More than a decade after Alex Rider first appeared on the big screen in Stormbreaker, the teen spy is transitioning to television in a series named after the character.
Created by author Anthony Horowitz, the eight-part drama is based on the second Alex Rider novel, Point Blanc, and sees Alex discover his late uncle was a spy who had been secretly training him his whole life. Then when clandestine MI6 offshoot The Department calls Alex up, the reluctant spy is sent undercover to the Point Blanc Academy, deep in the French Alps, where he must uncover the sinister truth behind this exclusive boarding school.
In this DQTV interview, Horowitz and Jill Green, CEO of Eleventh Hour Films, recall the unique genesis of the project, which was fully financed by Sony Pictures Television before a broadcaster had come on board.
The husband-and-wife team also talk about how the series blends action and adventure with a coming-of-age story, and why Horowitz didn’t want to adapt his own novels, with Guy Burt (The Bletchley Circle) stepping in to write the scripts.
Alex Rider is produced by Eleventh Hour Films and Sony Pictures Television, which also distributes the series.
Buyers include Amazon Prime Video (UK), Viaplay (Sweden, Denmark and Norway), Movistar+ (Spain), Kinopoisk HD (Russia), Nova (Greece), DSmart (Turkey), StarzPlay across the Middle East and North Africa, Showmax across sub-Saharan Africa, TVNZ (New Zealand), Sony Liv (India), Korea Telecom (South Korea) and U-Next (Japan). Sony-owned AXN will broadcast Alex Rider in multiple European territories, including Portugal, Hungary, Romania, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Anthony Horowitz’s teen super spy Alex Rider is coming to television in an eight-part series drawn from the writer’s hit novel series. DQ went back to school to visit the set.
In a hazy, smoke-filled school corridor, a blond-haired teenager is hurtling down a passageway. Shadows dance on the dimly lit walls as he charges along, his jacket lifting behind him, while a camera positioned on a moving platform captures him in full flight.
It’s not clear what he’s running from – or to – but the arrival on set of a group of ‘agents’ carrying guns suggest this isn’t your average school day. But then, since he was recruited by a shadowy government agency to work as a spy, no day has quite been the same in the life of Alex Rider.
Fifteen years after Anthony Horowitz’s literary character made the leap to the big screen in 2006’s Stormbreaker, Alex Rider will land on the small screen in an eight-part adventure of the same name produced by Eleventh Hour Films (EHF) and Sony Pictures Television (SPT).
Taking its lead from Horowitz’s second Rider novel, Point Blanc, the series sees the teenager learn that his recently deceased uncle, who unbeknown to him was a secret agent, had been surreptitiously training him his whole life to follow in his footsteps.
Then when clandestine MI6 offshoot The Department calls Alex up, the reluctant spy is sent undercover to the Point Blanc Academy, deep in the French Alps. Here he must uncover the sinister truth behind this exclusive boarding school, which is home to the troubled children of parents who run successful global businesses.
Otto Farrant stars as Rider, with Brenock O’Connor as his best friend Tom. At The Department, Stephen Dillane plays Alan Blunt, while Vicky McClure is his second-in-command, Mrs Jones, and Ace Bhatti is John Crawley.
Unusually, the series has been financed and produced without a commissioning broadcaster, with distributor SPT now shopping the coming-of-age drama worldwide for a 2020 broadcast. Horowitz previously partnered with EHF – where his wife, Jill Green, is CEO – on crime dramas Foyle’s War and New Blood, and exec producer Eve Gutierrez says she had been tracking the availability of his Alex Rider novels for some time.
“The world has changed so much since Stormbreaker that we realised there is now this huge TV landscape opening up and a desire for things that are more ambitious,” Gutierrez explains on the school set where Alex and Tom both attend lessons.
“That coincided with the rights situation clarifying itself and us being able to then start conversations more seriously with Anthony about what we might do with it and how it might evolve for the screen.”
As well as admiring the books’ story of an ordinary person becoming a hero, Gutierrez noted the popularity of series such as Stranger Things, in which children and teenagers are forced into adult situations, and saw an opportunity to bring the young spy to TV.
Whereas the books are predominantly aimed at a young-adult audience, however, writer Guy Burt has endeavoured to broaden Alex Rider’s appeal to viewers beyond that demographic. To emphasise the point that this isn’t a kids’ series, Austrian director Andreas Prochaska (Das Boot) was brought in to lead the show’s visual style alongside second-block director Christopher Smith.
“The books are written very much from Alex’s point of view, while the other characters are very peripheral in his world,” Gutierrez notes.
“So we have opened up all the other characters that exist in his world, particularly the characters who work at The Department, played by Vicky and Stephen, and also Jack, the girl who shares Alex and his uncle’s home and was a nanny when she originally joined them. She’s more a housekeeper to them now and provides a 20-something point of view of the world.”
The intensive six-month shoot began in March 2019 on location in the Romanian mountains, which doubled for the French Alps and the location of the Point Blanc academy.
The site was so remote that cast and crew had to use skidoos to reach the set, while the first few weeks of shooting involved several action-packed stunts, including a sequence from the book where Alex snowboards down the mountain on an ironing board.
“I was seriously intimidated by the prospect of bringing this sequence to life in Romania, a country I’d never shot in before,” admits series producer Matt Chaplin. “This iconic sequence was first up in the entire shoot, the first thing Otto had to do.
“We very quickly identified Romania as the place to do it. They have a film-friendly infrastructure, the right climate and topography, and had the right location to use as the basis for Point Blanc, which we are enhancing with effects.
“Then we set about figuring out how we would get 100 people up to the top of the mountain, shoot safely and then get them down again. The Romanian people we were working with were just brilliant. I’d go back there in a heartbeat.”
Filming then resumed in London for five months, in locations including Bermondsey, Crouch End, the South Bank and the Shard. Hornsey Town Hall was used for interiors of Point Blanc.
To find the right actor to play Alex, the production team embarked on an extensive search across the UK, scouring schools, drama groups and theatre schools. All the leading candidates were seen at least twice by the casting team, with the role open to candidates from anywhere and of any ethnicity. “We even had a girl turn up to the open casting demanding to know why Alex Rider couldn’t be a girl,” says Chaplin. “It’s a valid question.”
Eventually, Farrant (Mrs Wilson, The White Queen) was selected for the role, with the producers convinced he could convey the emotional depth required to take Alex from an ordinary boy to an extraordinary hero across the series.
Speaking during a break in production, Farrant describes a vigorous week filming stunts at the West London school location for the climactic eighth episode. A demanding training regime before shooting started, incorporating running, Tae Kwon-do and Israeli martial art Krav Maga, has kept him in good stead for the gruelling schedule.
“It’s been a real test of endurance,” Farrant admits. “It’s a big job; it’s not something I’ve done before so it’s been really useful to take that [training] experience and put that into the work. I hope that reflects on screen.”
Farrant puts Alex’s literary popularity down to his relatability. “He’s a normal kid – he goes to parties, he has trouble with girls. He’s just a typical teenager,” he says.
“Then you throw in this world of espionage he has to navigate and he’s out of his depth. He really has to dig deep to essentially save the world. That is such a cool and epic story. I don’t think we’re telling a story of someone who has it easy, we’re telling a story of someone who really has to fight to save himself and save his friends.”
Part of Farrant’s task has been the aforementioned emotional journey, as Alex confronts the loss of his uncle, as well as lying to his friends and seeing his two worlds collide. “So you do see the struggle he goes through as a kid, becoming a man throughout all this turmoil,” he continues.
“He has to dig deep to find out who he is and how he fits into this world and the world of spies. He has to readjust throughout the series. That’s why it’s interesting to watch.”
British Olympic snowboarder Billy Morgan doubled for Farrant in some of the iron-boarding scenes, though the actor says he has tried to do as many stunts as the production team would let him. However, insurance practicalities prevented him from later joining Morgan on the slopes.
“I’m happy to do them and I love doing them. It’s a welcome relief from some of the more intense emotional sides of the character,” Farrant explains. “It’s actually quite cathartic doing those stunts. Mostly, I’ve done my own stunts bar some big hits and the snowboarding, because there’s some big hits in the snowboarding. Those guys were insane!”
Meanwhile, Alex’s best friend Tom has been given a beefed-up role in comparison to the books, where he doesn’t feature until further down the line. “There wasn’t a great deal on the page, so one of Guy’s fantastic contributions to this is that Tom is essentially his character,” says Gutierrez. “The relationship between Tom and Alex is one of my favourite things in the show.”
Tom is one of the few people to know about Alex’s double life, providing someone to whom the title character can reveal his worries about his covert activities.
“He’s definitely there to support Alex going through whatever it is he’s going through,” says O’Connor, best known for playing Olly in Game of Thrones. “From a human standpoint, Tom’s best mate loses an uncle very early on in the story. If your best mate at 16 loses his parental guardian, it’s a horrendous trauma, so that’s what Tom’s role is in the early part, to be the support to that, and then there happens to be some spy stuff along the way.”
It’s not all deep and meaningful, however. “For the first couple of episodes, all I do is pop up occasionally, say something sarcastic and then disappear again,” he jokes.
“It’s been such an easy ride for me. It gets messy – you don’t get to be friends with a super spy and get away with it. But I really love Tom, he’s exactly like I was at 16. He thinks he’s cool as hell and really isn’t. Tom’s very relatable to me; there’s very little acting required.”
The other person to learn about Alex’s secret spy games is Jack Starbright, played by Ronke Adekoluejo (Been So Long). Arriving in the UK from the US to study, she becomes a housekeeper in the Rider household, growing up alongside Alex.
In the beginning, Alex lies to Jack about his new role, struggling with the deception that comes with his secret life. She puts their changing relationship down to his growing pains as a teenager, until she learns there’s something bigger behind it.
“Obviously, discovering he’s a spy is a bit much to handle,” Adekoluejo says. “It doesn’t quite make sense. There was a child before and now there’s a spy. She definitely doesn’t approve. It’s a very dangerous profession!”
Keeping her role in the series quiet proved to be her own secret mission, particularly when she began borrowing the novels from her younger brother. But Adekoluejo says his excitement, and that of her younger, female cousins, means she is now even more thrilled to be a part of the show.
“We all have the desire to be the best version of ourselves and to save the day, whether it’s our own day, our family day or the world,” she says of the reasons for title character’s popularity. “So because Alex is so ordinary and very much a representation of us in our day-to-day lives, when you see him go on to become a super spy and save all these people, even though you might not admit it, you think you could do it too.”
With a dozen Alex Rider novels to draw from – the 13th will be published in 2020 – Gutierrez says there’s hope the series can run for several seasons. And as superhero films and series continue to dominate the screen, there’s something refreshing about watching Alex Rider save the world. “It’s so normal,” O’Connor adds.
“He’s just a normal kid in a normal school – and then he fights a supervillain!”
Have you met Mrs Jones? Best known for starring roles in Shane Meadows’ gritty This is England franchise and Jed Mercurio’s hard-hitting police corruption series Line of Duty, Vicky McClure doesn’t often get to introduce younger members of her family to her work.
So when the opportunity to star in Alex Rider came along, she immediately sought the advice of her 11-year-old nephew.
“I wasn’t familiar with the books, just because I’m not the demographic to have read them. But I asked my nephew and he knew exactly what they were,” McClure tells DQ on set, her hair in rollers ahead of the day’s shoot. “He’s been on a school trip while I’m shooting this where the theme was Alex Rider, so he was a big reason for doing this. I don’t think he’s really ever been able to watch anything I’m in because the majority of what I do is fairly dark. And the success of the books and the writers and the involvement of everyone in it – it seemed really exciting.”
McClure plays Mrs Jones, second-in-command of The Department, the shady organisation that recruits Alex. The actor describes her character as “very headstrong and probably slightly frustrated with certain decisions that get made.” Her relationship with Alex, however, is less business and more personal, with Mrs Jones adopting a nurturing role towards the teen spy.
“She does have this concern for him,” McClure says. “If it was an adult they were putting in that position, I don’t think she’d feel quite the same, but there’s a history there as to why she’s concerned for Alex’s welfare. He’s a child and he’s being put into situations and scenarios that are really dangerous, and part of the reason he’s in those positions is because of her part in The Department. There’s that element of responsibility.”
McClure says she always likes to push her characters’ hairstyles and costumes to the extreme, hence the rollers, so that she can change her appearance between series while remaining believable.
“[Line of Duty’s] Kate Fleming has got quite a distinct look, Lol [in This is England] has quite a distinct look, and it was the same for my character in [fact-based single drama] Mother’s Day,” she explains. “All these different roles I’ve done all have quite distinctive looks, so I’m always up for making sure there’s something to play with. Mrs Jones is very suited so I’m in predominantly in suits, which is fine by me.”
But why does she think Anthony Horowitz’s young hero appeals to so many readers, particularly youngsters? McClure points to the chance to escape reality within the pages of the novels, which also offer adventure, excitement and some humour.
“The scripts and the writing are brilliant – it’s a page-turner – and you could see there’s something we can all play with,” she says. “It doesn’t have to have blood and guts everywhere to make it exciting. It can still be exciting without those elements in it, so it’s quite safe but, in the same breath, there is violence, there are fights. There’s a lot at stake.”
The screenwriter and author of the Alex Rider spy novels, which are coming to TV via Eleventh Hour Films and Sony Pictures Television, lists his favourite series, including an Israeli thriller, two period dramas and a gritty miniseries set within the drug trade.
You wouldn’t have thought that a violent drama set in modern-day Israel and dealing with the conflict with Hamas would provide fertile ground for popular TV, but this award-winning series works because the characters are so brilliantly drawn – it’s not just ‘us’ against ‘them.’ There are moral failings on both sides. Lior Raz, who plays the lead, and his co-writer Avi Issacharoff drew on their own experience in the Israeli Special Forces, which is probably why it feels so realistic. Filmed in Arabic and Hebrew (Fauda means ‘chaos’),
it’s returning for a third season later this year.
The Good Place
I’m a huge fan of this inane, metaphysical comedy. And even though the third season dipped a bit, I’m still eagerly looking forward to the next. I love it for the chemistry between the five main characters – four of them dead, the fifth the architect of the afterlife. But what makes it unique is the way it endlessly reinvents itself to the extent that you can never be quite sure what you’re watching. Even writing this, I’ve had to be careful not to include spoilers. Frozen yoghurt will never be the same!
The Good Wife
I hate it when I get addicted to a long-running series. I’m just too busy to give up the time it demands. But I didn’t miss a single one of the 156 episodes of this CBS legal/political drama starring Julianna Margulies. Somehow, the stories, which were complete in themselves, always surprised. And the increasingly convoluted character arcs, even after seven seasons, continued to make sense. I loved The Good Wife right up to the last minute of the last episode – and that one minute then spoiled everything. I still wonder why. I enjoy the spin-off, The Good Fight, just as much.
I didn’t want to like this Netflix blockbuster. I’m not that interested in the royal family and I was envious of the amount of money they were throwing at the screen. But Peter Morgan’s writing hooked me from the first royal swear word and I was struck by the way the first season grappled with social history. The episode describing Graham Sutherland’s conflict with Winston Churchill (Stephen Dillane and John Lithgow, who are both superb) was a one-hour masterpiece in itself. The second season was a little more soapy but I can’t wait to see Olivia Colman take over in the third.
This 12-part adaptation of Robert Graves’ novel goes all the way back to 1976, but Jack Pullman’s brilliant writing inspired me to become a TV screenwriter and the show still stands the test of time. Ancient Rome, with its tunics and togas, is almost impossible to recreate in a way that isn’t ludicrous, but this dramatisation managed it without once leaving the studio. In fact, what could have been its greatest weakness is actually its strength. From the moment the snake slithered across the mosaic floor to Wilfred Josephs’ title music, I was hooked.
I worked for the producer, Brian Eastman (Poirot, Crime Traveller), for many happy years. He had produced this 1989 six-part series about the drug trade before we met, and I think it may be his greatest work. At the time, it was ground-breaking, both for its international setting – Pakistan, Germany and the UK – and for the way it intertwined so many different lives, from the poppy growers to the police to the dealers to the users. Traffik, which aired on Channel 4, was exciting, popular and compelling, but never lost sight of the underlying seriousness of its subject.
After 15 years writing Foyle’s War, Anthony Horowitz is back on television with crime thriller New Blood. He tells DQ why there’s nothing like it on television.
Investigative drama New Blood broke new ground last week when it became the first primetime drama to launch on the BBC’s on-demand service iPlayer before its linear broadcast.
And with streaming platforms perhaps now representing the best way to reach new and younger viewers who no longer adhere to traditional television schedules, series creator Anthony Horowitz was more than happy to push the show online ahead of its BBC1 debut tonight.
“I want to write for young people rather than their parents,” says Horowitz, who wrote ITV drama Foyle’s War for 15 years until it ended last January. “Foyle’s War has been a fantastic ride – I’ve loved every minute of doing it. But it did occur to me that a great chunk of viewers weren’t seeing my work. Also, having written the Alex Rider spy novels, I’m meeting people who read my work as kids and are now in their 20s and 30s, and I want to write for them again.
“When I write, I don’t think, ‘This is for young people’ and then write in a certain way. What’s happened with this show is because it has two 25-year-olds in the lead – everything has come from that.”
New Blood executive producer Jill Green, MD of Eleventh Hour Films and Horowitz’s wife, agrees: “It’s great for us because (there’s a lack of) shows that appeal to younger viewers. It’s edited in a very different way, the music is very different too.”
The seven-part series shows London through the eyes of two outsiders, Stefan and Rash, junior investigators for the Serious Fraud Office and the police respectively, who are brought together by two seemingly unrelated cases.
Young men frustrated with life and trying to find their feet in their professional and personal lives, they team up to become a formidable crime-solving duo as they take on the uber rich and powerful.
And central to the series are Mark Strepan and Ben Tavassoli, who play Polish Stefan and British-Iranian Rash respectively. “Mark has Polish ancestry and Ben is half-Iranian so they fit their characters to a T,” Horowitz says. “Every actor I’ve ever worked with has, to a certain extent, made the character their own. They found them and created them. When I started writing this show I was never sure, if I wrote a line, which character should say it. But now I know exactly who’s going to say what – and that’s partly down to them.
“Working on Foyle’s War, I loved working with Michael Kitchen but if he walked out of the car to the office, that was classed as an action sequence. Now we’ve got people running across London, jumping off buildings, getting punched and getting tied up and put into a car that spins eight times.”
Green continues: “In one scene, they argue about jumping off a hotel roof into a swimming pool and eventually say, ‘Fine, we’ll do it.’ They’re in their 20s, why not? They literally dive off into a swimming pool. These guys are physical. The amount of things (Horowitz) puts them through has been extraordinary and they love it.”
Casting for the leads wasn’t straightforward, however, with several actors in the running for both parts until Strepan and Tavassoli found instant chemistry during the auditions.
“We saw an enormous number of people,” admits Horowitz. “It was always a question of whether we were going to cheat. Could we really cast British-Iranian and British-Polish? Or would we get a British guy who could do a Polish accent? We then found these two guys but what clinched it wasn’t the individual auditions, it was when we put them together.”
Green explains: “At the last moment we had four Rash’s and four Stefan’s so we interchanged them together, looking for the right combination, and it was about that chemistry. It was very real.”
It’s that chemistry that will also make the difference between New Blood being a success or a failure. But Horowitz says he hopes the show has managed to tell serious stories in a serious world with two light-hearted characters at the centre.
“I’m thrilled by their performance,” he adds. “I’ve been around for a long time but these two guys, they’re at the beginning of their careers and I’m so excited to see whether it goes well for them. They’re very likeable.”
From the opening scenes of the first episode, it’s clear Stefan and Rash aren’t the only characters central to New Blood. From Stefan’s bike ride to work into the City to the quick cuts between shots of the capital’s iconic landmarks, the backdrop of London looms large over the series.
“Jill hasn’t forgiven me for setting it in London,” Horowitz quips when asked of the production challenges of filming in the city. “But when you see the show, London is the third character. It’s a really attractive view of London. We tried to find something that isn’t tourist London, isn’t Disney London. It’s real London and it’s energised London. The number of cranes and building sites and traffic jams and roadworks – that’s the London we live in.”
It was a difference experience for Green. “If you’re not doing a US movie on a Tom Cruise budget, don’t try to film in London,” she says. “It’s not a city that’s interested in filmmaking because it’s got terrorism, security and other bigger issues. It was really hard. And because we were 95% location and we had to do some really difficult action sequences, most people didn’t want us around and sometimes they wouldn’t play ball. City Airport shut us down because pilots complained they could see lights from an explosion we were filming in a wasteland that was quite near the airport.
“It’s hard and expensive. The sequence where the guys jump off the roof was shot over three days in three different places. That’s expensive. When you’re doing big action, which has got to have a high production value, you can’t skimp on that. But when you’re doing it in London as well, that’s tough. But it does look and feel like London.”
Horowitz and Green first met when they both were working in advertising. They later took different paths into television and it was only after a decade that Horowitz’s writing started to be developed for the screen by Greenlit Productions and now Eleventh Hour Films – both established by Green, the latter in 2010.
“Why should Jill produce shows for other people and I write shows for other people when we can do it together and control and own the shows?” argues Horowitz. “We’ve done that now for Foyle’s War, Injustice, Collision, Menace and New Blood.”
“We’re very privileged to get Ant’s work and it makes us work 300% harder because the responsibility is huge,” explains Green, whose other credits include ITV thriller Safe House. “There’s no deal (with him) but I know if we don’t take Anthony’s ideas – and we don’t always agree – then somebody else might. But the scripts are wonderful, which is always the best place to start.
“We can be quite rigorous with each other but there’s a fantastic shorthand between us and I do think we work very well together. I think the best work we’ve done has been together, rather than apart. We can problem solve together as well, which you have to do.”
New Blood could be the pair’s best collaboration yet. With music from Massive Attack’s Neil Davidge and a new visual take on London, Horowitz claims “there’s nothing on British television like it – in terms of tone, look, editing, the youth of the two lead actors – it’s really different. It’s very American in some ways in the pacing and ambition of it, and I hope people simply enjoy it.
“It’s not about naked dead women being found tied up in alleyways, it’s not about that sort of brutality and darkness, which I’m not knocking, but I think we’ve now had enough of that. Here is a show that’s got a bit more of a smile. It’s serious when it needs to be, it’s dangerous when it needs to be but isn’t rubbing your face in the underbelly of life. It’s got murder and death but what it hasn’t got is that grubbiness.”
Acclaimed author and screenwriter Anthony Horowitz tells Michael Pickard British drama should be more ambitious as he discusses his television career and his forthcoming BBC series New Blood.
Anthony Horowitz (pictured above) is a busy man. Not only does the author and screenwriter have a new BBC drama on the horizon, he’s also deep in development on the US version of his 2009 miniseries Collision.
But when DQ tracks him down at his London office, he’s in the middle of a sword fight. Despite his TV commitments, he’s also resurrecting Alex Rider, the hero of some of his young-adult spy novels (and 2006 film Stormbreaker), whose fate will be decided by the aforementioned battle.
It’s a suitably demanding schedule for a man who admits he has two distinct careers – on page and on screen. “Now I’m waiting for some of those books to come onto television,” he muses. “Maybe one of the Sherlocks or Alex Rider, or my latest book Magpie Murders. There are discussions happening – watch this space. But for me at the moment it’s two quite separate worlds.”
On television, Horowitz is arguably best known for Foyle’s War, the crime drama set during the Second World War that ran for 15 years on UK commercial broadcaster ITV. Now, more than a year after that series’ last episode aired, he’s preparing to return with a new seven-part drama for BBC1.
New Blood aims to show a new side of London through the eyes of two outsiders – Stefan (Mark Strepan) and Rash (Ben Tavassoli), a pair of junior investigators who are brought together by two seemingly unrelated cases and come up against corporations, governments and a new breed of criminals who hide behind legitimate facades and a wall of lawyers. Produced by Eleventh Hour Films and directed by Anthony Philipson, it is distributed by BBC Worldwide.
“I’d spent 13 years writing 28 two-hour episodes of Foyle’s War,” Horowitz says. “I loved it from start to finish but I sort of felt like I’d run out of stories. I had nothing more to do and it was time to move on anyway. I wanted to leave the war behind me and move into a slightly more heightened world, certainly a more modern world. I wanted to write about 21st century London and I was also interested to see whether I could actually take crime drama and move it forward and push the envelope. So I came up with the idea of New Blood.
“I can certainly say there’s nothing on British television like it. I’ve seen several episodes and the energy, the speed, the editing, the music, the lighting, and particularly the way it presents London, is very modern and exciting to see on the screen. And having two stars in their 20s makes a huge difference. I can’t think of another show on mainstream television that has two unknown actors in their mid-20s. It’s a massive gamble on the part of the BBC to allow us to do that.”
Horowitz admits it was a “wrench” to leave Foyle’s War, which aired for the last time in January 2015. “I loved working with the characters and the whole world I created was very rich,” he says. “But if you’re going to be a writer like me – with television and books and everything else – you’ve got to keep moving forward. You can’t keep doing the same thing.
“Foyle’s War had got to 1947 and there was plenty more to do with the characters, but what I loved about that show was the number of stories that could be told about the war and the pre-war years. After doing six episodes set during the Cold War, I’d explored the territory enough and it was time to make a change.”
Already an established novelist, Horowitz got his TV break in 1985 when he joined the writing staff of ITV drama Robin of Sherwood, which starred Michael Praed and later Jason Connery as incarnations of the infamous outlaw. A shortage of scripts meant the series needed a new writer and Horowitz, just 30 at the time, was given the opportunity to suggest a storyline.
“The producer, Paul Knight, took a huge punt on giving me the job. I had no experience at all,” he recalls. “So I went from nothing to writing for the top show in one step – it was a fantastic start. I knew nothing about television really. I remember walking onto the set for my first episode and I couldn’t believe they’d found the exact building I’d described in my script – a ruined church in the middle of a field. Of course, it was only when I walked up and tapped it that I realised the whole thing was made out of fibreglass. That’s how little I knew.”
Besides Robin of Sherwood and Foyle’s War, Horowitz’s small-screen credits include Poirot, Murder in Mind and Injustice. And then there’s Midsomer Murders.
“If I’ve given two words to the English language, it’s Midsomer Murders,” says the writer, who penned the first ever episode of the long-running crime drama, which debuted on ITV in March 1997. “It was called Barnaby (after the lead detective) when it landed on my desk.”
After his Robin of Sherwood experience, Horowitz was invited by then-Carnival Films producer Brian Eastman to write episodes of Poirot, introducing him to murder mysteries for the first time. He was then hired alongside director Jeremy Silberton to create Midsomer, which is based on Caroline Graham’s Chief Inspector Barnaby novels.
But after writing a handful of episodes over the first three seasons, Horowitz wanted to create a new spin on the traditional whodunnit formula – and Foyle’s War was the result.
“I love the mechanics of a murder mystery,” he says. “I love plotting, I love the structure of a show. I spend longer plotting and working out a show than I do writing it. Getting it to work, getting all the characters in the right place, getting the red herrings, the clues, the action – that was the fun of it. But with Foyle, the aim was to do more. What fascinated me about the world of Foyle were the true stories we were telling about the war – that extraordinary period from 1940 to 1947 when so much happened in this country.
“In a way, while the murders were carefully constructed and satisfying, they were almost an excuse to write what I really wanted to write about, which was the war.”
But of all the shows Horowitz has created or worked on, one stands out as the most challenging. Crime Traveller, which ran for one eight-episode season on BBC1 in 1997, saw policeman Michael French and science officer Chloë Annett team up to solve crimes using a time machine built by her late father.
“Crime Traveller was a show that fell between the stools of two directors at the BBC,” Horowitz recalls. “There was a hiatus after one left and another arrived and we fell into that abyss. It was a show that would have gone from strength to strength if I’d been able to develop it.
“It was the most difficult series I ever had to write, with all those time paradoxes – the knots I had to untangle were always incredibly complicated. It had a lot of promise and I often think it would be great if it came back, but there’s no chance of that.”
As a writer, Horowitz believes his job is done the day he hands over the finished script. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t interested in the ensuing production, only that he isn’t one to interfere with the director’s vision.
“It’s not my place to give a director notes, ever,” he says. “My notes are my scripts; they have character notes, they have a few key notes about what’s important, but I never tell a director what to do. But I’m not laid back either. It’s important to get everything right and I watch the rushes from New Blood every day and have occasionally picked up the phone when something’s bothered me.
“Trying to keep control of a programme is counter-productive and unhelpful. I have to trust both my talent and the directors to get it right. Of course, it helps being married to the producer (his wife is Jill Green, who runs Eleventh Hour Films and is also the executive producer on the show).”
With New Blood being lined up for its BBC1 debut, Horowitz’s attention has returned to the US adaptation of Collision. Airing over five consecutive nights on ITV in 2009, the original miniseries told the story of a group of strangers whose lives are changed forever following a major car crash.
Eleventh Hour Films is developing the US version for NBC alongside TriStar Television and Carol Mendelsohn Productions.
“Collision was seen by Quinn Taylor (now the executive VP of movies, miniseries and international coproductions for NBC Entertainment) and since he first saw it, he has wanted to do it,” Horowitz says. “I’ve been meeting with him off and on for years championing it and now we’ve managed to get it together.”
The US adaptation expands the series to 10 episodes, while the action moves from Suffolk to Seattle. Horowitz has written the first script as well as outlining episode two and completing character arcs for the entire season.
“The idea of the series remains the same. It’s about fate, how every car journey is a story in itself and how we never know how that story is going to work out,” he explains. “Moving it to America has been quite an inspiring piece of work. It’s something I’ve enjoyed doing. In the world of television now, we’re so steeped in American series that actually taking the steps to go from British to American television is not quite such a major undertaking as it used to be. It is less difficult than it might have been 20 years ago.”
Having worked in the business for 30 years, Horowitz is well placed to judge the current state of television – an industry he says has never been better or more exciting.
“I’ve always enjoyed working in television, it’s a wonderful medium to be in and the people I work with are so lovely. And compared with writing novels, it’s so much more collaborative. The one great thing about this moment is there’s a real excitement and buzz about television, which of course is largely inherited from cinema.
“Cinema has become tired, empty and predictable and I go to the cinema these days almost with a heavy heart. Whereas you now look forward to getting a new box set – something from Vince Gilligan (Better Call Saul) or starring Sarah Lancashire (Happy Valley) – with the excitement that you once looked forward to watching films.”
However, Horowitz is less confident about the state of the UK industry compared with the business stateside. “We have to be more ambitious in Britain,” he says bluntly. “The real problem is the biggest shows in America are beyond us at the moment. Anything from Breaking Bad to The Walking Dead, even The Good Wife – the six-parters we do here and the occasional 10-parter cannot compete in terms of scale, scope and ambition.
“It would be nice if this country could produce that sort of drama. If you add to that the way Netflix, Amazon and other companies are moving in on television, the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 begin to look old-fashioned. I’m not saying we’re not doing great drama over here, we’re doing fantastic drama at the moment. I’m absolutely immersed in Happy Valley; War & Peace was wonderfully written and directed. There are some fantastic pieces of television being made. It’s only in terms of quantity, scope, size and ambition that to do a 10-parter like Collision, I’m almost sorry I have to go to America.”
With New Blood, Horowitz hopes to have crafted his latest television hit. But does he think there’s enough new blood getting the same opportunity he once did to get into the industry?
“There are young people coming through and television is open to new talent. It would be a disaster if it wasn’t,” he says. “We do need new young writers and one wonders where the schooling is for young writers to come through, but they will. I was influenced by Utopia, which is what I would call a young production in terms of casting and its feel. So there is new blood coming through.”
Hardly a week goes by without some new development on the scripted format front. So here we explore 12 of the shows that have been adapted – successfully and unsuccessfully – for the US, and the writing teams behind them.
Where images have been included, the original series is on the left and its adaptation on the right.
Broadchurch was a big hit for ITV in the UK when season one aired in 2013. It then sold around the world and was adapted by Fox in the US as Gracepoint, with the same lead actor (David Tennant). The UK version, which then had a moderately successful second season, was created and written by Chris Chibnall – who is now working on a third and final run before taking over on the BBC’s Doctor Who.
The 10-part US version was set up by Chibnall before being handed over to Anya Epstein and Dan Futterman, who wrote all of the remaining episodes except for number six (Jason Kim). Gracepoint was pretty well reviewed by critics and sold to other English-speaking markets. But it was not renewed after failing to secure a sizeable audience (average ratings were around 3.5 to four million).
Collision, created by UK writer Anthony Horowitz (Foyle’s War), attracted an audience of seven million when it aired on ITV in the UK during 2009. In November last year it was picked up by NBC as a 10-part series. Interestingly, Horowitz will be the showrunner for the US version, with CSI exec producer Carol Mendelsohn on board as partner. Mendelsohn is also exec producer of Game of Silence (see below), suggesting she is now regarded as a safe pair of hands for format adaptations after her many years working on CSI.
The original version of Collision comprised five episodes but Horowitz says he has no concerns about the project being extended because he believes the storyline will benefit from the extra episodes. Sometimes formats suffer from being stretched in this way.
Forbrydelsen (The Killing) is a Danish series (DR/ZDF Enterprises) created by Soren Sveistrup. Active across three seasons, it became an international hit and made its star Sofie Gråbøl a household name. It was adapted by AMC in 2011 and has so far run to four seasons – despite being cancelled a couple of times along the way. It was saved by Netflix, which came on board as a partner for season three and then took over the show in its entirety for season four.
The US version was developed by Veena Sud, whose previous big credit was CBS procedural Cold Case. Sud shared writing duties with a large team, including the likes of Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective) and Jeremy Doner (Damages). She stayed with the show through season four, by which time writing duties were shared with Dan Nowak, Sean Whitesell, Nicole Yorkin and Dawn Prestwich (the latter two a writing team whose credits include Chicago Hope, FlashForward and The Education of Max Bickford).
Hatufim, aka Prisoners of War, is perhaps the most celebrated example of a successful scripted format. Created in Israel by Gideon Raff, it was adapted as Homeland for Showtime in the US by Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa. Five seasons of the US show have aired so far, with a sixth ordered in December 2015.
As is common with US series, there is a big team involved in writing a show like Homeland. The latest season of 12 episodes involved 11 writers altogether. Key names include Chip Johannessen, who has been involved with the show since the start. A new name on the season six team sheet was David Fury, who has worked on an array of titles ranging from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Hannibal.
Janus is proof that US networks are looking further afield in search of great ideas. A crime story originated in Austria, it was picked up by ABC last autumn. Kevin O’Hare, who has written pilots for ABC and Syfy, is adapting the thriller and writing the pilot. The original version was written by Jacob Groll and Sarah Wassermair.
Prior to this seven-part serial, Groll was best known for documentary The Sound of Hollywood, while Wassermair’s credits include musicals for children’s theatre. However, the pair have also been working together on ORF’s popular crime series Soko Donau.
Juana La Virgen is a Venezuelan telenovela that was adapted for The CW network in the US as Jane the Virgin. The original was created by Perla Farias and the US version by Jennie Snyder Urman, whose writing efforts are supported by a large team (the show has 22 episodes per season).
As evident from the titles above, a lot of adaptations don’t get further than the end of their first season. So the fact that this one has just been greenlit for a third run is a notable achievement. Although season two ratings are down compared with season one, the show has settled into a stable 0.9 to one million range.
Les Revenants was hailed as evidence that French TV drama had become a force to be reckoned with. A hit for Canal+ in 2012, the format was snapped up by A&E in the US – where it was remade as The Returned. The French version (based on a film) was created by Fabrice Gobert, who then wrote the screenplay for season one with Emmanuel Carrere and Fabien Adda (with writing credits also going to Camille Fontaine and Nathalie Saugeon).
A second season was aired at the end of 2015, with Audrey Fouche joining Gobert and Adda as a key writer (also credited on one episode was Coline Abert). Despite being led by showrunner Carlton Cuse alongside Raelle Tucker (True Blood), the US version failed to secure a second-season renewal following lacklustre ratings.
Øyevitne is a Norwegian crime thriller that is being adapted as Eyewitness for USA Network. In the US it has received a 10-episode, straight-to-series order. The US version comes from Shades of Blue creator Adi Hasak, who wrote it and will serve as showrunner. The original series creator is Jarl Emsell Larsen, who will executive produce the US version.
The series explores a grisly crime from the point of view of the eyewitnesses, two boys involved in a clandestine gay affair. While the Nordics have been getting a lot of attention in recent times, this is actually the first Norwegian scripted show to be adapted for the US.
Penoza is a popular Dutch drama created by Pieter Bart Korthuis and Diederik van Rooijen for KRO-NCRV. The show has run for four seasons (2010-2015), with a fifth, commissioned in February, set to air in September 2017. The format was acquired by ABC in the US in 2012 and ran for one season during 2013 with the name Red Widow.
The US version performed poorly and wasn’t renewed, dropping from 7.1 million at the start of its run to 3.47 million at the end. That was a rare blip for writer Melissa Rosenberg, whose credits include the entire Twilight saga of movies, Showtime’s Dexter and Netflix hit series Jessica Jones.
Rake is an Australian television series that centres on a brilliant but self-destructive lawyer. It was created by Peter Duncan, who then shared writing duties with Andrew Knight across the first three series. A fourth season will be broadcast this year on ABC Australia.
The show was adapted for Fox in the US in 2013, with Peter Duncan at the helm of a writing team of five. However, the show didn’t rate well and was moved around the schedule before being cancelled.
Shameless: Company Pictures produced Shameless for Channel 4 in the UK before it was picked up as a format by premium pay TV channel Showtime. The UK version was the brainchild of Paul Abbott, who also wrote a number of episodes. Other high-profile names involved included Danny Brocklehurst, who is now enjoying some success with Sky1’s The Five. Another prominent writer among many was Ed McCardie (Spotless).
Abbott was involved in setting up the US version, which may explain why the show has been a success, with six seasons already being aired. Key names in terms of transitioning the show included John Wells (ER, The West Wing) and Nancy Pimental – both of whom are still heavily involved, alongside a team of five writers for the latest season. Interestingly, the last season of the UK version also used a team approach, with eight writers penning 14 episodes.
Suskunlar is a Turkish drama that first aired on Show TV in 2012 and was then sold in its completed form to 30 countries. It was written by Pinar Bulut, who has also written a number of projects with her husband Kerem Deren, including fellow international hit Ezel.
The show was picked up by NBC in the US and has just started airing under the title Game of Silence. The pilot for the US version was written by David Hudgins, whose credits include Everwood and Parenthood. The second episode was penned by Wendy West (The Blacklist and Dexter). Hudgins has expressed a desire to take the show on into a second season, but early ratings suggest that it will need to do better for that to happen. After attracting 6.4 million viewers for episode one, it dropped 39% to 3.9 million for episode two.
There is a long history of novelists writing movie screenplays, stretching all the way to Raymond Chandler, William Faulkner and Scott Fitzgerald. But recently we’ve seen a similar trend in television. Go back a few years and most novelists wouldn’t have been tempted to try their hand at TV, but in this golden age of high-end miniseries and limited series, attitudes have changed.
There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the TV industry is taking more risks and showing more ambition in its choice of material. So books that wouldn’t have been picked up for development in the old days are now being transformed into TV. The job of adapting them doesn’t always fall to the author – but sometimes it does.
Second, authors are getting more interested in writing for TV. A few years ago, most authors would have regarded TV as too formulaic or procedural to be of any interest. But like movie talent, many now see TV as a compelling creative challenge.
There are upsides and downsides to author involvement. An obvious advantage, in the case of novel adaptation, is that they know their characters and world better than anyone. Also important is the fact they can bring the book’s fanbase with them, effectively legitimising the process by their involvement.
But there are risks. One is that they aren’t properly able to let go of their baby – insisting on including elements that would be best jettisoned for the sake of the screen. Another is that the two forms are fundamentally different. While novels delve into the inner unseen worlds of characters, TV shows are all about action and dialogue. Character development must be seen on screen.
The US TV system is quite well set up to manage this conundrum, however, because of the way it is structured around executive producers and writing rooms. So if you look a show like MTV’s Shannara, author Terry Brooks is directly engaged with the project as an executive producer but is not required to write the show for screen. In other book-based shows like Game of Thrones (George RR Martin) and American Gods (Neil Gaiman), the authors are brought in to write some episodes but are not expected to carry the entire burden of adaptation. In other words, the expertise of the author is meshed with that of hardened screenwriting professionals.
An added bonus of this approach is that it doesn’t require the author to give up their day job. Screenwriting as part of team becomes a vacation, not a career change, allowing authors to take a break from the self-imposed isolation of novel writing.
Of course, one point worth making is that most authors under the age of 60 have grown up surrounding by TV influences. So there is a visual quality to their novels and a directness to their dialogue that makes the transition to TV easier. Classic examples of authors who took to TV like ducks to water are William Boyd, who adapted his own novel Restless for TV, and Anthony Horowitz, who has built a parallel career as a novelist and screenwriter. Not to be forgotten either is Michael Connelly, who is embroiled in a TV adaptation of his crime franchise Bosch for Amazon.
Horowitz is an interesting example, having been the forerunner of the current trend for authors to write original TV stories that are not adaptations of their novels. Others to have gone down this route include David Nicholls, whose TV career has involved both classic adaptations and original works like the 2014 miniseries The 7.39, and Jo Nesbo, the Norwegian thriller writer who recently created the Scandi political thriller Occupied.
Another interesting example that is sure to get a lot of attention at Mipcom next month is The Five, penned by US thriller writer Harlan Coben. Produced by StudioCanal-owned Red Production Company, The Five is a 10-part thriller that follows a group of friends united by the disappearance of another acquaintance years earlier. When the missing boy’s DNA unexpectedly turns up at the scene of a murder, the group is forced to revisit their past.
The relationship between book, film and TV isn’t completely consistent, however. It’s interesting to note, for example, that Nicholls is not writing the screen adaptation of his novel Us, despite clearly being comfortable with the TV form. And Nick Hornby’s first TV adaptation is not one of his own works but that of another author (Nina Stibbe’s book Love, Nina). Perhaps here we’re seeing a desire among authors to tread lightly in TV – not presuming that they have all the answers to adaptation.
There are also authors who have happily entered the film arena but have not yet crossed over to TV. The classic cases in point are Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men, The Road) and Gillian Flynn, who adapted her Gone Girl novel for the movies. Flynn is now attached to a TV adaptation of another of her novels, Sharp Objects. But on this occasion she is positioned as an executive producer rather than a writer.
Perhaps this is an example of a gifted writer who doesn’t want to be committed to a TV project for too long. Or maybe it’s recognition that the adaptation’s showrunner/writer Marti Noxon is perfectly equipped to do the project properly. Any author interested in writing their own adaptation always has to be mindful of the long-term commercial implications of that decision. Do it badly or without full attention to detail and it may kill the TV franchise earlier – or even have a negative impact on book sales.
There is, it’s worth saying, another factor that is probably driving the current trend of author to screenwriter (either as a writer of adaptations or of original ideas). This is the perceived shortage of TV writing talent in the industry. While demand for scripted shows is at an all-time high, channels are nervous about committing to projects with unproven or rising writing talent. This has created a bottleneck, with numerous ideas stuck in development for years until a bankable TV writer is available. The injection of authorial blood could be helping to break this gridlock – with producers able to leverage the author’s credibility in another field to push projects over the line. For authors this is flattering, but it needs to be approached with caution in order to protect their reputation.
Note: Interesting reading on this subject includes this interview with Salman Rushdie and this look at Gillian Flynn’s adaptation of Gone Girl.