Tag Archives: BBC Studios

Power struggle

Richard Gere returns to TV for the first time in 30 years to star alongside Helen McCrory and Billy Howle in BBC drama MotherFatherSon. DQ finds out how this story of an international businessman and his newspaper empire goes beyond the boardroom to examine a family in crisis.

MotherFatherSon’s story about an international businessman and his newspaper empire might bring a certain media mogul to mind, but this Richard Gere-starring BBC drama is not quite as it seems.

Written by Tom Rob Smith (The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story) and produced and distributed by BBC Studios, the show centres on Gere’s Max, a largely self-made US businessman who acquires a UK newspaper and finds himself connected with the most powerful politicians in the land.

The show beings Gere back to the small screen for the first time in 30 years, but for the Hollywood star, MotherFatherSon doesn’t feel like TV. “To me, this is one eight-hour movie,” he says, speaking prior to the show’s international launch at Mipcom in Cannes last year. “It’s a novel, eight hours of telling a very deep, dense story. The world is so turned upside down in terms of movies right now; TV is where the most interesting stuff is being done for an actor. And there is no stigma with that all.”

MotherFatherSon stars Richard Gere as a newspaper owner

Despite the newspaper and political spheres in which it is set, the drama is family-oriented and explores the difficult relationship between Max and his heir and son Caden, who has been estranged from his mother and Max’s former wife, Kathryn (Peaky Blinders’ Helen McCrory), for much of his childhood.

When Caden’s self-destructive lifestyle spirals out of control, the devastating consequences threaten the future of the family, their empire and a country on the brink of change.

“He’s been brought up by his father in his father’s image and we notice very early on that’s not a great fit,” exec producer Hilary Salmon says of Caden. “He’s not really the young man who was built to be the editor of one of the UK’s biggest newspapers, and the cracks are starting to show even before the episodes start.”

For Billy Howle, who plays Caden, the relationship provides a deep seam to explore as the son and his father realise their differences.

“There is a whole process through Caden’s formative years where he’s not just brought up by his father but moulded in his image,” he explains. “Sometimes Caden breaks the mould and that is both a good and bad thing, seemingly. It’s not exactly what Max wants – he wants his son to be able to do what he has done and run his empire and continue to do that. But, at the same time, he doesn’t necessarily listen to Caden’s emotional needs as a father should.

The drama centres on the relationship between Gere’s Max and his son Caden (Billy Howle)

“They are not separate factions because they are tied by blood. But they are at loggerheads in terms of the difference in their outlook and belief systems. In a sense, our belief systems are innate and you can’t force them on another person. You can try, but they tend to bend and eventually break, as Caden does.”

While Max’s character might seem familiar, Smith says viewers will dispense of any preconceptions the minute they start watching the show. “The truth is, as soon as you watch this, that question will disappear. Max is Richard’s Max. It is very much his own creation; he comes from a world that I don’t think is a reference to anyone else.

“His father ran a steel factory, he grew up with the factory workers and had an extraordinary upbringing and then decides to switch to news. I don’t think that’s the same for [any real-life figures].”

Smith came up with the idea for the show after witnessing the impact one of his friend’s health problems had on his family. “The difference is that, with my friend, when the capillaries burst in his head, it upended his family, not the country,” the show’s creator continues. From there, Smith explores all manner of subjects but in a thematic manner, avoiding specific mentions of politicians or countries, for example. The result, he adds, is that the show can explore broad topics such as populism.

Helen McCrory as Caden’s mother and Max’s ex-wife Kathryn

Certainly MotherFatherSon taps into real-world issues, and Gere argues that drama’s role is becoming increasingly important as true-life events begin to reflect some of the more outlandish storylines in scripted series. “The reality-show president [Donald Trump] we have highlights the real stuff even more,” Gere explains of drama’s place in the entertainment ecosystem. “When we see something that’s true and honest and heartfelt, we will not become accustomed to something that is false and lies and all artifice.

“So when you do something that is actually coming from an honest place, a generous place, wanting to somehow explain the world as it is and with a motivation of making it better of understanding, it comes out even more. It highlights it more, not as entertainment but as the truth.”

Howle adds: “People turn to drama for the purposes of entertainment and escapism, but it also acts as an exploration and antidote to what is happening.”

However, Gere also admits that producing drama that cuts through reality has become trickier “because you can’t compete with how crazy someone like Trump is and many of these right-wing nationalist tribalisms on the planet.”

While storylines in the real world might continue to astound, MotherFatherSon currently looks set to be limited to just the eight hours ordered by BBC2. Smith says the series, which begins in the UK tonight, has a “great ending,” although Salmon refuses to completely rule out further episodes. “It is probably a miniseries but there is a way of bringing it back,” she says. “It’s up to Tom if he wants to continue the story. We’ll have to see how the audience responds.”

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Mays days

With starring roles in Guerrilla and Born to Kill, Daniel Mays has already had a busy year. He tells DQ about his next show, Against the Law, in which he plays a character who was instrumental in the UK’s decision to decriminalise homosexuality in the 1960s.

Once best known for playing a variety of spivs, Daniel Mays is one of those actors who is only getting better with age. But even he admits his latest job was a challenge he wasn’t sure he would be up to.

The 39-year-old has had quite a year, from his Bafta nomination for Line of Duty to roles in two of the last few months’ most exciting dramas: as a widowed father in Born to Kill (Channel 4) and Inspector Liam Cullen in Guerrilla (Sky Atlantic/Showtime). Mays may have first made his name portraying a variety of slightly dodgy womanisers – from train robber Ronnie Biggs in Mrs Biggs to Private Walker in the 2016 Dad’s Army film – but he has long been keen to show there is much, much more to him.

So now for something completely different: in Against The Law, which will air on BBC2 next Wednesday (July 26), he plays Oxford-educated, upper-middle-class journalist Peter Wildeblood – one of the first people to admit they were homosexual in court after being caught up in what became known as The Montagu Trial in 1954.

Against the Law stars Mays (right) as Peter Wildeblood alongside Richard Gadd as his lover Edward McNally

Wildeblood was at the centre of the case, which saw the establishment determined to stamp out homosexuality by going after Lord Montagu of Beaulieu (played by Mark Edel-Hunt) and his friends. But the high-profile action, during which Wildeblood’s former lover gave evidence against him to save his own skin, backfired. The case, which was followed by Wildeblood’s hard-hitting book Against the Law, provoked such a sympathetic outcry that it led to a public inquiry that in turn paved the way for the UK to decriminalise homosexuality in 1967.

The one-off drama, produced by BBC Studios and distributed by FremantleMedia International, is at the centre of the BBC’s season exploring the 50th anniversary of the change in the law. “When I read it, I was a bit nervous,” Mays says of Brian Fillis’s script. “I knew I was going to be stepping out of my comfort zone, but the opportunity to highlight this story and all the good Peter Wildeblood did for his community was too difficult to pass up. In my career I want to be involved in projects that not only entertain but also that enlighten our minds, so I was thrilled to be part of this.

“There will be lots of people who don’t know who Peter Wildeblood was, what he endured and what he eventually achieved. He is such a hugely important figure in the gay rights movement but he’s an unsung hero. I was so pleased to be offered this role as it is an extraordinary story.”

Unusually, the factual drama is interspersed with real-life testimony from gay men who endured all sorts – prison, beatings, turning evidence against lovers – at a time when it was illegal to be with another man.

Mays admits to being nervous over sex scenes with Gadd

“The first time I saw those testimonies put into the drama, I was completely moved and astounded at how honest and courageous all those men were,” says Mays. “It adds a really interesting element to the whole piece and actually really deepens the drama.”

A heterosexual married father-of-two, Mays admits his first gay sex scene, which shows Wildeblood with his lover Edward McNally, played by Richard Gadd, terrified him. “This was an example of feeling the fear and then going for it; I knew I had to take a risk,” he says. “Sex scenes are always embarrassing to film. They are meant to be closed sets, but basically there are always people standing around watching you.

“We knew that no one wanted to have two self-conscious actors rolling around. I think it helped that we filmed the scene towards the end of the shoot so we already had a lot of trust between us and we opened a bottle of champagne to give us both a bit of Dutch courage.

“Peter Wildeblood isn’t a character that people would associate me with, and that made the role all the more appealing. I feel honoured that the BBC would trust me with telling the story of such an inspirational man.”

A busy 2017 for Mays has also seen him star in Sky Atlantic period drama Guerrilla…

While there is plenty of debate in the industry about whether success is skewed towards chisel-faced, floppy-haired, upper middle-class actors who went to private school and Oxbridge, Mays, with his hang-dog looks and mop of unruly curls is quietly making his own way and is even taking the posh roles.

As the third of four boys in his family, the Essex-born son of an electrician and factory worker was naturally an attention-seeker who preferred dancing to football. He won scholarships to the Italia Conti Stage School and to Rada (The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) where they tried to knock out his accent, but he remains a proud Essex boy.

“I see ‘posh’ as a dialect, the same as Northern or Irish, but it’s not one I speak with in my normal life,” Mays says. “I know there are some actors who have changed the way they speak but the idea of that has never sat well with me. I would feel like I was betraying myself.”

A self-confessed workaholic, his can-do attitude has made him a favourite with casting directors, which means he is always busy.

“I know it might feel like I am never off the box at the moment,” Mays laughs. “I apologise. It’s funny being in the position where I am now. It’s a balancing act; you’ve got to pay the mortgage but you want to be creative in the choices you make. Sometimes it’s about being brave and turning stuff down; other times it’s about challenging yourself.”

…and in Channel 4’s Born to Kill

And there are plenty more challenges ahead. Mays can next be seen in horror movie The Limehouse Golem, alongside Bill Nighy, which will hit cinemas in August. After that, he will be in a comedy film called Swimming with Men, alongside Rob Brydon (Gavin & Stacey), which is due to be released next spring. Based loosely on a Swedish documentary called Men Who Swim, it’s about a group of mid-life crisis men who take up synchronised swimming.

The actor also recently recorded an episode of BBC2 comedy Inside No9 with Steve Pemberton and Rhys Shearsmith – there’s a Sex Pistols theme – and is currently filming HBO movie My Dinner With Herve, about French actor and The Man With The Golden Gun star Herve Villechaize, alongside Peter Dinklage and Jamie Dornan.

“And then I think I am going on holiday,” sighs Mays. “It’s been a non-stop 12 months but it’s hard to say no to all these exciting jobs. The more left field it has been, the more I see the merit in it. I’m a year off 40 now and I still have more ambitions; there is other stuff I feel capable of and I just hope I get even more opportunities. I don’t want to stop now.”

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Everything old is new again

As UK networks continue to mine classic stories for new dramas, Stephen Arnell asks whether international coproductions are the key to unlocking creativity.

It’s fair to say last week’s announcement that BBC Studios is planning a six-part series based on John Buchan’s popular adventure The 39 Steps – just eight years after the corporation’s previous Bourne/Bond-style stab at the novel – hardly set industry pulses racing.

In fact, unless the approach to the source material is radically different from previous adaptations, one can’t imagine the atmosphere in the BBC production meeting to discuss the idea when it was broached was exactly electric.

With the recent transformation of BBC Production into BBC Studios, this was perversely exactly the kind of show calculated to reinforce prior negative expectations of what the new entity would be – safe, traditional and rather unimaginative.

The exit of Studios head Peter Salmon after six months to Endemol Shine may see BBC Studios leave its comfort zone – if a non-corporation insider is chosen to replace him.

Coupled with the plethora of Agatha Christie adaptations, younger takes on popular characters such as ITV’s Endeavour (Inspector Morse) and the upcoming Prime Suspect prequel Tennison (incidentally, there’s a Young Marple in development for CBS in the US), as well as reboots of Poldark (pictured top) and Maigret, new versions of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White and EM Forster’s Howards End, there is a feeling that mainstream drama in the UK is playing safe and becoming atrophied, although I’m sure production executives at the time felt that reviving a 1970s show such as Poldark was genuinely taking a risk.

The low figures attracted by recent series such as Jericho (ITV) and Dickensian (BBC1), which, despite familiar period drama elements and literary antecedents, at least attempted something a little different, may increase the caution displayed in TV drama commissioning in the UK for the big channels.

ITV's Jericho focused on 1870s Yorkshire
ITV’s Jericho focused on 1870s Yorkshire

If we are going to pillage the past for source material, maybe producers can consider some other authors than the usual roll call of Austen, Dickens, Trollope (ITV’s Julian Fellowes-penned Doctor Thorne) and the Brontes.

Will the upcoming BBC1 retread of Homer’s Troy stumble in the same way as ITV’s fantasy actioner Beowulf?

Both shows, and BBC2’s The Last Kingdom, smack of a desire to emulate Game of Thrones, as did the flop BBC1 War of the Roses epic The White Queen back in 2013.

To some critics, BBC1’s choice to adapt 20th century classics last autumn (Lady Chatterley’s Lover, An Inspector Calls, The Go Between and Cider with Rosie) resembled nothing so much as an English literature A-level syllabus circa 1973.

Despite the likelihood of negative comparisons to Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, the BBC’s upcoming series based on Len Deighton novel SS-GB promises something a little off the beaten track from recent network drama.

Julian Fellowes' new ITV series Doctor Thorne
Julian Fellowes’ new ITV series Doctor Thorne

With his works coming out of copyright, the oeuvre of HG Wells seems ripe for revival, judging by Sky Arts’ recent anthology series The Nightmare Worlds of HG Wells and the upcoming Mammoth Screen (Poldark) version of The War of the Worlds, which aims to hue closely to the novel. With Peter Harness (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell) adapting the story, we can be fairly certain that we’ll finally see something resembling Wells’ original vision.

There are, of course, some shining exceptions to the general air of caution, not least of which is The Night Manager (BBC1). Although never adapted for TV before, it does come from the pen of John le Carré, responsible for a string of successful movies, including The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The Constant Gardener, A Most Wanted Man, The Tailor of Panana, the 2011 film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and TV series/one-offs (Smiley’s People, A Perfect Spy, A Murder of Quality).

The Night Manager is truly something different for BBC1 – the sheer luxury on display in terms of locations and casting, the sumptuous photography and even the Maurice Binder-style title sequence lift the show into another sphere, almost one of decadence, especially considering the ongoing budget cuts at the BBC.

Now perhaps there’s a glimpse of where the money saved from BBC3’s linear demise is heading – and also of the advantages of coproductions.

Co-funded by AMC, which likewise coproduced Channel 4’s Humans, The Night Manager perhaps demonstrates that only international financing can release the creativity for UK drama productions of real scale and ambition.

Does The Night Manager prove that international coproductions are the way forward for UK drama?
Does The Night Manager prove that international coproductions are the way forward for UK drama?

Former C4 drama commissioning editor Peter Ansorge voiced his frustration last month, commenting on the difference in television drama between here and the US: “You can’t argue against HBO, AMC, Showtime and Scandinavia being the new gold standard in TV drama. Even Germany has got in on the act with Deutschland 83.

“I’d question whether this is the case in the UK. These international shows have one thing in common: they are all original and contemporary works, with challenging things to say about their recent history and their countries’ social and political realities. HBO and AMC dramas challenge US audiences to look at themselves in new, often breathtaking ways.

“In contrast, the UK typically looks back, or towards crime. Downton Abbey tops the ratings on Christmas Day, Agatha Christie is catapulted into the ranks of our greatest novelists, the writing team on EastEnders are suddenly on a par with Dickens, a Tolstoy period adaptation feels like an Austen, writ large.”

If this sounds like a blanket dismissal of UK drama, it’s not – but it’s beginning to look like only international coproduction money and ambition can lift the country’s homegrown drama into binge-worthy series that can play well in the US.

Peaky Blinders has, to an extent, proven that uniquely British subject matter can – given the budget, casting and swagger – translate to overseas markets (admittedly shielded from some of the heat of the ratings war by its presence on BBC2).

BBC1 must surely be hoping this is the case for the upcoming Tom Hardy eight-part miniseries Taboo (from Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight) and Steve McQueen’s as-yet untitled drama about the lives of a group of black Britons from 1968 to 2014.

The news that Julie Walters is to star in a TV series based on her role in the surprise BBC Films hit Brooklyn also raises hopes that there will be more ambition for the genre at the corporation than relying on rehashing popular classics.

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