Eight-part drama Jamestown charts the early days of the first British settlers as they embark on their lives in America, among them a group of women destined to marry the men of the colony.
Facing all manner of trials, the settlers come together to conquer and adjust to the realities of their new lives on the other side of the world. But while Jamestown is a place for them to build new lives and start again, it’s also somewhere past secrets can be buried.
Writer Bill Gallagher (Lark Rise to Candleford, The Paradise) tells DQ about the historical facts that inspired the story of Jamestown, the research he undertook in Virginia and why he compares the series to a novel.
He also discusses the value of collaboration to help create the identity of a show, which in turn informs the direction, casting and other decisions during production.
Jamestown, which debuts on May 5, is produced by Carnival Films for Sky1 and is distributed by NBCUniversal International Distribution.
A trio of the world’s hottest television writers – Bill Gallagher, Victoria Madden and Sarah Phelps – discuss their latest projects and reveal how they find their voice for the small screen.
Bill Gallagher Starting his career on British dramas such as Casualty, Soldier Soldier and a TV movie based on French detective Maigret, Bill Gallagher is best known for credits including Lark Rise to Candleford, Conviction, The Prisoner, The Paradise and Paranoid. His next project is frontier drama Jamestown (pictured above), which charts the early days of the first British settlers as they begin their new lives in America. It is produced by Carnival Films for Sky1 and distributed by NBCUniversal International Distribution.
Gareth Neame [Carnival’s MD] asked if I would look at this period of the very first settlers who went to America from England. I said, “Ok, I’ll read some books.” So I was reading this stuff and it was terrific but I couldn’t see a show. Then I was reading one book, I was on page 300-and-something and suddenly it said, ‘And in 1619, when the men had been there for 12 years, the Virginia Company sent over a ship with 100 women on it’ – maids to make wives. And I fell in love with the whole notion of doing this. You have to fall in love with it.
That became the defining aspect of the show – to see the whole experience though the eyes of women. I was brought up on westerns on the TV so it really was my mythology as a kid, and I got to write for Native American actors. It was absolutely fantastic.
I wrote the whole thing myself. It’s not always the case but often is. I was instantly very clear about who the characters were and what the stories were. I wrote the pilot very quickly and Gareth gave it to Sky very quickly. I’ve been a writer for 30 years and that speed is a rarity rather than commonplace. Things just fell into place at the right time. Sky makes shows with scale, with issues driving them. It fitted what they wanted and they had a pilot script.
I worked with [exec producer] Richard Fell at Carnival and we went to Virginia together. One of the most joyful parts of being a writer is to find a simpatico partner to work with, somebody who challenged me all the time, who was as passionate as I was about it and who got me as a writer.
I allow myself to be clumsy. I love my craft, I love the craft of making a TV show but I work quickly and sometimes that’s clumsy – but I don’t mind that. I used to beat myself up about it when I was younger, I used to get in a real mess and then I had this realisation at some point that this was just my job and it’s my job to be better – so how do I make it better? I don’t mind being clumsy but I have to find someone who’s not panicked by that, and Richard was terrific. I love the craft of it. I work very hard at the composition and architecture of it all but I also give myself permission to get things wrong.
It’s a great time to be a writer because to write something like Jamestown now, which has Native American characters and slaves and English people who have been transported around the world, we can write anything and it’s doable.
Victoria Madden Australian writer Victoria Madden’s early credits include The Flying Doctors and Heartbreak High, before she moved to the UK and worked on dramas including The Bill, Trial & Retribution and Irish series The Clinic. She then returned home to Tasmania to write and produce The Kettering Incident (pictured above), an eight-part mystery with supernatural overtones for pay TV broadcaster Foxtel that centres on a doctor who finds herself linked to the disappearance of two girls, 15 years apart. It is produced by Porchlight Films in association with Sweet Potato Films and distributed by BBC Worldwide.
I’ve written a lot of crime in my career and I love it as a base to work from. I was looking for other angles and when I was living in the UK, Life On Mars was being shot. I was hugely influenced by that show, the way they managed to make a fantastic crime show but with supernatural overtones that didn’t get in the way. It started to make me think that I wanted to explore the supernatural genre as well and to marry together some ideas.
Tasmania is a deeply gothic place with a horrific past – it’s right at the bottom of the world, it’s very isolated, very alone and suffers a lot from huge environmental wars – and I wanted to explore that, adding in the fact that Tasmania also has an abnormally high percentage of people who go missing. I was always fascinated by that.
That started the idea – then something else, something out there. That was the hardest part for me. I hadn’t done supernatural before. I didn’t want it to be a sci-fi show; I wanted it to be a metaphor and to build the supernatural into the story in a natural way. It’s also about a small town on the brink of destruction and that world I grew up in and that desperation. Also, in small worlds, what I find fascinating is the way you have to get on with your neighbours because it’s so small but everybody hates everybody. It builds this maelstrom of deceit and duplicity.
Anna Macy, the lead character [played by Elizabeth Debicki], is a girl who comes back, realises she doesn’t belong and so starts a journey. It really is a journey of unwinding a character and seeing why we need connection and why we need to call somewhere home. She’s a bit of an anti-hero – you don’t know whether to believe her, so that was fun to play with. Is she lying, is she connected to the missing girl story?
I was very influenced by Scandinavian drama and the importance of place. I wanted a story with a big landscape, so that meant a big budget and universal themes so it could travel. We were really lucky, it was a perfect storm. Foxtel was looking for something really different for Australia so it all came together for a world stage.
I don’t like dialogue a lot and I do anything to try not to write a lot of dialogue, but I knew the themes we were exploring were about disconnection, and so every character – even the smaller secondary characters – had a full journey through the show. When I know the themes I am exploring, I like to work in a mosaic way. I do small scenes between people, taking them out of the drama, and then I weave it together afterwards. I don’t like to do it linearly, I just like to do these moments and think about what these people would talk about. At the end, you hopefully get this coherent episode of characters who are lost and trying to find their way through their circumstances.
Sarah Phelps Sarah Phelps started her writing career on long-running UK soap EastEnders and has since worked on shows including The Crimson Field, Dickensian and Hooten & The Lady. She is best known, however, for her skill at adaptations, among them Great Expectations and The Casual Vacancy. She is now reinventing Agatha Christie for the BBC, first with And Then There Were None and most recently with The Witness for the Prosecution (pictured above and at the top of this page). The two-part story about a man put on trial for the murder of a wealthy heiress is produced by Mammoth Screen and Agatha Christie Productions, with A+E Networks distributing.
I never read any Agatha Christie at all and I never watched any – I just thought it wasn’t for me. It was cosy, over there somewhere, just not what I’m interested in. But then Damien Timmer from Mammoth told me to read And Then There Were None and I was absolutely knocked sideways. It’s one of the most brutal, savage things I’ve ever read. It’s rather extraordinary. It just took fire in my head.
These 10 people on an island – a salt-scoured rock – in the middle of the sea, unable to reach the mainland and here comes this thing towards them, this bloody reckoning of all the things they’ve done, the lies they’ve told. You watch the veneer of etiquette, politesse, society, gender and status being stripped away from them to reveal the craven, brutish animals they are. They are all people who have perpetrated the most terrible crime – they’re all murderers.
That to me felt like, ‘Well, if this isn’t a story about what it’s like to live in 1939 as the world tips over again and the absolute cataclysm of the Second World War, then what the hell is?’ So that really excited me.
Then I came to The Witness for the Prosecution. It’s 20-odd pages, this story with a great twist, but it’s also the 1920s. We associate the period with people dancing on tables and drinking champagne; flappers and rackety, hedonistic, sexual and social excess, but it’s also a time of extreme depression. People came back from the First World War with terrible injuries, both seen and unseen, and terrible deformities.
In the middle of this is a story about sex, money and murder, about an older, very wealthy woman buying favours from a young man who is completely penniless, and you get a really different feeling from the story. Added to that is one of the main characters is a woman who is absolutely the epitome of alterity – she is a foreigner, an actress from Vienna. What we’re talking about is someone from somewhere else and Christie takes all those great icons of what we believe English and privilege are and just smashes them to absolute pieces. That feels so wildly subversive to me.
There’s always a key that unlocks the story and makes the whole thing explode. Suddenly there’s a tiny detail, it might even be a sub-clause in some long sentence, and it just unlocks everything and that’s when you start running wildly round your house with your jumper over your head like a kid. You know you’ve found your story.
From writing EastEnders to anything else, I’m the audience. Does the story excite me? Do I want to find out what happens next? Am I interested in this story? But if you want it to be universal, you have to be really specific because that’s where you get this emotional connection. Being able to write something that absolutely punches you in the heart from my ridiculously tiny study somewhere in England – if it can punch you in the heart there, it can punch you in the heart around the world.
The TV industry’s annual calendar is packed with great events – though not all of them have a high profile outside their domestic market.
A good example is the ATX Television Festival, which has taken place in Austin, Texas, over the last few days. For those not familiar with ATX, the organisers say: “We have the functionality of a traditional film festival with screenings followed by Q&As from cast and creators; panels focused on industry related topics; and an array of events that includes parties, live music, meet-ups and social media events. Unlike traditional festivals, however, we celebrate the history of the medium as well as the future. We spotlight classic shows, never-aired pilots, cancelled-too-soon series, cult favorites, current hits, and premieres of new series.”
Significantly, ATX gets plenty of support from big hitters in the US TV industry. At this year’s event, there were panels with the likes of Betsy Beers (Grey’s Anatomy), Noah Hawley (Fargo), Beau Willimon (House of Cards), Tom Fontana (Homicide: Life on the Streets), David Simon (The Wire) and Howard Gordon (Homeland).
There were also sessions exploring the depiction of the LGBT community in scripted TV, comic book adaptations, the way faith and religion are tackled, the role of the director in TV drama and the secret to making a successful fantasy series for TV.
One of the most interesting sessions saw writers from FX’s iconic series The Shield (2002-2008) meet up to discuss how the show shaped their respective careers.
Scott Rosenbaum, who has gone on to executive produce series like V, Conquistadors and Gang Related, said: “There was an immense amount of pressure. It was very, very competitive because we all wanted our ideas to get on screen and when we didn’t, we could be angry or petulant – but I think that’s what made it so great, this sense of competition.”
Aside from Rosenbaum, other Shield writers on the panel included Glen Mazzara and Kurt Sutter, who have gone on to work on both megahits and short-lived failures. In Mazzara’s case, credits include The Walking Dead and Damien, while Sutter’s post-Shield work includes Sons of Anarchy and The Bastard Executioner.
Also on the panel was Shawn Ryan, showrunner of The Shield. Ryan has gone on to create and produce a number of new series since The Shield including Last Resort, Lie To Me and Mad Dogs — with NBC’s new time-travel drama Timeless his next adventure.
However, he clearly still has a residual affection for The Shield and its central character, Detective Vic Mackey (played by Michael Chiklis). Quizzed on the show, he gave the impression that he could be persuaded to go back to the franchise if the conditions were right and he could call on some of the original writing team: “I have some ideas where Vic Mackey is, but I don’t know where Vic Mackey is until someone puts me in a writers room with a group of these people (on the panel) and some people who aren’t here and gives us a week to sort it out. Usually my first idea or instinct isn’t the right one, so I have some thoughts. I’d love to hear their thoughts and I’d love someone to pay us to sit in a room.”
Rosenbaum also gave some insight into the psychology of working in the writers room of such a high-octane show. Recalling the addition of established showrunner Charles Eglee (NYPD Blue, Moonlighting) to the team, he said: “There was a proprietary feeling of, ‘This is our show. We’re the ones who did this. Why do we have to have a new person come along? We’re capable of doing this.’”
However, that initial resistance disappeared when “we realised we had someone really special. My first impression of him was that I thought he was one of the smartest people I’d ever met.”
Another ATX panel of interest was “Westerns: Then and Now,” which saw HBO give a sneak peak of Westworld. Co-creator Jonathan Nolan said: “It was Game of Thrones that made us feel like we could pull this off. The 30-second pitch for Westworld was that we were sort of making Days of Heaven and Alien simultaneously and then putting them together, which is kind of my dream project – exploring two genres and playing with the juxtaposition of both. It’s fantastic.
“HBO felt like the only place we could make this. And Game of Thrones was the inspiration for us. Game of Thrones has this commitment to practical production value, which is not necessarily what’s in play (elsewhere) these days.”
Meanwhile, still in the US, the creator of CBS hit series Elementary, Rob Doherty, has just signed a three-year deal with CBS Television Studios.
CBS has already renewed the show for a fifth season, but the new deal suggests Elementary will get a least a couple more runs yet – which is no surprise when you learn how much money it generates for the network. In May, CBS boss Leslie Moonves said Elementary made CBS an estimated US$80m in profit last year (the result of being a wholly-owned CBS property).
Elementary is Doherty’s biggest hit to date, though he has written and produced for a number of series, including Ringer, Medium, Point Pleasant, Tru Calling and Dark Angel.
Outside the US, the big story of the week is that Canal+ in France has renewed its spy drama The Bureau for a third season. Federation Entertainment and TOP will start filming the third run in September. This is the second piece of good news for the show, after its existing seasons were picked up by Amazon Prime UK.
The Bureau was created by Eric Rochant, who is also known for writing and directing movies such as Autobus, Mobius, Love Without Pity and The Patriots. In terms of TV projects, he also wrote and directed a number of episodes of Canal+’s Mafiosa, le Clan. Created by Hugues Pagan, this show also ran on Canal+ for five seasons (40 episodes in total) from 2006 to 2014.
Finally, coming full circle to the subject of interesting industry events, screenwriter and director Bill Gallagher (The Paradise, Lark Rise to Candleford) has joined the line-up for C21 Media’s International Drama Summit, part of Content London (November 29-December 1). Gallagher will discuss new work such as Sky1’s forthcoming eight-parter Jamestown at the event, as well as his approach to the craft and his role as a creator and writer.
Jamestown, about the first British settlers in America, is being produced by Downton Abbey and Lucky Man producer Carnival Films and is slated to air later this year on the UK satcaster.
Last week it was announced that writer/director Tony Grisoni had also joined the line-up for the International Drama Summit.