Tag Archives: BBC2

End of a Saga

As the final season of Bron/Broen (The Bridge) arrives in the UK, actors Sofia Helin and Thure Lindhardt, creator Hans Rosenfeldt and head writer Camilla Ahlgren reflect on the success of the internationally acclaimed series.

Swedish detective Saga Norén, portrayed on screen for seven years by Sofia Helin, has become one of television’s most iconic police officers. At once brilliant, straight-talking and socially awkward, she has become a figurehead of the Nordic noir wave that has captivated audiences since The Bridge first aired in 2011.

Yet it could have all been so very different. Had the writers not had a change of heart during those early days plotting season one, Saga would not have survived to see season two.

“In very early drafts, Saga died in episode nine,” series creator Hans Rosenfeldt reveals. “She was stabbed. It was actually one of our exec producers who said very early on that wasn’t going to happen, so we changed it.”

Hindsight, of course, is a wonderful thing and it is fascinating now to think how the series might have panned out had its lead character been killed off so early on. But thankfully the producers gave her a stay of execution – one that has continued to the end of season four and the show’s finale.

Viewers in Sweden and Denmark already know the fates of Saga and her Danish police partner Henrik Sabroe, played by Thure Lindhardt, as the eight-episode final run debuted in Scandinavia earlier this year. And now British viewers have the chance to see how it ends, with season four launching tonight on BBC2, having been promoted from the traditional Saturday night slot reserved for non-English drama on BBC4.

The start of The Bridge season four sees Saga in prison

Centring on what’s described as heart-stopping concluding case that tests the detectives’ special relationship to its limits both professionally and personally, season four opens when the body of a woman is found close to the titular Øresund bridge between Denmark and Sweden. It is found to be that of the head of the Danish immigration board. But since Saga has been jailed for the murder of her mother, Henrik must investigate the case with his new partner Jonas (Mikael Birkkjaer).

As is usually the case with Scandinavian dramas, contemporary themes loom large in the new season of The Bridge, which this time focuses on issues of identity.

“We always work with a double story – it’s a crime story and we also want to say something about our society,” explains head writer Camilla Ahlgren. “That’s why this season, with identity, we found we could apply it to Saga and Henrik’s characters.

Helin picks up: “Saga wonders, ‘Why do I live? What do I do here and who am I?’ I have a sense that taking away her police identity makes her go onto very shaky ground. That was a really interesting path to take.”

The story will also look at the effect of immigration on both Sweden and Denmark, conceived as it was at the height of the European refugee crisis that contributed to the Øresund bridge being changed from an open road to a strict border between the two countries.

“This is fiction, but we like to see what we can find to talk about in our society,” Ahlgren says. “Now with the bridge and a border that we’re not used to, that’s how it all started. We still have to show our ID when we go from Denmark to Sweden and it’s a very weird thing to do for me. You shouldn’t have to do that, in my opinion, but that’s how it is right now.”

Thure Lindhardt joined the cast as Henrik Sabroe in season three

Broadcasters in Scandinavia are keen that contemporary series have something to say about modern society, an attitude that Rosenfeldt says can add depth to the story and characters on screen.

“When we started to write season four, everything was about the refugee crisis in Sweden and Denmark, so it was obvious we had to touch it,” he says. “There are going to be a lot of topics in there across eight hours, but we started with that one because it was so obvious that, if we were going to do a cross-border thing for the fourth time, we couldn’t just ignore the fact the bridge has a slightly different meaning today than it had in 2011 when it was a road to freedom and Europe. Now it’s actually a border.”

Produced by Filmlance International in Sweden and Nimbus Film in Denmark, the drama is distributed worldwide by Endemol Shine International and has been remade in six territories, most recently via a copro between Singapore and Malaysia.

And the story that runs through season four, in which viewers will discover more about Saga and Henrik’s backgrounds, also contributed to the decision to end The Bridge at its peak, rather than continuing to bring the characters back and risk devaluing the success of the show.

“There are very few series that actually create a peak in season five, six or seven,” Rosenfeldt says. “They tend to go the other way. So we said let’s not be one of those shows where people say, ‘Oh, The Bridge is still on. I loved the first ones.’ Let’s not be that series. Let’s make four really good shows and then say this is it, this is the story we have to tell. Not everything has to go on forever.”

Following the departure of Saga’s original Danish partner Martin (played by Kim Bodnia) in season two, Lindhardt joined the cast in season three. “I wasn’t really worried [about joining the show],” he says. “I got this script and I read this character and immediately I wanted to play that part. My outlook was more how to interpret this character who was so brilliantly written.

Helin and Lindhardt film scenes for the show’s final outing

“I was pretty lucky that no one knew who Saga’s new partner was, so I had nine great months where I could work privately, creating the character without having to answer any questions about how it was to follow someone else.”

That was also partly down to the writers, who initially set Saga up with strong-willed detective Hanne Thomsen (Kirsten Olesen), whose relationship with Saga immediately became hostile. Henrik was introduced concurrently with a mysterious storyline relating to his wife and children, and was only partnered with Saga several episodes into the story.

“A lot of people thought she actually got a female partner but didn’t like her, which is away from how she was with a male character who liked her,” says Rosenfeldt, who is also the creator of ITV thriller Marcella. “So I think we tricked people there and they got interested in Henrik for other reasons and then, oh, he’s a cop as well. It eased the transition to not have him there in the first scene together with Saga.”

Though both Henrik and Saga return for season four, one noticeable change is the fact the main investigation is set in Denmark, rather than in Sweden’s Malmö as it has been for the previous three seasons, which meant a new police station setting for the cast and crew.

“But the biggest change, what we’ve never done before, is we left the city for this small village that we see at the very end. We’ve never done that before because we’re not big fans of nature,” Rosenfeldt jokes, with a nod towards the series’ trademark dark and brooding city landscapes. “It’s pretty, it’s green and has trees and you can see squirrels. But it was a really depressing village. So that’s a big set for us, a big change – a completely new location but also nature.”

So long to the city and so long to The Bridge. Saying goodbye to the series was “emotional, not difficult,” Helin adds. “I’m happy with the ending and kind of relieved and content. So I feel happy but a bit of separation sadness from friends and colleagues.

“I’m not sad because I can talk to her at any minute,” she says of her character. “For anyone else, they have to see the series from the beginning. I was so satisfied with the brilliant ending so I’m not sad, I’m proud.”

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A human story

In his first screen drama, novelist Patrick Gale tells two gay love stories set 60 years apart. DQ speaks to the writer and actors Vanessa Redgrave and Joanna Vanderham about starring in Man in an Orange Shirt .

Patrick Gale

From the sidelines, it looks like a cosy scene. Stepping down from Battersea Park’s picturesque bandstand, arm in arm, in immaculate 1940s dresses, Joanna Vanderham and Laura Carmichael are deep in conversation.

While extras in period costume walk behind them (and assistant directors, also in period costume, shoo away curious dog walkers) they are seemingly oblivious as their characters swap the closest of intimacies. The pair play sisters Flora and Daphne and the scene is at the heart of an ambitious new BBC2 drama, Man in an Orange Shirt, chronicling the modern history of gay lives in one family, set 60 years apart.

Vanderham, complete with a huge prosthetic pregnant bump, plays Flora, who just hours earlier discovered something that would change her life, the life of her unborn child, and his child too, forever.

Cleaning a desk belonging to her husband Michael (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), she finds letters from his lover Thomas (James McArdle), an artist who had been her husband’s best man at their wedding. She’d burned them and hastily arranged this meeting with her sister. But as she muses the reality of her husband being a gay man, she finds that she can’t even tell her big sister this dark, dark secret. The possible consequences – divorce and even jail – are too tough to contemplate.

“The way this scene is described in the script is ‘the women meet for lunch and everything is perfect’ with lots of exclamation marks,” says Vanderham. “But of course, the opposite is true. There are all of these things going on underneath the surface but Flora swallows it down. It’s a very British thing to do. She never says anything, she never says how she feels.

Joanna Vanderham (left) and Laura Carmichael as sisters Flora and Daphne respectively

“From this moment she moves forward in a way that means outwardly it looks like things are fine. But what we see is the cost and how much keeping everything bottled up costs her. At the start of the film she’s full of life and vitality; excited about her marriage and becoming pregnant. By the end she’s a tight-lipped, close-mouthed, unhappy and lonely woman.”

The two-part story of The Man in an Orange Shirt has been written by novelist Patrick Gale, whose original commission was the rather open-ended idea of doing something about the experience of gay men in the 20th century. He decided to turn the tale inward; in some ways it is his own story.

“It was the most terrifying commission I’ve ever had,” admits Gale, who is making his screen debut with the project. “The gem of this whole story comes from when I tried to come out to my mother when I was 22. I had written my first book about being gay and it was my way of coming out to her. But instead of talking about it, she revealed to me that my father had had an affair with another man when she was pregnant with me. She had found some letters and had burned them. The amazing scene that is in the first film actually happened to my mother but in real life she never confronted my father. She never told him.

“She just waited until I grew up and told me. Thanks mum! To my dying shame I never had a conversation with my father about it. He knew I was gay and was very sweet about my lovers but – being so British – we never really had a conversation about it. I wonder, I still wonder, what he thought of it all.”

James McArdle as Thomas (left) and Oliver Jackson-Cohen as Michael

The second of the films brings the action into the present day. Flora, now played by Vanessa Redgrave (who also played an older version of Vanderham in Richard III at London’s Almeida Theatre recently), is bringing up her grandson Adam (Julian Morris) after both his parents were killed in a car crash. He is gay but his grandmother’s attitude towards homosexuality means he can’t confide in her, and he’s filled with self-hatred over his own sexuality, spending his time meeting up with strangers for meaningless sex without even bothering to find out their names.

When he meets a man he genuinely likes, an architect called Steve (David Gyasi), he is frightened by his feelings and jeopardises the relationship.

“For me, the first storyline was about the enemy without and the second one is about the enemy within,” says Gale. “The core of gay shame is one we learn very young. My parents were very Christian and supportive but they passed on gay shame to me. Mine came out in appalling eczema I experienced in my teens; my shame came out in my skin.

“We are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality [in the UK] but I think the problem of gay shame is one that won’t go away, however much legislation you pass. We will always be a minority, we will never apply to that Disney model of gender roles.”

The story depicts two timelines 60 years apart

Appearing in the drama, which is produced by Kudos and distributed by FremantleMedia International, also made Redgrave think about her own experiences. One of Britain’s most famously liberal stars, whose husband and father were both bisexual, she took some convincing to play the part of the embittered Flora. Gale wrote her a three-page letter explaining why Flora acts as she does in an attempt to win over the veteran actor – and it clearly worked.

“I had to start with the thought that she wasn’t always brusque and difficult,” says Vanessa. “She was somebody very nice who has had to fabricate a whole denial system in her life. The impact of that has built and built throughout her life.

“It has made me think a lot about my father’s generation. He was bisexual and a lot of his friends were totally gay; there were quite a few lesbians too. To protect themselves, they protected each other. How could we have called ourselves a democracy up until 1967 when this was illegal? The cruelty! What a cruel, harsh attitude of you can do this, but you can’t do that. Total stupid rubbish!”

The Man in an Orange Shirt, which debuts on BBC2 on July 31, is one of the cornerstone dramas commissioned by the BBC to celebrate the decriminalisation of homosexuality and it shows the legacy of draconian laws that meant it was impossible to live as an openly gay person. “It’s a drama about some people who are gay and some who are not,” adds Vanderham. “Flora is the female protagonist and she suffered just as much as the men in her life. More than a gay story, it is a human story which needs to be told.”

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Being Paula

An award-winning stage turn changed the fortunes of actor Denise Gough, who tells DQ about starring in BBC2 three-parter Paula.

Denise Gough is really enjoying becoming, at the tender age of 38, the television industry’s hottest young find.

The Irish actor, who fronts new BBC2 drama Paula, has been the theatre world’s secret star for nearly two decades – and even that world had, at times, ignored her. But her Olivier Award-winning turn as a drug addict going through rehab in scorching drama People, Places & Things in 2015 changed everything.

It means she doesn’t take anything for granted, and now that she’s reached where she always wanted to get to in her career, she’s not just going to grab at any role. Known for her political activism, she’s also going to say exactly what she thinks.

“I don’t even really mention the name of People, Places & Things anymore, I just call it this huge thing that I did,” she grins, her big blue eyes lighting up. “If it wasn’t for that, I would never have been allowed to even look at a TV show of this calibre.”

Paula stars Denise Gough alongside Victoria’s Tom Hughes

Gough, who was also recently seen in BBC1’s Apple Tree Yard and Sky Atlantic’s Guerrilla, is in almost every scene of Paula, a tense thriller filmed in Belfast about a chemistry teacher who has a one stand that goes terribly wrong.

The three-part drama, which launches tomorrow, is produced by BBC NI Drama with Cuba Pictures and is written by Olivier- and Tony-Award winning playwright Conor McPherson in his first original work for television. The distributor is BBC Worldwide.

It also stars Victoria actor Tom Hughes as a psychopathic baddie who becomes obsessed with Paula after working as an odd-job man in her house.

Frustrated with her married lover, her emotionally incontinent parents and her alcoholic brother, Paula seduces him one evening. But he is far from the easy-going handyman he seems; he lives with two girlfriends, who each have his children, and is plagued by dark nightmares that leave him sobbing at night. His obsession leads to a trail of murder and destruction.

“What I liked about the script was no woman was tied up, raped and left as a corpse,” says Gough. “You read so much of that stuff you become immune to it. She’s also a very human woman; this isn’t just a story about a woman who is connected to all the men in the story. I love men but it’s nice to play a character who is complex. Some people say she’s not very likeable but I think that is just a funny thing we say about women. We don’t say that about Jamie Dornan in The Fall; he’s just hot.

The actor says she was drawn to her ‘complex’ character

“I like women who aren’t apologetic about the things they do in their lives. Why does she have to be likeable? I like her. I love the scene where she gets together with Tom’s character. There is a build up to why she decides to do it; she thinks, ‘I’m going to have him because I’ve had a shitty time. I am going to have this.’ Who hasn’t done that? She kind of seduces him in quite a bold way that we don’t see very often. She’s thinking that she wants to feel something other than what she is feeling. I am tired of only ever seeing women being seduced. There is something very truthful about that scene. She takes what she wants. Unfortunately for her it turns out he is a bit of a wrong’un.”

Gough admits she hopes her electrician father won’t watch her sex scene with Hughes, even though it is far from the first time his actor daughter (she is seventh out of 12 children) has stripped off for a role.

“I’m afraid he’s going to have to get used to it; now that I am 38 I can’t keep going, ‘I don’t want my dad to see that.’ I’ll never forget my first ever TV job. I was in a show with Andrew Lincoln, playing a prostitute – which for the first 10 years of my career was all I got offered – and I had two scenes. There was a lead-up scene and then the next one saw [my character] pleasuring her pimp and then blowing her head off. The whole time I did it I thought, ‘At least there is that first scene,’ so it’s not just about the sex and the blowing of the brains. But the night before it aired, the director rang to tell me the first scene had been cut.

“The next night everyone was at my house to see my big TV debut; the family, the neighbours, the bishop. They saw me doing this thing. I’ve had to do some pretty dodgy stuff on TV.”

Gough recently appeared in John Ridley’s Guerrilla

Now the actor has a choice of roles, it’s something she appreciates all the more because it has been so hard-fought. “I know I have been painted as a Cinderella story and that’s OK,” she says. “I am an old-school story; this is a story of old-fashioned graft. I have been working since the age of 22 when I left drama school. It hasn’t been easy. There were a huge amount of times when I phoned my agent and said, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’

“It’s hard to keep up your self-esteem when you are being constantly rejected and have no money. But I kept working and this is my pay-off. I am enjoying that. There is a raft of very young people coming out of drama school or who have millions of followers on Twitter and suddenly become movie stars. There has to be somebody who is flying the flag for hard graft and I’m fine if that’s me. There were hard times, there were terrible times but I won’t have those terrible times in the same way now I’ve got loads of money,” she laughs.

Now that she is in a position to be listened to, the actor, who is currently working at the National Theatre in Angels in America, wants to do her bit to make things better for women in the drama industry.

“It feels like a good time, there are a lot of scripts that are being written now that are female-driven and written by women, but we still need to do more,” she says. “With the whole pay gap thing, I am pleased that women are getting bolder. It’s a conversation that we need to keep having. I remember reading Jennifer Lawrence talking about how she blamed herself for not getting paid the same as a man because she didn’t even question it. Well, now we are questioning it. I make sure I am on top whack.”

Her financial security means we should be seeing plenty more of Gough in work she is passionate about. “It’s so nice I don’t have to do something just to pay the rent,” she adds. “I have everything I have ever wanted.”

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Showtime plays the long game

Homeland
Homeland has been given a double renewal

US premium pay TV channel Showtime is one of the most loyal commissioning networks in the world, revealing a willingness over the past few years to let its scripted series run and run.

Looking back at Showtime’s classic titles, for example, serial killer drama Dexter ran for eight seasons before it finished in 2014. And even then it might have continued had lead actor Michael C Hall not wanted to pursue other acting opportunities.

Nurse Jackie and Californication also lasted seven seasons on Showtime – an impressive performance in our short-attention-span society.

Looking at current shows, top performer Shameless was granted a seventh season earlier this year. And this week Showtime announced that it had greenlit seventh and eighth seasons of Homeland, the espionage series derived from Israel’s Prisoners of War (Hatufim). That news comes despite the fact that the sixth season of Homeland doesn’t premiere until January 2017.

Homeland, starring Claire Danes, looked as though it might be running out of steam at the end of season four and heading into season five. But a strong recovery in the back half of season five reaffirmed its versatility and its importance to Showtime’s schedule. The show will now run until at least 2019.

Ray Donovan
Ray Donovan will get a fifth season

In parallel with the Homeland announcement, Showtime also announced that there will be a fifth season of Ray Donovan, which stars Liev Schreiber as a fixer for LA’s rich and famous. The show, which runs in batches of 12 episodes, is currently in the middle of season four and rating pretty consistently. With an average audience of around 1.2 million (same-day figure), it is currently the third best-performing drama in Showtime’s line-up.

Showtime’s other dramas aren’t as far advanced as these titles, but they all seem to be benefiting from similar support from the channel.

Billions, The Affair and Masters of Sex have all been renewed, while Penny Dreadful probably would have been if creator John Logan hadn’t decided to call it a day. Even House of Lies managed five seasons before cancellation, despite the fact its ratings were looking pretty limp by the end of season four.

Showtime’s willingness to back its dramas for extended runs will probably become an industry norm over the next few years. While it’s important to refresh schedules with new productions, the TV drama market is now so cluttered that established series with consistent audiences are worth their weight in gold.

The extent of the competitive challenge has been well documented by FX Networks president John Landgraf, who has used the last couple of Television Critics Association Summer Tours to unveil research into key trends in scripted TV. Last year, for example, he said the US industry was poised to have more than 400 original shows a year on air. This year, he revised that figure up to 500 originals a year.

John Landgraf
John Landgraf

In Landgraf’s view, this is too many to make economic sense, so he is expecting a crunch to come at some point. He backed up this view by saying that while the top 20% of scripted series average 10.5 million viewers, the bottom tier attracts a mere 380,000.

This brings us back around to Showtime and longevity. If you have a show that rates moderately well then it makes sense to keep it going as long as possible. Why cancel it and replace it with a new show that might end up in the uneconomic end of the spectrum? That would be like a supermarket deciding to eject Heinz and Persil from its shelves in favour of completely new brands.

The attraction of sustaining shows over several seasons is reinforced by the amount of money that SVoD players are now pumping into new content. With Netflix spending around US$6bn a year on content and Amazon aiming to triple the number of new shows it has on its platform, long-running scripted franchises become even more important –which is why we’re seeing more of a trend towards multi-season commissioning.

Of course, this doesn’t mean networks should stick with every series regardless of ratings. Some series simply aren’t very good and need to be killed off so others can bloom. But as far as possible, networks need to be launching series that can last. This is why we are seeing such a strong trend towards IP that is already known (film and TV reboots, books, comics) and the use of talent packages that audiences are likely to respond well to. Anthologies and series spin-offs reinforce this overall trend.

Mad Men
Mad Men comprised seven seasons

Showtime’s key rivals are not quite as advanced in the longevity stakes but they are moving a similar way. FX, for example, reached seven seasons with Sons of Anarchy and looks like it will hit a similar mark with American Horror Story. There is now also talk of a Sons of Anarchy prequel.

Starz, meanwhile, is putting its shoulder behind Power and Outlander. At AMC, The Walking Dead has hit the magic seven and Fear The Walking Dead may eventually go the same way. Mad Men reached seven seasons and so did Breaking Bad if you count in its spin-off Better Call Saul.

Netflix has commissioned as far as seven seasons of Orange is the New Black and USA Networks has taken its hit show Suits to seven seasons. HBO’s Game of Thrones will go at least as far as eight seasons and it would be a major surprise if the network gives up there (some kind of spin-off must surely be in the works).

Versailles will return to BBC2
Versailles will return to BBC2

Elsewhere in a quiet week for scripted series, BBC2 in the UK has acquired the second season of French period drama Versailles, which will air on the channel next year. The first series rated well on BBC2 and has sold extensively around the world. In the US, it is soon to air on Ovation while distributor Zodiak Rights has also licensed it into around 130 countries. In addition, SVoD platform Netflix picked up second-window streaming rights in the US.

Also in the news this month, Portuguese public broadcaster RTP is working with producer BeActive on a drama set in the world of electronic sports. Called The Players, the series follows a group of friends as they journey to the European championship finals of League of Legends, a popular online video game. BeActive claims it is the first scripted series to focus on the world of e-sports. That’s interesting given our column last week on the role of sport in scripted TV.

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Nielsen peels away Orange audience mystery

Orange is the New Black
Nielsen research suggests Orange is the New Black is a massive hit in terms of viewing figures

SVoD giant Netflix has always been good at sharing its international subscriber data, but it has never bothered to provide much detail about the audiences that tune in to individual shows.

As an ad-free service, it doesn’t really need to; instead, it sees competitive value in keeping its rivals guessing.

This, of course, doesn’t stop third parties speculating – and this week research firm Nielsen is in the news for trying to unlock the secret of Orange is the New Black (OITNB)’s audience numbers.

The key finding, revealed at the Consumer 360 conference in Las Vegas, is that OITNB is the big hit that everyone always suspected it to be. According to audience data reported on by the Wall Street Journal, 6.7 million people watched the first episode of season four in the three days following its June 17 launch. The second episode then attracted 5.9 million viewers.

To put those numbers in context, they would make OITNB one of the most popular shows on US cable TV, if it lived within the traditional US cable system.

It’s not as big as Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, but it would trump pretty much everything else. For the record, Nielsen also looked at streaming data for Seinfeld on Hulu, which drew 706,000 viewers within five days of launch.

Preacher's second season will comprise 13 episodes
Preacher’s second season will comprise 13 episodes

Other shows in the news this week include AMC’s Preacher, which is halfway through its first 10-episode season. After starting strongly, with 2.38 million for episode one, the show slipped to 1.14 million by episode four.

However, there was an encouraging bounce back for episode five, which recorded 1.43 million (all figures are Nielsen overnights). Perhaps that’s why AMC chose this week to announce that the show, which stars Dominic Cooper, will have an enlarged second season of 13 episodes.

“Preacher is a special TV programme and we’re eager to share with fans the rest of this wild first season and, now, an expanded second season,” said AMC president Charlie Collier. “What (the team) has achieved in bringing Garth Ennis’s graphic novel to the screen is extraordinary. We look forward to more time with these unforgettable characters, be it in Heaven, Hell, Texas or beyond.”

Preacher is currently AMC’s fifth best-performing show behind The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead, Into the Badlands and Better Call Saul. The writer and showrunner is Sam Catlin.

A more surprising renewal is that for Syfy’s 12 Monkeys, a futuristic sci-fi time-travel drama set in the 2040s after a virus has wiped out much of Earth’s population. Based on the 1995 feature film of the same name, the show has been given a third season.

12 Monkeys
12 Monkeys is heading for a third run on Syfy despite modest viewing figures

“In two short seasons, 12 Monkeys has become a cult favourite series,” said Chris McCumber, president of entertainment networks at Syfy parent NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment. “The team has brought to life a rich world not confined by boundaries of time, with multi-dimensional characters whose motivations for saving the world are deeply personal and intensely relatable. It’s exactly the type of smart, on-the-edge-of-your-seat entertainment we want.”

That eulogy comes despite the fact the show’s ratings have been pretty modest for season two. After averaging 795,000 for season one, the follow-up batch of 10 episodes evened out at 393,000. Although season two seems to have had a pretty stable audience across its run, that figure places 12 Monkeys at the low end of Syfy’s scripted dramas in terms of its audience.

While the impassioned nature of the show’s fanbase may be a reason for 12 Monkeys’ renewal, another explanation could be that Syfy is undergoing heavy schedule maintenance.

A lot of shows have ended or been cancelled recently, so it may be that the channel is looking for a few stopgaps while newer shows such as The Magicians, Killjoys and Dark Matter have a chance to build. No current Syfy show has got past season two.

Elsewhere, we have reported in the past on the ratings success of The Durrells in the UK, and now the show is proving to be popular with international broadcasters.

BBC Worldwide has sold The Durrells across the globe
BBC Worldwide has sold family drama The Durrells across the globe

Distributor BBC Worldwide says it has sold the show to such channels as Iceland’s UTV, Australia’s Seven Network, New Zealand’s Sky, Estonia’s ETV, Finland’s YLE, Latvian Television, Denmark’s TV2 and BBC First in the Middle East and Benelux. This follows previous deals with SVT in Sweden and OTE in Greece.

Written by Simon Nye and produced by Sid Gentle Films, The Durrells is based on Gerald Durrell’s autobiographical books about his family’s life on the Greek island of Corfu in the 1930s.

Still in the world of distribution, Amazon Prime Video has picked up the rights to Steven Soderbergh drama The Girlfriend Experience for the UK, Germany, Austria and Japan. The 13-part series, which stars Elvis Presley’s granddaughter Riley Keough, airs on Starz in the US and is based on Soderbergh’s 2009 film of the same name.

The show hasn’t scored especially well on IMDb, which is probably down to its level of sexual content, which polarises audiences (it’s about a female law student who becomes an escort – another polarising factor for audiences). But it has its fans, who tend to focus on the excellence of the acting and craft.

The bottom line on this show is that it has undoubtedly found the perfect home in the rarified world of SVoD streaming.

The Girlfriend Experience is likely too sexual for some viewers
Starz series The Girlfriend Experience is likely too sexual for some viewers

Finally, an update on how BBC2 in the UK is doing it terms of drama – according to BARB ratings. Peaky Blinders signed off in mid-June with an audience of 2.27 million, meaning that it was pretty stable throughout the back end of its third season.

The show overlapped slightly with the launch of acquired drama Versailles, which is still running. The Louis XIV period piece debuted with 2.73 million but had slipped to around the two million mark at the time of writing. This, however, is still stronger than The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, which finished its run in April on around 1.85 million.

Last year, Wolf Hall brought the channel 3.8-4 million viewers per episode, while Banished wrapped up with 2.8 million for its final episode. All of which suggests the channel’s upmarket audience has a penchant for offbeat period drama, rather than the kind of contemporary show represented by American Crime Story. Outlander would be a good fit were it not streaming on Amazon in the UK.

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Netflix plays Chandra’s Games in India

Vikram Chandra
Vikram Chandra is adapting his novel Sacred Games for Netflix

Hot on the heels of Amazon’s announcement of its content origination plans in Japan, Netflix has revealed a new scripted project in India.

Sacred Games is based on Vikram Chandra’s acclaimed novel of the same name. The author, who will also write the adaptation, said: “Over the last few years, I’ve watched with great excitement and pleasure as Netflix has transformed narrative television with its ground-breaking, genre-bending shows. I’m confident all the colour, vitality and music of the fictional world I’ve lived with for so long will come fully alive on the large-scale canvas provided by Netflix. I’m thrilled to be working with Netflix and Phantom Films (the show’s production company).”

The show is set in Mumbai against a backdrop of crime, political corruption, and espionage. Seven years in the making, it centres on Inspector Sartaj Singh, one of the few Sikhs on the Mumbai police force. The story pits Singh against Ganesh Gaitonde, the most wanted gangster in India. Shot on location in India, the series will be a hybrid Hindi-English production. It will be available to Netflix members globally upon completion.

Now 55 years old, Chandra was born in New Delhi and has a number of novels to his name, including the award-winning Red Earth and Pouring Rain, which has been published in territories such as the UK and US.

Commenting on the opportunity to work with Chandra, Madhu Mantena of Phantom Films said: “We are very happy to start this journey with Netflix by producing Vikram’s outstanding story. And we are confident we will create some exciting and groundbreaking television content from here on.”

Erik Barmack, VP of international original series at Netflix, added: “We are delighted to partner with creative powerhouse Phantom Films to bring Vikram Chandra’s epic novel to life with the best Indian and global film talent available today. Sacred Games reinforces our commitment to bring the authenticity of local stories to Netflix members across 190 countries worldwide.”

David Carr
The late New York Times columnist David Carr, whose memoir is being made into a series by AMC and Sony Pictures Television

Other high-profile stories this week include AMC and Sony Pictures Television’s decision to develop a six-part miniseries based on The Night of the Gun, the memoir by late New York Times columnist David Carr.

Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul) will play Carr while Eileen Myers is attached as an executive producer and writer. Myers has several high-profile credits, including Mad Dogs, Masters of Sex, Last Resort, Hung, Big Love and Dark Blue.

For those unfamiliar with Carr’s memoir, it is an acclaimed depiction of his battle with cocaine and alcohol addiction. As an active figure in the US media business, he is credited with having kick-started the career of Lena Dunham, creator of HBO’s Girls.

Elsewhere, CBS has given a straight-to-series order to Ransom, a new hostage negotiator series created by David Vainola and Frank Spotnitz (The Man in the High Castle). The show has been set up as an international coproduction, with France’s TF1 and Canada’s Global also signed up for the 13-parter. Also on board is global content distributor Entertainment One (eOne).

The series will star Luke Roberts as Eric Beaumont, an expert crisis and hostage negotiator who resolves difficult kidnap and ransom cases. The show is inspired by the experiences of crisis negotiator Laurent Combalbert, one of the top negotiators in the world.

Spotnitz said: “The world of crisis negotiation is incredibly compelling, as demonstrated by the fascinating real-life cases Laurent Combalbert has negotiated. Laurent has inspired a brilliant and complex character, and you can’t help but be moved seeing all the lives he’s saved around the world.”

James Wood
Evelyn Waugh novel Decline and Fall is being adapted by James Wood

Amazon continues to be busy – picking up a number of new scripted pilots. Among them is Carnival Row, a supernatural series from Guillermo Del Toro, Travis Beacham and Rene Echeverria. A coproduction between Amazon Studios and Legendary TV, the show is based on a feature-film script created by Beacham 11 years ago. Since then, he has established himself as a leading action-adventure movie screenwriter with titles like Clash of the Titans and Pacific Rim (on which he worked with Del Toro).

Another Amazon pilot continues the current fascination with Cuba now that the country is opening up to the international market. Called Tropicana, it is set in the world of the Tropicana nightclub against the backdrop of pre-revolutionary Cuba. Written/executive produced by Josh Goldin and Rachel Abramowitz and executive produced by Andrea Simon, the series will feature all the usual suspects including the mafia, the CIA, Batista loyalists and Castro revolutionaries. Goldin and Abramowitz previously worked together on Klondike, while Goldin’s solo credits include Darkman.

Interesting projects bubbling up in the UK include a BBC2 adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s superb novel Decline and Fall. With comedian Jack Whitehall already installed as the lead of the three-part miniseries, there are reports that Eva Longoria is in negotiations to co-star.

The adaptation is being handled by James Wood, who came to fame with BBC comedy Rev. Set in the 1920s, Decline and Fall follows student Paul Pennyfeather, who is unfairly expelled from Oxford University and ends up teaching at a boys school in Wales.

Still in the UK, FremantleMedia has announced that it is backing a new scripted indie to be headed by feted producer Laurence Bowen. Called Dancing Ledge, the company is setting up new offices in Notting Hill with projects from some of the UK’s most talented writers and a development deal with The Hobbit star Martin Freeman.

Laurence Bowen
Laurence Bowen has set up Dancing Ledge

According to Fremantle, the new Dancing Ledge slate includes a dozen projects for UK and US broadcasters including dramas by Mark Gatiss, Guy Hibbert, Chris Lunt, Dan Sefton, and John Donnelly, as well as a new limited event-series development commission for History written by Simon Block (Home Fires). Bowen is also developing several scripted ideas with Martin Freeman.

Commenting on the new company’s excellent writer relationships, Bowen said: “Dancing Ledge is only ever going to be as good as the writers it works with and we are lucky enough to already be working with some of the very best in the UK.”

Finally, Canadian broadcaster CityTV has greenlit some dramas. Bad Blood: The Vito Rizzuto Story, will debut on City and FX in the US in 2017 and is inspired by the life and death of mobster Rizzuto. New Metric Media, Sphere Media and DHX Media will produce the series, based on the book Business or Blood: Mafia Boss Vito Rizzuto’s Last War – co-authored by Toronto Star reporter Peter Edwards and Antonio Nicaso.

Another commission is Second Jen, a coming-of-age comedy about two second-generation Chinese and Filipino-Canadian millennials and best friends. Created by and starring Samantha Wan and Amanda Joy, the show will be produced by Don Ferguson Productions and premiere on Citytv.com in the autumn.

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Know your Enemy: Stephen Poliakoff discusses his new show

Look to the past to find a good story, says Stephen Poliakoff, as a bomb-damaged hotel in post-war London provides the stage for his latest BBC drama, Close to the Enemy.

In this burgeoning world of multinational, cross-cultural scripted drama – where Canal+ makes Versailles as an English-language show, Deutschland 83 plays on US primetime and Scandinavian writers and directors are in charge of half the UK’s output – there’s a risk that nations will forget exactly what’s unique about their home-produced drama.

In the UK, if they ever forget, they can simply watch the latest from Stephen Poliakoff: the patron saint and reigning heavyweight champion of high-quality British drama.

In a career that’s ranged from radical 1970s theatre through intense movies about incest to scathing assaults on the nation’s disregard for its own culture and history, Poliakoff’s early years were spent writing for the stage and the big screen.

Poliakoff: 'I’m like a talent spotter for the BBC'
Poliakoff: ‘I’m like a talent spotter for the BBC’

For the past 20 years, however, he has concentrated on writing and directing for television. Quirkiness and eccentricity have always been present in Poliakoff’s work – his love of elaborate montage sequences, odd juxtapositions of sound and image, and extended narratives have always seemed more comfortable on serialised television than his earlier, slightly over-complex movies.

For his latest project – Close to the Enemy, pictured top – the writer effectively mounts a dramatist’s investigation into the post-war recruiting of Nazi scientists to serve the West. It’s becoming a theme of Poliakoff’s work – revisiting the crucible of the 20th century with ambitious projects about appeasers in the British ruling elite like Glorious 39 or the overlap between the Jazz Age and fascist princes in Dancing on the Edge. Where do such ideas begin?

“I usually start with a moment in time – in this case when the victorious Allies, the Americans, the Russians and the Brits, were literally seizing scientists off the streets of Germany, bringing them over here and giving them new identities so the world didn’t discover what they’d been up to during the war,” he explains.

What follows is a period of intense research from the sweeping vista of history to the daily minutiae of life. Poliakoff worked through the history of these street snatches – the British nabbed several hundred, which was dwarfed by the industrial scale of the Americans and the Russians, who took thousands – but also realised that, despite the tradition of post-war movies showing London as grey and foggy, the reality was that the absence of so many buildings meant the light was blindingly bright, and this shapes the look of the show.

“I start with the situation but then try to develop it into a gallery of memorable characters facing complex decisions in difficult situations. At seven hours, this is the longest thing I’ve ever done so the story has to be as compulsive as you can make it. I try to work purely through character, rather than making ranty points about torture or war crimes. I mean, it is fascinating that we were torturing people after the war but it’s not the real journey of the show.”

Many of Poliakoff’s scripts, it’s interesting to note, are about the perfidy of the British establishment. It’s a problem he returns to partly because of his own curious relationship with the British elite. “A lot of people would say I was very much a member of the British establishment,” he says. “I was brought up in very English landscapes and had a classic public-school, Cambridge education.”

Dancing on the Edge
Dancing on the Edge was nominated for three Golden Globes in 2013

The son of a Russian émigré businessman and aristocratic Anglo-Jewish actor, Poliakoff was packed off to boarding school in Kent at the age of eight, where he encountered plenty of low level anti-Semitism – both putting him at the heart of the elite and giving him an outsider’s perspective.

Some argue that his education explains the leeway he has at the BBC – suggesting a sort of old boys’ favour system that allows him the scope to deliver slow-moving but compelling dramas like Shooting the Past, which flew in the face of accepted broadcasting wisdom at the time.

Although it’s true, Poliakoff concedes, that the BBC grants him an enormous amount of freedom, he insists he won this himself: “I think the BBC trusts me and I hope it has been mutually beneficial. The great thing about that freedom is that I can cast whom I like and I actually have a very good track record of discovering stars – I’m like a talent spotter for the BBC.”

Poliakoff gave early breaks to Gemma Arterton, Tom Hardy, Matthew Macfadyen, Rebecca Hall, Ruth Wilson, Clive Owen and Emily Blunt, who won a Golden Globe for her role in Gideon’s Daughter. The BBC consulted him over casting Jenna Coleman as Doctor Who’s most recent assistant, Clara, after he helped discover her in Dancing on the Edge.

In Close to the Enemy, produced by Little Island Productions and Endor Productions for BBC2, he has cast Jim Sturgess as an intelligence officer charged with recruiting August Diehl’s German scientist to help the RAF develop the jet engine. Freddie Highmore plays Sturgess’s shellshocked younger brother, Charlotte Riley plays his best friend’s fiancée and Phoebe Fox plays a tough war crimes investigator, keen to bring Diehl to justice.

“There are one or two people in the show I have worked with before – Lindsay Duncan and Alfie Allen, for instance – but I’m new to Highmore, Sturgess and Riley and I think I’m giving them breakthrough roles,” Poliakoff says. “They’re all strong talents but I think you’ll see them differently after this piece.”

Poliakoff has cast and directed all his own work for the past 25 years. “It’s always an interesting exercise in a project when you move from being its writer to its director, but it does mean all my work is made on a brutal schedule,” he explains. “That’s partly why I do a lot of rehearsal. Some people do a week, but I do three weeks and I do everything in my power when we hire actors to persuade them that is part of their contract,” he says with a quick grin.

The BBC consulted Poliakoff before casting Jenna Coleman (right) in Doctor Who
The BBC consulted Poliakoff before casting Jenna Coleman (right) in Doctor Who

“I’m slightly surprised more people don’t do that. It doesn’t cost a lot of money, because the actors get rehearsal pay that isn’t reflective of their fees for the main shoot. So it’s quite a small investment but it pays off enormously. It helps to build up the actors’ confidence and it helps me to realise what I have written, too. It’s a sleight of hand really. You can achieve the quality of a feature film on the budget of a TV series.”

Another trademark Poliakoff technique is his extensive use of location – to keep costs down and to avoid overusing CGI. With Close to the Enemy, this was especially complex, as the show is set in heavily bombed post-war London.

“I was very keen to make a period show with hardly any CGI because I think CGI tends to make all period drama look a little bit the same,” he argues. “You show panoramas that are like animated paintings and viewers don’t quite believe it. A bombed London with virtually no CGI meant shooting among real destroyed buildings – and there are none in London so we shot most of it in Liverpool with other wrecks around the country. That posed a lot of problems with the schedule but it was worth it – the places really looked like they were bombed.”

Poliakoff is hands-on when it comes to location scouting – in part because a good location can influence his writing. In the case of Close to the Enemy, the team found the hotel at the centre of the story before he’d finished all of the scenes set within, and the building shaped the script to some degree.

“The danger of looking for locations before you’ve written them is that, if they fall through, you’ve already written rough sequences and you then have to adapt the whole script,” he says. “But that’s the great advantage of being a writer-director – you can swim with the tide of the production more easily.”

Despite these local details, Poliakoff is keen to stress that Close to the Enemy isn’t just a British story – he’s cast German actors in all the German parts, including Inglourious Basterds star Diehl as an ex-Nazi jet expert. The same goes for US parts, although Brit Charlotte Riley takes the prime American role.

It’s tempting to think it’s this global element that persuaded US broadcaster Starz to coproduce with the BBC. In fact, Poliakoff has already done surprisingly good business for the Spartacus and Da Vinci’s Demons network, with Dancing on the Edge picking up three Golden Globe nominations back in 2013. Is this Anglophilia pure and simple? Poliakoff doesn’t think so.

“If you tell good stories about the past, they resonate with people today,” he insists. “If you look at the events in Close to the Enemy and compare them to the situation in the Middle East now, you can see that the sense of your enemy becoming your immediately useful friend as soon as circumstances change never leaves us and is as perilous to the world now as it ever was.”

The key thing for any creative in this time of opportunity, Poliakoff argues, is to stick with your tried and tested ways – without trying desperately hard to please the entire world, tempting though such success may seem. “Everyone wanted a sequel to Dancing on the Edge,” he points out. “The BBC in particular was keen on another chapter, as it did quite well for it. But I don’t like sequels – I like to keep moving, to visit new stories and characters. As long as they are colourful and compelling, people want to watch.”

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Strange bedfellows boost TV

E4 is adapting Turkey's Mesudarim (pictured) as Loaded
Channel 4 is adapting Keshet’s  Israeli series Mesudarim (pictured) as Loaded

This has been a fascinating week in terms of scripted shows that cut across traditional creative and commercial models.

In the UK, for example, Channel 4’s youth-oriented digital network E4 is to coproduce an online gaming-inspired series with SVoD platform Netflix. Called Kiss Me First, the show is a six-hour thriller from Skins creator Bryan Elsley and a team of new writers. In the UK, it will air on E4 then Netflix. Elsewhere it will be on Netflix.

It is the first time C4 has done a deal of this kind with Netflix, though it has moved more aggressively into the coproduction area recently with shows such as Humans (a copro with AMC) and Indian Summers (with PBS).

Interestingly, the last time C4 and Netflix were mentioned in the same story was when the latter ‘poached’ Charlie Brooker’s dystopian fantasy series Black Mirror (which first found its fanbase on Channel 4).

The underlying theme seems to be that C4 is looking for ways to get high-quality drama at an affordable price. This explains why it has also been showing interest in scripted formats recently. After the success of Humans (based on a Swedish show), it is now working on Loaded, an eight-part comedy drama that originated in Israel with Keshet Broadcasting. The UK version, to be written by Jon Brown (Fresh Meat, Peep Show, Misfits), follows four life-long friends who become multi-millionaires overnight. In Israel, the show was called Mesudarim and debuted in 2006.

The Shannara Chronicles will air on Channel 5 in the UK
MTV fantasy series The Shannara Chronicles will air on Channel 5 in the UK

E4 is also reportedly looking for a coproduction partner on Foreign Bodies, a backpacking comedy-drama from indie producer Eleven Film in which two British guys on a gap year go travelling with two American girls they meet in China.

Elsewhere, Televisa USA, a subsidiary of Mexican media giant Televisa, has partnered with Atalaya Productions to develop an English-language series called Aztecs, about the pre-Columbian civilisation. Michael Chernuchin (Marco Polo, Black Sails) has signed on as showrunner of the series, which is based on the Daniel Peters book The Luck of Huemac. Written in 1981, the book has virtually no profile on Amazon, so hopefully the show will encourage a few new copy sales.

Aztecs will feature a multi-ethnic cast and will follow a family living in the waning moments of the Aztec civilisation as the Spanish invasion looms. Televisa calls it the first TV project to tackle the subject of the pre-Columbian empire from its own vantage point rather than that of the Conquistadors.

“The team we assembled is perfect to bring this shockingly tragic cultural tale to TV in an authentic and respectful way,” said Chris Philip, head of production and distribution for Televisa USA. “Intrigue, betrayal and romance will be part of this great story and it all will be told from the eyes of the people that built and lost this civilisation.”

Cuba Gooding Jr will play OJ Simpson in a drama series following the ex-NFL star's murder trial
Cuba Gooding Jr plays OJ Simpson in a drama series about the ex-NFL star’s murder trial

Underlining the new battle lines being drawn in scripted content, Televisa USA has dramatically increased production over the past year. Other titles on its slate include Maleficio, being made with Starz; the Dougray Scott-fronted Duality; and Gran Hotel, adapted from the hit Spanish show and set in pre-Castro Havana. This comes in addition to Devious Maids, already airing on Lifetime.

It’s also been a busy week for acquisitions, with networks around the world stocking up on scripted shows for 2016. In the UK, Viacom-owned digital channel 5* has picked up fantasy drama The Shannara Chronicles following its premiere on MTV in the US (another Viacom channel).

It’s not the first time that Viacom has kept a high-profile drama in the family in this way. Earlier this year, ancient Egyptian drama Tut aired on Viacom’s Spike in the US and was then picked up by 5* sister Channel 5 in the UK.

Still in the UK, BBC2 has acquired American Crime Story, a 10-part US anthology drama that spends its first season looking at the OJ Simpson murder trial.

Prison Break is coming back
Prison Break is coming back

With Simpson played by Cuba Gooding Jr, the show is set to debut on FX in the US on February 2. A few years back, you probably wouldn’t have seen an FX show on BBC2 but BBC2 and BBC4 controller Kim Shillinglaw called it a “gripping, highly distinctive” series, adding: “With an outstanding cast and a top-rate creative team, it is the kind of grown-up, contemporary drama I want on the channel.”

Amazon has also been busy, picking up PBS drama Mercy Street and acquiring all nine seasons of classic sci-fi series The X-Files. The latter is a shrewd move designed to take advantage of the buzz around the new X-Files series, coming soon from Fox.

With the return of The X-Files causing so much excitement, it’s no real surprise to see that Fox has also decided to bring back Prison Break, another of its cult series – last seen in 2005. According to reports from the US, the network has given the show a straight-to-series order. Its creator, Paul T Scheuring, is writing a script and a bible for that is expected to be an eight- to 10-part production.

dfdaf
BBC1 is adapting Apple Tree Yard

Another project in the news is Apple Tree Yard, based on the international bestselling thriller by Louise Doughy. The TV production is being made by Kudos for BBC1 in the UK and will be distributed internationally by FremantleMedia International.

Adapted by Amanda Coe, the four-part thriller “puts women’s lives at the heart of a gripping, insightful story about the values we live by and the choices we make.” It stars Emily Watson (A Song for Jenny, The Theory of Everything) as a married woman who embarks on 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,” says the pre-production blurb.

Coe, whose credits include Filth: The Mary Whitehouse Story, Bloomsbury Set, Life in Squares and an adaptation of John Braine’s Room at the Top, said: “Apple Tree Yard is a perfectly executed page-turner that’s also a gripping exploration of the difficult moral choices we face in adult relationships.”

Jon Bernthal, best known for his role as Shane in The Walking Dead (pictured left) will star in The Punisher
Jon Bernthal (left), best known for his role as Shane in The Walking Dead, will star in The Punisher

Other new projects doing the rounds include American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story, a coproduction between SDE and Playboy-owned Alta Loma Entertainment. As yet, no network is attached to the project.

Also in the works is a new Marvel series based on its character The Punisher. Destined for Netflix, the series will star Jon Bernthal, known to fans of The Walking Dead as Shane Walsh – the Rick Grimes sidekick who loses the plot in season two. Anyone familiar with his terrific performance in that show will know he is perfect for Marvel’s morally dubious vigilante.

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Playing to win: What next for Playground Entertainment?

Playground Entertainment UK’s Louise Pedersen and Sophie Gardiner reveal what’s next for the prodco following the runaway success of Wolf Hall.

How do you follow one of the biggest critical hits of the past 12 months?

That’s the challenge facing Louise Pedersen and Sophie Gardiner, who are leading Playground Entertainment’s new London office, as they attempt to replicate the success of Wolf Hall, the BBC2/PBS drama based on Hilary Mantel’s historical novels.

Pedersen:
Pedersen: ‘The challenge is building the business and getting commissions and making sure we keep the quality threshold up there. It feels like an exciting time’

Playground was founded by former HBO Films president Colin Callender in 2012 and its early credits also include The White Queen and The Missing, which both aired on BBC1 and Starz. Playground has a first-look deal with the US premium cable channel.

The company expanded across the Atlantic earlier this year when Gardiner, a former commissioning editor for drama at Channel 4, and Pedersen, previously MD of All3Media International, joined as creative director and MD respectively.

And with their team now in place, they’re firmly focused on developing a slate of indigenous British drama.

“The focus so far has been on development. The New York team had an existing slate and out of that came Wolf Hall and The Dresser (pictured top, an adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s play for Starz and BBC2 starring Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen),” says Pedersen. “The challenge for us is to get the UK slate up and running.”

Gardiner adds: “We’re mindful of a privileged relationship in the US. Some of our projects will work well in America with our relationship with Starz. But we’re also aware some of the biggest hits in the US historically have been British ideas for British broadcasters for British audiences.”

Playground UK has been busy buying up rights to novels and speaking to writers, with 10 projects currently in active development, including four adaptations. Gardiner explains: “We are developing some more historical pieces, some classic pieces, but we’re putting them with some exciting and unusual ideas to get something quite modern.

Wolf Hall
Can Playground replicate the success achieved by its critically acclaimed period drama Wolf Hall?

“The other thing that feels exciting is that we have Colin with his track record of established, quality contacts in front of and behind the camera, Louise’s strong commercial acumen and my experience at Channel 4, which was in working with newer, edgier and riskier ideas. In time I hope that exciting combination is visible on screen. You can see the DNA of the company in our slate – those three strong, different backgrounds united by a sense of quality and purpose in what we do.”

In particular, Pedersen says her background working for a distributor means the creative aspect of a potential series comes first and the commercial elements now come second. “When you’re sitting at a distributor, it’s all about what shows you’re going to invest in and whether they are going to travel,” she says. “At a production company, it’s about the creative integrity of the show and if the commercial follows, that’s great. We’re market-aware but not market-led. It’s been a bit of a journey.”

As for Gardiner, she’s relishing the prospect of being involved in the day-to-day production of a show following her stint as a commissioner. “I’m absolutely loving stepping back and seeing the breadth and discovering new writers and commissioners. But I also cannot wait to be on the frontline of production again. What’s wonderful about my position here is to be across all the development and eventually the production.”

The Missing
The Missing aired on BBC1 and Starz

But what kind of industry are they setting up in? The increasing number of channels and platforms now commissioning original drama is “good for everybody,” says Gardiner, who points to the number of film and theatre writers now looking at television as a place to tell their stories. “I know the phrase ‘golden age’ is overused but I’m really noticing that these young people are desperately passionate to write in longer form,” she says. “Maybe they used to think they’d make a movie one day. People from theatre and film all want to work in television and that’s where we’re well positioned because of Colin’s history at HBO Films and in theatre.

“People want things they’ve never seen before and that inevitably means we have to find new voices and new approaches. British broadcasters are all articulating that desire for fresh things, and that inevitably means a bit of risk-taking. But it’s all risk-taking – even with a top-name talent, a big idea is a risk. That’s where having a reputation as producers of quality matters to broadcasters so you can steer those ships.”

Playground UK hopes to be in production on at least two series in 2016, with shows already in development with the BBC and Channel 4.

Pedersen adds: “For us the challenge is building the business and getting commissions and making sure we keep the quality threshold up there. It feels like an exciting time and we both feel really lucky to be here.”

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Disney’s Descendants on the up

Descendants was directed by High School Musical’s Kenny Ortega
Descendants was directed by High School Musical’s Kenny Ortega

When Disney gets it right, it really gets it right. Currently doing great business for Disney Channel US is Descendants, a modern-day story based around the teenage offspring of Disney’s most notorious villains. Having attracted 6.6 million viewers for its premiere, the live-plus-three-day audience for the show increased to 10.5 million.

Those figures make Descendants the number-one cable TV movie of 2015, which is perhaps not so surprising when you learn that it was directed, choreographed and exec produced by High School Musical’s Kenny Ortega. HSM was a huge franchise, spawning three movies and giving the world the adorable Zac Efron.

Descendants is also performing well across other platforms. It currently holds the top spot on iTunes (Top TV seasons), while its soundtrack is at the top of the iTunes soundtrack chart and third on the iTunes album chart. It has also spawned a best-selling prequel novel, The Isle of the Lost by Melissa de la Cruz, and an animated shortform series, Descendants Wicked World.

More movie-length productions are presumably an option, although the concept and characterisation might also lend itself to a live-action series.

Cedar Cove stars Andie MacDowell (left)
Cedar Cove stars Andie MacDowell (left)

Hallmark Channel is also celebrating this week following a strong showing from Debbie Macomber’s Cedar Cove, a romantic drama starring Andie MacDowell and Dylan Neal.

According to Hallmark, the latest episode of Cedar Cove became the network’s most watched and highest rated among total viewers and households in its Saturday 20.00 time period. To date, season three of the show is averaging a 2.0 household rating and two million total viewers.

“Over the last four years, Hallmark Channel’s scripted series have become appointment viewing for our audience,” said Michelle Vicary, executive VP for programming and network publicity at Hallmark owner Crown Media Family Networks. “The popularity of Cedar Cove, Good Witch and When Calls the Heart demonstrate the power of our brand and the resonance of our storytelling.”

With so much competition in scripted content, a lot of launch success these days is down to whether you can offer something that piques the audience’s interest.

Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston in Sneaky Pete
Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston in Sneaky Pete

Today, for example, Amazon launches Sneaky Pete, the pilot for a conman drama written and executive produced by David Shore and Bryan ‘Walter White’ Cranston.

Backed by Sony, the show was originally intended for CBS. But when the network withdrew its interest, Amazon stepped in and greenlit the pilot. The star of the pilot is Giovanni Ribisi, but Cranston will guest star, which is sure to lure in swathes of Breaking Bad fans.

That might be enough to convince Amazon it is worth going to series with Sneaky Pete – particularly if it results in new subscribers for the service.

Amazon’s approach is to show pilots for free and then base its commissioning decisions on audience data and customer feedback. Alongside Sneaky Pete, another pilot hopeful launching today is Casanova, from Jean Pierre Jeunet, Stuart Zicherman and Electus’s Ben Silverman.

The Guardian said Odyssey 'failed to produce a single moment of originality.
The Guardian said Odyssey ‘failed to produce a single moment of originality’

In previous weeks, we’ve reported that ancient Egypt drama Tut achieved good ratings for its launch episode on cable channel Spike in the US. It has now aired as a two-part miniseries on Channel 5 in the UK.

C5, which like Spike is owned by Viacom, attracted around 880,000 viewers across two episodes. This is around 28% above the slot average. With Spike having announced its intention to invest more money in scripted shows, Channel 5 may find itself a long-term beneficiary of this.

A less successful acquisition has been thriller series Odyssey, snapped up by BBC2 at the LA Screenings this year after an initial airing on NBC in the US. In this show, British actress Anna Friel plays US army special ops member Odelle Ballard, who is the sole survivor of a drone attack in Mali but has been reported dead after her team discovers a US terrorism funding conspiracy.

On paper, Odyssey looked like it might be a combination of Homeland and The Honourable Woman, but it has received poor reviews and ratings. Already axed by NBC in the US, it has seen its audience on BBC2 slide from around 2.5 million at the start to around one million at the end of its run.

Friel’s acting was praised, but The Guardian summed up the general mood among critics: “Why beat around the bush with subtlety when each coarsely drawn character can spell out plot and motivation so clearly and deliberately? You can practically hear the clunk and ding of the typewriter whenever someone opens their mouth. Even the secret documents kept safe in a USB stick around (Ballard’s) neck are written in Fisher-Price spy language. The writers do not believe you’ll keep up any other way.”

While BBC2 has had a summer to forget regarding drama, BBC1 continues to do pretty well with its Agatha Christie adaptation Partners in Crime. The second episode of six attracted five million viewers last Sunday evening.

While this is down from episode one (6.5 million), it’s still pretty respectable. It bodes well for another upcoming Christie adaptation based on iconic novel And Then There Were None. Due to air later this year, And Then There Were None is a Mammoth Screen and Agatha Christie Productions programme for the BBC, coproduced with A+E Television Networks. RLJ Entertainment has taken US DVD and DTO rights, while A+E Networks will handle international sales via A+E Studios International.

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Leader of the pack

BBC2’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall delivered the channel its best ratings for a drama series in more than a decade and won fawning praise across the board. DQ caught up with the creative talent behind the camera.

Distilling more than a thousand pages of Booker Prize-winning prose into six hours of television is no mean feat. Trying to condense the reasons behind the success of the BBC’s version of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies is rather easier: outstanding source material; an Oscar-nominated screenwriter; a multitudinously decorated director; a world-class cast; and an executive producer who ran HBO Films for almost a decade – a role for which he received recognition in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list.

There are other factors: its “sumptuous settings and jaw-dropping attention to detail,” to quote The Daily Mail, a normally staunch anti-BBC tabloid whose review wondered if the series, which combines both books, might be “the greatest period drama ever.”

Homeland star Damian Lewis plays Henry VIII
Homeland star Damian Lewis plays Henry VIII

For the uninitiated, Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012) are the first two novels in Mantel’s intended trilogy (the third, The Mirror and the Light, has yet to publish) telling the story of Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power as the right hand to Henry VIII through the first half of the 16th century.

Wolf Hall was the first book to which Colin Callender optioned rights when he set up Playground Entertainment after leaving HBO in 2008. Inevitably, there was plenty of competition but Callender was able to win the author over.

“I spent a lot of time with Hilary talking about how it could be adapted for the screen,” he recalls. “She had taken the form of the historical novel and really shaken it up and I thought there was an opportunity to do the same in television – to create a historical drama for the post-Sopranos, post-Breaking Bad audience.”

Peter Straughan, best known for movie adaptations including How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, The Men Who Stare at Goats and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, came on board as scribe but only after he was told the project was set for television.

“When I first got sent the book, I thought it was being suggested as a film and I was going to say no,” he reveals. “It does sometimes happen that you get a book which is simply too large a canvas to fit into a film-sized pot. But when they told me it was for TV, I said I definitely wanted to do it.”

Straughan had never worked in the medium before. “I’d never been given six hours to write a drama, and for a writer it’s a great place to be,” he says. He broke the novels down into half a dozen “mini films” – each with their own beginning, middle and end that needed to be slotted together to form the overarching canvas – and worked closely with Mantel, whom Straughan says was “helpful, constructive and generous all the way through… never intrusive or dictatorial.”

Colin Callender saw the show as an opportunity  to 'create a historical drama for the post-Sopranos, post-Breaking Bad audience'
Colin Callender saw the show as an opportunity to ‘create a historical drama for the post-Sopranos, post-Breaking Bad audience’

“The good novelists understand the process and know a slavish adaptation usually won’t make a good film or TV series,” he adds. “Hilary was certainly one of those. She was completely open to any change and I would usually run things by her and always send the episode as soon as I’d finished for her notes.”

The resulting series, starring Mark Rylance (main image) as Cromwell, Damien Lewis as Henry and Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn, is an intense, brooding piece of television, which lingers on the characters’ expressions and is as much about the silences and shadows between them as it is the whispered politicking and slow-burning menace of a king who is disarming in his vulnerability but primed to ignite at any time.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve had a drama that’s challenged the perceived notions of what tempo needs to be in television,” says Straughan. “There’s a kind of fear behind that, which I think is about ‘we’re going to lose the audience any second if we don’t do something quickly.’ So it was interesting to say we’re not going to do that, we’re going to go at a different pace, a different metabolic rate, and see whether a large audience would go with that. Luckily it seems they have.”

Indeed, Wolf Hall became BBC2’s highest-rating drama series in more than 13 years when it concluded in March this year, while coproducer Masterpiece began airing it in the US in April.

Straughan refers to a “post-HBO, post-Breaking Bad confidence” in TV drama, and the experience of working in the medium has encouraged him to explore other projects, potentially penning a pilot for HBO with Tom Hanks’s Playtone to bring Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir novels to the small screen.

“The adult, interesting, complex stories that you used to be able to expect from cinema, you now find in television,” he says. He believes TV is “the writer’s medium,” whereas film remains firm directors’ turf.

Peter Kosminsky has worked in both and won countless awards in each, but he was slightly surprised to be asked to direct Wolf Hall – his first period drama.

Kosminsky is celebrated for contemporary political dramas such as The Government Inspector (2005), which also starred Rylance, and The Promise (2011), starring Foy, but his career as a filmmaker spans three decades.

Wolf Hall is all about the politics of the Henrician court, he points out, and while he had read the books when they were first published, it was Straughan’s adaptation that convinced Kosminsky to sign up. “I read a lot of scripts – dozens every year – and I think they were just about the best I’ve ever read,” he says.

They were only first drafts, too, Kosminsky notes, making them all the more extraordinary. He talks about Straughan’s “apparently effortless distillation” of Mantel’s “densely typed prose.”

Peter Straughan broke the novels down into half a dozen 'mini films'
Peter Straughan broke the novels down into half a dozen ‘mini films’

“Peter had rendered this into six hours of television without any sense of hurry or confusion. It seemed to go at a very measured pace and yet I wasn’t particularly aware of any major strands that had been excluded. Once I read those scripts, there was really no doubt in my mind this was something I wanted to do.”

If one of the hallmarks of Wolf Hall is its meditative, cerebral tempo then the decisions Kosminsky took behind the camera and in the edit suite are as much responsible as Straughan’s writing. “In filmmaking terms this is not an adventurous piece,” says the director. “Most of the scenes are two or three people sitting in a room talking to each other, so we had to think about how to give it some kind of style, how to make it feel unusual and fresh. We wanted to get a strong sense of atmosphere and, if possible, of silence. We wanted the silence of the rooms, the silence of the pauses between words to be a character as much as the words themselves.”

Kosminsky says this was something that naturally developed, rather than being imposed. “We rehearsed and then I let the actors play in front of the camera and I tended not to give them notes. I liked the pace at which they played the drama. It seemed to me it showed the complexity. You could see the wheels turning as Cromwell, who’s faced with death on a number of occasions, tries to decide on the safest course of action.”

Wolf Hall is very much about watching those wheels turn and the precision with which Rylance engineers them. The actor is in every scene, points out producer Mark Pybus, praising the former Globe Theatre artistic director for his stamina.

“In the novels you’re very much inside Thomas Cromwell’s mind and even though it’s not written in the first person, it somehow feels as if it is, and that’s one of the magic tricks Hilary pulled off,” Pybus adds.

“We wanted to give you Cromwell’s viewpoint. In order to convey that to the audience, you have to enter a room with him to establish we don’t know information before our lead character does. We experience events in that room with him and we leave with him. As a result, you have travelling shots in and out of rooms to get that sense of being on his shoulder.”

Mark Pybus is full of praise for Mark Rylance's performance
Mark Pybus is full of praise for Mark Rylance’s performance

Part of the character’s allure, says Pybus, is that he was famously a man who gave little away. Therefore a voiceover would have been inappropriate. “With an actor like Mark Rylance, the subtlest hints are given but you have to have the right pace for those to come across. If you quickly cut between scenes, you lose those magical moments where suddenly it becomes clear what Cromwell was thinking.”

Just about the only point for which Wolf Hall faced criticism from British reviewers was its occasionally dim lighting, due to a reliance on real candles – something only made possible by the latest Arri Alexa cameras. But the reception was otherwise almost universally favourable. Kosminsky admits all involved were “slightly taken aback by the reaction” – even himself, after such a long career.

“It’s a difficult book and we didn’t set out to dumb it down, we set out to confront its difficulty. We expected this to be appreciated by a small group of devotees, quickly dumped by the rest of the viewing population and largely ignored by the popular press. Nothing in 35 years in television programme-making has prepared me for the scale of the response, so I’m slightly unnerved by it and still trying to come to terms.”

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Must-see TV

Witnesses
Witnesses has averaged 4.3 million viewers across its run

Those of you who attended Channel 21’s International Drama Summit in London last autumn may have seen the trailer for a new French crime drama called Witnesses (Les Témoins). Created by Hervé Hadmar and Marc Herpoux, the eerie six-part series begins with a series of corpses being placed in various homes.

Roll forward a few months and Witnesses has emerged as a huge hit for French public channel France 2. Having debuted on March 18 to an excellent 5.3 million viewers (Mediametrie), it went on to average 4.3 million (17.4% share) across its run. This makes it the natural successor to other breakout French hits such as Spiral, Braquo and much-discussed supernatural thriller The Returned.

Witnesses’ strong ratings (and the reward of a second series) will be welcome news to all those international broadcasters that acquired the series from Newen Distribution ahead of its launch on France 2. Presumably inspired by the international success of The Returned, Channel 4 (UK), RTL Crime (Germany), NRK2 (Norway) and SBS (Australia) were among the first to act. With Norway due to show the series in primetime, it looks as though the French are doing a good job of reclaiming the word ‘noir.’

The next obvious question is whether the Witnesses format will appeal to US broadcasters. There is undoubtedly strong demand in the US for good scripted ideas, but a poor showing for Gracepoint (based on UK series Broadchurch but regarded as similar in tone to Witnesses) and a modest outing for A&E Network’s version of The Returned may lead to caution. One factor that may influence a decision on Witnesses is how the original fares on Netflix, which began streaming it on May 1.

WolfHall
Risks taken with Wolf Hall are paying off

One of the surprise hits of recent months is Wolf Hall, the BBC2 drama based on Hilary Mantel’s novel about the life of British King Henry VIII’s advisor Thomas Cromwell. Starring the formidable Mark Rylance and superbly scripted by Peter Straughan, Wolf Hall opted against resorting to the sugar-rush scripted devices that are often used to hook in and hold on to TV viewers. Indeed, with its sombre lighting, stately pace and intricate plotting, it was exactly the kind of series that could have erred on the side of being worthy but dull.

Instead, it has proved the point that audiences often have more intellectual stamina than broadcasters give them credit for. After a strong showing on BBC2, Wolf Hall’s premiere episode on PBS Masterpiece secured 4.4 million viewers (Live+7). Masterpiece executive producer and drama industry veteran Rebecca Eaton called it “yet another high-water mark in Masterpiece’s history”.

Anyone familiar with TV ratings will know that most dramas tend to shed viewers after their first episode as a percentage of the audience decides a show is not for them. So the acid test is really whether it can then sustain its performance from then on. Judged in this way, ITV four-part thriller Safe House is a solid hit. Starring Christopher Eccleston (The Leftovers, Fortitude, Doctor Who), the series started with 5.3 million viewers and then dropped to 4.8 million in week two. However, it has just concluded with 4.75 million (live+1), making it the top-performing drama in the UK outside soaps. The show’s distributor is All3Media International, which has not provided any news yet on international sales. But with strong UK ratings and Eccleston attached, it should do brisk business abroad.

janethevirgin
Jane the Virgin was adapted from a Venezuelan telenovela

At MipTV last month, Electus CEO Ben Silverman spent a lot of time talking up the prospects of Jane the Virgin, the US adaptation of a Venezuelan telenovela that has been airing for the past eight months on CW Network. Silverman, who has an uncanny knack of delivering international hits, believes Jane the Virgin can have the same kind of success as Ugly Betty (which he brought to ABC in 2006). With the current show, Silverman’s role is to sell the international format rights to the US version, while the completed series is being sold by CBS Studios International. It’s also worth noting that the original telenovela is being sold on the international by RCTV.

It’s too early to tell if Silverman is right to put Jane in a similar category to Betty, but there are positive signs for the show. For a start, the ratings across the first run of 22 episodes (1-1.3 million) were pretty good (especially among the 18-49 demo). There’s also the fact that CW has recommissioned the show, which means it is getting up to the kind of volume international broadcasters like. E4 in the UK has already started airing the series and an unnamed German broadcaster is close to picking up the format.

On top of all this, the show – created for the US by Jennie Snyder Urman – has received a healthy level of critical praise, both from the US and UK. To top it all, lead actress Gina Rodriguez recently won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Jane, something that won’t do the show’s sales prospects any harm.

stalker
Stalker has been canned after only one season

Still in the US, the spring shakeout at US networks is now virtually complete, with shows renewed, cancelled or picked up from pilot. One casualty is Fox’s The Following (starring Kevin Bacon), which is being shut down at the end of its current run (May 18). The Kevin Williamson-created series started strongly in series one with ratings in the 6-10 million range. But by the middle of season three the show was muddling along with 3-3.5 million viewers.

Williamson’s direct involvement in the series diminished some time ago, presumably so he could devote his energy to Stalker, a 20-part programme he created for CBS. Unfortunately, that show has also been cancelled after just one season, with ratings dipping to around the six million mark at the end. Williamson (whose earlier credits include Dawson’s Creek, the Scream movies and I Know What You Did Last Summer) still has a success in the shape of The Vampire Diaries on CW, but it will be interesting to see what he will now turn his hand to if he decides he has spare capacity.

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Good Fellowes

Fellowes 001
Julian Fellowes leaves Downton behind

Julian Fellowes is one of the hottest writing properties in global drama thanks to the success of Downton Abbey. So when it was announced that Downton’s next series will be its last, there was inevitable speculation about what he would do next.

The answer, revealed this week, is that Fellowes is working on a three-part adaptation of Doctor Thorne, Anthony Trollope’s novel about a doctor and his talented but penniless niece. Produced by Hat Trick Productions for ITV, filming starts later this year.

Trollope’s works don’t get as much attention as other 19th century authors such as Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. But there have been high-profile adaptations of The Pallisers, The Barchester Chronicles, The Way We Live Now and He Knew He Was Right. Explaining his choice of project, Fellowes says: “As a lifetime devotee of Trollope – my own favourite among the great 19th century English novelists and certainly the strongest influence over my work that I am conscious of – it is exciting to know that my adaptation of one of his best-loved novels is coming to ITV.”

While many of Fellowes’ screen credits, including Downton Abbey, are original works, Fellowes is no stranger to novel adaptations. In fact, he wrote the screenplay for Vanity Fair, a 2004 film version of the classic 19th century novel by William Makepeace Thackeray.

EPSON MFP imageAs a three-parter, Dr Thorne won’t occupy Fellowes for too long. So it will be interesting to see if he continues his partnership with ITV into 2016. In 2012, there were reports that he was planning a Downton Abbey prequel, focusing on the youthful romance between central characters Lord and Lady Grantham.

Other writer-based developments in the UK include news that in-demand Hugo Blick has been signed up to write a series for BBC2. In a vague statement, the BBC says the show is about “a compelling set of characters caught up in a very human moral dilemma and plays out in a setting drama rarely takes us to, contemporary Africa.”

Although details are currently under wraps, audiences can expect the complex conspiratorial storytelling that Blick gave us in The Honourable Woman, a political thriller set against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to the Guardian, “Viewing a Blick series is like someone coming to you with a ball of horribly knotted and twisted wool and promising to knit you a sweater.”

In the US, the civil rights and abolitionist movements continue to provide rich sources of material for writers. Kirk Ellis, writer of HBO miniseries John Adams (2008), has joined forces with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin TV, to pen a biopic for HBO about famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Based on Kate Clifford Larson’s book Bound for the Promised Land, the production will highlight Tubman’s involvement in leading slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad and later fighting during the Civil War.

Paul Giamatti, Laura Linney
HBO’s John Adams, starring Paul Giamatti (left) and Laura Linney

The John Adams miniseries was a multiple Golden Globe and Emmy winner, which explains why Ellis was a shoe-in for this new project. He was also credited as a co-writer with Stephen David and David C. White on Sons of Liberty, History US’s three-part miniseries about the early years of the American Revolution.

Fellowes, Blick and Ellis are all A-list writers these days. In terms of rising stars, this week saw James Wood (Rev, Ambassadors) named as writer on Game Changer (working title), a BBC factual drama starring Daniel Radcliffe and Bill Paxton. Aimed at an adult audience, this 90-minute drama tells the story of the controversy surrounding video game franchise Grand Theft Auto.

Stateside, Bravo Media is boosting its scripted output (like every other cable broadcaster). A new slate of shows includes White Collar Wives, which looks at the ripple effect of an FBI investigation into insider trading, as the women married to the financial elite go to extreme lengths to save themselves. The project is from BBC Worldwide-owned Adjacent Productions and is being written by Vanessa Reisen (Weeds, Californication).

Bravo’s new orders also reflect the way in which writing talent is crossing from movie to TV. One of its new shows, My So Called Wife, is co-written by Adam Brooks – whose movie credits include French Kiss, Wimbledon and Definitely Maybe. Brooks and writing partner Paul Adelstein previously scripted Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce for Bravo and are reuniting for My So Called Wife.

house of cards
Kevin Spacey in House of Cards

In terms of projects that need writers, the big story is that Fox 21 Television Studios and Kevin Spacey are linking up to produce a TV drama adaptation – The Residence, by Kate Andersen Brower, a best-selling non-fiction book about life at the White House. At the time this story was published, no writer had been attached to the show.

Some good news for British writers, meanwhile, is this week’s decision by commercial broadcaster ITV to raise wages for drama writers. They will get a 5% pay increase following negotiations between ITV and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain. The rate for a one-hour drama will rise to £13,283, up from £12,650. Rates for writing series increase to £10,395 per episode, up from £9,900. Presumably this is a minimum, with the likes of Mr Fellowes able to command a much higher pay packet for Dr Thorne.

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Inside Steven Knight’s critically acclaimed period drama Peaky Blinders

Peaky Blinders, the Steven Knight-scripted period crime drama, has had one of the best critical receptions of UK drama in recent years, also winning the Editor’s Choice award at the inaugural C21 International Drama Awards in November 2014. But what exactly does it take to create, and sustain, such a beautifully crafted drama? DQ talks to some of the key players behind the production.

Viewers of last November’s climactic season two finale of Peaky Blinders on BBC2 were treated – and boy was it a treat – to an hour-long illustration of just why the UK period crime drama has become one of the best-received UK series of recent years, and what The Guardian has called “Britain’s answer to Boardwalk Empire.”

The sixth and final episode of the drama’s second season saw its protagonist, 1920s Birmingham gangster Tommy Shelby (played by Cillian Murphy), faced with near-impossible decisions across his business, family and love life. A finale played out at the Epsom racecourse brought the show’s dramatic tension – love and hate, law and crime, loyalty and honour, right and wrong and, of course, life and death – to a brutal climax.

Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy, left) and Arthur Shelby (Paul Anderson)
Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy, left) and Arthur Shelby (Paul Anderson)

The derby day denouement of Peaky’s many tense arcs was, above all, the handiwork of its writer, Steven Knight. With screenplays Closed Circuit, Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises to his name, Knight was already a drama giant. But he’s perhaps less known for being the UK creator of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? – an experience that no doubt honed his faculties for high drama.

For Peaky Blinders, Knight turned his attention to post-WWI Birmingham and the historical ‘Peaky Blinders’ street gang, so named for sewing razorblades into the peaks of their flat caps, which could then be used as weapons.

Peaky Blinders was created by Knight and coproduced by Caryn Mandabach and Tiger Aspect. Jamie Glazebrook, an executive producer working for Mandabach, says the show’s genesis was almost incidental.

“Five or six years ago we had a great meeting with Steve about a different project. He called a few weeks later to say he had an idea for something else – and told us about Peaky Blinders. We loved it straight away.”

Mandabach had built an enviable reputation in the US for groundbreaking comedy hits including The Cosby Show, Roseanne and latterly Nurse Jackie. The move to a dark UK drama like Peaky took Mandabach Productions outside of its sweet spot, and it needed a partner.

“Our background is in family comedies, but we wanted to cut our teeth on a big period drama with horses and guns and a cast of thousands,” Glazebrook recalls. “Very early on it seemed the best thing for the show was to hook up with Tiger Aspect. We have been proved right: they have been geniuses at taking a relatively small budget and making it look like something that could absolutely compete with US cable.

Frith Tiplady, executive producer and head of production at Tiger Aspect, explains: “Caryn Mandabach had the relationship with Steve Knight and got the commission. The BBC asked them to partner up with a UK production house. I like to think that Mandabach came to us because of our production expertise in delivering quality on screen – interpreting the writing to deliver the best show.

“We are definitely clear on our roles and really respect what the other brings to the party. I am sure Caryn agrees. Together we have made something really special. I think it’s been a brilliant partnership.”

Knight’s scripts define Peaky. “We are here because of Steve’s words,” says Glazebrook. Tiplady concurs: “We really see our job as being like the LAPD – to protect and serve. The strength is in working with Steve, realising his vision and protecting him as the writer.”

The show’s gothic texture is grounded by a deliberately cinematic look and feel rooted in the grime of 1920s post-war industrial Birmingham, which also has more than a nod towards Sergio Leone and Ridley Scott. That production design is led by TV period veteran Grant Montgomery.

Frith Tiplady
Frith Tiplady

“When I first read the first script I wanted to be part of it,” says Montgomery. “Giving it a very cinematic look from the get-go helps give it integrity,” he adds. “It goes for very much a cinematic quality of storytelling. That comes really from Steven’s scripts. When you read those, you think you have got to bring everything – cinematography, prod – so of course it becomes even more high end.

“It is also then moving from Birmingham to London – from industrial second city to first city – and you have to bring all of that to the table. So the journey has to become very clear visually.”

History and a rooting in actual events is one of the things that grounds the show. So how important was this in Montgomery’s work? “Initially the industrial world was dark black and the houses were black, so it was very important for me to get that right,” he says. “And the minute detail – if you notice in season one they are all using oil lamps, and then when they go to season two they have electricity and wealth – all those details that show the changing of the period and of their status.”

Of similar importance, says Montgomery, was the use of exteriors to take viewers out of the present and give a sense of reality in the past. The challenge of creating that experience was “huge, because you don’t have an art department budget. There isn’t a Hollywood budget to build a street,” he explains. “It takes a lot of money to do that and we don’t have it, so to try to convert locations and make them as big as possible was the ambition of the show right from the start.

“Every exterior was really hard fought for, with us thinking about how we were going to do it. Maybe we would only shoot half of a street. For example, in season one you had the whole street, while this year we only had half of it – but being sneaky with our angles made it seem like more than it was.”

Peaky is reported to have cost £1m an episode to make, but in fact that figure is an underestimate. “It was about £1.3m, £1.4m and probably season two was more like £1.4m, £1.5m,” Tiplady reveals. “But that’s not surprising. It’s exactly what a big period drama costs.”

So how did the funding come together for the show? “For series one we needed more money than is traditional in UK television,” she says. “The BBC supported it through the licence fee, and we had huge help from Endemol Worldwide Distribution, which placed a very good advance. EWD and Screen Yorkshire brought in match-funding, which together was almost a third of the budget.

“What’s interesting is that series one was done before the government’s tax break and series two was done after the tax break, so they have different funding models. The change went hand in hand with the creative ambition for series two, which was so much bigger that we needed more money.

“The difference between season one and season two is probably about £250,000 an episode. So it’s a huge amount of money, and the tax break went into a huge hole. It enabled us to deliver our vision. Without it we would have had to curtail Steve’s ambition, which is something we don’t want to do.

Tiplady says the real investment was that “we were in there for the long haul. It wasn’t about series one – for us it was always about getting series two, getting series three. Steve wanted to write a saga, and if you get into bed with that kind of extraordinary writing, they you need to have faith that you can deliver quality and potential for going forwards.”

Of course, the success of Peaky Blinders lies not just in its script, nor its look. The stellar performances of lead actors Murphy and Sam Neill, joined by Tom Hardy and Noah Taylor in season two, are also a big part of the show’s success.

For Tiplady, the production has been dependent on the goodwill of the lead performers. “We operate with no options for them so there is a definite love for the project,” she says. “We are punching above our weight.”

Jamie Glazebrook
Jamie Glazebrook

A haunting goth-punk soundtrack, curated by singer-songwriter PJ Harvey and Paul Hartnoll of electronic dance duo Orbital, lends a dark and unsettling texture to the show from the off. Not least with their choice of Nick Cave’s vengeful anthem Red Right Hand as Peaky’s theme tune. The White Stripes, Arctic Monkeys and Johnny Cash add to the dark-days soundtrack.

Tiplady says the show’s strong emphasis on pre-recorded artists presented its own challenges, not least because of the way the music industry itself is funded: “Music is extraordinarily expensive, very confusing and very complicated. I do think royalty-wise it needs a massive overhaul. The costs are such an important part of the process, but economics often force you down the composer route.

“When you are trying to do something creatively different like we are doing in Peaky, the only way we can do it is to get those artists involved at the production stage, which is fantastic and has worked extremely well – but that is very unusual and very hard.

“The music industry is finding other ways to explore things creatively. If the rights could actually shake up and release us then potentially we could see more shows like Peaky just being really rewarding for everybody. But I think the setup is so antiquated and I am not quite sure who it is looking after at the moment.”

With season three now confirmed (the producers announced it via Twitter in November), what are the challenges ahead? Glazebrook says: “I think we have a little bit more time. We were very tight in series two and, to an extent, Colm McCarthy was already directing when the final episode came in. So we were flying blind. Everyone who has seen that final episode will see it was pretty much all in new locations. That was hard, so we don’t want to put our director through it again.”

“We are going to have slightly longer to actually produce the show, so in essence that makes things 100 times more easy,” says Tiplady. “The driving force with Peaky is to keep pushing quality high and deliver an extraordinary viewing experience to the audience. Maintaining that is crucial to all of us, so that will be the challenge.”

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