Mystery Road is the latest Australian feature film to hit the small screen. Series director Rachel Perkins discusses working with stars Judy Davis, Aaron Pedersen and the stunning Western Australian landscape in a show that blends cop drama and outback noir.
Picnic at Hanging Rock, Wake in Fright, Wolf Creek, Romper Stomper – in the last few years, Australian drama has revisited some of the country’s most famous feature films and novels to bring new series to TV that are either sequels or reimagined interpretations of the original versions.
Now comes Mystery Road, a spin-off from Ivan Sen’s award-winning feature films Mystery Road (2013) and Goldstone (2016). The six-part series, which will air this year on the ABC, sees Detective Jay Swan (played by Aaron Pedersen) assigned to investigate the mysterious disappearance of two young farm hands on an outback cattle station. One is a local Indigenous footy hero, and the other a backpacker. Working with local cop Emma James (Judy Davis), Jay’s investigation uncovers a past injustice that threatens the fabric of the whole community.
“I’d long been an admirer of Ivan’s work so I was very excited about doing something that was a homage to that but then extended the idea further,” director Rachel Perkins says. “Having an opportunity to expand on the original film and make this noir outback cop show that dealt with both race relations and history was a really interesting crossover for me.”
Produced by Bunya Productions and distributed by All3Media International, Mystery Road was filmed on location in Wyndham, the northernmost town in Western Australia. The harsh landscape meant Perkins was able to take the show’s characters and turn up the heat on them, literally, in this small community where everybody knows each other’s business.
“It was so hot shooting in Wyndham, 40°C most days, but the landscape is this incredible backdrop,” she says. “It really is an outback town; it’s almost like a frontier town and it has all of those qualities television has when it’s really great these days. It’s not just the story you’re interested in but the world. So we looked at series like Fargo and True Detective and looked at where they were set and how they really conjured the places. We wanted to set this story in a place that was very distinctive. So far, people have been amazed by the setting and that’s been part of people enjoying the series, that experience of the Australian outback in its most incredible form.”
The location was also appropriate for its history of racial conflict, a theme that bubbles beneath the surface of Mystery Road. “It’s not a cop show, it’s not just really about two missing boys. It’s about black and white Australians and how the simmering tension of history sits under our relationship,” Perkins adds.
Fronting the show alongside Pedersen is Hollywood star Judy Davis, who recently appeared in FX series Feud. The actor’s familial history with the region meant she had a deep understanding of, and interest in, the story. “I try not to think too much about how incredibly talented she is because otherwise it might be overwhelming,” Perkins says of Davis. “But I couldn’t have asked for a better collaborator. She was really terrific and I’m not sure what I’ll ever do now because I’ll want her in every role.”
Best known for films and documentaries such as Jasper Jones, Bran Neu Dae and First Australians, plus TV series like Redfern Now, Perkins says she enjoys telling stories across a range of genres. “But I’ve particularly loved working on Mystery Road because it’s a genre piece, it’s a TV cop drama but it has all this interesting, rich historical context, shot in one of the most shootable places in Australia,” she adds. “The landscape was so extraordinary. And with people I loved working with, so it’s very special to me. Having helmed all six episodes, it was wonderful to work across a canvas that was so large, and to be able to see the story through the whole evolution and its various chapters was such a privilege. I feel very lucky.”
As British drama Kiri makes its US debut, writer Jack Thorne tells DQ about penning the four-part miniseries and his approach to writing, with upcoming projects including The Eddy and His Dark Materials.
Widely regarded as one of the busiest people working in television, Jack Thorne hardly has a spare moment. So it’s no surprise that when DQ catches up with him, the writer is in New York combining promotion of his four-part miniseries Kiri with preparations for the Broadway transfer of his West End play Harry Potter & the Cursed Child.
Having worked on Skins and the Bafta-winning The Fades, Thorne is best known for collaborating with Shane Meadows on miniseries trilogy This Is England, as well as The Last Panthers, feature film Wonder and an episode of dystopian anthology series Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams.
More recently, he penned National Treasure, which sought to examine the fallout from a public figure being accused of historical sexual assault. But his most recent television outing is Kiri (pictured above), which launches on Hulu on April 4 and examines the disappearance of a young black girl (Kiri) who is soon to be adopted by her white foster family, and the trail of lies, blame, guilt and notoriety that follows.
Central to the drama is social worker Miriam (Sarah Lancashire), who arranges for Kiri to have an unsupervised visit with her biological grandparents, leading to her abduction. The series reunites Thorne with National Treasure producer The Forge and distributor All3Media International.
“It was quite stressful,” Thorne says of writing Kiri. “I was so happy with National Treasure and I feel very confident now in it in terms of what it said. So I was very anxious Kiri had something to say and what it had to say was something worth saying. The first draft of Kiri was one of the worst drafts I have ever handed in. [Executive producer] George Faber took me to dinner to say, ‘This is brilliant but a mess.’ He was being nice by saying it was brilliant but there wasn’t anything brilliant about it. Then started a long process of excavation.”
Writing Kiri was particularly troublesome because it was so personal, Thorne explains. His mother was a social worker, while he and his wife have looked into the adoption process, so transplanting those experiences and memories into a television drama proved to be a “scary process,” particularly when the transracial element opened up even more avenues to consider.
He continues: “All you have got to do as a writer is tell the truth but sometimes telling the truth is really tricky, and on Kiri it was. You’re dealing with a wasp’s nest of issues and that wasp’s nest is full of other people’s scars. Episode two sent me mad.”
Faber was also instrumental in helping solve the conundrum of the story’s structure, which shifts perspective between several different characters in a narrative method known as a relay race. “I thought about how to structure it and that idea came about, which is what Abi Morgan did brilliantly with [BBC drama] Murder. If I’ve got another show that can be my model, that makes me feel better,” he says.
Thorne says he works out a lot of knots in the storyline by writing through the problems, though he admits he needs to know the end of the story and what he thinks about it before he turns out a script. National Treasure proved to be an exception to the rule, however, when it came to deciding the courtroom verdict.
“I remember the moment when we realised [central character] Paul was not guilty as being quite late on, but we were talking about how we felt about him all the way through. He was guilty for a long time. It was just in that moment, going, ‘It’s a drama about someone who’s going to be found not guilty,’ and what that means and what that says.”
“In Kiri, it was about who did it and what that means. When it became clear it was about someone’s indignation that someone else wasn’t grateful for what they’d given them and that psychopathic anger inside him, we thought, ‘OK, that’s the truth we’re getting to, so how does every episode ask a question that leads to that ending?’”
Like National Treasure, the themes of blame and responsibility and the role of the media run through Kiri, so although it wasn’t billed as such in the UK (where both shows aired on Channel 4), the two miniseries form the first two instalments of a planned trilogy. In the US, it will air under the title National Treasure: Kiri.
“Hopefully we’re going to get a chance to do a third one, and hopefully [the link] will become clear,” Thorne explains. “It was always in my head as a trilogy of different things. Season one was gender, season two was race. Season three I know what it is but I don’t want to curse it [by revealing too much] and hopefully it will all join together in a way that makes sense for people. I’ve got a story but I’m trying to work out how to make it function.”
Work only seems like work when you’re not enjoying it, and that’s certainly the view Thorne takes, admitting that he takes on so many jobs simply because he likes writing. He points again to Morgan who, speaking on the Royal Court podcast, describes the moment she realised she had taken on too much work was when she had 14 projects on her slate and felt like she was constantly having affairs with each one, forcing her to strip back her workload.
“I don’t feel I’m quite in that place,” Thorne admits. “But I recognise the danger and it’s important not to overexpose. I’m also working out how, in an age when inclusivity is becoming increasingly important, to use my voice to make things better, rather than just propagate a world that is over-dominated by white men. I’m doing a lot of thinking about that at the moment. Visibility has always been very important to me and my logic has always been if I can get those faces and stories on TV, then I’m doing alright. I’m just working all that out.”
For television, Thorne is now developing The Eddy, a musical drama for Netflix with La La Land director Damien Chazelle, and the highly anticipated adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials triology of novels, first announced by the BBC back in 2015. Thorne came on board in April 2016. Season one, based on the first book, Northern Lights, introduces Lyra, an orphan whose search for a kidnapped friend uncovers a sinister plot involving stolen children, all set in a parallel universe where science, theology and magic are entwined.
“We’ve been together working on it for so long now. I’ve written all eight episodes of the first season and am rewriting them now,” Thorne says. “It’s been joyous so far, working out how to do it to make it work.
“There’s huge pressure. My job is to tell Philip’s story as well as I can. In doing so, I have to make decisions [about what to keep or cut out]. There are constant battles in how we tell these stories as well as you possibly can, but we’ve got a lot of time to tell them as well. Hopefully we can please everyone. That’s the aim but I’m tremendously scared.”
Phyllis Logan, Miranda Richardson and Zoë Wanamaker star as lifelong friends in Girlfriends, Kay Mellor’s long-time passion project about “women of a certain age.” The trio and Mellor reveal the origins of the series and discuss the changing attitudes toward older actors.
Ageism and the lack of roles for older women has long been a concern for actresses in Hollywood and around the world. Then when they do land a part on screen, they often find themselves cast as wives, mothers or grandmothers.
But a new six-part television drama from the pen of Kay Mellor is set to put “women of a certain age” front and centre. Girlfriends, which launches tonight on ITV in the UK, tells the story of friends Linda, Sue and Gail as they struggle with the responsibilities and inevitable changes that come with growing older, bound together by the same friendship they have shared throughout their lives.
“I wanted to put women centre stage,” recalls Mellor, speaking on the set of the series in Leeds, West Yorkshire in August last year. “I went to a seminar at the West Yorkshire Playhouse many years ago where a lot of women were saying they only ever play the nana or the mum and no one speaks for them. There was a need to give women a voice and women of a certain age a voice. I have written Band of Gold and Playing the Field that have put women centre stage before, but women of a certain age and looking at the complexities of their life and what they juggle. They are a sandwich generation looking after kids, kids’ kids and their mothers. We all know what that is like juggling things.”
Mellor is on a hot streak at present, having last year written Love, Lies & Records for BBC1 and executive produced Overshawdowed for digital network BBC3. She also wrote and directed a musical based on her award-winning ITV television series Fat Friends, which is now touring the UK.
ITV also embraced Girlfriends, something Mellor admits surprised her, explaining that she was gearing up for a battle to get this story of women “past their middle-50s” on air. The writer even expected the broadcaster to request the characters be aged down into their 40s, but that note never arrived.
“I really thought I was going to have fight for this one but it wasn’t that hard a fight,” says Mellor, who is also lead director on the show. “It’s been coming along at the same time as In the Club and The Syndicate [Mellor’s BBC1 shows, debuting in 2014 and 2012 respectively]. They were always moving forward but this is my passion project. I sit and watch these guys and have a little weep and I have a little laugh. And I am thinking that if I am doing that as the director then I think, dare I say it, it’s going to be good.”
Girlfriends sits particularly close to Mellor as the characters and relationships at the heart of the story are based on her own friendships, with Linda in particular based on the woman who has been the writer’s best friend since she was three years old.
“We used to live over the road from each other, she is the most wonderful person,” Mellor explains. “I don’t think I would be the writer I am if it hadn’t been for her. She supports me in everything I do. She is a very special, lovely woman. She lightens up a room when she walks in it and she certainly lightens up my life.”
On screen, Linda is played by Phyllis Logan (Downton Abbey), with her childhood friends Sue and Gail portrayed by Miranda Richardson (Mapp & Lucia) and Zoë Wanamaker (Mr Selfridge) respectively.
The story begins in the aftermath of the apparent death of Linda’s husband Micky, as the three friends find themselves back together and facing their own problems, from money troubles, a looming divorce and the loss of a high-powered job from age discrimination, to juggling the responsibilities of caring for their grandchildren and ageing mothers.
“It’s unusual because usually you are tagged on as someone else’s appendage, whether it’s a mother, an auntie or a wife in the background. So it’s nice to be right at the forefront of it all and the men are the add-ons, as it were,” Logan says of her part in the show. “It’s lovely to have three women as protagonists.
“It was so exciting to read it, as it’s very much women of a certain age and it’s all about them and their struggles and their highs and lows, but at the root of it is their friendship that binds them together. They come to each other’s aid, they really do.”
Looking back on a career that has spanned roles in Downton, The Good Karma Hospital, Lovejoy and Silent Witness, Logan says Girlfriends is a refreshing change from the way television dramas are usually cast.
“It was always that men get cast and their wives are 15 years younger, and that’s still there, but it’s nice in ours because it’s the other way around. There is slightly more [opportunity now] for women over 50. People have discovered that women of a certain age are quite interesting and they still have a viability, a sexuality and an attractiveness about them. Maybe people are beginning to cotton on to that – let’s hope.”
It was also a relief for Logan not to have to wear a corset or any other period costumes after six seasons playing Mrs Hughes in Downton.
“Period drama is a different thing altogether,” she says. “It has a much more leisurely pace but to a stultifying point. This is fast, and it is fantastic working with Kay. I loved the script, and when she said she was directing, I thought it was fantastic because what better person is there than the person with the vision of what she wants it to look like? It’s brilliant, it’s great fun.”
Playing the highly successful and fiercely intelligent Sue is Richardson, who was keen to work with Mellor. “She has such a fabulous record in writing for women,” the actor observes. “She is humane, so everyone is a hugely rounded character, but she likes to see everything from the women’s point of view. She’s always cooking – she has about five things on the go at the same time.”
During the series, which is produced by Rollem Productions and distributed by All3Media International, viewers will see Sue face challenges both at work and in her private life, seemingly unaware of the life-changing events looming ahead. And the fact that her story and the events and characters in the series are all mash-ups of real-life people and stories adds to the appeal for Richardson.
“They are all amalgams of people,” she says. “I thought of someone the other day who made me think of Sue. There is high drama in the way she operates with groups of people. She is always on show but all of these people have vulnerabilities and they mask their vulnerabilities but you know they are there in different ways.”
Meanwhile, Gail deals with a mother suffering from the early stages of dementia, a jailbird son who moves in with her and her husband, and a child from an old relationship. But she is able to juggle her responsibilities with the support of her friends.
“Very early on, we make relationships with people in our lives so even if you don’t see them for a long time you pick up where you left off,” says Wanamaker. “If you have that kind of connection, it really goes on. You accept them for what you had together and what you carry on in life, and that way they support each other.”
While she admits hers is a part she wouldn’t normally have done, Wanamaker says she was sold on the project after reading the first three scripts, noting that the opportunity to work with Mellor and play a role not often seen on television was too good to turn down.
“Have you seen how many women are on television now?” she adds. “The last 10 years have been incredible; the American stuff has been all women and very beautifully written and there’s more in this country too, at last. Open the doors. I think it’s a very optimistic time for women.”
Dark and broody drama Craith (Hidden) looks set to keep the international spotlight firmly on Welsh drama. Co-creator Ed Talfan discusses making the bilingual crime series, which goes against the grain by revealing its villain from the beginning.
The landscapes in North Wales are breathtaking. With lush green hills and mountains standing on the edge of Snowdonia National Park, overlooking the Menai Strait, a stretch of water that separates the mainland and the island of Anglesey, the region must be a director’s dream.
Point the camera in any direction and the scale and atmosphere of the environment surely fills the lens. At least it would if you could see it. On the wintry November day DQ travels to Anglesey to visit the set of S4C drama Craith (known as Hidden in English), the weather is biblical. Rain and gale-force winds are lashing down on anyone that dares to stray outside, turning roads into rivers and largely hiding the towering peaks from view.
Unperturbed, the cast and crew soldier on, seemingly unaware of the conditions surrounding them. The day’s filming is taking place at the Ddraig Goch (Red Dragon) Garage, which offers passing motorists the chance to refuel and pick up supplies from the small shop adjacent to the forecourt, found a short drive from the village of Dwyran.
When the cameras start rolling, a small blue van pulls up in front of the shop. Inside sit a man and a young girl, Dylan Harris and his daughter Nia. After a short conversation, Dylan gets out of the van and comes into the shop, its shelves stocked with a range of household items and an array of Welsh flags adorning all corners of the single room.
It’s a small but important scene, providing a window into the home life of Dylan, who, in contravention of typical murder-mystery rules, is revealed at the start to be the show’s villain.
The story juxtaposes the viewpoint of Dylan, played by Rhodri Meilir, with that of DCI Cadi John (Siân Reese-Williams), a police officer drawn back to her childhood home due to her father’s ill health. But after the body of a local woman is found in a remote mountain river, her world – and the world of those around her – is changed forever when it transpires there may have been more than one abduction.
Produced by Severn Screen for S4C and BBC Wales, the gritty crime drama is executive produced by co-creators Mark Andrew and Ed Talfan. The producer is Hannah Thomas and the series is distributed globally by All3Media International.
“Dylan’s a guy who’s had a terrible lot in life,” explains Talfan. “He’s had a very difficult domestic situation and comes from a family that’s toxic. The series doesn’t seek to use that as an excuse for what he does; he pays the price for what he does. Hopefully across the series we see a portrait of somebody who is in his own agony and inflicting that agony on others.
“There are moments, particularly in the first half of the series, where what comes across is a vulnerability and, within that, there is a flicker of likability, which is uncomfortable – it should be uncomfortable – but in the same way the best baddies always have their own charisma about them. We spend a lot of time investing in him and the world he inhabits because often these characters are people at the fringes of the drama. We just wanted to go on a journey with him.”
In contrast, Talfan describes former army officer DCI John as a straight-talking detective who’s comfortable in her own skin and extremely good at her job.
“There’s a version of the crime genre where detectives have super powers, these magic moments where they’re better than everybody else,” Talfan continues. “Cadi is someone who’s bloody good at her job, is really hardworking and does the hard yards. All the police you talk to, it’s not about eureka moments. It’s about putting the work in and actually visiting the evidence, revisiting it and being like a dog with a bone. There’s a tenacity in her that’s real, rather than a Captain Underpants flies in and says, ‘I know what the problem is here.’ For me, that’s reductive and a bit tedious.”
The creative approach to the series is a far cry from 2013 Welsh drama Y Gwyll (Hinterland), which has gone on to become a global success. Many of the crew who worked on that show have now reunited for Craith, which dispels Hinterland’s case-of-the-week format.
Talfan, who also co-created Hinterland, says it was clear from the outset that they didn’t want to conceal the killer in Craith. “That’s not the game we’re playing,” he explains. “We’re up front very early on about who the abductor is and the question is getting to understand that character because he’s not just a two-dimensional evil-doer. We get to understand his world and see how he works and how he lives alongside his mother and his daughter, and the dynamic that unfolds when he loses a girl [who becomes the first victim], which is what kicks the series off, and then abducts a new victim. It’s a portrait of an unfolding crime from the point of view of the police and the criminal.”
Part of the reason behind following this format was a desire to do something completely different to Hinterland, in a way that allowed the creators to delve deeper into the cast of characters than is usually possible in a single 90-minute procedural.
“It was great to be able to get a really good ensemble and know that all of those characters were going to travel across eight hours,” Talfan says. “It made it more fun to write, more fun for the actors to play and more satisfying for the directors as well, because they sometimes find it frustrating when they’ve got a visiting actor who’s got two days on set in which to film four scenes.”
While the story format differs between Craith and Hinterland, the two dramas are united by the way they are shot, with filming taking place back-to-back in Welsh and English. The Welsh version will debut on S4C on January 7, 2018, before a bilingual version airs later in the year on BBC Wales. BBC4, which previously acquired Hinterland, has already snapped up rights to Craith and will also air the bilingual version in 2018.
Quite simply, each shot is filmed in Welsh and then, if required, it is immediately repeated in English. “It’s an organic process that comes from the creators,” Talfan says, noting that there are no stipulations requiring a certain amount of the bilingual version should be in English.
“Actually, certain characters in the story world will speak Welsh and some won’t. So you might have an episode that balances 60/40 English but then you might have one episode that is considerably more Welsh, just because that’s where the story is at. It’s true bilingualism, rather than a country where some people speak English and some people speak Welsh.”
Notably, some scenes play out with no dialogue at all, but that wasn’t a conscious decision to avoid reshoots, Talfan insists. “It’s genuinely the kind of drama Mark and myself and director Gareth [Bryn] love, so those elements are shot once. For me personally, because my experience of being Welsh is bilingual, if you were making a single version it would possibly be the bilingual version because that’s reflective of how I live in the country. But there are people in Wales who speak Welsh pretty much all the time and you may find some programme makers would love to make solely Welsh programming.”
Development began in December 2015, with Andrew leading a scriptwriting team that includes award-winning Welsh novelist Caryl Lewis and Bafta Cymru-winning writer Jeff Murphy. Treatments and a script bible were completed in 2016, with all eight scripts finished by early 2017.
“It’s been quite intense,” Talfan admits, though he describes shooting in North Wales as a joy, despite the changeable weather. “We shot some of the series in South Wales for practical cost reasons and then some of it in North Wales, so those are the logistical challenges. Then because it’s a bilingual show, you need a bilingual cast and we’re always trying to bring in new faces. You’ve got no baggage with them [from previous roles] so you surrender to the characters. Celebrity casting applies to a lot of high-end drama. I understand why it happens, and there are very good reasons for it, but there’s a lovely sense of quality between the ensemble and the fact the audience don’t know them.”
Since its launch in 2013, Hinterland has certainly helped to put Welsh drama on the map, drawing comparisons to the wave of Nordic noir crime dramas over the last decade. But beyond the creative or production process, Talfan says the biggest game-changer for Welsh drama in the post-Hinterland landscape has been a psychological one.
“If we wanted to do something with a certain level of ambition, which requires a certain level of budget, we would always go to London and ask a broadcaster for their support and the green light,” he explains. “If for any reason they passed, usually you would get back on the train to Cardiff and think the project was dead in the water. But on Hinterland, the thing that changed everything was the back-to-back production that had first been done in the early 90s and doing it in tandem with a partner like All3, because they could see the show would sell and they believed in how we would deliver it.
“It’s completely changed how we approach projects now. If you get a ‘no’ from one organisation, you don’t think all your work’s in the bin; you think there is a way of financing this, you just need to be internationally minded and look at where those partnerships are. So for people working in the regions, it’s been hugely important because it used to feel like you could only get a ‘yes’ out of London. It doesn’t feel like that anymore.”
A seriously dark, broody and compelling drama, Craith is well placed to repeat Hinterland’s international success and, together with other recent S4C dramas such as Bang and Un Bore Mercher (Keeping Faith), ensure the international spotlight continues to shine on Welsh drama, whatever the weather.
Kay Mellor puts her characters – and the audience – through the emotional wringer in BBC1 drama Love, Lies & Records, which stars Ashley Jensen as a working mother juggling her family life with the daily dramas inside a registry office.
The foyer of Dewsbury Town Hall is awash with crew members, its floor covered in cables and wires running between lighting rigs, cameras and monitors.
Banners promoting weddings, naming ceremonies, proms and parties are stationed in various enclaves or next to the large marble columns dotted through the room. A visitors desk is positioned beside the main doorway, a security guard sitting behind it.
Grand pictures of former mayors are hung across the walls of the elaborate Victorian building, which is filled with wood-panelled rooms, ornate painted ceilings and stained-glass windows.
When the cameras begin rolling, however, the setting becomes Greater Leeds Registry Office. Director Cilla Ware, helming the second block of filming, watches behind a monitor as Ashley Jensen, wearing a black leather jacket and black dress, and a suited Kenny Doughty walk across the room in conversation. Extras are waved forward into the shot, criss-crossing past each other as they walk in and out of doorways and stairwells.
This is the set of BBC1’s emotional and heart-warming Love, Lies & Records, in which Jensen (Extras, Agatha Raisin) plays registrar Kate, a working mother who must juggle her personal life with the daily dramas of births, marriages and deaths and the impact they have on her. Doughty plays fellow registrar Rick, with additional cast members including Mark Stanley, Adrian Bower and Mandip Gill.
Written by Bafta-winning scribe Kay Mellor (In The Club, The Syndicate), Love, Lies & Records is directed by Ware and Dominic Leclerc and produced by Rollem Productions in coproduction with Acorn Media Enterprises in the US. All3Media is handling international distribution of the show, which launches on November 16.
The idea for the six-part series first sparked inside Mellor when she had to go to Leeds Town Hall to register the death of her mother, only to return to the same venue for a friend’s wedding just five days later.
“We were in the same place with the same registrars and it made me think about their lives and about everything that went on in this town hall,” she reveals, describing the building as “a hub of emotion.”
Mellor continues: “Who are these people who are one minute marrying people and the next they’re registering a death? How do they cope with that emotionally? Do they have home lives, and how does that impact on their home lives?
“Kate’s looking after her daughter, who you see picking up strange things on her phone, while her son’s asking to get new trainers, and the next minute she’s registering a death and she’s got a woman in front of her who’s in floods of tears. How do you deal with that? It’s tough, it’s hard to do that. But every registrar I spoke to – and believe me, I spoke to a lot – people find their jobs absolutely fascinating and rewarding emotionally.”
The range of stories Mellor discovered from her research means 98% of the series is based on real events, she says. A wedding that takes place inside a hospice in episode one is just one example of a plot point based on a true story, while the show also touches on topical issues such as immigration, trafficking, cyber-bullying and poverty.
Throw Kate, a maverick who cares little for rules and procedure if it means finding a happy ending, into the mix and you have the potential for more drama than you can shake a particularly sharp stick at.
Unusually for a series written by Mellor, Love, Lies & Records is less of an ensemble drama, despite the large supporting cast, instead focusing mainly on central character Kate, who in the opening scenes discovers she has beaten office nemesis Judy (Rebecca Front) to a promotion. As such, Jensen is barely off screen, whether in scenes set at home surrounded by her family or within the walls of the town hall. Having previously seen Jensen audition for pregnancy drama In The Club – a role she didn’t ultimately land – Mellor was impressed enough to put Jensen at the top of her list for Love, Lies & Records.
“She’s clearly a leading lady and I’d gone out to her for In The Club to be part of an ensemble,” Mellor says of the Scottish actor. “But I think because of where she’s been, on the other side of the pond [in Ugly Betty] and she’s done Agatha Raisin, she’s a true leading lady in lots of ways. She’s never grand, she’s all embracing and lovely. She’s got a hell of a lot of lines to learn because she leads every scene.”
Inspired by female-led series including Madam Secretary, Doctor Foster and Danish dramedy Rita, Mellor adds: “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be lovely just to follow this woman on her journey and let it open out?’ You see some of her staff, her home life and how that affects her. I just love it when it’s multi-layered and then getting glimpses of the other lives of the other registrars and her family.”
Jensen admits she has long been a fan of Mellor’s work, which she describes as “television people want to watch.”
“With Kay’s writing, it’s so human but it’s done with humour. It’s so honest and a bit painful at times and funny and just very real,” Jensen says. “Her writing is just so wonderful to play. She does make it easy to learn and I’ve had a fair amount to learn. So far, so good.”
The actor also says she’s “ready” to lead a primetime drama. “Because I started at the bottom, I was the day-player that came in for a day, so I’ve done all that and I feel as if I’ve very much served an apprenticeship and it’s not like I’ve suddenly come in [to be a leading actor]. I think I know how to conduct myself and I very much feel that ,on set, it should be a collaborative thing. It’s a worry if it’s not, because every job is absolutely vital. We’re literally all working together for an end gain and I just happen to be the person in all day every day, but that’s fine. I feel ready for it.”
Another actor arguably more recognisable for appearing in comedies than dramas is Front, best known for comedic turns in shows such as The Thick of It but more recently playing it straight in Humans, Doctor Thorne and War & Peace.
“I could see it in her,” says Mellor of casting Front as the officious and fastidious Judy. “She’s a comedian but I’ve seen her play [dramatic] parts where I thought it would be lovely if I could just get a bit more of that.
“Judy’s been working as a registrar for a long time and has been passed over [for promotion] twice. She’s turning a little bit bitter. All that was gorgeous to write, but down the line they do go on an interesting journey. They’ll never be best buddies [Judy and Kate] but they end up in a better place than they were in.”
Front says she loves straddling comedy and drama, and is particularly attracted to roles that mark a departure from her previous work. “What drew me to [Judy] is just she’s a really complicated woman and is someone who’s made her life unnecessarily complicated,” the actor explains. “That’s what I’m imagining for her backstory – that everything she leans on to make her life easier is somehow actually making her life more complicated. She’s not a bad person at all; she does some really horrible things but she’s not a terrible person and I just think she’s one of those people who ties themselves up in knots and makes wrong decisions.”
Love, Lies & Records hits the screens during a prolific streak for Mellor that began earlier this autumn with BBC3’s online drama Overshadowed, which she executive produced. Then airing in the New Year is Girlfriends, an ITV drama starring Phyllis Logan, Miranda Richardson and Zoë Wanamaker, which Mellor has written and directed. Meanwhile, she has also written and directed Fat Friends: The Musical, which is based on her long-running drama about a group of friends trying to lose weight.
“Kay’s writing has a connection with everybody,” says Doughty of Mellor’s ability to create dramas that stir the emotions. “She’s got the ability to really connect with people on a human level.
“The writing is funny, heartwarming and heartbreaking, and you do get all of that. But this is a different Kay – it’s not The Syndicate or In the Club. It’s got a different grittiness. It feels different. It’s Kay but a slight departure for Kay, and that’s what really excites me.”
Channel 4’s one-off drama Unspeakable follows a mother investigating whether her new boyfriend is in an inappropriate relationship with her 11-year-old daughter. Filmmaker David Nath and stars Indira Varma and Luke Treadaway discuss a story lifted straight from the headlines.
You’re a divorced woman in a new relationship with a handsome younger man when an anonymous text arrives on your phone, saying: “There is something going on between your boyfriend and your daughter.” Then a second text arrives: “It’s not right.” What do you do?
Do you approach your new boyfriend, knowing that if you are wrong he will be appalled that you even suspected him? Do you ask your 11-year-old daughter – and if so, how? These questions are at the heart of Unspeakable, a new one-off drama for Channel 4.
Created, directed and produced by Bafta-winning documentary maker David Nath of Story Films, a production company he set up with fellow journalist Pete Beard a year ago, the story could not be more current. Indeed, the project came out of several news stories in which accusations both real and false have been levelled against people from anonymous sources.
Nath is best known for his documentaries including Bedlam and The Murder Detectives, but he decided this story was best told via a drama.
“It’s fictional but this is based on real stories that have happened,” says Nath, who made his first drama, The Watchman (also for C4), just a year ago. “The consequences of a sexual allegation are quite terrifying. Initially I did look at making a documentary about it, but it became clear quite quickly that it wouldn’t be possible. The anonymity would have made it difficult, but even if you had got past that I felt the power in these stories is when the protagonist – in this case a woman – goes through a period of uncertainty, where she questions everything. That is difficult to represent in a retrospective film; I wanted to show it as it was happening.
“It was based on a real story I heard where an allegation had been made from an anonymous source and there was this window where the mother didn’t know what to think. In the real story the window was only two hours, but I thought that period of doubt was so interesting. It shows an accusation can completely change your view and perception of someone you think you know.”
Luther and Game of Thrones star Indira Varma plays Jo, the woman who receives the mysterious text message just minutes after dropping her obviously upset daughter and son off to school. The tense 60-minute film, set over 48 hours, is a masterclass in acting as you see her character go through the gamut of emotions as, at first alone and too terrified to talk to anyone about the information she has just received, she tries to figure out what is going on. Once Luke is home from work, she has to work out what she now thinks of him.
“The first third of the film is like an inner monologue representing a journey of increased suspicion,” says Nath. “Uncertainty creeps into terror as every seemingly innocuous thing becomes loaded as she looks for clues. The nature of that accusation is something you would find very difficult to ignore or compartmentalise because of the nature of what it is.
“Once the poison is in there, it is very, very difficult to remove. It has a hold over you. Your mind starts to play tricks and you selectively recall things. I wanted there to be a strong sense of her rattling around her house looking for clues.”
Varma admits she was worried that the first third of the film, being solely focused on her, would be “boring” but she quickly realised how dramatic the situation was. “The nuances are so clever,” she says. “This is someone who wants to stay in control of the situation and not get ahead of herself. She is on this knife edge because she wants to be a responsible parent but she is also a woman who is in love and wants to hold on to her relationship. You see her wrangling with this dilemma and that makes it a very interesting thing to play.”
Nath says he tried to get into the head of how a woman would react by asking female friends, who all said – as the daughter in the story was staying at her already-paranoid father’s house – they would confront the boyfriend. “But they struggled when I asked them how would you confront them, how would you say the words: ‘Did you do this?’”
“What worked so well is that it is all very subtle,” says Luke Treadaway, who plays Jo’s boyfriend Danny. “There is no dastardly twiddling of a moustache. Danny doesn’t know what is going on. He thinks he is having a normal weekend until Jo tells him about the text.
“The thing about the script was even as you get to the end you don’t know what is going to happen. The writing is so subtle that the ending might well have been different.”
During the making of the film, which debuts on C4 this Sunday and is distributed by All3Media International, the team thought deeply about this particular crime. “I have come to think that men have somehow lost the trust of women,” says Nath. “There is an anxiety about new relationships. People who abuse children are manipulators, which is why [Jo] would be so worried. In society there is a presumption of guilt that has to be disproved, which makes the currency of this particular allegation very, very strong.”
Although this is his second short film, Nath says making a drama is very different to documentary-making and admits he found it nerve-wracking. “It’s more exposing,” he says. “With documentaries, you have a small crew and you direct them by being invisible and putting people at ease, while in drama it’s the opposite. You have to be quite demonstrative and everybody from the props to the lighting and the actors all want you to reassure them and make decisions. You can’t hide in any way when you are directing a drama.”
But, of course, dramas also hold plenty of advantages over documentaries – chiefly in that you are not confined by what you’ve been able to film. “The thing that is the same is that both are absolutely about telling stories powerfully and the best that you can,” says Nath. “In documentary you might not have all the elements; you only have the elements you have been able to gather. In drama you can construct any story you want, so the responsibility is on you tell it perfectly. That is a different pressure.”
But despite Nath’s fears, Varma says she didn’t even notice he was practically a novice. “It’s hard to believe it was his second drama, as he was brilliant,” she says. “He told me that, as a journalist, he can tell what makes a good story, and he was right. And what was particularly brilliant was he was able to articulate what he wanted, which not all directors can do. It’s an intricate story and I felt David let me do what I wanted, but then he would tweak things very delicately. I felt very led. The drama is so precise, but that is also the joy of the piece.”
The writers of The Missing turn the hunt for a serial killer on its head with a new drama that starts at the end and works backwards. DQ chats to Richard Dormer and Jodi Balfour about starring in mind-bending crime drama Rellik.
Since they burst on to the scene in 2014 with The Missing, Jack and Harry Williams have joined the ranks of the most sought-after writers in television.
The success of that series spawned a sequel two years later, while they were also behind crime drama One of Us and acclaimed comedy Fleabag. Forthcoming commissions for their Two Brothers Pictures label include conspiracy thriller White Dragon and The Widow.
But now the Williams brothers find themselves in the unique position of having two series debuting in the UK at exactly the same time. Liar, which begins on ITV at 21.00 on Monday, is an emotional six-part drama that explores the consequences of a meeting between a teacher (Joanne Froggatt) and a surgeon (Ioan Gruffudd).
In the same slot over on BBC1, meanwhile, Rellik looks to be a show that will tear up the detective genre and leave viewers on the edge of their seats as the Williams brothers tell the story of a serial killer in reverse. Eagle-eyed fans will have noted the title is the word ‘killer’ spelled backwards.
Drawing parallels to 2000 film Memento, the perpetrator is caught at the beginning of the series before the drama moves back in time across six episodes to the very beginning, where the crime and the killer are revealed.
At the centre of the story is damaged and disfigured detective Gabriel Markham, played by Richard Dormer, who becomes obsessed by the hunt for the killer who scarred him in an acid attack. Alongside Gabriel is his partner Elaine (Jodi Balfour), who is described as a bright and intense detective who is eager to please.
With a cast that also includes Rosalind Eleazar, Paterson Joseph, Paul Rhys, Michael Shaeffer and Lærke Winther, the series is produced by New Pictures and Two Brothers Pictures for BBC1 and US cablenet Cinemax in association with distributor All3Media International.
It’s a sunny May afternoon when DQ arrives at the production base for the series – a dimly lit multi-storey car park in Stratford, east London, a stone’s throw from the Olympic Park.
Two Metropolitan Police officers are standing beside their motorbikes, ready to escort the crew onto the adjacent dual carriageway that will serve as the setting for a car chase. Nearby, a mint-green Nissan Bluebird is hooked up to the back of a truck as two cameramen settle in for the ride.
“It’s very original; it’s a completely original way of storytelling,” says Dormer, fresh from the daily chore of having his facial prosthetics removed. “We start almost at the end and work our way backwards to find out how all these characters came to be the way they’re presented at the beginning of the viewing experience. So it’s like a puzzle that comes together.
“There are so many red herrings, so many clues left throughout, but you’ve got to go backwards through it. That’s also very hard to do as an actor because we’re not shooting it in order, we’re almost shooting backwards and you’ve got to imagine what you’re feeling at the beginning, or is it the end? I’m confused – but it’s very interesting.”
Dormer describes his character as “not a typical cop,” and as someone who is very driven, intense and emotionally explosive. And from the beginning – which is actually the end – the hunt for the killer is a personal obsession for Gabriel. Viewers will see the acid attack play out midway through the series.
“He’s so driven to catch the person who did this that he comes back to work. He’s not psychologically, emotionally or physically prepared to do that, but he does it anyway,” Dormer says about Gabriel’s life-changing injuries. “That’s why the drama is so good, because you’re watching somebody unravel. He’s a pretty unpredictable, scary guy. He’s scary because of his absolute intense conviction. He’ll do anything and break any rule to get this guy who’s done this to him.”
Actors often say the toughest roles to play are those that are most similar to their real lives. Dormer agrees with that sentiment, describing Rellik as the hardest thing he has ever done, despite battling the undead in Game of Thrones and prehistoric wasps in the freezing environs of Fortitude.
“The weird thing with this person, I’ve discovered, is that I’m almost playing myself but in an altered reality, which is very interesting,” the Northern Irish actor explains. “It’s very strange. As soon as I hear my accent – I’m speaking in my own accent – I’m a different person but I’m not. Obviously I’m not a cop, but what if 20 years ago instead of coming to London to become an actor, I came over to become a cop? That’s how close it is to me.
“The one thing I’ve always done with every character I’ve ever played is I’ve crawled into somebody else, I’ve become this other thing, which is really liberating because then you have no fear of showing ugliness because you’re a different person. But if you’re playing yourself, it’s a lot rawer and can be very truthful, and that’s pretty scary. But that’s what it’s all about. It’s a scary story.”
It’s proven to be a particularly challenging role for Dormer, who admits he has struggled to switch off after a hard day’s filming and has found listening to classical music with a glass of red wine in hand helps him to unwind.
“Otherwise,” he says, “your head is buzzing with all the emotions and thoughts and fears you’ve been feeling all day. If it feels very real, it’s done something to your psyche. It’s invaded some part of you and shaken things up, so it’s important to recognise what those things might be and put them to bed and remind yourself they’re not your problems.”
Sharing the screen with Gabriel is his police partner Elaine, who “rocks his world,” Dormer says. “She’s a very mysterious, exciting woman and he is attracted to her. He’s married, it’s very complicated!” he adds.
Playing Elaine is South African-born Jodi Balfour, who starred in Canadian drama Bomb Girls and US series Quarry before landing her part in Rellik. She will also be seen on screen later this year as Jackie Kennedy in season two of Netflix’s royal biopic The Crown.
Describing the appeal of starring in the series, Balfour explains: “So often what draws you to acting is those great two-hander scenes where you get to have a really in-depth conversation with someone. But in this show, any time that’s happening, the characters are usually playing against what they really want or they’re concealing what they’re thinking, so that’s been really fun.
“The other thing I wanted to do, which I hardly ever get to do, is just to play someone who’s quite tormented as a human being, and [Elaine’s] whole life has been pretty dark and difficult. I hardly ever get to play those kinds of roles, so that was really exciting.”
Balfour says she has also found it difficult to switch off after filming, so much so that she set herself boundaries during the shoot. “The most boring and laughable of which is I don’t really work at night, on the script or anything,” she reveals. “Obviously we work at night but when I was prepping and running lines, I didn’t work at night. Any time close to bed it really has been affecting my dreams and my sleep and all sorts of stuff. I have a completely separate life to this character and really work at maintaining that.”
Was she surprised when she discovered who the killer was? “I was pretty shocked,” the actor admits, adding: “I think everyone was. No one knew who the killer was for the longest time. Then slowly as people started finding out, it was really funny to see everyone’s reactions. For all of us who are on the inside of it all and knew all the dynamics, it was quite a shock so hopefully the audience will be even more surprised.”
While Richard Dormer points to the similarities between himself and his character in Rellik, one thing that certainly sets them apart is the horrific injuries Gabriel suffers from an acid attack.
The hugely disfiguring scars his character bears give him a route into his performance, but they also meant the actor could look forward to spending two hours every morning having the silicon prosthetics attached to one side of his face. He then spent another 30 minutes each evening having them removed.
Heading a seven-strong make-up team was make-up designer Pippa Woods, who began work three months before the show started production.
“I started researching actual acid burns, which is the most horrific kind of research you’ll ever have to do,” she tells DQ on the set of the series. “We got Richard from about three or four weeks before the actual shoot started so we could only get the ball rolling from then. So we were gathering images of things we liked and talking to the directors and producers to find out how they wanted it to look as well.
“When we got Richard, we sent him to get a life cast from [make-up effects expert] Kristyan Mallet, who’s been making prosthetics for Gabriel and Christine [played by Rosalind Eleazar]. Christian took the designs and sculpted bits and pieces, and those images go backwards and forward between all the different companies and directors and execs, and you try and piece it all together.
“We bought the moulds from Kristyan and we’ve got two full-time prosthetics artists: one who does make-up with me and one who’s always running the pieces in the workshop and painting them up and getting other bits ready for other things.
“Gabriel’s got a few different stages of his make-up. His main one that you see was sculpted with all the big moulds, and then there are different stages where he’s got a recovery mask on, which stops the face from stretching, so it stops a lot of the scarring. We made a few separate pieces that go into his hair and down his neck. Everything under the mask is just colour, just to stop pieces from sticking to the skin, and it cuts down the time a lot. It’s been ongoing because you keep tweaking things. Even now we’re still changing little bits.”
New prosthetics had to be created each day of shooting, with a dedicated ‘prosthetics bus’ on set to handle the different pieces as they moved different stages of construction.
“In the bus at the moment, there’s 10 pieces in a row all at different stages of being painted,” Woods notes. “So they have to be painted exactly the same, and then we just have to try to stick them on in the same place every day. We worked out [Dormer] has had 60 days in full prosthetics.”
Bucket is a bittersweet series about a dying mother who embarks on an ambitious road trip with plans to tick off a preposterous bucket list, and her daughter who has no choice but to go along for the ride. Here, writer Frog Stone, who also stars with Miriam Margolyes, reveals the inspiration behind the four-parter, produced by Solution 3 with Company Pictures for BBC4 and distributed by All3Media International.
The story of this show began with another idea entirely. But then real life got in the way and everything changed.
I had finished a film in the US and during the typical actor’s post-shoot slump I posted on Facebook that I feared never working again unless someone made a Miriam Margolyes biopic. My height and hair made me a shoo-in, right? I’d sold scripts before, so maybe I should even write it, I thought. It was as a private joke but then TV producers picked up on the idea. After a wonderfully fun lunch pitching my ideas, the legend that is Miriam was on board. Then came the commissioners with enthusiasm and backing, and soon I was writing a script. Then my father died.
Dad had cancer and died within three months of diagnosis. There was no big reconciliation, no meaningful talks and suddenly no time left to mend our tricky relationship. He was very frightened and angry. So was I. Things were easier when we avoided the big stuff and chatted about doing one last trip to his beloved Lake District. We never made it. But stories give everyone a second chance. And so Bucket was born: two characters struggling with life, death and each other on the pot-holed road to wish fulfilment.
I must say, the similarities to my life and family end there. Mim [played by Margolyes] and Fran [Stone] are their own distinctive characters but I think everyone will recognise the sweet-and-sour dynamic of parent-child relationships. I wanted to bring the personal and generational conflict to screen, as we rarely get to see complicated, flawed women like this. Love and fury, that’s real life; funny, painful and without a fixed genre, an age limit or a dress code. Fran is a repressed 30-something scared to start life and Mim is a feckless baby-boomer outraged that life might end. They are both frustrated but forever bonded. The two women are unique but it’s a universal experience. We’d all like things to be better, we all make a mess of it and that’s both very sad and very funny. Life has this unknown expiry date and Mim says: “What are we going to do about it? Carpe bloody diem, that’s what!” Fran is dragged along fearing the worst, but it’s the best thing that could happen for them both. Ticking items off the ridiculous bucket list begins an emotional journey, too.
But there’s never going to be a Hollywood ending for Fran and Mim. As my comedy hero, the genius Victoria Wood, wrote: “Life’s not fair, is it? Some of us drink champagne in the fast lane, and some of us eat our sandwiches by the loose chippings on the A597.” There’s a lot of that bathos in Bucket. Although I’ll never match her, like Wood I’m from Lancashire. Stephanie Beacham, who plays cousin Pat, told me I write “Northern.” I took it as a compliment. I think it means to yo-yo from the sublime to the ridiculous, find the light in the bleakness and moan about it too. (FYI, Stephanie Beacham can always find her light.)
The scripts enticed a terrific cast and we had a wonderful team on both sides of the camera. It was a real labour of love working on a tight schedule and moving from silly to solemn on a sixpence in the coldest weeks of the year. I made septuagenarian Miriam Margolyes strip off in sub-zero temperatures, but I gave her all the best jokes too. The serial element makes Bucket a little different from other comedies; there’s a chance to laugh, scream, sigh and, I hope, reflect too before we hit the brakes and leave Fran and Mim on a cliffhanger. The journey is never straightforward with these two, but unlike real life, I do know what happens next.
Fox in the US is developing a drama based on the 2015 Netflix movie Parallels.
Entitled The Building, it centres on a group of people who enter a skyscraper that transports them into parallel universes, which are similar to but not quite the same as our own. In one, for example, Russia has dropped a nuclear bomb on the US.
The idea is being adapted for TV by Neil Gaiman and Chris Leone (the latter wrote and directed the movie). Albert Kim, whose writing and production credits include Sleepy Hollow and Nikita, is the showrunner. The project caps off a busy year for Gaiman, who has also been adapting his novel American Gods for Starz.
Also in the news this week is Alan Ball, creator of HBO series Six Feet Under and True Blood. Ball is reported to be teaming up with HBO again on a series that will star Holly Hunter as the mother of a non-traditional progressive family.
According to Deadline: “Once a therapist in private practice, Hunter’s Audrey now reluctantly utilises her skills as a psychologist in the corporate world, balancing her more progressive personal philosophy with the need to make money. She is a smart, caring woman who believes she knows what’s best for everyone and has no problem telling them. But with her husband now fighting depression and her children mostly grown, she finds herself somewhat adrift.”
Other high-profile stories this week include the news that Sonar Entertainment has signed a first look deal with Robert Downey Jr and Susan Downey’s production outfit Team Downey. As part of the deal, Sonar and Team Downey are working on a project called Singularity. Also involved in the creation of the series is Anthony Michael Hall, who will star.
The deal is the latest link-up between Sonar and star talent. The company is also working with George Clooney and Tom Hardy, with the latter starring in upcoming period series Taboo.
Commenting on the new deal with Team Downey, Sonar CEO Thomas Lesinski said: “We are excited about Team Downey’s vision for developing and producing a broad scope of original premium content. [This] is another example of our commitment to forge creative collaborations with the most dynamic talent in the industry.”
In terms of commissioning news, US network NBC has renewed its military medical drama The Night Shift for a fourth season. The series, produced by Sony Pictures Television (SPT), follows the medical team at the fictional San Antonio Memorial Hospital. Season one of the show averaged around 6.5 million viewers, followed by 5.3 million for season two and five million for season three.
At Fox, meanwhile, there are reports of a new dance drama being developed with director McG, who began his career in the music industry. The project, which sounds little bit like the Channing Tatum movie Step Up, is called The Cut and is set in a dance conservatory. It’s the latest in a line of Fox scripted projects with a musical theme – possibly inspired by the success of Empire. For example, Empire creator Lee Daniels has been working on a series called Star for the network, while last week we reported that Glee star Darren Criss was working with Fox on Royalties.
Also this week, it was announced that Phoebe Waller-Bridge, creator and star of BBC3’s Fleabag, is to write and star in a spy drama for BBC America. The network has ordered eight episodes of Killing Eve, a thriller about a psychopathic assassin and the woman hunting her. The show is based on a novella by Luke Jennings called Villanelle.
“[The show] is a brilliantly fresh take on the cat-and-mouse thriller from Phoebe Waller-Bridge, a major talent,” said Sarah Barnett, president of BBC America. “Underneath the deceptively simple and entertaining surface is a subversive, funny, obsessive relationship between two women, that plays out across some of the most and least glamorous locations imaginable.”
It’s also been a busy week on the distribution front. Fox Networks Group (FNG) Europe and Asia, for example, has secured exclusive first-window rights to CBS legal drama Bull in the UK from CBS Studios International. This follows a previous deal that gave FNG rights to Bull in markets including Spain, Portugal, Turkey and Sweden.
Elsewhere, SPT has sold the much-anticipated new ITV period drama The Halcyon to broadcasters in Scandinavia, while Vimeo has continued its move into longform TV content. Among scripted titles that will now be available on its platform are All3Media International comedy Fresh Meat and seven seasons of Company Pictures’ cult youth series Skins, available globally excluding Australia.
Paul Corney, senior VP of global digital sales at All3Media International, commented: “Vimeo has a strong presence around the world with a great brand that reaches consumers in all key markets. Its team has a dynamic outlook on content delivery and we’re looking forward to working with them to bring more fantastic new shows to the Vimeo audience.”
In terms of new book rights deals, the big story this week is that BBC Worldwide-based indie producer Baby Cow has acquired the rights to Zadie Smith’s new novel Swing Time. Smith has been lined up to adapt the novel for TV alongside her husband Nick Laird.
Swing Time is Baby Cow’s first major acquisition since Christine Langan, ex-head of BBC Films, took over as CEO this month. She said: “Zadie Smith is the voice of a generation and Swing Time is a thrillingly ambitious story of friendship, rivalry and fame.”
Smith added: “I am absolutely delighted at the prospect of working with Baby Cow on an adaptation of Swing Time. Their extraordinary track record in both drama and comedy I have always admired from afar and it’s a thrill for me to get the chance to collaborate with [founder] Steve Coogan and Christine Langan.”
Smith burst onto the literary scene with her first novel White Teeth. Swing Time, only released this week, is her fifth novel.
The success of movie franchise The Conjuring suggests the supernatural is back in business. After the original film came a spin-off called Annabelle, which grossed around US$250m worldwide. Then came The Conjuring 2, which recently topped the box office worldwide (except in China). And now there’s talk of a new movie spin-off called The Nun, which is based on The Conjuring 2’s demonic antagonist.
The TV business has also realised that ghosts and ghouls are fertile territory. In the US, HBO sister channel Cinemax has just launched Robert ‘The Walking Dead’ Kirkman’s new 10-part project Outcast, in which a young man searches for answers as to why he’s been suffering from supernatural possessions throughout his life.
Echoing recent trends, the show was given a cross-platform launch – starting two weeks before its official debut date (June 3). Aggregating the data from HBO/Cinemax platforms, YouTube, Facebook and Playstation 4 (all of which aired the first episode), the show was viewed around four million times – a record for Cinemax. With the show also generating a good response among critics and on IMDb (8.2), it looks like Kirkman could be in for another long journey.
Sky TV in the UK has also decided there is a future in spookery. After the success of last year’s miniseries The Enfield Haunting, it has revealed plans to revisit the genre. Details are not yet clear but there are reports that Sky will revive the franchise as a series of 90-minute feature length dramas. It’s not obvious exactly how this will work as The Enfield Haunting was a self-enclosed story. It may decide to work with the same characters, or retain part of the brand (The XXX Haunting). But the fact that it is considering a feature-length format is interesting, since this is a growing trend among pay TV/SVoD platforms.
On top of Outcast, the HBO family has had a pretty good week in the scripted genre. Fantasy phenomenon Game of Thrones picked up the Jury Grand Prize at the Banff World Media Festival’s 2016 Rockie Awards. There was also good news for Damon Lindelof, who picked up Banff’s Showrunner of the Year Award. Lindelof, whose credits include Lost, is currently in charge of HBO’s acclaimed drama The Leftovers.
The news was less positive over at AMC, where new restaurant drama Feed the Beast has had a lacklustre debut. Despite starring a talented duo in David Schwimmer (Friends) and Jim Sturgess (One Day), the show has seen its ratings slip badly after a reasonable first episode. The premiere attracted 976,000, but this was followed up by an episode-two audience of just 398,000 and an episode-three audience of 484,000. Its 6.9 IMDb rating is also discouraging.
Other shows in the news this week include Orphan Black, the cult sci-fi thriller that has been such a big hit for US cable channel BBC America and Canadian sci-fi channel Space. This week, just ahead of the season four finale, BBC America announced there would be a fifth season of the clone drama in 2017 – but that this would be the last.
“Orphan Black is a thrilling, genre-bending ride that has captured our fans’ imaginations and hearts like no other show,” said Sarah Barnett, president of BBC America. “Our genius team of actors, writers and producers have, time after time, taken us to a place of awe, delight and utter shock and surprise. Tatiana (Maslany, the lead actress) has been a complete revelation– hers is one of the most remarkable performances on TV –and she is joined by an extraordinary cast. We can’t wait to take our passionate audience on one final gobsmacking clone adventure.”
Co-creators John Fawcett and Graeme Manson added: “The past four seasons have been a phenomenal adventure and we are eternally grateful to our loyal fans who have loved our weird little show. We are thankful to our partners at Temple Street, and to BBC America and Space for their support and giving us the opportunity to end on a high.”
Also in the news this week is Filmpool’s constructed reality show Day and Night. Originated in Germany and sold as a format on the international market, each episode of Day and Night spans 24 hours in the lives of eight diverse young inhabitants of a trendy apartment in the heart of a vibrant metropolis. Although it is a drama, Day and Night adds to its authenticity by using amateur actors and real locations.
The show is sold abroad by All3Media International, which this week secured orders for more than 350 new episodes. RTL Hungary has just greenlit the highest number of episodes of Day and Night in one order (outside Germany) with 249 new one-hour episodes now set to air on RTL Klub. This brings the total episodes ordered for Hungary since its first airing in 2013 to more than 1000.
In Bulgaria, meanwhile, MTG has ordered another 140 one-hour episodes of Day and Night for air on the Nova channel later this year. Others countries where the show has done well include France (W9), Austria (ATV) and Slovakia (PLUS).
Lucy Roberts, formats sales manager for northern EMEA at All3Media International, said: “We’re delighted that Day and Night is continuing to go from strength to strength across the CEE region. The format is fantastic proof of Filmpool’s expertise in this genre, boasting scripts and characters that are always engaging and relevant to its target audience, and multiple story arcs and themes that keep viewers hooked across the whole series. Combine this with the ability to generate a huge buzz on social media and its diverse commercial interactive opportunities, and Day and Night represents a great proposition for broadcasters looking to target the youth audience.”
A devastating flood at the start of this year’s Mipcom didn’t seem to affect the amount of business being done throughout the week, with the trade in scripted shows especially brisk.
One title that managed to rack up a number of sales was FremantleMedia International’s German-language spy thriller Deutschland 83, which was sold to Channel One (Russia), Sky Italia, Hulu (US), SundanceTV (English-speaking Canada) and Stan (Australia and New Zealand), among others. This follows on from previous deals with broadcasters including SundanceTV in the US, Canal+ (France) and Channel 4/Walter Presents (UK).
A coming-of-age story set in Germany during the Cold War, Deutschland 83 follows Martin Rauch, a 24-year-old East German native who is sent to West Germany as an undercover spy for the Stasi foreign service. The show is part of a broad trend in the TV business towards espionage-based thrillers – the trigger for which was probably the Israeli scripted format Hatufim (Prisoners of War), which was reinvented as Homeland in the US.
Other espionage-based shows selling well this week included Zodiak Rights’ Occupied, a Nordic series that imagines a situation in which Russia invades Norway to take control of the country’s oil industry. The show, which has debuted strongly in Norway, was picked up for broadcast in Poland (a country that also has an acute interest in Russian foreign policy).
Similarly, there was a lot of interest in Keshet International’s False Flag, which was featured in The Wit’s popular conference session Fresh TV Fiction. This Israeli series centres on five seemingly ordinary Israeli citizens who are accused of kidnapping a senior Iranian politician. It has been picked up by Fox International Channels – which is planning an English-language version via Fox International Studios and has also acquired the rights to the Hebrew version. The latter, which will air in 127 territories via FIC’s channels, is the broadcaster’s first non-English-language series acquired on a global basis.
There has always been a strong trade in non-English-language drama between countries where English is not the first language. But a big change in the business over the past few years has been the willingness of English-language broadcasters and platforms to air such shows. Netflix, Hulu and BBC4 in the UK can take a lot of credit for kickstarting this trend, but it has become a lot more widespread in the past six to 12 months.
One interesting development in this regard is Walter Presents, a foreign-language drama on-demand platform that is being launched in January by Channel 4 in the UK and its strategic partner GSN. Walter Presents was busy at Mipcom snapping up the rights to a wide range of non-English dramas. It struck a deal with German distributor ZDF Enterprises for a number of series, including 10-part Belgian black comedy drama Clan, which follows the exploits of four frustrated sisters as they plot to kill their obnoxious brother-in-law, and 10-part Swedish political thriller Blue Eyes. Also acquired from ZDF were eight-part crime drama The Team, six-part Polish crime thriller The Pack and Swedish family saga Thicker than Water.
The platform’s buying spree also encompassed deals with French content providers such as TF1 International and Film & Picture TV Distribution, plus 20 hours of Dutch-language shows from Netherlands-based Dutch Features Global Entertainment.
Rai Com, the commercial arm of Italian public broadcaster Rai, has been another beneficiary of this interest in non-English drama. At Mipcom it secured deals for the new season of its detective series The Young Montalbano, licensing it to the BBC, RLJ (UK video rights) and Hi Gloss (Australia and New Zealand video).
There have been numerous examples of US cable channels commissioning new scripted content recently. But making drama is expensive, so some channels have sensibly decided to explore the international acquisitions route as well. An example we cited a couple of columns ago is Esquire Network, which has picked up Spotless and Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands. A&E Network did something similar at Mipcom, picking up The Frankenstein Chronicles, produced by Rainmark Films, distributed by Endemol Shine International and starring Sean Bean (Game of Thrones).
SundanceTV is following a similar trajectory, though it prefers to get involved as a coproduction partner, giving it a little more oversight and input into the end product. Having previously partnered up on The Honourable Woman and D83, for example, it was busy at Mipcom picking up a new portfolio of non-US dramas.
One interesting title that it has jumped on board is RTÉ’s historical drama Rebellion, which tells the story of the birth of modern Ireland. It has also linked up with Sky Atlantic and Canal+ on The Last Panthers. Produced by France’s Haut et Court and the UK’s Warp Films, the series centres on the evolution of criminality in Europe, taking place in locations across the continent, from Serbia to Marseilles in France.
More evidence of the vibrancy of the European drama scene right now is the news that Zodiak Rights-supported Versailles has been given a second season, while TF1 in France and RTL in Germany are backing the new UFA Fiction/Beta Film drama series Hitler (working title). Meanwhile, The Copenhagen Film Fund has confirmed it is in talks about financing a fourth season of SVT and DR’s hit crime drama The Bridge.
Out of the UK, notable deals included the sale of All3Media International’s The Missing to German public broadcaster ZDF and FremantleMedia International’s No Offence to France TV.
The Brits are also beneficiaries of the growing demand for drama content from subscription VoD platforms. This week, for example, South African service ShowMax bought 125 hours of content from ITV Studios Global Entertainment, including Jekyll & Hyde, Rectify, Mr Selfridge, Good Witch and Texas Rising.
In terms of US series, the major TV studios were quick to seal deals. Disney Media Distribution licensed ABC Studios’ The Muppets to 122 territories, while the latest Shondaland drama series, The Catch, has been licensed to 186 territories. Executive produced by Shonda Rhimes and Betsy Beers, The Catch is a thriller about a successful fraud investigator who becomes the victim of fraud by her fiancé.
Sony Pictures Television also announced international deals for its shows. Wesley Snipes drama The Player hasn’t started very strongly in the US, but SPT has still managed to sell it into 105 territories, with high-profile deals in France (TF1), Germany (RTL), Spain (AXN) and Australia (Seven). SPT has also had a good start with The Art of More, a Dennis Quaid drama that was created for on-demand service Crackle. To date, the show has been sold into 25 territories via broadcasters such as Viacom’s Colors Infinity channel in India, OSN across the Middle East and D-Smart in Turkey. Of the two dramas, The Art of More feels more like a show that may run for a few seasons.
Other US shows to do business this week include NBC’s strong starter Blindspot, which was licensed to Sky Living (alongside Limitless and The Catch). Meanwhile, NBCUniversal thriller Mr Robot was picked up by Finland’s public broadcaster YLE.
While the majority of news from Mipcom 2015 concerned the sale of completed shows, there was also a smattering of commissioning and format announcements at the market. Viacom-owned BET, for example, is reported to be planning a six-part drama miniseries called Madiba, focusing on the life of Nelson Mandela and starring Laurence Fishburne; while StudioCanal-owned Tandem Productions is to adapt Code to Zero, the international bestselling novel by Ken Follett (Tandem previously adapted Follett’s Pillars of the Earth epic). Note also the above references to Versailles, Hitler and The Bridge.
On the format front, German network Vox is remaking Spanish drama The Red Band, TF1 in France is to produce a local adaptation of BBC drama The Escape Artist and CTC in Russia is adapting Keshet International’s romantic comedy The Baker and the Beauty.
Perhaps the most exciting format news of the week, however, is that US broadcast network ABC is adapting Janus, a drama from Austrian pubcaster ORF. This deal demonstrates that the powerful US networks are continuing to cast their net far and wide in search of great scripted ideas.
Welsh screenwriter Andrew Davies is primarily known for his superb adaptations of literary classics. Among his many, many TV credits are To Serve Them All My Days, House of Cards (the original version), The Old Devils, Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice, Moll Flanders, Vanity Fair, Doctor Zhivago, Tipping The Velvet, He Knew He Was Right, Bleak House, A Room with a View, Sense and Sensibility, Little Dorrit and the in-production War and Peace.
To this list must be added film credits such as Circle of Friends, The Tailor of Panama, the two Bridget Jones movies and Brideshead Revisited – confirming the view that Davies could probably adapt any book on the planet.
In a 2014 interview Davies was asked why he invested so much time on adaptations and came up with a beautifully succinct answer – that “fuck all happens to you” when you are a full-time writer. “There was plenty of material in the early days about infidelity, friction and all those kind of things. But I’ve settled down to a very even plane. So I haven’t really got material I would want to write about from my own life.”
As if to support this observation, one of Davies’ most famous original creations was A Very Peculiar Practice, a 1980s drama about a young doctor who takes up a post as a member of a university medical centre. This series, reportedly, was based on Davies’ experiences as a lecturer at Warwick University. In hindsight, it’s remarkable that Davies didn’t become a full-time writer until 1987, aged 50 – juggling his teaching responsibilities with a burgeoning career as a TV writer.
While Davies’ work on War and Peace shows that he continues to be in demand as a novel adapter, he has entered an interesting new dimension in his work in recent years – dramas based on real lives. The link is obvious, which is that both areas provide source material to work with. But the beauty of the real-life/biopic format is that Davies can take greater liberties with storytelling. On the one hand, he doesn’t have to try to shoehorn any book-based dialogue into his screenplay. On the other, he can enter the central character’s story wherever he chooses, taking a pivotal period in their life and using it as the starting point to provide a coherent character analysis.
ITV’s Mr Selfridge, for example, focuses on Harry Selfridge as he begins setting up Selfridge’s department store in London. But TV movie A Poet in New York looks at Welsh poet Dylan Thomas as he moves towards his untimely death (aged 39).
The idea for the Dylan Thomas project was initially brought to Davies by comedian/presenter/producer Griff Rhys Jones via his indie company Modern TV. Davies has talked about it in affectionate terms because of similarities between his own upbringing and that of Thomas. With both Welsh and born into teaching families, Davies says Thomas was “very big in my life.”
Now, Davies is writing another film-length biopic about a Welsh icon, Aneurin (Nye) Bevan. Once again the idea, entitled A Nation’s Health, has come to him via Modern, and once again he will take a tangential look at his central character’s life.
Bevan is best known as the post-Second World War health minister who founded the UK’s National Health Service in 1948. But that could potentially make for quite a dry piece of TV. So Davies is going to drive the narrative along by focusing on Bevan’s fiery romance with his wife Jennie Lee. Speaking to The Sunday Times, he said: “I want it to be both personal and political. They would argue a lot. She kept him socialist and would have the last word on political matters, last thing at night in bed.”
The timing of the project is interesting, given the polarisation of British politics being witnessed at present. With the BBC also at loggerheads with the UK government over its future funding model and the question of impartiality, telling the story of an ardent Tory-hating socialist could be seen as bear-baiting. So the way Davies handles the story will attract close attention. That said, Davies is the man who adapted Michael Dobbs’ wicked political satire House of Cards for TV, so if anyone can steer a steady course through political controversy it’s him.
There was good news for another of the UK’s screenwriting titans this week with Stephen Poliakoff’s Closer to the Enemy being picked up by pay TV channel Starz in the US.
The six-part series, distributed by All3Media International, is a post-Second World War thriller that sees actor Jim Sturgess playing British intelligence officer Captain Callum Ferguson. Ferguson’s final task for the Army is to convince a captured German scientist (August Diehl) to hand over cutting-edge military technology crucial to national security – the jet engine.
The show will premiere in the UK on BBC2 before appearing next year on Starz, which previously picked up The Missing from All3. Stephen Driscoll, senior VP for sales at the distributor said: “Stephen Poliakoff and this wonderful cast of actors are creating a thrilling miniseries that will enthral audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. We look forward to announcing further deals in the near future.”
Still in the US, there was news this week that Kevin Williamson (Dawson’s Creek, Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer) has been commissioned to write the script for Time After Time, a TV adaptation of the 1979 novel of the same name by Karl Alexander.
Time After Time, which has already been adapted as a movie, imagines a world in which author HG Wells has invented a time machine that is then stolen by Jack the Ripper. Wells pursues the Ripper to 1979 in a bid to bring him to justice. Williamson is writing the script for Warner Brothers TV with Disney-owned ABC the commissioning network.
Another interesting story to come out of the US is a new Directors Guild of America (DGA) study that shows TV series with female showrunners are more likely to employ female writers, directors, editors and actresses than those exclusively run by men: “The findings suggest that creators and executive producers play an instrumental role in shifting the gender dynamics,” says the report’s author, Dr Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.
“For example, on broadcast programmes with at least one female creator, women comprised 50% of writers. On programmes with no female creators, women comprised 15% of writers.” It’s not too surprising, but this kind of statistic clearly warrants attention.
After Tut, now comes Cleopatra. With the Egyptian boy king only recently departed from TV screens following the three-night event series on Spike TV, the girl queen is the subject of a new series being developed by feted director Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth) and David Ellender, the former FremantleMedia exec who now operates under the Slingshot Global Media banner.
While it is inevitable that comparisons will be drawn between the projects, the creative sensibilities and commercial starting points underlying them should bring about different results. While Tut was written by US scribes for a US channel, Kapur and Ellender come from Indian and European backgrounds respectively. This will presumably affect their approach and funding model.
Kapur, who will write the series, said: “Cleopatra is probably the most famous and the least known/understood figure of all time. Her life will reflect a modern-day parable of our lives today.” Ellender added: “As he did with Elizabeth, Kapur will reveal the human being behind the myth. We couldn’t think of a better filmmaker than Kapur to tackle this subject.”
If there’s one name you’d love to see at the bottom of your production sheet, it’s Jerry Bruckheimer. With film and TV credits that include Pirates of the Caribbean, Beverly Hills Cop, Bad Boys, Con Air, Top Gun, CSI and Without a Trace, he is a bona fide hit machine. So US cable channel TNT must be dancing in the aisles having picked up a Bruckheimer pilot called Home this week.
Originally set up at Fox, Home explores the secrets festering behind the facade of an idyllic suburban family. It centres on a pregnant woman who has a successful business and a wonderful home life with her husband Joe, a respected prison psychologist, and his two sons, to whom she’s stepmother. But the peace and tranquillity are shattered when she discovers long-buried secrets.
Home’s package is further enhanced by the fact the pilot has been written by Aron Eli Coleite, whose credits include Crossing Jordan, Hostages and Heroes (for which he was writer and producer for most of its run). The show is designated as a Jerry Bruckheimer Television and Warner Horizon TV production.
A notable trend in the last few years has been to fictionalise the lives of famous historical figures. Da Vinci’s Demons is a classic case in point, as is ITV’s upcoming series Houdini & Doyle (and so, for that matter, are Tut and Cleopatra). The idea behind this approach is to get pre-transmission brand awareness that will help a show cut through the clutter of competition. Imagine if, for example, Da Vinci showrunner David Goyer had said he was going to make a series about the fantastical youth of a medieval Italian genius. He probably wouldn’t have got more than halfway through his pitch.
There is a parallel process that involves taking fictional characters and giving them new settings. Traditionally, this involves looking back at the youth of the character in question (The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, Endeavour et al) or putting them in a different period (Sherlock). A novel take on this was announced this week by CBS, which is to pilot Sawyer & Huck. In this case, Mark Twain’s classic Mississippi characters Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are to be aged up and placed in modern-day America as adults.
Scripted by The Blacklist writers Brandon Margolis and Brandon Sonnier, the story will see Sawyer as a lawyer, who hires his boyhood friend Huck Finn as an investigator on a murder case. If the series progresses beyond pilot, the plan is for the characters to take on cases for people who don’t have anywhere else to turn.
In other news out of the US, NBC has acquired a drama project entitled The Bourbon Kings from Endemol Shine Studios. Based on a novel by JR Ward, the story centres on an aristocratic Kentucky family who make their fortune in the bourbon industry.
Interestingly (and what are the chances of this?), there are reports that Fox is also developing a TV series about a Kentucky bourbon empire. All that remains to be seen is whether either project will be filmed in Kentucky. A year ago, the answer to that would probably have been no. But in May the state increased its refundable tax credit from 20% to 30%, an aggressive move that will make it a viable alternative to Louisiana and Georgia, two US states that have made excellent use of film incentive schemes.
In the last couple of years, the scripted market has become accustomed to a steady stream of commissioning announcements from subscription VoD platforms like Netflix and Amazon. This week it’s Hulu’s turn to step up to the plate by announcing plans for a comedy pilot starring Seth Rogen.
The project, entitled Future Man, is about a gaming nerd who has to save the human race from being destroyed by aliens. Future Man is being produced by Sony Pictures Television and is the company’s first order from Hulu. Sounds like much safer territory than Rogen’s North Korea satire The Interview.
On the acquisition front, Asian broadcasters have been busy this week. RTL CBS Entertainment has announced it will premiere upcoming US drama Limitless in Asia within 12 hours of its broadcast in the States. Meanwhile, All3Media International has shipped new TV adaptation Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime to a number of international broadcasters including NHK Japan.
The Japanese market is notoriously difficult to crack but “Japan is Christie heartland in terms of a fanbase for the author and this show will introduce a further generation to her work,” says Stephen Driscoll, senior VP for sales at All3Media International.
Equally upbeat is Junko Fukano, senior producer of NHK Japan, who says: “We are delighted that we can broadcast this wonderful show in Japan. Agatha Christie’s dramas have attracted a strong Japanese following, so we believe it will be hugely popular among Christie fans, and hope that it will bring even more audiences to NHK.”