Tackling the darkest subjects

Andy Fry
By Andy Fry
November 2, 2016

The Writers Room
Jeff Pope (left) receiving a Bafta alongside actor Steve Coogan
Jeff Pope (left) receiving a Bafta alongside actor Steve Coogan

Child murder and disappearance are common starting points for crime dramas, as series like Broadchurch, Top of the Lake, The Guilty, The Missing and The Five have shown in recent times.

This is no surprise given that the loss of a loved child is just about the worst thing that most people can conceive of ever happening to them.

All of the above shows are fictional. But there are also a few shows coming through right now that deal with real-life stories. One of them, which we have discussed in this column, is HBO’s upcoming series about the lynching of black teenager Emmett Till. Another is an HBO/Keshet coproduction about the kidnapping and subsequent murder of three Israeli teenagers in 2014.

Real-life child murder is an especially shocking subject, so it’s clear that it can only be approached by television if there is a substantive point to make. In the case of the Emmett Till story, for example, the underlying theme is the role that the boy’s death played in the emerging civil rights movement.

In the case of Keshet’s drama, it is the protracted unrest in Israel and Palestine that informs the story. Without these bigger themes, it would be hard to justify producing TV dramas about such grisly subjects.

Cilla
Pope was also behind Cilla

In the UK, a current example of real-life child-murder being used as the base of a scripted series is Little Boy Blue, a four-part drama for ITV about the death of 11-year-old Rhys Jones, who was shot in the back by a 16-year-old gang member in 2007.

Rhys’s parents, Melanie and Steve Jones, have given the drama their blessing and released the following statement to explain why: “We wanted to get involved in this drama because we thought it was important for people to understand what really happened – how close Rhys’s murderer came to escaping justice, and how in the end the simple courage shown by some of those involved in these events, and their refusal to be intimidated, led to the conviction of Sean Mercer and others involved in Rhys’s murder. The part Merseyside Police and especially Detective Superintendent Dave Kelly played in this cannot be overestimated. But beyond this we wanted to show the devastating effect the loss of our beloved son Rhys had on our family, and how the grieving process affected us long beyond the ‘closure’ of a guilty verdict. Though some may find what happened to us shocking, we think it is right to tell the whole story.”

The job of telling the story appropriately and sensitively has fallen to award-winning screenwriter and executive producer Jeff Pope. A former journalist who worked his way up through the UK’s factual TV business, Pope has written and produced a number of dramas rooted in real-life stories. Among these are Fool’s Gold: The Story of the Brink’s-Mat Robbery, Cilla and See No Evil: The Moors Murders.

See No Evil: The Moors Murders
See No Evil: The Moors Murders told the story of killers Myra Hindley and Ian Brady

The latter, written by Neil McKay, was also made with the backing of the victims’ families and was based on two years of research – including interviews with detectives, relatives of the victims, and Moors murderer Myra Hindley’s brother-in-law David Smith.

Pope also co-wrote the 2005 movie Pierrepoint, in which Timothy Spall played the UK’s best-known executioner Albert Pierrepoint.

Pope received the Alan Clarke award at the 2015 Baftas, with Bafta TV committee chairman Andrew Newman calling him “one of the finest exponents of his craft.” Accepting the award, Pope said: “Writing is all about facing down the tyranny of the blank screen, but my message to all aspiring writers is that once you’ve hit that first key, you discover it’s really not so difficult as you imagined.”

Another new drama that deals with similarly tough subject matter is Damilola, Our Beloved Boy, a 90-minute production that will air on the BBC in the UK on November 7. This drama centres on the death of 10-year-old Damilola Taylor in 2000, and was made with the consent and support of Damilola’s father, Richard Taylor OBE.

The film does not depict the crime that ended Damilola’s life, but goes behind the headlines to explore the emotional repercussions of Damilola’s death on his family and their quest for justice. It was written by award-winning screenwriter and playwright Levi David Addai, who calls it a story about “family, fatherhood and hope.”

Addai broke into the business via theatre, initially putting on a play at the Royal Court. His previous television work includes the E4 series Youngers, which follows a group of London teens aiming to become the next big thing on the urban music scene.

Damilola
Damilola will focus on the aftermath of Damilola Taylor’s murder

Next up he is writing a TV adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s acclaimed novel Noughts & Crosses, produced by Mammoth Screen for the BBC. Clearly, Addai has the right credentials to tackle such an emotive subject – and he is well aware of the importance of pitching it right. Commenting on the sensitivity of the subject, he said: “Albeit a huge responsibility, I am very determined to do it justice.”

Elsewhere this week, Channel 4 in the UK is launching a new talent scheme aimed at writers and directors from groups that are currently under-represented in TV drama –women, disabled people and those from BAME and disadvantaged backgrounds.

Called 4Stories, the scheme will give three directors and three writers the opportunity to work on a new three-part series of half-hour interconnected films. It will tell one main story from three perspectives and is being produced by Touchpaper Television.

The opportunity is open to writers who have not had an original single, serial or series broadcast on UK TV. Writers who have contributed to episodes on soaps, series or serials are eligible to apply but can have had no more than two hours of credits.

David Addai
David Addai

Nina Bhagwat, Channel 4’s off-screen diversity executive, said: “4Stories is a unique talent initiative that will showcase the work of emerging writers and directors who bring a distinct and alternative view of Modern Britain. Writers and directors play a key creative role; their voices have a huge impact both on what we sound and feel like as a channel, and how we connect with diverse audiences. 4Stories talent will be immersed in a development programme that aims to land [successful applicants] brilliantly into the wider industry post transmission.”

Rob Pursey, MD of Touchpaper Television, added: “We’re looking for bold, unique voices that can deliver ambitious, witty, fearless entertainment. This is an opportunity to find diverse talent and bring a fresh perspective to UK drama.”

As part of the paid development programme, writing trainees will participate in a writers room that will create the series. They will be tutored by, and work with, experienced drama producers at Touchpaper TV where their scripts will be developed. They will also be mentored by high-profile drama talent, and will take part in a bespoke training programme to run alongside and beyond the production of the series. It will include masterclasses, networking sessions, coaching, career development and access to key events.

The closing dates are November 14 for writers’ applications and December 12 for directors’ applications.

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