Tag Archives: Catherine Oldfield

Head to head

ITV pits Adrian Lester against John Simm in Trauma, a nail-biting three-part thriller from Doctor Foster creator Mike Bartlett. DQ visits the set to speak to the writer and producer Catherine Oldfield.

Launching in 2015, domestic thriller Doctor Foster quickly became one of the most talked-about shows of the year, with stars Suranne Jones and Bertie Carvel doing battle in a taut thriller about a woman seeking revenge after uncovering her husband’s infidelity. Season two put viewers through the wringer once again when it aired on BBC1 last year.

Mike Bartlett

Before then, however, screenwriter and playwright Mike Bartlett had started working on the idea behind Trauma, a three-part drama airing on consecutive nights on UK broadcaster ITV from Monday. Using a hospital trauma centre as its backdrop, the story is about what happens when you place your trust in another person, only for something to go wrong.

Development was put on hold as Bartlett worked on Doctor Foster and continued his theatre career, but Trauma eventually went into production last year. The show is produced by Tall Story Pictures, directed by Marc Evans and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.

It stars Adrian Lester as Jon, a trauma surgeon who is unable to save the life of 15-year-old Alex, the son of John Simm’s character Dan, who holds Jon responsible for Alex’s death. As he strives for justice, Dan begins to unpick the very fabric of Jon’s life as his own unravels in the wake of Alex’s passing.

“I looked at a trauma centre and we looked at the people who worked there and it was really interesting as a context, but then I didn’t really want to write a medical drama,” Bartlett tells DQ on location at Jon’s family home, a luxury four-storey house in Clapham, south-west London. “I wanted to find a story that was a bit different. We live in a world where you get a lot of choice and get to control things, but when you’re thrown into a hospital, you’ve got to place 100% of your trust or the people you love into the hands of someone you’ve never met before. So this story is about what happens when that goes wrong.

Trauma stars Adrian Lester as trauma surgeon Jon

“Once I had that starting point, it quickly became clear this is, hopefully, an unusual story of two protagonists and two points of view. We don’t settle and tell the audience, ‘this person is right.’ We move between the two, and that became an interesting form to explore.”

DQ visits the set on the 33rd day of a 35-day, seven-week shoot that included a two-day rock-climbing sequence. It’s here at Jon’s house that Lester, Rowena King (as Jon’s wife Lisa) and Jade Anouka (their daughter Alana) are filming with director Evans. King is clapped off at the end of the day, having completed her final scene.

Bartlett had been in conversation with Tall Story creative director Catherine Oldfield, who produces Trauma, about working together for several years. “We originally talked about doing The West Wing set in a newspaper room, but now he’s making it without us,” she jokes, referring to Bartlett’s forthcoming BBC drama Press.

Lester’s character goes up again John Simm as bereaved father Dan

That first conversation was almost four years ago, but uniquely, and perhaps owing to the short episode order, Oldfield was able to begin pre-production early last year with three solid scripts in place, ensuring the team behind the show was able to make decisions based on the whole story. “We have that very clear idea at the heart of it, which is these two men, two points of view and we’re not coming down on either side of it,” she says. “That’s been a really big touchstone to come back to. Every time I’ve had a question about it, to go back to that fundamental thing we talked about at the beginning was a way to keep everything on course.”

Bartlett describes feeling “fulfilled” by the more hands-on role afforded by both writing and exec producing the series, with his involvement in conversations throughout production meaning he didn’t have to put everything into the scripts.

Catherine Oldfield

“I thought of this like a chamber piece and what’s great is the production process feels like it’s mirrored that,” the writer explains. “It’s felt like a team that is absolutely on the same page so there haven’t been any surprises. Sometimes you get the rushes back and a scene you wrote in a lift is now set in a meadow. But it hasn’t felt like that – I haven’t been worrying that I’m not on set. Marc’s brilliant, and what’s really worth saying is you’re not writing it and wanting everyone to fulfil that. I love the collaborative process – the designers, the actors and everyone involved. You want it to be more than what you’ve written; you want it to be what you’ve written plus that again in terms of what people bring to it.”

With the opening episode of Trauma, Bartlett succeeds in his attempt to keep viewers guessing in terms of both what will happen next and, more importantly, with whom their sympathies should lie. The writer says psychological thrillers such as this and Doctor Foster are more appealing to him than traditional murder-mysteries or medical dramas.

“Audiences are so genre-literate that it’s nice to have a drama that is just a story, where you have to watch to find out what it is,” he notes. “We’re actually moving [between genres] because it is a medical drama for a moment and then it becomes a thriller and a psychological thing. Audiences love that now – they love finding something unusual that they can’t quite get a handle on.

Simm takes instructions from director Marc Evans

“Television drama can do all sorts of things brilliantly, but what I love to do is write dramas that are quite close to the audience and will get them talking, so that when it happens in their life, they will think of the show. Or if it has happened in their life, this is reflecting some of [their experiences] and maybe they’ll talk about it at work the next day. That’s true with this show. People won’t have been through this exact experience, but there are moments that will reflect what a lot of people have been through.”

Both Bartlett and Oldfield tease that Trauma could return, either as a continuation of the story that plays out across the forthcoming three episodes or as an anthology. Fellow ITV drama Safe House has already laid down a blueprint for single drama that returns with a new cast and story.

What’s certain is theatre playwrights are continuing to find their way to television – note Jez Butterworth’s television debut with Sky Atlantic and Amazon drama Britannia – but producers and broadcasters may soon have to look elsewhere for new writing talent.

“It used to be that writers started in theatre because that’s what you can do at school or in your home,” Bartlett notes. “Then when you got better, you got the resources of TV. Now you can make a film with a phone, so that route of theatre into TV isn’t necessarily where you’re going to find the new talent and new writers anymore.”

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Mummy’s the word

Guy Burt explores the discovery of the boy king’s tomb in four-parter Tutankhamun. DQ speaks to the writer and the show’s executive producers about retelling this famous story for a new audience.

As you might expect from its title, Tutankhamun is a historical series set in Egypt. But the four-part period piece might also be the unlikeliest buddy drama of the year.

Rather than the boy king himself, Guy Burt’s screenplay focuses on British archaeologist Howard Carter – the man who would become world famous with the discovery of the pharaoh’s tomb on November 4, 1922 – and his partnership with aristocratic benefactor Lord Carnarvon.

The story opens as the hot-headed Carter’s licence to dig is revoked by Cairo’s Antiquities Service. He then spends years ostracised, forced to sell ancient relics to buy food. But a chance meeting with Lord Carnarvon brings a change of fortunes and they begin an unlikely friendship that leads to the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb – against all odds and at great personal expense.

Max Irons and Sam Neill star as Carter and Carnarvon (pictured above left and right respectively) in the series, which is produced by Simon Lewis, directed by Peter Webber and executive produced by Francis Hopkinson and Catherine Oldfield for ITV Studios. ITV Studios Global Entertainment is distributing the show worldwide, with SBS in Australia having picked it up already.

Burt admits his inner eight-year-old quickly agreed to write the series when he was first sounded out about the project. “A lot of enthusiasm probably came through on the page because it is something I was obsessed with as a kid,” he says. “I think everybody knows the story a bit, and it’s a magical tale. It was a no-brainer.”

The writer, whose credits include The Bletchley Circle, The Borgias and Jekyll & Hyde, spent many hours researching Carter through the archaeologist’s notebooks and material from digs, as well as his personal archive at Oxford University’s Bodleian library and its centre of Egyptology, The Griffin Institute.

“As far as we could, we wanted to stay true to the history,” Burt explains. “The only significant piece of artistic licence is the portrayal of the romance between Carter and Lord Carnarvon’s daughter Evelyn, which is one of those frustrating bits of history that is hinted at but nobody quite comes out and boldly states it – or at least when they do, historians argue about whether it’s true.

“In my mind there is one letter in particular from Carnarvon to Carter that doesn’t really make sense unless there is some kind of love interest. So the tricky bit for us was just threading our way through the history, making sure we were as accurate as we could possibly be while at the same time telling a story that is gripping as a quest for both treasure and love.

“It’s a fascinating, weird story, full of all the things that writers dream about getting into their scripts – reversals of fortune and moments where you think everything is coming right at last, only to have the rocks pulled out from under your feet. Those are the sort of things you usually craft in the course of a narrative, but here they actually happened.”

Tutankhamun
Production challenges included the need for ‘scorpion wranglers’ on set

Burt says he had a vivid picture of the show during the writing process but admits he has learned to scale back the number of notes he includes in his scripts. “You don’t want to alienate your director by telling them their job,” he explains. “I used to write scripts that were pretty fastidious in terms of what I wanted the camera to do and it took me a while to realise you shouldn’t do that.

“But Tutankhamun is surprisingly close to what I had imagined. The set design nailed it completely. The thing you always have to deal with is the actors don’t tend to look like people you’ve got in your head. So that’s always a bit of a surprise but that’s true on every project. So I have twin Carters and twin Carnarvons – the guys who were with me when I was writing and those on screen. What we got in the end was really impressive.”

Unable to film in Egypt itself due to insurance reasons, the series settled in South Africa where almost all the interiors were built and, most importantly, The Valley of the Kings was recreated.

“This is a production built on the production design department,” admits Oldfield. “They did a fantastic job for us. We couldn’t send a camera to the valleys to get some establishing shots, so they recreated the Valley of the Kings in this abandoned valley on the Namibian border in searing heat. Everything had to be shipped up there – it’s eight hours drive from Cape Town – but we got most of the extras from Springbok, which is only an hour-and-a-half away. On one day of shooting, there was a cast and crew of 350 people out there in the middle of nowhere.”

From the start, Hopkinson says he was adamant Tutankhamun should not be a “pretty period drama” and was encouraged by director Webber’s ambition that viewers should feel the dust and dirt inside the tomb.

“When we talked to Peter, he wanted it to feel quite claustrophobic and hand-held in the tombs and then he wanted to show more scale outside,” he explains. “He was very keen to make it look like old photographs where the colours are slightly faded. Because he’s got a lot of experience in cinema, he gave it the scale and sweep you’ve got to have in a show like this. That’s why we wanted Peter to do it.”

Burt adds: “The valley shots among the workers [uncovering Tut’s tomb] are all done with handheld cameras; they’re quite unsteady and there’s a lot of dust. But the Cairo moments when you’re in the big, old, established buildings are all very steady and framed. There’s a clear pattern to how things are divided. [Webber] also had clever ideas for inside the tomb, never letting the camera lens look back past where the wall would have been. So although you’re flying walls out in order to get your crew in, there’s still that sense of claustrophobia because the lens never pulls out. It’s like you’re in there with them, and it was tremendously gratifying to see that level of precision and skill brought to it.”

samneillfaces

 

With a budget boosted by tax breaks and a drop in the value of the South African rand, Hopkinson says there was more than enough money to ensure Tutankhamun carried the production values now expected of television series.

“I remember the producer ringing me up and telling me that, for just one day of shooting, the designer had built two streets on an old borstal in the outskirts of Cape Town,” he recalls. “He said, ‘I’m just going to warn you we’re building two whole streets for a handful of scenes we’re shooting.’ I just asked if we could afford it and he said yes. It was amazing. This story had to be done with scale. People also expect that now from television – for something like Tutankhamun, you need the scale and production values that cost money. It looks fantastic.”

That’s not to say the production was without some unique challenges – namely a risk assessment that was 40 pages long and led to three ‘scorpion wranglers’ being on set. Amy Wren, who plays Evelyn, was even hospitalised for 24 hours after being bitten by a spider.

“It sounded awful,” Oldfield says of the set. “It’s got spitting cobras, mambas, snakes, spiders, scorpions that will kill you. Every morning when you get up you have to shake all your clothes and hit your shoes together before you do anything. You have to check under your pillow and throw the sheets back to make sure there are no snakes in the bed. They were finding them every day and then moving them to a valley elsewhere. And the heat – I’ve never experienced heat like it.”

Once the biggest news story in the world, the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb is a story that still has the power to captivate – but how does this new dramatisation hope to attract viewers? “Tutankhamun is a name that will immediately attract people,” says Hopkinson. “I’ve been surprised how many people suddenly admit they are obsessed with Tutankhamun. Our head lawyer, who doesn’t usually do compliance of scripts, said he’d like to do this one because he remembered going to the Tutankhamun exhibition at the British Museum in the 1970s. So there are lots of people who are fascinated by the story, and it also has immediate recognition internationally.”

Burt adds: “We’re hoping we can lure an audience in on the promise of treasure in the sand, but by the end of the first episode I hope they will be watching for Howard Carter and he keeps you going through it all.”

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Tut-Tut: Two Tutankhamun tales take to TV

DQ editor Michael Pickard casts his eye over two very different Tutankhamun-focused shows heading for the small screen, with Spike TV spinning the story of the young ruler’s life and ITV tracking the discovery of his tomb.

As a subject for an epic television drama, the story of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun ticks all the right boxes.

Period costumes, exotic locations and the dramatisation of the trials and tribulations that met the boy pharaoh – he was around eight or nine when he ascended to the throne and 17 when he died – surely provide all the ingredients for an enthralling, absorbing saga.

That’s why it should come as no surprise that two series surrounding Tutankhamun are heading towards television screens.

Spike TV's Tut will air later this month
Spike TV’s Tut will air later this month

The first, called Tut (main image), was unveiled as the marker for US cable channel Spike TV’s return to scripted programming. The six-hour miniseries, which will air across three nights from July 19, follows King Tut, played by Avan Jogia, and his closest adviser, Vizer Ay (Ben Kingsley).

The story revolves around Tut’s rise to power as the youngest ruler of Egypt and his struggle to lead Egypt to glory, while his closest advisers, friends and lovers scheme for their own nefarious interests.

Sibylla Deen, Alexander Siddig, Kylie Bunbury, Peter Gadiot, Iddo Goldberg and Nonso Anozie are also among the cast. The series is produced by Canada’s Muse Entertainment, with Channel 5 in the UK among the international broadcasters to have picked it up.

Others tying up deals for the show with Muse Distribution International include Discovery in Italy, SIC in Portugal and Sky in New Zealand.

The project had been in development at Muse since 2013, but was seen by Spike as a series that could relaunch it into the original drama arena.

At the time of the series pickup, in March 2014, Spike exec VP of original series Sharon Levy said: “We are thrilled to join forces with Muse Entertainment and this incredible writing team to bring the amazing story of one of history’s legendary leaders to life. Tut is the perfect addition to our slate of distinctive originals that appeal to a broad audience.”

Following in the footsteps of similar-subject movies released close together – think Deep Impact and Armageddon, or White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen – another series centred on Tutankhamun is heading to the small screen, this time in the UK.

ITV this week unveiled plans for an “epic and compelling” drama based on Howard Carter’s discovery of the boy king’s tomb. Four-part miniseries Tutankhamun, which will be written by Guy Burt (The Borgias), focuses on Carter himself – a solitary man on the edge of society who became an unlikely hero with his unprecedented and historic discovery.

ITV's Steve November: 'Tutankhamun is a story of epic proportions'
ITV’s Steve November: ‘Tutankhamun is a story of epic proportions’

The show will initially take viewers to 1905 as they meet Carter, an eminent British archaeologist who is leading an expedition through Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. But when tempers fray and the dig is put in jeopardy, his licence is revoked by Cairo’s Antiquities Service and he is forced to spend years on the outside, living rough and selling previously discovered archaeological relics to buy food.

However, a chance meeting with British aristocrat Lord Carnarvon leads to a change in Carter’s fortunes. The pair begin an unlikely friendship that in 1921 leads Carter to embark on a search for Tutankhamun’s final resting place.

From ITV Studios, the series is executive produced by Francis Hopkinson and Catherine Oldfield, with Simon Lewis producing. ITV Studios Global Entertainment holds distribution rights. Filming will take place this winter ahead of an early 2016 transmission date.

Hopkinson, ITV Studios’ creative director of drama, says: “Howard Carter’s discovery of the lost tomb of Tutankhamun is legendary. His all-consuming, obsessive search for the tomb pushed his friendship with Lord Carnarvon to the brink, while the adventurous and extroverted aristocrat poured his inheritance into the excavation.”

Oldfield adds: “This is a fascinating and compelling story with real historical significance. It’s based on true events and reveals how Carter desperately tries to persuade his patron (Carnarvon) to continue to bankroll the excavation. Ultimately it’s the story of what happens when you stake everything on one last roll of the dice.”

“Tutankhamun is a story of epic proportions,” adds Steve November, ITV director of drama. “Against the backdrop of World War One, conflict, murder, corruption, romance and the unlikeliest of friendships, Tutankhamun sees Howard Carter’s determination pay off in spectacular style when he discovers one of the greatest archaeological treasures of the modern world.”

Scripted entertainment, whether on television or film, seems to throw up similar series or films with regularity, particularly around anniversaries, such as when two Titanic series – Titanic and Titanic: Blood and Steel – were produced to coincide with the centenary of the ship’s 1912 sinking.

In this case, however, it seems both ITV and Spike TV have landed shows that appear to offer viewers drama overflowing with plot and absorbing locations, telling complimentary stories that have rarely, if ever, been dramatised.

Fans of Egyptian history and the mythology around Tutankhamun can look forward to a televisual feast fit for a king.

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