The television landscape is awash with series set in alternative – and not particularly bright – futures. Stephen Arnell casts his eye over the dystopian series on screen, and also finds sci-fi series with a more optimistic outlook.
All-conquering AI, robots that are more human than human, apps that can mimic any possible experience, egomaniacal billionaires searching for eternal life, a world wreathed in perpetual smog, unstoppable viruses, re-animated corpses, Nazi victors in the Second World War and the knock on the door from black-garbed members of the secret police.
One would think that in a world with Donald J Trump as US president, Brexit, North Korea, Russia, global warming, cyber warfare and other woes, viewers would be looking for escapist entertainment. But perhaps counter-intuitively, the vision of an even more dire future provides some comfort in the present.
Dystopian drama has become a major TV trend over recent years, and it’s showing no sign of stopping, although there are some signs of possible fatigue, with lacklustre audiences in the UK for SS-GB (BBC1, 2017), Channel 4’s Electric Dreams (2017-18) and the recent Hard Sun (BBC1, 2018).
All had very different themes. SS-GB envisioned a Nazi occupation of the UK, Electric Dreams is an anthology series based on the work of hard sci-fi author Philip K Dick and Hard Sun was a police thriller set in a pre-apocalypse London.
In terms of the BBC1 dramas, it could be said that the rather bleak material was better suited to sister channel BBC2, while the hit-and-miss nature of portmanteau series such as Electric Dreams are known to sometimes struggle to find audiences – with the obvious exception of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror (the former C4 show now at home on Netflix).
In the US, Syfy’s Incorporated (2016-17), a Matt Damon/Ben Affleck production set in a US ruled by corporations folded after one season, as did the channel’s exploitation Death Race homage Blood Drive (2017).
Are we approaching ‘peak dystopia?’ Not just yet. In fact, not by a long chalk.
It must be noted that anticipation was high for the second seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu) and Westworld (HBO), both of which premiered recently and have been well received. Viewers are now eagerly awaiting season three of The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime), while Black Mirror goes from strength to strength, with filming on season five beginning recently. And AMC’s future feudal Samurai-style society drama Into the Badlands returned in April for a third run.
Netflix’s Brazilian sci-fi series 3% deals with a world very much divided into the haves and have-nots; after favourable reactions to 2016’s debut run, the drama returned for season two on April 27.
On cable, dystopian series continue to thrive. The 100 (The CW) returned for a fifth season on April 24, The Colony came back for a third run on May 2 and Van Helsing (Syfy) had a third season order in December 2017.
Netflix’s Altered Carbon (pictured top) launched to mixed reviews this February – there was high praise for the set design and production values but it was also criticised by some as owing too much to Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner (1982) and for objectifying its female characters.
Weeks after Altered Carbon dropped, Netflix also released two dystopian movies – Duncan Jones’s generally slated Mute (which shared a similar visual palate to Altered Carbon) and Alex Garland (Ex Machina)’s well-reviewed Annihilation – which may have been overkill in such a short space of time.
Data from Parrot Analytics suggests the budget-busting Altered Carbon’s patchy performance could make a sophomore season unlikely.
This year will see new dystopian drama on our screens in addition to returning series. Last week, continuing its interest in the genre, Netflix dropped the Danish thriller The Rain, which is being touted by some as its answer to The Walking Dead, except with a distinct young-adult skew.
The show is set after a brutal virus wipes out most of the population, as two young siblings embark on a perilous search for safety.
The fact the virus is spread through precipitation has led some to draw somewhat unfortunate comparisons to Chubby Rain, the fictional ‘film within a film’ in the Steve Martin/Eddie Murphy comedy Bowfinger.
ABC’s The Crossing, meanwhile, debuted on April 2. The show centres on an influx of refugees in present-day Oregon, but with the twist that they are from a war-torn USA, 180 years in the future.
Starring Steve Zahn (War for the Planet of the Apes, Treme), The Crossing debuted with a modest 5.5 million viewers, with audiences declining for subsequent episodes.
On May 19, HBO will premiere its feature-length version of Fahrenheit 451, an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi classic that depicts a totalitarian society where books are outlawed and burned by ‘firemen.’
Fahrenheit 451 takes its title from the autoignition temperature of paper. The book was last adapted for the screen in 1966 by French auteur filmmaker Francois Truffaut and was his only English-language movie. HBO’s version boasts a stellar cast including Michael Shannon (The Shape of Water) and Michael B Jordan (Black Panther). Shannon has previously worked with Fahrenheit 451 director Ramin Bahrani on the award-winning foreclosure drama 99 Homes (2014).
On the horizon from Fremantle’s UFA Fiction (Deutschland 83) is Kelvin’s Book, from art-house film writer/director Michael Haneke (The Piano Teacher, Hidden). An English-language project, the 10×60′ series tells the story of a group of young people in the not-too-distant future who are “forced to make an emergency landing outside of their home and are confronted with the actual face of their home country for the first time.”
Next year sees the debut of Amazon Prime Video/Liberty Global’s London-set series The Feed, which “centres on the family of the man who invented an omnipresent technology called The Feed. Implanted into nearly everyone’s brain, The Feed enables people to share information, emotions and memories instantly. But when things start to go wrong and users become murderous, they struggle to control the monster they have unleashed.”
Guy Burnet, Nina Toussaint White, David Thewlis and Michelle Fairley will star in the psychological thriller, which will be distributed by All3Media International.
One new project that many spectators now believe may never make it to the screen is HBO’s Confederate, as creators David Benioff and DB Weiss (Game of Thrones) are now on board the Star Wars franchise – and the show’s concept of a continuing Southern slave-owning state has proved highly controversial in the current US political climate.
FX has recently ordered a pilot of Y: The Last Man, set in a world with only one surviving male – with strong production credentials from co-showrunners Michael Green (Logan, Bladerunner 2049, American Gods) and Aida Mashaka Croal (Turn, Luke Cage).
Israeli VoD service/cablenet HOT TV will debut Autonomies this year, which imagines the present-day country divided by a wall into two Jewish states – secular in Tel Aviv and ultra-orthodox in Jerusalem.
And to round off the dystopian shows in development, Amazon recently announced a series based on William Gibson’s The Peripheral, set in a bleak not-too-distant future (and beyond), with the Westworld team of Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan as showrunners.
Syfy’s 2015 miniseries adaptation of Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End must take the prize for one of the most downbeat endings ever – concluding as it does in the total destruction of the Earth, after the planet’s mutated psychic children have been subsumed into an all-powerful alien ‘overmind.’
But lest we fall into total despair, it should be recognised that there are actually a few sci-fi TV dramas that depict a future that isn’t unrelentingly grim.
The Star Trek franchise is notable for showing an optimistic view of the times to come, with mankind becoming a force for good in the galaxy after (with notable exceptions such as Harry Mudd) curbing its greed and war-mongering.
Seth McFarlane’s affectionate Trek tribute The Orville (Fox) also has rosier take on the future, whileNetflix’s Lost in Space reboot has a not-entirely-pessimistic vision of humanity in the 21st century.
Hulu/Ch4’s upcoming Beau Willimon-scripted Martian colony drama The First (starring Sean Penn and Natasha McElhone) appears to promise a relatively upbeat approach, or at least one that’s not tipped totally in the direction of dystopian misery.
The long-running Stargate SG1 and its spin-offs portrayed a universe that was inhabited by at least a few alien species willing to befriend mankind rather than instantly vaporise Earth.
Meanwhile, Doctor Who (BBC1) generally takes a more upbeat road, as befits its family audience. Although end-of-the-world scenarios and alien domination feature frequently, the Doctor usually conveys a positive attitude, occasionally (in some incarnations) to the point of what some may deem mania.
For one night a year, the cream of the behind-the-scenes talent working in the British television industry is recognised at a star-studded celebration. DQ hears from the winners at the Bafta Television Craft Awards 2018.
The courtyard of central London’s The Brewery is abuzz with guests donned in black ties and ballgowns. Episodes and Green Wing star Stephen Mangan stands at the entrance, greeting new arrivals as guests pose for photos beside a giant golden mask.
The mask, of course, is the instantly recognisable symbol of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts – better known as Bafta – and Mangan, soon to appear in BBC1 drama The Split, is working the door in his role as the host of the 2018 Television Craft Awards, where 20 golden mask trophies will be given out to those who work behind the scenes on scripted and factual productions.
Prizes are handed out for costume design, directing, editing, make-up and hair design, sound, writing, photography and music, with nominees in the fiction categories coming from series such as Peaky Blinders, The Crown, Taboo, Game of Thrones, Three Girls (pictured above), Line of Duty, The Miniaturist, Black Mirror and more.
After a champagne reception, the nominees, award presenters and other guests file into the ceremony room to take their seats at the dozens of tables set out in front of the grand stage.
Then, as the awards get underway – after a VT introduction introducing Mangan in Handmaid’s Tale cloak and bonnet – DQ speaks to the winners in the scripted categories about their work and the shows that earned them a prized Bafta award.
Breakthrough Talent: Daisy May Cooper and Charlie Cooper, writers, This Country (BBC Studios, BBC3) Charlie Cooper: It’s been six years since we first started writing something and it’s been a long journey with a lot of ups and downs. We did a pilot a few years ago for ITV, which went disastrously wrong. Shane [Allen, BBC controller of comedy commissioning] had seen our stuff a few years ago and just commissioned a series straightaway, which is unbelievable. Daisy May Cooper: I ended up emailing Shane and said, ‘I didn’t know who to go to. I will literally stand outside your office dressed as the Karate Kid, because you’re my Mr Miyagi, until you come down and talk to me.’ He said don’t do that, just come in for a meeting. We went in and he just said everything was going to be alright. He is absolutely the most amazing man to young fresh talent. He’s like God to us. When you’ve got people like Shane backing you, you just feel so looked-after. The BBC, I have to say, have been absolutely amazing and there are so many amazing comedies coming through the BBC and they’re discovering fresh young writers. The BBC is the place to be and they’re the ones to watch when it comes to breakthrough talent.
Editing: Fiction: Úna Ní Dhonghaíle, Three Girls (BBC Studios Drama, Studio Lambert, BBC1)
I was actually very lucky because I have historically done feature documentaries and Phillipa [Lowthorpe, director] wanted to shoot this show in that type of manner with the roving camera, not using the normal establishing shots. So I embraced it and she shot it so beautifully that it was a joy to edit. We had challenges in trying to keep the veracity and integrity of the girls’ story [with the show being based on a true case of widespread sexual abuse in the UK town of Rochdale] and we couldn’t manipulate the truth, but that was a good challenge because it makes sure you do the right thing. These people live and exist in the world today and they were going to watch it and make sure they were happy with it, so it was a good challenge.
Whenever they were shooting the series, I was editing and assembling from home so I didn’t see anyone during that period, which is a grace period for editors because then we can get to know the material and try things out. Once the final cut began, I was with Philippa in Film@59 in Bristol and after about three weeks, Nicole [Taylor, writer] started to come in, so it was very collaborative. All of us wanted to tell this story in the best way we could for an audience at home to understand on-street grooming and how those girls found themselves in that situation. That was our guide. The real people came to meet us, so that also helped us keep our finger on the pulse of the truth.
Titles & Graphic Identity: William Bartlett, SS-GB (Sid Gentle Films, BBC1)
I’d read the book before and then I read the scripts, and I liked the idea of the main character, Archer, not knowing who was on his side and the shadowy nature of it. The visual aesthetic, I’d had ages ago. I’ve got a number of ideas for title sequences in the back of my mind, and I thought I had a seed of a visual idea that was right for this. So I did a few tests and it fit with the narrative of the book and the ideas within the programme. It evolved out of the story.
I love title sequences for a couple of reasons. From a creative point of view, it’s an area that has really limitless possibility. You can come up with something that’s unique and interesting and you’ve got real scope to do what you want. I think of them like an overture from an opera where you’re trying to set the scene and plant little ideas and visual references of what’s going to come later. Because of that, it’s interesting how it’s constrained by the narrative, the story and the drama, but it’s really free as well. It’s unique in terms of what you have to do visually. Title sequences, generally, are going through a real heyday at the moment. There are tonnes of really great title sequences being done all over the world. With more TV being done, title sequences have come into their own as well. People are prepared to invest in them a little bit.
Special Visual & Graphic Effects: DNEG TV, Jean-Clement Soret, Russell McLean, Joel Collins for Black Mirror episode Metalhead (House of Tomorrow, Netflix) Michael Bell, visual effects supervisor: Filming the episode in black and white was the idea of David Slade, the director. It was strange for us because you don’t see much VFX in black and white. Ultimately, it made it unique, made it really stand out and we’re really proud of the finished thing.
It took months and months just for the modelling of the creature itself [a relentless robotic killing machine], the inner workings and all the details. There were basically two characters in this episode – Maxine Peake’s character and this creature – so you had to see how it was thinking; it had to be believable and it was quite a difficult challenge. Sometimes it could be comical but it had to be scary and I think we pulled it off.
Costume Design: Michelle Clapton, Game of Thrones (HBO, Bighead, Littlehead, Television 360, Startling Television, Sky Atlantic)
My ideas are always informed by the story. We get the outlines two months before we get the scripts, and they usually give me two weeks to think and draw. I speak to David and Dan [Benioff and Weiss, showrunners] so it’s all story-led, which is why it’s so exciting. I work quite closely with them and I’ll develop something to a stage where I think they’ll understand it. Sometimes they don’t like it and say, ‘What we’re trying to say about this character is this…’ So then we’ll have a discussion. Most of the time it’s fine but it’s interesting when it’s not, because you learn something.
It was nice to step out of Game of Thrones and do something like The Crown [in 2016] because in some ways it gave me a break from the show and I could return and feel enthused again about it. Period shows are really interesting but you have a period you’re looking at, so you design within that period but there’s still references. On something like Game of Thrones, you have no references, which is what I find so exciting. It’s been one of a kind and I doubt we’ll see a show like that again to such an extent. It’s been such a huge show and I’ve grown with it.
Photography & Lighting: Fiction: Adriano Goldman, The Crown (Left Bank Pictures, Netflix)
I was invited to come on board the first season by [lead director] Stephen Daldry, but the first two episodes we shot, three and five, were not directed by Stephen. So I had a very practical challenge just to get to know this director who I was just being introduced to, Philip Martin. Of course, we got along really well but you have to build the whole thing from scratch with a director who is not a person you can read right away. Prepping was super intense and long. [We spent a lot of time] just reading scripts and going back to locations and trying to envision something that especially the British audience knows so well, the story of the Queen, and wondering what could be fresh about our approach.
The main discussion was the ‘less is more’ philosophy. The classic but also fresh approach was a challenge in itself. How do we deliver a story that everybody more or less knows but with a fresh visual style or rhythm?
Writer: Comedy: Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, Inside No 9 (BBC Studios Comedy, BBC2) Reece Shearsmith: Comedy’s such a funny thing because it’s all about taste – what you find funny, I might not and vice versa. But comedy drama is a difficult one because there is comedy in the most bleak situations. I’ve had a career mining very dark themes and I think the release of something that’s quite dark is cathartic. With the No 9s, we enjoy telling stories. They’re little black jokes and it’s been lovely to resurrect the anthology series because that’s a great lost genre that you don’t really do anymore. People like the longform, big, strong boxsets but these are one-off little hits that you can watch in any order. There’s appeal for that these days.
Steve and I have a little office and we write there. We talk a lot before we even begin thinking about the writing of a story. We try to get the mechanics of where it’s going. Sometimes we’ll have an idea of where it will go and, during our conversation, we’ll think it’s too obvious and we need to change the ending if we’re thinking of a twist where we want to surprise people. Then we try to tell the story in the most judicious number of scenes possible. Sometimes the story itself never even leaves a room, so it’s even harder to tell the story without ever leaving and time passing. We think about taking the very mundane and taking it to an extraordinary conclusion. It gets harder and harder for us because we’ve done so many different stories and different worlds, and each week you start again. It’s like a pilot each week. That’s the challenge, but that’s the fun thing because you can do extremes, because they’re disposable. Next week you have a completely clean slate. You can kill them all off. You can reach heights you might not be able to if you had to go back to a default position if it was a sitcom. They’re thrilling to write and, as long as we can keep coming up with the ideas, we’ll go on forever.
Writer: Drama: Nicole Taylor, Three Girls (BBC Studios Drama, Studio Lambert, BBC1)
Factual drama is always what I’ve loved watching, and Britain has an amazing tradition of that type of social-realist drama going back to Cathy Come Home and The Spongers. If people are watching it now, it must be because of the fractured moment we’re in, Brexit… we’re strangers to each other. No wonder we’re trying to watch things about ourselves to understand the state we’re in.
Three Girls was brought to me by Sue Hogg, the executive producer who I worked with on The C Word. I was initially very afraid to take it on and I said no a fair few times. I just think I didn’t have the bottle. Like everyone else, this was a story I didn’t want to be true and it’s a story that everyone wants to look away from. I came up with my own reasons why I was going to turn it down and then I discussed it with my partner, who’s a journalist, who called me out on it and said I was doing what everyone did, turning away. I thought, ‘That’s right. Let’s go.’ It took me years and years to dissolve into it because it was so complex Once I got started, it felt like something was going that spoke to the state we’re in more broadly, and [I wanted] to do the best job I could of getting people who want to turn away to be glued to the story.
Philippa [Lowthorpe, director] did a lot more than just direct this magnificently. First off, she has a documentary background so she did a lot of the research with me. She gave me so much confidence in how you go into people’s homes and have them feel comfortable with you. She’s brilliant on scripts, she’s amazing with writers so I feel so stretched just in pure nerdy craft terms. She was just a joy, such a collaborator and, uniquely, she wanted me on set whenever I wanted to go. I was in rehearsals. That collaboration was so tight and I can’t wait to work with her again. She’s a phenomenal talent and such an inspiration for me as a woman working in this industry.
Sounds: Fiction: Sound Team, The Crown (Left Bank Pictures, Netflix) Chris Ashworth, production sound mixer: My biggest challenge is managing the scale of the show. It’s an enormous shoot. It goes on for 30 weeks, so it’s a huge management thing from my point of view on the floor, managing three crews and making sure everyone’s working together. Then on the huge set pieces we do, we have to keep a variety of directors happy. Lee Walpole, supervising sound editor: In post production, we’re trying to take Chris’s clean recordings on location and add a complexity, scale and richness, bringing it to life and pinning it to the period it comes from. Sound recording is only becoming more complex, and that brings its own challenges. We have five days to final-mix an episode and you’re expected to produce a film soundtrack in that time. Andy Kennedy, sound designer: The line between cinema and television is very blurred. We’re not dealing with stereo, we’re dealing with multi-channel formats and it also has a different presentation because The Crown is shown as a streaming piece, so sound is evolving and it’s very close to what a cinema produces, but it’s slightly smaller scale.
Make Up & Hair Design: Jan Archibald, Erika Ökvist and Audrey Doyle, Taboo (Scott Free London, Hardy Son & Baker, BBC1) Audrey Doyle: Tom Hardy and his dad, Chips, developed the whole storyline seven years ago, he said, in his kitchen. They approached Steven Knight to write the scripts and it developed from there. We all did research of the period and the looks and started there. Tom is covered in his own tattoos so we had to develop a whole new tribal make-up for him. We had ‘Naked Mondays’ – every Monday, for some reason, we always seemed to film his tribal scenes, so we had to do his full tattoo cover, full tribal make-up and scars and everything. But he did wear a loin cloth. It took two-and-a-half hours each time.
Production Design: Deborah Riley and Rob Cameron, Game of Thrones (HBO, Bighead, Littlehead, Television 360, Startling Television, Sky Atlantic) Deborah Riley: My process begins right at the start in LA with the writers when they issue an outline, which tells us exactly what is going to be in every episode of the whole season. The scripts don’t come until a bit later. Then we’ll start the approval process. We have concept artists that draw everything for us, and everything gets approved before it gets made. It’s an amazing team of people. We’ve got great producers. David and Dan know exactly what they want, they’re very clear with their vision. Time is the challenge, because there’s just too much to do in too short an amount of time, as we’re trying to produce film finishes on a television schedule. We just really work hard, and David and Dan’s biggest talent is they collected a whole lot of workaholic perfectionists in one place.
Visual effects are always led through production design. We create the worlds and then we need visual effects to help us when we can’t build it all or see it all, but it’s very much a collaboration; we don’t work in isolation. The whole show is very cohesive in its vision and what it’s trying to achieve. It’s a very special thing. I’m most proud of just surviving.
Original Music: Jocelyn Pook, King Charles III (Drama Republic, BBC2)
In a lot of films, less is more. Music is so overdone quite often and it’s nice when people use it more carefully and more thoughtfully. On this particular project, it was really inspiring because of all the settings. It had been a theatre play, but hardly any of the music I had written for the theatre worked for film so I had to do a whole new score.
Because of the history of the monarchy, there’s a sense of the ancient and modern combined, and definitely elements of the contemporary because it’s set in the present day. That was lovely, musically, to mine, particularly English choral music that I’m naturally inspired by. There’s also an Englishness, whatever that is.
Director: Fiction: Philippa Lowthorpe, Three Girls (BBC Studios Drama, Studio Lambert, BBC1)
I was really lucky because I was involved in the research right from the beginning of Three Girls and that, to me as a director, is very valuable. I got to meet all the real people very early on and, with our wonderful writer Nicole Taylor, I was able to be part of the research along with our producer Simon Hughes. That really informed how I saw it and how to direct the actors, because I’d met the real people. I don’t think I could have done it without having met them and spending a a lot of time with them.
I went for a real feel, but it wasn’t pure documentary either. I used lots of very long takes because I wanted the actors to feel absolutely free to move where they wanted to move. Sometimes in drama you put the light somewhere and they have to hit a mark. I banned marks and we did very long takes where we would capture a bit of the scene and then do back and do it again. It was a challenge for some of the younger actors at first because they’d never done it like that before, but it was brilliant and it gave the actors so much freedom to absolutely inhabit their parts.
We had a lot of rehearsal and a lot of discussion with the actors, and that was so valuable. Maxine Peake and Lesley Sharp were the leaders of the cast. The British Pakistani actors who were so brave to play the perpetrators in the piece were also very involved in the rehearsal, so their voices became part of the fabric of the rehearsal and we learned a lot from them.
The most important thing in the filming was to capture the truthfulness of the story and help the actors achieve that real authenticity in their performances, which they did. I’m very proud of the young people who played the girls. All three of them – Molly Windsor, Ria Zmitrowicz and Liv Hill – are amazing.
There have been some amazing factual dramas recently and that’s hats off to Charlotte Moore at the BBC, who has really given a platform to real stories.
Special Award: Game of Thrones John Bradley, who plays Samwell Tarly: When I did my first day’s work on Game of Thrones, I knew nothing of how TV production worked. I remember getting my first call sheet the day before I shot my very first scene and not knowing what I was looking at. I read the scene, which was two pages long, and I thought, ‘Well, how long can that possibly take?’ I was always under the impression they just had the set and 20 or 30 hidden cameras in little nooks and crannies around the set, they kicked the actors into the set, we did it a couple of times and then we went home. In fact, what I thought when I first saw that it was going to be two pages long was, ‘What on Earth am I going to do with my afternoon?’ After all these years, I look back on that first day and I’m struck by how lucky I am that I was given such an incredible learning experience – the best learning experience in the world, working alongside some of the very best craftspeople at work anywhere. We as actors will forever owe a huge debt of gratitude for inspiring us every single time we walk onto the set and every single time we see the finished product on the screen, every day learning something new from them and learning new things to admire them for. Hannah Murray, who plays Gilly: When you see so many phenomenally talented people in so many departments working at the very top of their game and getting breathtaking results time after time, it really forces you to bring your very best efforts to the table, if only to make sure you don’t look inadequate by comparison. Every year, they’re given scripts that on paper seem totally unfilmable, and every time they put it on the screen to mind-blowing effect. We as actors are so lucky to get to step into the world they create and we are as in awe of their work as the fans of the show all over the world. The show is a global phenomenon and what makes us proudest is that the work of so many British and Irish talents are being recognised on such a grand scale. We know our showrunners David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] are grateful to be working with this incredible team of people.
As a host of scripted series find inspiration in the 1980s, DQ speaks to the creatives behind these shows to find out how they recreated the era – and why it remains so popular almost 30 years after the decade ended.
It’s hard to believe shoulder pads and neon clothing were once fashionable. But take a look at any number of television shows on air today and you might think time has stood still since the 1980s, such is the number of scripted series now set during the decade.
Spy thriller The Americans, tech series Halt & Catch Fire, various instalments of Shane Meadows miniseries This is England, Argentine gangster drama Historia de un Clan, British series Brief Encounters and Black Mirror’s Emmy-winning season three episode San Junipero (pictured above) have all fuelled this trend, in which series largely use the period as the backdrop for stories centring on historical, political or cultural events that took place during the decade. For others, such as short-lived Sex & the City prequel The Carrie Diaries, it suits the age and sensibilities of its fashion-conscious characters.
The show that has arguably done more than any to inspire nostalgic recollections of the 1980s is Netflix’s Stranger Things, in which co-creators Ross and Matt Duffer turned a paranormal murder mystery into a love letter to their childhood. Inspired by the works of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg, the show, which returns for a second season this autumn, is loved as much for the use of walkie-talkies and Dungeons & Dragons as it is for introducing viewers to a parallel dimension known as the Upside Down.
“Fortunately it’s not the 1780s,” remarks production designer Chris Trujillo, who was tasked with creating and dressing the fictional Indiana town of Hawkins, both at a studio lot and on location in and around Atlanta. “A lot of this stuff is very collectible and very available, so with a thorough internet search we were always able to find super-specific stuff. The challenge is being true to the 80s and making sure everything’s authentic, as opposed to just going to a prop house and renting a bunch of furniture that’s been on half-a-dozen shows. The more challenging items were the fantasy stuff, where you’re making it up for the Upside Down.”
But while Ghostbusters figures and He-Man bedsheets might be collectibles now, the fashion of the period was much more disposable, as costume designer Beth Morgan discovered when she joined another 1980s-set Netflix series, female wresting drama GLOW.
“It is a challenging period because it was a time when people didn’t save their clothes,” she says. “In the 50s, 60s and 70s, people didn’t have as many clothes. People took really good care of them, they saved stuff. The 80s was a lot more casual. A lot of T-shirts and jeans got ruined and were thrown out. There wasn’t as much care. So there’s a lot of stock out there but not good-quality stock.”
As well as its resurgence on television, 1980s style is also enjoying a renaissance in real life, and Morgan found unlikely competition for thrift-store garments in the guise of LA hipsters looking for authentic items to add to their own wardrobes. “If there are any other shows in town that are set in the 80s too, you’re racing to the costume houses to get the stuff you want,” she continues. “But we were always able to find the perfect piece for each actor for each scene. There’s a blouse for Ruth [played by Alison Brie] that’s my favourite thing, which we found on the floor of a rag house.
“The hard part for us was the Jazzercise class. We have so many workout looks in our show. The key was those 80s elastic belts that perfectly match the leotards – finding those was a real challenge. Finding the right clasp for a belt was really hard because there’s not a ton of them around. So it was a challenge but a fun one, and now we have so much stuff. Next season will be even more fun.”
In contrast, when Cold War family saga Weissensee launched in 2010, costume designer Monika Hinz was tasked with finding considerably less glamorous clothing. “In the beginning, it was very important for me to get away from the sepia look that is often used to create a historic atmosphere,” she says of the German drama, which airs locally on Das Erste. “The script dived into all kinds of classes – artists, military officers and generals – so my costumes served all of those different people. It was my concept to use lots of colours as it was the fashion in the late 70s to wear green, orange, brown and yellow. This helped a character like Julia Hausmann, played by Hannah Herzsprung, to look young, cheerful and sexy, ready to jump into life.”
Hinz’s biggest challenge, however, was finding the right material to dress prisoners depicted in the series. “The original clothes were a striking neon-blue synthetic material. They were given to the prisoners in purposely non-fitting sizes to make them feel bad because they had to hold their pants to stop them falling down. So I had to find cloth that was as authentic as possible. It’s a terrible colour for the camera, but the DOP and the director thought it was very important to do it that way. And I got them all tailored in a non-fitting size.”
When production designer Frank Godt joined the team behind Weissensee, which was created by writer Annette Hess and is distributed by Global Screen, his task was to recreate East Germany (DDR) right down to the smallest details. “We searched for furniture, wallpaper, props, cars, lorries, buildings, surfaces, shields and so on,” he recalls.
“Compared with the Western countries, the DDR was very conservative and simple – because of communism and socialism, of course – and that was also the case in the 1980s. Trabbies [East German Trabant cars], food, furniture and all other consumer goods were like this. The DDR was an isolated and closed country, totally cut off from the outside Western world. The wall looked like a bastion – it demonstrated fear and a prison feeling to the inhabitants every day and one felt scared all time.”
It’s for this reason that the show stands out from the more vibrant 80s-set dramas, adds Godt. “Life seemed colourless, grey and sad. Western people were constantly looking over to the DDR people and felt sorry for them. But the people behind the wall created their own colourful world and made the best of it. To visualise this incomprehensible contrast between the grey DDR and the colourful and cosmopolitan life in the West was the biggest challenge for the production design team.”
Fellow German drama Deutschland 83, meanwhile, demanded splashes of colour in every scene. As such, set designer Lars Lange sought to create a visual language for the show to avoid it looking like a documentary or “museum piece.”
“It was quite a challenge and an exciting task to grapple with the history of Germany during this very special time in the Cold War,” he explains. “It was also a challenge to interpret this through our sets and images for an audience that, in part, is acquainted with that time from personal experience, and, at the same time, for those who had nothing to do with it.”
To create the look of the show – whose sequel, Deutschland 86, is now in production for RTL and Amazon – Lange used historical research, eyewitness accounts and memories from his own youth. “Apart from the wall, soldiers, punks and shoulder pads, there were, alongside the half-crumbling backyards on both sides, also architectural highlights from the 50s, 60s and 70s, which shaped the cityscape.”
That visual language was strengthened by the costumes designed by Katrin Unterberger, who wanted the FremantleMedia International-distributed series to be “colourful and cool.”
“The creative heads had agreed a look to visually distinguish between East Germany and West Germany,” she recalls. “The East had to be in pastel colours, with floral patterns and hand-crafted stitching. The West, on the other hand, was fast-paced, so characters needed clear lines and bright colours without patterns. But in reality the styles were not as black and white.”
With 1980s fashion still popular, Unterberger was able to source original items in second-hand shops, though the large cast meant she had to find specific styles for lots of different people. That meant high heels, big hairstyles and colourful make-up.
One discovery particularly stood out: “I found a very nice patchwork T-shirt in the West, and in an East shop I found an almost identical piece,” she says. “[The latter] was made from different-coloured bed sheets, self-sewn and then decorated. This was a moving moment for me that spoke volumes politically. In the West, people could buy what they wanted but in the East, they had to use their imagination.”
US drama Snowfall, which airs on FX, has a vibrant and colourful style. The series, recently renewed for a second season, recreates LA in 1983 to follow the rise of the city’s crack cocaine epidemic.
“We did want to embrace the world as much as possible,” says showrunner Dave Andron, although he adds that he was keen to ensure the period in which the series is set did not overshadow the story. “For me, a lot of it was doing it in a way that felt authentic and organic and not distracting. And with costumes, it was always a fine line where you want it to feel 1980s but you don’t want there to be neon shoulder pads to the point where all you’re looking at is the clothes. It’s got to feel completely of the piece, with the world you’ve created, but not distracting all at once.”
So why is the trend for 1980s-set series so prevalent? One theory is that the commissioners and screenwriters now working in television grew up during that period and are dramatising their own experiences. However, Stranger Things’ Trujillo believes there’s a “general exhaustion” with technology, apps and selfies that means viewers are keen to return to a period where such trappings belonged in an episode of The Twilight Zone.
“There’s something really fun about these kids on an adventure,” he says. “No one’s going to call them on a cell phone. It harks back to a time when I was a kid and you could go out in the neighbourhood and have a real adventure. I feel like somehow that’s a bit lost and the idea of adventure is now virtual adventures. But when I was a kid, you imagined having a Stand By Me adventure instead of doing something weird on the internet. It’s a bit of a relief.”
Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker has become rather adept at predicting future technologies and scientific advancements. With season four coming to Netflix, he and coproducer Annabel Jones reveal the writing and development process behind the anthology series.
The future can often look like a bleak and rather scary place in Netflix’s Black Mirror. That’s why when those in the scientific know tell the show’s creator, Charlie Brooker, that he’s unconsciously stumbled upon something they were working on, it terrifies him.
“We don’t really talk to scientists, even though we keep thinking that we should go on some fact-finding mission to Silicon Valley,” says Brooker, who writes and coproduces the hit anthology series.
“So when people whose job is to worry about the future say to me, ‘Yes, you were right about that,’ my only thought is, ‘Oh shit!’”
Yet Brooker has an uncanny knack of getting things right. “I am often surprised when something I’ve written about turns out to be true,” he adds. “Last season, I had one story called Hated in the Nation, which had little bee drones in it. They were terrifying, and it turns out they are real – I didn’t realise until after the show went out.”
The Waldo Moment, which debuted in 2013, foreshadowed both the rise of Donald Trump and Apple’s iPhone X, which allows people to become avatars on their phones.
“Sometimes when we’re doing a story, it resonates with something that’s going on in the real world, but that’s often a coincidence, or it’s accidental, or it’s just because that stuff was in the ether. The Waldo Moment is a good example, where actually it was about Boris Johnson on panel shows but then down the line it became more of a global thing than we probably realised at the time.”
But Brooker is clearly doing something right, and it’s not just his predictions. After starting as a cult hit on Channel 4 in 2011 before moving to Netflix for season three last year, Black Mirror won two Emmys in September and has rapidly become event television. Its range of often dystopian, sometimes beautiful and always challenging stories means the fourth season, due to land on Netflix this month, is eagerly awaited around the world.
So where does Brooker, a former television reviewer for The Guardian who started his working life writing about games for PC Zone magazine, get his twisted ideas? Instead of reading science periodicals and going fact-finding in Silicon Valley or even Silicon Roundabout, Brooker and his long-time coproducer Annabel Jones (their House of Tomorrow production company is part of the Endemol Shine Group) talk about their everyday fears and then think of ways adding technology to them to make things even scarier.
“Often it starts with just a general discussion about something like parenting and then one of us will come up with a ‘what if’ idea and we’ll ping-pong it back and forth,” Brooker explains. “I’ll be trying to think of the worst possible outcome and Annabel will challenge me by saying, ‘Well, that wouldn’t happen because…’ and I will say, ‘No, but it would.’ It is at the point where I realise I can’t shut up and Annabel is saying, ‘That sounds horrible,’ that we really think, ‘OK, we’ve got something here.’”
And then comes the hard work. “Writing can take two or three days, or sometimes a month, and then I hand it over to Annabel, she makes a load of critical marks and find myself getting defensive on every level,” he admits. “Sometimes I end up ripping it up and starting again – that has happened several times – or I just park an idea and start on another.”
If a script does pass the Jones test, there is almost inevitably some kind of rewrite when the director or even the cast come aboard.
The scary parenting idea turned into season four’s Arkangel, which explores what might happen if you could watch your child 24/7 with a sophisticated surveillance tool. The episode was directed by Jodie Foster, who immediately loved the story.
“Jodie had lots of thoughts and suggestions so I went back to redraft it,” says Brooker. “We were so flattered to have her on board and, of course, she is someone who understands privacy, who understands being in the spotlight and how you can control your profile in the world.
“Because she was, of course, a child actor she knows how to work with them and it was a pleasure to see her on set working and getting these great performances from the young actors.”
Meanwhile, when movie actor Andrea Riseborough was sent the script for Crocodile, a story set in Iceland in a near future when memories are no longer private, she immediately asked to play a different role, which meant Brooker had to rewrite the script with the lead character as a woman, not a man.
“Basically, the more people there are who get involved, the more flesh is added to the bones,” says Brooker. “Luckily, I find now that when I get to the end I can’t remember what it looked like originally. The finished product has always got so many things I would not have thought of.”
When it moved to Netflix, Black Mirror shifted from a three-episode season to six episodes, giving Brooker and Jones the space to push the boundaries ever more, with the duo determined that each story should have a very different feel.
This season sees everything from a satirical Star Trek-style space story in the ambitious feature-length USS Callister (pictured top), starring Jesse Plemons and Cristin Miloti, to a short domestic black-and-white tale called Metalhead, starring Maxine Peake, which is just 38 minutes long.
“We feel that we can really explore and push the perception of what the story is without breaking it up,” says Jones, who has worked with her Black Mirror collaborator for nearly two decades. “On Netflix, not only can we experiment with the size and tone of a story but even with the duration. Working like this gives us so much more freedom to tell different stories.”
Since the success of Black Mirror, anthologies have become fashionable once again, as seen recently in another transatlantic collaboration, Electric Dreams, comprising adaptations of short stories by science fiction writer Philip K Dick for Channel 4 and Amazon.
However, Brooker says he deliberately avoids watching any competitors. “I think I would probably suffer crippling professional jealousy,” he reveals. “I tend to avoid things that I think might be in the same ballpark if I can, just because I don’t want to be shown up.
“People did tell me to watch [HBO drama] Westworld and [Spike Jonze movie] Her because they were similar to Black Mirror, but I’ve deliberately avoided them. I also don’t want to be influenced by them – they might put me off.
“But it’s flattering there are more anthology shows around. It’s not a format I’ve invented by any means; I nicked it from The Twilight Zone. It’s pretty much the oldest format in television history, but I think the advent of streaming platforms has brought it back into fashion. You no longer have to worry about an audience coming back week on week; it’s all just there in the magic streaming cupboard.”
For someone who conjures such chilling stories about the future, Brooker remains remarkably sanguine about the rise of technology and its impact on humans. He believes we just need to learn how to deal with it.
“You can’t put progress back in a box, that’s the problem – it won’t fit,” he says. “If you’ve ever tried putting an iPad back in a box, you can’t even do that! It’s weird, there’s a bewildering number of technological things we’re having to grapple with at the moment and we have to work out what the social rules are, basically. The closest analogy I can think of is the motor car, which obviously revolutionised transport and was a good thing but it took us a while to learn the rules; to have road signs, to work out road markings.
“We must have had a lot of accidents before we worked out a system of keeping everybody safe. It feels like there’s a hundred different motor cars being invented every week at the moment, that’s the difference, so we’ve got our work cut out. But what are we going to do, go back to xylophones and eating mud? No!”
Science fiction has a long association with television, but it’s now more visible than ever. DQ explores how a shift in storytelling has pushed the genre into the mainstream.
When it finally launches later this year, Star Trek: Discovery will carry the hopes of the next generation of science-fiction fans. But the show is also a perfect example of the state of the genre on television.
The space-set franchise, which has been on air in some form since 1966, embodies the long-running popularity of sci-fi, which has roots as far back as the 1930s with the BBC’s fledgling broadcast service and a 35-minute play called RUR.
The fact that Star Trek is returning to television, albeit on US network CBS’s SVoD service All Access, is also proof of the current strength of the genre and the new opportunities it is finding on non-traditional platforms. But space-focused shows such as Star Trek, Doctor Who, The Expanse (pictured top) and Dark Matter represent just one part of a genre that continues to inspire and amaze – and shock and scare – viewers around the world.
Series like Orphan Black, Westworld, Black Mirror, Stranger Things, Sense8 and Legion represent the sheer breadth of stories that can sit under the sci-fi umbrella, offering unbridled creativity to those behind the camera. And though it was once the preserve of an elite group of fans, the genre has gone mainstream by focusing less on science-fiction and more on ‘science-possible,’ asking questions that resonate in the present day, whatever the setting.
Regardless of whether series fall into the space opera or speculative fiction camps, Martin Baynton, chief creative officer at Pukeko Pictures, believes that sci-fi dramas “at their best are fairy stories for adults – they allow us to ask difficult questions, they’re stories of consequences and are often moral fables.”
He continues: “People don’t watch The Walking Dead for the zombies. It’s actually how these human beings deal with the implications of having to stay alive and function as a group. Everyone watches it fascinated by the drift of the moral compass of the characters and what it means to be human. Good science fiction always asks that question.”
Australian drama Cleverman, on which Pukeko is a producing partner, is set in a near future when creatures known as ‘Hairypeople’ must live among humans and battle for survival in a world that wants to exploit and destroy them, touching on themes of immigration and racism. Season two launches later this month on ABC in Australiana and SundanceTV in the US.
“Science fiction allows you to explore really fundamental consequences safely because it puts issues at a distance,” Baynton continues. “If you put it in a contemporary setting, it can become almost too powerful. So by putting it in the near future, it becomes a cautionary tale where you think, ‘We’ve got time to change direction and not go down that path.’”
For many viewers, the words ‘science fiction’ still conjure images of “spaceships, aliens and the planet Zargon,” observes Sam Vincent, co-creator of British drama Humans, which is based on Swedish series Äkta Människor (Real Humans). “They don’t necessarily think of things that are a little bit more grounded, more speculative and use ideas about the future to explore things that are happening in the present. That’s what Humans is.”
The series, produced by Kudos for Channel 4 and AMC and distributed by Endemol Shine Distribution, posits a “parallel present” in which robots known as ‘synths’ have become part of everyday life.
“Everything looks like it does now, except there are these humanoid androids,” adds Vincent’s writing partner Jonathan Brackley. “That was such a smart way of bringing this idea to be much more accessible for an audience, allowing us to enter this sci-fi world on a very grounded, domestic level, and having an everyday family at the heart of the show.”
Humans is also notable for dispensing with traditional sci-fi logic and, like HBO’s sci-fi western Westworld, wanting the audience to feel sympathy for the robots, rather than their human masters. “They’re really different shows, with different settings, tones and scales, but the most interesting thing for us about Westworld is that viewers are encouraged to root for and see through the eyes of these machines as consciousness dawns on them, much like in Humans,” Vincent says of the “companion” shows. “The humans are the bad guys now and that’s undeniably an interesting parallel.”
Artificial intelligence is also at the centre of Danish drama Unpunished, which follows a group of scientists as they attempt to create AI as a defence against a cyber virus that threatens to reveal the world’s best-kept secrets. Currently in development with producers Investigate North and distributor About Premium Content, it is slated to begin production in March next year.
But creator and producer Niels Wetterberg believes it’s a “fallacy” to say sci-fi is becoming more mainstream: “It’s always been very mainstream,” he argues, citing movies such as Alien, ET and Jurassic Park. “But the future is threatening us in a new way, and so the shows you see now are more science-possible. They’re moving from the realms of the fantastical to something more achievable, and that resonates better with a wider audience.”
Humans and Unpunished are just two of the sci-fi shows rooted in some kind of present-day reality that allows them to tap into themes and issues affecting contemporary society – none more so than the increasing role of technology, which is also at the heart of Charlie Brooker’s darkly satirical Black Mirror. The anthology series, first commissioned by the UK’s Channel 4, is now exclusive to Netflix, which launched the third season last October.
The global SVoD platform and its competitors have undoubtedly had a huge effect on the way sci-fi is created, commissioned and consumed, while also giving writers the opportunity to explore ideas over 10 hours, where perhaps previously they might have been limited to a 90-minute movie.
Netflix series such as 1980s-inspired Stranger Things and mystery thriller The OA have ensured television can still have its water-cooler moments in an on-demand world, and the streamer has also been investing in a host of other sci-fi shows.
One example is The Expanse, the Syfy drama set in a future when humanity has colonised the solar system. Netflix acquired the series, which has been renewed for a third season, for global distribution late last year. There’s also Canadian time-travel series Travelers, on which Netflix linked up with broadcaster Showcase. Starring Eric McCormack (Will & Grace) and distributed by Sky Vision, the show centres on a group of time-travellers from the future who come to the present to save mankind.
“What’s interesting about this is sci-fi shows aren’t going anywhere,” notes Carrie Mudd, president of Travelers producer Peacock Alley Entertainment. “Travelers is not like the Terminator films, where you see glimpses of a dystopian future. Instead, that comes out through the characters and their experiences because they’ve never had a piece of fruit or heard a bird sing. It’s so much more character-driven and draws a much broader audience as a result of the drama and the characters.”
Sci-fi isn’t appreciated the world over, however. Vlad Ryashin, producer and president of Star Media Group (Mata Hari), explains: “Russian viewers prefer more emotional dramas, focused on human collisions between the protagonists. Since the early 1990s, soap operas and comedies have represented solid options for the channels, while historical films and series are also a big attraction for mass audiences. Sci-fi is a bit too tough for a viewer who is looking for relaxation without being involved so quickly in some alternate reality or parallel world.”
But Star Media isn’t giving up on the genre just yet, and its efforts in the region could be buoyed by The Contact, produced by Ukraine’s Film.UA. The sci-fi crime drama sees three people – a criminal, a writer and a photographer – realise they can enter each other’s minds.
Series director Mikhail Barkan believes the secret to successful sci-fi drama lies in looking at the world in a new way. “It’s not about chasing impressive visual effects or creating realistic monsters, it’s about looking at timeless issues from a different angle,” he says.
“Only three things are of greatest concern for humans: where are we coming from, what are we living for and where are we going after death? Unfortunately, there are no answers we can all agree on – but science-fiction offers the possibility to imagine ‘what if?’”
Sci-fi has always encouraged viewers to question what the future may hold but it’s telling that the shift in dynamic towards science-possible fiction has led the genre to become more visible than ever.
“It used to be second-tier drama,” Pukeko’s Baynton says. “Now it’s of such high sophistication that it’s a leading dramatic art form. Clearly new formats have changed the landscape, because you have the ability to tell complex stories in which characters can develop over 10 hours.”
Mudd adds: “There will always be a lot of room for sci-fi, in whatever sub-genre you choose to define a show. But everything’s cyclical. There hasn’t been a big space opera like Battlestar Galactica or Stargate SG-1 in a long time – maybe that comes back next.”
Not all sci-fi is rooted so firmly in reality, however. Currently in development at Toronto-based True Gravity Productions, Election Day is set on Earth but undoubtedly has some fantastical elements – pondering what might happen if historical leaders could be resurrected.
Taking place in 2055, the show, which is yet to be attached to a broadcaster, sees companies, not countries, ruling the global population. Tech advancements mean humans can be grown from DNA samples, leading to some of history’s best leaders being brought back to life and battling to be elected world president.
“There are no boundaries,” True Gravity Productions creative director David Merry says of working in sci-fi. “You don’t have to adhere to the regular norms of society or the planet, because we’re inventing stuff that could potentially be around 30 years from now. It’s fun to just step outside the realm of normalcy.”
Humans co-creator Sam Vincent on the significance of Star Trek
In terms of pure science fiction, Star Trek is both a space adventure and a sci-fi of ideas – both of the main strands of the genre – and for me it remains one of the more thoughtful and thrilling explorations of sci-fi on TV.
All the Star Trek shows are notable but the high point is The Next Generation [1987-1994]. That stands apart. Each of the six Star Trek shows [Discovery will be the seventh] reflected the values of the era really interestingly and commented on them in a fascinating way. You watch the original show and it’s very rooted in the era and yet, at the same time, had some of the great sci-fi writers of the 20th century like Harlan Ellison contributing ideas and scripts. It was also very much an expression of values.
At its core, Star Trek has always been about exploration, which is a hopeful and optimistic venture. So there is an optimism hardwired into Star Trek. When you look at The Next Generation, it was very much an expression of a high point of liberal ideals – that you should not interfere in other cultures, that you should be peaceful. It was a very diverse crew, there were all kinds of aliens, there were even people with disabilities. It was very ahead of its time but simultaneously it was the most optimistic, thoughtful and humane version of Star Trek. The shows that followed were very interesting takes on that.
Deep Space Nine [1993-1999] was set on a space station and was all about the aftermath of a horrendous war between two alien races. It had huge parallels with what was happening in the former Yugoslavia, focusing on people trying to come to an accommodation after this conflict. Interestingly, it was the one Star Trek that didn’t move, being set on a space station. That was very important for the DNA – it wasn’t about a ship going into other territories.
Then you had Voyager [1995-2001], which was about getting lost on the other side of the galaxy, arguably reflecting more uncertain times. The most recent series was Enterprise [2001-2005], which was a strange one. It became more conservative again, slightly more empire-building. It harked back to the early series quite a lot; it reflected the George Bush era and was a bit more traditional.
I cannot wait for the new Star Trek. The creative pedigree is really interesting and it will be intriguing to see how the show deals with the world in which we live now.
Ahead of the Bafta Television Craft Awards, costume designer Susie Coulthard takes DQ through her work on the standout episode from the third season of Black Mirror, San Junipero, for which she has been nominated.
When the third season of Black Mirror dropped on Netflix, there was one episode that stood out, not just among this line-up of six new stories but across the entire run of the anthology series.
Set largely in the 1980s but ultimately across multiple eras, San Junipero turned the show’s typically twisted take on the impact of future technology into a nostalgic romance that unfolds in the fictitious fun-loving beach town that gives the episode its title.
It stars Mackenzie Davis as Yorkie, an awkward introvert whose life changes after meeting exuberant and outgoing Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).
Born from Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker’s desire to create a “vintage” episode of the series – one set in the past as opposed to its usual near-future or modern-day setting – the look and feel of the episode is completed by the retro soundtrack, the production design and the detailed costumes.
Enter costume designer Susie Coulthard, whose credits include Kill Your Friends, Alphas and The Gamechangers. Coulthard’s work on San Junipero has earned her a nomination at this Sunday’s Bafta 2017 Television Craft Awards, where she will be up against Charlotte Holditch (The Durrells), Michele Clapton (The Crown) and Nigel Egerton (The Hollow Crown: The War of the Roses – Richard III) in the costume design category.
Here Coulthard tells DQ about joining Black Mirror, which is produced by House of Tomorrow and distributed by Endemol Shine International, and how she helped to create the unique style of San Junipero.
How did you first become involved in Black Mirror?
I had a call from [producer] Laurie Borg, who I’d worked with on [Mathew Cullen-directed feature film] London Fields asking if I’d be interested in designing an episode for the new season of Black Mirror, and of course I jumped at the chance. There was no director in place at the time and then Owen Harris was hired, whom I’d just shot Kill Your Friends with, which sealed the deal.
Were you a fan of the series and what were your first impressions of this episode?
I was a big fan of the series. It’s a very different model to the usual TV series but great for a designer as each episode has a completely different concept and feel. When I first read the episode I was blown away. And that doesn’t happen very often.
Once you join a project, where do you begin? I like to read the script numerous times over the first couple of days so I have an idea of characters set in my head before I start the research. I’ll then research and produce ‘mood boards’ prior to a chat with the director so that we have visuals to refer to. I always check to see if they have any filmic references. We used John Hughes films [The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off] as the main reference for San Junipero. Everyone remembers those films from the 1980s and they are sort of ingrained in our memories. We wanted to create nostalgia. Then I immerse myself in more specific research before I start designing.
What unique challenges did San Junipero present you with? When I first read the script I thought, ‘Christ how are we going to do this?’ There’s a lot of jumping around different eras. The 1980s and 1990s were fine, as we all know what that looked like. However, 2002 was quite difficult. It doesn’t feel that long ago but actually the period has a definitive style and once I actually researched it, I realised how period it feels and how much we’ve moved on from the early naughties.
How do you use the script to inform your decisions?
A well-written script will give you everything you need. If I’m uncertain of a costume choice, I’ll read the script or scenes again. It’s amazing what clarity this gives you – it does tend to be on the page.
How do you work with the writer and director to find the right styles for the characters?
It’s a very collaborative process. Owen is a fantastic director to work with; he’s very sure of what he wants but is open to let me interpret his thoughts. Charlie [Brooker, series creator and San Junipero writer] is also very strong in what he thinks. After all, the characters were born in his head so he is the one who really knows who they are. I originally had a much softer look in mind for Kelly but Charlie was like, ‘No! Think Janet Jackson!’ It can just take one reference and everything falls into place with the look.
What is the biggest challenge for a costume designer on a TV show?
Late casting always poses great problems for the costume department. You can be really sure of a direction and then it can change dramatically when you speak to the cast. Their opinions are so valid for me, as we are there to service their needs as much as the director’s. And to help them find the character, they have to be part of the collaborative process. Time is also necessary post-fitting to refine the look, and sometimes this can be a bit of a scramble when time is short.
How does your role differ between film and television, if at all?
A normal episodic TV show can turn into a bit of a machine. You have very tight deadlines and masses of rounds of approvals, which can see all of your time taken up on emails, reducing your creative thinking time and often turning into design by committee. In film it’s much freer, a much more organic process, a more creative process. Black Mirror is more like film than TV, which is what makes it so attractive to creatives.
Was there a particular part of this episode you were most pleased with?
I really like the wedding dress scene. I knew some of this was going to be shot at dusk so I wanted a fabric that would shoot well in dim lighting. Wedding dresses from the 80s are the ultimate in hideous but there are certain aspects of them that are so fun and evocative of the time – the ruffles and leg-of-mutton sleeves. The idea that they would go into the San Junipero programme to pick their wedding outfit gave us the opportunity to use the same fabric but differing styles, which Kelly and Yorkie would have picked, and I think it worked really nicely. Clinton Lotter, the fabulous bridal designer, made the bespoke dresses for the girls.
What are you working on next? I’m currently back at Black Mirror working on a new episode for the upcoming season. Then I’d like to do a feature next.
Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror has found a new home on Netflix. Can viewers expect more of the same from the dark anthology, or does the new platform mean it’s all change?
The fact that the first face you see in the opening episode belongs to Hollywood’s own Bryce Dallas Howard (pictured above) perhaps tells you all you need to know about the return of Black Mirror.
Having aired for two three-episode seasons and a Christmas special on the UK’s Channel 4, Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series is now exclusive to Netflix, with a bumper run of six episodes landing on the US-based streamer today.
The move to Netflix means a bigger budget for Brooker and co to play with, and this is visible from the off.
As well as Jurassic World star Howard, debut episode Nosedive, seen by DQ, also features fellow Hollywood actor Alice Eve (Star Trek: Into Darkness) and UK heartthrob-of-the-moment James Norton (Happy Valley, War & Peace), while familiar faces in other episodes include Game of Thrones duo Jerome Flynn and Faye Marsay.
But for the team behind Black Mirror, the biggest difference has been the increased freedom offered by the show’s new home.
“Anthology shows like this have been waiting for a platform like Netflix to come along,” says creator and exec producer Brooker. “We don’t have cliffhangers; we don’t have recurring cast members or characters. Shows that reinvent themselves every week have struggled in the ratings.
“On Netflix we can put the whole thing up and it’s kind of like a short story collection. We have effectively got a bigger canvas and we’re not constrained by ad breaks or running times. One of our episodes, Hated in the Nation, is kind of a Black Mirror Scandi noir. It’s 90 minutes – it’s like a movie! We could do two-hour episodes or two-minute episodes.”
Fellow exec producer Annabel Jones echoes Brooker’s sentiment. “Netflix loved the show and stepped in to commission six films. That allowed us to play out on a bigger campus, take more risks and explore more worlds without destabilising the Black Mirror sensibility. It’s great, and we’ve got another season coming up too,” she says, referring to the six further episodes due on Netflix next year.
In addition to the acting talent, there’s also a more Hollywood feel behind the camera following the Netflix move. One episode, Brooker reveals, was scored by celebrated feature film composer Clint Mansell (Requiem for a Dream, Moon), while episodes two and three were directed by Dan Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane) and James Watkins (The Woman in Black) respectively.
Helming Nosedive was Joe Wright (Pan), who was already a fan of Black Mirror’s aesthetic before coming on board. “Be Right Back [season two] was one of the most exquisitely shot episodes, and so was Entire History of You [season one],” he says. “They’ve all been very cinematic; they’ve all been beautiful.”
Brooker admits to giving little visual direction in his scripts, and is full of praise for the ability of directors such as Wright to bring his words to life. “Often what happens is we’ve got a script, but what’s not in the script is the whole visual layer. That wasn’t really described at all in the Nosedive script,” he says.
“Joe gave it a level of artistry that is frankly embarrassing. When I first saw the rushes, I thought, ‘This is either going to work or this is mental.’ As soon as I saw it all come together, I was flabbergasted. It was the best possible outcome.”
Black Mirror’s move to its new home didn’t come without ruffling a few feathers, however. In August, Channel 4 chief creative officer Jay Hunt criticised producer Endemol Shine Group and the show’s creators for a perceived lack of loyalty to her network.
But Brooker fails to see what all the fuss is about. “It’s quite interesting, let’s put it that way,” he says of the suggestion of bad blood after the deal. “Somebody didn’t come out and wave a cheque and we ran away from Channel 4 towards it. It’s been interesting watching that play out. We still talk to Channel 4 – we’re still friends!”
Leaving the Netflix move and its implications aside, does the new Black Mirror stay true to the show that built a cult following with its nightmarish visions centred on Western society’s ever-increasing reliance upon and obsession with technology?
While the short answer seems to be yes, with Black Mirror continuing to focus on the same themes, Brooker highlights a deliberate move towards “more variety of tone” in the new season.
“Because we’re doing six stories this time round, we wanted to not always fling you into a pit of despair. Sometimes we kick a few hope biscuits at you on your way down,” he says. “Having said that, there are stories in which we do fling you into a pit of despair and then piss on you – because people seem to like that.”
Indeed, while maintaining Black Mirror’s trademark frighteningly believable vision of a world gone a little bit madder, Nosedive stands apart from older episodes thanks to its heavy dose of comedy.
Brooker adds: “This season we were almost imagining we were creating different-genre mini-movies. Nosedive is a kind of poignant satire. We’ve also got a detective movie, an outright horror movie, one is a romance… they’re so different.”
While anthology shows that reset with new stories and characters each season have become increasingly popular in recent years (True Detective, American Horror Story), anthologies like Black Mirror, which does this every episode, are much less common.
One of the most famous examples of such a series is The Twilight Zone, which first aired in 1959 and is cited by Brooker as a major inspiration for Black Mirror.
“I’d always loved shows like The Twilight Zone, Tales of the Unexpected and all the weird and wonderful one-off plays that the BBC used to put on,” he explains.
“It felt like those kind of ‘what the fuck?’ stories didn’t have a place on television anymore.
“Primarily, the intention was to create a show that gave you that frisson you get when you watch something like The Wicker Man, a particularly nasty episode of The Twilight Zone, or [BBC’s 1984 nuclear winter drama] Threads – anything that provokes a strong reaction in people.”
Brooker’s earlier TV writing credits were for comedies such as Brass Eye, The 11 O’Clock Show and Nathan Barley, which he co-created. And perhaps surprisingly, he believes writing dystopian drama requires a similar skillset. “It’s kind of therapeutic – it uses the same kind of muscle as in comedy writing,” he explains. “A lot of our stories are about the worst-case scenario unfolding, which is the same as in something like Fawlty Towers. We know we’ve got a good idea if I’m laughing and Annabel’s going, ‘That’s horrible.’”
So, as someone who is now best known for cautionary tales about the rise of technology, does Brooker truly fear for our future?
“I’m quite optimistic about technology, actually, which you wouldn’t get from the show,” he says. “I like video games. I’m an early adopter of stupid electric toothbrushes and that sort of nonsense.”
If not all-powerful tech, perhaps something else will herald the end of days? Brooker concludes: “If you’d told me at the start of the year that, by October, half our cultural icons would be dead, we’d have voted to leave the EU, Donald Trump would be hovering near the White House – oh, and The Great British Bake Off won’t even be on BBC1 anymore, I’d be digging a fucking bunker!”
The UK’s Royal Television Society (RTS) held its annual Programme Awards last week. Winning scripted shows included The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies (which took Best Drama Serial), No Offence (drama series), Catastrophe (scripted comedy), Coalition (single drama) and Emmerdale (soap/continuing drama).
There were also writer awards for Peter Morgan (The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies) and Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan, who write and star in Catastrophe.
Morgan overcame competition from Russell T Davies (Cucumber) and Shane Meadows and Jack Thorne (This is England ’90), with judges describing his writing as “skilful and poignant… absolutely first rate.” They called the drama “compelling and tender… it took the viewer on a deeply moving emotional journey.”
Morgan, 53 next month, is not new to TV. But until now he has been best known for a series of idiosyncratic feature films.
Having written the romcom Meet Frank, Daniel and Laurence in 1998 and TV series The Jury in 2002, his career took a decisive step forward in 2003 with a TV movie called The Deal, which told the story of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s power-sharing deal. In 2006, he wrote a superb film-length follow-up called The Queen, which explored the reaction of the political and royal establishment to the death of Princess Diana. This earned him an Academy Award nomination and a deserved Golden Globe.
More acclaim followed with productions including The Last King of Scotland (adapted for the screen with Jeremy Brock); Frost/Nixon (play and screenplay); The Other Boleyn Girl, The Damned United, Rush and The Aftermath (the third in Morgan’s so-called Blair trilogy). And then came the RTS Award-winning Christopher Jefferies miniseries, written for UK broadcaster ITV.
Morgan, who has a brilliant knack of making the political seem personal, isn’t finished with TV. He’s currently working with Left Bank Pictures on The Crown, an epic US$100m drama for Netflix.
Based on a play by Morgan called The Audience, it tells the story of Queen Elizabeth II’s early reign. Anyone familiar with Morgan’s previous writing on the themes of power, establishment and intrigue will appreciate that he is perfectly suited to such a project – though it will be interesting to see how he copes with the much larger creative canvas offered by a 10-part TV series.
When the project was announced, he said: “The Crown is not only about the royal family but about an empire in decline, a world in disarray and the dawn of a new era. I am beyond thrilled to be reunited with partners from film, theatre and TV (director Stephen Daldry and producer Andy Harries) for this epic project and delighted to be working for the first time with Netflix.”
To date, Netflix has only ordered a first season. But it’s highly likely there will be future series of the show covering more recent stages in the Queen’s reign. So it might be a while before we see another movie or miniseries from Morgan.
As an interesting side note, Bafta has just announced its own TV awards nominations and there is no place there for Morgan’s Jefferies drama. Titles shortlisted for this event include Humans, The Last Panthers, No Offence and Wolf Hall (for Best Drama Series); Doctor Foster, The Enfield Haunting, London Spy, This Is England ’90 (miniseries); The Good Wife, Narcos, Spiral and Transparent (International Series); and The C-Word, Cyberbully, Don’t Take My Baby and The Go-Between (single drama).
In the context of the Baftas, the big winner is Thorne, who is attached to The Last Panthers, This Is England ’90 and Don’t Take My Baby.
In other news this week, Sky1 has commissioned a second season of Stan Lee’s Lucky Man, which is produced by Carnival Films in collaboration with Lee’s POW! Entertainment. As the name suggests, Lucky Man is based on an idea by superhero icon Stan Lee. But it’s another example of the trend towards greenlighting dramas with high-profile names and then getting other people to do the actual writing job.
In this case, for example, the show was written by Neil Biswas, Ben Schiffer, Rachel Anthony, James Allen, Stephen Gallagher and Alan Westaway. Biswas, who is credited on all 10 episodes of Lucky Man season one, was already known to Sky, having written an episode of Sinbad a few years ago. His other credits include The Take, Bradford Riots and In a Land of Plenty.
Elsewhere, there was further evidence this week of the superstar status now afforded to leading TV writers, with Channel 4 losing out to Netflix on the UK first-window rights to season three of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror.
Channel 4 was the first company to back Brooker’s project but a huge financial deal saw Netflix take control of an expanded version of the project for season three. Channel 4 thought it would still be given the opportunity to premiere the show in the UK, but Black Mirror producer Endemol Shine has licensed first-run rights to Netflix. This isn’t hugely surprising but C4 is not happy.
In a statement, Channel 4 chief creative officer Jay Hunt said: “Black Mirror couldn’t be a more Channel 4 show. We grew it from a dangerous idea to a brand that resonated globally. Of course, it’s disappointing that the first broadcast window in the UK is then sold to the highest bidder, ignoring the risk a publicly owned channel like 4 took backing it.”
Other projects in the news this week include Hulu series 11.22.63. Based on a book of the same name by Stephen King, the series centres on Jake Epping, a recently divorced teacher from Maine (played by James Franco) who travels back in time and has an opportunity to prevent the assassination of US president John F Kennedy (though things don’t quite go as planned). The show is executive produced by JJ Abrams, Stephen King and Bridget Carpenter, who has also taken a lead role in its writing.
This week, 11.22.63 was picked up by Canal+ in France, having previously been licensed for use by Fox Networks Europe. The show currently has an 8.8 rating on IMDb, which marks it out as a strong performer.
After a strong showing at the Emmys, Amazon is in buoyant mood. It’s now hoping to keep up the momentum with six new drama and comedy pilots that will launch on Amazon Video later this year in the US, UK, Germany and Austria. As with previous pilots, Amazon will use audience feedback to decide whether to take any of the new scripted shows to series.
The pilots include Good Girls Revolt, a story set in 1969 that follows a group of young women seeking to be treated fairly and ultimately sparking changes that upend marriages, careers, love and friendships. Created and written by Dana Calvo, the show is based on landmark sexual discrimination cases chronicled in a book by Lynn Povich. Amazon is coproducing with Tristar TV.
Another female-protagonist drama is Z, a bio-series about Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of author F. Scott Fitzgerald. Written by Dawn Prestwich (The Killing), Z will star Christina Ricci as the beautiful and talented southern belle who became the original flapper and icon of the flamboyant Jazz Age in the 1920s. The story will follow Zelda’s social successes and her descent into mental illness.
Amazon will also reinforce the recent revival of the western genre with Edge, based on George G. Gilman’s best-selling book series of the same name. Set in 1868, the story centres on Josiah ‘Edge’ Hedges – a Union officer turned cowboy who prowls the post-Civil War American West doling out his own savage brand of justice. Edge was developed by Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, Iron Man 3) and Fred Dekker (Tales from the Crypt, Star Trek: Enterprise). The pair also wrote the screenplay.
The other three Amazon pilots are Highston, One Mississippi and Patriot, a political thriller about an intelligence officer assigned with preventing Iran from going nuclear. Patriot is written and directed by Steven Conrad (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Weather Man), who executive produces alongside Gil Bellows, Glen Ficarra, Charlie Gogolak and John Requa.
Amazon Studios VP Roy Price said: “Our latest pilot season brings together diverse shows that we think customers will really enjoy. We have something for everyone in this season and I am excited to see which shows spark conversation among our customers and what they want to be made into series.”
Amazon’s continued drive into scripted TV was further reinforced this week with the acquisition of exclusive rights to USA Network’s critically acclaimed drama Mr Robot. The first series (10 episodes) of the show will be available to Amazon subscribers in the US, UK, Germany, Austria and Japan from spring 2016.
Meanwhile, reports have been bubbling under for a couple of weeks that Netflix might be about to commission Charlie Brooker to make some new episodes of his dystopian anthology series Black Mirror. This story has now been confirmed, with Netflix greenlighting 12 episodes. Brooker described the SVoD giant as “the most fitting platform imaginable” for the series, which until now has been produced for Channel 4 in the UK. Explaining the appeal, he said: “Netflix connects us with a global audience so that we can create bigger, stranger, more international and diverse stories than before, while maintaining that Black Mirror feel.”
Netflix will premiere the show exclusively worldwide, except in the UK and Ireland where plans are still being determined. This hesitation over the UK is unlike Netflix, but is probably due to Channel 4’s involvement in the franchise to date. Possibly, Netflix and Brooker are looking for a way to include C4 in the deal so that it can benefit from the expansion of a show it helped to build.
Netflix VP of original content Cindy Holland said: “Charlie has created a one-of-a-kind series with an uncanny voice and prescient, darkly comedic vision. We’re tremendously proud to bring Black Mirror to our members as a Netflix original series.”
In terms of other renewals, there is good news for Mistresses, which has been awarded a fourth season by ABC. Another female ensemble series, Lifetime’s Devious Maids, is also returning for a fourth season next year. Announcing the recommission, Liz Gateley, EVP of programming for Lifetime, said: “Devious Maids is a steady hit that continues to deliver for us. It has found a loyal audience that is socially engaged with the show. The entire writing and production team worked hard to up the storytelling this year and the cast delivered great performances, so the show just gets better and better.”
Inspired by the hit telenovela, Ellas son… la alegría del hogar, Devious Maids is produced by ABC Studios. Last season it drove Lifetime to rank as the number-two cable network with scripted programming in the Monday 21.00-22.00 slot among women aged 25-54 and 18-49, while its August 24 season finale reached season highs among total viewers, adults aged 25-54 and women aged 25-54.
This week also saw an announcement by Italian public broadcaster Rai that it has commissioned an eight-part drama. Medici: Masters of Florence will chronicle the rise of the Medici family, with Richard Madden (Game of Thrones) playing Cosimo de’ Medici and Hoffman portraying family patriarch Giovanni de’ Medici.
The series, which will be produced by Lux Vide and Frank Spotnitz’s Big Light Productions, has been created by Spotnitz and Nicholas Meyer (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution), with Sergio Mimica-Gezzan (The Pillars of the Earth) directing. Germany’s Wild Bunch TV is a co-financier and will oversee international sales, starting at Mipcom next month.
Spotnitz, a US writer who has carved out a strong niche for himself writing European coproductions in English, called the tale of the Medicis a “powerful story that resonates even now.”
Medici: Masters of Florence is a major step forward for Rai at a time when Italian producers and broadcasters are starting to have a much bigger impact on the international drama market. RAI Fiction director Tinny Andreatta said the show “has great international appeal and we hope it will open up a new era of creative coproductions.”
Finally, Televisa USA, a subsidiary of Mexican media giant Televisa responsible for English-language programming, and Lantica Media have announced they are developing a new version of Gran Hotel, based on hit Spanish series from Bambu Producciones. The show will be shot at Lantica’s Pinewood Dominican Republic Studios and is based on an original script by Stephen Kronish (24, Kennedys).
The new version of the format, which is distributed internationally by Beta Film, will be set in 1950s Cuba. “It was a time when mobsters, politicians and celebrities flocked to Havana, the world’s most exotic and permissive playground,” said Chris Philip, head of production and distribution for Televisa USA. “Setting Gran Hotel in a sexy, sinful atmosphere offers up a rich fusion of glamour and intrigue deeply rooted in an exceptional murder-mystery format with a proven global footprint.
Antonio Gennari, CEO of Lantica Media, added: “Since the introduction of (a new) film law and incentives, the Dominican Republic has seen substantial growth in film and TV production. The country offers mesmerising scenery and world-class production capabilities that will serve as the ideal backdrop for Havana’s Gran Hotel.” As part of the announcement, Gennari said Lantica and Televisa USA were also planning other projects.
The original Gran Hotel aired for three seasons on Antena 3 in Spain. During its first season, it reached an 18.5% share of viewers in Spain and was also sold to broadcasters in France, the UK and Russia, as well as being reversioned in Italy.
Beta Film SVP Christian Gockel said: “Gran Hotel is one of Beta’s biggest sales hits and franchises of recent years, as proven currently on Rai’s primetime. As coproducers of the Italian adaptation, we are thrilled to see Gran Hotel opening its doors in Cuba’s 1950s.”
Broadcasters have traditionally been cautious about commissioning or acquiring miniseries (defined for our purposes as six hours or shorter). The main reason for this is that they represent a risky investment – they are expensive to produce and promote without any of the amortisation advantages associated with long-running dramas.
But with so many channels to choose from these days, miniseries have a key role to play in terms of making schedules stand out. One mini that seems to be on a roll right now is The Fixer, which is being distributed internationally by Sonar Entertainment. Starring Eric Dane (Grey’s Anatomy, The Last Ship) and Kathleen Robertson (Boss, Murder in the First), the story centres on a conspiracy of “fixers” who are behind a series of disasters, rigged to manipulate the stock market and reap billions for a select few.
Produced by Muse Entertainment in Canada, the drama has been picked up by Atresmedia in Spain, Fox International in the UK, TF1 in France, MTG in Sweden, Telenet NV in Belgium, IPA in Thailand, Sky Network Television in New Zealand and Zazie Films in Japan.
One way to try to extend the lifespan of a short-run drama (and thus give it the kind of brand equity loved by broadcasters) is to turn it into returning miniseries. This is done by telling a self-enclosed ‘event style’ story but leaving a loose end open so that the same set of characters can be brought back in a new production (assuming there is enough positive reaction to justify such a decision).
This is what ITV in the UK has done with Safe House, a thriller from Eleventh Hour Films about a couple who turn their remote bed and breakfast into a safe house. The first run, which debuted in April, focused mainly on a murderer trying to abduct a young boy. But there was an unresolved back-story involving a rogue policeman that came to the fore in the last episode. The show rated well for ITV and also sold to key markets such as France, Germany and Australia (via distributor All3Media International). So this week ITV has announced that Safe House will return in February 2016.
One of the week’s most interesting scripted stories is that Netflix is interested in funding a new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian drama series Black Mirror (produced and distributed around the world by Endemol Shine). The show is best described as an episodic anthology, which means each episode tells a stand-alone story. Rather like classic series such as The Twilight Zone, the connection between episodes is to do with tone rather than plot or character.
The two previous seasons (and a Christmas special) were both commissioned by Channel 4 in the UK. But the success of the show on Netflix US (as an acquisition) has encouraged the streaming giant to make advances.
C4 is reportedly also interested in commissioning more Black Mirror, so it’s not clear how this might resolve itself. Brooker could stick with C4 as commissioning broadcaster, but bring Netflix in as a coproduction partner, perhaps giving the series a more US feel – Mad Men’s Jon Hamm starred in the most recent instalment. Or he could do two versions – one for the UK and one for the US. This might make sense, given that Endemol has already discussed adapting the show for the US, and it is made possible by the stand-alone nature of the stories. Either way, Netflix’s interest is a welcome boost to writers looking to experiment with the structure and content of scripted TV.
In recent weeks, we’ve talked about a number of US projects that have benefited from putting black characters front and centre. There could be a new addition to this trend following the news that Fox is developing The Crusaders, an hour-long drama series from Legacy writer-director Thomas Ikimi, Idris Elba, Legendary TV and Di Bonaventura Television. Something of a departure from existing series, The Crusaders focuses on a US-based family of second-generation Africans who specialise in finding and returning objects stolen from Africa during the colonial period.
Legendary is a name that is worth remembering. Having established itself as a leading movie producer, the company is now targeting expansion into the TV sector. Aside from its involvement in The Crusaders, the firm has also secured a pilot order from ABC for the comedy series Downward Dog. Furthermore, it’s in production on USA Network’s action series Colony.
On the comedy front, UK pay TV channel Gold has announced that it is to air a new feature-length comedy-drama from The Comic Strip. Entitled The Comic Strip Presents…The Red Top! (working title), the 75-minute comic fantasy lampoons the recent newspaper phone-hacking scandal in the UK.
Written by Peter Richardson (alongside Pete Richens and Brigit Grant), it will feature the likes of Maxine Peake (in the lead role), Nigel Planer (as Rupert Murdoch), Russell Tovey, Johnny Vegas, Alexei Sayle, Harry Enfield and John Sessions.
Simon Lupton, commissioning editor for UKTV, said: “There’s nothing quite like The Comic Strip anywhere else in the world of comedy so it’s exciting to be part of this next chapter. The script is hilarious and playful, and the cast list is an embarrassment of riches. The Comic Strip history is littered with iconic moments, characters and performances, and I’m confident Peter and his team will create more with this latest instalment.”
Ahead of the all-important Emmy Awards on September 20, September 13 was the date of the Creative Arts Emmys, a related event that recognises behind-the-scenes personnel such as art directors, costume designers, cinematographers, casting directors and sound editors.
From a scripted perspective, the big winner at this year’s CAEs was Game of Thrones, which took home eight awards. But there was also a strong showing for Transparent, Amazon’s critically acclaimed comedy drama about the head of a family (played by Jeffrey Tambor) who reveals himself to his family as transgender. The show’s three award wins are significant both in terms of Amazon’s increasingly influence as a commissioner of content and in the way sexual identity is dealt with by TV. But the really big breakthrough will come next week if Transparent, created by Jill Soloway, can win at the main Emmy event.