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.
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).
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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).
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.
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.
“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.”
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!”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.’”
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.”
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
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.
“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.”
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!’”
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.
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.
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?
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.”
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.”
“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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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 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.”
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.”
Luther creator Neil Cross begins the countdown to the end of the world in Hard Sun, starring Jim Sturgess and Agyness Deyn. DQ joins the cast and crew on set to find two detectives fighting crime as society threatens to descend into chaos.
Pushing through the market square, so many mothers sighing // News had just come over, we had five years left to cry in // News guy wept and told us, earth was really dying // Cried so much his face was wet, then I knew he was not lying.
The unrivalled legacy of the late David Bowie reaches far and wide, with musicians, filmmakers and fashion designers alike finding inspiration in his flamboyant use of make-up and costumes and his groundbreaking musical flair.
In television, Bowie’s music has been used as title tracks for Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes and The Last Panthers, and is said to have inspired Fox network drama Lucifer. Now, his song Five Years – the opening track on his seminal 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – serves as the loose inspiration behind the new series from Luther creator Neil Cross.
Described as a pre-apocalyptic crime drama set in contemporary London, Hard Sun follows detectives Robert Hicks and Elaine Renko as they discover the end of the world is nigh. With five years until annihilation, they face the prospect of maintaining justice as Armageddon looms. But how do you leave your family behind each morning and put your life at risk? And what criminal would fear a prison sentence in a world on the brink of extinction?
It’s a suitably sunny day when DQ joins the cast and crew on set during filming of scenes for the climactic sixth and final episode. The vast number of buildings and grounds that make up a former HSBC training site, located on the outskirts of north-west London, have provided many of the interior and exterior locations for the series.
A stairway and some double doors inside one building lead to the set of the police station. Here, a dimly lit observation room is filled with CCTV monitors while a central room is full of desks, with one wall covered with photographs of victims, crime scenes and evidence. The walls are painted metallic grey throughout as flashing lights from a bank of computer servers break the darkness.
It’s inside interrogation room FR7 that DQ meets executive producer Kate Harwood, MD of producer Euston Films. The sterile room contains a single steel desk with a recorder on the table. There are grey tile walls and a green lino floor, with CCTV cameras in every corner. Light shines through barred windows.
Hard Sun represents the first commission for Euston Films since Harwood rebooted the FremantleMedia label in 2014. The former head of drama for the BBC’s in-house production unit, she was at the channel when Cross first introduced tough-talking detective John Luther, brought to formidable life by Idris Elba.
BBC1 commissioned Hard Sun on the strength of one episode, so after getting the commission, Cross spent the next 18 months writing scripts. Brian Kirk (Game of Thrones, Penny Dreadful) joined as lead director, with Eve Stewart (The King’s Speech) as production designer and “rising star” Nick Rowlands (Ripper Street) as second-block director.
“It’s a crime show with a science-fiction premise,” Harwood says. “It’s as procedural as you can be when the cops are carrying around the secret that the world is going to end. So it’s part cop show, part sci-fi, part conspiracy thriller. But we’ve called it a pre-apocalyptic crime show set in contemporary London.”
Amid a lot of interest in the US, streaming service Hulu quickly boarded the series, while distributor FremantleMedia International beefed up its budget. Tax breaks have also been used to maximise the show’s finances.
On screen, Jim Sturgess and model-turned-actor Agyness Deyn (in her first TV role) play Hicks and Renko respectively, distrustful partners who seek to enforce the law and protect their families as destruction edges ever closer. Nicki Amuka-Bird plays an MI5 government official, a mysterious character who is part of the establishment and trying to suppress the information.
“Neil always says Hicks is the sun and Renko is the moon,” Harwood explains. “There’s a polarity about them. They circle each other. Sometimes they’re partners, sometimes they’re opposites. It’s a distrustful, must-trust relationship. That tension between them is absolutely essential. Hicks is explosive and external and bright and Renko is more watchful, more secretive, more held back and it’s a lovely duality between them. Agyness has never done TV. She seemed really excited by the material as soon as we met her. She’s like a duck to water and she’s so hard-working, focused and punctilious.”
Back on set and with the cameras rolling, Sturgess and Deyn find themselves in the lobby of a grand house, the air thick with smoke as an elaborate chandelier hangs above. One side room appears to be a surgery, with a lobotomy chair in the middle. Other rooms appear to be bedrooms, with TVs screening static fuzz in the gloom.
As Renko and Hicks, they enter the room from a dark corridor, torches raised to find a lady in a medical gown. Slowly, others emerge from the darkness to surround them in what promises to be an extremely creepy climax to the sixth episode.
“It starts off as a procedural show with Hicks and Renko investigating a particular crime – a man who’s apparently fallen off a balcony and is found dead in a tree,” explains producer Hugh Warren, who also reveals the Bowie link to the series. “But what unravels is that his stolen flash drive contains this Hard Sun dossier that, internationally, is being suppressed by government forces because they’ve learnt that an extinction-level event is coming. So by the end [of episode one], Hicks and Renko know there’s five years left for the planet and that’s the new world they’re in.”
Filming locations took in areas of London including Shepherd’s Bush, Shoreditch and Oxford Circus. Naturally, the logistics and cost of moving the production around the city caused headaches for Warren and his team. The scripts also called for numerous night shoots, which became increasingly difficult as the production, which began shooting at the end of January, entered spring and early summer.
“It’s also very action-heavy for British television so there are a lot of stunts, a lot of complicated stuff to shoot. The normal amount you would expect to shoot on an average day for a TV drama, we can’t achieve,” he admits. “We’re shooting for many more days per hour than you would expect. That’s a real challenge in terms of time because we’ve only got the actors for a finite period.”
But what will fans of Luther, which is returning to the BBC for a fifth season, make of Cross’s latest series? “I think it will surprise people,” says Warren, adding that celebrity cosmologist Brian Cox has been on hand to help the creator root his end of-the-world theory in fact.
“What it has in common with Luther is the darkness – there are some very dark stories in there but also real humanity. We’re telling a huge cosmic story about the end of the planet but what’s interesting is it comes down to really common human experiences. They’re very everyday stories set against this massive global catastrophe.”
Too good to turn down
Having only just appeared in a BBC drama – Stephen Poliakoff’s Close to the Enemy – Jim Sturgess wasn’t planning on signing up for another one. Instead, he was pondering a break from acting to focus on his music career. So it’s testament to Neil Cross’s script that the actor immediately signed up to play detective Robert Hicks in Hard Sun.
“I was almost cursing Neil for writing something so good,” Sturgess reveals, adding that he was attracted by the combination of “messed up, flawed characters” and the overall concept for the series.
“What’s great about this, and why I’m really excited about it, is it’s a pre-apocalyptic story that doesn’t need to rush,” he says, citing movies such as Armageddon that cram an extinction-level event into 120 minutes. “I hadn’t seen this before, where something’s looming but you can really spend time looking at what that’s going to do to individuals and society as a whole. TV works for a project like this because you can really take your time with it.”
Cross travelled from his New Zealand home for rehearsals alongside Sturgess, co-star Agyness Deyn and lead director Brian Kirk. It was there that the two leads cemented their partnership, both on and off screen.
“Our relationship on screen is incredibly intricate and at times complicated and strategic,” Sturgess says. “Off-screen It’s great to have a partner in crime on set who you really trust, has a very similar work ethic and cares about it as much as I do. She brings everything she has to it and we get on really well. We’re both pretty chilled out.”
Sturgess, whose film credits include 21 and Cloud Atlas, last year starred as a chef in AMC’s 2016 series Feed the Beast, an adaptation of Danish drama Bankerot. He’s also played criminals, drug addicts and a stoner musician, but has never played a detective before – “and I’ve never really wanted to,” he admits, “until I read this particular detective.”
“He’s not squeaky clean at all,” Sturgess adds. “He’s not James Bond. He makes some very tricky decisions that have a difficult impact on his life later on. But he considers himself to be a good family man, and that becomes an important part of the story because it’s his family he’s trying to save.”
Benedict Cumberbatch and Kelly Macdonald star in a feature-length adaptation of Ian McEwan’s acclaimed novel The Child in Time that very nearly didn’t get made. DQ chats to the stars and screenwriter Stephen Butchard about the film’s journey to the screen.
When Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch describes a script as “brilliant,” the chances are it’s in production somewhere. But until recently, that wasn’t the case for The Child in Time, Stephen Butchard’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s award-winning novel.
Butchard had written it “some time ago” as a one-off TV film but the clamour for serials and returning series meant his script couldn’t find the backing it needed to enter production. However, once Cumberbatch signed on to star and executive produce through his fledgling SunnyMarch TV label, doors unsurprisingly opened to the project.
The Child in Time, directed by Julian Farino (Marvellous, Entourage), was subsequently picked up by UK pubcaster BBC1 and Masterpiece for US network PBS and is distributed worldwide by StudioCanal. Pinewood Television is a coproducer.
Cumberbatch plays Stephen, a children’s author who is still grieving the loss of his daughter two years after she disappeared while they were on a shopping trip together. His wife, Julie (Kelly Macdonald), has left him and best friends Charles (Stephen Campbell Moore) and Thelma (Saskia Reeves) have retired to the countryside to battle demons of their own.
“It’s ultimately a story, despite the depths it plunges, of the emotional reality of the trauma at the centre of it,” Cumberbatch says of the first McEwan novel to be adapted for television. “It’s a story about salvation and hope and trying to build a future that just accepts, encompasses and owns that loss, the absence of that child. It’s also an examination of childhood and time. It’s got quite a lot going for it other than just that horrific central axis of the drama.”
The actor notes that Stephen is a million miles from his previous television roles – “particularly the more famous one” – and admits that was part of the attraction. “That’s an appeal for me, to always be shaking things up a little bit as far as expectations are concerned,” he says, adding that it was a coincidence he took on the role just as he became a father for the second time. “The extreme nature of the situation is very unusual and horrifically relatable. I don’t think you have to be a parent to understand it.”
Cumberbatch describes Stephen as “an ordinary person in an extraordinary circumstance,” which also presented him with the challenge of playing a ‘normal’ person. “There were moments when I thought, ‘Am I doing enough?’ I’ve done a lot of roles where there’s a lot of other stuff going on, whether it’s a very particular attitude, mindset, skill set or cultural background or all of those things. I brought more of myself – as I sound and as I move and dress, even – to this one than I have before. So I felt quite naked at times, but it was also great because of that.”
The dystopian novel, which has bold political themes running through it, has largely been stripped back in Butchard’s adaptation, which instead focuses on the characters at the centre of the story.
“It’s the type of book that stays with you,” says the writer, who is also in charge of BBC2’s The Last Kingdom, itself adapted from historical novels by Bernard Cornwell. “It doesn’t stay with you because of plot or anything like that; it stays with you because of its atmosphere and tone, and that was the thing I wanted to concentrate on.
“I also knew I didn’t want to start with the abduction of the child because for me, although that’s at the core of it, that’s not what the film’s about. It’s about people dealing with that and finding their own way forward in life, having to carry that burden.”
Part of the challenge of bringing McEwan’s story to the small screen was broadening the scope of the novel, which is read entirely from Stephen’s perspective. “So you have to build them as individual characters in their own right, not wholly through the prism of Stephen,” Butchard notes. “That’s a departure [from the novel], but that always happens in any adaptation. As far as the plot goes, it follows the same stepping stones in terms of how the relationships go, but then it’s about how you visualise what is internalised in the book. What scenes can you bring into it or what dilemmas can you bring into it? People will easily recognise the book and its themes, but there are things that you kind of invent and bring in to help you move forward and put it on the screen.”
Macdonald was cast after Butchard watched the Scottish actor in Trainspotting 2, in which she reprised her role as Diane from the original 1996 film. “We thought she would be great and together [with Cumberbatch] it works really well,” he says.
Macdonald picks up: “What appealed to me when I read the script was it felt honest in its portrayal of love and loss. It’s a very emotional story but it’s not depressing. It hasn’t gone down that route. Julian’s got such a gentle touch and the way he directed it was he very much wanted an almost positive tale of love coming from loss, and I think he has managed to do that.”
The actor also praises Farino for creating a protective atmosphere on set, as the cast were often required to play out intensely emotional scenes.
“You have to do them or there’s no point in telling this story,” she says, “but it was a very safe environment with Julian at the helm. Everybody was so enthusiastic and wanted to do a great job, so it wasn’t draining. It was enjoyable, strangely, despite the subject matter. Everyone was at the top of their game so it was just a great creative place to be.”
Since her screen debut in Trainspotting, Macdonald has enjoyed a varied career across film and television, notably preferring single films to long-running series. The exception to the rule is her five-season stint on HBO’s prohibition-era drama Boardwalk Empire, which she admits was too good to refuse.
“Boardwalk ran for the perfect amount of time for that show and I’m enjoying getting different work now,” she adds. “TV series are great and it’s as close to a nine-to-five job as you can get for an actor, but not knowing what I’m going to do next does appeal and you get to have some variation there.”
In his role as an executive producer on The Child in Time, Cumberbatch talked over the script with Butchard and was also involved in hiring director Farino. “I’ve never been involved at that stage of things before so it’s intriguing,” he admits of his off-screen role. “But it’s not without its challenges, especially watching the work sooner than you should as an actor, when it’s in a very raw state and you give feedback as a producer. That was tricky. I’m excited about the moment when I’m not in something and I can look at that with much more distance.”
But with the book now 30 years old, is the story still relevant? “I think it’s absolutely timeless, I really do,” Butchard concludes. “It’s a story of the strength of the ordinary man and woman and how we actually deal and cope with events in our lives. We still find strength from somewhere, be it the love of another person or faith. For me it is a story of love and courage, and that’s why it’s timeless and why it’s still relevant.”
British gangster drama Peaky Blinders is back for a fourth season, with some new faces and enough action and tension to leave even the most placid viewer a nervous wreck. DQ hears from the cast and creative team about what to expect next from the BBC2 series.
Like a fine wine, Peaky Blinders is getting better with age. But that’s not just my view – it’s one shared by its creator, Steven Knight.
Confident, self-assured and with its own unique swagger, Peaky returns to BBC2 in the UK this week running at full throttle, bypassing any gentle reintroduction to 1920s Birmingham and instead opening as the fates of the series’ heroes (or should that be villains?) are hanging in the balance, the executioner standing close by.
What follows is a spell-binding, bloody and savage hour of drama that sees Tommy, Aunt Polly, Arthur and the rest of the Shelby family estranged, apparently split with no sign of repair, until a new threat – one more determined and sophisticated than they have ever faced – looms large on the horizon. If they are to survive, they must put their differences aside and reunite.
It’s the start of what promises to be another mind-blowing season of an award-wining series that has only grown in critical and popular acclaim since its terrestrial debut in 2013. New fans are arriving every day by catching up with previous seasons on Netflix, with seven million reportedly watching the trailer for season four online.
“As it progresses, this phenomenon doesn’t seem to be running out of steam,” Knight says. “It seems to be getting faster and better and bigger in terms of audience and all that stuff. With the confidence of knowing the actors, the characters and the environment, it makes it a lot easier to be quite bold and confident. Each season gets better and I think this is by far the best.”
Part of that success is down to Knight’s writing, the production design, the music and the star-filled cast it is able to attract. This season sees ever-present Cillian Murphy (Tommy), Helen McCrory (Polly) and Paul Anderson (Arthur) joined by new faces including Adrien Brody (Luca Changretta) and Aidan Gillen (Aberama Gold), while Charlotte Riley (May Carleton) and Tom Hardy (Alfie Solomans) will return.
“It’s odd because we get incoming from the most amazing actors who want to be in it,” Knight reveals about the show, produced by Caryn Mandabach Productions and Tiger Aspect and distributed by Endemol Shine International. “It’s very tempting [to cast them all] but what we don’t want to do is turn it into this celebrity show. Most of them are American so it’s difficult to get them in, but with Adrien, he’s a brilliant actor and he was right for that role so it was good to get him in.”
Charlie Murphy (Happy Valley) also joins the cast as Jessie Eden, based on the real-life women’s rights campaigner of the same name.
“She has an amazing line to introduce the character,” Charlie Murphy says of Jessie’s first appearance, which takes place in the men’s toilet at Tommy’s factory. “It sums her up completely, being in that man’s world, being in the gents’ toilets, having to push forward and make a difference. She is an extraordinary woman.
“It’s strange there is not a lot online to investigate [about her], but the stuff I found… you can imagine what her life was like back then. She brought 10,000 people out on strike for equal pay in her late 20s. That alone today is extraordinary, to have that voice and strength, but back then it would have been phenomenal. She’s a very brave and powerful person to play. That’s so much fun.”
Those sentiments are shared by fellow cast members Cillian Murphy and Anderson. “This part is a gift,” says the former of playing Tommy Shelby. “For any actor to be given a part like this with the excellent calibre of writing and then to be told you can play a character like that for five years, it’s an absolute total privilege. He is quite exhausting, he’s quite demanding. He is really not like me – the furthest away from my personality. But I love him and it’s a privilege.”
Anderson picks up: “Steven writes these interesting, great characters and I have a lot of fun playing Arthur even at his worst, his lowest. It is a lot of joy. It’s really good to do it for such a long time. It’s my first experience of playing a character with this much depth.”
Helming every episode of season four is Irish director David Caffrey, who is finally getting the chance to join Peaky Blinders after missing out on season two due to conflicting schedules. He describes the show as one that “punches above its weight,” owing to its big set pieces, thriller elements and the fact it’s a costume drama despite having a relatively modest budget compared with similar US series.
“Because of the size of the show, you’re standing on the shoulders of the giants that have come before you, all the creative time, directors and production designers,” he explains, adding that the brief coming into a returning series is “always to be bigger, badder, bolder but with the same amount of money.”
“So it’s a question of getting myself, the cameraman, the designers, everybody to just look at what’s in the script and try to build on what’s come before us,” he continues. “I feel quietly confident we’ve done that this season.”
With an established series now fully in its stride, one of the challenges facing a new director can be to lead a team that knows more about the show than they do. But Caffrey (Love/Hate) says he enjoyed learning from the cast and helping them to push their characters forward.
“When you’ve got stars like Paul, Helen and Cillian, they still come to you and are very open about what you want but, in a way, they’re custodians of their characters and how they behave and what situations they find themselves in,” he says. “I learn from them and then I try to give them notes on where we think characters are going. Like anything, when you have a short amount of time, they’ve got to bring their own gift to the party, which they do in abundance.”
According to executive producer Jamie Glazebrook, every season of Peaky Blinders leans on a different genre. So while season one was a western, season two was a gangster movie and the third run drew parallels to a Hitchcockian drama. Back on the streets of the Small Heath slums in season four, which begins tomorrow, viewers can look forward to an action drama that also draws influences from 1952 feature film High Noon, in which an embattled sheriff must face a gang of killers alone.
“They’re under siege so they have to man up and actually get back into the driving seat and away from the country house world and back onto the streets to physically contend with quite a dangerous enemy,” says Glazebrook of the dilemma facing the Shelby family.
Filming took place in Manchester, Liverpool and Bradford, though the return to Small Heath meant the production team faced a dilemma of their own, as many of the locations used in season one have since been developed, forcing them to find alternatives for the location-based shoot.
“The scale of Steve’s writing against our budget and schedule has also been a challenge everyone’s risen to,” Glazebook notes. “We’ve also had to keep it fresh. We’ve seen a lot of shows set in the 1920s so, for example, costume designer Alison McCosh really went out there looking for 1920s dresses that hadn’t been seen before. She went to Rome and found dresses that almost needed to be put back together again because they were rotting away somewhere. Everyone’s really dedicated to making sure the show isn’t like anything else set in the 20s – it’s seen through a particular filter and it’s got that certain magic.”
“The world has changed,” he responds. “I got lucky to get in early with Peaky. Priorities in Hollywood now, everything is changing by the day. The television phenomenon is now of equal importance to writers more than anyone, because writers have the power in TV, whereas they don’t in film. I’ve just finished a film – that’s great, and I love the 90-minute or two-hour length as a piece of work – but there are certain ideas you want 24 hours for, and that’s what television is great for. At the moment, there is an equal weight to both. Part of it is screens. Twenty years ago when people were watching television on those little things, what was the point? Now everybody’s got their big screens, there’s something about the whole thing that’s better.”
Knight has written every episode of Peaky, admitting that the show is so personal, he could never hand it over to someone else. And having won a double commission for seasons four and five, the screenwriter found himself in the rare position of being able to pen the upcoming six new episodes knowing there was still more to come. However, that fifth season, which is likely to begin filming in late 2018 for a debut the following year, looks set to be its last, if the writer’s plans hold firm.
“I know what direction it’s going in and what it’s going to be about,” he reveals. “I’ve always had the same destination in mind. It will be sad to stop and, if five has the same momentum that four has got, or more, maybe you do carry on. But at the moment that’s the plan, to finish at the end of five.
“I know when I want to end it [with the first air raid siren in Birmingham at the start of the Second World War] but that doesn’t necessarily mean that season five will take place in or around that year. I’m thinking there is a way to resolve the story in a certain year and then fast-forward to where it’s going to be.”
Kay Mellor puts her characters – and the audience – through the emotional wringer in BBC1 drama Love, Lies & Records, which stars Ashley Jensen as a working mother juggling her family life with the daily dramas inside a registry office.
The foyer of Dewsbury Town Hall is awash with crew members, its floor covered in cables and wires running between lighting rigs, cameras and monitors.
Banners promoting weddings, naming ceremonies, proms and parties are stationed in various enclaves or next to the large marble columns dotted through the room. A visitors desk is positioned beside the main doorway, a security guard sitting behind it.
Grand pictures of former mayors are hung across the walls of the elaborate Victorian building, which is filled with wood-panelled rooms, ornate painted ceilings and stained-glass windows.
When the cameras begin rolling, however, the setting becomes Greater Leeds Registry Office. Director Cilla Ware, helming the second block of filming, watches behind a monitor as Ashley Jensen, wearing a black leather jacket and black dress, and a suited Kenny Doughty walk across the room in conversation. Extras are waved forward into the shot, criss-crossing past each other as they walk in and out of doorways and stairwells.
This is the set of BBC1’s emotional and heart-warming Love, Lies & Records, in which Jensen (Extras, Agatha Raisin) plays registrar Kate, a working mother who must juggle her personal life with the daily dramas of births, marriages and deaths and the impact they have on her. Doughty plays fellow registrar Rick, with additional cast members including Mark Stanley, Adrian Bower and Mandip Gill.
Written by Bafta-winning scribe Kay Mellor (In The Club, The Syndicate), Love, Lies & Records is directed by Ware and Dominic Leclerc and produced by Rollem Productions in coproduction with Acorn Media Enterprises in the US. All3Media is handling international distribution of the show, which launches on November 16.
The idea for the six-part series first sparked inside Mellor when she had to go to Leeds Town Hall to register the death of her mother, only to return to the same venue for a friend’s wedding just five days later.
“We were in the same place with the same registrars and it made me think about their lives and about everything that went on in this town hall,” she reveals, describing the building as “a hub of emotion.”
Mellor continues: “Who are these people who are one minute marrying people and the next they’re registering a death? How do they cope with that emotionally? Do they have home lives, and how does that impact on their home lives?
“Kate’s looking after her daughter, who you see picking up strange things on her phone, while her son’s asking to get new trainers, and the next minute she’s registering a death and she’s got a woman in front of her who’s in floods of tears. How do you deal with that? It’s tough, it’s hard to do that. But every registrar I spoke to – and believe me, I spoke to a lot – people find their jobs absolutely fascinating and rewarding emotionally.”
The range of stories Mellor discovered from her research means 98% of the series is based on real events, she says. A wedding that takes place inside a hospice in episode one is just one example of a plot point based on a true story, while the show also touches on topical issues such as immigration, trafficking, cyber-bullying and poverty.
Throw Kate, a maverick who cares little for rules and procedure if it means finding a happy ending, into the mix and you have the potential for more drama than you can shake a particularly sharp stick at.
Unusually for a series written by Mellor, Love, Lies & Records is less of an ensemble drama, despite the large supporting cast, instead focusing mainly on central character Kate, who in the opening scenes discovers she has beaten office nemesis Judy (Rebecca Front) to a promotion. As such, Jensen is barely off screen, whether in scenes set at home surrounded by her family or within the walls of the town hall. Having previously seen Jensen audition for pregnancy drama In The Club – a role she didn’t ultimately land – Mellor was impressed enough to put Jensen at the top of her list for Love, Lies & Records.
“She’s clearly a leading lady and I’d gone out to her for In The Club to be part of an ensemble,” Mellor says of the Scottish actor. “But I think because of where she’s been, on the other side of the pond [in Ugly Betty] and she’s done Agatha Raisin, she’s a true leading lady in lots of ways. She’s never grand, she’s all embracing and lovely. She’s got a hell of a lot of lines to learn because she leads every scene.”
Inspired by female-led series including Madam Secretary, Doctor Foster and Danish dramedy Rita, Mellor adds: “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be lovely just to follow this woman on her journey and let it open out?’ You see some of her staff, her home life and how that affects her. I just love it when it’s multi-layered and then getting glimpses of the other lives of the other registrars and her family.”
Jensen admits she has long been a fan of Mellor’s work, which she describes as “television people want to watch.”
“With Kay’s writing, it’s so human but it’s done with humour. It’s so honest and a bit painful at times and funny and just very real,” Jensen says. “Her writing is just so wonderful to play. She does make it easy to learn and I’ve had a fair amount to learn. So far, so good.”
The actor also says she’s “ready” to lead a primetime drama. “Because I started at the bottom, I was the day-player that came in for a day, so I’ve done all that and I feel as if I’ve very much served an apprenticeship and it’s not like I’ve suddenly come in [to be a leading actor]. I think I know how to conduct myself and I very much feel that ,on set, it should be a collaborative thing. It’s a worry if it’s not, because every job is absolutely vital. We’re literally all working together for an end gain and I just happen to be the person in all day every day, but that’s fine. I feel ready for it.”
Another actor arguably more recognisable for appearing in comedies than dramas is Front, best known for comedic turns in shows such as The Thick of It but more recently playing it straight in Humans, Doctor Thorne and War & Peace.
“I could see it in her,” says Mellor of casting Front as the officious and fastidious Judy. “She’s a comedian but I’ve seen her play [dramatic] parts where I thought it would be lovely if I could just get a bit more of that.
“Judy’s been working as a registrar for a long time and has been passed over [for promotion] twice. She’s turning a little bit bitter. All that was gorgeous to write, but down the line they do go on an interesting journey. They’ll never be best buddies [Judy and Kate] but they end up in a better place than they were in.”
Front says she loves straddling comedy and drama, and is particularly attracted to roles that mark a departure from her previous work. “What drew me to [Judy] is just she’s a really complicated woman and is someone who’s made her life unnecessarily complicated,” the actor explains. “That’s what I’m imagining for her backstory – that everything she leans on to make her life easier is somehow actually making her life more complicated. She’s not a bad person at all; she does some really horrible things but she’s not a terrible person and I just think she’s one of those people who ties themselves up in knots and makes wrong decisions.”
Love, Lies & Records hits the screens during a prolific streak for Mellor that began earlier this autumn with BBC3’s online drama Overshadowed, which she executive produced. Then airing in the New Year is Girlfriends, an ITV drama starring Phyllis Logan, Miranda Richardson and Zoë Wanamaker, which Mellor has written and directed. Meanwhile, she has also written and directed Fat Friends: The Musical, which is based on her long-running drama about a group of friends trying to lose weight.
“Kay’s writing has a connection with everybody,” says Doughty of Mellor’s ability to create dramas that stir the emotions. “She’s got the ability to really connect with people on a human level.
“The writing is funny, heartwarming and heartbreaking, and you do get all of that. But this is a different Kay – it’s not The Syndicate or In the Club. It’s got a different grittiness. It feels different. It’s Kay but a slight departure for Kay, and that’s what really excites me.”