Tag Archives: Abi Morgan

Split opinions

Award-winning writer Abi Morgan explores the highly charged world of divorce lawyers for her latest BBC drama, The Split. DQ visits the set to hear how the female-led series was influenced by US legal dramas – and Sex & the City.

Abi Morgan was chatting to another mum while watching her daughter playing hockey when she was hit by inspiration for her newest television series. The woman, dressed in jeans and a jumper, was frantically responding to calls and texts on her phone while trying to also concentrate on the fiercely contested school match. Intrigued, Morgan asked her what she did. She was a divorce lawyer.

“I loved the contradiction of this woman, who was very dressed down to watch the game, dealing with all these acrimonious exchanges all while she was trying to keep an eye on the match,” recalls Morgan, the Bafta- and Emmy-winning writer of Suffragette, The Iron Lady and The Hour. “We got talking about her job and one of the key things she said to me was that it’s an area of the law that, unusually, is predominantly populated by women. It is regarded as the unsexy end of law but its about so much more than being in a courtroom. And immediately this incredible landscape unfolded.”

A year later, with Sister Pictures producer Jane Featherstone (who the writer worked with on River and The Hour) on board, Morgan is chatting with DQ in what used to be the Holborn office for one of London’s top law firms. This is the wonderfully apt set of The Split, a sexy, glamorous, romantic and entertaining six-part drama set in the world of female divorce lawyers for the rich and famous.

Abi Morgan

“I had just come from writing Suffragette, which featured this incredible, diverse group of female soldiers,” Morgan says. “I wanted to do another very strong group of women but also women who could look incredibly sexy and powerful and hold their own in what would have traditionally been a male domain.

“And I loved the idea that it meant we could really look at modern marriage. I am always fascinated by the truths we tell each other, particularly when you are just a few women alone at a book club or mums’ night out.”

Morgan doesn’t mind admitting The Split was influenced by hit US legal dramas The Good Wife, Suits and Law & Order. It’s a British show but it’s unusually, and surprisingly, glossy. The series is set in a monied world of billionaire businessmen divorcing their first wives for a younger model and young footballers organising their pre-nups before they marry. Each episode will feature a case of the week, while stories about the lawyers and one particular divorcing couple will arc the series.

The star of the show is Unforgiven, Spooks and River actor Nicola Walker, who is almost unrecognisable in her glossy lawyer uniform. “The interesting thing about this show is that everyone is incredibly well dressed,” continues Morgan. “When we were researching, I was chatting to one lawyer and I asked whether her handbag was from Marks & Spencer – I got that a bit wrong: it was a £25,000 tote from Bottega Veneta.

“There is a bit of a Sex & the City vibe with the clothes. That is not something we normally do on British television but it is totally authentic to this world. They all wear heels, even if they kick them off the moment they sit at their desks. They are groomed and glammed up because they have to be. Their female clients are rich women who should be able to recognise their handbags, while they are also dealing with successful men. They need the men to find them attractive but also to know that they can do their job.”

Walker plays top divorce lawyer Hannah as her life is about to turn upside down. After 20 years of working for family law firm Defoe, she quits when her formidable mother Ruth (Deborah Findlay), who runs the company, refuses her a promotion. So she moves to Noble and Hale, a very different, more corporate company, working alongside former lover Christie, played by Barry Atsma. Their flirty friendship leads to her questioning her long marriage with Nathan, portrayed by Episodes star Stephen Mangan.

Annabel Scholey (left) and Nicola Walker play divorce lawyers in The Split

Meanwhile, 30 years after leaving the family for the nanny, her father (Anthony Head) returns to their lives wanting his slice of the firm Ruth has spent so long building up. It shakes the world of Hannah and her sisters Nina (Annabel Scholey), who is also a divorce lawyer, and millennial Rose (Fiona Button), who has eschewed the high-pressure world to be a nanny.

“I loved the idea of this intergenerational piece,” says producer Featherstone. “It is definitely about modern marriage but it is also about relationships between mothers, daughters, siblings, husbands, brothers and all of those things. It is not just about sexual relationships but also the responsibilities you have within a family. Ruth, the matriarch, has trained her girls to be as independent, strong and fiery as her, but that creates its own problems.”

Morgan, a child of divorce herself who has never married her long-term partner, actor Jacob Krichefski, says the impact of such a significant life event as divorce is examined in terms of both the lawyers and their clients.

“I’ve had divorces within my own family and seen it happen to friends, and I know how complex and difficult and painful it is,” she says. “This also came out of a desire to look at the legacy we give our children when we bring them up and also the ideas about marriage that we inherit.”

Walker shares a laugh with director Jessica Hobbs during a break

Fittingly for such a female-centric drama, it has an all-female creative team. As well as Featherstone and Morgan, Lucy Richer and Lucy Dyke are coproducers, while Jessica Hobbs (Broadchurch, Apple Tree Yard, The Slap) directs the show, which launches on BBC1 tonight. It is distributed by BBC Studios.

The incredible office that doubles for the glossy and modern Noble and Hale was until recently the London headquarters for Olswang, which happened to represent Featherstone when it came to signing her work agreements. The Split’s research team came to talk to solicitors in the office and, when they heard the company was moving out (after a merger), they asked to lease it, having already spent a year trying and failing to find the right spot for their fictional company. The details of the law firm have been copied down to the smallest item, from the trainers under the desks and different-coloured files (to intimidate the opposition) to Olswang-branded sweets. A bowlful of Nobel and Hale sweets sits in the impressive reception that overlooks Holborn.

London is officially the divorce capital of the world and Morgan and the producers have drawn on rich research with real-life lawyers; there were also two legal advisors to ensure all the events in the show could really happen.

“The whole thing is fascinating and we’ve looked at some real cases of when a private fight goes public,” says Morgan. “You see how emotional everyone gets and think, ‘Oh so that’s why Fiona Shackleton came out of court with her hair soaking wet’ [when Heather Mills doused the lawyer in water during her divorce hearing with former Beatle Paul McCartney].”

Featherstone adds: “And it is astonishing hearing what some of the judges say in front of them. They are incredibly opinionated and basically tell them they are damaging their children, damaging themselves and are stupid people who shouldn’t be wasting their time. That’s not to say we are going to mock people who are going through this. The tone of the piece has a light touch but the emotions are all there.”

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Sister’s doing it for itself

Naomi Alderman

UK indie producer Sister Pictures has picked up the rights to Naomi Alderman’s acclaimed novel The Power with a view to turning it into a long-running global series.

The rights were acquired from Georgina Ruffhead at David Higham Associates after what was described as an 11-way auction – all of which shows the continued importance of books as the basis of TV drama.

The Power imagines a world where women gain the physical ability to electrocute at will. This results in an overhaul of the existing world order with women using their new-found power to wrest control of society from men.

The series will be written by Alderman, who said: “I’m thrilled to be working with Sister Pictures and [CEO] Jane Featherstone. Jane’s track record and her commitment to excellence in writing speak for themselves, and Sister Pictures’ deep understanding of the book impressed me.”

Explaining how a single book will be turned into a long-running global series, Alderman added: “Readers of The Power are already asking me if there’ll be a sequel. There won’t be another novel, probably, but there are definitely so many more stories to tell than I had room for in the book. I can’t wait to expand this story and bring electric women to TV screens around the world.”

Desiree Akhavan

Featherstone added: “Naomi is one of the boldest and most interesting authors of our time and we are beyond thrilled to be working with her as she adapts her own brilliant and compelling book for TV. The Power is a story of our times; clever, funny, important and original, it asks us to consider a world where the shifting balances of power create a new and dangerous dynamic.”

The Power is the latest in a line of projects from Sister Pictures focusing on strong female characters created by women writers. The company is already working on a show for Channel 4 called The Bisexual. Written by Desiree Akhavan and Cecilia Frugiuele (Appropriate Behaviour), it focuses on a New York woman navigating the world of gay and straight dating in London. Sister calls it “an honest look at the last taboo, bisexuality, and what it means to refuse to compromise on what you want.”

Akhavan, a bisexual Iranian-American who was brought up in New York, echoed Alderman’s enthusiasm: “Getting to play in the sandbox with such intelligent collaborators at Sister Pictures and Channel 4 is an absolute dream come true. They’re the perfect partners in crime for a taboo sex comedy.”

Sister has also teamed up with Abi Morgan (River, Suffragette, The Hour) on The Split, a new BBC1 drama that examines the fast-paced circuit of high-powered female divorce lawyers through the lens of three sisters – Hannah, Nina and the youngest, Rose. Hannah and Nina are leading divorce and family law lawyers, while Rose is still searching for her place in life.

Julia Roberts

Morgan said: “As Robin Williams once said, ‘Divorce is expensive – like ripping your heart out through your wallet.’ The Split exposes the complex realities of high-end divorce and broken marriage through female divorce lawyers and sisters bound by their own troubled past.”

Sticking with the subject of talented and empowered women, it was revealed this week that movie icon Julia Roberts is to star in a new limited TV series. Based on Maria Semple’s novel Today Will Be Different, the show tells the story of a woman named Eleanor Flood who makes plans to have the best day of her life, but wakes up to find a strange new future unfolding.

Semple, who has worked as a TV writer and producer (she was nominated twice for WGA Awards for comedy Arrested Development), will pen the screen adaptation. She said: “I’m giddy that Eleanor will be brought to life by Julia Roberts. This will be a fun ride!” No network has been confirmed for the show as yet.

In Spain, meanwhile, media giant Mediapro has picked up the rights to Lo Que Esconde Tu Nombre (What Your Name Conceals), a bestselling novel by Clara Sánchez that has shifted 1.5 million copies in 25 countries.

Clara Sánchez

A psychological thriller, the book centres on a young pregnant girl called Sandra, who goes to live by the sea to decide what to do with her life. There she meets an old couple, who take her in as part of their family. However, Sandra’s path crosses that of a Second World War concentration camp survivor, who reveals things from the past that cause her to distrust the couple. What Sandra doesn’t realise is that the end of her innocence will put her in danger.

Sánchez was born in Guadalajara in 1955 and grew up in Valencia before moving to Madrid. In 1989 she published Precious Stones and has gone on to publish a total of 11 novels to date (the latest in 2013). What Your Name Conceals was written in 2010. There are no details yet as to who will handle the TV adaptation.

Also in the news is 1980s teen star Molly Ringwald, who has been lined up to star in The CW’s new TV series Riverdale, a dark and subversive take on a classic Archie Comics franchise. This project is being developed/written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Greg Berlanti, Sarah Schechter and Jon Goldwater. Aguirre-Sacasa, who has worked on series like Glee, wrote the pilot episode of Riverdale. He is also chief creative officer of Archie Comics and wrote the 2013 screen adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie.

Molly Ringwald

Finally, on the novel-adaptation front, French producer Authentic and Federation Entertainment, the firm behind Netflix drama Marseille, have secured the TV rights to Le Temps Est Assassin (Time is a Killer), a thriller by best-selling French author Michel Bussi.

The deal, with French publishing house Presses de la Cité, will see an eight-part series created from the book, which tells the story of a woman who suffers a tragic accident resulting in the loss of her family. Federation will distribute the show abroad.

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Brits dominate Rose D’Or scripted

Mum
Big Talk Productions’ Mum aired on BBC2

The Rose D’Or Awards were dominated by the UK last year with wins in nine out of 11 available categories – and following this week’s release of the Rose D’Or shortlists for 2016, it looks like the UK stands an extremely good chance of repeating its success.

One thing is for sure, the UK will win both the sitcom and the newly created drama series categories. In sitcom, the three shows slugging it out are Episodes from Hat Trick Productions, Mum and Raised by Wolves, the latter two from Big Talk Productions.

In drama, the contest is between Happy Valley, River and This Is England ’90. The winners will be revealed in Berlin on September 13.

Looking first at the dramas, Happy Valley (written by Sally Wainwright) and This Is England ’90 (Shane Meadows/Jack Thorne) have already received plenty of plaudits. River, a six-part drama for the BBC, is probably the least-known of the three, despite being written by one of the UK’s top talents, Abi Morgan.

Having started out writing for theatre, Morgan’s earliest credits were in TV (Peak Practice, My Fragile Heart), but more recently she has moved effortlessly back and forth between film and TV. Her best-known films include Brick Lane, The Iron Lady and Suffragette, while stand-out TV credits include novel adaptation Birdsong, The Hour and River.

River
Six-part drama River earned positive critical notices in the UK press

Regardless of whether River triumphs in Berlin, Morgan certainly got the thumbs up from critics. In the UK, The Daily Telegraph critic Michael Hogan said the series was “beautifully written by Abi Morgan, stylishly directed and superbly acted. [Lead actor] Stellan Skarsgård delivered a powerhouse performance: sad and soulful in one scene, sardonically spiky and manically energetic in the next. With his craggy face and crumpled demeanour, the haunted detective prowled the streets of London like a wounded bear. I’m torn between wanting River to get recommissioned and wanting this series to stand alone as six near-perfect episodes.”

Aside from its UK screening on the BBC, River has also been available via Netflix internationally. In Canada, Globe and Mail critic John Doyle added his voice to Hogan’s, calling the show a masterpiece of melancholy crime drama: “It is the sort of drama critics rejoice in seeing. It is a stunningly successful hybrid of Nordic noir and the traditional, gloomy British police procedural. It is about solving a murder, but mainly about the intricacies of the human mind dealing with loss and terrible grief.”

The Rose D’Or sitcom category, meanwhile, brings international recognition for Stefan Golaszewski, writer of BBC2’s Mum. Golaszewski previously wrote Bafta-winning sitcom Him & Her for BBC2. In Mum, he tells the story of a woman seeking to rebuild her life following the death of her husband.

Catastrophe
Rose D’Or-winning sitcom Catastrophe is set for third and fourth seasons

When the show was commissioned, Shane Allen, controller of comedy commissioning, said: “Commissioning Mum was a delightfully easy decision after seeing the sure-footed pilot. Stefan is a unique author and this is a very confident next chapter in what promises to be a distinguished career in comedy. All his hallmarks are there – painful authenticity, comedy grotesques, emotional tenderness, revelation and depth – it’s a class act. I think it will connect with a lot of people as a refreshing take on an overlooked stage in life.”

Conveniently for the sake of narrative flow, last year’s Rose D’Or-winning sitcom Catastrophe is also in the news this week, with Channel 4 commissioning a third and fourth season of the critically acclaimed show. Created by and starring Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, the second season of Catastrophe was C4’s second-highest performing comedy of the year. The show has also been streamed in the US by Amazon Prime and picked up for adaptation for French-speaking Canada.

Announcing the news, Phil Clarke, C4’s head of comedy, said: “I am thrilled to commission a third and fourth season. It’s a welcome return for the brave, razor-edged, excruciatingly honest and painfully funny portrayal of a modern, long-term relationship.”

Raised by Wolves
Big Talk Productions’ Raised by Wolves

Critics have also been effusive in their praise of the show. The Guardian’s Will Dean said it “inverts the classic romcom with sexual honesty, a barrage of swearing and a wonderfully dysfunctional support cast. Catastrophe is a modern great. All 12 episodes [the first two seasons] were superb in pretty much almost every aspect. At its heart it’s an ordinary love story, couched in some first-class swearing, about sexual honesty, served with a side-plate of adultery, lust, elderly parents, flirtatious colleagues, money worries and a dead dog. The love story we deserve.”

The Times’ Hugh Rifkind added that it is “the funniest British comedy of the past five years. I shan’t say more, because it is so funny that me telling you the funny bits would be considerably less funny than you actually watching it, which is definitely what you should do. It’s tight and sparse and there’s never a wasted moment. In a nutshell, the best bits are about all the terrible things you never quite say to your friends, family and significant other, and what would happen if everybody just said them.”

Announcing the recommission, Horgan and Delaney said: “We are thrilled to be making a third season of Catastrophe. Rob and Sharon are a blast to spend time with. And we’re not talking about ourselves in the third person, we’re talking about the characters. We’re eager to breathe life back into Rob and Sharon. Okay, now we are talking about us. In the first season Rob and Sharon went through a lot (us) and even more in the second season (back to the characters). We’re looking forward to putting Rob and Sharon (both us and the characters) through further pain for your enjoyment (now we’re talking about you).”

This is England '90
This Is England ’90, written by Shane Meadows and Jack Thorne, is up for a Rose D’Or

Delaney recently took part in a panel session at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, during which he talked about the challenges of delivering great comedy. He talked about the need to keep ego under control, even when the world is telling you how great you are. “I had this fear of becoming this walled-off guy who wouldn’t listen. So I’m a real believer in humility,” he said.

Explaining why he persisted with comedy as a career, Delaney said: “I realised after the global financial collapse that no career is safe, that everyone else knows how comedians feel. So I thought I might as well do exactly what I want to do.”

He was also very refreshing on the subject of encouraging diversity, observing that it is “insane” not to draw on diverse voices. “My advice is to be selfish, make money by embracing diversity,” he quipped.

Finally, in the UK, there are reports that the new season of BBC period drama Poldark will go head-to-head on Sunday night with ITV’s new period drama Victoria (September 4, 21.00). Fortunately, most of us have time-shifting technology these days, so my guess is that people will store Victoria so they can avoid the ad breaks.

Poldark is written by Debbie Horsfield while Victoria is created and written by novelist Daisy Goodwin in her screenwriting debut. Alongside the likes of Sally Wainwright, Sarah Phelps and Abi Morgan, these shows may be indicators that female writers are starting to hold more sway in primetime – a section of the schedule that, from a writer’s point of view, can sometimes resemble a London gentleman’s club. Or Muirfield Golf Club.

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From stage to screen

Mike Bartlett's Doctor Foster
Mike Bartlett’s Doctor Foster

Despite the funding challenges associated with staging live performance, the UK has always been a nurturing home for playwrights. And that has been a blessing for British television, too. Over the years the likes of David Hare, Tom Stoppard, Alan Bennett and Stephen Poliakoff have all proved very adept at moving between stage and small screen.

This traffic between theatre and TV now seems more intense than ever – and there are probably three reasons for this. First, of course, TV pays better. Second, the quality of 21st century TV is such that there is less reason for playwrights to feel like they are demeaning themselves by working for the small screen. And third, there is a well-documented shortage of screenwriters. Playwrights, having proved their ability to engage an audience, are thus an obvious resource for TV producers and broadcasters.

Historically, the risk in migrating playwrights to TV was that the kind of work they did in theatres was over-elaborate compared to the taut dialogue and visual storytelling TV audiences are used to. But the modern generation of playwrights has grown up with TV and, as such, seems able to move seamlessly between the demands of the two media (a similar dynamic has also brought more novelists to TV). It’s no longer necessary to tuck them away in rarified ‘play for today’ style slots, because they can actually deliver huge ratings.

River, by Abi Morgan, is currently on air
River, by Abi Morgan, is currently on air

A case in point is Mike Bartlett, who has just written the BBC hit Doctor Foster. With an average weekly audience of 8.2 million, the five-part show about a female doctor confronted with her husband’s infidelity is an assured and compelling piece of TV. While it is sometimes guilty of implying there will be a Fatal Attraction-style conclusion, for the most part it is an engaging human drama about the destructive nature of deceit and the way it can poison the entire ecosystem in which we live.

Bartlett moves effortlessly backwards and forwards between theatre and TV. He won an Olivier Award for his play King Charles III and also wrote ITV three-parter The Town in 2012. The latter, which starred Andrew Scott (Sherlock’s Moriarty), was Bartlett’s first foray into TV and dealt with some similar themes to Doctor Foster – namely the sense of threat that sits just below the surface of normal everyday life, and what it feels like to be an outsider in your own life. Perhaps unsurprisingly given Bartlett’s background, there is just a shade of Harold Pinter in this juxtaposition of menace and the mundane.

(Listen to this really informative interview with Bartlett).

Other TV writers who have shown prowess in the realm of theatre include Sarah Phelps (see our recent profile) and Abi Morgan. Morgan, now widely acknowledged as one of the UK’s top film and TV screenwriters, had her first successes in the theatre in the late 1990s with Skinned (1997), Sleeping Around (1998) and Fast Food (1999). Her transition to TV came in the early part of the last decade, though she really hit her stride at the start of this decade with an Emmy Award for period drama The Hour (2011). At the same time, Morgan’s film writing career took off with The Iron Lady and Shame (2011).

Lucy Prebble
Lucy Prebble

2015 promises to be another banner year for Morgan. Having just penned the movie Suffragette, her six-part TV series River is now airing on BBC1 and will soon be released internationally on Netflix. River tells the story of a London-based policeman who becomes mentally ill while in the midst of a murder investigation.

Interviewed for a BBC blog, Morgan said: “It’s about a man who struggles in all forms of intimacy and relates better to those no longer living, to those voices in his head. (It is) also about living in a city where very few people are actually from. London makes me feel connected and it also makes me feel very isolated and lonely at times. London is the best of the world and the worst of the world, so I wanted to write a character who was navigating their way through that.”

There full interview can be seen here.

Some noted playwrights, such as Jez Butterworth, have largely sidestepped TV in favour of film. But others to have heeded the call include Nick Payne, who is writing a TV adaptation of David Nicholls’ Us for the BBC, and Lucy Prebble, whose most notable foray into TV to date is The Secret Diary of a Call Girl (Tiger Aspect for ITV2). The author of acclaimed plays such as The Effect, ENRON and The Sugar Syndrome, Prebble is currently developing another TV drama with Tiger Aspect.

Sometimes playwrights get to adapt their own stage work. Debbie Tucker Green, for example, won a Bafta for the TV version of her play Random. But more often they are called on to create originals or work on pre-existing series. Catherine Johnson, whose break into the business came courtesy of Bristol Old Vic, is probably best known for writing the script for the smash-hit movie Mamma Mia!. But a healthy body of TV work includes episodes of Casualty, Band of Gold and Byker Grove. She also created Dappers for the BBC in 2010, a comedy pilot about a couple of single mums living on a Bristol council estate.

Prebble worked on The Secret Diary of a Call Girl for ITV2
Prebble worked on The Secret Diary of a Call Girl for ITV2

As a rule, playwrights seem to move backwards and forwards between the two media – rather than viewing theatre as a stepping stone on the way to screen success. Perhaps this explains why most of them appear to favour TV serials or miniseries, since this format interferes less with their stage writing.

While the injection of playwright creativity has undoubtedly been a boon for the British business, it’s worth noting that working with playwrights requires a degree of sensitivity to their way of thinking. It’s important to remember that they probably chose the world of theatre for reasons of artistic integrity that don’t always chime with the commercial demands of TV.

One of the UK’s leading playwrights, Joe Penhall, addressed this point in a 2009 interview with The Guardian. Penhall, who wrote Moses Jones for the BBC and adapted his own play Birthday for Sky Arts this year (as well as writing the screenplay for the movie version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road), makes it clear he won’t write just any old tripe: “I know people who have made so much money taking every whoring, sluttish fucking rewrite job there is. And I don’t want to be like that. If it gets frustrating, I just walk away. Because I’ve already got a job in theatre.”

Read the full interview here. Also worth a look is this article, which talks about US playwrights working in TV.

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