and The Rockford Files to plug the gaps left by budget cuts in the daytime schedule. Murder, She Wrote and Columbo perform much the same function for ITV at the weekend.

Distributors such as Stephanie Hartog (formerly of Fremantle and All3Media) agree that “the success of Downton Abbey has opened the doors to some who previously might have doubted the appeal of classic drama in their markets.”

Hartog also notes that “the growth of specific genres from areas such as the Nordics, Turkey, Israel and France have contributed to a growing trade in drama and has prompted a look at older fare.”

As Hartog says, Downton’s massive worldwide success has created an appetite for similar shows and boosted the sales of lesser-known titles, such as BBC1’s Upstairs Downstairs reboot, Downton scribe Julian Fellowes’ Titanic miniseries and Spanish drama Grand Hotel. Similarly, upcoming French English-language period romp Versailles may promote interest in older series set in roughly the same era, including Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003), City of Vice (2008), Clarissa (1991) and The Scarlet Pimpernel (1999-2000).

In the UK, as per the rest of the world, older cult series tend to be the preserve of smaller channels; currently, 1960s series The Avengers (on Cozi in the US) and The Wild, Wild West reside on True Entertainment and The Horror Channel respectively.

Sony’s True Entertainment channel in the UK is the home for many middle-of-the-road series of the past, including Little House on the Prairie, The Waltons, The Practice, Touched by an Angel, Due South and Providence.

And, of course, the Star Trek and Stargate franchises continue to form part of many channels’ daytime schedules in territories across the world. Star Trek will also get a fresh outing in the form of a new series to launch in 2017 on US network CBS’s All Access on-demand platform.

Antenna Spain's Grand Hotel
Antenna Spain’s Grand Hotel

Keshet International sales director Cynthia Kennedy says: “The launch of new services (both linear and OTT) across the globe means old shows can find a new lease of life, with both fans of nostalgia and new audiences. BBC dramas tend to have a long shelf-life, while older titles can usually find a home on new VoD platforms in places like Central and Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America, not to mention the majors being able to bundle their new shows with back catalogue content that gets airtime on smaller channels.”

Online, RLJ’s Acorn TV has carved out a niche for itself with a variety of past and present UK titles, ranging from such classics as I Claudius and Brideshead Revisited to contemporary fare including New Worlds and Secret State. Karin Marelle, a former acquisitions and commercial director at Acorn, says: “The increasing presence and popularity of British acting talent in the US has led to interest in checking out their shows before they crossed the pond.”

Netflix and Amazon, of course, are a destination point for distributors, although older drama titles are among their less promoted shows, with many already available through YouTube.

One genre that consistently delivers viewers – in an older male demographic – is Westerns. Despite the introduction of new titles and series, TCM Europe’s highest numbers tend to be attracted by Westerns – including vintage series such as Gunsmoke as well as current or recent series like Longmire and Hell on Wheels.

AMC in the US has also enjoyed strong ratings with Westerns, with ‘Cowboy Saturday’ schedules boasting a line-up of classic movies and golden oldies such as Rawhide and The Rifleman.

The success of Marvel and DC superhero movies and series has prompted some online free-to-air VoD platforms to investigate the availability of older series and one-offs to tie in with future cinema releases such as Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (DC) and Dr Strange (Marvel).

This August’s release of Guy Ritchie’s movie version of 1960s spy caper series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. may also see interest in the show renew across various international territories. Edited TV movie versions of the series recently aired on TCM in the run-up to the film opening in the UK.

Mission Impossible V: Rogue Nation could also prompt re-running of the classic 1960s television series in countries where it has been off air over recent years.

These and other developments should help distributors with older drama libraries get a foot in the door with broadcasters.

With new channels regularly launching across the globe (sych as AMC in European territories including the UK, Serbia and Hungary), the demand for quality library series to populate the schedules will be as strong, if not stronger, than ever.

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

AMC UK: BT taking on Sky with new channel

As AMC launches in the UK with big hitters including Fear the Walking Dead and Into the Badlands, Stephen Arnell assesses the channel’s opening line-up and its potential threat to Sky Atlantic.

Not content with vying with Sky for football rights in the UK, BT is set to challenge Sky Atlantic in the field of upscale drama with the launch today of AMC UK as part of AMC’s strategy of rolling out across the world.

Although limited in terms of audience by initial exclusivity to the BT platform (and as part of the BT Sport package on Sky), AMC is a clear statement of intent that the platform is set to up its game across all genres. BT MD Delia Bushell calls drama a “key motivator” for driving customer growth in what she describes as a “golden age” for TV series.

Fear the Walking Dead will air on AMC UK
Fear the Walking Dead will air on AMC UK

Irrespective of its actual audiences, Sky Atlantic has dominated the high-end imported drama market in the UK, with the likes of Fox and Universal generally perceived (with a few exceptions) as providing little in the way of real competition.

Details of the actual schedule are relatively sketchy at the moment, but the channel has secured some heavy hitters in the shape of The Walking Dead ‘companion piece’ Fear the Walking Dead (FTWD) and the martial arts mash-up Into the Badlands.

Set in LA and starring the familiar faces of industry veterans Cliff Curtis (Once were Warriors, Live Free or Die Hard), Kim Dickens (Gone Girl, Deadwood) and actor/musician/politician and all-round renaissance man Reuben Blades (The Milagro Beanfield War, The Counselor), FTWD looks set to capitalise on the worldwide success of its parent show and help kickstart the fledgling channel.

Advance reviews have been fairly positive – with the usual caveats about pilot episodes, which tend to be chiefly involved in scene-setting.

According to Bruce Tuchman, president of AMC Global and SundanceTV Global, social media reaction to the first transmission of FTWD on August 23 has been “phenomenal in its scale.”

This was backed up when overnight figures for the show were released – 10.1 million Live+SD viewers, the highest audience for a cable launch ever in terms of individuals and all key demos.

FTWD will debut three days after AMC UK’s launch, on Monday, August 31 at 21.00 – where Sky Atlantic traditionally airs its heaviest hitters (Game of Thrones, True Detective), but in this case the opposition will be David Simon’s Yonkers public-housing drama Show Me a Hero, justifiably hugely praised but of strictly niche appeal in the UK.

The six-part Into the Badlands, vaguely reminiscent of the 1970s David Carradine-starrer Kung Fu, follows the quest for enlightenment of Daniel Wu (The Man with the Iron Fists) and his young companion in a dystopian-future US ruled by warring feudal barons.

Eminently promotable, Into the Badlands is pencilled in for a 2016 run on AMC UK after its November 2015 transmission in the US and a first window on Amazon Prime.

Rectify follows the story of a man released from Death Row
Rectify follows the story of a man released from death row

Meanwhile, now in its third season (and already commissioned for a fourth run) on AMC’s SundanceTV, the critically acclaimed Rectify – created by Ray McKinnon (probably most familiar to audiences here as the tragic Reverend Smith in Deadwood) – is a slow-burning drama concerning the events surrounding the release of a death-row inmate after 19 years in prison when conflicting DNA evidence is discovered.

Rectify’s challenging script and occasional longueurs probably mean it’s unfortunately unlikely to be more than an acquired taste in the UK, but it is well worth checking out.

AM UK will also be premiering Sony’s Cleaners (previously shown on VoD platform Crackle in the US), a two-season actioner starring Emmanuelle Chriqui (Entourage, The Mentalist), Gina Gershon (Bound, Face/Off) and David Arquette (Scream).

Another title new to the UK via AMC will be Manhattan (Lionsgate, pictured top), a critically well-regarded drama shown on WGN America in the US. Centred around the development of the atom bomb in Los Alamos in 1943, the show features some well-known faces including William Petersen (CSI) and Olivia Williams (Dollhouse, The Ghost Writer).

Some of AMC’s most popular series are already tied up with other UK broadcasters (Humans on Channel 4, The Walking Dead on Fox and Hell on Wheels on TCM), which means the channel will rely on movies, Mad Men (also on Sky Atlantic in the UK), Breaking Bad (Spike), FX’s rogue-cop series The Shield and the cult hit Weeds to bulk out the schedule.

Older AMC series such as the short-lived conspiracy thriller Rubicon (2010) could also get some airtime.

Humans already airs on Channel 4 in the UK and so won't appear on the new AMC channel
Humans already airs on Channel 4 in the UK and so won’t appear on the new AMC channel

The US network also has a couple of hybrid docudramas – this year’s eight-part miniseries The Making of the Mob: New York and the forthcoming The West, a Sundance production that profiles the likes of Jesse James, Billy the Kid and Crazy Horse.

From details released so far, post-watershed movies playing on the UK channel will not at first include blockbuster hits, with a relatively low-key opening night line-up that includes George Clooney’s debut directorial effort Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) and the Jim Thompson Noir thriller The Killer Inside Me (2010).

AMC US also plays host to retro-appeal series such as The Rifleman and The Three Stooges, which unsurprisingly will not cross the pond.

Upcoming John Le Carre adaptation The Night Manager (starring Hugh Laurie) as a coproduction with BBC (as Humans was with Channel 4) will also not be aired on AMC UK. AMC Global plans to continue these coproductions.

There exists the possibility of raiding the SundanceTV larder for shows such as The Red Road, a Banshee-style drama starring Jason Momoa (Game of Thrones, Conan the Barbarian), which ran to two six-part seasons, and the Cold War spy thriller Deutschland 83.

The Red Road, starring Game of Thrones' Jason Momoa
The Red Road, starring Game of Thrones’ Jason Momoa (pictured)

2016 will see Sundance transmit the eagerly awaited adaptation of Joe R Lansdale’s popular Hap & Leonard crime novels, with cast that includes the UK’s own James Purefoy (The Following, Rome), Michael K Williams (The Wire, Broadwalk Empire) and Christina Hendricks (Mad Men).

Also in development is Seth Rogen’s long-gestating comic book adaptation Preacher, set to air in the US next year.

Eager to use its existing libraries and distributor partnerships, AMC is unlikely to consider the Sky Atlantic route of international coproduced commissions in local territories, at least for the foreseeable future.

And, of course, the channel could always bolster its schedule with Nordic noir, which is pretty much a sure-fire way of attracting viewers. Scandi detective period series AD 1790 has yet to find a home – perhaps it will at last get an airing in the UK?

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

Channel 4 looks to set subs standard with 4 World Drama

One of the team behind Channel 4 and Global Series Network’s forthcoming subtitled series service 4 World Drama tells DQ why viewers can get excited about foreign-language drama.

This autumn will see a first in the UK as the collaboration of public service broadcaster Channel 4 and a collection of industry veterans known as Global Series Network (GSN) launch the subtitled series destination 4 World Drama.

Available free to viewers through digital hub All 4 via funding from advertising and sponsorship, 4 World Drama (working title) is a testament to the surge in popularity of subtitled drama in the UK – heralded in 2006 with the unexpected success of French crime drama Spiral on BBC4, and driven three years later with the channel’s first transmission of the original Swedish version of Nordic Noir drama Wallander.

Channel 4 will also offer an opportunity for selected titles to gain greater exposure by appearing on digital channel More4, which currently hosts foreign-language dramas such as political thriller Mammon and multi-lingual Second World War miniseries The Saboteurs.

Previously the niche preserve of late-night movies, or very occasional series on BBC2 and C4, subtitled drama is now an established (and growing) part of the UK’s TV landscape.

Clemence Poesy and Stephen Dillane in The Tunnel
Clemence Poesy and Stephen Dillane in The Tunnel

The Killing, The Bridge (as The Tunnel) and the aforementioned Wallander have all – with varying degrees of success – been remade into thoughtfully adapted English-language versions, as has movie The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but the originals are still commonly held to be superior.

Not only has the Nordic Noir genre blossomed in the UK, its international cousins (Italy’s Inspector Montalbano and Belgium’s Cordon) and various European political (Borgen, pictured top), historical (1864) and supernatural (The Returned) dramas have also attracted appreciative audiences.

The success of subtitled drama has been attributed to a number of factors. Back in 2012, then-BBC4 controller Richard Klein said: “Most of this drama has got pretty mainstream appeal, it just happens to be in Swedish or Danish. One of the reasons they work is because they’re quite soapy – there’s a lot of domestic goings-on, as well as the police and procedural stuff. You’re drawn into the domestic lives of the people and see the long-term consequences of events.”

Aided by the success of the series and movies such as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Headhunters, Wallander and The Killing, onscreen talent has crossed borders, with the likes of Michael Nyqvist (Mission Impossible 4), Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Game of Thrones), Rebecca Ferguson (The White Queen, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation) and Sofie Grabol (Fortitude) all gaining international recognition.

So this is the fertile territory that 4 World Drama is hoping to capitalise upon, and indeed expand, as the GSN team – Jason Thorp (previously Fox UK), Walter Iuzzolino (Betty) and Jo McGrath (Tiger Aspect/Channel 4) – have sourced series from the ‘traditional’ suppliers of Western Europe but are also ranging much further afield to include Latin America, Eastern Europe, Russia and South Korea.

Thorp says: “The concept is to broaden the already sizeable audience for non-US and UK fare by showcasing the best drama from all over the world. This isn’t just about Nordic crime drama; there are a plethora of world-class shows already out there that simply would not see the light of day in the UK.”

Italy's Inspector Montalbano
Italy’s Inspector Montalbano

At this stage, the closest comparator is the US SVoD service MHz Choice, which relaunches this fall. It will boast a line-up of titles familiar to UK viewers but also many less well-known series from the past 30 years, including crime thrillers Ornen – The Eagle (Denmark 2004-2006), Johan Falk (Sweden, 1999-present) and La Piviora – Octopus (Italy, 1984).

Other genres in the MHz offering include classic drama such as the Italian adaptation of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma, the German comedy Turkish for Beginners and the Altamanesque French series Paris.

Channel 4 is naturally keeping 4 World’s programme offering under wraps pre-launch, but we may speculate that content, at least initially, will bear some resemblance to that of MHz Choice, led by the detective genre.

At this stage it’s unclear how far back 4 World intends to go in its line-up, or whether it will hew to contemporary titles from the nineties onwards.

If successful, the eventual aim is for GSN is to try to replicate the model of its Channel 4 partnership and launch in territories across the globe – either as subscription VoD or free VoD.

Thorp comments: “Although all eyes are currently on the UK, there are plans afoot to launch in a number of other territories very quickly. The idea behind World Drama is certainly one that can travel. Almost every territory in the world airs US and UK drama but, with a few exceptions, there tends to be a somewhat blinkered view when it comes to drama from other parts of the globe.

“I think there is a lack of awareness about the quality of content available. The writing talent is there and, with the planet getting a whole lot smaller, the learning curves across other parts of the production process are much steeper than they used to be. The quality of the finished product we are seeing from many territories is excellent.”

Expectations for 4 World Drama will be high, as (with the odd exception) subtitled drama shown in the UK has raised the bar in terms of quality and audience appreciation and loyalty.

Thorp says: “We’re delighted to be in partnership with Channel 4. It’s key that we have the widest audience exposure possible, as we are not aiming to deliver a niche, art-house service.”

He adds: “We’re not kidding ourselves. It will be tough to effectively break new genres but we believe the sheer quality of the material will garner significant press support and the brand and promotional power of Channel 4 gives us a great head start.

“Being a VoD box-set service is also key. The serialised nature of many of the shows mean binge-viewing will deliver the majority of our eyeballs and we are afforded the flexibility to deliver various types of formats, from a 2×90′ miniseries to a 20×30′ comedy drama. It’s very liberating.”

As for the future? “In the long term, subject to success, we hope to be stepping into the coproduction and deficit-financing space once we have enough scale. First, though, we need to turn a few heads in the UK.”

tagged in: , , , , ,