Tag Archives: BBC

Killing it

As US espionage thriller Killing Eve lands in the UK, DQ hears from lead writer and executive producer Phoebe Waller-Bridge about refreshing the genre, infusing drama with comedy and the joy of writing.

“She’s utterly unique,” actor Fiona Shaw says of Phoebe Waller-Bridge (pictured above), the actor and writer behind British comedy drama Fleabag and US spy thriller Killing Eve. “It’s fantastic to have someone who is a master of language writing television. It’s wonderful – not just a master of narrative or a master of seeing things, but a master of words. It’s just great fun to read [her scripts] and be allowed to play it.”

Cue an act of faux embarrassment and modesty from Waller-Bridge, as Shaw, who stars in Killing Eve as MI6 head Carolyn Martens, talks about the writer while sitting beside her at a Bafta screening of the British-made US drama, which launched in April this year on BBC America but has now travelled back across the Atlantic to BBC1, where it debuts this Saturday. The full six-episode boxset will be released on BBC VoD service iPlayer immediately after the first episode has aired.

Waller-Bridge should be used to receiving plaudits after her award-winning adaptation of her own stage play, Fleabag, saw her become one of the most in-demand talents in the UK. But it was Sally Woodward Gentle who, after much persistence, managed to secure the writer to adapt Luke Jennings’ Villanelle novellas for television as Killing Eve.

The series, which is now filming its second season, follows Eve (Emmy-nominated Sandra Oh), a bored, whip-smart MI5 security officer whose desk job doesn’t fulfil her fantasies of being a spy. Her life changes, however, when she enters into an epic game of cat and mouse with Villanelle (Jodie Comer), a mercurial, talented killer who clings to the luxuries her violent job affords her. The series sees them go head-to-head in a chase across Europe that is in equal parts funny, smart and action-packed.

Killing Eve stars Jodie Comer (left) and Sandra Oh take a break from filming

Sid Gentle Films produces, with Woodward Gentle, Waller-Bridge and Lee Morris executive producing. Endeavor Content distributes the series internationally, with other buyers including HBO Europe, Israel’s Hot and TVNZ in New Zealand.

In her own words, Waller-Bridge discusses the challenge of refreshing the spy genre, infusing drama with her own brand of comedy and the joy of writing.

Comedy isn’t just about telling jokes but about presenting characters in unexpected situations…
My role in life as well as in writing is to never let it get too heavy. I think people fall in love with characters who make them laugh, and comedy is such a huge part of surprising people. I always want to be surprised and a joke always surprises me, especially in a murderous drama.

The writer was forced to be creative when coming up with insults, with Eve calling MI5 boss Frank Haleton (Darren Boyd) a ‘dickswab’…
I was thinking really hard about what to call Darren Boyd. You write those things because you’re not allowed to say really rude words. BBC America said, ‘Unfortunately you can’t say that,’ but that forces you to be more creative sometimes, and ‘dickswab’ was that. I looked it up and it turns out someone’s name is Dick Swab.

Sandra Oh was destined to play Eve and nothing would stop Waller-Bridge from getting the Grey’s Anatomy star…
Sally [Woodward Gentle] heard from her agent several times that Sandra wasn’t available and I looked at Sally and said, ‘I’m just going to do it one more time.’ It was an operation. I wrote a long email about why it had to be Sandra, and from the moment she came into our imaginations as Eve, it couldn’t be anybody else.
Then we had a Skype call, which was really strange because the moment we pressed video on Skype, we were wearing exactly the same outfit. So it was like, ‘This is happening.’

Comer (Doctor Foster) plays assassin Villanelle

The series’ heightened take on the spy genre comes more from who Villanelle is than Waller-Bridge’s desire to play with the rules…
It was more about what’s inside Villanelle, that she’s designing her own life. She’d be like, ‘I don’t give a fuck, I’m riding a motorbike.’ It’s not about looking at Villanelle being cool, it’s about her feeling cool and that’s what’s feeding her, or feeling like she’s living the life she wants to live.
She can have sex with anyone she wants and she does; she can have a motorbike and she’ll eat a tiny sandwich on a hillside because she can. She’s kind of in the ‘Villanelle’ movie of her life. She’s not entirely sure who she is and she’s constantly trying to play different people, but without insecurity, which I think is what’s fun about her. She goes, ‘I’m going to climb a drainpipe in a weird see-through blouse,’ not because that makes the show sexy but because Villanelle says, ‘That’s what I’m going to do and nobody’s going to stop me.’ It was mainly through her playing around. She cracks herself up.

But taking on such well-trodden ground as the espionage thriller meant the writer wasn’t afraid to freshen things up…
When I’m trying to write something, there’s a time when I feel like I want to see something, and it comes out as, ‘I want to see Fiona Shaw do that.’ It can be as simple as that – to have these amazing actors do or say something surprisingly funny. It keeps coming back to doing something surprising.
So many of the tropes work and parts of the genre fit together so well for a reason, because they work and they fell good. So it’s not that you completely discard them, it’s about how you freshen them up to feel surprising again.

The source material offered the chance to create a series with two lead characters…
Luke Jennings introduced these characters and their world so vividly that you’ve got two shows in one. You’ve got the office drama with Eve, the accessible character who you think you know, and then all these details come out and you reveal this everywoman to be something more extraordinary.
On the flip side, you have this extraordinary woman [Villanelle] who you’re slowly revealing has a need to be normal, and that feels like two stories that would otherwise have been separate. Suddenly you have two heroines and two villains at the same time.

Oh’s Eve is an MI5 officer who has become bored of her desk job

The series generated a lot of buzz in the US for its LGBT representation, though Waller-Bridge says this was part of the creative process and not a political point…
It’s purely from character point of view – the idea that these two women just became obsessed with each other in every possible way. That was exciting, new, nuanced and real. It was a different kind of passion and it just felt very natural to the characters. The moment Eve knows Villanelle exists, a switch is turned on in her that hasn’t been turned on before. The first time they meet is the moment they fall in love, and that was a very natural, normal story point for us. They’re just women who adore each other, who are attracted to each other. There’s a sexual power play between the two that isn’t for anyone else, it’s just for them. It’s all about what happens between these two and how it effects them.

Waller-Bridge says the joy in writing Killing Eve was the faith shown in her to do it in the first place, and the freedom she was given to write the story she wanted to tell…
When I’d written Fleabag as a play, it was a monologue and it was ostensibly a comedy but then Sally came along and said, ‘Espionage thriller – go!’ [The joy is] that moment when you go, ‘Yeah alright, fuck it, I’ll try that.’ That moment of faith and ‘please break the rules’ coming from the very beginning – and then the challenge is to break the rules. It wasn’t like I was working within parameters, and BBC America was behind that as well.
The real joy comes when you’ve cast it and you’re starting to see these characters come to life. You get the rushes, you see what they’ve filmed that day, you’re on set and see the actors fill in the cracks and then you’re just like, ‘They’re not just in our heads anymore.’
Killing Eve had been in our hearts for so long and then you see the characters walking and talking, and then you get to carry on writing for them and building that relationship. I remember so many plot twists that happened over my kitchen table with Sandra talking about, ‘What if she did this, what if she did that?’ Then you’re completely aligned with everyone like that. It’s the best.

To reach this point in her career, Waller-Bridge found the fun in writing, surrounding herself with people – her “family” – who push and support her.
I went to drama school, left and nothing happened for ages. And in that gap of nothing happening, I met a director called Vicky Jones [The One], who became my best friend, and we just decided we wanted to do stuff for fun on the side of failing as actors and directors.
So we started our theatre company [DryWhite], producing work. And it was stuff we were doing for fun that took on a life of its own. It was Vicky who eventually said, ‘Just write a play,’ and so then I did – that was Fleabag. Then after Fleabag, I said to her, ‘You write a fucking play.’ And that did brilliantly well too.
That has been a huge part for me, finding your people who want to push you and you can push in return and that’s your gift to each other. It’s so lonely, so hard and so competitive comparing yourself to other people. So if you can find people you have fun with, if you crash and burn, you’ve got someone to say, ‘We’re going down together.’ You build your family and start working with the same people again.
I met Jenny Robins, the producer, doing Killing Eve. We bonded and continue to work together. [Director] Harry Bradbear worked on Fleabag and set this show up. Just build your family.

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Hold the front page

Journalists from two competing newspapers go head-to-head in Doctor Foster creator Mike Bartlett’s latest BBC1 drama, Press. DQ went on set to speak to the writer, executive producer Faith Penhale and the cast about this examination of the fourth estate.

Unusually for a national tabloid newspaper, the floor of The Post is quiet and still. Computer screens are turned off and chairs sit empty beneath large signs displaying the publication’s bright red masthead.

In the next room, however, dozens of extras are lining up, ready to take their places on the set of Mike Bartlett’s new drama, Press. Set in the fast-paced and challenging environment of the British newspaper industry, the series aims to explore the personal lives and constant professional dilemmas facing journalists as they attempt to balance work and play amid the never-ending pressure of the 24-hour global news cycle and an industry in turmoil.

Mike Bartlett

On one side are the employees of The Post, a traditional tabloid newspaper known for entertainment and scandal, while on the other are those working for The Herald, a left-leaning broadsheet. When The Post moves into new offices directly opposite The Herald, these two groups of journalists and the newspapers they represent are thrown into direct conflict.

The six-part series is produced by Lookout Point, BBC Studios and Deep Indigo for BBC1, and coproduced with PBS strand Masterpiece in the US. BBC Studios is handling international distribution.

Bartlett, best known for BBC1 drama Doctor Foster, says he had wanted to write about newspapers and the press for a long time, describing the newsroom as “the ideal place for a drama.” He reveals he first pitched the idea 10 years ago, but since then the phone-hacking scandal and subsequent Leveson Inquiry in the UK have brought the operations of newspapers and journalists into sharper focus. And in the age of Donald Trump and so-called ‘fake news,’ the press is arguably under greater scrutiny than ever.

It was a meeting four years ago with executive producer Faith Penhale, joint CEO and creative director of Lookout Point, that finally put Press into development.

“What is interesting about that is the show was initially about a quite stable industry but, over the course of researching and writing this, it became a story about an industry that is changing rapidly, and no one knows what is going to happen to it,” Bartlett explains, seated one floor above the set built inside a former office block on a north London industrial estate. “As a dramatist, it’s a wonderful world for drama because you have got new people coming in, new ways of doing things, and you have got older people who have been there a long time and are worried about losing a sense of what it used to be.”

Ben Chaplin plays Duncan Allen, editor of The Post

During his research, Bartlett visited the offices of UK publications The Guardian, The Sun, The Independent and the London Evening Standard, which he says both matched and confounded his expectations. He then sat down to write.

“I got a real sense of vocation from most people I spoke to, even if it was buried underneath a load of having a hard day and being really busy,” he says. “People on all different desks in the newsroom had a real belief in what it was doing, whether it was for entertainment or revolution and political change. So the show, on one hand, is a workplace drama where people sleep together and fall out and make friends and do all the things you would expect, but I also said from the start that the stories have to come from the world of journalism. If could you tell the same story in a world set in a hairdressers then it wasn’t the right story.”

Bartlett and Penhale go to great lengths to stress that Press is an entirely fictional drama, despite the echoes of real-life publications – The Post could easily be The Sun, while  The Herald surely doubles for The Guardian – and say the show doesn’t put their own personal views on the screen, despite Bartlett admitting he’s a “leftie, Guardian-reading writer.”

“We’re telling stories in this world and hopefully showing all the highs and lows and everyday dilemmas and huge, life-changing dilemmas. It’s got everything in there but it’s entirely created,” Penhale says. “We certainly don’t shy away from the emotional drama within the stories and within the characters as they face certain challenges. Emotions run high and things can get quite punchy as a result.”

Ben Chaplin (Apple Tree Yard) plays Duncan Allen, the charismatic editor of The Post. “It was a fun role,” Chaplin says when he’s asked what attracted him to the part. “He’s a little bit amoral, which probably helps in that line of work, if tabloid editors will forgive me. He’s very persistent, he never gives up – like he’s an irresistible force.”

Poirot star David Suchet as newspaper owner George Emmerson

That means Duncan isn’t afraid of employing some “pretty shocking” tactics to get the story he wants. “I don’t think he has a lot of qualms about how you get a story, or any at all actually,” Chaplin says, referring to the ‘dark arts’ used by journalists in search of a scoop.

But to the actor, the vibe of a newsroom is rather like being in a theatre company: “There’s this camaraderie but there’s healthy competition as well. It reminded me a little bit of being shipmates, like you’re on the same ship.”

Duncan also comes under pressure to increase readership – and revenue – from The Post’s owner, George Emmerson, played by Poirot star David Suchet.

Having played a real-life newspaper proprietor before in Maxwell, a 2007 biopic about the late media magnate Robert Maxwell, Suchet was keen to avoid any links to real-life figures this time. “When I was offered the role, I said, ‘I don’t want to play [The Sun owner Rupert] Murdoch, I just want to play the character that is in the script,’ and Mike has trodden a very good line. You are not supposed to link him at all. It doesn’t feel thinly veiled and I was very keen to not put on any accents or anything.”

In the wake of recent movies such as Spotlight and The Post, Suchet believes now is a good time for TV to tackle the newspaper world. “It’s like courtroom drama,” he notes. “There have been great films in Hollywood about the press and journalism; it’s great drama and there are great characters.”

Press also stars Charlotte Riley as a journalist for The Herald

In the hands of Bartlett, that meant Press was a series Suchet couldn’t turn down: “He is the only writer, and Doctor Who [2017 episode Knock Knock, written by Bartlett] was the only programme, I have ever said yes to without reading the script. Mike’s scripts are possibly the finest scripts in media today, whether on television or film.

“When I got this script to do, it was just so good, and the relationship between my character and Duncan is really clever. It’s good dialogue. It’s really zingy. There’s nothing cliched about his writing at all. It’s very good. I think it’s going to be a very classy piece of television.”

On another day, DQ is at Three Mills Studios in east London, home to the set of The Herald, where Charlotte Riley (Peaky Blinders, Close to the Enemy) plays the broadsheet’s deputy news editor Holly Evans. Principled and passionate, she’s dedicated to journalism and it’s through her that viewers will see the personal cost of working in the industry.

“Her career has come at the expense of her personal life. She’s pretty lonely,” Riley says. “She has colleagues that she gets on well with. But the loneliness she experiences is outside the office. She lives to work – being in the office brings her to life. It’s her raison d’être. It’s quite sad that as soon as she walks through those doors, she breathes again. Being on her own she has to deal with her demons.

“What attracted me to the role is that she’s fast-thinking but the cogs turn very slowly emotionally. It’s a very detailed emotional arc for her. That was nice to play – it’s not driven by falling in love.”

Riley previously worked with Bartlett on King Charles III, the writer’s BBC2 adaptation of his successful stage play. “Coming from a theatre background, Mike and I have weekly conversations about the things we’re shooting and what’s coming up,” she admits. “It’s wonderful to have access like that to discuss every character and what’s going on and why.

“Shooting TV these days is so quick; you don’t get to be as immersed as you’d like. For most actors, mainly your training is theatre. We had a two-week rehearsal period, which is unheard of,” Riley adds. “I just really like his work, the way he writes. His characters are great.”

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On guard

Line of Duty creator Jed Mercurio mixes politics and action in Bodyguard, a six-part thriller starring Richard Madden and Keeley Hawes. The showrunner and executive producer Simon Heath invite DQ to the set.

With the long-awaited fifth season of crime drama Line of Duty not due to air on BBC1 until 2019, two years after the fourth run, fans of the series could be forgiven for getting slightly impatient over the return of what has become one of Britain’s biggest dramas. To whet their appetite, however, series creator and showrunner Jed Mercurio will be back on the same channel this Sunday with a brand new series.

A six-part political thriller set within the corridors of power, Bodyguard tells the fictional story of David Budd, played by Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden, a heroic but volatile war veteran now working as an officer of the Royalty and Specialist Protection Branch (RaSP) of London’s Metropolitan Police.

When he is assigned to protect the ambitious and powerful home secretary Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes), whose politics stand for everything he despises, Budd finds himself torn between his duty and his beliefs. Responsible for her safety, is he actually her biggest threat?

Produced by Line of Duty’s World Productions and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment, Bodyguard also stars Gina McKee, Vincent Franklin, Paul Ready, Sophie Rundle, Ash Tandon, Nicholas Gleaves, Nina Toussaint-White, Pippa Haywood and Stuart Bowman.

Bodyguard showrunner Jed Mercurio (in leather jacket) watches the action unfold on a monitor

Thomas Vincent directed block one of the production, while John Strickland took charge of block two, with Priscilla Parish producing.

It’s a gloomy January evening when DQ pitches up at an opulent apartment block overlooking Battersea Park in south-west London, in the shadow of the former power station currently undergoing an extensive redevelopment as it prepares to house Apple’s UK HQ. A luxury flat on the first floor is home to Hawes’ high-flying politician and, inside, Mercurio is sitting on a sofa in the living room, watching filming on a monitor while safely out of shot.

The cameras are focused on Madden as he climbs the staircase and lets himself into the pitch-black apartment, before making his way towards the bedrooms, clearly looking for someone or something. Owing to the fact this is a scene from episode five, DQ is left in the dark over any further plot details.

Tracing the origins of the series, Mercurio goes back to 2014, when Line of Duty aired its second season, then on BBC2. “We started having a conversation with the BBC about developing a thriller to work on BBC1,” he recalls. “That was the genesis of it, wanting to set something within the world of the police but within an area we hadn’t seen much of recently and possibly also combining it with a political thriller. So those were the initial thoughts. Then development took place on and off while Line of Duty continued. Then it was before season four of Line of Duty went out that this was greenlit into production – the plan was always to do this after season four.”

In the kitchen of the apartment are photos of Hawes’ character next to former British prime minister David Cameron. But with Cameron now out of office for more than two years, Mercurio notes that Bodyguard isn’t aiming to reflect contemporary headlines.

Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden plays protection officer David Budd

“I don’t think you can make something topical when you’re making a drama that’s not going to go out for six months after the last script is written,” he says. “There are certain things we know will be in place, like our system of government, so you can work around that. But it’s not meant to be topical about anything that’s happening on a week-by-week basis. Some of the themes in the show about a terrorist threat, our foreign policy and the relationship between politicians and how that threat is managed seem to have been present in our political system for a decade or more, so I think we’re on pretty safe ground in terms of it still feeling timely.”

Bodyguard, which packs each episode with stunts and action set pieces, reunites Mercurio with both Madden and Hawes, with whom he previously worked on Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Line of Duty respectively. Madden’s character David is an armed forces veteran turned police protection officer who is still struggling with the burden of his experiences, while Hawes’ Montague is a security-focused politician attempting to push through a bill to beef up security services’ powers to monitor communications.

“She’s a tough, kind of hawkish home secretary,” Mercurio explains. “The basic point of contention between them is he’s got experience of our foreign wars and she’s someone who has supported those ventures politically. His experience has been that those things have had a negative impact on our society.”

Hawes was one of the first names suggested to play the home secretary, according to executive producer Simon Heath, CEO and creative director of World Productions. “Richard I hadn’t worked with before, but Jed had, and I’d seen how good he was. It felt like a good thing to go for a younger actor in that role and create that interesting dynamic with Keeley. I think we’re fortunate to get them both.”

While Line of Duty now has continuing storylines to pick up, Bodyguard afforded Mercurio the chance to start a new story from scratch. “It involves more work in setting up the characters and the world, but it’s completely serial – six hours with a definite conclusion at the end of the six episodes.”

Director Thomas Vincent in discussion with Madden during a break from filming

Mercurio was also able to continue the showrunner role he has carved out for himself, a position still rarely seen in British television. “I’m very fortunate to be able to do that,” he admits.

Heath picks up: “I think it is still rare but Jed does it really well and really thoroughly. What it means is if you get locked into directing something you’ve written, it’s very hard to stand back and get an overview. But the position Jed takes is that he gets a fantastic overview of the whole thing taking the scripts to screen. That works brilliantly for Line of Duty and has worked brilliantly for this as well.”

Filming Bodyguard across London has posed the familiar challenges faced by dramas shooting in the English capital. Heath says it’s “not a particularly film-friendly city, in truth,” adding that Wales, Scotland, Birmingham and Belfast – where Line of Duty is made – offer an ease of production not available in London.

“It’s basic things like getting permissions to close roads to do stunts or trying to get access to locations or unit bases,” he explains. “For the general public, it’s dull stuff, but it’s absolutely essential in terms of servicing a production and it does make it incredibly challenging. We’ve been in the very centre of London and did big stunts round the back of Holborn. It looks fantastic on screen but it’s tough because we haven’t got unlimited resources. We haven’t got Hollywood budgets and we have to box clever to get this stuff in the can.”

Mercurio adds: “It’s easy to form the view that if a Hollywood production has got Tom Cruise running around then various London boroughs will roll over and give them the facilities they want, but if the national broadcaster is trying to make something here, it’s a bit harder.”

Keeley Hawes, who stars in ITV hit The Durrells, plays the home secretary

With the global trend for big-budget coproductions, Bodyguard stands out for using the traditional model of broadcaster, producer and distributor to build its budget. But as Heath admits, Bodyguard is at the “outer reaches” of that model in terms of financing a show with the scale of the BBC1 series.

“But it’s been a good thing because we haven’t had any other voices telling us what the show should be,” he says. “We’ve had a lot of support from the BBC but we’ve been allowed to get on with it. I like to think that model is still viable. Not everything has to be a huge coproduction.”

“We’ve just been really grateful for the BBC support on this,” Mercurio adds. “There’s no need to involve another broadcaster because they’ve backed us to the hilt. I’m not saying anything negative about other broadcasters, but if you’re in the position where you have one broadcaster, you’re delivering to one organisation, one channel, with one ambition in terms of what they want for their audience, it does make it a little bit easier editorially.”

If Bodyguard finds an audience, Mercurio says he would definitely like to return to the series. Until then, he is back in charge of Line of Duty, with season five set to begin production this autumn.

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Good Faith

Matthew Hall, writer of Un Bore Mercher (Keeping Faith), tells DQ about his journey to bring the series to air and the importance of intimacy and location in television drama.

If ever proof were needed that water-cooler TV still exists in today’s streamer-dominated television landscape, Un Bore Mercher (Keeping Faith) is it.

The eight-part Welsh-language series debuted on S4C in November last year, before a version combining Welsh and English launched on co-commissioner BBC Wales in February this year.

Matthew Hall

The series drew 300,000 viewers to its weekly episodes on BBC1 Wales, the highest audience for a non-network drama shown in Wales for more than 20 years. It then went on to become a record-breaker on BBC on-demand service iPlayer, with 9.5 million requests to view the series so far – the highest ever recorded for any non-network show on the BBC – leading the broadcaster to extend the availability of the show online.

Such was the demand that the series was then promoted to BBC1, launching last month to 2.9 million – beating this summer’s other must-watch series, Love Island.

Un Bore Mercher, an eight-part drama set in Carmarthenshire, stars Eve Myles (Torchwood) as lawyer, wife and mother Faith, who fights to find the truth behind the sudden disappearance of her husband. She comes to discover that her idyllic hometown harbours many dark secrets that threaten the lives of her and her family, while her ordeal transforms Faith rom a stay-at-home, fun-loving and carefree mother to detective, action hero and lover.

The show’s shift to BBC1 and its iPlayer statistics are very much a bonus for writer Matthew Hall, who spent more than four years developing Un Bore Mercher for S4C, with producer Vox Productions securing additional financing from BBC Wales, Nevision and distributor About Premium Content (APC).

But throughout the writing and production process, Hall was adamant the show would retain two things: its intimacy and its geographic specificity.

“The US shows I’ve admired the most are all incredibly intimate, in that you’re up close with the protagonist most of the time,” the writer says, highlighting series such as Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, two seminal shows that he describes as being both gangster drama and intimate study of family.

Un Bore Mercher stars Eve Myles, who has appeared in such shows as Broadchurch and Torchwood

“In Britain our tradition is theatrical, so television is ultimately a descendant of the theatre, and everything is more arms-length and dialogue-driven [than in the US]. I just wanted to get away from that and because I worked with Pip Broughton, the director and producer, from the very beginning, we understood each other exactly. We had a completely joint vision by the time it came to filming.”

Meanwhile, the South Wales location “is very much my part of the world,” Hall says, explaining that setting a drama in a specific place adds credibility and a universality to the storytelling. “So much of television takes place in a generic location, particularly in Britain, and we’ve seen London and Manchester so much. I was just determined it would be in a small town. Some of the drama I’ve admired has that small-town setting, so Fargo was very much on my mind during the writing. And the moment you do that, you’ve got idiosyncratic speech patterns, which adds another layer of authenticity and belief in where you are.”

The series and the character of Faith herself emerged from Hall’s desire to dramatise the conflict many women face when trying to balance their home life and their career. “I’d wanted a character in Faith who had done some of that, who was a professional and capable of achieving a huge amount in the world but was also incredibly maternal,” he explains. “I just felt that was not a dilemma I’d seen much of.

The actor had to learn Welsh for her role as Faith

“Mythological stories often end with women living happily ever after – but what if she already is living happily ever after and we take that all away from her? It’s kind of like, what does a woman want from life? That’s one of the questions the series is asking. What does she want from life and what is she capable of? I’m not making a political point, I’m just making a character who’s in the middle of a dilemma.”

Development was a year along when the ambition surfaced to follow Welsh noir drama Hinterland’s two-track production process, producing the series both in Welsh and bilingual Welsh-English versions. But it was a further two years, Hall recalls, before the BBC and APC were secured and the budget was raised to a level to support both ‘home’ and international versions.

The jewel in the crown, however, was Myles herself. The actor – whose other credits include Broadchurch, Victoria and recent miniseries A Very English Scandal – was “an absolutely critical part” of getting the production off the ground. “We have this issue where there’s only a very small pool of Welsh-speaking actors and the commercial reality is you have to have some headline name in the show to sell it abroad,” Hall admits. “Eve was absolutely critical and she completely embodied the spirit of the character. The major obstacle was she didn’t speak Welsh at that point, so she had to learn it.”

Similarly, Hall is not a Welsh speaker, though he is learning too. Anwen Huws oversaw the Welsh translation of the scripts, which Hall had had the luxury of writing all at once, rather than in two or three batches.

A second season of the show is now in development

“That’s virtually unheard of in television. Normally something gets commissioned on the back of a couple of scripts and the rest get written in a rush,” Hall admits. “But I was able to write eight fairly carefully and plot them through. It was actually quite a rigorous development process. By the time Pip and I had been through that – you’re talking 500 pages of scripts – we had a very close understanding of the tone of the thing. The scripts resemble movie scripts more than traditional TV scripts – there’s fewer words in them but that’s because the surer you are of tone, the fewer words it takes to express it. It should be absolutely effortless to read a screenplay, and that was my objective.”

Such was the popularity of Un Bore Mercher on iPlayer that BBC Wales announced in April that scripts for a second season were in development, with Hall once again overseeing the story. But it’s not the story for a follow-up that he has had in mind since before the first season aired. Rather, it is the characters’ emotional arcs that he has already worked out and will now flesh out before filming restarts this autumn.

“I’ve had emotional arcs for season two and season three, which are more important than story arcs,” the writer adds. “Story is something that facilitates your emotional journey. If you know emotionally what you want your character to go through, where they begin and where they end, then you can strap a story to it to deliver that. There are a few things in my mind where I can see where Faith could go.”

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City life

The City & The City sees David Morrissey play Inspector Tyador Borlú, who is tasked with investigating the murder of a foreign student whose body is discovered in the streets of the down-at-heel city of Besźel.

He soon uncovers evidence that the murdered girl came from Ul Qoma, a city that shares a dangerous and volatile relationship with Besźel, with the case set to challenge everything Borlú holds dear.

The four-part miniseries is written by Tony Grisoni (Electric Dreams, Red Riding Trilogy), based on China Miéville’s mind-bending novel, and directed by Tom Shankland (House of Cards).

In this DQTV interview, Morrissey, Grisoni, Shankland and executive producer Preethi Mavahalli discuss making the show and the challenges of translating Miéville’s novel to the screen.

The City & The City is produced by Mammoth Screen for BBC2 and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.

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A Blueprint for Scandal

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

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

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

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

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

A Very English Scandal stars Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grant, as MP Jeremy Thorpe, receives direction from Frears

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

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

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

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

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

Whishaw plays Norman Scott, the former lover Thorpe wanted dead

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

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

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

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

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Love and marriage

Bafta- and Emmy-winning writer Abi Morgan’s drama The Split is described as an authentic multi-layered exploration of modern marriage and the legacy of divorce.

The story plays out through the lens of the Defoes – a family of female lawyers at the heart of London’s emotionally charged divorce circuit.

Leading divorce lawyer Hannah Stern (Nicola Walker) has walked out on the family firm to join a rival company, and she now faces her sister Nina (Annabel Scholey) and mother Ruth (Deborah Findlay), also successful family lawyers, on the opposing side of high-profile divorce cases.

When their father Oscar (Anthony Head) returns after a 30-year absence, Hannah, Nina and youngest sister Rose (Fiona Button) are thrown further into turmoil.

Speaking to DQTV, executive producer Jane Featherstone and director Jessica Hobbs reveal how the six-part series balances the demands of episodic and serialised storytelling, and discuss the importance of casting.

They also talk about making the series with both BBC1 and US cable channel SundanceTV, and the buoyant TV business in which Featherstone’s recently established production company Sister Pictures is finding its feet.

The Split is produced by Sister Pictures for BBC1 and SundanceTV and distributed by BBC Studios (formerly BBC Worldwide).

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Eyre to the throne

Award-winning director Richard Eyre discusses his take on Shakespeare’s King Lear in a new BBC and Amazon film starring Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Andrew Scott and Jim Carter.

There can be few directors alive today more familiar with William Shakespeare’s works than Sir Richard Eyre.

A multi-award-winning director of film, television, theatre and even opera, Eyre has been behind high-profile stage productions of Hamlet and Richard III and also helmed TV versions of Henry IV: Part One and Henry IV: Part Two for the BBC’s The Hollow Crown, a five-film adaptation of multiple Shakespeare plays.

His most celebrated Shakespearean work to date, however, is surely his 1998 stage version of King Lear, starring Ian Holm. The production earned Olivier Awards for both Holm and Eyre, and now the director will be hoping for similar acclaim for his screen version of the tragedy, which airs on BBC2 in the UK next week and launches later on Amazon, which co-financed the film.

Leading the cast this time around is Sir Anthony Hopkins as Lear, who slowly descends into madness after disposing of his kingdom among his daughters.

Anthony Hopkins was mistaken for a homeless man during filming

The talent-laden ensemble also includes Emma Thompson, Emily Watson and Florence Pugh as Lear’s daughters Goneril, Regan and Cordelia respectively; Jim Broadbent as the Earl of Gloucester, whose sons Edgar and Edmund are played by Andrew Scott and John Macmillan; and Downton Abbey’s Jim Carter as the Earl of Kent.

The first thing viewers tuning in at 21.30 on Monday will notice is the one-off film’s decidedly un-Shakespearean setting, opening as it does with an establishing shot of present-day London with 95-storey skyscraper The Shard front and centre. However, the Bard’s unmistakable dialogue from the 1605-penned play remains intact.

Explaining the decision behind the modern setting, Eyre says: “It’s unusual for a Shakespeare play – it’s set in a pre-Christian era… the period is probably druidic. And if you ask, ‘How am I going to make it look?’, you’re thinking, ‘I don’t want it to look like druids in sheets at Stonehenge.’

“I decided I wanted to set it in a contemporary world. In some ways, the buildings are playing off against the language.”

As for why he was keen to return to King Lear 20 years after his theatre version, Eyre’s reasoning is straightforward: “I think it’s the best play ever written, and I’ve felt that for about 35 years.

Emily Watson (left) and Emma Thompson as Regan and Goneril

“This is a story about two fathers, one with three daughters, one with two sons. It’s a play about family, amplified by being about the state, so the stakes are that much higher. None of its truths are going to change for hundreds of years.”

Bringing such a revered and challenging property to the screen was always going to demand a cast with serious acting chops, and producer Colin Callender of Playground Entertainment says he was delighted with the line-up put together for the show. “The ability to bring a play like this to the screen enables us to assemble a cast that you would never ever see on stage together, and it’s a testament to Richard that we were able to put together such an extraordinary ensemble,” he says.

“Part of the joy of seeing something like this on screen is that every role comes to life in the most extraordinary way; a way that doesn’t always happen on stage because you don’t get actors of this calibre playing all these secondary and tertiary roles.”

The choice of Hopkins as Lear, meanwhile, was a no-brainer – but that’s not to say it was simple to secure his services. The process can be traced back to when Eyre directed the actor in the 2015 BBC/Starz film version of Ronald Harwood play The Dresser, which also starred Ian McKellen. The story is set in the backstage area of a production of King Lear, which led to the pair discussing the Shakespeare play.

“I had directed King Lear, Tony had been in King Lear and we talked rather facetiously about how we’d make a film of King Lear one day,” Eyre says. Then, after Callender came to him with the project, it was the director’s wife who pushed him to move ahead, telling him: “You just have to do this with Tony Hopkins.”

Andrew Scott plays Edgar

Multiple emails back and forth between actor and director followed, with Hopkins busy with projects such as HBO drama Westworld. The pair talked “more or less everything King Lear” before, two years later, rehearsals finally began – and Hopkins didn’t disappoint.

“He’s the most extraordinary, eccentric, lovable, bizarre man,” Eyre says of the Silence of the Lambs star. “He generates a nuclear energy on set, benign energy.”

The actor’s performance as an increasingly bewildered and dishevelled Lear was apparently so convincing that he was mistaken for a homeless person during filming on location in the UK town of Stevenage. “A woman in a mobility scooter scooted up to Tony and said, ‘You know, there’s a hostel for the homeless up the road, so you might want to take your shopping trolley down there,’” Eyre recalls.

For Thompson, meanwhile, performing in the film led to a reappraisal of her own interpretation of the play, which she also describes as her favourite. As Goneril, who along with her equally devious sister Regan has long been perceived as one of the major villains of King Lear, the actor plays a character who schemes against her ailing father. But Thompson says: “This is the only production of King Lear I’ve ever seen in which you actually sometimes sympathise more with the children, and I think that’s an amazing insight into the play. I’d never been able to see that, so I’m very grateful.”

Describing working with Hopkins for a third time – the pair previously starred in The Remains of the Day and Howards End – as “joyful,” the Oscar winner adds: “It’s great to play all that rage. It’s really fun, I loved it. Anthony and I got very violent in one scene – it was really enjoyable!”

Downton Abbey star Jim Carter plays the Earl of Kent

Andrew Scott was also thrilled to act alongside Hopkins. The Sherlock star, nominated for an Olivier Award for his stage portrayal of Hamlet last year, plays Edgar, who is betrayed by his malevolent and bitter half-brother Edmund. “What I found so extraordinary about Tony is how ferocious and alive he is about being an actor,” he says. “Every day he’d come in and if you asked him how he slept, he’d say, ‘Fuck sleep, I don’t sleep!’”

As for the film itself, which is produced by Playground and Sonia Friedman Productions in association with Lemaise Pictures, Scott notes: “A lot of it is about the vulnerability of our leaders. This is something that was written 400 years ago, but we rely on human beings to lead us and we have to see that they are human beings.”

Rejecting the suggestion that Shakespeare on TV might lack broad appeal, he says: “Human psychology has not changed, and I hate the idea that this kind of drama is only for a select few, because that means that only a select few are seeing it.”

Co-star Jim Carter, best known for playing butler Mr Carson in Downton Abbey, concurs, believing it’s crucial that Shakespeare’s works continue to be adapted for the small screen. “Having it in people’s living rooms, bringing it to people at home, rather than people having to make the effort to go out and see it, is hugely important,” he says of the drama, which is distributed internationally by Great Point Media.

“For this to come to people where they really feel things much more deeply – in their own home – is fantastic. Thank you BBC.”

But how can young people, in particular, be expected to connect with something written so long ago? Scott might have the answer. “Shakespeare is a little bit like rap,” he asserts. “The majority of the audience who are watching on television will go, ‘I don’t understand that, but I understand the music of it.’ There are still certain things that I don’t understand about it, but I understand the music and I understand the feeling.”

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Lifting the mask

London’s Royal Festival Hall hosted the most prestigious night of the year for British television as prizes were handed out to dramas including Peaky Blinders, Three Girls and The Handmaid’s Tale. DQ went behind the scenes at the Bafta Television Awards 2018.

Crowds were hanging over balconies, hoping to catch a glimpse of their favourite TV stars as dozens of plush cars lined up to drop off their A-list cargo at London’s Royal Festival Hall. The red carpet outside was a scene of organised chaos as guests made their way past photographers and fans cheering their name before they arrived inside the venue for this year’s Bafta Television Awards.

Inside the grand building, which sits on the city’s Southbank beside the River Thames, the atmosphere was one of relative calm as the auditorium’s seats slowly filled up ahead of the start of the show, this year presented by former Great British Bake-Off host Sue Perkins.

BBC comedy This Country and drama Three Girls, which was based on real events, each scooped two prizes, while Molly Windsor (Three Girls) and Sean Bean (Broken) scooped the gongs for leading actress and actor. In the best drama category, Peaky Blinders beat competition from Line of Duty, The Crown and The End of the F****** World, while US series The Handmaid’s Tale triumphed over scripted rivals Big Little Lies and Feud: Bette and Joan to be named best international drama.

After the winners were escorted off stage, DQ was on hand to hear some of their reactions.

A fifth season of Peaky Blinders is on the way

Drama Series: Peaky Blinders (Caryn Mandabach Productions, Tiger Aspect Productions, BBC2)
This was Peaky Blinders‘ first Bafta award for best drama since the period drama set in 1920s Birmingham debuted on BBC2 in 2013. Season four aired last year, with a fifth commissioned by BBC2.
Steven Knight, creator and writer: “I’m shocked. I think it took that long just for people to get the idea of what it’s all about. Some things do take time. I’m really pleased. I’m hoping that next year it will be [actors] Helen [McCrory], Paul [Anderson] and Cillian [Murphy]. They are the Peaky Blinders. My ambition was to make it a story of family between two wars. I’ve always wanted to end it with first air-raid siren in Birmingham in 1939 – three more seasons. Now we’re getting approached to do all kinds of things – ballet, musical, a movie would be great. I wouldn’t want to do it at the very end but maybe between two of the seasons.”
Caryn Mandabach, executive producer: “I’m gobsmacked. What Steve’s not saying is many people were saying, ‘It’s not for me, it’s too northern, it’s too violent.’ What people didn’t understand was what he was really writing about was the effect of violence on people and the importance of respect for the family. Now finally everyone’s catching up with an honest depiction of people everywhere after some giant thing like the First World War. I don’t know how he actually writes them, personally. I think he’s got writer fairies that visit occasionally.”

O-T Fagbenle in The Handmaid’s Tale

International: The Handmaid’s Tale (MGM, Channel 4)
After claiming victory at the Golden Globes and Emmys, Hulu’s adaptation of Margret Atwood’s dystopian novel – a timely and often challenging watch – was a sure thing to continue its award-winning run following its UK broadcast on Channel 4.
O-T Fagbenle, who plays Luke, Offred (Elisabeth Moss)’s husband before Gilead: “The source material, Margaret’s book, is just a phenomenal piece of literature. Also we live in scary times, changing times, with populist governments on the rise and a greater awareness of the way patriarchy affects women’s rights in the world.
“What’s been really interesting about it is how so many people from so many walks of life related to it. When it first came out, Donald Trump had just been elected and everyone related it to Trump. Then there was the great #MeToo movement and people related it to that. Also people around the world are relating to the different ways, large and small, that men have oppressed women.
“Elisabeth is the greatest actress I’ve ever had the chance to work with, in so many ways. She’s phenomenal and she carries such a load with her. The material is so challenging and she’s just charming and generous on set. You couldn’t wish to work with a better partner in a scene.”

Brían F O’Byrne as grieving father Steve Jones in Little Boy Blue

Supporting Actor: Brían F O’Byrne, Little Boy Blue (ITV Studios, ITV)
O’Byrne and Sinead Keenan starred as parents Steve and Melanie Jones in the four-part ITV series, which dramatises the real-life killing of 11-year-old Rhys Jones in Liverpool in 2007.
“Jeff [Pope]’s script is so good and Paul [Whittington]’s such a wonderful director, you know you’re going to be in safe hands but also worried they may have actually called the wrong guy – there must be a mistake. I was living in LA at the time and I had just decided to move back to Ireland after being over there for three decades. I hadn’t worked in the UK before and got a call to go to Liverpool. I didn’t have the fear of getting a job until I met Mel and Steve, and then there was the realisation I could really fuck this up really badly and it would be terrible. It’s too sensitive a material.
“You’re not really thinking about it from an acting point of view as much as you’re invited into [the Jones family’s] home, and I got to meet two people who are grieving a decade later and are processing something we could all have empathy with and identify with. It would be our horror that your child, just coming back from football practice, could be indiscriminately killed.
“This award is Sinead’s really. I got to witness an incredible performance take after take. Actresses are the ones who really have to go from 0-100 right now and it’s expected take after take. She was living in grief for those several months. It was a really tough job for her.
“The odd thing was going to work on a set like that because everybody thought of it as we’re not just making a shit TV show. If you go and work on something like that, everybody there had care for the piece. There was great care and attention taken because we all met [the family at the heart of the story] and we didn’t want to lessen the loss they had in any way.
“They obviously wanted their story told because of their love for Rhys. I know they were happy about how the show ended up. [The existence of the show means] Rhys’s memory is still out there. I think ultimately that’s what they wanted. They want to show their grief continues and the senseless act of his murder is not just nightly news thing, it goes on and it stays with them.

Three Girls told the true story of a sexual abuse scandal

Miniseries: Three Girls (BBC Drama Studios, Studio Lambert, BBC1)
The BBC three-parter retold the true stories of victims of grooming and sexual abuse in the English town of Rochdale between 2008 and 2012. The series also won writing, editing and directing prizes at the Bafta Television Craft Awards last month.
Nicole Taylor, writer: “The first thing I did was turn it down repeatedly because I was scared to do it. I thought I had good reasons for turning it down but actually I was just scared  – and what I was really doing was turning away from the girls because I didn’t want to look, like everyone else. They didn’t want it to be true. I didn’t want it to be true. I was scared of approaching it, and that was actually an appropriate place to start from. Once I went up to Rochdale and met the girls and their mums and dads, I was so stunned myself at the gap between the idea of Girl A and Girl B and Girl C and these anonymous people, and getting to know them was so enormous. I was so shocked by that; I thought, ‘Right, I’m definitely going to do this – I can’t not do this.’ I didn’t really do anything else for three years.”
Philippa Lowthorpe, director: “The really urgent thing for me as a director was to get inside those girls’ heads and see their experiences from their point of view, not on the outside, but to really try to understand from the inside what they might be experiencing and to be really truthful to their experience and honour their experience and to not walk away. It was very emotional. We had a brilliant casting director in Shaheen Baig and we chose very carefully girls not only for their talent, but also their maturity to be able to deal with this kind of subject matter.”
Simon Lewis, producer: “Before the programme could be broadcast, we showed it to [the real-life victims]. They came and watched it individually because we were obviously nervous and because we knew it would be emotional. One by one, sometimes with a family member or a friend, they all came in to watch. We were expecting them to say, ‘That’s not quite right,’ or ‘I didn’t go in that door’ or ‘I was never in that car,’ but actually the essence, the big stuff, they all said that’s how it was. When we showed it to them, there were a lot of tears. But there were a lot of tears all the way through making it.”
Susan Hogg, executive producer: “One of the girls said, which has really made me proud, that until she watched the programme, she didn’t realise she was a victim. Watching the programme, because we’d interviewed her and then put her character on the screen, she could see she was absolutely a victim, and that meant a huge amount to her. It’s not just about the three girls on screen, it’s about the thousands of others who have been abused and those trials keep coming up and more and more victims come to light. It’s for all them really that we made this programme, for them to be heard, because, for a long time, even when they went to the police, they weren’t being heard and weren’t being believed. Now we know that is changing. For the BBC to support a programme like this and for [director of content] Charlotte Moore to put her weight behind it and have the confidence to commission it is massive. With the way funding now works and we have a lot of money coming in from America and the SVoD channels, we’re doing a lot of coproductions, this really important domestic drama is very hard to fund, and the BBC absolutely does that. Long may that continue.”

Vanessa Kirby accepts her award for her performance in The Crown

Supporting Actress: Vanessa Kirby, The Crown (Left Bank Pictures, Netflix)
Kirby stars in the epic British royal drama as Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy)’s younger sister. The award marked the first major Bafta for Netflix, following craft prizes for photography & lighting and sound
“I just felt like the luckiest person in the world to play someone so colourful, vivid, brave and strong, so actually this is for Margaret, wherever she is.”

Aysha Rafaele on stage at the Baftas last night

Single Drama: Murdered for Being Different (BBC Studios Documentary Unit, BBC3)
This film, from the award-winning team behind Murdered by my Boyfriend, retold the brutal 2007 killing of 20-year-old Sophie Lancaster, who was kicked to death by a gang of teenagers. Her boyfriend Robert Maltby was also severely beaten and ended up in a coma. Both were targeted because they were goths.
Aysha Rafaele, the former creative director of BBC Studios Documentary Unit who is now setting up a drama hub within the organisation: “A big thank you to Robert Maltby and Sylvia Lancaster, Sophie’s mum, for their bravery and courage in allowing us to tell this devastating story. Sadly since Sophie’s death, hate crime in this country has continued to rise. It’s our duty and our privilege as filmmakers to not look away from the dark corners in our society.”

Daisy May Cooper writes and stars in This Country

Scripted Comedy: This Country (BBC Studios, BBC3)
Female Performance in a Comedy Programme: Daisy May Cooper, This Country
The BBC3 mockumentary, about two young people living in a small village in the Cotswolds, also earned its stars and co-creators (and siblings) writing accolades at the Bafta TV Craft Awards last month.
Charlie Cooper, writer and actor: “We had an idea in our head that we thought might be funny but we were never intelligent enough to articulate it. As soon as we met these guys [producers Tom George and Simon Mayhew-Archer], they knew immediately what we were on about and transformed what was a seed of an idea into something that’s good and funny. It’s amazing.”
Daisy May Cooper, writer and actor: “What we were worried about when the first season came out was that people might not be able to find it [on online network BBC3]. Now with a second season coming out, people are really talking about it and I get stopped a lot more, which is brilliant. I absolutely love it.”

Toby Jones clutches his award

Male Performance in a Comedy Programme: Toby Jones, Detectorists (Channel X North, Treasure Trove Productions, Lola Entertainment, BBC4)
The comedy series, written and directed by Mackenzie Crook, saw Crook and Jones play a pair of metal-detecting enthusiasts. It previously won the 2015 Bafta for scripted comedy. Jones won the award for its third and final season.
“I think it’s fantastic writing. It’s a strange thing in world of TV now that I was cycling through New Orleans making a film last October and these guys came out of a bar and just went, ‘Man we love the Detectorists.’ It’s so extraordinary that a show made in a village in Suffolk is big in America and Canada. It’s a testament to how Mackenzie’s created characters that are archetypal. It’s about friendships, maybe about a life a lot of people want, where they can go to the pub with their mates and they have time.
“Mackenzie and I have worked on the same things before but never worked in a scene together. Then we were in Muppets Most Wanted as a double act and he said to me, ‘I’ve written this thing with you in mind. You don’t have to do it. I know it’s a nightmare when people tell you they’ve written something for you but, if you don’t mind, I’ll email it to you. You probably won’t like it and you don’t want to do a comedy show, do you?’ He emailed it to me and it was just the most amazing dialogue. It’s not comedy in the sense of gags, it’s about humane characters. That’s what appealed to me.
“I always think the most glamorous thing about our job is the contrast. You get to move medium, you get to move where you’re working, the scale you’re working at and the people you’re working with. That always feels to me like the most glamorous thing you can possibly do. So to work on Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and then go and stay in a pub and make Detectorists, it just feels fantastic. Neither one is better. It’s just a huge contrast.
“Mackenzie was pretty clear that he didn’t want to say goodbye in a big way, but there’s a challenge in the show that you find treasure. You can’t keep finding treasure. It felt great that he’d found a third season because it felt like the second one, where we found treasure at the end, that was a good place to stop. Nut he said, ‘What if the treasure was up in the sky?’ So it actually feels good and appropriate to finish it. I really miss those actors because it was such a chilled-out job. You stroll to work in a field in the sunshine every day. The scripts are immaculate. It’s very rare you don’t have to change anything.”

Casualty first aired in 1986

Soap & Continuing Drama: Casualty (BBC Studios Continuing Drama, BBC1)
The long-running BBC drama follows the staff and patients at the fictional Holby City Hospital’s emergency department.
George Rainsford, who plays Ethan Hardy: “Casualty has been around for 30 years. It keeps challenging itself and keeps challenging the viewers, keeps producing big stories people can relate to, hopefully, and it keeps championing the NHS. I’m really speechless. I genuinely didn’t think we’d be here.”
Chelsea Halfpenny, who plays Alicia Munroe: “I think it shows authentically the realities of the NHS. The business, the lack of funding…  I get a lot of tweets and messages from nurses and doctors saying thank you for showing the struggles.”
Simon Harper, executive producer: “There isn’t particularly a gender pay gap on Casualty, I wouldn’t say. One thing that came to light in the [BBC] pay publication thing last summer was just how hard our artists work, and every single one of them deserves every single penny that they earn. I would agree in the industry wide there’s still a lot of work to be done but I think we can hold our heads high on that issue.”

Sean Bean collects the leading actor prize

Leading Actor: Sean Bean, Broken (LA Productions, BBC1)
Former Game of Thrones star Bean won the award for his portrayal of Father Michael Kerrigan, a Roman Catholic priest who tries to be a confidant, counsellor and confessor for a congregation struggling with its beliefs amid the challenges of daily life in contemporary Britain. The series was written by Jimmy McGovern.
“It kind of developed with Jimmy as an idea. I’ve worked with Jimmy before on a thing called Tracie’s Story, where I played a transvestite, so I knew it would be something unusual. It was kind of semi-autobiographical for Jimmy; it was based on his experiences but it stemmed from scratch really. There was no script, no story, it was just his ideas and he was very passionate about that. I got on board very early and said I’d love to work with him again and let’s see what you come up with. I wasn’t really taking a gamble because I love him – and whatever he comes up with, it’s going to be interesting. But it was very exciting for me. It was a nucleus that developed.
“We got the first episode and that was brilliant. It started off well and it was great to work with Anna [who played Christina Fitzsimmons], who was someone I’d wanted to work with for a long time. She was so perfect for the role, she was so fragile and vulnerable and yet a very strong woman, a woman with great self-belief but who has been battered around by her circumstances.
“I like looking at who the characters are, how they’re written and how they develop. That’s always been the case. When you read a script, if there’s detail that’s great but, in terms of characters, there are not a great deal of scripts that have characters that develop and we can relate to. There are quite a few one-dimensional characters you can play but you’re trying to supplement it with whatever you do to improve the character, whereas something like Broken, Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, the characters are there and you live up to their expectations. It’s up to you to reach that peak of characterisation. I’m just a bit more selective [now] and I like to know the directors and producers. Fortunately I’ve worked a few years and got to know quite a few people. I look forward to playing characters like Father Michael Kerrigan again.
“I worked as a producer on Broken. I’d like to spend some time looking at other things and maybe books I’ve read or ideas people have and become a producer. I wouldn’t say I’d like to direct, I can’t see myself doing that at the moment, but I’d like to be involved in the process of starting something from scratch and developing it and finding interesting characters to play. I don’t want to play something extreme. I think often the very simple stories as in Broken are the most powerful.”

Three Girls star Molly Windsor on stage

Leading Actress: Molly Windsor, Three Girls
Windsor plays Holly, a young girl new to Rochdale who is keen to make friends and fit in, but soon finds herself drawn into a world she cannot escape, despite her pleas for help.
“It’s surreal, absolutely bizarre. Philippa [Lowthorpe, director], Nicole [Taylor, writer] and Simon [Lewis, producer] were working on Three Girls for a long time before I came on board. They’d done so much research that they were my first port of call and they introduced me to Sara [Rowbotham, an NHS health worker] and Maggie [Oliver, a police officer who investigated the real case] and some of the real girls. Any questions or bits of research or bits of things I wanted to know, they were so great and kept us all in the loop and told us everything. The biggest challenge was the responsibility, the weight of knowing, because you want to do it right. If you look at it as a big mountain, that becomes a bit scary. So for me it was taking it scene by scene and taking it each day as it came and just committing to it – because if you look at it as a big project, that’s a big challenge.”

Hear from the winners of the Bafta Television Craft Awards 2018 here.

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Little time

Executive producer Sophie Gardiner and director Vanessa Caswill tell DQ about taking a new adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel Little Women from page to screen in just 12 months.

Drama series can often be years in the making, trudging through development hell before finding a route to air. Not so for Little Women, the three-part miniseries that proved a popular addition to the BBC’s Christmas 2017 schedule and is now set to air in the US on PBS Masterpiece, beginning this Sunday.

“We got the greenlight just before Christmas 2016 but there were no scripts,” recalls executive producer Sophie Gardner, the former head of drama at producer Playground Entertainment. That meant Heidi Thomas (Call the Midwife) faced a tight deadline to turn around the scripts, based on Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel, while the production team also faced a battle to put the cast in place.

“You need a script to be able to attract your Angela Lansburys as well, so it was quite a tight one,” Gardiner continues. “But because Heidi wrote them really well, her first drafts in each instance were great. Heidi knows the book inside out. There was also a very clear sense in her mind of what had stuck with her and what perspective she was writing it from.

“The actual production, in terms of the shoot, wasn’t curtailed. It was just getting the scripts done much quicker and then at the end, in post-production, it was quicker than it normally would be, so we were editing two [episodes] at the same time. It’s funny, though, because you work so intensely for a year whole and then it goes out and it’s gone.”

The March sisters at the centre of the story are played by (L-R) Annes Elwy, Maya Hawke, Kathryn Newton and Willa Fitzgerald

Set against the backdrop of a country divided, Little Women follows the four March sisters: Meg (Willa Fitzgerald), Jo (Maya Hawke), Beth (Annes Elwy) and Amy (Kathryn Newton) on their journey from childhood to adulthood while their father (Dylan Baker) is away at war.

Under the guidance of their mother Marmee (Emily Watson), the girls navigate issues such as gender roles, sibling rivalry, first loves, loss and marriage, accompanied by the charming boy next door Laurie Laurence (Jonah Hauer-King), their cantankerous and wealthy aunt March (Lansbury) and benevolent neighbour Mr Laurence (Michael Gambon). The story is described a coming-of-age tale that is as relevant and engaging today as it was upon the book’s original publication in 1868. The three-part show is distributed by Lionsgate.

After pitching an adaptation of Little Women to the BBC, Gardiner sought out Thomas to pen the scripts without knowing it was one of the writer’s favourite novels. “She writes with such a lot of warmth and depth around the domestic, and that is what Little Women is,” Gardiner says. “She does that so brilliantly and gets right into the heart of characters and how they interact with each other in a very domestic context. Once she delivered those great scripts, it was our job to deliver on the high expectations, and that was beautifully collaborative all the way through.”

Thomas’s fondness for the book meant she had already considered how she could adapt it, with a focus on keeping it modern and fresh. “One of the things I loved about what Heidi did is the scene where they’re getting ready for a party and Jo ruins Meg’s hair,” Gardiner reveals. “It could have been my daughters getting ready to go out. It has a very modern feeling, even though it’s absolutely set in the period. Things like when Jo moves to New York and she’s on her own for the first time without sisters – there’s a really tiny beat in it of Jo struggling to put on her own corset because she’s never done it by herself. Those sorts of things, they’re so small and they don’t change anything but, accumulatively, they make it feel very truthful, and maybe that’s what made it feel fresh and modern. It was looking at the reality of that life, and I think Heidi came to that pretty early on.”

Director Vanessa Caswill grabs a selfie with actor Michael Gambon

Shooting took place across a summer in Ireland, which doubled for Concord, Massachusetts. But with Alcott’s story set across all four seasons, the crew were tasked with recreating numerous conditions.

“The seasons are very relevant so that was our biggest challenge,” Gardiner says. “But I like to think we did pretty well. We were really lucky. On the days you’re shooting snow, if it’s raining, that’s a real problem. But we were really lucky because it never rained. There was a lot of hard work, obviously, by the production designer and the VFX people, but overall it was a very blessed production.”

Behind the camera was director Vanessa Caswill, whose previous credits include BBC psychological drama Thirteen. She joined the production in April 2017 and began work a week later, scouting locations in and around Dublin before heading to the US to visit Orchard House, the building in which Alcott wrote Little Women and which is also the story’s setting.

“It’s extremely honest and respectful [of the original book],” the director says of the adaptation. “It’s probably got more of the story than any other adaptation has because we’ve had three hours to do it rather than an hour-and-a-half. Heidi is really masterful at distilling drama and finding dramatic moments in it. She’s captured all the depth and beauty and sensitivity in it, and it’s all about the characters and telling their story and their emotional journey, which she’s done very honestly and delicately.”

Gardiner describes Caswill as a “very lyrical director, very emotional and very physical.” And before shooting began, Caswill spent a week with the cast in rehearsals – the main aim of which was to turn the cast into the family they would play on screen.

Little Women also stars Angela Lansbury

“By the end of that week, those four girls and Emily Watson had an intimacy and a comfort with each other that was really second nature,” the director says. “It was wonderful. We actually ended up doing a lot of physical exercises and space and relational exercises rather than too much intellectualising. It was very important for me also to spend time with each of the relationship dynamics so every sister got a chance to rehearse with each sister and with each parent. I just wanted a sense of intimacy between them and that they really felt comfortable and vulnerable in front of each other.”

On set, Caswill used handheld cameras to achieve the level of intimacy she desired, describing these as being like a “fifth sister.” She also shelved traditional blocking techniques, instead looking to feature all four sisters in shot at once to create the idea that at the start, they are a “four-headed monster” but by the end, they have all splintered and are following their own lives.

“We don’t see enough female protagonists that aren’t being abused or aren’t mad,” the director adds. “This is about really wholehearted women who have integrity and who are becoming women, understanding the world and finding their voice in it and expressing it and doing it through being good. That’s extremely current and important because we don’t see that enough. We see all the darkness and very rarely the light.

“The story really matters to me because it’s a humanist story and it’s aspirational and about trying to be the better version of ourselves. It’s really interesting to see a story that’s about trying to master ourselves.”

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Dystopian blues

The television landscape is awash with series set in alternative – and not particularly bright – futures. Stephen Arnell casts his eye over the dystopian series on screen, and also finds sci-fi series with a more optimistic outlook.

All-conquering AI, robots that are more human than human, apps that can mimic any possible experience, egomaniacal billionaires searching for eternal life, a world wreathed in perpetual smog, unstoppable viruses, re-animated corpses, Nazi victors in the Second World War and the knock on the door from black-garbed members of the secret police.

Sound familiar?

One would think that in a world with Donald J Trump as US president, Brexit, North Korea, Russia, global warming, cyber warfare and other woes, viewers would be looking for escapist entertainment. But perhaps counter-intuitively, the vision of an even more dire future provides some comfort in the present.

Dystopian drama has become a major TV trend over recent years, and it’s showing no sign of stopping, although there are some signs of possible fatigue, with lacklustre audiences in the UK for SS-GB (BBC1, 2017), Channel 4’s Electric Dreams (2017-18) and the recent Hard Sun (BBC1, 2018).

All had very different themes. SS-GB envisioned a Nazi occupation of the UK, Electric Dreams is an anthology series based on the work of hard sci-fi author Philip K Dick and Hard Sun was a police thriller set in a pre-apocalypse London.

Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams didn’t perform as well as Channel 4 would have hoped

In terms of the BBC1 dramas, it could be said that the rather bleak material was better suited to sister channel BBC2, while the hit-and-miss nature of portmanteau series such as Electric Dreams are known to sometimes struggle to find audiences – with the obvious exception of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror (the former C4 show now at home on Netflix).

In the US, Syfy’s Incorporated (2016-17), a Matt Damon/Ben Affleck production set in a US ruled by corporations folded after one season, as did the channel’s exploitation Death Race homage Blood Drive (2017).

Are we approaching ‘peak dystopia?’ Not just yet. In fact, not by a long chalk.

It must be noted that anticipation was high for the second seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu) and Westworld (HBO), both of which premiered recently and have been well received. Viewers are now eagerly awaiting season three of The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime), while Black Mirror goes from strength to strength, with filming on season five beginning recently. And AMC’s future feudal Samurai-style society drama Into the Badlands returned in April for a third run.

Netflix’s Brazilian sci-fi series 3% deals with a world very much divided into the haves and have-nots; after favourable reactions to 2016’s debut run, the drama returned for season two on April 27.

On cable, dystopian series continue to thrive. The 100 (The CW) returned for a fifth season on April 24, The Colony came back for a third run on May 2 and Van Helsing (Syfy) had a third season order in December 2017.

Netflix’s The Rain focuses on a virus carried by precipitation

Netflix’s Altered Carbon (pictured top) launched to mixed reviews this February – there was high praise for the set design and production values but it was also criticised by some as owing too much to Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner (1982) and for objectifying its female characters.

Weeks after Altered Carbon dropped, Netflix also released two dystopian movies – Duncan Jones’s generally slated Mute (which shared a similar visual palate to Altered Carbon) and Alex Garland (Ex Machina)’s well-reviewed Annihilation – which may have been overkill in such a short space of time.

Data from Parrot Analytics suggests the budget-busting Altered Carbon’s patchy performance could make a sophomore season unlikely.

This year will see new dystopian drama on our screens in addition to returning series. Last week, continuing its interest in the genre, Netflix dropped the Danish thriller The Rain, which is being touted by some as its answer to The Walking Dead, except with a distinct young-adult skew.

The show is set after a brutal virus wipes out most of the population, as two young siblings embark on a perilous search for safety.

The fact the virus is spread through precipitation has led some to draw somewhat unfortunate comparisons to Chubby Rain, the fictional ‘film within a film’ in the Steve Martin/Eddie Murphy comedy Bowfinger.

Netflix Brazilian original 3% recently returned for a second season

ABC’s The Crossing, meanwhile, debuted on April 2. The show centres on an influx of refugees in present-day Oregon, but with the twist that they are from a war-torn USA, 180 years in the future.

Starring Steve Zahn (War for the Planet of the Apes, Treme), The Crossing debuted with a modest 5.5 million viewers, with audiences declining for subsequent episodes.

On May 19, HBO will premiere its feature-length version of Fahrenheit 451, an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi classic that depicts a totalitarian society where books are outlawed and burned by ‘firemen.’

Fahrenheit 451 takes its title from the autoignition temperature of paper. The book was last adapted for the screen in 1966 by French auteur filmmaker Francois Truffaut and was his only English-language movie. HBO’s version boasts a stellar cast including Michael Shannon (The Shape of Water) and Michael B Jordan (Black Panther). Shannon has previously worked with Fahrenheit 451 director Ramin Bahrani on the award-winning foreclosure drama 99 Homes (2014).

On the horizon from Fremantle’s UFA Fiction (Deutschland 83) is Kelvin’s Book, from art-house film writer/director Michael Haneke (The Piano Teacher, Hidden). An English-language project, the 10×60′ series tells the story of a group of young people in the not-too-distant future who are “forced to make an emergency landing outside of their home and are confronted with the actual face of their home country for the first time.”

Michael Shannon (left) and Michael B Jordan in Fahrenheit 451

Next year sees the debut of Amazon Prime Video/Liberty Global’s London-set series The Feed, which “centres on the family of the man who invented an omnipresent technology called The Feed. Implanted into nearly everyone’s brain, The Feed enables people to share information, emotions and memories instantly. But when things start to go wrong and users become murderous, they struggle to control the monster they have unleashed.”

Guy Burnet, Nina Toussaint White, David Thewlis and Michelle Fairley will star in the psychological thriller, which will be distributed by All3Media International.

One new project that many spectators now believe may never make it to the screen is HBO’s Confederate, as creators David Benioff and DB Weiss (Game of Thrones) are now on board the Star Wars franchise – and the show’s concept of a continuing Southern slave-owning state has proved highly controversial in the current US political climate.

FX has recently ordered a pilot of Y: The Last Man, set in a world with only one surviving male – with strong production credentials from co-showrunners Michael Green (Logan, Bladerunner 2049, American Gods) and Aida Mashaka Croal (Turn, Luke Cage).

Israeli VoD service/cablenet HOT TV will debut Autonomies this year, which imagines the present-day country divided by a wall into two Jewish states – secular in Tel Aviv and ultra-orthodox in Jerusalem.

And to round off the dystopian shows in development, Amazon recently announced a series based on William Gibson’s The Peripheral, set in a bleak not-too-distant future (and beyond), with the Westworld team of Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan as showrunners.

Seth McFarlane’s The Orville serves up more lighthearted sci-fi fare

Syfy’s 2015 miniseries adaptation of Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End must take the prize for one of the most downbeat endings ever – concluding as it does in the total destruction of the Earth, after the planet’s mutated psychic children have been subsumed into an all-powerful alien ‘overmind.’

But lest we fall into total despair, it should be recognised that there are actually a few sci-fi TV dramas that depict a future that isn’t unrelentingly grim.

The Star Trek franchise is notable for showing an optimistic view of the times to come, with mankind becoming a force for good in the galaxy after (with notable exceptions such as Harry Mudd) curbing its greed and war-mongering.

Seth McFarlane’s affectionate Trek tribute The Orville (Fox) also has rosier take on the future, whileNetflix’s Lost in Space reboot has a not-entirely-pessimistic vision of humanity in the 21st century.

Hulu/Ch4’s upcoming Beau Willimon-scripted Martian colony drama The First (starring Sean Penn and Natasha McElhone) appears to promise a relatively upbeat approach, or at least one that’s not tipped totally in the direction of dystopian misery.

The long-running Stargate SG1 and its spin-offs portrayed a universe that was inhabited by at least a few alien species willing to befriend mankind rather than instantly vaporise Earth.

Meanwhile, Doctor Who (BBC1) generally takes a more upbeat road, as befits its family audience. Although end-of-the-world scenarios and alien domination feature frequently, the Doctor usually conveys a positive attitude, occasionally (in some incarnations) to the point of what some may deem mania.

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Split opinions

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

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

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

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

Abi Morgan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walker shares a laugh with director Jessica Hobbs during a break

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

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

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

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

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

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Bunting and blood

Long-hidden secrets are revealed in Ordeal by Innocence, a murder mystery that shatters the perfect image of a 1950s family. DQ hears from stars Bill Nighy and Morven Christie and writer Sarah Phelps about the latest Agatha Christie adaptation coming to the BBC.

When Ordeal by Innocence airs on the BBC, there’s one person who definitely won’t be watching. “I’m not particularly fond of the sight of myself, or the sound of myself,” reveals actor Bill Nighy. “It’s weird. But it’s the acting, because you know what you had in mind and you know, therefore, how far short it falls from what you had in mind.

“I’m much better now because I realise people just like stuff and if they like it, it’s fine. I used to think it was some conspiracy to make me look stupid. I was a mess and I used to get very paranoid. But now you realise people just want to watch a story. The minutiae of my performance is not really their concern.”

However, there was some concern that nobody would get to see Ordeal by Innocence, the latest Agatha Christie adaptation from writer Sarah Phelps and producers Mammoth Screen and Agatha Christie Ltd, following And Then There Were None and The Witness for the Prosecution.

Originally due to air on BBC1 at Christmas 2017, the three-part miniseries was pulled from the schedules after allegations of sexual assault were made against Ed Westwick, who had been cast as Mickey Argyll. He denies the claims.

Bill Nighy pictured in a break between filming on Ordeal by Innocence

But after director Ridley Scott reshot scenes from All the Money in the World, replacing Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer, the production team decided to follow suit and reshot 35 scenes in 12 days with Christian Cooke replacing Westwick.  Ordeal by Innocence will now debut on April 1.

At the time, the producers said: “While the allegations against Ed Westwick remain under investigation – allegations that he strenuously denies – the producers of Ordeal by Innocence have decided to reshoot parts of the series with another actor.”

The setup of Christie’s story, first published in 1958, remains the same. It opens with the murder of wealthy philanthropist Rachel Argyll (played by Anna Chancellor) at her family estate, Sunny Point. Her adopted son, Jack Argyll (Anthony Boyle), a young delinquent, is then arrested for her murder, despite protesting his innocence.

Eighteen months later, mysterious scientist Dr Arthur Calgary (Luke Treadaway) arrives at Sunny Point claiming to have the alibi that can prove Jack’s innocence. But Jack died in prison before the case could come to trial, and the Argyll family is reluctant to dig up the secrets of the past.

Rachel’s widower, Leo (Bill Nighy), is about to remarry his secretary, Gwenda, and none of Rachel’s other adopted children – Mary, Mickey, Tina and Hester – nor longstanding housekeeper Kirsten, are willing to reopen that most horrendous chapter of their lives. However, if Jack is innocent, then someone else must be guilty.

Morven Christie plays housekeeper Kirsten

With every member of the family fearful of these new revelations, what makes Leo a suspect? “He lives and breathes in an Agatha Christie novel,” Nighy jokes. “You’d have to go some way to invent him as shady; he pretty much behaves impeccably. The only thing about him is – and it’s never specifically stated – I don’t think he’s got any money. The money is his wife’s. Therefore, that might make him suspicious in some way.”

As Kirsten, an adopted daughter who is also the family’s housekeeper, actor Morven Christie (The Replacement, The A Word) stands out as a member of the family who may be the closest thing to an outsider.

“It’s a lot more to do with status,” Christie says. “She’s part of the family but she’s out of the family. They can argue over the breakfast table, she wouldn’t interject, but part of that is just her character. She is holding a lot of things inside her that come out through the story. She’s an incredibly controlled, together woman until she’s not.”

Don’t be fooled into believing the maid did the dastardly deed, however. “When I first read the script, I got two pages in and was like, ‘Clearly this maid did it, because otherwise they wouldn’t cast this face. I have a resting bitch face. They’re trying to deceive you by the casting,” Christie says.

Playing Kirsten also provided the actor with a role different from the more outspoken parts she is used to playing, with the housekeeper largely silent and speaking through expression. But having previously worked with Phelps on Oliver Twist, the actor and writer spent several phone calls talking about Kirsten. “There’s no element of a character’s history she doesn’t know so I always want to check it with her,” Christie says. “So it becomes a proper collaboration, and not every writer’s up for that. Sarah really is. But she’s not prescriptive in the slightest. Sarah’s quite an extraordinary individual. She’s magic.”

Anthony Boyle plays Jack Argyll, who finds himself accused of murder

Despite this being her third Agatha Christie adaptation – and with a fourth, Poirot mystery The ABC Murders, on the way – Phelps has never been a “Christie aficionado,” admitting she had never read the crime novelist’s books or watched one of the countless other adaptations of her work.

But reading And Then There Were None for the first time, her impressions of “nice, safe, queasy nostalgia” were blown away. “It was so brutal, remorseless and so savage and completely unexpected,” she says of the story, which sees 10 people gathered together on a remote island and killed off one by one.

She found more freedom in The Witness for the Prosecution, a short story set in the mid-1920s, while adapting Ordeal by Innocence was a very different prospect.

“It is all about something that happened a very long time ago,” she explains. “Nobody really gets killed. Everybody just sits around in a hiatus talking about things and nothing really happens. Somebody goes to London and goes out for dinner, and that’s about it.

“So it’s much more of a contemplative piece of writing. But with a murder mystery, there’s got to be a murder and there’s got to be a mystery. And there’s got to be something that compels you through. So I just basically took the idea of this really fucked-up family and thought about the 1950s a lot and then – probably to the horror of the [Agatha Christie] devotees – I changed the ending. I’ve changed quite a lot and I’m lucky the [author’s] estate are generous enough to go, ‘You’re mad but we’re just going to let you do it.’”

Sarah Phelps

Phelps began writing the miniseries by thinking about “the bunting and the blood of the 1950s,” a period just a few years removed from the horrors of the Second World War and a time of great tradition but also of motherhood and womanhood, with a young Queen Elizabeth II on the British throne. And at its heart is the story of a ‘perfect’ family, except it isn’t perfect at all.

“For loads of different reasons, it took a great deal of time to burrow away at it and actually find the real spirit of it,” the writer says of Christie’s novel. “I was thinking about the 1950s and street parties and also conspiracy and silence – I wanted those two things to be the mood of the book. I wanted this sense of people smiling but, underneath, just screaming with fury and rage and all the lies that families keep.

“The thing I kept thinking about was perhaps there’s a way of telling the story of the 20th century through murder mysteries that tells us where we are in the 21st. So that’s kind of what I’m into doing – we’ve had the late 1930s [in And Then There Were None] and the mid-20s [for The Witness for the Prosecution] and now we’re having the mid-50s, and the next one [The ABC Murders] will be the early 30s.”

For Phelps, the appeal of a murder mystery is not ‘whodunnit’ by ‘whydunnit.’ “That’s what’s exciting to me, picking away at the characters and going, ‘Why are you doing this?’ Not how you did it with a poker or whatever, but why? What is making you do this?”

Phelps is well versed in family tension, having written dozens of episodes of long-running BBC soap EastEnders. Now in Ordeal by Innocence, distributed worldwide by IMG Global, the residents of Sunny Point find there is no one to trust. “There is a murderer under this roof and they smile and they get away with it,” she adds. “It’s one of those things that puts a shiver up your back.”

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Troy story

The Night Manager writer David Farr takes on Homer’s Iliad in an epic series promising sweeping battles, desperate conflict and forbidden love for the BBC and Netflix. DQ heads to South Africa to see the making of Troy: Fall of a City.

It’s perhaps the oldest story ever told. The Trojan Wars have everything: epic conflict, sweeping affairs, shocking betrayals, iconic characters, battling deities and heroic sacrifices. In that sense, it’s no surprise the BBC and Netflix would be interested in telling it – but they’re hardly the first, with Hollywood’s last attempt the big-grossing but critically maligned Troy from 2004, starring Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom.

Troy: Fall of a City was born on a beach in Crete, when executive producer Derek Wax was struck by a Zeus-esque bolt of lightning while reading The Penguin Book of Classical Myths and decided that Homer’s Iliad was ripe for adaptation once more. The eight-part series became the first project for his new company, Wild Mercury, produced in association with Kudos, with both companies owned by Endemol Shine Group. Endemol Shine International is the distributor.

Series producer Barney Reisz was undaunted by the inevitable comparisons. “The film came at the moment when everyone thought CGI was the next best thing, so they poured their resources into making it epic and lost the story a bit. It looked amazing, but for what gain? We’re making an epic show but trying to tell that story from a human, personal, authentic standpoint. It’s not our interpretation of the Iliad, it’s our interpretation of the myth as interpreted by lots of different people.”

Those people include not just Homer, but also Greek tragedians Euripedes and Aeschylus. But in the absence of Trojan sources and with even the dates of the war itself disputed (estimated to be somewhere around late 1300 BC), screenwriter David Farr, the Emmy-nominated adapter of The Night Manager, had carte blanche to be as creative as
he wished.

David Gyasi plays legendary warrior Achilles

Farr had Bettany Hughes on hand to advise on historical detail, but was also keen to explore the relatively untold story of life in Troy during the siege. “On the Greek side, you have an existing, well-trodden narrative,” he says. “It works and it’s exciting. The great challenge was to explore characters and stories in a way that would be as gripping as what’s happening outside the walls. We didn’t want to reduce the world to something smaller, but we did want to find the psychology and the grit in it.”

DQ can attest to that, having come to one of the series’ three major sets, an hour or so outside Cape Town, on an unseasonably warm July 2017 day during the six-month shoot. “We looked all over for a location,” says Reisz. “The real site of Troy in Turkey, plus Spain, Croatia, Malta… We chose South Africa because of the amazing landscape, the fantastic beaches and terrific infrastructure – we’ve only brought about 10 crew from the UK.”

Below the spectacular crags of the Simonsberg mountains, a collection of derelict farmhouses have been transformed into Troy’s Upper City, the courtyard outside the Trojan Citadel; the interior sits in a Cape Town warehouse, while the set for the Lower City, occupied by the general populace, is in the northern Cape Town district of Durbanville.

The Upper City architecture is a striking mix of Moroccan, Assyrian and Ancient Greek, assembled with some educated guesswork from production designer Rob Harris. Crumbling shrines and shrivelled offerings sit alongside swords, shields and spears in racks. The dilapidation is telling and quite deliberate: the series was shot in three blocks and in sequence by three directors – Owen Harris (Black Mirror), Mark Brozel (Dickensian) and John Strickland (Line of Duty) – so the sets have been allowed to deteriorate to reflect the trajectory of the conflict. We’re halfway through the series and – spoiler alert – Troy is losing the war.

The cast is a who’s who of sturdy television actors: on the Greek side, there’s Johnny Harris as Agamemnon, David Gyasi’s Achilles and Joseph Mawle as Odysseus; for the Trojans, David Threlfall’s King Priam, his queen Hecuba (Frances O’Connor) and Tom Weston-Jones as Hector. Caught in the middle are star-crossed lovers Helen (German actress Bella Dayne, last seen in Humans) and Paris, played by relative newcomer Louis Hunter. There are also other, less familiar faces. To serve this lesser-told side of the story, Farr invented some characters and expanded others who had walk-on parts in the Iliad – notably Priam’s advisor Pandarus (Alex Lanipkun) and Greek spy-cum-assassin Xanthius (David Avery), who befriends a Trojan family and comes to understand the toll of war on normal people.

The show’s battle scenes were overseen by on-set military adviser Nigel Tallis

“Even though it’s a mythical world, the characters are still human,” explains Avery. “There’s conflict and struggle. It shows that anyone can be touched by war, from soldiers to kings to families – it’s not just happening in a field hundreds of miles away, there are repercussions for everyone.”

Reisz agrees. At a time where the failings of patriarchy are being exposed in all areas, it’s a timely demonstration of “the complete fallibility of men. They’re fighting over beautiful things for the sake of it. I hope it’ll say something about the stupidity and futility of war, why people go to war and why many wars are never won or lost.”

Triggering the conflict are, of course, Paris and Helen (pictured top), whose affair ensures the divine prophecy, in which Paris brings about the downfall of his city, would come to pass.

“It’s a monumental shift, but it happens slowly,” says Hunter of his character’s journey from goat herder to returning royal prince to spark catastrophic conflict. “He’s impulsive and makes a lot of mistakes at first, but you see him develop and mature. This war goes on for 10 years, so Helen and Paris are constantly questioning whether their love means so much that they’ll put up with all the death and famine. The blood is quite literally on their hands, but their love is deep and true.”

“What makes Helen charming and allows her to affect men in the way she does is her vulnerability and open heart,” adds Dayne. “She’s intelligent, well read and knows about the politics. She also has a confidence in her sexuality, which women weren’t supposed to have at that time. She was more of a symbol of beauty than beauty itself. I had to think like that, because otherwise the pressure [of playing her] would have been too much.”

Former Shameless star David Threlfall as Priam, king of Troy

The gods, strikingly, are played by local actors and integrated as carefully as possible: there will be no declaiming in togas or brandishing fistfuls of lightning, nor will deities be dictating the actions of mortals. Instead, Farr approached them as a means to explore concepts of destiny and fate.

“They’re a presence,” explains Reisz, “without interacting too directly with the humans. They’re around and influencing things, but not in charge as they’d like to be. The key is that we know the humans are completely invested in them and fundamentally believe in them. People do extraordinary acts because they’ve been told to by the gods.”

As important as the emotional grip and thematic sweep of the story, meanwhile, is the fact viewers have certain expectations of Greek mythology that have to be met – expectations of battles, duels and a particular artificial horse.

“You only get one shot at it so you may as well get it right,” laughs Harris of the absent Trojan Horse that was the talk of the cast when DQ visited – drafted but not yet built. “It’s nearly eight metres tall and will accommodate a couple of soldiers. The idea is it’s a thing of beauty that people want.”

Harris’s greatest challenge to date, however, has been the construction of a 25 metre-long Greek ship, in 70 pieces. “If you put 50 people on a ship, it can’t tip over. We used a structural engineer and built it in a studio, then wondered how it would fare in a tidal pool. But it did float!”

The battles presented their own logistical challenges, overseen by on-set military adviser Nigel Tallis. Almost 200 extras and stunt professionals assembled for the biggest battle. Alfred Enoch, playing the part of Aeneas – general, Greek ally and future founder of Rome – was unsurprisingly caught up. “We were doing a battle scene at night, lots of extras and stunt guys, and after I killed the first person I just had a little look around and thought, ‘This is great!’”

Troy: Fall of a City premieres tomorrow

The set-piece duels reflected the characters involved: there’s Achilles, efficient and elegant; Hector the muscular bruiser; and Paris, agile and quick. The set-to between Hector and Achilles took some four days to shoot and will most likely occupy about five minutes of the series. But, promises Farr, it will be well worth it. “We’ve all seen 100 westerns with 100 shootouts and they’re all great. This was the first ever shootout. It’s been replayed time and time again and never ceases to intrigue us, as long as you care about the people involved. You just have to enjoy those moments for what they are.”

The shoot wasn’t without its hairy moments. Half-a-dozen black mambas were removed from the location prior to filming, and a snake wrangler remained in attendance throughout. Baboons lurked during the beach scenes, scavenging food. A storm accounted for some of the set, a sickness bug for some of the cast, but only for a few days in both cases. A couple of stuntmen came a cropper when horses were startled, breaking ankles. But otherwise, given the level of ambition and devil-may-care attitudes of some of the stars (Hunter voluntarily tumbled 120 feet off a cliff for one scene), it’s had a relatively clean bill of health.

Off set, the collaboration between Netflix, the BBC and Wild Mercury also seems to have run smoothly, with the US streaming giant conforming to its hands-off reputation. “They brought a lot of money to it, which is hugely welcome,” says Farr. “They respond like audiences would – we’re a bit bored there, we don’t get that bit – but they don’t tell you how to solve it. They’re very positive and they trust people who make stuff to make stuff.”

The broadcasting arrangement sounds similarly straightforward. “The BBC will show it as early as possible,” says Reisz, nodding to its debut tomorrow, “once a week for eight weeks, then have it on iPlayer for a time. Thereafter, Netflix can show it in all territories apart from the UK, everywhere on the same date, then there’s a UK DVD date and Netflix will get it in the UK eventually.”

At the end of which, Troy will have definitively fallen – although that doesn’t necessarily bring an end to the team’s adventures in the ancient world. After all, in The Odyssey and The Aeneid there are two ready-made sequels waiting. “If I got another chance to wave a sword around, that would be amazing,” laughs Enoch. “That’s the idea,” reckons Reisz.
“Three seasons.”

Farr is a little more circumspect. “Let’s wait and see how this one goes! I’m sure Homer was asked what came next after The Iliad and said much the same thing. Unlike other things I’ve worked on, there are consequences to this story and those consequences are very interesting, so let’s see.”


The Trojan Horseman
Horse trainer and stuntman Elbrus Ourtaev on the challenges of maintaining safety and order while working with no fewer than 18 horses on the set of Troy: Fall of a City.
I’ve been doing this for about eight years. I ended up in South Africa as one of the Cossack riders with the Moscow State Circus, then got involved with the film industry, started Film Equus and here we are with lots of horses riding around, doing silly things.

We have 18 horses for this show, although they don’t use too many in the big sequences. Maybe six in the big battles, but they’ll use CGI to make that look like more. We specialise in stuntwork – the most specialised sequence here was in the forest where a horse rears up, gets shot by an arrow and falls with a rider.

Training actors is more difficult than training horses! On Troy: Fall of a City, we had to start at the beginning with a lot of them and only had a limited time to get them to the level we needed. Sometimes the production would ask a horse to gallop with an actor, but it couldn’t be done – safety is the priority and things can happen so fast with horses. We can’t say ‘action’ on set. If you say ‘rolling,’ horses know it’s coming, and if you say ‘action,’ they’ll just start running. It’s been a privilege to be in this show – we love historical films and we’re proud of all the actors. They’ve worked very hard.

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On the right track

As the battle for the best projects becomes ever more fierce, leading drama commissioners and producers open up about their own development processes and reveal how they work to bring new series to air. 

For television drama commissioners, the development process must feel a lot like spending their working hours at the races, looking for the right horse on which to bet and willing it to cross the line in first place.

The financial power of SVoD platforms has changed the game for those picking up series for their networks, with the battle for projects now increasingly fierce as partners come together earlier in the process than ever.

Meanwhile, producers are reaping the benefits of an increasing number of buyers looking for original, brand-defining shows. But how is the development process changing at both broadcaster and producer level, and what challenges do they face in the new television landscape?

Sky Atlantic’s epic Roman drama Britannia

Anna Croneman, SVT’s newly installed head of drama, admits very few of the Swedish broadcaster’s scripted series are developed in-house. Instead, writers or writer-producer teams will pitch her ideas and SVT will then board a project from the start. But Croneman says her development slate has been slimmed down to ensure viable projects are singled out early on.

“Last year we cut the development slate significantly, which means we can spend more time on things we really believe are right for us,” she explains. “We lose some projects to the international players, but there is really no other broadcaster doing what we do in Sweden, in the Swedish language. But once again, getting the right talent is an even greater challenge now.”

That challenge is amplified by the competition from Netflix and HBO Nordic, which is starting to commission local original series. “I see companies trying to tie down writers by employing them, or doing first-look deals on ideas,” Croneman adds.

HBO Europe pursues projects from both single authors (such as Štěpán Hulík’s Pustina) and those that use writers rooms (Aranyelet). “In some cases we go through quite a lot of storylining processes; other developments go to first script very quickly,” explains Steve Matthews, VP and executive producer of drama development at the firm. “Sometimes we will polish a pilot through a number of drafts, sometimes we will commission a number of first drafts. It all depends. There is no set system; every project grows organically – we are proudly writer-led in our developments and do our best in each case to find the best support we can bring to the process.”

The company seeks to join projects as soon as possible, and Matthews says there are no rules about what materials it needs to consider a pitch. “We like to be involved early so that we can offer support in that crucial inception,” he says. “That’s when we can help the team understand our needs as a broadcaster and, crucially, for us to understand what the writer is trying to do or say and so support them in that process. A shared vision early in the development fosters a sense of joint ownership and collective focus on the core idea.”

HBO Europe’s Aranyelet is adapted from Finland’s Helppo Elämä

When its original-programming operation was in its infancy, HBO Europe’s attention centred on adaptable formats. But Matthews says the network group wanted the same thing then as it does now – shows that feel fresh and relevant in the territories for which they are made, whatever their origins.

“The results include shows that are based on formats, like Aranyelet [Finland’s Helppo Elämä] and Umbre [Australia’s Small Time Gangster], but that push ahead into new stories that are entirely authored by our local teams,” he explains. “Furthermore, adapting formats has proven an excellent training ground. Our brilliant teams in the territories have nurtured stables of writers who have learned their craft on series like our various versions of In Treatment and are now showrunners passing on their knowledge to the next groups of talent we bring in. So we feel we have the experience and confidence to no longer rely on formats. For our new slate in Adria, for instance, we decided at the start we would only develop original ideas from local talent.”

UK broadcaster Channel 4 is known for its eclectic drama output, from topical miniseries The State and National Treasure to shows that take an alternative approach to familiar genres, like Humans (sci-fi) and No Offence (crime).

“We have regular conversations with producers and writers and have a realistic development slate,” explains head of drama Beth Willis. “We don’t want to flirt unnecessarily with projects we don’t love – it’s a waste of time for the producer and the writer. So we will be clear from the off about whether we think it’s for us. And if we do say we think it’s for us, we really mean it.”

As a commissioner, Willis says she will offer her thoughts on early drafts and throughout production, and that the increased competition for scripted projects means her team is now more conscious of the defining characteristics of a C4 drama. However, like Croneman, she notes that “the biggest competition is in securing talent for projects rather than specific projects themselves.”

Producer Playground Entertainment adapted Little Women

“We receive hundreds of pitches a year from independent production companies,” says Rachel Nelson, director of original content at Canada’s Corus Entertainment. Her team read and review each piece and have bi-weekly meetings where they determine what might be suitable for Corus’s suite of networks, which includes Global and Showcase.

“We work mostly with producers, rather than with a writer only. We are open to ideas and will accept any creative, from scratches on a napkin to full scripts,” she says, adding that Corus’s focus now falls on projects within targeted genres. “We’ve also learned how important it can be to take risks and not be afraid of doing that when we feel strongly about specific projects. We experienced this first-hand with Mary Kills People. We received the script, read it right away and were so impressed that we moved to an immediate greenlight on this show by an unknown writer, pairing her with an extremely experienced team.”

Fellow Canadian broadcaster Bell Media – home of CTV and Space – is also open to developing projects that arrive in any form, though a producer should be attached fairly early in the process, says director of drama Tom Hastings. That said, its development process hasn’t radically changed in recent years, even as the company moves with programming shifts such as the trend for shorter serialised dramas.

“We take a ‘steady ship during stormy weather’ approach,” Hastings says. “As our channels have strong brands and identifiable audiences, we remain committed to developing drama programmes that best fit those brands and work for those specific viewers.  We remain very selective about what we develop and we take our time, demanding the best of everyone, including, most especially, ourselves.”

Arguably the biggest battleground in the world of development is the race to secure IP, with producers scrambling to pick up rights to films, stage shows and, in particular, books – often before they have even been published.

James Richardson

Transatlantic producer Playground Entertainment is behind new adaptations of Howards End and Little Women, and has previously brought Wolf Hall, The White Queen and The White Princess to the small screen. But adaptations, like every development project, are not a “one-size-fits-all process,” says Playground UK creative director Sophie Gardiner. “Sometimes we will commission a script before going to a broadcaster – maybe because nailing the tone is crucial to the pitch and you can’t do that in a treatment – but more often we prefer to work with a partner in the initial development.

“Not only does this mean you are on their radar and they are invested in it from the get-go, but they can often be genuinely helpful. However, there’s no doubt the SVoD firms are looking for material to be pretty well developed, and more packaged [compared with what traditional broadcasters want].”

The Ink Factory burst onto the television scene with award-winning John Le Carré adaptation The Night Manager in 2016 and is following up that miniseries by adapting two more Le Carré novels – The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and The Little Drummer Girl. Both are  again with Night Manager partners AMC and the BBC.

“Relationships with broadcasters are vital, and it is via those connections that we get to know each other and forge a sense of where our taste synthesises – and, from there, opportunities evolve,” explains Ink Factory head of development Emma Broughton. “Sometimes we will work on the seed of an idea and build it ground-up with a broadcaster. Some of our projects have broadcaster attachments before they have a writer or director. On other occasions, we will develop an idea ourselves to one or two shaped scripts and take those – with a series bible and, potentially, a director and cast attachments – to a broadcaster.”

Broughton says the development process has become “more innovative and collaborative,” thanks to opportunities to build stories not confined to the UK. But increasing competition means The Ink Factory must be more distinctive, original and bold in its ambitions, she adds.

Author Štěpán Hulík’s Pustina for HBO Europe

“It’s a terrific challenge,” the exec continues, “from bringing passion and vision when pitching in a highly competitive situation to secure a book, or developing projects that attract the most exciting and creative on- and off-screen talent. It’s all about the excellence of the work, being collaborative and honouring authorship.”

A “fairly traditional” approach to development is employed at Komixx Entertainment, which follows the tried-and-tested method of sourcing existing IP with a built-in audience and using recognised writers and producers. Keeping the original author of the IP closely involved is also seen as an important step to stay true to the material, in an effort to remove as much risk to broadcasters as possible.

What is different about Komixx, says Andrew Cole-Bulgin, group creative officer and head of film and TV, is where the company sources its IP, using both recognised authors such as Robert Muchamore (the Cherub series of novels) and new content from non-traditional publishers, such as self-publishing community Wattpad.

“As a young-adult producer, it’s crucial to consider that Generation Z is an audience made up of digital natives, so the best content comes from within their digital roots,” Cole-Bulgin argues. “Transitioning and retaining this audience from one digital platform, like Wattpad, to another, such as Netflix, is easier and more successful than pursuing a linear broadcasting approach.”

Komixx now has a raft of projects in development simultaneously, instead of focusing on a select few. Cole-Bulgin also believes the increasing power of SVoD platforms has transformed the production landscape, providing huge opportunities for producers. “As they look to quickly expand their libraries of content, we have to adapt our development method to fit their needs,” he notes.

Feature producer Vertigo Films has built its reputation on the back of Football Factory, Monsters and Bronson but is now breaking into TV with Sky Atlantic series Britannia. The epic Roman-era drama is set to debut in the UK early in 2018. Co-founder James Richardson says the firm is regularly “idea led,” often by the talent involved. “But every show needs to be somehow off-kilter – commercial but never straight,” he adds. “And we like projects that we feel we haven’t seen before, or that are tackling a subject we have seen before in a completely different way. Britannia, for example, subverts the historical genre.”

Vertigo has also had Sky pick up Bulletproof, a crime drama starring Ashley Walters and Noel Clarke and showrun by Nick Love. “Going from film to TV has been such an exciting transition creatively and I am in awe of execs in the TV world for creating shows over such a long space of time, since we have just had to make 90-minute films for most of Vertigo’s lifetime,” Richardson adds. “The process – and why we want to make a project – is the same, but there’s just more story, much more story.”

Looking forward, Richardson believes the development process for television drama, which can already take several years, will take even longer. “Getting projects to a place where they are ready before shooting – the film model – will become the norm for many shows. It makes a big, big difference.”

Komixx’s Cole-Bulgin concludes: “With companies like Facebook launching into the broadcast market, it will be fascinating to see how producers deal with the increasing demand for shortform scripted content for the audiences who are consuming their content via mobile platforms.”

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Making McMafia

McMafia stars James Norton (War & Peace, Happy Valley) as Alex Godman, the English-raised son of Russian exiles with a mafia history.

Alex has spent his life trying to escape his family’s criminal past, but finds himself forced to confront his values as he struggles against the lure of corruption.

In this DQTV interview, co-creators Hossein Amini (Drive) and James Watkins (The Woman in Black) discuss how they worked together to turn Misha Glenny’s non-fiction book into a global drama set in a world where the mob is no longer confined to one location.

They also talk about casting Norton in the lead role and how they wanted to capture the same authenticity and tone laid out in Glenny’s book.

McMafia is produced by Cuba Pictures for BBC1 and AMC and distributed by BBC Worldwide.

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Small world

Jessie Burton’s award-winning novel The Miniaturist has been adapted into a two-part drama for BBC1. Executive producer Kate Sinclair reveals how this story, set in 17th century Amsterdam, was brought to the small screen.

So fierce now is the battle to secure the rights to novels that the fight to option them plays out before they have even been published, such is the demand to find the next literary success that could be ripe for a small-screen adaptation.

That was the case with Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, which has sold more than a million copies and won numerous awards since its publication in 2014. Kate Sinclair had, however, read the story – which centres on an 18-year-old country girl who comes to Amsterdam as the wife of a wealthy merchant – a year-and-a-half earlier when it was still at the manuscript stage.

Sinclair, an executive producer at UK prodco The Forge (National Treasure), knew instantly that she wanted to secure the rights, but was also aware that The Miniaturist was in huge demand. A bidding war broke out among 11 publishers to bring the book to market, which meant it was a further year before she was able to make her pitch for an adaptation. The week after Sinclair closed the deal, The Miniaturist was named Waterstones Book of the Year.

Set in Amsterdam in 1686, the story follows Nella Oortman as she begins a new life as the wife of Johannes Brandt. But instead of meeting her husband at her grand new home, she’s met by his cold sister, Marin, and quickly realises that nothing is as it seems in the Brandt household.

The Miniaturist stars Hollywood actor Anya Taylor-Joy (Split, The Witch)

When Johannes finally appears, returning home after failing to sell a shipment of sugar, he presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a doll’s house replica of their home, furnished by an elusive miniaturist whose tiny creations mirror what is happening within the house and predict the future with unsettling accuracy.

With the rights secured and Jon Brownlow (Fleming) attached to write the scripts, Sinclair pitched The Miniaturist to the BBC and the two-part drama is now central to the broadcaster’s Christmas schedule, airing back to back on BBC1 on December 26 and 27. Masterpiece is a coproducer for US pubcaster PBS, and the show is sold globally by All3Media International.

“I started reading it and that was it – it was so dramatic, I couldn’t predict where the story was going,” Sinclair says of what first drew her to Burton’s story. “I kept thinking one thing was being set up and I knew what was happening, but because it’s a thriller, it would just shift in a completely different direction than you imagined.

“There are lots of very clever red herrings in the plot and also I found the characters interesting. They all have really interesting journeys and they’re very rich. That’s quite unusual. Plus it’s a period we haven’t seen on television for 30 years, which is also something unusual about it.”

The importance of casting is never knowingly understated, while it’s often noted that 90% of directing is the casting. It’s a sentiment Sinclair agrees with too, pointing to her time spent as a theatre director at the Royal Shakespeare Company, The Young Vic and the National Theatre in Poland. But for The Miniaturist, she felt strongly that the cast should largely comprisex newcomers to television, meaning most have come from film and the stage.

Emily Berrington plays the titular miniaturist

Anya Taylor-Joy (Split, The Witch) stars as Nella, with Romala Garai (The Hour, Atonement) as the frosty Marin and Alex Hassell (Suburbicon, Anonymous) as Johannes. Paapa Essiedu (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Hayley Squires (I, Daniel Blake) and Emily Berrington (Humans) complete the main cast as servants Otto and Cornelia and the mysterious miniaturist respectively.

“She was perfect not only because she’s a fantastic actress but she looks perfect because she’s the right age,” Sinclair says of casting Taylor-Joy. “We didn’t want a Nella who’s 28 because this whole story is predicated on the fact that she’s 18, she’s coming with no knowledge of anything. She’s come from the countryside into this very new world and she’s got that kind of face that mirrors anything. She became 21 during our shoot. She just felt like a really fresh face, plus she’s technically brilliant. She’s a massive talent.

“Romola is obviously fantastic, she’s brilliant with what is a massive journey – of all the characters, hers probably has the biggest journey. For Johannes, we always wanted somebody who looked 15 years older than Nella but didn’t look like her father. It had to be somebody she’d fancy, a real man of the world. You have to believe he’s sailed the seas and lived a life, which you do with Alex. We have some different faces from the regular ones you see and I think that’s quite nice in a story that’s relatively unusual.”

Sinclair worked with Canada-based screenwriter Brownlow over Skype, sharing their thoughts on the “fantastic book” but also identifying areas that needed some help in an adaptation. These included the fact that Nella sees but never meets the miniaturist in Burton’s novel, which Sinclair says would have left the audience feeling cheated.

Alex Hassell plays Johannes Brant, husband to Taylor-Joy’s Nella

“That’s the one thing you’re yearning for to happen,” she explains. “The other thing was the sugar and why Johannes didn’t sell it wasn’t really clear, so we tried to cut through that journey. Those were the two changes. Jessie completely agreed with them. Once we had our discussion, we went on Skype and some of the things [Brownlow] was suggesting, she was like, ‘That was in draft 15. I just edited it out again.’ So she was really happy with it. Then he and I just worked on the first draft initially and then we put it into the BBC and I think we got a greenlight in July 2016.”

In the hands of director Guillem Morales, filming took place earlier this year, including a spell on location in the Netherlands, principally in the city of Leiden, south-west of Amsterdam. Shooting took place along the main canal, featuring townhouses along the waterfront, though the front of the main Brandt house was built for the show, having been modelled on Dutch townhouses from the period.

“There are no perfect townhouses and the ones on the Golden Bend [Gouden Bocht, the most prestigious section of the Herengract canal in Amsterdam] have had all their windows changed, so it’s quite difficult to find [authentic versions], even in Holland,” Sinclair says. “Leiden was perfect. The architect who built most of the Golden Bend houses lived in Leiden and built the houses there first, so it looks like a more authentic version of Amsterdam.

“The church there was also perfect because the Oude Church in Amsterdam is in the middle of the red-light district and you can’t get any trucks or anything in there, so there’s nowhere to put the unit base. Secondly, if you look out of the window, you’ve got a naked lady in the window outside. So we couldn’t really have that there.”

From the opening scene introducing the imposing townhouses on the canalside, the production and costume design is lavish and opulent, as befitting a wealthy family living in the Dutch golden age. Most elaborate of all, however, are the miniatures themselves, which come to populate the doll’s house given to Nella. Though their origins and creator are shrouded in mystery, the small dolls come to foretell events that will change the future for Nella and the rest of her new family.

The Miniaturist will air on consecutive nights this Christmas

At a cost of £30,000, the collection of dolls and furniture were crafted by Mulvany & Rogers, known for making one-12th scale bespoke miniature houses. “We had to have a doll made for every actor in a period way,” Sinclair reveals. “Their faces were made in ceramic and painted to look like the actor. Then we had a costume trainee who made all the costumes to match the costumes, which took weeks and weeks. She was incredible at that. She guarded the dolls with her life.”

Credited with finding the books behind feature films Slumdog Millionaire and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen while working for Film4, Sinclair specialises in sourcing and developing projects primarily, but not exclusively, from books. Her slate at The Forge also includes The Three, based on the trilogy of novels by Sarah Lotz and adapted by Peter Straughan (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) for the BBC.

On The Miniaturist, she adds: “For me, the adaptation was absolutely wonderful. Jon did an amazing job and the cast were exactly what I’d imagined in my head, even though I didn’t have those specific actors in mind. The look of the cast and how they perform is great and things like the costumes look amazing.”

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Join the club

From Hulu’s The Path and the most recent season of FX’s American Horror Story to upcoming series Waco and Raven, TV dramas about cults have caught the zeitgeist. DQ takes a closer look at this trend.

Television dramas about cults have always been good business in the US, a country with a seemingly unique affinity for fringe religious groups – part of the reason for the colonisation of the Americas, from the Puritans at the very beginning to the Mormons and, later, Scientology.

Recent years have seen the trend increase, with more dramas and comedies using cults as a theme. Sociologists have conjectured that the uncertainties in the US over the past few years regarding security, race, the economy and the growth of secularism have all contributed to an interest in cults, which can provide the easily influenced with a sense of belonging and belief in a higher power.

Recently, the truly unhinged American Horror Story: Cult, which debuted on FX in July, even used the election of Donald J Trump as president for a backdrop to the world of cults.

Star Evan Peters (X-Men: Days of Future Past, X-Men: Apocalypse) plays the deranged, would-be galactic overlord Kai Anderson in the show, additionally essaying a quartet of notorious cult leaders, namely Jim Jones (Jonestown), Marshall Applewhite (Heaven’s Gate), Charles Manson (The Manson Family) and David Koresh (Waco).

Evan Peters in FX’s American Horror Story: Cult

Peters also portrays Andy Warhol and a particularly low-rent ‘version’ of Jesus Christ in the show.

Back in season one of American Horror Story (2011), episode two (Home Invasion) dealt with a Manson Family-style killing re-enacted in the present day.

In the world of SVoD, two shows use cults as themes: Hulu’s The Path (started 2016) and Netflix comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015).

Now heading to its third season, Jessica Goldberg’s The Path revolves around the fictional cult of Meyerism, which, to some commentators, bears a resemblance to Scientology (denied by Goldberg) in its hierarchy and antipathy to apostates and non-believers, who are called Ignorant Systemites (IS) in the show.

A slow burn, The Path has a solid cast, including Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad), Hugh Dancy (Hannibal) and Michelle Monaghan (True Detective, Patriot’s Day). Season three drops in the US on January 7.

Taylor Kitsch as David Koresh in Waco

On a lighter note, Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s Kimmy Schmidt deals with the titular character’s life in New York City after 15 years imprisonment in an Indiana bunker by cultist Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, played by Jon Hamm (Mad Men, Baby Driver).

Played to critical acclaim by Ellie Kemper (The Office, Bridesmaids), the effervescent Schmidt’s efforts to build a new life in the big city has proved a hit with viewers and reviewers alike, with season four ordered for 2018.

As Spike TV rebrands as Paramount TV next year, January 24 will see the launch of their flagship drama Waco.

The star-laden miniseries recounts the true story of the infamous 1993 ATF/FBI siege of the Branch Davidian religious sect led by David Koresh, which resulted in 82 deaths after a 51-day siege ended with a deadly shoot-out and fire.

Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights, True Detective) plays Koresh, with Melissa Benoist (Supergirl) as his wife Rachel, Michael Shannon (Broadwalk Empire, Midnight Special) as FBI Negotiator Gary Noesner, Andrea Riseborough (The Death of Stalin, National Treasure) as Judy Scheider-Koresh (apparently a ‘chattel-wife’ of Koresh) and John Leguizamo (Bloodline, John Wick I & II) as Robert Rodriquez, an FBI agent who infiltrated Koresh’s compound and warned against the raid.

Last year, CBS was also said to be developing a limited miniseries about the kidnapping and alleged brainwashing of heiress Patty Hearst by the cult-like Symbionese Liberation Army in the 70s.

Looking ahead, the 2018/19 television season will see the launch of Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan’s HBO limited series Raven, based on Tim Reiterman’s definitive 1982 book about the 1978 Jonestown mass suicide in Guyana, when charismatic cult leader Jim Jones arranged the murder of visiting investigative journalists and a US congressman, then proceeded to kill himself and more than 900 followers (including 276 children) with cyanide-laced Kool Aid.

This led to the phrase ‘Drinking the Kool Aid’ being used for people or groups who succumb to peer pressure and follow a doomed idea.

There is no word on casting yet, but Gilligan has an extensive repertory company of talented actors who he can no doubt call on for the show.

Jonestown has been the subject of numerous documentaries and some dramas (Jonestown, 2013 and Jonestown: Paradise Lost in 2007), most notably the 1980 CBS miniseries The Guyana Tragedy, when the late Powers Boothe provided an Emmy-winning performance as Jones, which will be a tough act to follow.

The Path stars Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul (left)

Back in January 2016, Jake Gyllenhaal was said to be developing an anthology series about cults with Jim Jones as the subject of season one, but little has been heard of the project since then.

Such was the notoriety of the Jonestown Massacre that the events have been immortalised in song by popular groups, including rockers Manowar (Guyana – Cult of the Damned, 1999), new-wave combo The Vapors (Jimmy Jones, 1981) and probably, most surprisingly, smooth pop/soul merchants Hot Chocolate (Mindless Boogie, 1979).

On the flipside, Charles Manson claimed inspiration for his followers’ 1969 killing spree from the Beatles’ White Album, particularly the songs Piggies, Helter Skelter and Blackbird.

Recent years have also seen other series that have used cults or religious sects as subject matter, including NBC’s short-lived David Duchovny (The X-Files/Californication) series Aquarius (2015/16), in which he played FBI investigator Sam Hodiak in pursuit of Gethin Anthony (Game of Thrones)’s Charles Manson.

Serving multiple life sentences for murder, Manson died on November 19 this year.

Also worthy of mention is Kevin Williamson (Vampire Diaries, Dawson’s Creek)’s The Following (Fox, 2013-15, pictured top), with Kevin Bacon (I Love Dick, Black Mass) as a former FBI agent pitted against James Purefoy (Rome, Hap & Leonard) as his serial killer cult-leading adversary.

Netflix sitcom Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Incidentally, post-Weinstein scandal, Quentin Tarantino has now sold his Manson Family script to Sony for a possible 2019 cinema release.

HBO’s Big Love (2006-11) concerned itself with a polygamous family belonging to an extreme Mormon sect in Utah, with a cast including the late Bill Paxton (Training Day, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) as the husband of four wives and the recently deceased Harry Dean Stanton (Twin Peaks, The Avengers) as a self-proclaimed prophet and cult leader.

And then, of course, there’s the evil Tuttle Cult in the classic first season of True Detective.

We’ve seen cults make appearances in CSI (the Heaven’s Gate suicides forming the basis for the episode Shooting Stars in 2005) and Mad Men (Roger Sterling’s daughter Margaret joining a cult/commune in the final season).

In the UK, cults and extreme religious sects are less openly in evidence. With the exception of this year’s ISIS miniseries The State (Peter Kosminsky – Wolf Hall), you have to go all the way back to the 90s for dramas specifically about the subject.

In 1993, Jonathan Pryce (Taboo, Game of Thrones) starred as the real-life apocalyptic 19th century prophet John Wroe in four-parter Mr Wroe’s Virgins (BBC2), an early directing gig for Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire).

Two years later, BBC2 aired Signs & Wonders, a four-part drama where Jodhi May (Genius, Last of the Mohicans) is ensnared by a religious cult, prompting her mother, played by Prunella Scales (Fawlty Towers), to hire de-programmer James Earl Jones (Stars Wars) to rescue her. A strong cast was rounded out by David Warner (Ripper Street, Wallander) and Donald Pleasance (Halloween, The Great Escape).

Returning to the present day, with Waco, The Path, Kimmy Schmidt and Raven further down the road, viewers won’t be short of cult TV to watch in 2018.

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Creative focus

As Content London 2017 comes to an end, it’s clear that talent is now in greater demand than ever. But while a host of A-list names attended the three-day event, delegates also learned about a community of new writers with stories ripe for adaptation.

In its fifth year, C21Media’s Content London this week was bigger than ever before, bringing together more than 1,500 people from across the scripted television business for the International Drama Summit.

Panel sessions covered every corner of the industry, from the challenges facing distributors and how drama producers are changing, to ever-evolving market forces, uncovering new sources of financing and the secret to working with SVoD players.

Speakers were drawn from every major company in the sector, including FremantleMedia, Banijay, Endemol Shine and ITV Studios. Commissioner panels featured the BBC, Channel 4, SVT, DR, YLE, Starz, AMC, HBO, Epix, YouTube and Netflix.

The Alienist star Luke Evans discusses the TNT show

Executives hailing from Spain, Germany, France, Brazil and Australia also took to the stage to discuss their domestic markets and their strategy on the international scene.

Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest draws at the three-day event, which finished today, was Swedish actor Sofia Helin, who discussed her career, the legacy of Bron/Broen (The Bridge) and new projects including Heder (Honour).

Helin’s appearance capped a line-up that focused heavily on the creative side of making television drama – and with good reason. As more and more money is made available to producers – through coproductions, SVoD players with money to burn and new funding companies ready to invest – financing is available to meet the high-end budgets dramas now demand. The talent attached to a project is now paramount, with the number of shows in development and production meaning actors, writers, directors and other key creatives are more in-demand than ever.

At Content London, Agyness Deyn, discussing her first television role, Jim Sturgess and Nikki Amuka Bird spoke about starring in six-part drama Hard Sun. Adrian Lester joined delegates to watch the world premiere of new ITV drama Trauma (pictured top), which is written by Doctor Foster’s Mike Bartlett.

Wattpad Studios’ Aron Levitz takes to the stage

David Morrissey showcased BBC2’s The City & The City, Kim Rossi Stuart talked Italian hit Maltese Luke Evans joined a case study of The Alienist, which examined US cablenet TNT’s forthcoming period drama.

Writers and directors also taking part included Neil Cross (Hard Sun), Hossein Amini and James Watkins (McMafia), Kari Skogland (The Handmaid’s Tale), Marc Evans (Trauma), Harry and Jack Williams (Liar, The Missing), Jakob Verbruggen (The Alienist), Geoffrey Wright (Romper Stomper), Tony Grisoni (The City & The City, Electric Dreams), David Farr (Electric Dreams) and Jon Cassar (Medici).

In a separate session, Helin was also joined by fellow actors Alexandra Rapaport and Julia Dufvenius to talk about Heder (Honour), which they have created and executive produced together with Anja Lundqvist, another actor.

The focus on creative talent inevitably led to the subjects of packaging and when to attach talent to projects, with ‘the sooner the better’ emerging as the general consensus.

Netflix’s Elizabeth Bradley (right) with Jane Featherstone of Sister Pictures

Euston Films MD Kate Harwood revealed how the BBC snapped up Hard Sun before star names such as Deyn, Sturgess and Amuka Bird were cast in the lead roles, though commissioning the next series from Luther creator Cross was unlikely to be a difficult decision.

In such a congested market, talent is the quickest way for a show to make some noise. For most, however, there just isn’t enough to go around. That’s why it was encouraging to hear the Williams brothers discussing their forthcoming slate, which features series White Dragon and Cheat, both for UK broadcaster ITV and both coming from first-time writers.

With more than 10 years in the business, and being responsible for some of the most talked-about and compelling series of recent time, Harry and Jack Williams are now using their experience in the business to bring forward new voices – something broadcasters always say they are keen to do but rarely act upon.

In their bid to nurture new TV talent, commissioners and producers could also do a lot worse than sign up for a Wattpad account. The social media storytelling platform has a community of 60 million writers and readers, and the company is drawing data down to find the biggest hit stories and working with their creators and partners including NBCUniversal and Universal Cable Productions to bring them stories to screen. With more than 400 million stories uploaded every month in more than 50 languages, Wattpad looks set to become the next major player in the content revolution.

As Netflix warned that its seemingly limitless pot of money might not be enough to lure some series from emerging competitors such as Apple, Facebook and YouTube, talent will be more coveted than ever. In the words of Artists Studio co-founder Justin Thomson Glover: “You don’t know how exciting a project is until a script comes in and you have the talent and director.”

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From Russia with cash

James Norton and Juliet Rylance lead the cast in McMafia, the BBC and AMC’s global crime drama about a family of Russian ex-gangsters struggling to stay respectable.

Langleybury House, a splendiferous stately home on the outskirts of London, oozes opulence. The drawing room boasts a set of matching statement chandeliers and enough oil paintings to fill several rooms at the National Gallery. There are two classical columns in the middle of the room and a gigantic marble fireplace across one wall. The room screams megabucks.

When DQ visits, however, ‘megaroubles’ might be more accurate, as the sumptuous home is doubling as one of the residences of the fictional Godman family, a clan of former Russian gangsters who have made serious money from illicit activities around the world.

When you look around their home and eye items such as the incredibly ornate drinks table – where surely they only mix White Russians – your first thought is, ‘Who says crime doesn’t pay?’

On the back of their dodgy dealings, the family have turned respectable. They have whitewashed their stained past and become a worldwide corporation, with a lucrative franchise on every continent. They are the McMafia.

Hossein Amini

This sweeping new eight-part drama, also called McMafia, is produced by the BBC, AMC, Cuba Pictures and Twickenham Studios and distributed by BBC Worldwide. It’s adapted by Hossein Amini and James Watkins from Misha Glenny’s bestselling 2008 non-fiction book, McMafia: Seriously Organised Crime.

The story centres on Alex Godman, played by James Norton with the same suavity he brought to the role of another powerful and charismatic Russian, Prince Andrei in War & Peace. Now an upstanding businessman, the English-raised Alex has spent his entire life attempting to extricate himself from the tentacles of his family’s mafia history. Forging a legitimate business as the head of an ethical hedge fund, he is trying to escape his background and build a law-abiding existence with his girlfriend Rebecca (American Gothic’s Juliet Rylance).

But when the Godmans’ criminal legacy comes back to haunt them, Alex swiftly becomes enmeshed in a sinister underworld and is obliged to reassess his values in order to shield those he loves from peril.

This ambitious thriller investigates how the rise of globalisation has dramatically narrowed the gap between the corporate and the criminal. When businessmen and gangsters wear the same hand-made suits and inhabit the same first-class lounges, how can you tell the difference?

Amini, who previously wrote the highly regarded screenplays for The Dying of the Light, Jude, The Wings of a Dove, Drive and Our Kind of Traitor, takes a seat in the luxurious mansion to explain what drew him to McMafia. “The book is factual and there are no storylines as such, but what was really exciting is that the world Misha’s book painted was so interesting,” he says. “It was such a potentially exciting canvas. The book gave us great characters and a great world, and it’s easy to invent scenes for that.”

The Iranian-British filmmaker continues: “I’ve always loved the gangster genre, but even shows like The Sopranos, which I loved, are all about the end of that genre and the end of the gangster. They told us about the death of that in the 1990s.

McMafia stars War & Peace’s James Norton as Alex Godman

“But then I read this book, and it was all about how gangsters were being reborn globally. Suddenly the triads were dealing with the cartels who were competing with the Russian mafia. It was like Game of Thrones with mobs.”

The authenticity of McMafia is underlined by the fact the producers insisted Russian actors played Russian characters, Israeli actors played Israeli characters, and so forth.

Watkins comments: “There was a big conversation we had with AMC and the BBC first off, which is that I didn’t want to do that thing where, not naming any other productions, you cast a big-name British actor to play Alex’s Russian dad.

“It feels false straight away – I can smell it. It’s costing us quite a lot to fly all the actors in, but it’s worth it in terms of the reality it gives. When you’ve got four actors from Tel Aviv playing a scene in Hebrew, you can’t fake that.”

The director, whose other works include The Woman in Black, Eden Lake and The Take, adds that this approach has enhanced the verisimilitude of the project. “It’s fantastic, because as a director you want truth. This is not about heightened drama, it’s about truth. It’s about understated performance, and I think some of those European actors really bring that. I don’t know what’s in the water, but it’s really amazing. Less is more.”

The drama was partly filmed in Mumbai

The Russian cast members have clearly relished the experience of working on a British drama. A big star in her own country, Maria Shukshina plays Alex’s Russian mother, Oksana. “I’m very happy James is now my son,” she says, laughing. “He has a big following in Russia, a lot of fans. When I was coming over here, all the ladies were telling me to say ‘Hi’ to him and saying, ‘Give him a hug.’ So I said, ‘Of course!’”

Shukshina says she has found very little difference between the shooting techniques in the UK and in Russia. “It’s absolutely the same, apart from the lighting. It’s a lot darker on set here, there’s no light. It’s only natural light, really.

“I gave a Russian doll to the director of photography as a celebration of International Women’s Day and now he puts up a light panel when they’re doing wide shots of me – I know what I’m doing!”

Filmed in no fewer than 11 countries (including the UK, Russia, India, Israel, Turkey, Qatar and Croatia), the project is conceived on an epic scale and Watkins has evidently had to summon up great depths of energy to make it.

He spent seven weeks just filming in India, for example, and has also been leading the McMafia crew all over London. “We’ve shot in the Sky Garden at the top of the Walkie-Talkie building [the distinctive skyscraper officially named 20 Fenchurch Street] and we had a huge Russian banquet scene in the Victoria & Albert Museum. We’re trying to use London as this city where anybody can buy their way in.”

McMafia is produced by the BBC, AMC, Cuba Pictures and Twickenham Studios

Norton, who has also starred in Happy Valley, Black Mirror, Grantchester, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Life in Squares, pulls up a seat beside the filmmakers and chips in: “When we talk about the Mafia, it is so tied up with those portrayals that we’re so used to in The Sopranos and The Godfather. But what’s so lovely and fascinating and so relevant about this story is that it shows how the mafia is a totally new phenomenon.

“It’s now a globalised corporate entity. It straddles all these different countries and financial systems. It’s no longer just a protection racket. It’s the Panama Papers, it’s corrupt presidents and prime ministers, it’s even in the possible link between the Kremlin and the White House and how that’s facilitated. That was a real eye-opener for me, and I hope that’s what the show will reveal.”

Another intriguing aspect of McMafia is the fact that even though Alex is very much an anti-hero, viewers are – almost in spite of themselves – still drawn to the magnetic central character. Watkins describes him as “The Russian bear in the bowler hat.”

So is it a case of ‘the devil has all the best tunes?’ Norton believes it’s more nuanced than that. “It is fascinating, and it’s kind of sexy and empowering because there is this whole underworld of people who don’t abide by the rules and do what the hell they want – and it’s exciting. You get seduced by it, but you’re never quite sure how much you’re being seduced.

“Alex convinces himself that it’s about protection and survival, but there’s another side to it, and the beauty of Hossein’s writing is that he and the audience are never quite sure. Each choice Alex makes – is it to do with survival or is it a bit more to do with the fact that he just wants to go deeper and deeper and gather more control and money? So, McMafia is brilliant because it’s never about villains and heroes – it’s all about that wonderful mess in between.”

Before he is called back on set, Watkins expresses his hopes about what viewers will take away from McMafia. “You look around you and realise crime is everywhere. The point of the book and the series, really, is that it’s invisible, but that it’s all around us. We’re all, in some way, complicit. If someone buys a fake watch, say, they’re part of the problem.

“Or look at illegal labour. That affects people in ways that they don’t necessarily realise. McMafia is about the blurring of those lines between governments, corporations, intelligence, police, criminals. Particularly in a ‘post-truth’ world, people aren’t clear what those boundaries are.”

The director continues: “I think McMafia is very timely. For me, the best drama has some kind of grip on the world and touches on that. I hope that it’s not only entertaining, but also that on the way home, or in the pub, people talk about it. It’s not Chekhov, but you’re hoping it has something that has a little bit of grit.”

Amini closes by homing in on one tiny detail in McMafia that underlines the authenticity of the drama. “Misha told us about a gangster whose hobby is going to dog shows. I could never have invented that.” Did that make it into the series? “Yes, it’s in. You can’t ignore a thing like that.”

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