Tag Archives: Black Earth Rising

Blick magic

Hugo Blick, the writer, director and producer of dramas including The Honourable Woman and Black Earth Rising, reveals his motivation to tell stories and his approach to his craft.

A satchel given to Hugo Blick by one of his children has a name label bearing the words “Auteur (TV).” In the so-called golden age of TV, as the barriers between film and television have become so eroded as to barely exist anymore, it’s apt that a storyteller who writes, directs and produces all of his own work should be given a title more associated with the feature film world.

It’s the label Blick identifies with more readily than that of ‘showrunner’ when DQ asks him what he prefers to be called during a keynote session at Lille event Series Mania earlier this year. “I suppose that’s kind of it,” he says, “because I singularly write and singularly direct. I don’t know many others who do it. I’m just a portrait artist, and I’m the only one who’s got the paints.”

Blick has been a TV auteur since as far back as his cult BBC mockumentary comedy series Marion & Geoff, which stars Rob Brydon as Keith, a naive taxi driver who monologues to camera about the fallout of his divorce with Marion, while failing to recognise the cause of it – her affair with Geoff.

“The very first thing I wanted to make, nobody else wanted to make,” he recalls of the show, which debuted in 2000. “I got lucky with a little bit of money from a production I’d just shared an experience with, and I kept that back and made it for nothing. No one wanted it even after we made it. Then it went on to do really well and, after that, I was always a writer/director/producer.”

Hugo Blick: an auteur, not a showunner

A showrunner, he argues, is a very different role – “and possibly much harder” – as they often oversee long-running series with no end in sight. “My real luck is that I spend a lot of time constructing an idea, researching it and then I’m only close to beginning the writing when I have the last line of the whole story in my head. That is my loadstone; it’s the summit of a mountain range. It’s finite. I’m going to get there in eight hours and it will be over. It’s a relief that I don’t have to come back to it. I just have that one destination to approach.”

Blick believes his authorship of a series also helps sell the project in the first place, with broadcaster, production and creative partners able to buy into his singular vision. His often complex and intricate drama series – The Shadow Line, The Honourable Woman (pictured top) and Black Earth Rising – can also be threaded together through a single theme, the possession of secrets, and how that concept is explored.

“In my earlier work, the secrets were personal and intimate and had little impact on the wider world. The conspiracy in The Shadow Line actually turned out to be about pension protection,” he laughs. “I didn’t sell it like that. It’s pretty obscure stuff. That was about the morality of the holding of these secrets.

“The Honourable Woman was about how secrets possess you. They’re not about things you hold; they hold you and you have to release yourself as an intimate individual. I suppose in the journey towards Black Earth Rising, I became more aware of the possession of secrets at a societal level. It was a development of themes of secrecy and the maintenance and possession of it.”

The latter, Blick’s most recent series, aired on BBC2 and Netflix last year. An eight-part international thriller, it looks at the prosecution of war crimes and the West’s relationship with contemporary Africa. Michaela Coel stars as legal investigator Kate Ashby, who was rescued from the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide as a child but finds the shadow of her tragic past impossible to escape.

Michaela Coel in Black Earth Rising, Blick’s most recent series

When writing a drama, Blick says a story needs to have a central character who is fundamentally flawed. The interest then lies in why they are flawed and how they can resolve it.

“It was through Michaela’s character that this story was distilled,” he says of Black Earth Rising. “She does not know the secret [of her past] and she has to pursue it. It’s important also to flag up that the story was always about the West’s response to those issues, and whether we have the right and responsibility to engage in them, rather than [setting the series] from the African perspective looking back. The West was accused of blindness towards the terror of the genocide, and it could also be accused of blindness in the aftermath of the genocide in the 25 years since. On a big scale, these themes fitted into the sorts of themes I was exploring in The Honourable Woman and The Shadow Line.”

The Honourable Woman was led by an award-winning performance from Maggie Gyllenhaal, whose character Nessa Stein struggles to right her father’s wrongs in a world of conspiracy and espionage, set against the backdrop of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Meanwhile, The Shadow Line follows a murder and its investigation by both the police and criminals and how they try to solve it, with national secrets at risk of being exposed.

Blick believes writing is not so much a profession but a condition – one that comes with being angry. “There’s a lot to get angry about but there’s also a lot to cohere and resolve,” he says. “I get to the end of one project but then I sit there and think, ‘What’s the next one I want to do?’ and then it pops into my head. Usually I’m really angry about it – a secret no one knows about – and we need to discuss it and explore it, so that’s the motivation.”

That’s when he begins his research process. Black Earth Rising took six months of research and two years of writing to bring to the screen, with whiteboards around Blick’s office carrying the entire story from start to finish.

The Honourable Woman saw Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character attempt to right her father’s wrongs

Knowing the story so well, directing is the natural next step for Blick, who says working behind the camera can be a very liberating experience if you know the DNA of a project. Things can go wrong, he notes, if directors focus on elements of a script that they like but are actually just window dressing and don’t relate to the heart of a story.

“You’ve got to get right inside it, which is why I’m yet to direct a project I haven’t written myself. I know it from the inside, and coming from the outside you can make huge mistakes,” he explains. “Then, as a director, I’ve got this vision, which is what you communicate to all your heads of departments. It’s the essential purpose of the story. If we share the vision, that’s it. With the designer, for example, once we have that intuit of vision, I don’t want to know what he’s doing. I’ll rock up on set and whatever he’s done is fine because I believe and trust his relationship with the vision. It’s the same for everyone, from the composer to the editor to everybody else.”

The approach is also true of the acting. Blick will meet all of those playing significant roles and, once they have a connection over what the project is, he leaves them to freely contribute their own ideas to their performance.

“When I walk on set, I never have an idea of how I’ll do a day. But I trust everybody,” he says. “I only do about three takes. I rehearse a little bit, but I’m there to witness. If everybody’s done their job because they want to do that job because they share that vision, I’ll know where to put the camera, because it’s in the best place to witness that psychological exchange the actor is facilitating.

“If it goes beyond four takes, there’s something wrong with the writing, so you’ll reconstruct it so it feels smooth and fluid. A small lesson to younger directors is you have to have courage to do the difficult thing first thing in the morning. Don’t delay the thing that frightens you because what you’ll do, if it’s a Napoleonic ballroom scene, your principals will be dancing in the middle but the inexperienced will stay away from them because they’re frightened by them.

Blick’s earlier TV works were comedy shows, such as Marion & Geoff

“Then, by the time they get to that scene, which is what the audience wants to see, either you’ll run out of time or your actors will want to kill you because they’ve been acting their arses off for three hours while you’ve been in the circumference, shooting great stuff in wides, but you haven’t got to the meat of it. All you’ve got to do as a director is get to the truth of the scene as quickly as possible, and that’s what I do. Once it’s done, don’t hang around. Get out.”

Before he moved into drama with The Shadow Line in 2011, Blick worked on comedies such as Marion & Geoff, Joanna Lumley-fronted Sensitive Skin and Operation Good Guys, a police mockumentary series in which he was also part of the ensemble cast. It’s his training as an actor, plus other on-screen roles – including a cameo in Black Earth Rising – that has led him to believe that acting is a good way to begin if you want to become a storyteller.

“You know how incredibly vulnerable they feel,” he says. “It’s a metaphorical but truthful thing that all actors feel. It doesn’t matter who you are, all actors feel this on day one. You’ve just got to allow them to understand that your presence protects them and this space in which they are allowed to create, to play and to be this other person.”

Taking a break after Black Earth Rising, Blick hints that his next project will be set in the past, while ideas he had about a series exploring Russia were dampened by BBC and AMC drama McMafia. Nevertheless, he will continue to investigate his “natural suspicion of an absolute truth.”

“I want to look at the other side,” he concludes. “Truths are very flexible and they move between those who possess it and control it. You get closer to a sense of harmony by looking at one thing and then the other, and then exploring in drama the thing that emerges in the middle part. That’s the nuance and that’s the character. I’m just pulling against two polarities and trying to find the middle line.”

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Blick’s Earth rises

Michaela Coel stars in Black Earth Rising, Hugo Blick’s long-awaited follow-up to his award-winning drama The Honourable Woman. The actor and Blick discuss this international thriller with a unique mother-daughter relationship at its heart.

Four years have passed since the UK’s BBC2 and SundanceTV in the US first aired The Honourable Woman, the award-winning political drama starring Maggie Gyllenhaal that explored the relationship between Israel and Palestine.

During the intervening years, writer, director and producer Hugo Blick’s appetite for personal stories told within a global setting appears to have gone unabated, as he is now returning to screens with the long-awaited Black Earth Rising, an eight-part international thriller that looks at the prosecution of war crimes and the West’s relationship with contemporary Africa.

But while The Honourable Woman saw one woman struggle to right her father’s wrongs, this time it’s a mother-daughter dynamic at the centre of proceedings. Set across the UK, Europe, Africa and the US, the fictional series centres on legal investigator Kate Ashby (played by Michaela Coel, pictured above), who was rescued as a young child during the Rwandan genocide and adopted by Eve Ashby (Harriet Walter), a world-class prosecutor in international criminal law. Both work in the legal chambers of Michael Ennis (John Goodman).

When Eve takes on a new case at the International Criminal Court (ICC), prosecuting an African militia leader, the story sends Michael and Kate on a journey that will change their lives forever. The series, produced by Forgiving Earth (a partnership between Eight Rooks and Drama Republic), is once again written, produced and directed by Blick.

Black Earth Rising producer Greg Brenman (left) and creator, writer and director Hugo Blick

From the start of the first episode, Black Earth Rising is an intelligent and absorbing series, beginning with a dramatic animation of the Rwandan genocide that leads into the first scene, in which Walter’s Eve Ashby is forced to defend her role and that of the ICC. It’s an exchange that’s echoed at the end of the first hour, too, when Eve again defends her work to daughter Kate, who is angry that her mother has agreed bring a prosecution against a militia leader hailed as a hero for his involvement in bringing an end to the near-decade-long genocide.

This plot came straight from Blick’s research for the series, which followed on from similar work he had done for The Honourable Woman. Interested in trauma and its aftermath and looking at the subject of war crimes, he began studying the ICC, which was formed in 2000, after the genocide. In particular, he was surprised to discover a large number of ICC indictments for war crimes are against Africans, notably black Africans. That in turn led to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where a large number of the indictments originated.

His research found that while the ICC was seeking war crime prosecutions of people from the DRC who had participated in the Rwandan genocide (the court cannot take retrospective legal action against crimes that took place before it was ratified or before a country signs up to it), it was also chasing people who had brought the genocide to an end, again for war crimes.

“For a dramatist, this is fascinating because both villains and heroes were being pursued by the same institution and I couldn’t understand why,” Blick says. “So I was really interested to work that out and obviously draw that back down the line to what I do, which is to try to find geopolitical issues as in The Honourable Woman but personify it in the world of our lead character.

The series stars Michaela Coel alongside John Goodman

“So Michaela plays a woman who was taken out of the aftermath of the genocide, and events conspire to throw our character into our relationship with the West and Africa today. It’s a kind of platform for asking what our relationship with modern Africa is, but it’s an absolute story about one woman’s search for identity and the reconciliation with her hidden past.”

Blick, whose other credits include The Shadow Line, spent six months researching the basis of the series, says the final story was not what he set out to write. “Sometimes when you write a project of this size, you absolutely know the destination – that’s where you’re going to hit. On this occasion, I found the destination changed due to both the experience of research, writing and filming and the surprises along the way,” he says, noting that the story will be resolved in Africa, rather than by Western influences.

“It takes away this idea that we’re there to instruct what’s already an incredibly contentious issue, just on a massive political scale. They don’t need to be instructed in the way we think they do, so that’s one of the destinations of the story that surprised.”

At the heart of Black Earth Rising is the relationship between high-flying barrister Eve and her adopted daughter Kate, who is forced to confront her past across the eight-episode series.

Coel, the Bafta-winning writer and actor behind Channel 4 comedy Chewing Gum, says she was initially “perplexed” at her lack of knowledge about the Rwandan genocide. “Then as I sat down trying to find some kind of redemption for my ignorance, I tried to meet this character who had so much going on, and I was a world away from her. That’s what attracted me to it.

Coel plays Kate, who was rescued during the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide as a child

“Every character I play, a little bit stays with me like residue, and I think Kate is one I’m determined to keep. Her resilience, her defiance… she is the strongest person I know – I do know she’s not real – and her pursuit of the truth is unique and she should be praised and comforted for that. I think I’m a bit stronger, I think I’m a more defiant and I’m a bit more curious.”

Blick says he often casts actors with a comedic sensibility for dramatic series, describing them as “jazz players” who bring a looseness to their performances. This approach goes all the way back to comic Rob Brydon’s role in Blick’s BBC2 mockumentary Marion & Geoff, and also saw Coel and Hollywood star Goodman brought on board as central characters in Black Earth Rising.

“We had struggled to cast Kate, it’s quite a dextrous role,” Blick recalls. “Then Michaela was at the Baftas. I’d seen her in Chewing Gum so hadn’t been thinking of her much for this role. But she is a woman of agency and certainty. Some aspects of the character of Kate struck me as a total fit for the way Michaela presents herself and character.

“John brings his wonderful New Orleans-inflective voice. He’s such a professional performer. He’s playing a barrister and has a lot of words to say. But what’s very impressive about him is when you get into the edit and you’ve got eight hours to put together, he’s got a singular line of character going all the way through, right to the last scene.”

In production, Ghana doubled for both Rwanda and the DRC to give the series an authentic feel that might have been lost had it instead used somewhere like South Africa, for example. Filming also took place in Switzerland, France, Paris and the UK.

Hollywood star Goodman on the set of the BBC and Netflix coproduction

Drama Republic executive producer Greg Brenman says that with any new drama from Blick, there’s “excitement that it’s going to be unusual, different, extraordinary and challenging. It will always be super stimulating.”

It will also be very much Blick’s own vision, with his fingerprints over every part of the story. “The brilliant thing about him writing and directing is that, in order to move from writing to directing, he’s written all the scripts. From a practical point of view, it’s fantastic because you see the entire work,” Brenman says.

“He’s also one of those writers who totally understands what he’s going to do and how he’s going to write it and achieve it. He’s quite private when he’s writing a script because he also needs to find it from moment to moment for himself, while he has a complete, firm understanding of where it’s going and how it’s going to end. So he likes to present and see what everyone thinks, rather than discuss, chew it over and then do something that is a consensus piece.”

Blick agrees that, in a very crowded market, he gives his shows an individual voice. “It’s not a voice for everybody, but both the BBC and Netflix know they’re getting a distinct point of view because it’s coming from one person. It’s like a Tiffany jewel in the department store – it is what it is, no one else makes it and you may not like it, but it’s there and it helps the department store say who it is.”

A coproduction between the BBC and Netflix, Black Earth Rising will premiere on BBC2 in the UK on September 10, with the streamer offering it to its users everywhere else.

Blick ultimately believes the strength of the show – and the greatest challenge it faces – is viewers’ unfamiliarity with the story and modern Africa, adding that the series explores both the lack of engagement and responsibility when it comes to the continent but also the failings of African life and governments.

“It’s that two-way street of engagement,” he says. “This is a story that’s a thriller, it’s built to be a compulsive thriller, but it’s asking some difficult questions. And that’s what I hope the audience will engage with too.”

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BBC heads in the write direction

Sherlock: The Abominable Bride
Sherlock: The Abominable Bride

UK TV audiences enjoyed some great drama over the Christmas period. But while all the major broadcasters offered something of interest, the BBC’s scripted output was simply outstanding.

A key reason for this is the corporation’s excellent relationship with writing talent. The Sherlock Christmas Special’s slightly warped view of the suffragette movement may have had its critics, but the episode – titled The Abominable Bride – was still a brilliantly written piece of TV from Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss that was watched by 8.4 million viewers.

Equally enjoyable were the opening episodes of Andrew Davies’s adaptation of Tolstoy’s War & Peace and Sarah Phelps’ take on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. And not to be overlooked is Tony Jordan’s Dickensian, an inspired piece of TV that I watched out of idle curiosity and which thus far has more than exceeded my modest expectations. See this Telegraph review for a good summary.

Charles Dance in And Then There Were None
Charles Dance in And Then There Were None

The strength of the BBC’s Christmas drama slate won’t have come as a surprise to those who have been following the broadcaster’s scripted output over the last year or two. Among numerous highlights have been Wolf Hall (adapted from the Hilary Mantel novel by Peter Straughan), The Honourable Woman (written by Hugo Blick), Banished (Jimmy McGovern), Happy Valley (Sally Wainwright) and Doctor Foster (Mike Bartlett). In each case, it has been the quality of the writing that has really shone through.

Coming into 2016, it looks like the BBC is sticking with the same successful formula. Announcing a new slate of 35 hours of drama, Polly Hill, controller of BBC drama commissioning, said: “I will continue to reinvent and broaden the range of drama on the BBC. It is because we make great drama for everyone that we can offer audiences and the creative community something unique and distinct. I want the BBC to be the best creative home for writers.”

Hugo Blick's The Honourable Woman
Hugo Blick’s The Honourable Woman

So what’s on offer? Well, Hugo Blick will be back with Black Earth Rising, a BBC2 thriller set in Africa. Blick describes the show as a “longform thriller which, through the prism of a black Anglo-American family, examines the West’s relationship with Africa by exploring issues of justice guilt, and self-determination.”

The series will be produced by Drama Republic and Eight Rooks Production. Drama Republic MD Greg Brenman, whose company also produced The Honourable Woman and Doctor Foster, said: “We are excited to be teaming up with Hugo once more. Black Earth Rising is ambitious, thought-provoking and searingly relevant – the hallmarks that are fast defining Hugo Blick.”

Also recalled for 2016 is Bartlett, whose Doctor Foster was the top-rated UK drama of 2015. With Bartlett already committed to writing a follow-up series, Hill revealed the writer will also be writing a six-hour serial called Press for BBC1. Press is set in the fast-changing world of newspapers.

The critically acclaimed Doctor Foster was written by Mike Bartlett
The critically acclaimed Doctor Foster was written by Mike Bartlett

Explaining the premise, Bartlett said: “From exposing political corruption to splashing on celebrity scandal, editors and journalists have enormous influence over us, yet recent events have shown there’s high-stakes, life-changing drama going on in the news organisations themselves. I’m hugely excited to be working with the BBC to make Press, a behind-the-scenes story about a group of diverse and troubled people who shape the stories and headlines we read every day.”

Although Jimmy McGovern’s period drama Banished was not renewed, the programme was a tour de force – so it’s no surprise the BBC has commissioned McGovern to write a new show. Broken “plots the perspective of local catholic priest Father Michael Kerrigan and that of his congregation and their struggle with both Catholicism and contemporary Britain.”

Set in Liverpool, the six-hour series will be produced by Colin McKeown and Donna Molloy of LA Productions. McGovern and McKeown said: “We are both proud and privileged to be producing this drama from our home city of Liverpool. The BBC is also the rightful home for this state-of-the-nation piece.”

Jimmy McGovern's Banished will not return
Jimmy McGovern’s Banished will not return

One writer joining the BBC fold for the first time is Pulitzer Prize and Academy Award-nominated screenwriter/playwright Kenneth Lonergan, who has been tasked with adapting EM Forster’s Howards End for BBC1.

“I’m very proud to have been entrusted with this adaptation of Howards End,” he said. “The book belongs to millions of readers past and present; I only have the nerve to take it on at all because of the bottomless wealth and availability of its ideas, the richness of its characters and the imperishable strain of humanity running through every scene.

“The blissfully expansive miniseries format makes it possible to mine these materials with a freedom and fidelity that would be otherwise impossible. It’s a thrilling creative venture transporting the Schlegels, Wilcoxes and Basts from page to the screen. I hope audiences will enjoy spending time with them as much as I do.”

The show is being produced by Playground Entertainment, City Entertainment and KippSter Entertainment for the BBC. Rights to use the original novel as source material for the miniseries were acquired from Jonathan Sissons at Peters, Fraser & Dunlop, on behalf of the Forster estate.

Playground founder and CEO Colin Callender said: “At a time when there is a raging debate about the BBC licence fee, it is worth reminding ourselves that it is because this great institution is funded by a licence fee rather than advertising or subscription that it is able to bring to the British audience dramas that no one else in the UK would produce. The boldness of commissioning a playwright like Ken Lonergan to adapt this great literary classic and make it accessible and relevant to a modern audience is a testament to the BBC’s crucial and unique role in the broadcast landscape worldwide.”

Fiona Seres, who wrote The Lady Vanishes (pictured), is now working on Woman in White
Fiona Seres, who wrote The Lady Vanishes (pictured), is now working on Woman in White

Equally exciting is the prospect of Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White coming to BBC1. Made by Origin Pictures with BBC Northern Ireland Drama, the four-part adaptation will be written by Fiona Seres, who wrote a new version of The Lady Vanishes for BBC1 in 2013.

David Thompson and Ed Rubin, from Origin Pictures, said: “We are so excited to be bringing a bold new version of Wilkie Collins’ beloved Gothic classic to the screen. His gift for gripping, atmospheric storytelling is as thrilling for contemporary readers as it was for Victorians, and Fiona’s unique take brings out the intense psychological drama that has captivated so many.”

Other writers lined up include Joe Ahearne (for The Replacement), Conor McPherson (for Paula) and Kris Mrksa (Requiem). The decision to work with Mrksa, best known for titles such as The Slap and Underbelly, is interesting because he is Australian.

The BBC’s blurb for Requiem (which will be produced by New Pictures) says: “What if your parent died and you suddenly discovered that everything they’d said about themselves, and about you, was untrue? Requiem is part psychological thriller – the story of a young woman, who, in the wake of her mother’s death, sets out to learn the truth about herself, even to the point of unravelling her own identity. But it is also a subtle tale of the supernatural that avoids giving easy answers, playing instead on uncertainty, mystery and ambiguity.”

Mrksa calls it “a show I’ve always wanted to make. To be making it with the team at New Pictures (Indian Summers), and for the BBC, a network that I so greatly admire, really is a dream come true.”

Right now, that would probably be true for any TV writer.

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