In 2009, period drama was dead – or so it appeared until Downton Abbey was commissioned by ITV and subsequently aired to acclaim the following year. Going on to run for six seasons, Downton eventually culminated in a feature film that was released last year.
The drama followed the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family upstairs and their servants downstairs between 1912 and 1926, with an ensemble cast including Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery, Laura Carmichael, Jessica Brown Findlay, Jim Carter, Phyllis Logan, Lesley Nichol and Sophie McShera.
In this DQTV interview, creator and writer Julian Fellowes and executive producer Gareth Neame revisit the origins of the series, revealing the faith ITV put in the series at a time when period dramas were out of fashion.
They also recall how the series was developed and discuss Fellowes’ approach to writing for his actors, their opposing thoughts on making a movie and why Downton has fascinated audiences around the world.
Downton Abbey was produced by Carnival Films for ITV and Masterpiece on PBS, and distributed by NBCUniversal International Distribution.
DQ travels back to the 19th century to the set of Belgravia, a six-part drama that sees families tested and secrets revealed, created and produced by the team behind Downton Abbey.
A stone’s throw from Dorney Lake, the home of the 2012 Olympic rowing event on the outskirts of Windsor, sits Dorney Court, one of England’s finest Tudor homes.
Dating back more than 500 years, it’s a great deal smaller than Highclere Castle, which doubled as Downton Abbey in the series of the same name. But it’s just as picturesque, which perhaps explains why it’s one of the settings used in Belgravia, the latest period drama from Downton creator Julian Fellowes.
Based on the novel by Fellowes, Belgravia is described as a story of secrets and scandals among the upper echelons of London society. It begins in 1815 with a class clash between the old money Brockenhursts and nouveau riche Trenchards. Edmund Bellasis, son of the Earl and Countess of Brockenhurst, had an affair and was possibly married to Sophia, daughter of James and Anne Trenchard. He dies in battle, before she discovers she is pregnant and then dies in childbirth.
Fast-forward to 1841 and their son, Charles Pope (Jack Bardoe), begins to cause a stir as the two families discover they have a grandson – and a potential heir who not everyone is delighted to meet. Other characters, such as John Bellasis and Oliver Trenchard, are keen to stand in Charles’s way.
The ensemble cast features Tamsin Greig (Anne Trenchard), Philip Glenister (James Trenchard), Harriet Walter (Lady Brockenhurst), Tom Wilkinson (the Earl of Brockenhurst), James Fleet (Stephen Bellasis), Alice Eve (Susan Trenchard), Tara Fitzgerald (Lady Templemore), Ella Purnell (Lady Maria Grey), Richard Goulding (Oliver Trenchard), Adam James (John Bellasis), Paul Ritter (Turton) and Saskia Reeves (Ellis).
On set, extras dressed in bonnets and top hats are preparing to film scenes from episode four outside the 12th century Church of St James the Less, its tower looming over Dorney Court. Proceedings are led by the uninterested and uninspiring Reverend Bellasis (Fleet), the younger brother of the Earl of Brockenhurst who spends most of his time gambling and losing the family’s money.
“He’s a very poor vicar; he’s a snob and he’s lazy,” Fleet jokes. “I feel so sorry for his poor wife [played by Diana Hardcastle], who is one of the tragic stories of the whole series. He’s not very nice at all. He gets worse, if anything. He abandons morality completely by episode six.”
Best known for comedic roles in 1994 film Four Weddings & a Funeral and TV sitcom The Vicar of Dibley, Fleet says the Belgravia script was a “page-turner,” comparing the story to something from Charles Dickens. “It’s like all the great stories – it’s the lost child, the two lovers denied. It’s got romance. Stephen has a difficult relationship with his brother – I’m very jealous of him and I can’t get my hands on the money. Because he’s the elder brother, he gets everything and I get nothing,” the actor says of his character.
Walter admits she wasn’t “yearning” to get back into a corset, having previously starred in period dramas The Spanish Princess, Downton Abbey and films such as The Young Victoria. But the chance to reunite with Fellowes, and the strength of the characters that populate Belgravia, meant she was drawn towards the series.
As Lady Caroline Brockenhurst, she plays a character suffering terrible grief that has brought her closer to her husband. But the discovery that she has a grandson also brings her together with Anne Trenchard, and their rivalry epitomises many of the themes of the series, including wealth, class and inequality.
“To a modern audience, it’s going to be very hard to perceive any difference between Tamsin’s character and mine,” Walter says, referring to their differing statuses. “The indications have got to come from the way we behave to one another, rather than in an obvious thing like she’s got a garish colour dress. Because Tamsin and I are getting along very well, I keep having to kick myself and remember to be snooty towards her, because we have an obvious companionship in many ways in the story.”
Walter says the story will be very recognisable to modern audiences. “They’re essentially in love, in hate, in desperation. They’re all human emotions busting out of all these restrictions.”
Meanwhile, if there is a villain of the piece, it might just be John Bellasis, a man who is out to protect his inheritance from a stranger who could be the true heir to the Brockenhurst estate. But things aren’t quite that simple, according to James, who plays the character.
“I’m often attracted to these characters because they’re sort of conflicted,” he says. “From his point of view, I understand fully his instinctive self-preservation. The life that he imagines he’s going to live is suddenly jeopardised quite dramatically, and he goes to all the lengths available to try to maintain his trajectory to his entitled future.
“Throughout the series, he begins to piece the the jigsaw together and work out exactly who this Charles Pope is. It’s a huge inheritance he’s set to lose.”
Love also confuses matters for John, as he is arranged to be married to Lady Maria Grey (Purnell) but has an affair with Susan Trenchard (Eve). “I don’t want to say that he’s ruthless and callous; he’s just a gentleman of a certain entitlement and was behaving in the way men of his class and education and upbringing would,” says James. “People also love a baddie, don’t they? He’s certainly the cad of the piece.”
While Belgravia will inevitably draw comparisons to Downton, producer Colin Wratten (Killing Eve) is keen to put clear water between the two series, which are set some 100 years apart.
“Julian writes about class, but here, for the first time, we have aristocracy and industrialists living side by side,” he says. “Unlike Downton, which has a precinct of the house and the family, we have different families. It’s a big ensemble of 65 cast members. As the story ebbs and flows, we go to all those different places, from Manchester and the cotton mills to London’s East End docks.”
Belgravia sees Fellowes reunite with Downton executive producer Gareth Neame, the executive chairman of production company Carnival Films (Jamestown, The Last Kingdom), which is producing the series for both ITV in the UK and US cable channel Epix, with NBCUniversal Global Distribution shopping the series overseas.
“He writes quite traditional romantic stories that have really not been fashionable for a long time,” Neame says of Oscar-winning screenwriter Fellowes. “I don’t think many other people are doing those, and what we found with Downton is that people around the world absolutely love those quite simple ‘will they/won’t they?’ stories. The more quintessentially English something is – British class, snobbism or the comedy of manners that he writes about – it really does travel and people understand it.
“Wherever human beings are, they have always organised themselves in hierarchical structures. So going into this, the Downtown movie and then doing [Fellowes and Neame’s forthcoming HBO show] The Gilded Age, we realised that a lot of the things that really interest him as a writer are much more commercial and more clearly understood by people than perhaps we would have imagined.
“The other thing about it is this is an adaptation but it’s an adaptation of a modern novel [set in the past]. A lot of adaptations are still made of novels of period, which are perhaps constricted by a plot that was laid down 250 years ago. But we have free rein to tell quite contemporary stories within a period setting.”
Fellowes had written all six scripts by the time pre-production started, giving the crew a generous head start before filming began last April. In addition to its huge cast, Belgravia features 107 different sets and was filmed across 75 shooting days over 15 weeks. Locations include the Bath Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, Hampton Court, Chatham Royal Naval Docks and the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, as well as Somerset House in central London.
Production designer Donal Woods, whose credits include Cranford, Downton and Jamestown, immediately found he was not allowed to film in the real Belgravia, an area of London that is home to a dozen embassies and borders Buckingham Palace and Hyde Park. As such, the production team decided to recreate Belgravia through a mixture of set builds and other locations.
“We’ve recreated a lot of rooms – 107 location sets in 15 weeks [of prep], which is longer than they normally give you for a TV series,” he says. “We’ve got some sets at Twickenham Studios, but the search was really finding those locations, making it work within the schedule and still fitting the story, the characters and the period. We are moving around the country.
“This Georgian and early Victorian period was much sparer [than Downton]. There was less clutter and fewer ornaments. Rooms were simpler but still had a very stylish kind of interior decoration. We’re very lucky in this country that we still have beautiful country houses and rooms that are protected and still look the part.”
Similarly, costume designer James Keast (The House of Elliot, Mr Selfridge) had his work cut out, with the unenviable task of dressing 65 main cast members and more than 2,000 extras, who shared and reused around 900 outfits to ensure as much money as possible was available to spend on the principals.
“There’s at least 1,000 costumes across everybody. For the top 25 [characters], I’ve made as much as possible because, when you read the script, if it’s a specific scene, they need a specific costume that will fit in with what the set looks like. One of the interesting things is if it is a period production, you know we will be using a lot of houses like Dorney Court. So from the colours of those houses, you’ll know the tones and fabrics to use.
“The biggest challenge is that in real life, a lot of these characters wouldn’t have had a huge wardrobe. But in terms of TV and film, you have to see passage of time, you have to see it’s a different day, so you have to change people and find enough costumes for everybody.”
Another challenge is differentiating the locations enough so viewers can recognise what they are watching, instead of moving from one room with gilt frames to another. Director John Alexander and cinematographer Dale Elena McCready chose to shoot locations with varying styles to help that process.
“In the Brockenhurst house, we shoot that much wider and get more scale from that as opposed to the Trenchards,” Wratten says. “When you’re telling the story, you don’t want to get lost in where you are, or the costumes either. James and Donal are constantly making sure we don’t have someone going into a room or getting into a carriage with a costume that’s either going to clash terribly with the fabrics or the upholstery.”
Unlike the long-running Downton, Belgravia was conceived as a “finely plotted” limited series, with Neame echoing Wratten’s belief that it stands apart from his previous hits. “There are elements of Downton in it because it’s period and it’s Fellowes writing and the themes that interest him, but it’s very different,” he adds. “I don’t see why Downton fans wouldn’t like this, but I wouldn’t want to make too much of a claim that it’s another Downton. It isn’t, it is quite different.”
With two new shows in the works, Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes and executive producer Gareth Neame look back on the period drama’s success and discuss their partnership.
Remember a little show called Downton Abbey? It’s hard to shake off the memory of a series that captured the hearts of audiences across 250 countries, picked up 12 Emmys and somehow got the average viewer interested in 20th century British social hierarchy.
Over the six years and six seasons that viewers followed the Crawleys’ lives, the series was a ratings smash hit and a gold mine for the broadcasters that brought it to our screens. In the UK, Downton reached an average of 11 million viewers over the duration of the series, while on PBS’s Masterpiece in the US it became most viewed drama of the past 45 years and reached an average of 13.3 million viewers per week at its peak.
However, for the brains behind the project – creator Julian Fellowes and executive producer Gareth Neame – there was an element of luck in getting the show off the ground.
“We were very fortunate that [former ITV director of television] Peter Fincham really believed in it despite everyone telling him he was mad, that the audience for period drama was dead and there was no one there to watch it,” states Fellowes, speaking at Content London at the end of last year. “There was something in it that just spoke to him. I love that because it’s nice when people are brave and go out on a limb and get rewarded.”
Neame, the executive chairman of Downton producer Carnival Films, is grateful to ITV for taking a chance on the show despite the broadcaster being in the midst of a difficult period when it was first commissioned. “Fortunately for us, they embraced it as soon as they saw the idea,” he says. “It was the middle of the advertising recession following the global crash and they had almost no money to buy new drama, but they committed to doing this, fortunately for us, and it all happened quickly.”
The exec producer admits he and Fellowes were caught slightly off guard by the show’s immediate success as they saw it spread across the globe, amassing devoted viewers along the way. A greater surprise came when the first season won four Emmys, including the Outstanding Limited Series prize.
“We were there at the Emmys the first year and there’s no denying that, of the 3,000 to 4,000 people in that theatre, very few had actually heard of the show until it started to win all these awards,” Neame reveals.
“We were sort of warned that we wouldn’t win that year – ‘You mustn’t be disappointed, it’s marvellous to be nominated’ – and then we won practically everything!” Fellowes adds.
Critical acclaim continued and the series went from strength to strength each season. And as the show evolved, so too did Fellowes’ writing, with the Downton creator finding himself adapting the scripts according to the cast.
“The actors do change the writing – not what they ask for or suggest, but simply you write [according] to their performances because you start to see their strengths and begin to understand what they will do best,” he explains. “Obviously, you try to make opportunities in which they will shine their brightest.”
The writing was also influenced by the fans, as Neame explains: “We started to have very similar opinions to the fans. There were never any original plans to have Mr Carson [Jim Carter] marry Mrs Hughes [Phyllis Logan] – that was Julian responding to the chemistry those two actors had.
“So we were thinking the same thing the fans were thinking, that there was a great chemistry and it had to happen. There were many examples like that, and that’s what makes it all so fun – the inventions coming from all sorts of different places.”
As is often the case when a hit drama series comes to an end, viewers started asking about a possible feature-length adaptation of Downton, eager to see the Crawleys and co on the silver screen following the TV finale in 2015. Fellowes initially dismissed the idea, as he felt they had been able to tie all loose ends together and give the series a worthy send-off.
“I felt when I’d written the end, I’d made everyone as happy as I could,” he says. “We said goodbye and I thought it was goodbye. We all went to the Ivy Club and we cried and drank champagne and, as far as I was concerned, we’d come to the end of the road. But no, and gradually over the next year or two, the idea of a film took root and I finally came to see that it was going to happen.”
The plans finally came to fruition last year when the long-awaited Downton Abbey film hit cinemas across the globe, four years after the series’ conclusion.
“We didn’t want the show to go stale and wanted to quit while we were ahead. Having the possibility of the film sweetened the pill for the millions of fans around the world who didn’t want it to end and who really loved those characters. The idea that they weren’t lost forever was definitely positive,” says Neame.
The exec producer adds that while “it wasn’t a massive leap to take it to the big screen,” there were still obstacles to be overcome, particularly in ensuring the show’s stars were fully on board with the project.
“There were a lot of challenges in getting all of the cast back. Everyone had a sense they wanted to do it, but that’s not quite the same as saying you are going to commit,” he says. “Getting everyone to make that commitment did take an awful lot of work, but I was pretty determined to do it.”
That desire to get the film off the ground paid dividends, with the Downton movie grossing more than US$190m globally, making it Focus Features’ second highest-earning film ever. Does this now mean Downton devotees can expect a second feature-length instalment?
“We said at the time we launched the film that we would like to keep going with it if it works, and fortunately, it has worked. The actors enjoyed doing it. So hopefully we’ll find a way to come back for more,” Neame teases.
“We’ve done it once, so I suppose we can do it again,” adds Fellowes, although nothing concrete is in the works at present.
Since the show’s conclusion, Fellowes and Neame have busied themselves with a number of different projects, including working together on two new period dramas: ITV and Epix copro Belgravia and HBO’s The Gilded Age.
Premiering this month, the former is based on Fellowes’ novel of the same name and follows the lives of the nouveau riche Trenchard family and the aristocratic Brockenhurst dynasty. For Neame, the decision to adapt the work to the screen was a no-brainer.
“When I read it, I thought it was fairly obvious that we should turn it into television. If I didn’t, there was going to be a queue of people who would want it,” he says.
Fellowes says the new projects have benefited from the fact the creative duo have honed their working relationship over the years, enabling them to work more swiftly.
“I’m pleased with the way Belgravia turned out. Obviously Gareth and I have now made quite a lot of television, so in certain areas we have developed a kind of shorthand. It doesn’t mean we always agree, by any means, but we don’t waste time trying to find out what the other one thinks, because it’s pretty clear what they think. It makes it quicker and easier.”
The Gilded Age, meanwhile, is set in the boom years of 1880s New York as the city experiences an influx of wealth and the establishment of a new bourgeois class. At first glance, it looks to be in a similar vein to Downton, but Fellowes is quick to point out the differences between the projects.
“Downton was quite deliberately the dramatisation of what was bound to be the decline in power of the British upper classes,” he explains, “whereas in Gilded Age, they’re going full steam ahead, they’re right in the middle of it. In fact, they haven’t yet reached their golden years, it’s still pouring in, and that seems a different dynamic and rather fun to approach.”
The new shows represent further additions to the period drama genre with which Fellowes has become synonymous, but being chiefly associated with historical series doesn’t bother the writer. “I seem to have become someone who does period drama,” he admits. “I don’t feel particularly committed to doing period drama but, on the other hand, when doors open for you, you’ve got to go through them. Usually you have to get known for doing something to then try to build on that and do slightly different things.”
Like many other major players in the industry, both Neame and Fellowes have found themselves getting into bed with Netflix. Neame, who is working with the streamer on ongoing historical drama The Last Kingdom, says: “It’s really been an excellent experience. Every creative wants to be completely supported and feel that encouragement when you deliver the episodes, and that’s exactly what they’ve been.”
Fellowes’ project, meanwhile, is another period drama, but this time focusing on a somewhat surprising topic. Dramatising the origins of the modern version of football (soccer) in the late 1800s, The English Game will launch on Netflix later this month.
Described by Fellowes as “charming,” Netflix will surely be hoping Downton’s army of fans will be there for the show’s kick-off.
James Nesbitt heads to the Far East for a third season of Stan Lee’s Lucky Man, which continues the story of a man bestowed with the power of eternal luck. DQ meets him in Hong Kong to find out more.
This is a first. Drama Quarterly is invariably transported to a television set in the back of a cramped and slightly run-down production minibus. But today is rather different; we are being taken to visit a location on a sampan from Hong Kong Island.
As we look out over a marina filled with the sort of superyachts that even Russian oligarchs might covet towards some of the most expensive property on the planet, we could get used to this.
The sampan deposits us at The Jumbo Floating Restaurant, the most famous eatery in the country. The giant six-storey barge, festooned with elaborate carved wooden animals, is being used as a location for a key scene from Stan Lee’s Lucky Man.
At the venue, which has also been employed as a location in movies such as Skyfall and Internal Affairs 2, more than 50 supporting artists have gathered. They are being dressed up to play waiters and market traders selling fruit and vegetables, cooking utensils and dumplings. Meanwhile, a stunt rider is revving his motorbike in preparation for a daring sequence along the upper deck of the restaurant. The producers are really giving this scene some welly. The whole scene is redolent of authentic Hong Kong life.
The barge is the location for a complex fight sequence at the restaurant between the show’s hero, Harry Clayton (James Nesbitt) and new enemy Samuel Blake (Rupert Penry-Jones).
In this entertaining series created by comic book genius Stan Lee (who is also behind Spider-Man, The X Men and Iron Man), Blake has arrived in Hong Kong in search of Harry. This implacable baddie will stop at nothing to take possession of the bracelet that gives Harry the superpower of being eternally lucky. The fact that Blake is impervious to pain only helps his villainous quest.
Pausing for breath between scenes while wearing both shin and forearm guards for rehearsing the fight sequence, Nesbitt says that he couldn’t be happier to be in Hong Kong. “We’re here today in the home of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan doing fantastic stunts,” he says. “It’s absolutely brilliant!”
This third season of Stan Lee’s Lucky Man, currently airing on Sky One in the UK, captures the vivid essence of Hong Kong, a breath-taking mixture of Eastern and Western cultures. It is a unique ambience that would be simply impossible to conjure up at Shepperton.
Nesbitt underscores that this Hong Kong-set season could not have been shot anywhere else. “This place is a one-off,” enthuses the actor, who has also starred in Cold Feet, The Hobbit, The Missing, Bloody Sunday, Five Minutes of Heaven, Occupation and Murphy’s Law.
“It’s so exciting to be filming here. You have the joy of immersing yourself in a new and vibrant culture. Hong Kong is a fabulous city to set this show. The entire place has a real sense of urgency. Visually, it’s stunning too. It has these extraordinary skyscrapers and also this astonishing street life. You only have to look out of the window to see the real collision between the wealthy and the not so wealthy. It’s teeming with all kinds of life.
“Yesterday we were filming at the famous Temple Street Night Market,” the Northern Irish actor explains. “It’s a fascinating place, full of noise and people and bustling street food stalls. Then you peer into a backstreet kitchen and you see topless male chefs smoking. It’s a place like no other. Hong Kong is one of the leading characters in this series of Stan Lee’s Lucky Man.”
Chen On Chu, a producer on the series – produced by Carnival Films in association with POW! Entertainment and distributed by NBCUniversal International Distribution – agrees that it would be unthinkable to recreate the atmosphere of Hong Kong anywhere else: “If you shoot in a live location like the Temple Street Night Market, there are elements that you just can’t replicate anywhere else in the world. You can never reproduce the density of the people or the look of the Hong Kong buildings on a backlot in the UK. The texture of this show is very authentic.”
Which is not to say that there are not immense challenges involved in filming in Hong Kong. Chu, who has previously worked on many enormous Hollywood productions in Hong Kong, including Batman: The Dark Knight, Transformers, Battleship, Ghost in the Shell, Geostorm, Lara Croft and Pacific Rim, is all too well aware of the difficulties. “It is really challenging filming here because it’s such a busy place,” he adds. “We might have 50 trucks on a production, and it’s really not easy to find a parking space for them. We have to tell the crew they can’t drive to the set.
“Also, the space here is very limited and it’s really hard to divert traffic, so it’s very difficult to close roads for filming in Hong Kong. We had a joke that the only time you could film The Fast & the Furious in Hong Kong would be when there was a street protest and the roads were closed anyway!”
Nesbitt concludes by reflecting on just why Stan Lee’s Lucky Man has proved so popular over the past two seasons. He reckons that one of the principal reasons is because Harry represents a very British type of superhero. “At his core, Harry is a good man,” the actor muses.
“But he is still the very last person who should be a modern-day superhero. He is flawed, of a certain age and a gambling addict. He is a very unlikely superhero. It’s especially unlikely to have a 53-year-old Northern Irish superhero who says, ‘Fecking eejit’!”
Finally, are there any similarities between Nesbitt and Harry? “Clearly there are bits of me in him,” the actor admits. “I recognise the isolation he feels. There are certainly times in my life when I’m away from home and on my own. I also really love his dryness. But unlike Harry, I have never been a big gambler.
“That’s one of the few vices that has escaped me – thank God!”
The joint MD of Downton Abbey producer Carnival Films selects the series that inspired his career in film and television, including a superbly crafted period drama perfect for binge-watching and a second appearance this issue for Friday Night Lights.
The Life and Loves of a She-Devil
The show that first made me want to work in film and television. This heightened fable of a woman spurned was ground-breaking, surreal and disturbing. Adapted from the novel by Fay Weldon, it charts one woman’s revenge on her philandering husband as she ruins both his life and that of the woman he deserted her for. I loved how inventive both the script and direction were; it never feared to be both dark and surprisingly funny. Made at a time when television was experimental and different, this show (alongside Denis Potter’s work) opened my eyes to varied ways to approach storytelling.
ER seemed to reinvent the procedural drama by cleverly weaving together a story of the week with the more complex serial strands involving the main characters. The fast-paced, raw choreography of the camera, alongside interlacing storylines, gave the show a realism and credibility still unsurpassed by other medical dramas. When it first hit the screens, it felt urgent, authentic and emotionally charged. But besides the blood, gore and realism, it gave us characters who we fell in love with, and I’m not just talking about Dr Doug Ross (played by George Clooney)… OK, yes I am.
The West Wing
Snappy, smart dialogue, wonderful production values and the president we all wanted and deserved. Created by Aaron Sorkin, this multi-award-winning series introduced us to brilliantly rounded and complex characters in the most urgent and absorbing situations. Funny, heart-breaking and utterly addictive, the show always felt intelligent and sophisticated, yet never alienating. The perfect mix of great writing and brilliant casting made this essential viewing and US television at its best.
I remember being on location in Morocco in the days before SVoDs and iTunes, working my way through a pile of DVDs in my hotel room, and eventually getting to Bleak House, which I had missed when it originally aired. I expected the usual Sunday night, period Dickens adaptation but was thrilled to be wrong. The decision to air the show to replicate the serialised nature of how his novels were originally published was a work of genius – it served to highlight how compulsive and populist his writing was. Like a superbly crafted period soap opera, the interlacing storylines and wonderful hooks meant I kept watching one episode after another, into the small hours when I was meant to be asleep. Stylistically, the camera work felt incredibly modern without being distracting, alongside strong production values and inspired casting, all of which worked together to strengthen the narrative. It was a glorious treat to watch.
Friday Night Lights
Friday Night Lights was a show I discovered quite late in its run but once I’d seen my first episode, I quickly binge-watched the rest. Intriguing characters and tight, complex storytelling made for compulsive viewing, even when the thought of American football felt so alien and intrinsically off-putting to me. Peter Berg’s story of the hopes, dreams and aspirations of a small, neglected community was imbued with so much pathos and heart. I loved that it never relied on huge dramatic events to propel the narrative but had the courage to trust that the audience were invested in the characters. You could practically smell the desires and expectations of the characters, which made the series feel honest, truthful and ultimately rewarding.
I still love the original Prime Suspect. It highlighted Lynda La Plante’s screenwriting prowess – the simplicity of giving an audience only one plausible perpetrator and then keeping them guessing until the closing moments whether they were guilty was the work of a writer at the top of her game. With a wonderful economy of dialogue, the taut script gave birth to one of the most iconic and enduring characters on television in DCI Jane Tennison, masterfully played by Helen Mirren. Prime Suspect was a gritty, unforgiving and absorbing story of a female fighting against prejudice, battling for a chance to be heard in a male-dominated workplace – shame that, 30-odd years later, not much has changed.
Sky1 is revisiting the American frontier for a second season of historical drama Jamestown. DQ travels to Budapest to meet some of the cast and creator Bill Gallagher on set.
Inside a Native American tepee that has been painstakingly constructed from dried reeds, we are chatting to a group of Pamunkey warriors in striking red warpaint and feathers in their hair. Behind us, a magnificent ceremonial cape made out of the gorgeous black and white plumage of an eagle is hanging from the roof. Nearby, the giant carcasses of a deer and a fish are draped over a sturdy wooden tripod. This feels – and smells – just like early 17th century America.
But it is, in fact, just one part of the spectacular set that has been built in a field outside Budapest for Jamestown, the Sky1 period drama about the beleaguered frontier town, which returns for its second season this Friday. So now there is a corner of modern-day Hungary that is forever 1619 Virginia.
The second season picks up the story of this battling settler community through the prism of Alice (Sophie Rundle), Jocelyn (Naomi Battrick) and Verity (Niamh Walsh). At the start of the series, these three intrepid women became the first females to set foot in Jamestown for 12 years.
But the second run of Bill Gallagher’s drama, which is produced by Carnival Films, does not just focus on the women. It broadens out to take in such dramatically rich areas as the effect of the settlement on the Pamunkey and the beginnings of the slave trade.
Rundle, who has also shone in Peaky Blinders, Dickensian, Happy Valley and The Bletchley Circle, takes a break between scenes and comes over to talk. We find a shady spot out of the broiling Budapest sun, which feels just about hot enough to cook a goulash.
Dressed in Alice’s splendid flowing dress, the 29-year-old actress begins by emphasising that the drama simply cannot overlook the subject of the treatment of the Pamunkey. “It would be a real failing if the Native Americans weren’t central to the story,” she asserts.
“It’s really important, otherwise we’d just be whitewashing history. In this season, there are many amazing scenes about the two communities interacting that you might not have expected. It’s vital that we get this storyline absolutely right.”
In Jamestown, authenticity is king. Kalani Queypo, who plays Pamunkey man Chacrow, is pleased the producers have gone to great lengths to ensure the accuracy of their portrayal of the Native American characters. “That’s one of the aspects of this production that’s really good,” declares the 31-year-old, who has also appeared in Fear the Walking Dead, Slow West, The Royal Tenenbaums, Aspen the Series and Saints & Strangers.
“When you tell Native American communities you’re shooting a drama featuring Native American characters in Budapest, the first thing they say is, ‘Oh no, it’s going to be a bunch of Eastern European actors with spray tans and bad wigs!’ But that’s not what we’re doing on Jamestown. The producers have brought over 60 Native American actors from the US and Canada. That’s amazing.”
Perhaps even more astonishing is the fact the production has revived the Pamunkey language, which had not been spoken in many decades. Queypo adds: “For the descendants of the Pamunkey to hear their language for the first time is incredible.
“It’s a great responsibility for us because when we speak that language, we’re calling upon those ancestors. We’re channelling a way of life. It’s very challenging to learn, but it’s been an absolute privilege.”
In addition, Jamestown may also help to correct the way some elements of Native American history have been spun. Raoul Trujillo, 62, who portrays the Pamunkey tribal chieftan Opechancanogh in the drama, observes: “History has always been told to us by the victors. They call a victory for the Native Americans a ‘massacre’ and a massacre of the Native Americans a ‘victory.’”
Trujillo, who has also starred in Apocalypto, The New World, Riddick and Sicario, continues: “For instance, the Native American victory at Little Big Horn has been described as ‘a savage massacre.’ Come on!
“Balance in the recounting of history has long gone. There have been 500 years of colonialist history, so this re-balancing has been a long time coming. Of course, we need to do far more, but dramas like Jamestown are really helping.”
Queypo picks up: “Historically in Hollywood films, Native Americans have just been a device to push the story forward. As a result, Native American characters have been very one-dimensional in the past. They have either been peaceful or warriors who want to kill white people for no reason. But Jamestown is very different. Here, the Native Americans are not just a device; they are multi-dimensional characters in their own right.”
The other major subject that is tackled in this season of Jamestown is slavery. Again, it is imperative for the cast and crew that the production does not try to gloss over the horror of the slave trade. Rundle affirms: “It’s vital to address slavery. And it’s not OK to get it wrong. You’ve got to tell these stories, or you’re rewriting history. We don’t want to be saying, ‘White people, how was it for you?’ We want to be saying to the people forced into slavery, ‘What was it like for you?'”
Jamestown, which is sold worldwide by NBCUniversal International Television Distribution, does not flinch in its depiction of the sheer brutality of life in the settlement. It underlines that the people who survived there had to be exceptionally tough. Nigel Marchant, exec producer on the show, calls it “a mixture of Jacobean drama and a western.” It certainly contains both those traits. It possesses a welcome sense of humour and is unfailingly entertaining, too.
But it also has many striking parallels with the world today. Gallagher, previously responsible for Lark Rise to Candleford and The Paradise, says: “Of course, I appreciate the times we live in. In the UK today, we’re free. But I also think the way people behaved in Jamestown can be a mirror to the way we behave now. We have still some fantastical beliefs and our ideas of justice are not always sensible.
“We don’t live in a time free from horrors. The idea of colonising countries in order to make money could be a reflection of the global economy today. There are all kinds of regimes these days which are not a million miles from the Jacobean way of inflicting order on people.”
But can drama ever really teach us anything? The Jamestown team believe so. Abiola Ogunbiyi, who plays Maria, one of the slaves brought into the settlement, muses: “I think viewers will learn something from Jamestown because they’ll identify with the characters. But what would be really awesome would be if audiences also got a sense from the drama of why things are this way now.”
The 27-year-old actor concludes: “The need for power and influence has very contemporary echoes. People have always used their religions and traditions to dehumanise other people and justify their actions.
“I’m afraid the desire to dominate other people has never, ever gone away.”
Eight-part drama Jamestown charts the early days of the first British settlers as they embark on their lives in America, among them a group of women destined to marry the men of the colony.
Facing all manner of trials, the settlers come together to conquer and adjust to the realities of their new lives on the other side of the world. But while Jamestown is a place for them to build new lives and start again, it’s also somewhere past secrets can be buried.
Writer Bill Gallagher (Lark Rise to Candleford, The Paradise) tells DQ about the historical facts that inspired the story of Jamestown, the research he undertook in Virginia and why he compares the series to a novel.
He also discusses the value of collaboration to help create the identity of a show, which in turn informs the direction, casting and other decisions during production.
Jamestown, which debuts on May 5, is produced by Carnival Films for Sky1 and is distributed by NBCUniversal International Distribution.
As historical drama The Last Kingdom charges towards the end of its second season, read DQ’s report from the Budapest set, where stars Alexander Dreymon and David Dawson were preparing to do battle once again.
It’s a cold, wet, November day – the perfect conditions in which to experience a slice of ninth century English life, albeit on the outskirts of Budapest.
It’s here that production designer Martyn John is dodging muddy puddles and piles of dung on the remarkable set he has overseen for the second season of BBC2’s
The Last Kingdom, adapted by Stephen Butchard (Good Cop) from Bernard Cornwell’s bestselling Saxon Stories novels.
The first season followed young warrior Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon), born a Saxon but raised a Dane and wrestling both with his dual heritage and the bitter warfare splitting England apart. Now, allied with King Alfred (David Dawson), he hopes to reclaim the lands in the north that are his ancestral birthright. It’s not a journey without its difficulties.
“Uhtred has to make quite a few sacrifices,” says Dreymon, looking impressively energised near the end of a seven-month shoot. “He pays a high price to achieve his objectives. It’s a rocky road. It’s important to keep the moments where he’s playful and still a little boy, but there’s a lot less messing about this year. It’s more political and serious and dramatic.”
Most notably, Uhtred is enslaved and chained to the oar of a Viking longship – a terrifying experience for a man who believes he will only reach Valhalla by dying with sword in hand. “Going through that emotional arc, you have to dig quite deep,” says Dreymon. “I was very disappointed I wasn’t able to go through the journey physically because we didn’t have time. To get to that point of emaciation wasn’t possible, but with prosthetics and baggy clothes and sleep deprivation, I think we got away with it.”
If Uhtred is the hero, then Alfred is the anti-hero, and one who fades into the background of the books adapted in this second season, which debuted in March. Butchard was keen to rectify this: “I tried to keep Alfred and Uhtred tied together as much as possible by having Alfred use Uhtred for his own ends, to spread his influence in the north. England is a game of chess for him, and Uhtred is his key piece on the board. In a period of violence and conflict, Alfred is trying to build something substantial, because it’s only in periods of peace where cultures grow.”
“You’ll really find out why he goes down in history as Alfred the Great,” says wiry, self-confessed “history geek” Dawson. “It’s not just about him taking land, but about him trying to create an identity for his kingdom. He was militarily smart, building forts around Wessex to secure it from any more Viking invasions. He’s clever with his court, which is full of people wanting to take his place. But he also translated books into English to promote learning and signed a peace treaty with the Danes when they would have expected a ruthless response. He’s a frail intellectual who achieves so much, and as a skinny lad I appreciate that!”
Dawson is speaking just outside Alfred’s Wessex stronghold of Winchester, as recreated by John. Not quite as regal or majestic as you might expect, it’s a network of dwellings and stables, official rooms and religious buildings. There are loose straw roofs for the poor and thatched for the more wealthy. With authenticity the watchword, timber was used where possible.
What becomes rapidly clear is John’s ingenuity. A TV veteran with the likes The White Queen and Foyle’s War under his belt, he may ostensibly be showing us around Winchester but, from a different angle and with a bit of redressing, the same space has represented York, Northampton, Leeds and assorted other settlements in East Anglia and Wessex.
Here is a network of staircases inspired by the famous Escher lithograph; there, a pagan meeting hall that had doubled as a cathedral in an earlier scene. The architectural design incorporates Saxon and Viking influences, but with elements of ancient Roman mural and filigree for the eagle-eyed. Truly, anything goes if it enhances the show.
“I’ve got to use all my sets four or five different times,” says John, who looks exhausted but justifiably proud of his achievements. If this does indeed prove to be his last run on The Last Kingdom (“Two seasons is enough for me!”), then he has left quite the legacy for his successors.
Continuity has been key to the smooth running of the shoot. Most of the cast and, perhaps unusually, most of the crew returned for the second season, including producer Chrissy Skins and director of photography Chas Bain. The directors, though, continued to rotate – a policy with pros and cons.
“It’s a great learning curve,” Dreymon says. “The whole crew and most of the cast have a shorthand now, but the one person with the ultimate decision is the one who changes every two episodes. Everyone’s nerves get tested sometimes, but the best directors are the ones who are open to suggestions, whether it’s from me or a runner on their first day.”
Jon East, who directs the second block of episodes in this second season, has both originated series (The Last Weekend, Critical) and stepped onto moving vehicles (New Tricks, Whitechapel). For him, too, it was a challenge: “You’re trying to create a reasonably seamless next chapter – you don’t want you to create this odd, ungainly shape in front of an elegant wall of bricks, but you have to bring some distinctiveness to it. You can either ask the audience to observe the characters and scenario, or ask them to step inside it and immerse themselves. I’m in the latter camp – I like to take an audience right alongside the character for a more visceral experience.”
Those visceral experiences are most arresting in the epic battles that were a hallmark of season one, climaxing in the bloodbath of Ethandun that saw Alfred defeat the Viking hordes. While season two doesn’t have anything on quite that scale, there are still some impressive set pieces. For East, though, the priority was always narrative over spectacle.
“Those long action sequences can make it feel as if time is standing still,” he argues. “You think, at some point, they’ll stop clashing swords and someone will win, when what the audience is really watching is what happens to individual characters. You need story milestones worked into those set pieces, and characters need to go on an emotional journey as well as a physical one.”
East talks with audible excitement about filming the slave sequences and a fortress siege featuring “stuntmen who had to dress in layers of fire-resistant clothing, set themselves on fire and hurl themselves off battlements in 34 degree heat.” His most enjoyable moments, however, tend to be lower key.
“My favourite scene is a very quiet one between Uhtred and Hild, a warrior who becomes one of his coterie. They just sit in a field and talk, shot in a ‘magic hour’ light. There was a delicacy, honesty and truthfulness about their performances that was very touching.”
On the whole, however, The Last Kingdom’s team had to work hard to avoid scenes looking too idyllic and thus clashing with the dour, angst-ridden nature of much of the narrative. Unlike season one, the bulk of filming was done over the sweltering Hungarian summer rather than the bitterly cold winter. Plenty of post-production work was carried out to ensure that ninth century life looked every bit as nasty, brutish and short as it really was.
Oddly, the actors missed the wintry chill. “I think you benefit from seeing people’s breath, being cold, miserable and in the mud,” grins Dreymon. “The make-up artist has kept putting on dirt all the time because you couldn’t see it in the sunlight. It’s been easier this season to not suffer those conditions, but I would gladly do it again in the winter just for the look.”
Yes, winter will come again to Winchester as surely as there will always be a Westeros-shaped shadow over any series involving swearing, sex, men with mullets and frequently wielded swords. The comparison to HBO’s Game of Thrones is one everyone acknowledges but few seem to mind (although perhaps tellingly, no one will admit to having watched The Last Kingdom’s nearest equivalent, History’s Vikings). Dawson even concedes that The Last Kingdom would probably not have been made without the success of Game of Thrones.
“It’s incumbent upon any team working within this genre to try and put clear blue water between themselves and that giant of a show,” says East. “But The Last Kingdom has as its basis those fantastic novels and a drive towards historical and visual authenticity that differentiates it.”
The Last Kingdom, produced by Carnival Films and distributed by NBCUniversal International Television Distribution, has a new US partner for season two, with Netflix taking rights stateside, replacing BBC America. And though the drama has yet to be recommissioned for a third season, given the rich history and with 10 Cornwall books to plunder (each season has so far covered two each), there’s scope for at least another three outings. Dreymon, however, must be hoping the divergence from the source novels is complete by that stage, as by book 10, Uhtred is in his 50s – a leap of the imagination surely beyond even the most gifted make-up artist.
The central theme, however, will never age and, if anything, feels more pertinent now than ever: the clash of cultures personified by the one-man melting pot at its heart. Can such apparently opposed perspectives ever be reconciled? “There’s a bit more gravitas this year,” says Butchard. “Saxons and Danes are living together and becoming more integrated, so it’s harder to say who the enemy is and who’s fighting for who.”
Dreymon believes that, however nightmarish his era may appear, Uhtred has attributes that many significant 21st century figures might do well to heed: “He’ll look beyond what religion people are from or where they’re from, which is a beautiful thing – he’s really ahead of his time.”
Thekla Reuten tells DQ about joining the cast of Stan Lee’s Lucky Man and ponders what she might do with a bit of good fortune.
Fortune didn’t always favour James Nesbitt during the first season of Stan Lee’s Lucky Man, in which he plays a detective given a magical bracelet that gives him unlimited good luck.
Circumstances have become trickier still for Nesbitt’s DI Harry Clayton in season two, with his world thrown further into chaos after his discovery of the existence of a second bracelet that belongs to a mysterious stranger called Isabella.
Enter Thekla Reuten, a Dutch actor whose big-screen credits include In Bruges and The American. She has also previously appeared in British TV dramas Restless and Hidden, and US series such as Showtime’s Sleeper Cell and long-running ABC series Lost.
“I’m always after the story,” she tells DQ about how she chooses her parts. “It can be theatre, which is how I started out, it can be film and it can be television. Who knows what medium will be invented in the near future? But for me it’s always about the story and the people involved. That’s what grabs me.”
The decision to play Isabella appealed to Reuten for several reasons, most notably her intrigue at a cop show tinged with comic-book sensibilities. As its full title suggests, the show, produced by Carnival Films in association with POW! Entertainment and distributed by NBCUniversal International Distribution, was co-created by comic-book legend Stan Lee.
“It’s a thrilling combination,” she says. “Isabella was described as a mysterious, glamorous woman because she’s very experienced with her bracelet – she’s had it for 10 years, which we learn in the first episode. It can be very hard when a role starts out so mysteriously but she pushes the storyline forward so we’ll find out about her with Harry while watching the series.
“What I did love about her is she’s a mother and, because of the bracelet, she also leans towards being a comic-book character because she has this power and she knows how to work with it. She has seen that Harry’s found it all quite vexing for the first season, and he seems to want to get rid of it. But she wants to show him the other side of it. Also, they’re the only two people in the world with a bracelet and it’s lonely. It’s made Harry very isolated during the first season, while she’s had it for 10 years. So there’s an instant connection when he sees another person with a bracelet; it’s a shock as well at first but he’s intrigued.”
Though she had never met him before, Reuten says working with Nesbitt also soon became part of the charm of joining the cast in season two. She describes the leading man as “lovely, generous and down to Earth” and says they shared the same ideas about their characters and their screen relationship from the first script read-through.
“I could ask him lots of questions about the superhero element and these two worlds combining, and we just had a really good connection over that, talking about how we could give Isabella and Harry their world,” explains Reuten, who was hoisted up onto wires alongside her co-star for publicity shots for the show, which returned to Sky1 in the UK last month.
“It felt very organic and lovely. In working with him in the middle of London, he was very open and kind to people approaching him, and very patient if they wanted to take a picture. You just feel he’s loved by a huge audience and they are happy to approach him. It’s been a big pleasure.”
Viewers of season one will remember the central role the UK’s capital city plays in the series, with producers keen to present a postcard view of London by using various landmarks as backdrops throughout the series.
Reuten spent six months living in London during filming last summer and says it was the perfect way to see the sights. “I knew London a little bit, being here every now and then for a day or two, but with the locations that my character goes to – I was on the Millennium Bridge [which can be seen behind Reuten in the top image], in the National Gallery before opening time, at Piccadilly Circus on a Friday afternoon, in the West End and on rooftops with all these amazing views of London – it felt like being on a London holiday!”
She recalls “bumping into” Somerset House during one expedition around town on a day off, only to discover a couple of days later that she would be filming at the historic location.
“I saw on the call sheet my character was going to walk through the fountains of Somerset House – that’s one of my favourite scenes,” she says. “That’s a big extra when you work on a show and you can spend your days off at Somerset House in the fountains and it’s all yours for a whole morning. It was also really special to be in the National Gallery before opening – somehow being in front of those paintings on your own makes it really different. There’s something about it, it’s really magical. So I’m very thankful for those enormous treats that come with a job that I’m already very happy doing.”
More challenging were the shoots at the aforementioned tourist hotspots of Piccadilly Circus and the Millennium Bridge, where Reuten and Nesbitt were tasked with completing their scenes as star-spotting crowds grew around them.
“The Millennium Bridge is a public place so you’re not allowed to stop people there,” says the actor. “So they were being guided around us. We had quite a lot of heavy dialogue and we were doing this while people were there checking out Jimmy. You have to work hard building a little wall around you but it’s great, it’s wonderful! You just have to focus really hard and shut the outside world out.”
She continues: “We were in the West End on a Friday night, it was Halloween, and trying to walk there with Jimmy and play a scene was a big challenge. People were very happy because they’d had a little drink – they were all dressed up really weirdly so if they jumped into shot, you couldn’t use it. Normally you could just ignore it but, with those crazy outfits, that was impossible. So that was fun!”
Ultimately, viewers will see Isabella take DI Clayton on a new journey as he continues to question life with the lucky bracelet, but Reuten also points to the family stories that make the series stand out from the crowd.
“What I like about the second season is that the stories about Harry and his family are stronger,” she says. “Obviously, when you do a second season, you build from the first one. And the characters that Amara Karan (DS Suri Chohan), Darren Boyd (DI Steve Orwell), Steven Mackintosh (DSI Alistair Winter) and Sienna Guillory (Eve) all play, that goes to the next level as well. I really like how the show has these private lives and the different cases, and then my storyline pushing it forward. Isabella pushes the story of the bracelet to a more extreme situation.”
But what would Reuten do if she were given the power of never-ending luck?
“I really wouldn’t want to have it – that’s what I know from being in the series!” she jokes. “It’s fine the way it is. Where you have it, you enjoy it – and yet it can be gone before you know it.
“I definitely know a few changes in the world I would like to make, and there are quite a few obvious ones! It’s a really strange world at the moment, with lots of negativity and divisiveness. In the end, I hope everyone sees that it’s not the way we should want to have the world. So I would use a little magic on that.”
James Nesbitt is reunited with his enchanted bracelet in the second season of Stan Lee’s Lucky Man. DQ chats to the cast and production team on set in East London.
The offices of the Murder Investigation Squad (MIS) have a panoramic viewpoint overlooking the River Thames, offering sights of some of London’s best-known landmarks.
Yet on the police station set of Stan Lee’s Lucky Man, this impressive vista is revealed to be an illuminated backdrop. Elsewhere, banks of computer screens stand in front of a backlit map of the city, surrounded by bare-concrete walls and pillars that complement the grey steel desks and filing cabinets that complete the Bethnal Green set’s industrial look.
The series, which first launched on the UK’s Sky1 in January 2016, is back for a second season after becoming the pay TV network’s highest-rated original drama series ever, attracting an average audience of 1.9 million.
Viewers followed the fortunes of Detective Inspector Harry Clayton (James Nesbitt), who acquires an ancient bracelet that makes him incredibly lucky. Now the stakes are set to rise higher as he discovers the existence of a second bracelet.
The new 10-part season, launching tomorrow, also takes on a new structure, shifting from the serialised storyline of season one and picking up a story-of-the-week format as DI Clayton becomes embroiled in new cases in each episode.
Co-created by comic book writer Stan Lee, Lucky Man is produced by Carnival Films in association with POW! Entertainment and distributed by NBCUniversal International Distribution.
“If the first season was about getting the bracelet, understanding what it is, believing in it and realising the power of it, the second season is about what Harry does with it,” explains exec producer Richard Fell. “He’s confronted by the possibilities of what it might or might not do when he meets the mysterious Isabella, who has had a bracelet for 10 years. This means Harry has to make some decisions about what he’s going to do now he’s accepted he has a lucky bracelet and how powerful it really is. And, in that classic Stan Lee way, is it a curse, a blessing or both – and how do you balance it out?”
Fell describes Lucky Man as “a little bit of crime drama, a little bit of high-concept superhero drama and definitely an action show.” But underneath it all is a very British drama, he says, with the lead character pitched as a flawed hero who often walks far too close to the line. “A British show doing a British version of The Flash or even Spider-Man would grate slightly,” he admits. “Harry is definitely a very British hero.”
Madonna Baptiste, who joined Lucky Man as producer for season two, feels many ingredients contributed to the show’s successful debut run. “It was fun, entertaining, had a great cast and great crimes,” she says. “It was a nice mix but ultimately it was great entertainment, plus it had the appeal of Stan Lee so it felt a little bit global. It was ambitious and it was a great Sky1 show. That’s what I loved about it. It was something I hadn’t seen before.”
Back on set during repeated takes of an interrogation scene for episode seven, Nesbitt is asked to kick over the same chair several times as Lily-Anne Lau (a returning Jing Lusi) gets the better of Clayton and his partner DS Suri Chohan (Amara Karan).
Chatting between takes, Nesbitt says: “I wasn’t sure where season two would go or how the character would develop but they’ve done a great job.” Wrapped in a knee-length coat to guard against the biting cold temperatures on set, Karan adds: “There’s a great cast and there’s lots of group scenes so everyone’s involved all the time.”
The actor, who is now a huge star thanks to her turn as lawyer Chandra Kapoor in HBO miniseries The Night Of, also teased that there will be lots of surprises for her character as season two plays out. “It’s an amazing script and there’s lots of action,” she adds. “I’m getting physical this season and even get to fire a gun!”
Fell describes the series as “entertaining, bold and fun,” with the “brilliant” Nesbitt at its heart. “He’s the kind of actor who can convey what is quite a wild idea – a lucky bracelet that actually works – and give it heart so it doesn’t feel too silly,” he says. “There are moments where he brings it back to Earth. It’s a combination of those things. It’s great Friday night telly, it’s really fun. And it looks good, it’s got a lot of energy.”
Baptiste adds of the show’s star: “James just knows the character and the character’s voice. For me, that was helpful because you would send him the script and he would say, ‘I don’t think the line is right.’ He’s an absolute professional and everybody loves him. He brings the fun and he’s just entertaining. You love to watch him and that energy transfers to the set. But he does long hours, he’s constantly filming. He’s in 90% of the scenes. It’s challenging for him but I have never seen him grumpy. He’s always enthusiastic.”
For Lusi, whose casino owner Lau once again goes head-to-head with Clayton, returning to film season two felt like she had never been away. “I hope her return is unexpected,” she says of her character. “One of my favourite things about Lily-Anne is that she is unpredictable, so I hope the viewers don’t see her coming. With regards to what to expect, let’s just say she hasn’t exactly seen the error of her ways from season one. Her wardrobe still rocks though!”
Lusi, who has also appeared in crime dramas Scott & Bailey and Law & Order: UK, says the show’s premise perfectly blends elements of both detective and superhero series. “I really like the style of the show – the slickness, gloss and pace,” she adds. “It’s different to a lot of other British shows and Lucky Man is quite daring in that respect. The creatives made a unique and complex world that the actors revelled in bringing to life, and every day we laughed a lot. It’s important to have fun, no matter what you do, and fun we certainly had.”
The actor reveals she was more relaxed during filming this time around than she was for season one thanks to her chemistry with Nesbitt and Karan. “I knew that if anything went wrong, we would just laugh it off and carry on,” she explains. “The worst thing you can do on set is to pressure yourself. There’s enough pressure as it is, you don’t need to add to that.”
The producers faced entirely different pressures, however, as the show’s unique challenges included filming in multiple locations across London, and capturing stunts and explosions. The season opens with a dramatic car chase around the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf in the City of London.
Baptiste says: “We’ve done lots of falls from high buildings and fight sequences and they’ve all been fairly big and ambitious. They’ve all been quite brilliant. We did want to have a stunt on Tower Bridge but there’s a thing about bridges and people diving off them – you’re not allowed to do that sort of thing. The writers will create something huge and we try to make it manageable. We go as big as we can.”
Locations are also key to the show’s identity, with the creative team very consciously presenting postcard London and all its iconic landmarks. “The shows I really like are those that are sunk into the place where they’re filmed,” Fell says. “London is a character and it’s exciting. It’s got dark bits and light bits and it’s vibrant, amazing, diverse and full of energy. We wanted the show to have that look and feel. It’s a very different London [to that presented in other shows], purposefully. It is a bit of a love poem to the city. Everyone who’s worked on it has lived here for years and loves it and wants it to look good.”
“We did a bunch of shots on the Millennium Bridge and Jimmy [Nesbitt] and Thekla [Reuten, who plays Isabella] were trying to act a scene and there’s tourists coming in and having their pictures taken. For them to maintain their confidence and focus among that chaos is testament to how good they are. That’s probably the most challenging part about this show because we want to be right in it, in the middle of London.”
With filming completed in December, Baptiste recognises season one as a tough act to follow and hopes fans won’t be disappointed when the show returns. “We just want to build on that and give the fans a little bit more – but give them what they loved about the series too. There’s something very British about Lucky Man but American shows broaden our horizons and it ups everyone’s game. Lucky Man rises to that challenge very well.”
Series like War And Peace, Borgia and Versailles have proved that there is a global market for lavish period dramas originated in Europe. And now Medici: Masters of Florence, featuring Dustin Hoffman, looks set to join this list of successful shows.
Produced by Lux Vide in collaboration with Big Light Productions and Wild Bunch, the show was commissioned by Rai in Italy and is distributed internationally by Wild Bunch TV (except in the US, where WME is handling sales).
This week, Wild Bunch announced a slew of Medici sales to SFR/Altice Group (France, French-speaking Belgium, Luxembourg), Sky (Germany), SBS (Australia), eOne (New Zealand), Sony Pictures Television (Latin America), DBS (Israel), VRT (Belgium), Canal+ (Poland), LRT (Lithuania), RTV (Slovenia), RTVS (Slovakia), Canal+ Overseas (French-speaking Africa), Hulu (Japan), Georgian Public 2 Broadcast and BTV (Bulgaria). This follows a previous sale by Lux Vide to Telefonica/Movistar+ (Spain) and news of a second series commission by Rai.
20 years ago, shows like these tended to end up ponderous and stilted, earning the ‘Europudding’ epithet. The main problem was that too many partners had a say in the creative direction and casting. These days, backers have learned to put greater faith in the hands of the storytellers – and have benefited as a result. In Medici’s case, the series is written by Frank Spotnitz, whose credits include series like The X-Files and The Man in the High Castle, and Nicholas Meyer (Houdini, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan).
Medici is set in 15th-century Florence, the city that will host its world premiere on October 14. The eight-part show features Dustin Hoffman as Giovanni de’ Medici, the patriarch of the Medici family who is found dead in mysterious circumstances. His sons, Cosimo (Richard Madden) and Lorenzo (Stuart Martin), are forced to face a range of enemies plotting to oust the Medici from power. Shot entirely in Tuscany, the series depicts the foundations of one of the most profound financial, artistic and scientific awakenings the world has ever known: the Renaissance.
More good news for the European production business this week is the news that RVK Studios, Icelandic national broadcaster RUV and Dynamic Television have announced that Baltasar Kormákur’s Icelandic crime series Trapped has been renewed for a second season. Widely praised by critics, the series attracted a strong audience during its 10-episode run earlier this year. In the UK, the series premiere on BBC4 reached more than 1.2 million viewers. In France, episodes one and two attracted more than 5.7 million viewers on France 2. Audiences averaged more than 500,000 viewers for NRK Norway, while 86% of television-owning homes in Iceland tuned in. The show is also soon to air on ZDF in Germany.
Based on an original idea by Kormákur, Trapped tells the story of a troubled cop investigating a grisly murder when his small Icelandic town is hit by a powerful blizzard, trapping the villagers and most likely the killer in the town. Season two, slated to air in autumn 2018, will follow the same lead characters as they examine an even more complex and challenging murder case. “I am so excited to get to assemble this great group of talent again,” said Kormákur. “This story is far from over. There is a lot more to come, both story-wise and also concerning our lead characters. I guess we all want to get to know them a little bit better.”
Klaus Zimmermann, managing partner of Dynamic Television, which distributes the show, said: “Audiences overwhelmingly responded strongly to the thrilling drama and powerful characters and they will find the next season every bit as gripping.” Trapped stars Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, who has also appeared in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and True Detective. It is written by Sigurjón Kjartansson and Clive Bradley.
We’ve written a lot in the last year or two about talent being parachuted into TV drama from film, theatre and publishing. This week, we were reminded of another source of inspiration, following the news that Carnival Films is developing a drama based on Alex Gibney’s feature-length documentary Zero Days, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February.
Written and directed by Gibney, Zero Days is a documentary thriller about warfare in an arena without rules – the world of cyber war. The film tells the story of Stuxnet, a self-replicating computer malware that the US and Israel unleashed to destroy a key part of an Iranian nuclear facility, and which ultimately spread beyond its intended target. It’s a comprehensive account of how a clandestine mission hatched by two allies with clashing agendas opened forever the Pandora’s Box of cyber warfare.
The drama (whose working title is Stuxnet) will be written by Stephen Schiff, who has been a writer/producer on FX’s acclaimed scripted series The Americans since the second season. Gibney directs and will also produce alongside Marc Shmuger. Nigel Marchant, David O’Donoghue and Gareth Neame are exec producing for Carnival. Participant Media will executive produce while NBC Universal International will distribute the series.
Film buffs in the audience will note that all three of the above scripted series are directed by talent that is better known for feature-film work. In addition to Gibney and Kormákur, Medici is directed by Sergio Mimica-Gezzani – whose credits include Catch Me If You Can, Saving Private Ryan and Minority Report.
Continuing with this theme, SVoD platform Netflix is partnering with feted director Spike Lee on a drama based on his 1986 film She’s Gotta Have It. The show will follow a Brooklyn-based artist who juggles her time between her friends, job and three lovers. Lee will direct all 10 episodes of the show, which was initially in development with premium pay TV network Showtime.
Looking beyond the usual suspects in the TV drama business, Keshet International (KI) has picked up global distribution rights to Croatian crime drama The Paper and will be promoting it at the Mipcom market in Cannes next month. The 12×50′ show, produced by Croatia’s Drugi Plan, is set in the offices of a newspaper and explores political corruption, power struggles, crime and betrayal.
Commenting on the news, KI acquisitions chief Sebastian Burkhardt talked up the growing market for non-English-language drama: “With the current opportunities out there for non-English-speaking series, and our experience with them, we are confident that The Paper will find its audience outside of Croatia.”
Finally, another high-profile US series has bit the dust after just one season. Showtime has announced that Cameron Crowe’s Roadies will not return, following poor ratings (echoing the story with Vinyl at HBO). Crowe said: “Thanks to Showtime and [exec producer] JJ Abrams for the opportunity to make the one and only season of Roadies. My mind is still spinning from the giddy highs of working with this epic cast and crew. Though we could tell a thousand more stories, this run ends with a complete 10-hour tale of music and love. Like a song that slips under your skin, or a lyric that keeps speaking to you, we hope the spell of Roadies lingers. It was a life-changing experience for all of us.”
In the US, big-budget drama has become a key battleground between pay TV platforms and their fast-growing SVoD rivals. Now, the same pattern is emerging in other parts of the world. After months of announcements from Netflix and Amazon about their new European dramas, DTH satellite platform Sky has hit back by announcing a formidable slate of six original shows.
At the end of last week, the firm said: “Responding to demand from customers for more original drama, the new productions combine with Sky’s groundbreaking HBO and Showtime partnerships to build on Sky’s growing reputation as one of the world’s best storytellers. (This is Sky’s) most ambitious slate of original productions yet, adding to its growing portfolio of drama.” No wonder they’re putting my subscription up by £4.25 next month…
Made by producers including Kudos (The Tunnel); Fifty Fathoms (Fortitude) and Carnival Films (Stan Lee’s Lucky Man), the six shows are expected to air across 2016/17. The writing and acting talent isn’t too shabby either. Writers include John Ridley (12 Years a Slave), Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) and Rowan Joffe (28 Days Later), while Idris Elba, Dawn French and Tim Roth are among the actors attached.
In truth, some of the series that are bundled together in the Sky announcement were already known about, though perhaps not with full details. Rowan Joffe’s Tin Star, which stars Tim Roth and Christina Hendricks, was first discussed in March. Described variously as “a contemporary take on the western genre” and “a revenge thriller,” it tells the story of Jim Worth, an ex-Met police detective who starts a new life in Canada’s Rocky Mountains.
Neil Jordan’s Riviera, meanwhile, has been in the public domain since February. Starring Julia Stiles, Sky calls it a glamorous thriller “set in the world of the super-rich, where art, money, sex and love all come at a price.” Also known about for some time is Bill Gallagher’s period drama Jamestown. Produced by Carnival, it is set in 1619 during the early days of the first British settlers in America. It “tells the story of a group of young women as they leave the Old World and their old lives behind them.”
News of The Last Dragonslayer first leaked in January. Based on the first of Jasper Fforde’s novels, it’s “a family adventure that follows the story of orphan Jennifer Strange, who reluctantly discovers her destiny is to become the last Dragonslayer.”
The last two projects on the slate (which are divided evenly across Sky Atlantic and Sky1) are Delicious, a four-parter starring Dawn French, and Guerrilla, a copro with Showtime starring Idris Elba. Written by John Ridley, the latter is “a love story set against the backdrop of the 1970s. It follows “a young couple whose relationship and values are tested when they liberate a political prisoner and form a radical underground cell in 1970s London”.
Sky content MD Gary Davey said: “We know our original content is highly valued and a reason why customers choose and stay with Sky. Combining the scale and ambition of our Sky original productions with the best of the US and exclusive partnerships with HBO and Showtime, we believe our customers enjoy a better choice of drama at Sky than anywhere else in the world.”
Head of drama Anne Mensah added: “Our customers adore original drama, whether that’s a rich and complex storyline on Sky Atlantic or a blockbuster adventure on Sky1. We are incredibly proud to be working with such amazing talent across all our dramas. Everything we do at Sky is about being passionate, bold and unique and that philosophy underlines all of these shows.”
Sky said the new productions join eight original drama series already on air or set to air in the coming months on Sky Atlantic and Sky1. These include The Tunnel: Sabotage, Penny Dreadful, Fortitude, Stan Lee’s Lucky Man, Agatha Raisin, The Young Pope, Harlan Coben’s The Five and Hooten & the Lady. In terms of international distribution, Sky notes that Guerrilla will be handled by Endemol Shine International; Tin Star by Sky Vision and ESI; Riviera by Sky Vision; and Jamestown by NBCUniversal International Distribution.
In the US, meanwhile, premium pay TV channel HBO has just announced renewals for three of its key shows, Game of Thrones, Silicon Valley and Veep, all of which started new seasons last night in the US. Game of Thrones, which has just started season six, will have a seventh season in 2017. Veep will now run for at least six seasons, while Silicon Valley will air for a minimum of four.
In the same week, A+E-owned cable channel Lifetime unveiled a range of new scripted projects last week, including Sea Change, a supernatural drama based on the young adult novel by Aimee Friedman. Also in development is None of the Above, a coming-of-age drama about a girl whose status as a homecoming queen is called into question when she discovers that she is intersex. Lifetime is also developing Deadline, a satirical one-hour drama that follows aspiring journalist Emily Twist, who is struggling to get noticed in a world that values gossip over investigative news.
Still in the US, producer Mark Gordon (Quantico) has teamed up with Mel Gibson on a project called The Barbary Coast, which will star Kurt Russell, Kate Hudson and Gibson, who will also co-write and direct. Backed by Entertainment One, the series begins during the Californian Gold Rush of 1849 and tells the story of San Francisco’s formative years.
“Most people don’t know the scandalous history behind San Francisco, and The Barbary Coast offers a rich portrayal of a period when success was often attained through illicit and brutal means,” said Gordon. “I’m excited that Kurt and Kate are working alongside Mel, whose astute direction will bring this devious time in our history to life.”
As yet no broadcaster has been attached to the production.
In a busy industry calendar, one event that seems to be attracting an increasing amount of attention is Paris-based Series Mania, which came to an end last week. As part of the event, there is a Coproduction Forum, which showcases projects looking for partners or finances.
This year, 16 projects from 10 countries were in the spotlight. The titles on display were 16 Knot (Lux Vide, Italy), Belle Epoque (Scarlett Production, France), Eden (Lupa Film/Atlantique Films, Germany/France), Flight 1618 (Makingprod, France), Gastronomy (Drama Team, Israel), Hidden (Yellow Bird, Sweden), Keeping Faith (Vox Pictures, UK), Let’s Save the World (Constantin Film, Germany), Liar (Two Brothers Pictures, UK), One Square Mile (Pampa Production, France), Pipeline (Apple Film Production, Poland), Pwned By The Mob (Submarine, Netherlands), Stella Blomkvist (Sagafilm, Iceland), The Illegal (Conquering Lion Pictures, Canada), The Specialists (Fridthjof Film, Denmark) and Warrior (Miso Film, Denmark).
Series Mania general director Laurence Herszberg said: “The Forum has now become a key date in the calendar for TV series professionals from around the world. The 16 titles that were chosen reveal a wide range of forms and genres, including procedural thrillers to historical dramas, and all the way to edgy contemporary stories without forgetting mainstream fare.” It will be interesting to track these shows as they build momentum.
The talking point in TV circles continues to be whether we are at the point of ‘peak drama’ and, if so, how long it can last – but shouldn’t we just enjoy this golden age?
It seems unlikely that anyone working in television five years ago would have predicted the incredible rise of dramatic storytelling and audiences’ apparently unquenchable thirst for new series.
Factor in the growth of online platforms such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, their impact on the business and the subsequent changes to how people now watch television and the leap since 2010 is even more remarkable.
With 400 scripted series in the US alone in 2015, viewers have never had it so good. But behind the scenes, broadcasters, producers and other executives are debating if and when the industry might hit the ‘wall’ – both financially and creatively – and what the drama business might look like over the next five years.
Rebecca Eaton has overseen the Masterpiece brand on US network PBS for the past 30 years, bringing some of the best British drama to US audiences. Yet she openly questions the state of the drama business and who her audience might be in the years ahead.
“It’s very scary,” she admits. “I wish I had been born a writer because it’s a really tricky time to be a broadcaster or distributor. There’s a huge amount of drama, but who’s going to be watching it a year or two from now? How much is too much? When are we going to hit the wall? What is the wall?
“As a regular human being who happens to be in the business, my eyeballs are spinning freely in my head trying to watch regular TV, not to mention the stuff I have to do for work. Something has got to give, but I’m not sure where it’s going to give.”
In particular, Eaton points to the effect on-demand platforms such as Netflix and Amazon have had since becoming major players in the original programming business with shows such as House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Transparent and The Man in the High Castle on their slates.
“It’s beginning to look limitless,” Eaton says. “There are no primetime schedules that Amazon or Netflix have to fill. If broadcasters can’t take more, it’s going to migrate over to our competitors.”
One show Eaton is losing this year is Downton Abbey, which is coming to an end after six seasons. The period drama has become a smash hit in the US, earning multiple Emmy and Golden Globe awards and nominations.
Downton producer Carnival Films has used its success to build a business model based on making drama that works in both the UK and US markets, with MD Gareth Neame identifying historical series as the “connective tissue” between the two. Another Carnival drama, The Last Kingdom, aired on BBC2 and BBC America in October 2015 and was recently awarded a second season.
Neame says: “There’s a danger you can end up with a lot of historical projects. The challenge for us is to make sure we’re making contemporary shows as well and to see whether domestic-looking broadcasters in the UK and the US can find something that connects in contemporary drama.
“There’s an opportunity in the US now for all British content – there certainly wasn’t at the time when we embarked on Downton Abbey. There was no thought that the show could become as mainstream as it has. I agree there’s a glut of drama, but that’s much better than in around 2000 when I thought I would have to become a reality producer because it seemed like scripted was over and everything was about Survivor. I’d rather have it this way.”
The downside, says Neame, is that TV is now a hits business, with only a handful of shows cutting through the sheer volume of content being produced. He also believes there is a lack of talent coming into the industry, with writers over-booked and not enough actors being trained on either side of the Atlantic.
“It’s a good problem because it’s a problem that can be solved,” Neame adds. “But we need to catch up and get more people into the industry – more crews, more writers, more actors.”
Neame’s concerns over talent are not shared by Chris Rice, an agent for WME’s global television team, who describes this period as an “incredible time” for talent – whether that’s writers or producers. Rice was part of the team that completed the deal to bring BBC1 and AMC together to adapt John le Carré’s espionage story The Night Manager, which stars Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston and is produced by The Ink Factory. The series debuts later this month.
“What I’m most excited about is the relationship between the American and British markets, which were quite separate five years ago,” he says. “Occasionally a show would cross over but particularly over the last two years, those markets have come together. Something like The Night Manager, which was an incredibly expensive show, would never have been supported out of the UK alone.
“My prediction is that, in two years’ time, there will be 20 shows like that a year. That’s going to be an amazing opportunity to tell bigger better stories and a great chance for British television to play at the same level as premium US shows. It will be fabulous for producers, and those shows will be profitable and sustainable.”
Meanwhile, if there’s one company responsible for the technological advances being made in television production, it’s The Imaginarium Studios, which describes itself as Europe’s leading performance-capture studio and production company. Founded by actor-director Andy Serkis (The Lord of the Rings, Planet of the Apes) and producer Jonathan Cavendish, it uses the latest technology to create new stories and characters for TV, film, video games and digital platforms.
The Imaginarium was involved in bringing to life the eponymous lead character of Fungus the Bogeyman, a three-part drama for Sky1 that aired at Christmas. And in a business where it’s increasingly important to stand out from the crowd, Cavendish says the company’s mission is to unite technology and storytelling in a bid not only to create remarkable stories but also to help drive costs down.
“We have 40 genius technologists who create methodologies, platforms and technologies for us to make our stories better, more remarkable and more cheaply,” he says. “If somebody said two years ago that virtual environments and performance-capture characters would be in television, everybody would have said it was ridiculous, but now they are and they’re at the centre of what we do. We’re making a lot of shows for television, even for online that involve the sort of technology that hadn’t been dreamt of even two years ago.”
Writers, directors and animators who visit The Imaginarium, based at the historic Ealing Studios in London, can bring a story to life immediately. “In that studio, you can very quickly create virtual environments and avatars that are operable in real time by pressing a button,” Cavendish explains. “You have your writers room in there along with your director and an animator and you are creating, changing, testing and trying out dialogue you’ve written because it’s done in real time.
“We’ve trained a whole new generation of actors to work with our technology. We’re beginning to take all sorts of writers and directors into this environment and it’s achievable and doable on the day. Nowadays, because of the real-time technology we’re on the very edge of, you can make an hour of drama in a day.”
Ultimately, “it’s all about creating new intellectual property, new stories, new ideas and new characters, which can be spectacular,” Cavendish adds. “You have to stand out.”
For Greg Brenman, joint MD of Drama Republic, writers are put at the heart of everything his firm does. The production company was behind Hugo Blick’s critically acclaimed The Honourable Woman (and is backing his follow-up series Black Earth Rising for BBC2) and most recently brought to air BBC1 hit Doctor Foster (pictured top), which was written by Mike Bartlett and has been renewed for a second season.
“We go after writers,” Brenman admits. “Mike Bartlett was someone myself and Roanna (Benn, joint MD) had identified five years ago who we were desperate to work with. He was in theatre at the time. We work with theatre writers a lot and because serial TV seems to be so in demand, it’s about character rather than story, so you often find great character writers in theatre.”
Former Tiger Aspect executive Brenman also believes making good television is about connecting with your audience in any way possible: “That connectivity can happen when it’s huge bells and whistles or people thrashing through fields harvesting, or it can be that emotional connectivity. Doctor Foster has that epic scale to it. It’s all about making an emotional connection however you can.”
On the subject of whether there is too much TV, he adds: “We should enjoy the ‘right now.’ Everyone’s ‘woe the future.’ Well, let’s enjoy the present. Things are evolving in ways we don’t always realise.”
Neame is equally positive. “Platforms are playing to the strengths of serial television,” he says. “We’re on the beginning of a great journey.
“Another reason it’s a great time is partly that technology is going to open up so many things to us and partly that the selling model is so liberating. Seven years ago I was told by a distribution executive that nobody would ever be interested in Downton Abbey. That just shows you how it’s changed beyond recognition.”
With The Imaginarium involved in producing Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Cavendish says it was suggested to him that, were Star Wars being produced now for the first time, it would not be made as a movie.
Instead, “you would probably make a huge television series to be watched on a smaller screen and you would create a huge world that you could explore,” he says. “That’s what younger audiences want and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that younger viewers are deserting much of traditional television.
“Also, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) offer a completely new world in which people can play. There is an opportunity now for younger people to be told the traditional stories that we know people want but, at the same time, to add in their own bits and to be in those stories themselves. That is the way, whether we like it or not, the world is going. Stories are stories, and nothing is changing in that sense. It’s a massive opportunity for us – I don’t think it’s a threat.”
Rice agrees that VR and AR will be mainstream within five years. In the meantime, he predicts there will be major changes relating to how series air across SVoD platforms and linear networks.
“If you look at Amazon and Netflix, they’re starting to experiment with releasing episodes weekly and are starting to think about the idea of dropping several episodes simultaneously at multiple times throughout the year, instead of dumping an annual 13-episode season in one go,” he says.
“Look at what HBO’s done with HBO Go and HBO Now. Every US network is launching its own platform and every European premium cable network is starting to offer online boxsets, taking themselves out of the linear environment. To me, that’s what the next two or three years are going to be about – a complete shuffling, rather than a reliance on hour-long programming in a weekly slot, and being able to experiment with 20 different ways of releasing content.
“It’s really about serving the story. Everyone will experiment with how their content is released. Nobody knows the answer, but hopefully the answer will be whatever serves the story.”
Anyone in the TV drama business will know just how hard it is to keep up with all the new scripted titles coming onto the global market. In my case, it took me until season four to find Breaking Bad and season three to start watching Downton Abbey – and even then I fell asleep during the first episode and didn’t start watching again for a few months.
I was a year late discovering Happy Valley and have yet to get past episode one of True Detective. And I’m a person who only watches drama, movies and Arsenal FC.
At C21 Media’s International Drama Summit last week, I learnt there is another show I have been missing out on – HBO’s The Leftovers.
Browsing through DQ’s pre-event coverage of the summit, I was struck by just how many TV executives singled it out as one of their top scripted series of the year. This echoes Variety TV critic Maureen Ryan, who recently said: “The best surprise of 2015 might be how good, actually, how great, The Leftovers has become.”
For those in the same boat as me, The Leftovers is based on a bestselling novel by Tom Perrotta. The series takes place three years after a global event called the ‘Sudden Departure,’ during which 140 million people (2% of the world’s population) inexplicably disappear. As a result, a number of religious cults spring up, the most prominent of which is called the Guilty Remnant.
Perrotta is also co-creator of the series, though a lot of the writing is done by Damon Lindelof, who is credited as a co-writer on every episode of the first two seasons except one. Prior to The Leftovers, Lindelof’s major TV credit was ABC’s iconic series Lost, which he co-created. Subsequently, he devoted more of his time to movies, writing the screenplays to Cowboys & Aliens, Prometheus, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Tomorrowland.
Season two of The Leftovers ended this week, and there has not yet been any word from HBO on whether it will be renewed. This is because, despite all the critical acclaim and a cult following, it hasn’t been rating very well.
Lindelof would like to do another season, but is realistic enough to realise that the show’s viewing figures might not allow that. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, he said: “Anybody who says to you that they don’t want more viewers is a much more confident individual than I am. I do subscribe to the idea that the more people watching the show, the better the show is. The more critical acclaim, the better the show is. I’m just not the person who’s like, ‘Hey, if I like it then f– all of y’all.’ Television in particular is a medium that is designed to go out to the masses, and I would like a lot of people (to watch my show).”
Another sci-fi writer in the news this week is J Michael Straczynski, creator of Babylon 5 and co-creator of Sense8. Straczynski has been handed the exciting role of adapting Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy of novels for US cable network Spike.
Robinson’s award-winning books, which were written between 1993 and 1996, tell the story of humanity’s colonisation of the red planet, starting with the early settlers. Adapted into 21 languages, the books have been acclaimed for their strong scientific foundation, which keeps the story rooted in some kind of reality.
Spike made its ambitions in scripted TV clear earlier this year when it aired Ancient Egypt miniseries Tut. But this is the first time in a decade it has greenlit a full series. With Straczynski at the helm as writer, executive producer and showrunner, it is the kind of project that could develop into an ongoing franchise.
“The heart and soul of Red Mars is about humanity,” said Spike executive VP of original series Sharon Levy. “This group of strangers must find a way to live together and survive under the most daunting conditions mankind has ever faced to become the first living generation of Martians. They will be each other’s greatest source of strength – and, if they can’t coexist, the reason for failure.”
Also on board is Skydance Television, whose president Marcy Ross added: “We are thrilled to join forces with Spike to bring Kim Stanley Robinson’s dynamic world of the Mars trilogy to television audiences for the first time ever, particularly in the brilliant creative voice of science-fiction legend J Michael Straczynski.”
Author Robinson will be a consultant on the new series, which goes into production next summer for a January 2017 debut.
Humanity’s battle for survival is a big theme in TV drama at present, which is probably the result of various background factors such as the unstable geopolitical environment, the fear of pandemics, the rapid rise of AI, the growing refugee crisis and the failure of countries to get to grips with climate change.
As well as the shows named above, we’ve seen Neil Cross secure a commission for Hard Sun while Syfy is just about to air Matthew Graham’s adaptation of Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End (December 14-16).
Writer Regina Moriarty is also in the process of adapting Jane Rogers novel The Testament of Jessie Lamb as a three-parter. Developed with Carnival Films, Rogers’ novel imagines a near-future world in which a virus is killing pregnant mothers. Scientists fight to save the unborn children by placing the mothers in a chemically induced coma, but a breakthrough in immunising frozen embryos could hold the key to the human race’s survival.
The keen-eyed among you will have noted that three of the above projects are based on novels. Another novel adaptation breaking to the surface this week is Now You See Her, a legal drama based on a book by James Patterson. Ordered by CBS, the TV version will be written by Siobhan Byrne O’Connor, whose writing credits include Blue Bloods, Law & Order, Third Watch and Monk. Blue Bloods, also on CBS, has been running for six seasons.
Patterson is a popular source among TV networks. CBS thriller series Zoo is also based on his work, while there has been talk of USA Network adapting his Women’s Murder Club novels. Like movie-to-TV adaptations and TV series reboots, novel adaptations act as a comfort blanket for broadcasters that are nervous about the high-cost and risk attached in wholly original production.
As a footnote to this, it’s interesting to note that Syfy’s decision to greenlight Red Mars follows the breakout success of feature film The Martian, starring Matt Damon. The two projects are unrelated but there’s clearly some security to be had in backing subject matter than has already won itself an audience.