Howard Burch, creative director of scripted at prodco Keshet UK, looks at the challenge of repeating the success of hit drama The A Word with its forthcoming second season and discusses the development process behind the follow-up.
The first series of The A Word was a standout success, attracting a consolidated average audience of 5.5 million and a 22% share on BBC1 in 2016. It also aired on SundanceTV in the US, which is also the US broadcaster for season two.
What can one hope for with a second season of a successful show? That it expands on the original? That it whets the audience’s appetite for more? Maybe even that it is better than the first? Or simply that it doesn’t disappoint a loyal audience eager for more?
Produced by Fifty Fathoms and Keshet UK, and based on an original Israeli series by Keren Margalit called Yellow Peppers, The A Word is about a messy extended family living in the Lake District, whose youngest son, Joe, just happens to be on the autistic spectrum.
But in writer Peter Bowker’s assured hands, the drama is never issue-led or ‘about’ autism. Audiences flocked to it because it was warm, accessible and light-hearted – and with a great soundtrack to boot!
The second season, coming to BBC1 and SundanceTV this autumn, picks up on events two years on – and Joe, played by Max Vento, is changing. Now seven years old, he has begun to look at the world and finds that he doesn’t fit in. It revisits the funny, mixed-up lives of the Hughes and Scott families as they struggle to do their best as parents, carers and lovers… and to work out what’s really important in the face of nothing ever feeling normal.
Bowker explains: “‘Autistic’ is a word Joe has heard but can’t yet understand. ‘Different’ is what he feels, and fears it might be something bad. It’s up to the whole family to help Joe make sense of who he is and his place in the world. But to do that, they must first be honest about themselves.”
The team, including executive producers Patrick Spence, Marcus Wilson and producer Jenny Frayn, again consulted with various bodies such as the National Autism Society and Anna Kennedy Online to make sure the scripts feel authentic. But the series has never tried to be reflective of every experience of autism in the family. It tells the story of every family through the prism of one family struggling to come to terms with their son’s unexpected diagnosis.
“Peter Bowker has extensive experience of working with families with children with autism and was able to draw on this wealth of knowledge to create a detailed and truthful portrait of a family with a child with autism at its heart,” says producer Frayn. “As well as drawing on Peter’s experience, we also spoke to a number of organisations involved in autism, as well as parents of children with autism. We kept in touch with them after the first series aired and we were pleased by the support we received and the largely very positive feedback.”
For the first season, we filmed in Manchester and the Lake District, just as Storm Desmond brought record rainfall to the North West. For the second season, we were blessed with calmer conditions, partly because filming was pushed back to the spring and summer of 2017. “Although, the weather in the Lake District doesn’t follow the typical laws of the seasons,” notes Frayn. “We started filming in March with snow on the hilltops, and in June we faced torrential rain and high winds.
“We tried to film a fell-running festival with outdoor stalls, people in skimpy running gear and young children licking ice-creams as tents were being blown away and rain lashed the bouncy castle. The cast and crew were all real troopers about coping with the weather, but in the end we had to come back on a sunnier day and stage the fell-running festival all over again. It looked glorious.”
One of the ingredients new to this season is an even greater verisimilitude. “A brilliant illustration of this,” says Wilson, “was the sequence in the special school. We took Max and his on-screen parents Morven Christie and Lee Ingleby into a real special-school classroom to film Joe’s first day because we wanted to portray an authentic environment.
“Producer Jenny and location manager Gary Barnes liaised in detail to work out exactly how this could be achieved by integrating a small documentary-style crew into the classroom and letting real-life action unfold around our characters. We had to make sure we were incredibly sensitive to the needs of the class and teachers, making sure they were comfortable with the equipment and that lighting and sound and all the usual noises of a set were attuned to what the class could cope with.
“Director Sue Tully managed the set beautifully, whispering directions and capturing genuine moments. To ensure the families felt comfortable with what was shot, Jenny [showed footage] to parents and teachers and discussed what we were trying to achieve and whether they were confident about what was seen in each shot.”
The show has sold around the globe, via our distribution arm Keshet International, to countries including Canada, Australia, Finland, Iceland, Croatia, Slovenia, Sweden, Brazil and South Korea, as well as a second-window VoD rights deal to Amazon Prime Video in the US. The series is proving over and over again how relatable and important it is, perhaps because it just really resonates with people – we all have a family, and families all have challenges to overcome. So it’s with comfort and pride that we envisage more viewers around the world watching something so worthwhile.
Hopefully viewers will find this season an even deeper and more rewarding experience than the first. As with any returning series, the writers and creators know the actors they are writing for and can play to their strengths. But, crucially, both cast and crew have spent longer in each other’s company, and that feeling of being one big, unconventional and sometimes fractious but mostly harmonious family filters through in every scene.
Kit Harington stars in and exec produces BBC1’s Gunpowder, which dramatises the plot to kill King James I. Alongside co-star Liv Tyler and the show’s writer and director, he reveals his very personal reason for getting involved.
Most people have at least one black sheep in their family tree, a relative who perhaps earned a less-than-honest living or brought dishonour to the family name with their actions or lifestyle.
However, very few of us can claim to be related to someone who tried to kill the king of England. Step forward Game of Thrones star Kit Harington – a direct descendant of the chief conspirator in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot to assassinate King James I.
For anyone thinking that means Jon Snow himself is related to Guy Fawkes, think again, as while Fawkes was the man caught red-handed guarding the gunpowder under the House of Lords, it was Harington’s “great, great, great, great, great something-or-other” Robert Catesby who actually spearheaded the plot.
As such, it’s Catesby, played by Harington, who is at the forefront of BBC1’s three-part miniseries Gunpowder, which aims to be a faithful dramatisation of the events now marked across the UK every November 5 with fireworks and bonfires.
The Game of Thrones star also executive produced the show, which launches this Saturday at 21.00 – “the Taboo slot” – and was produced by Kudos. Endemol Shine International is the distributor.
Discussing the appeal of the programme, Harington says he “prefers to avoid the term ‘passion project,’” but admits: “Really the idea spawned from a piece of family curiosity, which is that my mother’s maiden name is Catesby, my middle name is Catesby… I was always told, ‘Did you know you were related to the leader of the Gunpowder Plot?’
“More than that, me and Dan [fellow exec producer Dan West] couldn’t really work out why it hadn’t been dramatised. It’s such a significant piece of typically English folklore and we mark it every year, so it seemed odd.”
Indeed, while the gist of the Gunpowder Plot is one of the best-known slices of history in the UK, the facts and detail behind the story are much less widely understood.
With a PhD in history, writer Ronan Bennett is surely better equipped than most TV scribes to bring a truthful account of the events to the small screen. Yet even he admits that, upon being approached to pen the series, “I had forgotten if I ever knew about Catesby; that Catesby was actually the real mastermind of it.”
Bennett adds: “If you ask most people what they know about the Gunpowder Plot, they’ll go, ‘Guy Fawkes tried to blow up parliament’ – something like that – and everything else is empty. People don’t really know anything about it.”
Making the show, therefore, became something of a history lesson for all involved, including the impressive cast, which also boasts Hollywood star Liv Tyler, Sherlock’s Mark Gatiss and Downton Abbey’s Tom Cullen, who plays Fawkes.
“I think I knew more than some people about the Gunpowder Plot, but not a lot,” says Harington. “It was only by doing some research into it that I started to understand who [the conspirators] were.
“[Catesby] is a widower, he doesn’t connect with his son, he’s experiencing huge persecution and he’s a very proud man,” he says of his ancestor who, along with his accomplices, attempted to take drastic action against the king’s discrimination against Catholics. “In some ways, he’s on some kind of a death wish and he pulls a lot of people – some innocent people – with him into this plot.
“It was just fascinating learning about this piece of history.”
Harington also reveals that, as the production went on, his feelings towards the plotter changed significantly, adding that what was once almost a sense of pride over Catesby shifted to feeling “desperately sorry for him.”
“As you will see, he was a deeply sad man who botched the one thing he wanted to do. He fucked it up. Deep down, he was tortured.”
Securing Tyler’s services marked something of a coup for the production, with the high-profile actor only having one other TV series to her name, HBO’s magnificent Damon Lindelof drama The Leftovers.
Now living full time in the UK, having moved to London last year, Tyler’s first UK series sees her play Anne Vaux, who assisted Catholic priests when practising the religion was outlawed.
“I don’t think these guys would have been thinking of me at all for this part, but I read it and I loved it,” she says. “I was really drawn to it. As an American, I know a little about the story but I don’t know everything, and it’s always nice to be learning something.”
As for her convincing English accent, Tyler, who previously had to lose the American twang to play Arwen in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, says it “kind of just came back – it’s like skiing.”
Gunpowder also marked a first for J Blakeson, who became the latest in the ever-growing line of film directors to try their hand at TV when he signed up for the show.
Having helmed features such as The Disappearance of Alice Creed and The 5th Wave, Blakeson says the involvement of big names like Harington, combined with the subject matter, meant it was an “easy decision” to board the project.
“You get a lot of scripts and read them, but very rarely are they ones you want to do. But this one… to read a script where you’re 25 pages in and you’re still in the first scene, it’s a rare thing.
“It was incredibly well written and it had that dream thing for a project, which is that people think they know [the story] and there’s recognition of it, so people are interested in it, but actually you have a story to tell that’s interesting and enlightening and people don’t know it. So there’s a real opportunity there.
“But primarily it was just a really good script and I really liked it.”
A strong sense of authenticity runs through the production, not least in the language, with Bennett explaining that many lines in the script were lifted directly from historical accounts.
That realism also extends to the depiction of the harsh era in which the story unfolds. One scene begins with King James defecating into a bucket just inches from his bed, with the royal stool then being carried away by an unfortunate servant.
But what really stands out in the first episode is the explicit portrayal of capital punishment. Indeed, a grisly and prolonged execution scene is as graphic as anything you’re ever likely to see on the Beeb.
Warts-and-all representation of the era was key to Blakeson, who says: “We have this very nostalgic view of the past, of it being this lovely place, but one of the great things about Ronan’s script is it’s not described as that at all. There’s no indoor plumbing, there’s no sewer system. People would die in the street – death was everywhere. It’s a horrible place.
“So showing the history as being like that – being textured, being lived-in – was quite important. It was like a living, breathing version of history.”
Gunpowder’s story is obviously not one that lends itself to a sequel, but having clearly enjoyed his first taste of exec producing, could more work behind the camera follow for Harington after Game of Thrones concludes?
“Yes,” is the resounding answer from the actor, who has launched prodco Thriker Films along with West and describes Gunpowder as being “like a tester” for projects to come.
“We very much want to continue looking for things, sourcing things, producing things. We’re looking for that next thing now,” he explains. “This was a test to see if, on a personal level, this was something I enjoyed doing, and I did enjoy it very much. I felt so proud of it all the way along, in a way that I find much harder to do as just an actor.”
Still, with Harington’s Catesby bearing Jon Snow’s trademark curly locks and beard, no one could blame the actor for seeking something totally different next time out. “Why I keep desiring to film in cold, muddy places on horses, I have no idea,” he jokes. “It must be something built into me from a past life.”
Benedict Cumberbatch takes centre stage in The Child in Time, Stephen Butchard’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s haunting novel about loss and grief. The star tells DQ about shaking off his more famous alter-ego and stepping into a producer role.
As the eponymous detective in Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch is used to playing an extraordinary character in ordinary situations. So his latest role, starring in an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel The Child in Time, is something of a reversal.
“He’s an ordinary person in an extraordinary circumstance,” the actor says of Stephen Lewis, the character at the heart of the BBC1 film, which airs this Sunday. “It was a challenge. There were moments when I thought, ‘Am I doing enough?’ The engagement with the material is there but it feels very strange.
“I’ve done a lot of roles where there’s a lot of other stuff going on, whether it’s a very particular attitude or mindset, skill set or cultural background, or all of those things. So the transformative aspect of what I’ve done in a lot of those roles is very far from me and I was bringing a lot more of myself – as I sound, 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 Child in Time follows Stephen, a children’s author, two years after the disappearance of his daughter as he struggles find a new purpose to his life without her. His wife Julie (played by Kelly Macdonald) has left him and his best friends Charles (Stephen Campbell Moore) and Thelma (Saskia Reeves) have retired to the countryside, battling demons of their own.
In a slight departure from the dystopian source material, which also has a strong political strand, The Last Kingdom writer Stephen Butchard’s adaptation focuses on the characters at the heart of the story, producing a film about the loss of childhood and themes of grief, hope and acceptance.
“It’s ultimately a story, despite the depths it plunges, of the emotional reality of the trauma at the centre of it,” Cumberbatch says. “It’s a story about salvation and hope and trying to build a future that just accepts and encompasses and owns that loss, the absence of that child. It’s also an examination of childhood and time, and what happens in trauma with time and how the conscious and subconscious can slide. It’s got quite a lot going for it other than just that horrific central axis of the drama.”
The actor, who is as comfortable on screen as on the stage, admits the role is “a million miles” from some of his best-known work – “particularly the more famous one” — but says that was part of what drew him to the drama.
“That’s an appeal for me, to always be shaking things up a little bit as far as expectations are concerned; not doing the usual or the unusually usual. And 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. [I didn’t think] I could get my teeth into something emotionally raw just because I’m a new dad for the second time, it just happened that way.”
The Child in Time marks the first television commission from Cumberbatch’s SunnyMarch TV label, which coproduces with Pinewood Television and Masterpiece for PBS. StudioCanal is the distributor. As such, the actor is also an executive producer on the film.
“It’s different when you’re there with a producer’s hat on because you’re there thinking about who would be right to direct it. I’ve never been at that stage of things before,” he explains. “So it’s intriguing. It’s the first time; we’ll see how it worked, but everyone had a great experience making it, which is a great testament to us doing something right as a production team.
“I really enjoyed it. It’s not without its challenges, especially watching the work sooner than you should as an actor, in a raw very state, to then give feedback about what you feel 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. It’s very peculiar. It’s always horrible, it’s never nice. The way you look, the way you do things, it’s horrible and, trust me, the internet is full of hate but it’s nothing compared with the self-critic in your head for brutality. I’ve said it all before they have.”
SunnyMarch is already building up a slate of projects, which began with documentaries and is now expanding further into high-end drama on the back of The Child in Time. Cumberbatch will also star in Melrose, an adaptation of Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels for Sky Atlantic and Showtime.
“It’s one thing with me at the front of it,” he says of Melrose. “There are lots of things we have on our slate that do fulfil the promise of diversity and giving a bolder place for women both behind and in front of the camera. What I’m doing in the immediate future doesn’t reflect that because we’re trying to get it off the ground and do things that are probably a bit more expected in the tundra and with me involved.”
Until those projects evolve, The Child in Time is “a big deal for us,” Cumberbatch admits. “It’s the first McEwan adaptation for television so that was a huge boon for us. We were very excited about that.” Looking toward the future, SunnyMarch is seeking “diversity in every sense,” the actor adds, “not just to do with opportunities for all but also the range of material with those opportunities, so genre-wise, large screen, small screen, live events, found material as well as published or unpublished fiction or biographical work. We’re trying to create as diverse a slate as possible in every way.”
But after three seasons and 13 episodes as Sherlock – and a somewhat series-ending epilogue to the most recent instalment – is there more to come? “Maybe,” he teases.
New Doctor Who star Jodie Whittaker plays a medical imposter in Trust Me, a thriller penned by real-life doctor Dan Sefton. DQ hears from the duo about making the show.
Doctorates appear to be arriving like buses for actress Jodie Whittaker, who will become a doctor not once but twice over the next few months.
The actor was recently announced as the 13th incarnation of the BBC’s famous Time Lord in Doctor Who – the first woman to take the prestigious primetime title in the show’s 54-year history. The star, best known for her role in Broadchurch, will replace the outgoing Peter Capaldi when he regenerates during the upcoming Christmas special.
Before then, however, she’ll be seen on BBC1 as another medic as she takes the lead role in gripping drama Trust Me. She plays Cath Hardacre, who, after being suspended from her job as a nurse for whistleblowing, steals the identity of a doctor friend who has emigrated to New Zealand.
She moves from Sheffield to Edinburgh to work as an A&E doctor, but it’s not easy to shake off her past. Not only is she unqualified but her bitter ex Karl (played by Blake Harrison) and a hungry investigative journalist Sam Kelly (Nathan Walsh) are both on her case.
Written by Dan Sefton, best known for ITV’s The Good Karma Hospital and Sky1’s Delicious, Trust Me plunges viewers into a world the writer knows well, as he also works part time as an A&E doctor. StudioCanal is distributing the series internationally.
“As a doctor, I’ve encountered imposters in real life. There was actually one in the department where I worked,” he says. “Often they are well liked and competent; I’ve also met qualified doctors who are frankly dangerous. For me there’s a delicious irony in the idea that the imposter doctor is better than the real thing, both clinically and with patients.”
It took him seven years from first reading a book about imposters to getting his drama made. “My first thought was making it about a pair of identical twins. The story changed in various ways until I came up with the idea of a nurse impersonating a doctor,” he recalls. “The problem was a lot of people didn’t believe it was credible, even though I, as a doctor, was telling them it was credible – there have been so many stories of people doing it.
“It was really frustrating because I knew it was a good idea and I was worried that someone else would get there first. It wasn’t until Red Production Company came on board that they really listened to the story and immediately saw the potential in it.”
Whittaker says she was hooked from the moment she read the first script. “It really fascinated me because it went in a completely different direction to how I thought it was going to go,” she says of the series, which launches on BBC1 on August 8. “At the beginning, when she’s suspended for whistleblowing and loses her job, it could have gone in so many ways. The fact she takes on a new identity isn’t the way I thought it would go. I love the fact that her choices are quite morally dubious; they certainly aren’t black and white.”
Sefton says he looked at US shows where the lead is often an anti-hero. No one walking into an NHS hospital would like to think they are being treated by an unqualified doctor, yet at the same time Cath is good at her job. The story is told from her point of view and the viewer is on her side – at least at first.
“I enjoyed the push-and-pull feel of playing with the audience’s sympathies,” the writer explains. “She is a good person but she shouldn’t be doing this. She’s an honest woman who has done one dishonest thing; there will be consequences. I read a lot about the different types of imposters; there are far more men than women. Men always do it for egotistical reasons; they want to be something impressive. But the women generally do it for a way of getting on in life.
“In this show Cath is giving herself the opportunities she’d never had. But once she’s made that choice, that changes who she is. She begins to like her new life and that’s where it becomes complicated.”
Whittaker agrees: “It’s really interesting to play flawed characters. I would be terrified by the choice this protagonist has made – I’m a crap secret-keeper. Often we are surrounded by people who do things that we don’t agree with. For the audience not to agree with her but still be emotionally behind her is an interesting thing to play.”
Sefton worked as a medical consultant on the Glasgow and Edinburgh set (the show was co-executive produced by Gaynor Holmes for BBC Scotland), helping the cast find their way around a busy emergency department. He also allowed the actors to experiment on him with minor procedures – up to a point where the producers had to step in because they were worried he could sue them for health and safety breaches.
“I kept volunteering to be a guinea pig,” he admits. “But the producers were worried I would get hurt and sue them. I still encouraged the actors to stick needles in me. The only way you understand the tension of doing something like that – of crossing a line – is when you do something like that to another human.”
Although Sefton has scripted medical dramas including Doctors, Casualty and Holby City, he says he deliberately made the medical stories in Trust Me different. “There is a horror show element to it,” he says. “A lot of things Cath has to tackle are the things that still scare doctors. She sees some very nasty cases; they all do.
“In episode two, you see Sharon Small’s character, Dr Brigitte McAdams, talk about the patients she has killed and how much that has affected her. People know about medical mistakes but don’t see how it can also hurt the doctors.
“Because this drama isn’t about the medical stuff, there is a nihilism which you don’t normally get as you don’t need to resolve the medical stories. In real life there is often no easy answer, there is no meaning to the problems people come in with. They aren’t resolved. I want this to be a tough watch because even though she is doing a bad thing, she is still turning up there every day to help people.”
Writer Amanda Coe and executive producer Manda Levin reveal how they won the battle to turn Louise Doughty’s best-selling novel Apple Tree Yard into a four-part BBC drama starring Emily Watson and Ben Chaplin.
It’s described as a provocative, audacious thriller that has won legions of fans around the world. Louise Doughty’s novel Apple Tree Yard has sold more than 250,000 copies in the UK alone, and has been translated into dozens of languages since it was first published in 2013.
Now this gripping story is coming to television, after BBC1 in the UK commissioned a four-part adaptation from Kudos, the makers of Broadchurch, River and Utopia.
Married with two grown-up children, Yvonne Carmichael (played by Emily Watson) lives a contented, conventional suburban life. But her world spirals into chaos when a chance encounter leads to an impulsive and passionate affair with a charismatic stranger (Ben Chaplin).
Despite all her careful plans to keep her home life and career safe and separate from her affair, fantasy and reality soon begin to overlap and everything she values is put at risk, as a life-changing act of violence leads to a trial.
Written by Amanda Coe and directed by Jessica Hobbs, the executive producers are Manda Levin and Lucy Richer. Due to launch on BBC1 on January 22, it is distributed by FremantleMedia International.
Here, Amanda Coe and Manda Levin reveal how they brought Apple Tree Yard to television after being captivated by Doughty’s original novel.
Manda Levin: Kudos has a head of literary acquisitions, Sue Swift, who pans for gold, and when she is as excited about something as she was about Apple Tree Yard, we sit up and take notice. Apple Tree Yard was literary catnip to the women in Kudos. Here was a compelling page-turner which was about so many other things that matter to us deeply; our self control versus our most atavistic impulses, nature and nurture, the stories we tell ourselves, the mystery of the ‘other,’ the sheer hard work of being ‘good’…
Part of its cleverness is how the story segues between the visceral excitement of an affair into a shocking act of violence, and then the intensity of a great courtroom drama, giving all its rich themes a gripping narrative musculature. We took it straight to one of our favourite screenwriters, Bafta-winning Amanda Coe (Room at the Top), whose elegant, grown-up approach seemed perfect for this most precious prize. She was extremely patient with our hagiographical excitement about the prospect of an adaptation. But we certainly weren’t the only TV producers in town who had their heart set on optioning Louise’s incredible novel.
Amanda Coe: I read the book in a day, as gripped as its many other fans. I get sent a lot of books with a view to adaptation, and the ones that I’m least seduced by tend to be thrillers. Not because I don’t enjoy reading them, but because I’m loth to commit to spending months of writing time on a piece that is purely plot-led or sensationalist. It’s a bit like spending days in the kitchen to produce a packet of crisps — why not just pop out to the shop? Also, I find the violence against women in TV thrillers problematic, to say the least. But Apple Tree Yard so clearly uses the tricks and pleasures of the genre to sophisticated and thought-provoking ends, while never losing its grip on the narrative. It’s a rare beast. Less high-mindedly, I was also excited by the opportunity to explore such different registers: sexy affair! Crime! Court room! Family drama!
I’d never been involved in a pitch to an author, but Louise was generously responsive to our approach, as well as unusually understanding of the need for me to take on the book and turn it into something that stands alone in a different medium. A lot of the book’s power resides in its tight first-person identification with Yvonne, who is an unreliable but compelling narrator. On the page, we experience every moment through her eyes and soul. The great challenge in making the transition to screen is to retain that audience sympathy with her character, given a much more external aesthetic. Crucially, apart from a few tiny moments, every scene has Yvonne in it. Clearly we were hoping to attract an actor of Emily Watson’s calibre to take us on the journey, and how lucky we are that she agreed to do it.
The story felt like it had the legs for four parts, giving each episode a different pace and texture, while shading in the complexities and contradictions of Yvonne’s character. Back-story, so organic to prose, clogs up the flow of a screen narrative, so I took the decision to run the unfolding crisis in Yvonne’s marriage to Gary alongside her affair with Costley. On screen, it makes the question of marital loyalty, as opposed to purely sexual fidelity, even more morally crunchy than in the book. For me, it tips the TV Apple Tree Yard towards a drama that asks questions about the mysteries of marriage and family life as much as a thriller about a woman’s sexuality on trial.
While writing the scripts I had the luxury and pleasure of proper time with Jess Hobbs, the director, so that every nook and cranny of the world and the story had been interrogated and explored before a single frame was shot. I think this attention to detail, both material and emotional, shines through in every moment Jess has put on screen. She has a wonderful mixture of rigour and empathy.
Levin: Something we hope feels pioneering in Apple Tree Yard is the portrayal of a middle-aged woman enjoying her sexuality. At the beginning of the story Yvonne is at a moment of transition, when women evolve from being extremely visible to virtually invisible, but crucially, she’s captured at the moment just before she accepts that fact. Having done everything so very right for so very long, on some level Yvonne believes she deserves this last fling. Before everything goes wrong, she’s lit up by her affair with Mark Costley in a way we’re not used to seeing on screen.
Unfortunately, something we fear may also feel pioneering is having a middle-aged woman as the protagonist at all, the person to whom things happen and who makes things happen in their turn. Yvonne isn’t just a mother, or a daughter, or a wife, or a ‘career woman,’ but all of those and a lover to boot – a complex, contradictory leading lady, portrayed with courage and passion by the extraordinary Emily Watson.
Our aspiration for the show is that the audience will walk in Yvonne Carmichael’s shoes for four gripping episodes. And along with judging her – whose transgression has such catastrophic and punitive repercussions – they might flip the mirror to reflect on our society’s rush to judgement of all women, and in particular those who own their sexuality.
Best known for seminal Danish crime drama Forbrydelsen (The Killing), director Kristoffer Nyholm tells DQ why Tom Hardy-led thriller Taboo is like nothing ever seen on TV before.
Ever since Forbrydelsen (The Killing) became a worldwide sensation, Kristoffer Nyholm has become synonymous with the Danish crime drama. The director led the first two seasons of the series, shaping its dark, moody atmosphere and shining a new light on its Copenhagen setting.
But while directors are often household names in cinema, television continues to be considered a writers’ medium. It’s rare for a director to helm every episode of a small-screen series, with all the credit placed at the feet of the writer or showrunner whose fingerprints are indelibly inked across hours of storytelling.
Thanks to the iconic standing of The Killing, however, Nyholm can be considered among those directors whose names stand out from the crowd – and it’s the increasing importance of the role of director in television that he believes has led to the current slate of groundbreaking, ambitious drama being produced around the world.
“In the film business the main focus has always been on the director, and scriptwriting comes in second. So it’s important that a lot of new wonderful television series are bringing focus to the writer,” he explains. “But in order to develop the language of television, the director is an important part of that process because those scripts can be interpreted and filmed in many different ways.
“There’s a tendency now for fewer long-running series and more limited series, which means they can become more cinematic, and that’s clearly where good directors come in and become part of the development process. We’re in a place where there’s a hybrid between television and films – we’re only at the beginning of that process and it’s very exciting. But it’s very important that, at an early point, directors can be a part of a process where drama is created because the collaboration between writers and directors is underdeveloped and there is so much more to gain.”
Collaboration between the creative team was key on Nyholm’s latest television project, Taboo, an eight-part series starring Tom Hardy that debuts on BBC1 on January 7. It launches stateside on cable channel FX on January 10.
Set in 1814, the story follows James Keziah Delaney (Hardy), a man who has been to the ends of the earth and comes back irrevocably changed. Believed to be long dead, he returns home to London from Africa to inherit what is left of his father’s shipping empire and rebuild a life for himself.
But his father’s legacy is a poisoned chalice and, with enemies lurking in every dark corner, James must navigate increasingly complex territories to avoid his own death sentence. Encircled by conspiracy, murder and betrayal, a dark family mystery unfolds in a combustible tale of love and treachery.
Hardy is also an executive producer along with writer Steven Knight, Ridley Scott, Kate Crowe and Dean Baker. Scott Free London and Hardy Son & Baker produce for BBC1 and US cable network FX, with Sonar Entertainment distributing the series worldwide outside the UK.
Nyholm first met with Hardy and the producers last summer and says he was inspired to join the series by the actor, for whom Taboo is a passion project co-created with his father Chips Hardy and Knight.
“I loved the first two scripts,” Nyholm says, “and Tom told me about his motivation for the series – he wanted to make a story about looking at historic London as a barbaric place at a time some consider to be the cradle of the modern world we know today.
“In a way, it’s a coming-of-age story – a fusion of understanding your own life and understanding the world you’re born into, and that idea to connect those psychological, emotional depths in a character, together with his awareness of the political system, was really exciting and a new way of making a drama.
“Tom put words to this main character and then said, ‘We don’t know exactly where we’re going but, if you want to go on this ride, we would really love to have you with us.’ That was very exciting – and he said if it breaks down, I hope we can say we tried. I thought this artistic, brave commitment was something that I felt strongly for and that Tom had really thought about this. It was a very inspiring meeting that set off the whole thing.”
Nyholm joined the project at such an early stage that the series was yet to be cast or crewed. But that allowed him to become an integral part of the creative team, helping to bring Hardy’s vision to life around the central character he would play himself.
“He takes a very big responsibility,” the director says of the Hollywood star. “Like a Renaissance man, he cares about all the elements and he’s very open in the process. He’s also a very kind person, a gentleman, so that was a big inspiration. Part of the story came from him so he was like having an extra page of the script.”
A tattoo-covered Hardy dominates the screen every time he appears – in fact, he’s rarely out of shot – while the captivating sets bring the hustle and bustle of 19th century London to life. Helming the first four episodes, Nyholm worked closely with director of photography Mark Patten to bring an unconventional shooting style to the production, one that let the actors do their job as the cameras recorded them unobtrusively.
“We kept things open in many ways so when we came into a new set, we didn’t just go and do the classical setups – big picture, two cross-angled close-ups and maybe a little travelling. Instead, we made it a priority to stay in a certain angle to capture a mood or, if there was something very characteristic in a scene like a big fireplace, we’d say every shot will have the fireplace in the picture. This is the magnet of the scene and we’ll go around that. Sometimes people would walk out of picture and we’d just leave them there.
“Steven wrote some really wonderful scripts – but he’s not loyal to one genre in one episode, he would go from one to another. So when you think this is really a high-paced drama, suddenly it’s very different, it’s a man on an expedition searching for something, and now it’s a love story. He would switch moods very often, which means we would also be very open to the scenes and try to not fit them into a system.”
With only very quick rehearsals for each scene – “I don’t like to empty the bottle” – the director prefers to shoot just three or four takes before moving on. “There’s a truth in the acting and you want to protect that,” he explains. “It’s a very subtle thing but that’s the main part of my work, that’s what I love doing. They don’t have to act exactly how I want them to act, because they’re the actors. They have a feeling for what they want to do but I have to respond as a person watching and, for me, it’s like watching something truthful for the first time and it has to work for me as well. I love actors – it would be strange not to, but it’s a sacred moment when they do their work and I feel privileged to be close to that process.”
Nyholm might call himself an actor’s director, choosing to use his time on set with his cast – which also includes Michael Kelly, Jonathan Pryce, Oona Chaplin, Franka Potente, Stephen Graham and Tom Hollander – instead of fretting over “the small things that aren’t important.” And as a result, there wasn’t a day on set when he wasn’t happy with what they had produced, despite some other challenges.
“There were some days that were more tough than others, of course, because we also work physically, under the influence of weather and sometimes things that technically were more difficult. We had to do a lot of work with limited time and with a lot of locations, so there was a lot of moving around and setups in places we hadn’t been before. We had a crew that very quickly found a way of moving into a spot and knowing what was important and what was not important – that was a big thing.”
Nyholm is currently in pre-production for his next project, feature film Keepers, but admits he now feels at home working across Europe, particularly in England. Other credits include Inspector Morse prequel Endeavour and European crime drama Jo.
“When I work in England, I feel at home and it’s close to Denmark,” he adds. “The big thing is the world is becoming smaller and working as I do today would have been much more difficult 15 years ago. My world has become much bigger and I really enjoy being in England. Hopefully I’ll do more.”
Series like The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story have proved there is a healthy market for well-told dramas based on real events. So it’s interesting to see that Discovery Channel is coming to market soon with Manifesto, a highly anticipated series that looks at the story of Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber.
This week, Discovery announced that actor Sam Worthington (Avatar, Hacksaw Ridge) will star in the show as FBI Agent Jim ‘Fitz’ Fitzgerald, whose innovative new approach to intelligence gathering ultimately led to the capture of the Unabomber. Kaczynski himself will be played by British actor Paul Bettany.
The show, which is produced by Lionsgate and Trigger Street Productions, is being written by Andrew Sodroski, a former Harvard graduate. It has taken Sodroski a while to get a break in the TV business, but finally things look like they’re coming good. Aside from Manifesto, he is also working on a project for Amazon Studios entitled Holland, Michigan. This comedy-thriller centres on a schoolteacher who, suspecting that her husband is cheating on her, enlists the help of a fellow teacher she fancies.
Fact-based drama is a good fit for Discovery and is an area where it has already enjoyed significant success in. In September, it aired Harley & the Davidsons, which delivered 4.4 million viewers and became the most-watched single-network cable miniseries in three-and-a-half years. Echoing the OJ Simpson series, which aired on FX, Discovery wants Manifesto to be the first in an anthology series of dramas that focus on infamous criminal masterminds.
Another upcoming dramas attracting attention right now is actor Tom Hardy’s Taboo, which will air on BBC1 in the UK and FX in the US. A historical period drama, it follows an adventurer who returns to the UK from Africa to avenge the death of his father. Hardy created the idea with his father Chips Hardy and Steven Knight.
Knight, of course, has built up a loyal fanbase through his acclaimed gangster series Peaky Blinders. The new show, which focuses on the activities of the East India Company, will provide him with the same kind of complex political web that has made Peaky Blinders such an enjoyable romp.
Commenting on the show, he said that the East India Company will be depicted as a mix of “the CIA, NSA and the biggest, baddest multi-national corporation on Earth.”
Knight and Hardy Snr are credited as writers on the series – as is Emily Ballou, an Australian-American poet, novelist and screenwriter. Among Ballou’s high-profile TV credits are Channel 4’s Humans, ITV’s Scott & Bailey and The Slap from ABC in Australia.
Over the past couple of days, the Australian screen industry has gathered to announce the winners in the sixth Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) Awards. On the scripted TV front, recipients in a range of categories have included Rake, No Activity, The Beautiful Lie, Cleverman, Secret City, Down Under, Molly, Mary: The Making of a Princess, The Kettering Incident, Wentworth and Wolf Creek.
There’s a lot of great drama in that list but it’s interesting to note that the award for Best Screenplay in Television went to Sarah Scheller and Alison Bell for ABC’s Comedy Showroom – The Letdown. To win the award they had to beat competition from The Beautiful Lie, The Kettering Incident and Upper Middle Bogan.
The Letdown tells the story of a struggling new mum (played by Bell) and the mother’s group she thinks she doesn’t need. Originally shot as a one-off as part of the Comedy Showroom strand of pilots, the show’s strong performance means it is set to reappear next year as a full series. The Letdown is Bell’s first writing credit, although she is well established as an actress. Scheller also has a bit of an acting track record and was a writer on the comedy No Activity.
Good news for Marvel fans this week following the news that Netflix has ordered a second season of its series Luke Cage. This follows previous second-season orders for other Netflix/Marvel collaborations Daredevil and Jessica Jones.
Luke Cage was created for TV by Cheo Hodari Coker, who also leads a 12-strong writing room. A former music journalist with an intimate knowledge of the rap scene, Coker’s other TV credits include Southland, NCIS, Ray Donovan and Almost Human. He also wrote the screenplay for the 2009 biographical film Notorious.
With Luke Cage one of the few black male characters in the superhero comic book business, Coker’s track record has made him the perfect choice to bring Cage to life.
In a recent interview, he said: “The show is what I call ‘inclusively black.’ It’s an unadulterated hip-hop show. But it’s done in such a way that anyone from outside the culture – not just hip-hop culture, outside of geek culture – it can play against anything on television.” For more on Coker, click here.
C21’s Content London event last week included a wide array of top screenwriters in its line-up. One of the speakers was Tony Grisoni, whose numerous TV credits include acclaimed series Red Riding, The Unloved and Southcliffe.
During the event, Grisoni discussed a new drama he is working on with producer Andrea Calderwood. Called In the Wolf’s Mouth, it is set against the 1943 Allied liberation of Sicily, with UK broadcaster Channel 4 paying for script development. The story is based on a novel by Adam Foulds published a couple of years ago.
Although C4 is paying for script development, Grisoni and Calderwood were also at Series Mania in Paris this year pitching the project in the hope of attracting international coproduction partners.
Toby Jones turns spy in thriller The Secret Agent, adapted from Joseph Conrad’s novel by screenwriter Tony Marchant.
Is 2016 the year of the spy? From the continuing international popularity of German hit Deutschland 83, break-out US series Quantico and BBC series London Spy to Emmy nominations for John le Carré adaptation The Night Manager and Cold War thriller The Americans, there’s no shortage of covert operations on the small screen.
Fans of espionage thrillers can also look forward to Epix’s first original drama Berlin Station, CBS’s MacGyver and Fox reboot 24: Legacy all airing this autumn, as well as the return of long-running Showtime series Homeland; and, looking further ahead, forthcoming series SS-GB and The Same Sky, both due in early 2017 in the UK and Germany respectively.
“In some ways it’s a coincidence there have been quite a few spy stories this year but they are just manifestations of the bigger genre thriller,” says television writer Tony Marchant. “Toby Jones once said the great attraction of spy dramas is we all feel we’re being watched these days. That’s maybe why they’re so popular.
“They’re also about identity and concealing identities and we’re all pretty conscious of that because when we’re online, we can be different things. Maybe it’s in tune with some idea of the fluidity of identity these days, who knows!”
Another new entry to the genre is Marchant’s latest project, The Secret Agent, which is currently airing in the UK on BBC1.
Based on the Joseph Conrad book of the same name, the aforementioned Jones stars as Verloc, whose seedy Soho shop is a front for his role as an agent working for the Russian Embassy, spying on a group of London anarchists.
Under pressure to create a bomb outrage that the Russians hope will lead the British government to crack down on violent extremists, Verloc drags his unsuspecting family into a tragic terror plot.
It was executive producer Simon Heath who suggested Marchant adapt Conrad’s book, which by coincidence the writer had been reading only weeks earlier.
“You’re just struck by its prescience and the fact that it’s not just about geopolitical manipulations,” Marchant says of the 1907 text. “At the heart of it is a domestic tragedy, which in the end is probably the best reason for me doing it. You have to get past Conrad’s scorn, and the tone of the book is beset with irony, but the one person he does care about in the book is Winnie [Verloc’s wife, played in the series by This Is England’s Vicky McClure], so it was important to make her absolutely the bedrock of the piece. Although most people think it’s about Verloc, in the end, once you’ve seen all three episodes or read the book, you realise the person to whom the biggest tragedy befalls is Winnie.”
Marchant is no stranger to adaptations. His previous television credits include Great Expectations, Crime & Punishment and Canterbury Tales.
The Secret Agent was a trickier proposition, he reveals, as he faced multiple points of view, a non-chronological storyline and important events that are reported by Conrad’s characters but not seen first-hand by readers of the book.
“The general rule with adaptations is you try to find something that personally appeals, that chimes with your own preoccupations and obsessions,” Marchant explains. “That should be your first response or impulse with an adaptation, but with the others I’ve done, they have been more structurally straightforward. The difficulty with Great Expectations is the familiarity of it, Crime & Punishment was difficult but again not structurally, it’s more about [the character] Raskolnikov than anything. This was difficult because it was a modernist novel. But also it wasn’t just the structure that was tricky, it was the tone as well, which is quite scornful of most of the characters.”
Marchant initially developed the three-part series with producer World Productions’ Heath and Priscilla Parish, with an emphasis to build a plot that continually drove its characters forward through the story. This meant creating further scenes not mentioned by Conrad, such as the professor sitting on a bus with a bomb, leading to an encounter with Stephen Graham’s Inspector Heat.
“With adaptations, you have to love the book and you have to have a healthy disrespect for it at the same time,” admits Marchant, who has also written series including Garrow’s Law, Public Enemies and Leaving. “You have to tell yourself there’s something missing or that something doesn’t work. But if you do decide to embrace it as a thriller, you must make sure the characterisation and the complexity of the characterisation isn’t being compromised.
“You don’t make it a vacuous hell-for-leather thriller; you’ve got to make it full of tension and jeopardy and intrigue. The novel is called The Secret Agent so I think you’re entitled to a bit of licence in terms of the genre.”
On the Edinburgh set, which doubled for 1886 London, that licence extended to the actors, who were welcome to speak to Marchant about the script or individual lines they wanted to tweak or, in Jones’s case, omit altogether.
“That’s all fine,” the writer says. “If you’re working with really good actors, you have to respect the fact that if they’re playing it, they’ve got a great instinct for what’s right and what doesn’t convince. So I did plenty of tweaking as we were shooting it.”
Above all, it was important for Marchant and director Charles McDougall that the cast, which also includes Vicky McClure, gave completely naturalistic performances and “were not all bonnet and bodice or caught up in the fetish of period dramas.”
He continues: “If you take an adaptation like this, the great thing about this is it’s so contemporary so we’re doing it in a really modern way. That goes for the performances as well. In the end, Charles explicitly told the actors to be as natural and contemporary as you can be without it being anachronistic.”
Marchant’s writing career began in the theatre, which he credits with giving him a sense of his own voice – an influence becoming less common with the increasing scarcity of one-offs and three-parters and the popularity of genre series.
“It’s very hard for writers coming into television wherever they come from, to feel like their voice is being heard and they’re not being co-opted into writing some sort of genre show,” Marchant argues. “But I think you’ve got people like Jez Butterworth [Edge of Tomorrow] who went straight from theatre into film. Equally, you’ve got Nick Payne [The Sense of an Ending] and Mike Bartlett [Doctor Foster] who are now writing TV. That’s been quite a common trajectory for writers.
“It’s a paradox that you get bolder, bigger storytelling but that doesn’t mean the author’s voice is more clearly heard. In some ways, it can be done at the expense of authorship. If you think of TV in the past year and what’s the most authored thing you’ve seen, for me it’s Toby Jones in Marvellous [written by Peter Bowker]. That just seemed to be utterly unique, personal and authored – something that bigger dramas could never be.”
There are exceptions, however, and proof that writers can be heard, though they are found in the US – an industry Marchant adds is more advanced than British television.
“The momentum is really in big shows but if people are going to invest amounts of money into certain kinds of dramas, they want to take fewer risks and it’s more likely a show is going to be in a genre than be singular or perverse,” he says. “There are exceptions – something like Mr Robot is a great show but you’d have to say US TV has evolved a bit more in how to be big and authored. You’d say they’re in a slightly more advanced place than us.”
British novelist Patrick Gale is writing an original drama for BBC1. Produced by Endemol Shine-owned Kudos, Man in an Orange Shirt is a two-parter that will explore how a painting links two gay love stories told 60 years apart.
Commenting on the project, Gale said: “Man in an Orange Shirt is the most exciting screen project I’ve worked on to date: an original drama exploring strands of gay male experience since the 1940s. It has been such a privilege to be given such an open brief and then allowed to run with it.”
Gale says he doesn’t want to give too much away, “but after much experimenting, we’ve ended up with two hour-long films — one set in the 1940s and 50s and one set in the violently contrasted present; one depicting a love story made impossible by pressures from society, one a love story nearly derailed by the long-term fallout from the 1940s story.
“People who know my novels will be unsurprised to hear that the stories give equal focus to wives and mothers and are about tensions between family bonds, the need to be good and the urge to seize happiness. I hope they’ll appeal equally to straight and gay viewers, but also that they’ll leave either side feeling challenged about things they take for granted.”
Lucy Richer, BBC acting controller of drama commissioning and executive producer, added: “Patrick is an outstanding and bestselling novelist whose stories connect with readers worldwide. Distinctive, original voices are at the heart of BBC Drama and we are thrilled to be making his first original television drama for BBC1. Man in an Orange Shirt has all the hallmarks of a Patrick Gale novel: captivating stories with unforgettable characters who will strike a chord with us all.”
It isn’t uncommon for UK drama to include gay strands in stories. But a primarily gay-themed drama on mainstream British TV is still something of a novelty. The last high-profile example (2015) was Russell T Davies’ trilogy of dramas for Channel 4, entitled Cucumber, Tofu and Banana, each of which explored a different dimension of male gay culture in 21st century Britain.
Looking back over the last 25 years, the first landmark title in the LGBT canon was Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, a 1990 BBC series based on the novel by Jeanette Winterson – with Winterson adapting for TV.
Nine years later, Russell T Davies kicked the door down with his provocative debut series for Channel 4, Queer As Folk. Davies delivered another gay protagonist two years later in Bob & Rose, but it’s QAF that stands out as a landmark in the portrayal of contemporary gay Britain (or one subset of it).
While Davies is very much LGBT TV’s rock star, the last decade saw arrival of Sarah Waters on the scene, with adaptations of her lesbian protagonist novels Tipping the Velvet (2002), Fingersmith (2005) and The Night Watch (2011) – all for the BBC. If there’s a key difference, of course, it is that Davies has been writing original shows while Waters’ works were already acclaimed novels before being adapted for TV by Andrew Davies (Tipping the Velvet), Peter Ransley (Fingersmith) and Paula Milne (The Night Watch). Davies also does contemporary, while Waters favours historical.
In 2006 there was a BBC adaptation of Alan Hollinghurst’s acclaimed gay-themed 1980s novel The Line of Beauty (starring Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens). Again adapted by Andrew Davies, the show received mixed reviews. The Independent called it “intelligent properly grown-up drama” but The Guardian said it was a “creative flop” that “exposed how poorly the BBC serves gay viewers.”
On balance, it seems as though broadcasters pay slightly more attention to the lesbian experience than the male gay experience – at least in terms of TV dramas with LGBT protagonists.
In addition to the above-mentioned titles, for example, there has been Channel 4’s Sugar Rush, based on Julie Burchill’s novel of the same name. The story of a 15-year-old lesbian called Kim who moves from London to Brighton, Sugar Rush ran for 20 episodes in 2006 and was adapted for the screen by Katie Baxendale.
More recently, there has been Lip Service, about a group of lesbians living in Glasgow. There were two seasons from 2010-2012, created by Harriet Braun and produced (again) by Kudos for BBC3.
Other shows that fit within the broader LGBT theme include Vicious, the 14-episode sitcom starring Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi as a gay couple who have been together for 50 years. Backed once again by Kudos (and Brown Eyed Boy), this series (2013-2016) was unusual in that it aired on commercial network ITV, which shows that pulling power of McKellen in particular.
Vicious was created by Mark Ravenhill and Gary Janetti, though the latter wrote all of the episodes and specials. It is worth noting that Janetti is actually a US writer drafted in to give the comedy a bit of US sitcom pizzazz (he was executive producer on Will & Grace).
Every bit as ground-breaking as the new Patrick Gale drama is Boy Meets Girl, a BBC2 sitcom about the developing relationship between a 26-year-old man and a 40-year-old transgender woman (played by transgender actor Rebecca Root). Although there have been mixed reviews of the quality of the comedy (also true of ITV’s Vicious), there’s no question that Boy Meets Girl – which is currently in its second season – is an example of the BBC trying its hardest to do diversity properly.
The genesis of Boy Meets Girl was a Trans Camp event organised by All About Trans, the purpose of which was to explore media portrayal of the trans community. From this, the BBC ran a talent search called the Trans Comedy Award, which offered writers up to £5,000 for scripts with positive portrayals of transgender characters.
One of the winners was Elliott Kerrigan for Boy Meets Girl. The show was commissioned on the basis of a pilot and Kerrigan was paired with Simon Carlyle and Andrew Mettam to write a series. The Tiger Aspect Production was then renewed.
If there’s a difference between the US and UK approach to LGBT inclusiveness at present, it is that the US is further down the road in portraying LGBT characters and stories as a part of the day-to-day tapestry of life, as regular people who aren’t overly focused on the politics of their sexual orientation.
US organisation GLAAD, which monitors LGBT portrayal in US TV and film, makes this point neatly when it counsels producers against using characters that “are burdened with representing an entire community through the view of one person.”
It will be interesting to see how Gale manages to address this in the context of a mainstream channel audience with Man in an Orange Shirt.
Games of Thrones and The People vs OJ Simpson picked up a lot of Emmy nominations this week – but can they convert them into awards?
The 2016 Emmy Award nominees were announced this week. All told, nearly 50 scripted series (excluding comedies) picked up at least one nomination, although only a handful are likely to convert those nominations into awards when the winners are announced on September 16 at the Microsoft Theater in LA.
A few years ago, winning an Emmy would have been seen as a nice endorsement of a show but little more. These days, however, it has taken on added significance for a couple of reasons.
The first is that the quality of TV drama has risen so rapidly. Winning an Emmy now really is an impressive achievement, and in some categories is not really that different to winning an Oscar. The second is that it is increasingly difficult to gauge the success of a show purely on the basis of its ratings (in the case of SVoD shows, there are no ratings).
So racking up Emmys is a way of alerting the industry to the quality of a show, something that probably converts into business at Mipcom, the first major programming market to follow the Emmy ceremony.
So which shows caught the eye in this year’s nominations? Well, it’s no real surprise to see HBO’s Game of Thrones is out in front with 23 nominations. Such is the quality and ambition of the show that the only thing likely to stop it winning awards this year is that it secured a record-breaking 12 Emmys last year, from 24 nominations.
Awards judges, sometimes deliberately, sometimes subconsciously, have a tendency to steer away from previous winners to make sure that everyone gets a fair share of acclaim.
At this stage, the biggest threat to HBO’s hit series comes from the FX camp, with The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story securing 22 nominations and Fargo securing 18.
Netflix’s House of Cards secured 13 nominations but the biggest snub of the year went to the subscription VoD platform’s other flagship show Orange Is The New Black, with just one nomination.
The Night Manager was a huge hit on BBC1 in the UK but a modest performer on AMC in the US. However, the Emmys have rectified that situation slightly by granting the show 12 nominations.
After these shows, there is a huddle of titles securing multiple nominations, including Downton Abbey (10); All The Way and American Horror Story: Hotel (both eight); Better Call Saul and Roots (both seven); Mr Robot, Penny Dreadful and Sherlock: The Abominable Bride (all six); The Americans and Ray Donovan (both five); American Crime, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The Good Wife, Homeland, The Knick and The Man in the High Castle (all four); and Empire, Gotham, Luther, Masters of Sex, Narcos and Vikings (all three).
Of course, some categories are more prestigious than others. So it’s interesting to note that USA Network’s Mr Robot made its way on to both the Outstanding Drama series category and the Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series category (Sam Esmail).
The same is true for The Americans, which has been nominated for Emmys before but not usually in the most prestigious categories. Perhaps this is a sign that 2016 is the show’s year to come out on top. Worth noting also is that it is another FX series – evidence of a cable channel firing on all cylinders creatively.
The Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series category throws up another couple of interesting points. One is that it has included Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s UnREAL, which airs on Lifetime.
This is quite an achievement given that the show didn’t really feature anywhere else in the Emmys list. The other is that two of the nominations are for writers of shows that are ending: Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey and Robert and Michelle King’s The Good Wife. That might be enough to swing votes their way.
The Outstanding Limited Series category is a face-off between American Crime, Fargo, The Night Manager, The People vs OJ Simpson and Roots. Once again we can see a decent level of diversity here both in front of and behind the camera. American Crime’s inclusion is a welcome nod for an ABC series that has been welcomed by critics but not done too well in the ratings.
As is evident from the above listings, the only serious non-US competition for Emmys comes from the Brits. The Night Manager and Downton Abbey are the UK’s frontrunners to win Emmys, but there were also decent showings from Penny Dreadful, Luther and Sherlock: The Abominable Bride.
With War & Peace picking up a music nomination, the BBC secured a total of 22, which is more than most. It’s also worth noting that Showtime’s US adaptation of Shameless picked up two comedy nominations.
Looking more broadly at the scripted comedy categories, there were three top performers: HBO’s Veep with 17 noms, HBO’s Silicon Valley with 11 and Amazon’s Transparent with 10. Overall, the Emmys were pretty good for the major SVoD platforms, with established shows like House of Cards and Transparent the strongest performers.
Despite Man In The High Castle attracting four, it looks like Amazon came out just behind Netflix, which secured a smattering of nominations for its Marvel-based shows, Narcos, Bloodline and Sense8.
Cable channel AMC picked up a total of five nominations related to its Walking Dead universe and will take pleasure in the success of The Night Manager (which it aired) – but overall the network can expect a quiet year at the Emmys.
Other shows to score at least one flavour of Emmy nomination included 11.22.63, Bates Motel, Black Sails, Horace & Pete, Minority Report, Outlander and Vinyl.
The Oscars would do well to take note of the fact that the Lead Actor in a Limited Series category includes three black actors out of six, though on this occasion Idris Elba, Cuba Gooding Jr and the superb Courtney B Vance may find that Bryan Cranston’s impressive performance in HBO’s Lyndon B Johnson biopic All The Way proves hard for the Emmy judges to overlook. Black actress Kerry Washington also impressed in Confirmation and Viola Davis (How To Get Away With Murder) and Taraji P Henson (Empire) achieved nominations for Lead Actress in a Drama.
The international market for non-English language drama has taken off in the last couple of years. One of the key players in distributing such shows is France’s Federation Entertainment, which controls rights to an eclectic slate of titles from around the world including The Bureau (France), Hostages (Israel) and Bordertown (Finland).
Now it has acquired rights to a cybercrime drama from Belgian filmmaker John Engel.
Entitled Unit 42, the 10-part drama is currently in production at Engel’s Left Field Ventures and will air in its domestic market on public broadcaster RTBF. Federation will distribute in all markets except Benelux and France, which are handled by Ella Productions.
Unit 42 tells the story of a non-tech-savvy cop and a feisty young policewoman and IT expert who are forced to collaborate with one another. It is based on an original story by Annie Carels, who co-wrote the show alongside Julie Bertrand, Charlotte Joulia and Guy Goossens.
Belgian drama is yet to have the kind of impact enjoyed by Nordic, French, German, Spanish, Turkish or Israeli fare, but there are a few signs that it can hold its own internationally.
In 2014, for example, thriller series Salamander was picked up by a number of networks internationally as a completed show and a format. More recently, BBC4 in the UK acquired Cordon, in which a deadly virus results in the city of Antwerp being sealed off.
Another title to have attracted a lot of interest is Tim van Aelst’s comedy Safety First, which is distributed internationally by Red Arrow International.
And then there is Public Enemy, which won the Buyers’ Choice Award at MipTV’s first international drama competition earlier this year. All in all, then, it looks like Belgium is starting to make its mark on the international scripted scene.
Back on more familiar turf, Netflix has given a straight-to-series order for a reboot of 1960s sci-fi show Lost in Space. The 10-part series will be made by Legendary TV and is scheduled for 2018. It will be written by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, with Zack Estrin (Prison Break) as showrunner.
Cindy Holland, VP of original content at Netflix, said: “The original series so deftly captured both drama and comedy, and that made it very appealing to a broad audience. The current creative team’s reimagining of the series for Netflix is sure to appeal to fans who fondly remember the original and create a new generation of enthusiasts around the world.” The last attempt to bring the franchise back was a mediocre movie with Matt LeBlanc in 1998.
Netflix rival Amazon, meanwhile, has acquired the UK rights to Roadies, Cameron Crowe’s new drama series. The first two episodes will be available to Amazon Prime members from today. New episodes will then be made available every Monday, the day after they air on Showtime in the US.
Commenting on the show, which was acquired from Warner Bros International Television Distribution, Brad Beale, VP of worldwide television acquisition for Amazon, said: “Cameron Crowe and (executive producer) Winnie Holzman are both amazing storytellers and having both of their voices behind Roadies makes it one of the most anticipated series of the year. Joining shows like The Man in the High Castle, Transparent, Mr Robot and Preacher, we’re sure that Prime customers are going to love it.”
Maybe they will – although the early ratings figures from Showtime aren’t especially encouraging. With an opening episode audience of just 360,000, a 6.9 rating on IMDb and a lacklustre response from reviewers, Roadies is at risk of going the same way as Vinyl, HBO’s recent foray into the world of music.
At the other end of the dramatic spectrum, BBC1 in the UK has commissioned a disturbing three-part miniseries from indie producer Studio Lambert entitled Three Girls. The series is based on the true stories of victims of sexual abuse in Rochdale, near Manchester. It will look at the way girls were groomed, how they were ignored by the authorities responsible for protecting them, and how they eventually made themselves heard.
Commenting on the commission, Susan Hogg, head of drama at Studio Lambert, said: “This true story, researched over a number of years, will shine a light on the trauma of sexual grooming, providing knowledge and understanding for parents and children alike. We are so grateful for the generosity of the young women and their families in sharing their experiences.”
Three Girls is written by Nicole Taylor (The C Word) and directed by Philippa Lowthorpe (Call the Midwife, Jamaica Inn).
Taylor said: “Whatever I thought I knew about what had happened in Rochdale, I knew nothing until I met the girls and their families. Listening to them was the beginning of understanding – not just of the terrible suffering they experienced but of the courage it took to persist in telling authorities who didn’t want to know, and to participate in the court proceedings that brought justice.”
The award for most interesting rumour of the week goes to author Michael Dobbs, who has suggested there might be scope for a House of Cards spin-off if the acclaimed Netflix show ends after season five.
In an interview with the Daily Express, he responded to the question of a possible spin-off: “That is a very interesting question and one that we are putting our minds to actively because every show comes to a natural end. Look what they’ve done with Breaking Bad, look what they’ve done with 24 (which have both seen spin-offs). So is there life in the long term? Well, it’s a hell of a brand. It’s been going now for 30 years: it was a success as a book, it was a success as a BBC TV series, it is a huge success as a US series. There are plenty of people from other parts of the world who want to make their version of House of Cards. We’ll see what happens with those. It is a global brand, so the question arises: what do we do with a global brand?”
The big industry story of the week has been producer/distributor Lionsgate’s decision to acquire premium cable outfit Starz for US$4.4bn. The move brings together one of the US’s most prolific and admired production houses with the broadcaster that commissioned or coproduced shows like Power, Outlander, Black Sails, The White Queen and Ash vs Evil Dead.
Lionsgate CEO Jon Feltheimer and vice-chairman Michael Burns said: “This transaction unites two companies with strong brands, complementary assets and leading positions within our industry. We expect the acquisition to be highly accretive, generate significant synergies and create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. (Starz CEO) Chris Albrecht and his team have built a world-class platform and programming leader, and we’re proud to marshal our resources in a deal that accelerates our growth and diversification, generates exciting new strategic content opportunities and creates significant value for our shareholders.”
Albrecht added: “Jon, Michael and the rest of the Lionsgate team have built the first major new Hollywood studio in decades, and we’re thrilled to join with them in a transaction that multiplies the strengths of our respective businesses. Our similar entrepreneurial cultures and shared vision of the future will make this alliance an incredible fit that creates tremendous value for our shareholders, great content for our audiences and limitless opportunities for our newly-combined company.”
The dust is yet to settle on the deal, so it is not clear how the Lionsgate/Starz marriage will impact on commissioning strategy. In theory, Lionsgate could launch new TV shows on Starz, making it easier to set up deals that will allow it to retain international rights on shows. But it won’t want to do anything that adversely impacts on its relationship with other key channel operators.
Equally, Starz won’t want to become too reliant on Lionsgate for original content, though it may be able to air more of Lionsgate’s back catalogue once existing rights contracts run down.
The one immediate issue that will need to be resolved is Lionsgate’s involvement in Epix, a premium movie channel it owns with Viacom and MGM. Epix has been the pay TV home for Lionsgate’s movies since 2009 but there will now be an obvious temptation to switch its films to Starz. Nothing will happen straight away but it’s a consideration for the medium term.
The good news for talent in the film and TV chain is that the group plans to invest US$1.8bn annually in new content.
As Life on Mars creator Ashley Pharoah prepares to return to BBC1 with ‘eerie’ drama The Living and the Dead, he tells DQ about the six shows that have inspired his career in television.
Ashley Pharoah (pictured above alongside The Living and the Dead producer Eliza Mellor (left) and script editor Katie Kelly) broke into television on the back of British series including EastEnders, Casualty and Silent Witness. Other credits include Where the Heart Is, Bonekickers, Eternal Law and Wild At Heart, but it’s for time-travel series Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes that the writer is best known.
In Pharoah’s new BBC1 series The Living and the Dead, Nathan and Charlotte Appleby (played by Colin Morgan and Charlotte Spencer) inherit a farmhouse in 1894 Somerset. But their presence begins to unleash strange, unsettling and dangerous supernatural phenomena that will threaten their marriage.
Produced by Pharoah and Life on Mars co-creator Matthew Graham’s Monastic Productions and BBC Wales Drama, the six-part drama will be available as a boxset on BBC iPlayer as of tomorrow, ahead of its terrestrial launch on June 28. It will also air on BBC America.
Here, Pharoah tells DQ about the six television dramas that inspired him to become a writer and have shaped his own career.
The Roads to Freedom (BBC)
I watched The Roads to Freedom in 1976 when it was already a repeat (having originally aired in 1970). It was a BBC adaptation of John-Paul Sartre’s novels – there’s a pitch that wouldn’t get made these days! But since then it’s been buried – it’s not on DVD – but it has a huge fanbase online. I was 16 and living in a very dull village in North Somerset and suddenly I was watching this series set in Paris during the Second World War and the Occupation. There were beautiful Russian girls and characters stabbing themselves, and it was very exciting.
If you read the books, which I went on to do, the challenge of adapting them must have been massive. David Turner took on the task, and they had things like a character’s voice of consciousness recreated as a voiceover on the soundtrack, which I’d certainly never seen back then, and even now it would be a quite radical thing to do. Michael Bryant played the lead and it had a beautiful theme song sung by Georgia Brown. It was a very distinct TV drama that I’m not sure you’d get away with now. So, as a teenager, it made me think about TV drama for the first time. I always wanted to be a writer but it was the first inkling that I fancied doing something like that.
The Singing Detective
Every now and again I do talks or a bit of teaching to students, and someone always asks, ‘Is screenwriting real writing, or is the art really about the directing?’ I always tell them to read the scripts and then watch The Singing Detective (1986) by Dennis Potter, which is probably his masterpiece. I grew up in the Forest of Dean, in the South West, so you always pay more attention to pieces from where you’re from. I remember watching this and it blew me away.
On paper, the plot must appear quite dry. The main character, writer Philip E Marlow, has a chronic skin disease but refuses treatment so his mind starts throwing him into a trash Raymond Chandler novel called The Singing Detective. It was so beautifully written, deeply moving, sexy, funny and complex. I remember thinking at the time, ‘This is TV drama as art.’ It’s as good as any novel or movie. British writers like me who have come along since Potter owe him an enormous debt for making what we do seem part of the cultural conversation. He is, for me, the greatest TV dramatist and The Singing Detective is his greatest work.
A Very Peculiar Practice (BBC)
While I was a student at the National Film School, its name was changed to the National Film and Television School. All of us students were absolutely appalled because we wanted to make movies, while television was the spawn of Satan and none of us were remotely interested in it. Then, coming home, I vividly remember watching A Very Peculiar Practice – I didn’t really watch much television in those days. Written by Andrew Davies, it debuted in 1986 and centred on a modern campus where an idealistic young doctor played by Peter Davidson arrives at the university medical centre.
There are some things television does much better than film, one of which is locating a moment in culture. A Very Peculiar Practice was a forensic look at British society at that time but done with tremendous wit and humour. The dominant British television dramas have always been about social realism and this comes from that other tradition of high-concept and more surreal series, yet somehow this show seemed tremendously accurate. I like series that mix up tone and genre, and although A Very Peculiar Practice was quite a political piece about Thatcherism and the NHS, it was screamingly funny and surreal, which again was outside the main tradition of British television. It’s very funny and brilliantly written. Andrew Davies (War & Peace) is a great adapter, probably the best we’ve ever had, but I do miss his original work.
State of Play (BBC1)
One thing all these series have in common is a great writer at their heart – and, of my contemporaries, Paul Abbott is the standout. By the time his show State of Play came out in 2003, I was a professional television writer myself but I still watched it with my mouth open in awe and wonder because it’s so brilliantly written. It has a crop of British actors who all seemed to bubble up at the same time – John Simm, James McAvoy, Philip Glenister and Marc Warren.
Although it works brilliantly as a political thriller – it’s so intense and exciting – it’s a very precise evocation of the political and media class in London at the turn of the century, especially with David Morrissey’s performance as a New Labour MP losing his last vestiges of idealism. Like The Singing Detective, it was TV drama elevated to art and Paul Abbott, probably more than any other TV writer, made us all raise our game because he’s so brilliant and he can deliver in so many different genres. He’s incredibly, ferociously intelligent but also very accessible. If you’d told me when State of Play aired that I’d go on to make Life of Mars with John, I’d have been very happy. I also worked with Marc Warren on Hustle. They became part of my gang but that was the first time I’d seen that group of actors.
The Wire (HBO)
I came to The Wire (2002), written and created by David Simon, a bit late. I missed it when it first came out and then, annoyed by everyone telling me how wonderful it was, I started to dislike it despite having never seen a frame of it. I picked up the boxset and I remember watching the first couple of episodes and thinking, ‘It doesn’t really work.’ I couldn’t get it – and then a friend said I should turn on the subtitles, because the Baltimore accent is so impenetrable until you get used to the rhythms of the language. So I did that and suddenly, by episode four, I was completely hooked and I watched episode after episode.
What’s really interesting about The Wire is that it’s not perfect. There are episodes and entire seasons that aren’t as good as others, yet it didn’t seem to matter. It feels like a massive, sprawling novel, sometimes just by the sheer vivacity of the writing and the brilliant cast – who knew most of them were British? Although I’d never been to Baltimore, it reeked of authenticity, and there was something about the writing that had this simmering anger beneath it. It was never polemical, it was just there. The fact that the police were no better than the drug dealers, who were no better than the dock workers, made it a superb piece of work. It again raised the game of television drama all over the world.
What I admire about The Wire’s writing, especially, is that it was clearly not just a job. It’s not just a genre piece about cops. There’s complete passion and anger and detail in it. It’s screenwriting and television filmmaking aspiring to be as good as anything. That certainly wasn’t true when I started. Television was very much the poor man’s art form – lots of middle-class people would proudly tell you they didn’t have televisions, but that’s gone now. People now talk about television drama in a very different way and I think some of these series affected that.
Friday Night Lights (NBC)
I was thinking about the great American cable shows of our time – they nearly all have dark, complicated male protagonists like Tony Soprano, Don Draper and Nucky Thompson. Friday Night Lights’ story of a town’s obsession with its high-school football team has a marriage at its centre – the coach and his wife (played by Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton) – but what was really brave about the writing and the acting was that in that marriage, they didn’t go for any soap tropes. They don’t sleep around, they don’t murder anybody; they just try to love each other and look after their families and the students and football players they’re entrusted with.
There are no monsters in that show, they’re just decent people trying to live decent lives in Dillon, Texas. Although there is tragedy and disappointment for individual characters, there was a sense of love and community that is quite unusual in these cynical TV times we live in.
I love American cable television – shows like True Detective, with all its bleakness and darkness – but Friday Night Lights (2006) punched through. It’s so warm and intelligent, and I remember when I signed with my American agent at CAA, they said if I were an American writer, I’d write Friday Night Lights. I then went away and watched it and thought it was a huge compliment.
One of the differences between the US and the UK is we haven’t really got an equivalent to college football. You point a camera at those little towns in Texas and they look so cinematic but our equivalent would probably be a rugby team in the Rhonnda. I would love to translate the sense of community and the warmth of that show. It’s quite a hard thing to do but I’m sure someone will get it right. And it will be a monster.
There can’t be many countries in the world where the TV, theatre and literary/publishing sectors are as inextricably entwined as in the UK. Illustrating this point is new BBC1 comedy drama Love, Nina, which debuted last Friday at 21.30.
Based on a best-selling memoir by Nina Stibbe, the five-part miniseries has been adapted for the screen by Highbury-based author Nick Hornby (Fever Pitch, About a Boy).
It tells the story of a young live-in nanny (Nina) who moves to North London in the 1980s to work for a literary editor with two young boys, the mother of whom is played by Hampstead resident Helena Bonham Carter. In the book, the young Nina (Faye Marsay) is exposed to literary heavyweights like Jonathan Miller, Michael Frayn and Alan Bennett – all of whom live in the vicinity or pay the house a visit.
Explaining how the project came about, Hornby said: “Nina Stibbe and I share an editor, Mary, and she sent me a proof copy of the book. I’m bound to think this, but she has good taste, so when she said it was brilliant I took a look and couldn’t quite believe how good it was.
“The first thing that attracted me was that it was funny, and there are so few books that are properly funny from beginning to end. That was the first thing I wanted to dig into, but it’s about a charming and an eccentric world as well. They’re very real people and it’s a situation you don’t come across every day.”
In terms of the writing process, Hornby added: “Nina didn’t read the scripts until I had completed the whole set. We weren’t really in touch during the writing process, although sometimes I would ask her something and she would provide the answer – factual stuff. She was a dream and she trusted us to get on with it.”
As for the challenges, he said: “I didn’t feel that there were any challenges, just opportunities. Nina glosses over comic material quickly because she is writing letters to her sister and she talks about incidents in two or three lines. Of course, you’ve got to open it out, but the characters are in there and the situations are there. Nina’s letters quite often included snatches of dialogue so it was my privilege and pleasure to be able to get to run those on. What SJ (Clarkson, the director) has done with it is incredible. It looks like a quirky indie movie. It’s visually very rich and it certainly doesn’t look like a sitcom. I can’t recall anything quite like it.”
It’s early days, but the response to the show seems mixed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Guardian – which is as North London as the subject matter, Hornby and Bonham-Carter – was positive: “The most important thing is that Hornby and director SJ Clarkson have captured the spirit and hilariousness of the book. It’s a joy.”
Less positive are the audience figures, which came in at around 2.6 million (compared with the four million or so that usually view BBC1 at around this time). This could be explained by the fact that the show was up against ITV’s The Secret, starring James Nesbitt. But Love, Nina also has a pretty lacklustre IMDb rating of 6.9, which suggests that those who did tune in were not that enthusiastic.
As an Arsenal fan, and someone who holidayed in Hackney during the 1970s, I have a residual affection for Hornby. But my suspicion is that the preoccupations of the North London elite are not really right for BBC1’s audience – even when viewed through the lens of a young woman newly arrived from Leicester.
Better in ratings terms was BBC1’s Capital, which looked at contemporary South London and the issues that have arisen from rising house prices. Although this show also scored pretty poorly on IMDb, its subject matter resonated sufficiently with the wider audience to achieve an audience in the 4.5-5 million range. Love, Nina would probably have been better suited to BBC4, where we would have delighted in its eccentricity rather than scrutinised its audience.
Also in the news this week is Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, an eight-part series for BBC America that will be distributed internationally by IMG. This show, which will debut in the autumn, is based on the books by the late Douglas Adams, author of the iconic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series.
It follows the bizarre adventures of eccentric detective Dirk Gently and his assistant Todd. Interestingly, Dirk Gently was previously adapted by BBC4 in the UK in 2010 – with Howard Overman (Misfits) as the writer and Stephen Mangan heading the cast. However, it was not renewed.
The new version is being written by Max Landis, a 31-year-old LA native whose credits include Chronicle, Victor Frankenstein and American Ultra. So we can expect a very different variation on Adams’s unique humour.
Meanwhile, there was a major surprise this week with the news that Europe-based showrunner Frank Spotnitz has stepped back slightly from Amazon’s alternative-history drama The Man in the High Castle. The show is currently in production on season two after completing a successful run on the platform late last year.
Spotnitz has not said much on the subject but Amazon released this statement: “Given the ambition and scope of the series, the decision has been made to locate all creative efforts on The Man in the High Castle to the west coast; Frank Spotnitz will remain as an executive producer and step back from showrunner. His responsibilities will be managed by our deep and talented bench of producers. We are enormously grateful to him for bringing our customers on one of the most watched original shows on Amazon Video and we are excited about the team’s vision for season two.”
Spotnitz has been in heavy demand as a writer recently and is currently working on the Renaissance-set Medici: Masters of Florence. Starring Dustin Hoffman as Giovanni de Medici, this eight-episode series is being sold internationally by Wild Bunch TV and featured prominently at the recent MipTV market in Cannes.
Acclaimed author and screenwriter Anthony Horowitz tells Michael Pickard British drama should be more ambitious as he discusses his television career and his forthcoming BBC series New Blood.
Anthony Horowitz (pictured above) is a busy man. Not only does the author and screenwriter have a new BBC drama on the horizon, he’s also deep in development on the US version of his 2009 miniseries Collision.
But when DQ tracks him down at his London office, he’s in the middle of a sword fight. Despite his TV commitments, he’s also resurrecting Alex Rider, the hero of some of his young-adult spy novels (and 2006 film Stormbreaker), whose fate will be decided by the aforementioned battle.
It’s a suitably demanding schedule for a man who admits he has two distinct careers – on page and on screen. “Now I’m waiting for some of those books to come onto television,” he muses. “Maybe one of the Sherlocks or Alex Rider, or my latest book Magpie Murders. There are discussions happening – watch this space. But for me at the moment it’s two quite separate worlds.”
On television, Horowitz is arguably best known for Foyle’s War, the crime drama set during the Second World War that ran for 15 years on UK commercial broadcaster ITV. Now, more than a year after that series’ last episode aired, he’s preparing to return with a new seven-part drama for BBC1.
New Blood aims to show a new side of London through the eyes of two outsiders – Stefan (Mark Strepan) and Rash (Ben Tavassoli), a pair of junior investigators who are brought together by two seemingly unrelated cases and come up against corporations, governments and a new breed of criminals who hide behind legitimate facades and a wall of lawyers. Produced by Eleventh Hour Films and directed by Anthony Philipson, it is distributed by BBC Worldwide.
“I’d spent 13 years writing 28 two-hour episodes of Foyle’s War,” Horowitz says. “I loved it from start to finish but I sort of felt like I’d run out of stories. I had nothing more to do and it was time to move on anyway. I wanted to leave the war behind me and move into a slightly more heightened world, certainly a more modern world. I wanted to write about 21st century London and I was also interested to see whether I could actually take crime drama and move it forward and push the envelope. So I came up with the idea of New Blood.
“I can certainly say there’s nothing on British television like it. I’ve seen several episodes and the energy, the speed, the editing, the music, the lighting, and particularly the way it presents London, is very modern and exciting to see on the screen. And having two stars in their 20s makes a huge difference. I can’t think of another show on mainstream television that has two unknown actors in their mid-20s. It’s a massive gamble on the part of the BBC to allow us to do that.”
Horowitz admits it was a “wrench” to leave Foyle’s War, which aired for the last time in January 2015. “I loved working with the characters and the whole world I created was very rich,” he says. “But if you’re going to be a writer like me – with television and books and everything else – you’ve got to keep moving forward. You can’t keep doing the same thing.
“Foyle’s War had got to 1947 and there was plenty more to do with the characters, but what I loved about that show was the number of stories that could be told about the war and the pre-war years. After doing six episodes set during the Cold War, I’d explored the territory enough and it was time to make a change.”
Already an established novelist, Horowitz got his TV break in 1985 when he joined the writing staff of ITV drama Robin of Sherwood, which starred Michael Praed and later Jason Connery as incarnations of the infamous outlaw. A shortage of scripts meant the series needed a new writer and Horowitz, just 30 at the time, was given the opportunity to suggest a storyline.
“The producer, Paul Knight, took a huge punt on giving me the job. I had no experience at all,” he recalls. “So I went from nothing to writing for the top show in one step – it was a fantastic start. I knew nothing about television really. I remember walking onto the set for my first episode and I couldn’t believe they’d found the exact building I’d described in my script – a ruined church in the middle of a field. Of course, it was only when I walked up and tapped it that I realised the whole thing was made out of fibreglass. That’s how little I knew.”
Besides Robin of Sherwood and Foyle’s War, Horowitz’s small-screen credits include Poirot, Murder in Mind and Injustice. And then there’s Midsomer Murders.
“If I’ve given two words to the English language, it’s Midsomer Murders,” says the writer, who penned the first ever episode of the long-running crime drama, which debuted on ITV in March 1997. “It was called Barnaby (after the lead detective) when it landed on my desk.”
After his Robin of Sherwood experience, Horowitz was invited by then-Carnival Films producer Brian Eastman to write episodes of Poirot, introducing him to murder mysteries for the first time. He was then hired alongside director Jeremy Silberton to create Midsomer, which is based on Caroline Graham’s Chief Inspector Barnaby novels.
But after writing a handful of episodes over the first three seasons, Horowitz wanted to create a new spin on the traditional whodunnit formula – and Foyle’s War was the result.
“I love the mechanics of a murder mystery,” he says. “I love plotting, I love the structure of a show. I spend longer plotting and working out a show than I do writing it. Getting it to work, getting all the characters in the right place, getting the red herrings, the clues, the action – that was the fun of it. But with Foyle, the aim was to do more. What fascinated me about the world of Foyle were the true stories we were telling about the war – that extraordinary period from 1940 to 1947 when so much happened in this country.
“In a way, while the murders were carefully constructed and satisfying, they were almost an excuse to write what I really wanted to write about, which was the war.”
But of all the shows Horowitz has created or worked on, one stands out as the most challenging. Crime Traveller, which ran for one eight-episode season on BBC1 in 1997, saw policeman Michael French and science officer Chloë Annett team up to solve crimes using a time machine built by her late father.
“Crime Traveller was a show that fell between the stools of two directors at the BBC,” Horowitz recalls. “There was a hiatus after one left and another arrived and we fell into that abyss. It was a show that would have gone from strength to strength if I’d been able to develop it.
“It was the most difficult series I ever had to write, with all those time paradoxes – the knots I had to untangle were always incredibly complicated. It had a lot of promise and I often think it would be great if it came back, but there’s no chance of that.”
As a writer, Horowitz believes his job is done the day he hands over the finished script. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t interested in the ensuing production, only that he isn’t one to interfere with the director’s vision.
“It’s not my place to give a director notes, ever,” he says. “My notes are my scripts; they have character notes, they have a few key notes about what’s important, but I never tell a director what to do. But I’m not laid back either. It’s important to get everything right and I watch the rushes from New Blood every day and have occasionally picked up the phone when something’s bothered me.
“Trying to keep control of a programme is counter-productive and unhelpful. I have to trust both my talent and the directors to get it right. Of course, it helps being married to the producer (his wife is Jill Green, who runs Eleventh Hour Films and is also the executive producer on the show).”
With New Blood being lined up for its BBC1 debut, Horowitz’s attention has returned to the US adaptation of Collision. Airing over five consecutive nights on ITV in 2009, the original miniseries told the story of a group of strangers whose lives are changed forever following a major car crash.
Eleventh Hour Films is developing the US version for NBC alongside TriStar Television and Carol Mendelsohn Productions.
“Collision was seen by Quinn Taylor (now the executive VP of movies, miniseries and international coproductions for NBC Entertainment) and since he first saw it, he has wanted to do it,” Horowitz says. “I’ve been meeting with him off and on for years championing it and now we’ve managed to get it together.”
The US adaptation expands the series to 10 episodes, while the action moves from Suffolk to Seattle. Horowitz has written the first script as well as outlining episode two and completing character arcs for the entire season.
“The idea of the series remains the same. It’s about fate, how every car journey is a story in itself and how we never know how that story is going to work out,” he explains. “Moving it to America has been quite an inspiring piece of work. It’s something I’ve enjoyed doing. In the world of television now, we’re so steeped in American series that actually taking the steps to go from British to American television is not quite such a major undertaking as it used to be. It is less difficult than it might have been 20 years ago.”
Having worked in the business for 30 years, Horowitz is well placed to judge the current state of television – an industry he says has never been better or more exciting.
“I’ve always enjoyed working in television, it’s a wonderful medium to be in and the people I work with are so lovely. And compared with writing novels, it’s so much more collaborative. The one great thing about this moment is there’s a real excitement and buzz about television, which of course is largely inherited from cinema.
“Cinema has become tired, empty and predictable and I go to the cinema these days almost with a heavy heart. Whereas you now look forward to getting a new box set – something from Vince Gilligan (Better Call Saul) or starring Sarah Lancashire (Happy Valley) – with the excitement that you once looked forward to watching films.”
However, Horowitz is less confident about the state of the UK industry compared with the business stateside. “We have to be more ambitious in Britain,” he says bluntly. “The real problem is the biggest shows in America are beyond us at the moment. Anything from Breaking Bad to The Walking Dead, even The Good Wife – the six-parters we do here and the occasional 10-parter cannot compete in terms of scale, scope and ambition.
“It would be nice if this country could produce that sort of drama. If you add to that the way Netflix, Amazon and other companies are moving in on television, the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 begin to look old-fashioned. I’m not saying we’re not doing great drama over here, we’re doing fantastic drama at the moment. I’m absolutely immersed in Happy Valley; War & Peace was wonderfully written and directed. There are some fantastic pieces of television being made. It’s only in terms of quantity, scope, size and ambition that to do a 10-parter like Collision, I’m almost sorry I have to go to America.”
With New Blood, Horowitz hopes to have crafted his latest television hit. But does he think there’s enough new blood getting the same opportunity he once did to get into the industry?
“There are young people coming through and television is open to new talent. It would be a disaster if it wasn’t,” he says. “We do need new young writers and one wonders where the schooling is for young writers to come through, but they will. I was influenced by Utopia, which is what I would call a young production in terms of casting and its feel. So there is new blood coming through.”
In September 2014, Fox in the US introduced a new scripted series set against the backdrop of DC Comics’ Batman mythology. Gotham takes the death of Bruce Wayne (aka Batman)’s parents as its starting point and effectively positions the show as a Batman prequel, with detective James Gordon (later Commissioner Gordon) as its central character and introducing Bruce/Batman as a teenage boy (looked after by a youthful version of manservant Alfred).
The show had a strong start, with the very first episode generating 8.21 million viewers at launch, rising to 14.15 million once the time-shifted audience was factored in. Season one stayed solid until around episode 18, whereupon the live audience dropped to around the 4.5 million mark. This might have been low enough to justify cancellation, but with time-shifted viewing taking the show up to around 7-7.5 million, Fox decided there was enough in the show to give it a second run.
The second season started in September 2015 and drew roughly the same numbers as the end of the first. There has been some further slippage, but the show has settled into a relatively stable pattern. After 14 episodes of a 22-episode run, it is attracting a loyal audience of 4-4.5 million (6.5-7 million after adding in time-shifted viewing).
At this point, Fox has decided to greenlight a third season of the show. Commenting on the decision, Fox Entertainment president David Madden said: “It takes a very special team to tell the tales of Gotham. For the past two seasons, Bruno Heller, Danny Cannon and John Stephens (the chief creatives) have masterfully honoured the mythology of Gotham and brought it to life with depth, emotion and memorable high drama.”
The headline ratings don’t especially justify Fox’s confidence in the show. Airing on Monday nights at 20.00, it is outgunned by The Voice, The Bachelor and Supergirl. However, it does perform strongly among men aged 18 to 49. And it has sold pretty well internationally, with clients including Channel 5 UK, CTV Canada, TVNZ New Zealand and TF1 France (though this is of more significance to Warner Bros, owner of DC Comics, which distributes the show).
Possibly, Fox is hoping that young Bruce’s gradual transformation into the formidable Batman will energise future seasons. Or maybe it is hoping all the current background Batman noise provided by the forthcoming Batman vs Superman movie will help boost Gotham’s performance. Either way, Fox is clearly still committed to the show for the foreseeable future.
An easier call in terms of renewal is AMC’s Better Call Saul, which has just been greenlit for a third season. The Breaking Bad prequel is currently five episodes into its 10-part second season and averaging 2.2 million (same-day ratings). That’s a solid performance for AMC, supported by the fact it is also getting good reviews from critics and audiences. The current IMDb rating of 8.8 puts it at the upper end of new drama.
An enthusiastic AMC president Charlie Collier said: “What (the team) has accomplished with Better Call Saul is truly rare and remarkable. They have taken one of the most iconic, immersive and fan-obsessive (in the best possible way) shows in television history and created a prequel that stands on its own. Watching Jimmy McGill’s thoughtful, melodic and morally flexible transformation into Saul Goodman is entertaining and delighting millions of fans, whether their starting point was Breaking Bad or not. This series has its own feel, pace and sensibility and we can’t wait to see what this incredibly talented group comes up with in season three.”
In another of the week’s standout stories, Italian crime drama Gomorrah has been picked up by AMC’s sister channel SundanceTV for broadcast in the US. Sundance previously acquired the German drama Deutschland 83 – making it a pioneer in bringing foreign-language drama to the US.
The first season of Gomorrah was a surprise hit around the world and the second is due to be launched at MipTV by German distributor Beta Film. Commenting on the pickup, Joel Stillerman, president of original programming and development for AMC and SundanceTV, said his channel “prides itself on presenting distinctive stories from unique points of view, and Gomorrah’s gritty exploration of the Comorra mob families in Naples is no exception.” Other channels to pick up Gomorrah include Sky Germany, HBO Nordic and HBO Latin America.
Last week, much of this column was dedicated to the excellent performance of the BBC’s 2016 drama output. Since then, Happy Valley season two has come to a conclusion with super-strong ratings of 7.5 million (a figure that will rise once time-shifted viewing has been factored in).
On the whole, season two was very good, though not quite as explosive or gripping as season one. The key story arc, which centres on Catherine Cawood, Tommy Lee Royce and Ryan Cawood, seemed to be put on hold for another day, while the resolution of the main criminal case (involving the murders of four women) was relatively understated. There was also a sense that some strands didn’t fully develop (Ann Gallagher’s alcoholism and the trafficking of Eastern European women by a gang, involving another murder).
Nevertheless, Happy Valley is still superior to most things on TV and the audience is now clamouring for a third season. Writer Sally Wainwright has said she would like to pen a third instalment, though didn’t put a timeframe on it.
Elsewhere, Turkish drama continues to be in strong demand around the world. This week Eccho Rights picked up the Aka Film drama Black Heart (Oyunbozan) for global distribution. The series, which will debut in Turkey at the start of April on Show TV, tells the story of a brother seeking justice for the murder of his journalist sister who exposed a powerful media tycoon as a gangster. To get his revenge, the brother enlists an orphaned girl who needs his help in order to save her dying sister.
Amid all the controversy about the future of the BBC’s licence fee, it’s interesting to note that the UK public broadcaster’s flagship channel BBC1 has had a storming start to the year in terms of its scripted content. Whether it’s crime, espionage, period or soaps, it’s been delivering on every front.
Go back to the very start of January, for example, and BBC1 achieved an audience in excess of 11 million for its much-publicised Sherlock special. This was ably supported by the launch of War & Peace, which debuted to 8.4 million.
War & Peace continued to perform well throughout January and was joined by schedule stalwarts such as Death in Paradise, EastEnders and Silent Witness – all of which racked up audiences in excess of eight million. The latter show topped the ratings in the second week of January with 8.72 million – impressive when you consider it has been running since 1996.
In the week commencing January 11, BBC1 turned the screw on its rivals further still by launching the latest season of Call the Midwife, which immediately went to the top of the charts with 9.88 million.
Supporting it with eight million-plus viewers were Silent Witness, Death in Paradise and EastEnders, with the complex period drama War & Peace holding up well at 6.6 million. Not quite as strong, but still respectable, was the third season of crime series Shetland, which debuted with more than six million.
Late January and early February offered more of the same, but then the week commencing February 8 saw the return of Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley to a massive 8.63 million viewers. Only Call the Midwife scored higher, bringing in 9.6 million.
For the week commencing February 15, BBC1 upped its game again, with the launch of The Night Manager on Sunday evening. While it wasn’t able to outscore the much-loved midwives, it did debut with 8.25 million, neck and neck with episode two of Happy Valley. This meant the channel’s top five broadcasts were all dramas attracting in excess of 7.5 million viewers (with Shetland still bobbing along nicely at around six million).
The following week, all of the above were rock solid – with The Night Manager actually posting a slight increase to 8.42 million. That in itself is a very impressive achievement, because most dramas shed a million or so after their first episode. By this token, Happy Valley also deserves some credit for managing to keep its second and third episodes well above the eight million mark.
All of the above figures are BARB seven-day data. So we’ve now moved into territory where the latest figures have not yet been released. Instead, we need to look at BARB overnights (which are subject to change once time-shifted viewing is included).
With this proviso, The Night Manager continues to perform strongly. On Sunday, March 6, for example, it faced tough competition from the launch of Julian Fellowes’ new project on ITV, Doctor Thorne, but won convincingly. Around 6.2 million tuned into The Night Manager (overnight score) while 3.8 million opted for Fellowes’ Anthony Trollope adaptation.
ITV is BBC1’s main commercial rival. So how has it been doing across the same period? On the whole, the picture isn’t quite as healthy.
Coming into the new year, its ratings were led by its soaps, Coronation Street and Emmerdale, with audiences in the 5.5-7 million range. Behind this came crime dramas Endeavour, Vera and Midsomer Murders which, with audiences of around 5-5.5 million, lag behind Silent Witness.
It’s likely to be a similar story for the next few weeks, with Happy Valley’s final episode coming up and The Night Manager still good for a few more episodes. It will be interesting to see if BBC1 can sustain its performance through the spring and summer.
In the US, meanwhile, CBS CEO Les Moonves used the Deutsche Bank 2016 Media, Internet and Telecom Conference in Florida to say: “We have five new shows on this year. I believe all five will be renewed, and we own four of them.”
This comment has been interpreted to refer to Supergirl, Limitless, Code Black, Life in Pieces and Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders. However, there is some uncertainty because CBS also has a TV reboot of Rush Hour coming up. So either Moonves overlooked that show, or it’s already being lined up for the chop – which seems a bit harsh ahead of its actual launch.
In terms of the other five, Supergirl and Limitless were widely expected to get picked up again, as was sitcom Life in Pieces.
Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders doesn’t debut until March 16 but, as a spin-off of the popular Criminal Minds franchise, it stands a decent chance of doing well. The show that has, perhaps, dodged a bullet is medical drama Code Black.
With its 18-episode first season now complete, Code Black attracted an average audience of 7.1 million. This isn’t terrible but it is undermined by the fact that the show’s appeal to 18- to 49-year-olds is at the lower end of the CBS spectrum.
The fact it has survived is probably explained by CBS’s need for some classic procedural-style dramas to sit alongside hit series NCIS. If CBS can manage to make Code Black a hit then it will also have a useful asset for its international sales catalogue. The show has already been picked up in the UK by UKTV.
Still in the US, public broadcaster PBS has just given the greenlight to a second season of Mercy Street, its first original drama in more than a decade. A medical series set during the US Civil War, Mercy Street’s first season was executive produced by Ridley Scott, David W Zucker, Lisa Q Wolfinger and David Zabel.
The show debuted with an impressive 5.7 million viewers and its six-episode run was streamed two million times. It trended strongly on Twitter on numerous occasions and its website – filled with factual supporting material – has had more than 600,000 unique visitors since its launch.
“We are thrilled with the overwhelmingly positive response to Mercy Street and the return of high-quality American drama on PBS stations,” said Beth Hoppe, chief programming officer and general manager of general audience programming at PBS. “We’re looking forward to a second season offering more fascinating stories inspired by historical events. The effort from everyone involved, including producers, directors, historical consultants, actors and PBS stations, resulted in an extraordinary series.”
Mercy Street’s first season took place in the spring of 1862 in Alexandria, Virginia, a border town between north and south and the longest-occupied Confederate city of the war. Ruled under martial law, Alexandria was the central melting pot of the region, filled with civilians, female volunteers, doctors, wounded soldiers from both sides, free black people, enslaved and contraband (escaped slaves living behind Union lines) African Americans, prostitutes, speculators and spies.
The show follows the lives of these characters, who collide at Mansion House, the Green family’s luxury hotel, which has been taken over and transformed into a Union Army hospital. Season two picks up directly from the events at the end of the first run’s finale.
Drawing comparisons to James Bond, The Night Manager features a star-studded cast embarking on a globetrotting journey through the world of international espionage. DQ checks in with the BBC’s hottest new show.
Hugh Laurie, Tom Hiddleston, Olivia Colman, Tom Hollander, Elizabeth Debicki. As casting goes, this line-up could be very close to a broadcaster’s dream team. Add in award-winning director Susanne Bier and a story based on a novel by celebrated spy novelist John le Carré and The Night Manager appears to have all the ingredients for a mega hit series. Just add viewers.
The miniseries, which debuted on BBC1 in the UK on Sunday and lands on US cable channel AMC on April 19, marks the first television adaptation of a le Carré novel in more than 20 years in a story that brings together love, loss and revenge in a complex tale of modern criminality.
The show centres on former British soldier Jonathan Pine (Hiddleston), a hotel night manager who is recruited by government agent Angela Burr (Colman) to infiltrate the inner circle of ruthless arms dealer Richard Roper (Laurie). To get to the heart of Roper’s empire, Pine must allay the suspicions of his chief of staff Major Corkoran (Hollander) and resist the allure of his beautiful girlfriend Jed (Debicki).
Le Carré himself describes the adaptation of The Night Manager as “one of the unexpected miracles of my writing life: a novel I had written more than 20 years ago, buried deep in the archive of a major movie company that had bought the rights but never got around to making the movie, suddenly spirited back to life and retold for our times. And how!”
The adaptation, penned by David Farr and produced by The Ink Factory, isn’t an entirely faithful retelling of the 20-year-old story, however. In particular, the “chief British spook” had originally been a man named Burr but became pregnant Ms Burr – as portrayed by Colman.
Then there was the location. Much of the novel takes place aboard Roper’s yacht but – recognising the high cost and claustrophobic nature of such a small setting – the TV version was transplanted to what the author describes as a “palatial Gatsby-style villa” found on the Spanish island of Majorca.
The backdrop to Roper’s arms dealing was also shifted, from the war on drugs in Central America to the Middle East and pro-democracy Arab Spring.
“I never wanted the film of the book,” le Carré admits. “Actually I never do. I wanted the film of the film. And we all did. All I asked was that the central interplay between our protagonists remain intact, and the narrative arc of the original story – never mind where it’s set – be broadly the narrative arc of the novel, exploring the same human tensions and appetites, and resolving the dramatic conflict in the same broad terms.”
The author also praises the central performances and, in fact, the entire production of The Night Manager, going as far as to compare it to “those glory days in the 1970s when I was watching the BBC’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy being magicked to life by Alec Guinness and the inspired cast that surrounded him.”
Hiddleston, best known for roles in big-screen blockbusters Thor and the Avengers series, admits he was hooked by the script from the first episode and quickly sought out the novel.
“The character appealed to me because I knew, as an actor, I was going to have to operate at the highest level of my intellectual and physical ability because he is a field agent, but also has to be smart enough to go undercover,” he explains, comparing Pine to a certain James Bond. “I found his nobility, courage and morality very appealing – he is actually a very moral character and is filled with le Carré’s own moral authority about the world. There is a certain line that you can feel underneath all of le Carré’s work which is a very robust moral foundation: a belief in right and wrong; in decency and its opposite.”
In contrast to Hiddleston’s recent discovery of le Carré’s story, House star Laurie says he fell in love with the book when he read it in 1993 and admits he once tried to option the rights himself.
“I tried to get the rights before I’d finished the third chapter,” he reveals. “I was unsuccessful, of course – the great Sydney Pollack had jumped on it and wouldn’t let go – but the character of Pine – and yes, back in 1993 I impudently imagined myself playing Pine – is a fascinating one: the errant knight roaming the landscape, looking for a cause, a flag to fight for. Better still, to die for. I thought it was such a beautiful story.”
Now presented with the chance to appear in the series, Laurie says he was happy to take any job on the shoot. “I can’t claim any credit for getting the thing off the ground,” he adds, “I just told the producers that I would be happy to take any job on the production, as actor, caterer, anything I could do to make it go – I just wanted to be involved with it.”
From the start, Pine is painted out as the hero, stepping out of his comfort zone in a bid to snare the bad guy. But it doesn’t take long for viewers to question whether he will become the very thing he set out to destroy. In contrast, Laurie’s Roper appears to travel in the opposite direction.
“Pine’s original goal is to bring down this monster, but at the same time resist the monster’s charm,” Laurie explains. “There are moments when Pine teeters on the brink of the dark side, when you wonder which way he will go. At the same time you might wonder whether Roper is teetering too – that somewhere inside himself he wants to be caught, to be betrayed. The audience has to judge for themselves where Pine and Roper come close to crossing the line in opposite directions – where Roper might plunge the dagger into his own chest and where Pine might become the very thing he set out to destroy.
“It’s an absolutely fascinating exploration, and I think this about so much of le Carré’s writing. Some describe him as a spy writer, but his stories so far transcend the notion of genre; he uses the world of the spy and the intelligence business to examine some profound questions. My God, I hope we can do it justice.”
Broadchuch star Colman – who is reunited on-screen with her Rev co-star Hollander – had just found out she was pregnant when she met director Bier, meaning her character not only changed gender during the adaptation process but also incorporated an additional element to her character. She describes Burr as a “zebra among the lions,” a woman in the male-dominated world of espionage who strives to do what she thinks is right.
“Burr knows that Roper is an arms dealer of the filthiest kind and that he’s making a fortune out of people’s death, misery and poverty,” Colman explains. “She is determined to take this monster down so she sets out to seduce Pine, knowing with his level of charm, sophistication and intelligence that he’d be able to infiltrate Roper’s inner circle and gain his trust to bring him down from within.”
Helming the six-hour miniseries is Oscar winner Bier, who triumphed at the 2011 Academy Awards with foreign-language film In a Better World (Hævnen).
Both Hiddleston and Laurie reserve praise for the Danish director, who is described by Hiddleston as a “crusader for the truth.” Laurie adds: “She is The Night Manager. Her vision, her taste, her approach has defined every part of what we are doing, and it’s been an absolute thrill to be a part of.”
A self-confessed le Carré fan, Bier says she jumped at the chance to join the “irresistible” project. “The drama series explores a world where the line between good and evil is completely black and white, yet we are drawn into the blackness,” she explains. “Audiences will be eerily attracted to the evil and I think that’s sort of what drew me to it. You’re never completely sure if Pine is on the right side.”
The biggest challenge, she recalls, was translating the complexity of le Carré’s novel to maintain the thrilling elements, as well as making the 20-year-old story more contemporary – hence the change of setting from South America to the Middle East.
But like many big-screen talents moving to television, Bier adds that she was also drawn to the challenge of telling a hugely complex story over six hours – three times the average movie running time.
“Like a number of other feature directors, I’ve come to realise that there’s great writing in television right now and something incredibly challenging in dealing with a longer chunk of storytelling,” the director says of her move to the small screen.
“I don’t think you could fit this into a two-hour slot because it’s such a rich story – the characters have so much nuance – and part of the thing that makes a TV series is the fact all of the minor characters are interesting, exciting and complex.
“It was so exciting having a whole gallery of fascinating, fun characters and you couldn’t predict where they were going.”
By now, the TV industry is used to SVoD giant Netflix breaking the rules. But even by Netflix’s standards, the decision to order three additional seasons of Lionsgate’s Orange is the New Black (OITNB) in one go is a surprise. It must take some special kind of data algorithm to be able to judge a show that far into the future.
Season four of the Jenji Kohan-created comedy drama about an eclectic group of female prison inmates hasn’t even been released yet (it launches in June), but this week’s announcement means OITNB will now have a minimum of seven seasons.
Commenting on the decision, Cindy Holland, VP of original content at Netflix, said: “Jenji and her team have produced a phenomenal and impactful series that is funny and dramatic, outrageous and heartfelt. Audiences around the world have come to love the ladies and men of OITNB, and we are eager to see where three more seasons will take them.”
Kohan, who has signed up to be OITNB’s showrunner for the new seasons, added: “Three more years! Not quite a political term, but still plenty of time to do some interesting things. In some cultures, ‘May you lead an interesting life,’ is a curse, but I don’t live in those cultures. Here’s to keeping it interesting. Thanks Netflix! Both thanks and you’re welcome Lionsgate! And kudos to the stellar cast and crew and writers and producers and editors and musicians and mixers and shleppers with whom I have the honour of crafting this show. Three more years! Three more years!”
And there was more eulogising from Lionsgate Television Group chairman Kevin Beggs – who was so excited he upgraded the current age of drama from gold to platinum. “We’re proud to continue our long-standing relationships with Netflix and the incredibly talented Jenji Kohan and delighted that one of the most acclaimed shows on television will continue on Netflix for three more seasons. Jenji’s brilliant creative vision and a truly amazing cast have catapulted OITNB to the forefront of the platinum age of television, and we’re pleased that fans around the world will be rewarded with another three seasons.”
It’s not unheard of for broadcasters to commission two seasons of a scripted show at once, but three is a remarkable show of support – and not without risks. For a start, Kohan could simply run out of steam over the course of the next four years. Or the security of so many episodes could reduce the urgency and hunger that comes with needing a renewal. Or the audience could start to lose interest – either because they’ve seen enough or because something even better comes along.
So the question is – why do it? Why not just stick with the more usual pattern of commission, transmission, ratings, renewal? Well, it can’t be to do with subscribers, because people don’t make decisions based around such long-term programme planning. So it must be the fear of losing either Kohan or the show to a rival.
If it’s the former, then perhaps it’s a reflection of the fact that showrunners trusted by networks/platforms are in short supply. At conference after conference, producers tell stories of how they have to wait for years for A-list showrunners to become free. The obvious solution would be to improve access for new writers, but this reckons without the fear factor that still underpins so much network decision-making. It’s ironic that, at the very same time we talk about industry innovation and creativity, there is so much money being spent on film-to-TV adaptations and reboots.
If it’s the latter, then maybe Netflix is reacting to the news that Lionsgate may be about to merge with Starz. If that deal goes ahead as planned, it’s not inconceivable that Lionsgate would choose to sell future series of OITNB on Starz. So maybe this is a way of Netflix pre-empting that eventuality. Whatever the thinking, it will be interesting to see if other companies start to make similar commitments. If they do, then this will truly go down as the golden age for scripted TV writers – the gold bullion age.
There is another possible factor involved in Netflix’s decision – which is that networks increasingly want to signal to the audience that they should stick with a show, because it is going to be around for a long time. The beauty of Game of Thrones or Outlander, for example, is that you know it is worthwhile investing emotional capital in the stories. There’s nothing worse than watching a show that gets axed just as you are getting into it.
We’re seeing this more and more with networks that commission season two of a show when season one has only just begun. This week, for example, USA Network greenlit a second run its alien invasion drama Colony after just four episodes of its debut season. It made a similar move with Mr Robot (and, for the record, commissioned season six of hit series Suits very early).
On the face of it, this early commissioning trend runs counter to the risk-aversion referred to above. But the reality is that scripted TV will never be entirely without risk. So it’s better to back a project in a meaningful way than spend tens of millions of dollars on something that the audience doesn’t bother to turn up for.
Another interesting story doing the rounds is that YouTube is about to launch its first exclusive series, Scare PewDiePie, starring the phenomenonally popular YouTube gaming star. Produced in partnership with Disney’s Maker Studios, the series will be part of the video-sharing site’s new subscription-based service YouTube Red.
Scare PewDiePie is a reality show – which begs the question why we’re highlighting it in a column about scripted TV. Well, the significant point is that YouTube is getting into origination backed by subscriptions. So it won’t be long before we see YouTube stars appearing in scripted series and movies on the new YouTube Red service. In fact, YouTube already has a deal in place to stream films from Dreamworks Animations’ AwesomenessTV on its platform.
From here, it’s not a great imaginative leap to suppose that YouTube Red will start to enter the more mainstream scripted business alongside Netflix, Amazon and the big pay TV brands.
Other greenlights this week include a 13-part order from Syfy for Incorporated, created by David and Alex Pastor and executive produced by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.
There’s also been a second-season order for NBC’s Shades of Blue, which stars Jennifer Lopez as a corrupt NYPD detective turned FBI informant. NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke said: “We want to thank Jennifer, who is the hardest-working woman we know, for her incredible efforts as both the star and producer of this show, as well as our other amazing producers and cast for all their tireless work in creating one of the most compelling dramas on television today. We’re so excited to find out where this story will lead and have them raise the stakes even higher in (season two).”
Last week, we talked about how ABC in the US had backed two legal show pilots. Well, rival CBS has decided to focus more on medical shows. Two new pilots announced include Bunker Hill and Sensory, about a neurologist who has ‘mirror-touch synesthesia,’ a condition that causes someone to experience other people’s sensations. Already airing on CBS is medical drama Code Black, a moderately successful series set in an LA emergency room.
Elsewhere, Endemol Shine-owned production outfit Bandit Television is making a show about the notorious Rillington Place murders for BBC1. Based around the actions of 1940s serial killer John Christie, the story was previously the subject of an acclaimed 1971 film starring Richard Attenborough and John Hurt.
The talking point in TV circles continues to be whether we are at the point of ‘peak drama’ and, if so, how long it can last – but shouldn’t we just enjoy this golden age?
It seems unlikely that anyone working in television five years ago would have predicted the incredible rise of dramatic storytelling and audiences’ apparently unquenchable thirst for new series.
Factor in the growth of online platforms such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, their impact on the business and the subsequent changes to how people now watch television and the leap since 2010 is even more remarkable.
With 400 scripted series in the US alone in 2015, viewers have never had it so good. But behind the scenes, broadcasters, producers and other executives are debating if and when the industry might hit the ‘wall’ – both financially and creatively – and what the drama business might look like over the next five years.
Rebecca Eaton has overseen the Masterpiece brand on US network PBS for the past 30 years, bringing some of the best British drama to US audiences. Yet she openly questions the state of the drama business and who her audience might be in the years ahead.
“It’s very scary,” she admits. “I wish I had been born a writer because it’s a really tricky time to be a broadcaster or distributor. There’s a huge amount of drama, but who’s going to be watching it a year or two from now? How much is too much? When are we going to hit the wall? What is the wall?
“As a regular human being who happens to be in the business, my eyeballs are spinning freely in my head trying to watch regular TV, not to mention the stuff I have to do for work. Something has got to give, but I’m not sure where it’s going to give.”
In particular, Eaton points to the effect on-demand platforms such as Netflix and Amazon have had since becoming major players in the original programming business with shows such as House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Transparent and The Man in the High Castle on their slates.
“It’s beginning to look limitless,” Eaton says. “There are no primetime schedules that Amazon or Netflix have to fill. If broadcasters can’t take more, it’s going to migrate over to our competitors.”
One show Eaton is losing this year is Downton Abbey, which is coming to an end after six seasons. The period drama has become a smash hit in the US, earning multiple Emmy and Golden Globe awards and nominations.
Downton producer Carnival Films has used its success to build a business model based on making drama that works in both the UK and US markets, with MD Gareth Neame identifying historical series as the “connective tissue” between the two. Another Carnival drama, The Last Kingdom, aired on BBC2 and BBC America in October 2015 and was recently awarded a second season.
Neame says: “There’s a danger you can end up with a lot of historical projects. The challenge for us is to make sure we’re making contemporary shows as well and to see whether domestic-looking broadcasters in the UK and the US can find something that connects in contemporary drama.
“There’s an opportunity in the US now for all British content – there certainly wasn’t at the time when we embarked on Downton Abbey. There was no thought that the show could become as mainstream as it has. I agree there’s a glut of drama, but that’s much better than in around 2000 when I thought I would have to become a reality producer because it seemed like scripted was over and everything was about Survivor. I’d rather have it this way.”
The downside, says Neame, is that TV is now a hits business, with only a handful of shows cutting through the sheer volume of content being produced. He also believes there is a lack of talent coming into the industry, with writers over-booked and not enough actors being trained on either side of the Atlantic.
“It’s a good problem because it’s a problem that can be solved,” Neame adds. “But we need to catch up and get more people into the industry – more crews, more writers, more actors.”
Neame’s concerns over talent are not shared by Chris Rice, an agent for WME’s global television team, who describes this period as an “incredible time” for talent – whether that’s writers or producers. Rice was part of the team that completed the deal to bring BBC1 and AMC together to adapt John le Carré’s espionage story The Night Manager, which stars Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston and is produced by The Ink Factory. The series debuts later this month.
“What I’m most excited about is the relationship between the American and British markets, which were quite separate five years ago,” he says. “Occasionally a show would cross over but particularly over the last two years, those markets have come together. Something like The Night Manager, which was an incredibly expensive show, would never have been supported out of the UK alone.
“My prediction is that, in two years’ time, there will be 20 shows like that a year. That’s going to be an amazing opportunity to tell bigger better stories and a great chance for British television to play at the same level as premium US shows. It will be fabulous for producers, and those shows will be profitable and sustainable.”
Meanwhile, if there’s one company responsible for the technological advances being made in television production, it’s The Imaginarium Studios, which describes itself as Europe’s leading performance-capture studio and production company. Founded by actor-director Andy Serkis (The Lord of the Rings, Planet of the Apes) and producer Jonathan Cavendish, it uses the latest technology to create new stories and characters for TV, film, video games and digital platforms.
The Imaginarium was involved in bringing to life the eponymous lead character of Fungus the Bogeyman, a three-part drama for Sky1 that aired at Christmas. And in a business where it’s increasingly important to stand out from the crowd, Cavendish says the company’s mission is to unite technology and storytelling in a bid not only to create remarkable stories but also to help drive costs down.
“We have 40 genius technologists who create methodologies, platforms and technologies for us to make our stories better, more remarkable and more cheaply,” he says. “If somebody said two years ago that virtual environments and performance-capture characters would be in television, everybody would have said it was ridiculous, but now they are and they’re at the centre of what we do. We’re making a lot of shows for television, even for online that involve the sort of technology that hadn’t been dreamt of even two years ago.”
Writers, directors and animators who visit The Imaginarium, based at the historic Ealing Studios in London, can bring a story to life immediately. “In that studio, you can very quickly create virtual environments and avatars that are operable in real time by pressing a button,” Cavendish explains. “You have your writers room in there along with your director and an animator and you are creating, changing, testing and trying out dialogue you’ve written because it’s done in real time.
“We’ve trained a whole new generation of actors to work with our technology. We’re beginning to take all sorts of writers and directors into this environment and it’s achievable and doable on the day. Nowadays, because of the real-time technology we’re on the very edge of, you can make an hour of drama in a day.”
Ultimately, “it’s all about creating new intellectual property, new stories, new ideas and new characters, which can be spectacular,” Cavendish adds. “You have to stand out.”
For Greg Brenman, joint MD of Drama Republic, writers are put at the heart of everything his firm does. The production company was behind Hugo Blick’s critically acclaimed The Honourable Woman (and is backing his follow-up series Black Earth Rising for BBC2) and most recently brought to air BBC1 hit Doctor Foster (pictured top), which was written by Mike Bartlett and has been renewed for a second season.
“We go after writers,” Brenman admits. “Mike Bartlett was someone myself and Roanna (Benn, joint MD) had identified five years ago who we were desperate to work with. He was in theatre at the time. We work with theatre writers a lot and because serial TV seems to be so in demand, it’s about character rather than story, so you often find great character writers in theatre.”
Former Tiger Aspect executive Brenman also believes making good television is about connecting with your audience in any way possible: “That connectivity can happen when it’s huge bells and whistles or people thrashing through fields harvesting, or it can be that emotional connectivity. Doctor Foster has that epic scale to it. It’s all about making an emotional connection however you can.”
On the subject of whether there is too much TV, he adds: “We should enjoy the ‘right now.’ Everyone’s ‘woe the future.’ Well, let’s enjoy the present. Things are evolving in ways we don’t always realise.”
Neame is equally positive. “Platforms are playing to the strengths of serial television,” he says. “We’re on the beginning of a great journey.
“Another reason it’s a great time is partly that technology is going to open up so many things to us and partly that the selling model is so liberating. Seven years ago I was told by a distribution executive that nobody would ever be interested in Downton Abbey. That just shows you how it’s changed beyond recognition.”
With The Imaginarium involved in producing Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Cavendish says it was suggested to him that, were Star Wars being produced now for the first time, it would not be made as a movie.
Instead, “you would probably make a huge television series to be watched on a smaller screen and you would create a huge world that you could explore,” he says. “That’s what younger audiences want and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that younger viewers are deserting much of traditional television.
“Also, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) offer a completely new world in which people can play. There is an opportunity now for younger people to be told the traditional stories that we know people want but, at the same time, to add in their own bits and to be in those stories themselves. That is the way, whether we like it or not, the world is going. Stories are stories, and nothing is changing in that sense. It’s a massive opportunity for us – I don’t think it’s a threat.”
Rice agrees that VR and AR will be mainstream within five years. In the meantime, he predicts there will be major changes relating to how series air across SVoD platforms and linear networks.
“If you look at Amazon and Netflix, they’re starting to experiment with releasing episodes weekly and are starting to think about the idea of dropping several episodes simultaneously at multiple times throughout the year, instead of dumping an annual 13-episode season in one go,” he says.
“Look at what HBO’s done with HBO Go and HBO Now. Every US network is launching its own platform and every European premium cable network is starting to offer online boxsets, taking themselves out of the linear environment. To me, that’s what the next two or three years are going to be about – a complete shuffling, rather than a reliance on hour-long programming in a weekly slot, and being able to experiment with 20 different ways of releasing content.
“It’s really about serving the story. Everyone will experiment with how their content is released. Nobody knows the answer, but hopefully the answer will be whatever serves the story.”
Tony Jordan has brought together some of literature’s best-known characters in a celebration of Charles Dickens. DQ went on the set while Dickensian was still filming to find out why those behind the show were sure of its success.
He’s the revered author of such classics as A Christmas Carol, Bleak House, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby.
But what would it be like to peer inside Charles Dickens’ mind and bring the characters from his novels – Fagin, Scrooge, Mrs Gamp, Miss Havisham et al – into the same world?
Wonder no more, because that’s exactly what Tony Jordan has done with Dickensian, a 20-part, 10-hour drama now airing on BBC1.
Set within the fictional realms of the author’s novels, Dickensian brings together many of Dickens’ best-known characters as their paths cross in 19th century London.
It’s produced by Red Planet Pictures, with Red Planet MD Jordan acting as lead writer alongside Sarah Phelps, Simon Winstone, Julie Rutherford, Chloe Moss and Justin Young. Jordan and Belinda Campbell executive produce along with BBC1’s Polly Hill, with David Boulter producing.
Yet while viewers can enjoy spotting characters from different novels, another character that may receive less attention is the set itself. Described as a working set, its exteriors are joined to its interiors to create an all-encompassing world where The Old Curiosity Shop sits next to a fully functional Three Cripples pub.
The set was built inside a huge warehouse on a nondescript industrial estate in north-west London, inside which you are instantly transported into Victorian London. When DQ visits, it is dusk, with only the glow emanating from the Three Cripples providing light outside. Shops are painstakingly detailed along Market Street and as you walk across the cobbles, you can pick out such stores as Mantalini’s (Nicholas Nickleby) and The Old Curiosity Shop and the office of Scrooge and Marley (A Christmas Carol).
Inside Satis House – the town house belonging to Amelia Havisham and her half-brother Arthur (Great Expectations) – statues line the hallway and chandeliers hang from the ceilings, with a dining table laid for a feast. In contrast, Fagin’s den is dark and dingy, with barred windows keeping out the light.
The scale and scope of the Market Street set is breathtaking – and it needed to be, says Jordan, who began working with production designer Michael Ralph before a script had even been written. “I had to build the world. That was key to making it work,” he explains. “I didn’t think it would work like a traditional show with a bit here and a location there. Dickens used atmosphere almost as a character – there’s always mist, smog and snow. So building the world became the only way to make this work. That’s what we’ve done.
“Satis House is in there, a church, the Three Cripples pub. I’ve got horses and carriages going round. It’s crazy beyond belief but that makes it a magical place to work and it’s created this family-company atmosphere among cast and crew.”
Jordan says that for Dickensian, which cost more than £1m (US$1.5m) an hour to produce, he tried to delve into Dickens’ imagination: “It’s all Dickens’ characters, all his stories, everything he’s ever written, but inside his head they’re allowed to mix up and to have slightly different outcomes. Timelines can mix, stories can mix, characters can mix. One story can affect another.”
The writer admits he’s not a Dickens scholar, joking that his starting point was The Muppet Christmas Carol. But by working with Dickens experts, Jordan ensured he remained faithful to the characters while bringing viewers stories never seen on screen before.
“Every time you’ve ever seen Miss Havisham, you’ve only ever seen this mad bird in a dress and a veil,” Jordan says. “But do you really need to see another adaptation of that? There’s a passage in the book where Pocket explains to Pip the history of Miss Havisham and how she had a half-brother who felt cheated after the death of their father and conspired with a man called Compeyson to steal her money. It’s still faithful to the story, the character and the spirit of what Dickens wrote but you haven’t seen that before. You haven’t seen the young Miss Havisham, falling in love, meeting that man. We see her on her wedding day – that’s exciting.
“As a writer, writing the scene between Ebenezer Scrooge and Fagin, that’s sexy stuff. I don’t care about broadcasters. Buy it or don’t buy it – I’m gonna write it anyway. I’ll do it on a Saturday morning. (Before I started) I thought somebody must have done this already, but they hadn’t. It was like Christmas. I felt like Bob Cratchit on Christmas Eve.”
Jordan and Ralph previously worked together on Death in Paradise, Hustle and The Ark, so before the script stage of Dickensian, Ralph created some artwork and even built a model of the main Market Street set. Jordan was then able to use that in his writing while the full-size set was being built.
“There’s no way you would know this show is filmed entirely on a set,” Jordan says. “It doesn’t feel claustrophobic, you’re just wondering where the fuck it is because it looks stunning. There’s no way you’d know, and that was really important.”
Ralph describes Dickensian as the “biggest and most ambitious series” he has ever worked on, adding that he was thrilled to work on a set where every element of weather and lighting could be controlled. “I delight in delighting Tony, finding him what he wanted when he wrote it and what he envisaged,” he says. “I was totally released with my imagination and creativity. I had so much freedom to produce what I did, it was unbelievable.
“I dressed nearly every set individually, sometimes on my own, especially The Old Curiosity Shop. If you can spend long enough dressing a set, it feels like you’re invading someone else’s space and that’s what it was like. I won’t let anyone put anything on the set that doesn’t have something written on it that actually relates to the character. That detail does take a lot of time, but we were given the time.”
Ralph says his designs are always inspired by the script and reveals the final set was almost identical to his initial sketches and models. “With all productions these days, no one ever thinks they have enough money to do anything,” he notes. “For me, less money is what I want. It opens up a well of creativity and means people have to be more focused on what the camera is really seeing. I’m a great believer in using the camera. The camera lies like a bastard and I’m embracing the deceit. We’re making films; man-made dreams for people who are awake.”
With a starring role in fellow BBC period drama War & Peace, Tuppence Middleton, who plays Amelia Havisham, is no stranger to epic productions. But while she travelled across Europe for Andrew Davies’ retelling of Tolstoy’s classic, she says she “loved” filming Dickensian on the purpose-built set.
“As soon as we walk through the doors of the studio, you’re transported into this world,” she says. “It’s such a huge job to build an entire street. I don’t think that ever happens. I’ve never done anything that has been like this.”
Describing Miss Havisham as an “iconic character,” Middleton adds: “To a lot of people she’s this crazy old woman living in a house, who looks like a ghost and has lost her mind. Actually, she was a normal young woman once and I think that’s a really interesting thing to explore.”
Also in the cast is Joe Quinn, who plays Arthur Havisham. Quinn left drama school early to take his place in the cast and admits it was an offer he couldn’t refuse. “The story gives me a lot of creative freedom to flesh out a character that hasn’t really been portrayed before but is still in existence. He is an entitled, spoiled little brat with a bit of an alcohol problem. So no acting required,” he jokes.
Quinn says his first day on the set was “daunting,” adding: “It’s enormous – it’s a whole world. And the detail is such a testament to the craftsmen and the creative team that built it. They’ve done an amazing job.”
Viewers also meet Bleak House character Captain James Hawdon (played by Ben Starr), in a storyline that serves as a prequel story to Dickens’ novel, in which he is the father to Lady Dedlock’s illegitimate daughter.
Starr was equally impressed by the set, which he said helped him get into character: “We’re going into Mantilini’s and you can look in the drawers and there are 100 types of buttons and different kinds of fabrics. Looking around this set is so helpful as an actor. It’s a huge playground in which you get 30 actors to fool around and pretend to be Dickens characters.”
But would Dickens have ever created Dickensian? Jordan certainly thinks so. “With everything I know about him, I’m pretty sure he’d be doing this, and if not this, something very like this,” he says. “He was a showman. This is big, noisy and features all his characters – it’s a celebration of Dickens. So of course he would be doing this, and I like the thought of that.”