Tag Archives: Black Earth Rising

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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