Smooth sailing

Smooth sailing

Michael Pickard
By Michael Pickard
November 30, 2020

In production

Buccaneer Media joint CEOs Tony Wood and Richard Tulk-Hart tell DQ about the creative ethos behind the Marcella producer, with contributions from writers Irvine Welsh, Julie Wassmer and Hans Rosenfeldt.

With a background in UK soaps such as Coronation Street and Brookside, Tony Wood established his production company, Buccaneer Media, with a view to giving writers a voice through their television work and bringing the best European talents to the UK.

Seven years on, the company is responsible for global hit drama Marcella (pictured above), the ITV and Netflix series co-created by Danish writer Hans Rosenfeldt (The Bridge), in which International Emmy winner Anna Friel plays a tortured cop trying to track down a serial killer.

Buccaneer is now also in business with Irvine Welsh, the author of Trainspotting, and is adapting Julie Wassmer’s Whitstable Pearl novels for television, with a six-part series currently in production for US streamer Acorn TV.

Buccaneer Media’s Tony Wood and Richard Tulk-Hart

“Having been at ITV and run Coronation Street, I believed I was in the position to be able to run my own business and it was something I hadn’t done, so it felt like a challenge,” Wood tells DQ about starting the company, which is backed by Canada’s Cineflix Media. “The other challenge at the forefront of my mind was I wanted to work with different types of talent. I found myself down the soap end of the market and I wanted to do more than that. I’ve always loved working with writers and I started to look around and realised that all of those kinds of great beasts of European television, which at that point were principally Scandinavian, were largely being ignored by the English-speaking market.

“Yet I was fascinated by the quality of what they made, and also in France with Engrenages [Spiral] and Les Revenants [The Returned]. All of these things were just spectacular and yet nobody was really engaging with these talents. I thought I could set up a company to speak to people who are not really populating English-speaking markets, and also set up a slate that was really built on very young emerging talents. People in their 20s were considering story in ways that were alien to me, and that was exciting.”

Woods notes the biggest lesson he learned from working on soaps, one that has marked his approach to television drama, is how audiences recognise themselves in series if the consequences of an event are played out through character. “Reaction sticks with them more than action. You care about what someone is going to think about something, as opposed to just revealing the event in its own right. That I’ve carried with me into absolutely everything I do.”

Now, as well as partnering with Rosenfeldt and Irvine, the latter adapting his own novel Crime for streamer Britbox UK, Buccaneer is working with talents such as playwright Charley Miles on HBO Max’s dystopian thriller In Memoriam and Norway’s Øystein Karlsen, the head writer on Whitstable Pearl.

“Hans has written two massive global series and my job is to support and question the vision,” Woods says. “The same is true with Irvine, one of the great British writers of the second half of the 20th century. To have managed to get Irvine to write an entire television series for the first time is just magnificent. The quality of those scripts is amazing.”

Wood split his role at the end of last year when former A+E Networks exec Richard Tulk-Hart became joint CEO of Buccaneer, bringing his experience in international distribution, formats and coproductions to drive the business forward.

“The divide that is often put between the creative and the business side [of a production company] is probably where I see Buccaneer as being a bit different,” Tulk-Hart explains. “Tony has a strong understanding of the business side and a huge reputation on the creative side. I have an understanding of the creative side and years working in the business side. That combination seems to be working and we’ve had a number of successes through green lights and shows that are being picked up in a short period of time. We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing.”

Another project in the works is Beetle Boy, a series written by Tom MacRae (Everybody’s Talking About Jamie) based on MG Leonard’s book trilogy and coproduced with Nevision and creative studio Framestore.

“Every process is different because it’s bespoke to the person you’re dealing with but the fundamentals are always the same,” Wood says. “The author is the person at the heart of the whole piece and you have to service their vision. It’s about maximising their voice.”

As for the wider business, Tulk-Hart says there’s never been a better time to pitch your shows, owing to the number of local and global streaming platforms now opening their doors in addition to the established broadcasters hungry to keep their digital rivals at bay.

“It’s a strange moment in time,” he says. “New platforms are coming to light at a time when they’re also not sure how many of the shows they’ve commissioned are actually going to come through [due to the coronavirus pandemic]. Then the space, sound stages and all the things required to go and produce these shows are in short supply. It’s taking longer to get to where you want to be, even though there is a lot of opportunity to get shows picked up.

“I don’t think it’s going to go away any time soon, so it’s about building a slate that allows you to have a flow of content being produced over a period of time, as opposed to relying heavily on one particular show. And we’re in a position with a slate that leans into both the linear and the non-linear space.”


 

Julie Wassmer
Based on the novels by Julie Wassmer, Whitstable Pearl (pictured) stars Kerry Godliman (After Life) as Pearl Nolan, the chef and owner of the eponymous restaurant who has also launched a new detective agency in the English seaside town.

When Pearl discovers the body of Vinnie, a close family friend, she takes it upon herself to investigate the apparent murder. But standing in the way of her detective work is DCI Mike McGuire, the new Kent police chief who has transferred from London in an attempt to escape from his past. Then, when a second body shows up, Pearl finds herself pulled into the dark underbelly of this picturesque town.

US streamer Acorn TV has ordered the six-part series, which is based on Wassmer’s novels The Whitstable Pearl Mystery and Disappearance at Oare. Norwegian filmmaker Øystein Karlsen (Exit, Dag) is behind the series, which will debut on Acorn TV in North America, New Zealand, Australia and the UK next year. Cineflix Rights is handling further international sales.

It was in 2016, after Wassmer had written the first three novels in the series and was about to submit the fourth to her publisher, that she learned Buccaneer CEO Tony Wood was keen to discuss optioning the books for television.

“Within minutes of meeting Tony, I knew Buccaneer was the perfect company to take charge of this project,” she says. “Tony’s understanding of the chemistry of the main characters, his instinct for the televisual nature of the books, his personal knowledge of the intriguing coastal area in which the books are set and his commitment and desire to bring all of that to the small screen were compelling.”

Karlsen subsequently wrote the series with Mike Walden, Rachel Flowerday and Alastair Galbraith, and with Godliman in the lead role. Wassmer says: “I feel truly blessed there is such a wealth of talent involved in the whole production. Buccaneer’s commitment won through and the result promises to be an amazing series in which Whitstable itself will have a starring role.”

A former TV writer, Wassmer describes the Whitstable Pearl novels as murder whodunnits in the vein of Dorthy L Sayers and Agatha Christie, with hooks to keep viewers coming back for more and a ‘will they, won’t they’ romance between Pearl and DCI McGuire.

“Pearl is a strong and fearless survivor but, ultimately, she shows vulnerability in her relationship with the police detective she comes into contact, and conflict, with in the course of that first investigation: Mike McGuire,” the author says. “Pearl acts intuitively while McGuire relies on the certainty of formal procedure – but opposites attract and the sexual tension between the two is palpable.”

The Whitstable Pearl restaurant serves as a central location for the town’s eclectic characters, while tension is built not just through the crimes Pearl investigates but the clash between locals and those such as DCI McGuire, who is classed as a ‘Down from Londoner.’

Wassmer continues: “It is murder itself that proves to be the most dangerous ‘outsider’ – the pebble tossed into the quiet waters of a small town’s ostensibly peaceful environment that ripples out to threaten its inhabitants – and its status quo. This is something that will remain at the heart of Whitstable Pearl, together with landscapes and seascapes I could only rely on words to describe, but which will be brought vividly to life within this fabulous TV series.”


Irvine Welsh
For fans of seminal British feature film Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh needs no introduction. The author of the book on which the movie was based, he has written more than a dozen novels in total, as well as stage and screen plays. Crime, which is produced by Buccaneer for streamer Britbox UK, is his first television work.

Based on his novel of the same name, it stars Dougray Scott (Mission: Impossible 2) as Detective Inspector Ray Lennox, who is investigating the disappearance of a schoolgirl while also battling his own demons.

“It’s like a collaborative novel because you’re working with the producers, the director and the actors,” Welsh says of making the series, which he has written with longtime screenwriting partner Dean Cavanagh (Wedding Belles). “But it’s much more novelistic than cinema, where you’re trying to realise something very quickly on screen. The good thing about longform series is you do get a chance to get more into character and have lots of subplots that you can’t do it in a novel. It’s quite a nice thing to work in. I’m really enjoying writing for TV. I didn’t think I would.”

Welsh has previously developed series for television, most notably in the US for HBO, with a project he compares to western series Hatfields & McCoys. “I thought it was really good but they could afford to do only one big-money show,” he recalls. “So they picked Game of Thrones instead of mine. You couldn’t say they made a mistake. If you don’t get something made, it’s nice to not get made against something that was genuinely groundbreaking and phenomenal and exciting and fabulous television.”

Developing Crime for television came about after a meeting with Scott at an event hosted by their favourite football team, Scottish side Hibernian. Scott suggested it would make a good series and said he was keen to play the lead detective. Then Welsh met Tony Wood and Buccaneer and the project took off.

“Lennox, the main character, is very interesting. He’s the kind of guy who’s as fucked-up as some of the sex offenders he pursues,” Welsh reveals. “He’s trying to pursue all these messed-up people but he has his own demons. He’s a very vulnerable character in some ways so you don’t know if he’s going to explode or do something crazy before he brings to justice the people he’s hunting. But while he’s hunting them, his demons are hunting him and you don’t know who’s going to get there first.”

First drafts of all six scripts for the series, which will be distributed by Cineflix Rights, have been completed, with filming expected to begin in the spring. But readers of the original novel might not recognise the same story, owing to a large part of the book being set in Miami. The series will be placed in Edinburgh, meaning Welsh and Cavanagh had a lot of freedom to create a new story.

“There’s a lot of new writing as well as adapted stuff,” Welsh says. “Anyone who reads the book probably won’t recognise it as the same thing, and reading the book isn’t going to give you any particular advantage in terms of what we’ve done with the storyline.”

As for collaborating with Buccaneer, he says: “It’s a great bunch of people. The whole essence of TV is collaboration. If you work with a great bunch of people, you can go on and do fabulous stuff. There’s no egos involved, everybody just gets their sleeves rolled up and mucks in and nobody’s precious about it. It does feel like you’re right at the coalface doing your stuff.”


Hans Rosenfeldt
Best known as the head writer of Nordic noir smash hit Bron/Broen (The Bridge), Hans Rosenfeldt brought his Scandinavian storytelling style to the UK in 2016 with Marcella, the compelling story of a complex female police officer with a troubled personal life on the trail of a serial killer.

He was first pitched the idea for the story by co-creator Nicola Larder (The Tunnel), before teaming up with Buccaneer to produce the series. Season three arrives in the UK in January after debuting internationally earlier this year on Netflix, with Cineflix Rights distributing the drama.

“Like with The Bridge, it is an intriguing story. There’s a lot of red herrings, there’s a lot of twists,” Rosenfeldt says of the detective series. “It’s an intelligent show, meaning you can’t really watch it drinking beer and tweeting at the same time. You really have to focus on it. And it has a very compelling lead character. Anna Friel being Marcella is one of those things you really want to see more of. You care about her and you want to know what’s happening to her. You feel for her when things are going wrong, which they do all the time.”

As the first two seasons played out, it became clear Marcella suffered from blackouts and mental health issues that complicated her detective work and led her to wonder whether she was involved in the crimes she was investigating. Now in the third season, Marcella has swapped London for Belfast and assumed a new identity, working undercover and becoming involved with a notorious crime family.

“We reinvented the show in season three,” Rosenfeldt explains. “It’s no longer a show about a murder victim and then trying to find who did it. This is a show about her trying to bring down a crime family in Northern Ireland. We don’t really have the police station. We don’t have the team dynamic because we don’t have a team around anymore. It’s a very different environment.

“The show has always been very much about Marcella. You could do pretty much what you want with that show as long as you are keeping her in the middle of it, and since we are bringing her into a new place and we don’t have the family strand anymore, we’re really putting her in the centre of this, which was very fun.”

With a new setting, the writer says the show isn’t as dark as in previous seasons, though it still retains the tight plotting that will keep viewers hooked until the very end.

“It’s still Marcella and she’s still struggling,” he says. “We are focussing more on her emotional struggle because obviously she is not fit to be an undercover agent. She shouldn’t do what she’s doing and she’s also overstepping the boundaries really early on in the show.”

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