Tag Archives: A Very English Scandal

Creative sparks

A Very English Scandal, Patrick Melrose and Killing Eve were among the shows that won at the British Academy Television Craft Awards 2019. DQ went backstage to speak to some of the winners in the drama categories.

As the celebration of skill and creativity in television began, British Academy chair Dame Pippa Harris told the seated guests: “Your work made such an impact on viewers in 2018 and proved that, at its very best, television has the power to change the way people think, feel or behave.”

Those words set the tone for Bafta’s Television Craft Awards 2019, which, within the intimate surroundings of central London’s The Brewery, proved to be an evening full of camaraderie and solidarity as winners, nominees and others from the industry paid tribute to some of the extraordinary work produced last year.

Following an introductory film featuring actor and host Stephen Mangan in a parody of Killing Eve (see below), complete with pink tulle dress, the awards were duly presented. In the drama categories, Pia Di Ciaula won best editing for BBC political drama A Very English Scandal; Adam McInnes, John Smith and Kevin Horsewood claimed the honours for special, visual and graphic effects for their work on Troy: Fall of a City; and Suzanne Cave picked up another award for A Very English Scandal for costume design.

Big cheers from across the room greeted Cave’s win, proving the non-partisan credentials of an event filled with people who had previously worked with one another – or are likely to in the future. Cave, whose credits also include The Hour, London Spy and the Strike series, praised her “fairy godmother” Ruth Kenley-Letts (The Hour, Strike, Mrs Wilson) for getting her into the industry.

Backstage, where rows of glistening Bafta statuettes stood in line on a side table, waiting to be handed out during the evening, David Nicholls was visibly struck at the significance of being named best drama writer for penning Sky Atlantic’s Patrick Melrose.

Suzanne Cave

The five-part series, based on the books by Edward St Aubyn and starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular character, skewered upper-class circles as it followed Melrose’s journey from traumatic childhood to adult substance abuse and recovery.

Speaking to DQ moments after stepping away from the stage, award in hand, Nicholls recalled: “I read the first book in 1992 before I’d even thought about becoming a writer. It hadn’t even crossed my mind that I might one day adapt them. I loved them and it was always my dream project. It was always the one I wanted to do and I lived with them for five or six years, reading them over and over again, trying to work out a way to dramatise them.

“It’s been my dream job, an absolute highlight. It was incredibly hard work – frustrating at times, constantly rewriting this thing and trying to get it right. But I’m very proud of the work.”

Embracing the books, rather than seeing them as an obstacle or hindrance to overcome, proved to be the key to unlocking the adaptation. “You had to be truthful, make the changes that were necessary but try to convey what is wonderful and powerful about the books on screen. That was the intention,” Nicholls said.

“I’ve been incredibly lucky to collaborate with such a brilliant production team, designers and extraordinary and incredibly committed actors. I’m a novelist as well, so I spend a lot of time by myself, and sometimes when you go for a meeting, it’s tough. You have to thrash things out, you have to argue over them to find the best way to do something. But if you’re with great people who are committed to the show, it’s an incredible experience.”

David Nicholls

In other categories, Vanity Fair’s Vickie Lang won for make-up and hair design; Woo Hyung Kim picked up the prize for photography and lighting: John Le Carré adaptation The Little Drummer Girl took the fiction prize; Charlie Cooper and Daisy May Cooper repeated last year’s success for comedy writing; and Killing Eve won the sound category for fiction.

Patrick Melrose produced another winner in the shape of Tom Burton, who triumphed in the production design section. “When I got asked about it originally, we had the scripts and I thought they were the best scripts I’d ever read,” Burton said, noting that he signed on to the production before director Edward Berger. “We had five episodes and five very different looks. The first one was really gritty, with Patrick smacked out of his head in his hotel room, and then the second was back to his childhood,  set at this lyrical, very beautiful French chateau. Then it carries on.

“The overarching ideas were to start dark and heavy and as he gradually comes out of his fog; to go from darkness into more clarity and simpler sets. Me and Ed and James Fleet, the DOP, just worked at it constantly, trying to create really strong, different looks for each episode and choosing colours and camera lenses so we had a really strong plan. Instead of having a look that runs through the whole show, we wanted to make five quite different-looking episodes.”

During the production, the cast and crew spent nine weeks shooting in the south of France, while Glasgow doubled for 1980s New York. “It worked incredibly well. We could never afford to shoot in New York, but the fact Glasgow has very straight streets means you can look down them and you get the idea of New York avenues. Then at Wimbledon Studios, there was [Patrick’s] hotel room and the really scuzzy drug den he goes to, so those were two sets we built for the first episode. We turned Senate House into the hotel lobby and then we built the corridor, lift and the hotel suite. No hotel is going to let somebody trash a room, which is what he does. So it made sense to build it as a set.”

Vickie Lang

While television dramas have become more ambitious in scope and scale, Burton said the demands of his job haven’t changed too much, but noted that VFX supervisors are becoming increasingly key collaborators. “I do get employed earlier than I used to,” he said. “The dynamics of television are changing – if you’ve got a big show, finding a production designer to start it off is almost what producers begin with, in conjunction with finding directors. Production designers have longer run-ups to the show. What’s happening now, as shows get bigger, is you get more time.”

Killing Eve scooped its second award of the night for original music, with David Holmes and Keefus Ciancia (pictured left and right respectively at the top of this page) collecting the gong. With the pair full of smiles, it was no surprise to hear Holmes say that on every project, “we just have a laugh.”

“We’re all going die one day and we try to work on projects we like,” he said. “We do it with a great sense of honour, integrity and love of what we do. It’s actually that simple. I have no aspirations other than to do my best. The best award you can get is just being busy, and that’s what we try to do.”

The show’s producers, Sid Gentle Films, gave the composers “a blank canvas” and they got to work after reading the scripts and speaking to season one showrunner Phoebe Waller-Bridge and the team.

“When you go into these shows, you should never try to create something that’s been done before,” Holmes continued. “You have to focus on what the show is, and what we tried to do from the beginning was create the soundtrack of Killing Eve. It was meant to be. The stars aligned.”

Stephen Frears

Ciancia added: “Most of the humour and drama was already there [in the script], so our work is either enhancement or thematic music, or sounds that are coming from the characters’ heads. And because it was set in different countries and different settings, that allowed us to use a range of instruments . It’s more about the spirit, and that’s unique to this show.”

Meanwhile, A Very English Scandal proved to be the big winner of the night with three awards overall – the third being Stephen Frears’ win in the fiction director category.

“It was very, very good fun. It was an easy job. It was very well written, with very good actors,” Frears said when asked what he most fondly remembered about the project.

A Very English Scandal scribe Russell T Davies lost out to Nicholls in the drama writer category, but Frears was full of praise for his collaborator: “He’s a wonderful writer, very funny, and he’s very cheeky and naughty and moving. It was great, terrific.”

The award becomes Frears’ fifth Bafta in a collection that celebrates his five decades as a director. His advice for any newcomers? “Courage – and hope you’re as lucky as I am and get good material.”

The biggest applause of the night was reserved for script supervisor Emma Thomas, who received the event’s Special Award in recognition of the impact of her 30-year career on the industry and her contribution to more than 50 films and television series. With credits on titles such as Guerrilla, Luther, Critical, Benidorm and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Thomas is also a board member of Women in Film and Television and actively mentors young women in industry.

“I’ve had the privilege to work with a number of talented professionals, to work on a huge variety of programmes and films throughout my career, and I’ve been at the forefront of this ever-changing industry,” Thomas said. “It’s a privilege to have been awarded the prestigious British Academy Television Craft Special Award in a year where so many women have been recognised by Bafta both in front of and behind the screen.”

The award and the room’s recognition of Thomas summed up the supportive atmosphere of the event, where the biggest dramas of 2018 all received plaudits. Next up, the teams behind A Very English Scandal, Killing Eve and Patrick Melrose will be hoping for success at sister event the Bafta Television Awards on May 12.

tagged in: , , , ,

Watch this Space

As London faces increasing demand for studio space, DQ visits Manchester to find out how the UK city and Space Studios are proving to be an attractive filming proposition for high-end television drama productions.

For many television makers and watchers, Manchester will always be known as the home of ITV’s iconic soap Coronation Street. The long-running series, its former home at Granada Studios and its move to MediaCityUK, where the BBC can also now be found, have certainly helped to put the north-west English city on the map when it comes to TV production.

Sky1’s Curfew, starring Sean Bean, involved racing scenes shot on the streets of Manchester

But with the demand for studio space in London at an increasing premium, coupled with the requirement of UK broadcasters to see dramas created and set outside the capital, Manchester is now becoming an attractive destination for high-end drama producers through Space Studios and its partnership with Screen Manchester.

Located on the outskirts of the city centre, Space Studios still looks box fresh, with an array of towering sound stages, workshops, business units and car park space that doubles as room for unit bases. Equipment companies including Panavision and Provision are among those on site.

It was here that upcoming Sky1 street-racing drama Curfew took over three stages for six months of filming, while walking down the numerous corridors reveals that offices have been allocated to ITV crime drama The Bay’s costume department, BBC period series World on Fire’s art department and Amazon and Liberty Global’s psychological drama The Feed’s art department and production office.

Other recent dramas to have been filmed there include Cold Feet and The A Word.

Space Studios offers six sound stages after a £14m expansion

Built on the site of the former West Gorton housing estate, which became synonymous with Channel 4 drama Shameless, Space Studios opened in May 2014 as a purpose-built facility for high-end TV, film and commercial production. Six sound stages offer more than 85,000 sq ft, with the imposing stage six, which opened in February this year as part of a £14m (US$17.9m) expansion, offering 30,000 sq ft alone, with adjacent room for props, set builds and dressing rooms.

The Space project was originally devised by Sue Woodward, a former MD of ITV Granada, founding director of social enterprise Sharp Futures and founder of The Sharp Project, a hub that is home to more than 60 entrepreneurs in the city specialising in digital content production, digital media and film and TV production. Both Space Studios and The Sharp Project are managed by Manchester Creative Digital Assets (MCDA), which was set up by Manchester City Council to oversee the city’s digital, production and creative sectors.

Colin Johnson

The Sharp Project was opened on the site of a former Sharp electronics distribution warehouse, which was bought by the city after the company vacated the premises. Series such as comedies Fresh Meat and Mount Pleasant have been filmed there and the success of the venture led to the decision to create a dedicated production facility on the site of a former Fujitsu electronics factory.

Colin Johnson, director of screens and facilities at Space Studios, recalls: “We knew that we could make television in the city because we’d done it at The Sharp Project, and we could tell there was going to be a big uplift in demand [for production space] because of OTT and SVoD platforms commissioning drama, tax breaks and people being displaced from London.”

Phase one was completed in 2014 and since then, “we’ve been pretty full ever since,” Johnson adds.

The land where stage six was built was a former Victorian pump factory, which was adopted by Space Studios once it became clear there was sufficient demand for a larger sound stage. Further space on an adjacent site has recently been cleared, with the potential to expand further.

Throughout its development, and beyond, it has also sought to be an anchor in the local community, working with Sharp Futures to offer apprenticeship schemes and keen to plug into the surrounding talent pool through job opportunities and skills days.

Rob Page

“London’s full and we’re here. It’s as simple as that,” Johnson says of Space Studios’ success. “We’ll show producers the space before they get the job and then they pick up the phone to us and say, ‘Have you got availability?’ We’re getting those calls because of the ground work we’ve put in early on. Some of the people bringing jobs in we showed round when stage six wasn’t there or showed round when we were a building site. We’re here – and London seems to be full.”

Rob Page, commercial director of MCDA, continues: “The ecology’s here as well, most importantly, in Manchester, whether it be crews or Screen Manchester assisting you while you’re on location. We’re not just another warehouse in the middle of nowhere without an ecosystem surrounding you.”

Much has been made of new studios planned for London, in particular a £100m proposal to build 12 sound stages as part of a complex in Dagenham, east London. Approval for the plans was received in February this year. But Johnson and Page stress that, in contrast, Space Studios is ready now. “We’re really well placed in that we have the skills, we’re in the centre of the country, we have the stages and these facilities,” Johnson adds.

Beyond Space Studios, Manchester has been home to location shoots for series including Age Before Beauty, No Offence, Our Girl, Snatch and Scott & Bailey. Castles and coastlines are also within reach of the city centre.

Manchester-shot Age Before Beauty

But until Screen Manchester launched in July 2017, the city didn’t have a formal film office. Since then, development manager Bobby Cochrane says Sky1’s Curfew has become the biggest drama Manchester has done to date. The office facilitated racing scenes by closing Mancunian Way, an elevated highway linking the east and west of the city.

Streets around Manchester’s viaducts, Northern Quarter and Spring Gardens areas can also double for London and New York, while Hugh Grant’s BBC1 drama A Very English Scandal also spent several days filming inside Manchester Town Hall, which shares similar interior architecture to the Houses of Parliament.

Working in partnership with Space Studios, the aim is to become a one-stop shop where producers can find studio space, locations and seek permissions such as road closures under one roof.

Cochrane adds: “Manchester has got a central hub where everything you can do in the city is under one umbrella. We want it to be a global film-friendly city.”

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

A Blueprint for Scandal

Former EastEnders showrunner Dominic Treadwell-Collins talks to DQ about bringing together Russell T Davies, Stephen Frears, Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw for A Very English Scandal, the first production from Blueprint Television.

If there’s such a thing as an easy commission, A Very English Scandal might be it. Take a previously untold story based on a bestselling book and add writer Russell T Davies (Doctor Who, Cucumber), throw in director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena) and add Hugh Grant (Notting Hill, Love Actually) in the lead role and it’s little wonder the BBC quickly commissioned the three-part drama.

The person who pulled the project together is Dominic Treadwell-Collins, best known as a two-time showrunner on EastEnders. Treadwell-Collins left the British soap in 2016 to set up Blueprint Television, the small-screen arm of film producer Blueprint Pictures, which was recently behind Oscar-winning movie Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

“It’s nice that this is the first thing for me after EastEnders,” Treadwell-Collins says, joking that he was “broken” by the time he left the show. “I just needed to get into a bit of development and pause a bit. Even then, we got this greenlit within nine months. What I set up to do with A Very English Scandal was mix someone like Russell – an amazing TV writer – with Stephen Frears, an amazing film director, because that’s the way a lot of TV is going at the moment. It feels like we’ve achieved that.”

A Very English Scandal, which is coproduced with Amazon Prime Video in the US, tells the shocking true story of the first British politician to stand trial for conspiracy and incitement to murder. In his first television role since the 1990s, Grant plays disgraced MP Jeremy Thorpe, who in 1979 was tried but acquitted of conspiring to murder his ex-lover, Norman Scott (played by Ben Whishaw).

A Very English Scandal stars Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw

The drama begins in the late 1960s when homosexuality had recently been decriminalised. Thorpe, leader of the Liberal party, fears his career is at risk as long as former lover Scott is around. Thorpe schemes and deceives – until he can see only one way to silence Scott for good. Thorpe’s trial changed society forever, illuminating the darkest secrets of the establishment.

Blueprint had picked up the rights to Preston’s novel before Treadwell-Collins joined the company, so he had some reading material to hand during his three-week break between leaving EastEnders and joining the fledgling production company, which is backed by Sony Pictures Television, the distributor of the miniseries. But what he expected be a “dry political scandal” surprised him with its funny and farcical tone, its unbelievable-but-true plotlines and the human relationship at its core.

Working with a public broadcaster, in this case the BBC, meant every detail in the script had to be scrutinised and backed up by three different sources. But that hasn’t stopped the series attracting as many headlines now as the scandal did 40 years ago, with some claiming the show represents certain characters unfairly. Police have also reopened the case of the failed assassination after discovering a key suspect, previously thought to have died, is still alive.

“That’s always part and parcel of doing factual drama,” Treadwell-Collins notes of the controversy surrounding the way some real-life figures have been portrayed. “That’s always going to happen. The thing we’ve been very firm about from the beginning was it’s A Very English Scandal based on the book by John Preston. That is our primary source material and, because his book has been out there in the public domain, we haven’t deviated from that.”

Director Stephen Frears on set, with producer Dominic Treadwell-Collins (in glasses) behind

But it remains the case that factual drama is riding the crest of a popularity wave on television, with recent hits including American Crime Story’s focus on the OJ Simpson trial and then the assassination of Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace, British crime drama Little Boy Blue and Netflix documentaries like Making a Murderer and Wild Wild Country.

“There’s something quite nice about having the authenticity and also truth being stranger than fiction,” Treadwell-Collins says. “They just bring you in and there’s a huge appetite for stories but particularly true stories that people don’t know about. That’s what’s exciting.”

Within a large ensemble cast that also features Alex Jennings, Patricia Hodge, Monica Dolan, Adrian Scarborough and Jason Watkins, it is Grant and Whishaw’s partnership that carries the drama through Thorpe and Scott’s relationship, from early infatuation to bitter conclusion, while the tone rises and falls between humour and farce and tender emotional moments.

That balancing act could only have been managed by one writer, says Treadwell-Collins, who immediately took the project to Davies. “He was the first person I went to, the only person I went to, because Russell has that tone of jauntiness and then can punch you in the stomach with emotion, and that’s what it needed,” he explains, adding that the writer initially turned the project down. “He’d heard of the Jeremy Thorpe story but said he was too busy. I sent him the book anyway and he emailed me two days later and I’d got him. He’d read the first few pages and thought, ‘I’ve got to do this. I don’t want anyone else to do this story.’

“Russell got that balance just right and putting him with Stephen, he’s such a human director. He’s added these private moments of Jeremy, such as when he’s looking in the mirror before he goes to face a hoard of journalists, and he really made you feel Norman and Jeremy’s story all the way through. That’s what has chimed with the audience.”

Grant, as MP Jeremy Thorpe, receives direction from Frears

Frears, who would give notes on each script, spent lots of time with Davies talking over the central relationship between Thorpe and Scott, speaking to people whose lives were affected by the story. The production team also met relatives of the characters in an effort to present fully rounded portraits of the characters on screen.

Grant and Whishaw also did their own research and spent time rehearsing with Frears before committing their performances to camera. Grant even learned to play the violin for a scene in episode one in which Thorpe performs for Scott alongside Thorpe’s mother (Hodge) on the piano. The actor shared the view of Treadwell-Collins, Davies and Frears that his performance should not be an imitation of Thorpe, and that he should instead try to embody the real-life politician.

Filming took place around the UK, from Wales and Devon to London and the Home Counties surrounding the capital. The interiors of the Houses of Parliament were recreated at Manchester Town Hall, while a Devon beach doubled for California.

For Treadwell-Collins, making the series was a far cry from his experience on EastEnders. The long-running soap airs four times a week, has a cast of more than 40 actors and employs hundreds of crew, with Treadwell-Collins on call 24/7 in case any problems arose.

“It was insane, I loved it, but you’ve got to love a show like that to run it properly,” he recalls, adding that he is now enjoying building his own slate of dramas. These include “other scandals,” an adaptation of chatshow host Graham Norton’s novel Holding and an adaptation of Israeli drama Fauda, to which Blueprint has secured the remake rights.

Whishaw plays Norman Scott, the former lover Thorpe wanted dead

The producer has also teamed up with Grantchester writer Daisy Coulam for what he describes as “a period female Bond series with a bit of Hollywood sparkle,” while he also plans to reinvent the British period drama for the 21st century.

A Very English Scandal, which is available on BBC iPlayer and launches on Amazon in the US on June 29, could be a tough act to follow, however, both in terms of its A-list creative talent and the five-star reviews it has received. But Treadwell-Collins remains undaunted.

“What’s been nice for our first Blueprint Television production is it’s Russell T Davies, Stephen Frears, Ben Whishaw and Hugh Grant,” he concludes. “We’re putting our flag in and saying this is the mark of quality we will keep to.

“We’re not just going to make something for the sake of making television or just looking at it as the fact we’re making money. Everything we believe in and we love. That’s the way Blueprint make their films and the way we’re making television. It’s a really exciting place to be.”

tagged in: , , ,