Films including Blade Runner and Minority Report saw the work of acclaimed novelist Philip K Dick transformed for the big screen to great success. Now the late author’s writing is coming to television in an anthology series featuring 10 standalone stories based on his short stories.
Holliday Grainger, Richard Madden, Steve Buscemi, Bryan Cranston, Timothy Spall and Anna Paquin are among the stars in front of the camera, while writers and directors include Jack Thorne, Matthew Graham, Tony Grisoni and David Farr.
In this DQ TV interview, executive producers Michael Dinner and David Kanter discuss why Electric Dreams is more than a dystopian show but also a “very human show,” and how the programme was produced on both sides of the Atlantic.
They also explain why3 the deal to make the series took years to put together, with multiple producers attached to the project, which will air on Channel 4 in the UK and Amazon Prime in the US.
Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams is produced by Rooney McP Productions, Electric Shepherd Productions, Anonymous Content, Tall Ship Productions, Moonshot Entertainment and Left Bank Pictures in association with Sony Pictures Television. Sony is also the distributor.
Bafta-winning writer and director Peter Kosminsky joins the cast of his latest miniseries, The State, to discuss the show, which tells the story of four Britons who leave their UK lives behind to join so-called Islamic State in Syria.
When HBO revealed that the next project from Game of Thrones showrunners DB Weiss and David Benioff would be an alternative-history drama about slavery continuing into the modern US, the backlash was swift.
While July’s announcement of Confederate came at a time of heightened political and racial tensions in the country, events in Charlottesville and their aftermath in the past week have taken the situation to boiling point, forcing the US premium cable network to defend its plans for the show, describing accusations of irresponsibility as “simply undeserved.”
From the outset, one of the chief concerns about the series was how a story in which the South successfully seceded during the Civil War would be dealt with by two white writers. The presence of fellow writers and executive producers Nichelle Tramble and Malcolm Spellman, who are black, has allowed Weiss and Benioff to assure commentators it would not be a series centred on whips and plantations.
But it boils down to the question of whether somebody can, or should, tell the story of a race or culture they are not themselves a part of. That same question was posed to Peter Kosminsky, the Bafta-winning director of Wolf Hall, when he was asked why the story of four non-white British Muslims who join Islamic State (IS) was one he – a white filmmaker – felt qualified to tell.
Responding at a screening of the drama, four-part miniseries The State, he described himself as a generalist who moves from subject to subject while briefly becoming an expert on each one.
“Prior to doing this, I became moderately expert on Henry VIII [for Wolf Hall] and what was going on in Tudor England,” he explained. “Prior to that, it was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict [for The Promise]. I believe there’s room for a whole choir of different voices on these issues and, for better or for worse, I’m lucky enough to have access to the airwaves.
“Television is a very serious matter; it’s fine that some of it’s escapist, but primarily it’s a powerful tool and we should use it responsibly. If the only people who could make these kinds of shows were people who were themselves immersed in the story, first of all it’s hard to bring objectivity, and what do they do next? So there is a role still in programmes that are rooted in reality and research for the generalist. I’m not saying it’s the only way to make these programmes, but I do think it’s a legitimate way.”
Produced by Archery Pictures and distributed by Fox Networks Group Content Distribution, The State follows best friends Jalal and Ziyad, student Ushna and mother and nurse Shakira (with her nine-year-old son Isaac in tow) who have left their UK lives behind to join IS in Raqqah, Syria.
Initially exuberant at what awaits them in the caliphate, their journeys soon diverge as their motivations for joining clash with the reality of day-to-day life.
Describing his own motivation for making a drama that has already courted controversy, Kosminsky says he saw a space for a series that starts on the border and uncovers what happens to Britons when they join IS. For 18 months, he worked with a research team to find real-life testimonies on the conditions in Syria, and two years after he first began work, the series is due to premiere on Channel 4 this Sunday. It will air in the US on National Geographic in September.
Kosminksy admits it is an uncomfortable watch, as his intentions were to humanise the characters to ensure The State acts as a “cautionary tale.”
“I don’t think we do any service to the people who have suffered at the hands of IS to pretend the people who go over there are all clinically insane,” he says. “It’s easy and comfortable to think that, but unfortunately it’s not true. They seem to come from all socioeconomic backgrounds, all different levels of academic attainment. The one common factor seems to be a shallowness of their connection to their faith.
“These people are either converts to Islam, or Muslims who have only been born again relatively recently. From the research, it seems the deeper your faith, knowledge and understanding of Islam, the less likely you are to travel. So the first thing was to make characters who are real, faithful to the research and didn’t allow us the easy out of thinking these people are all mad. The second thing – I’ll be quite open about it – is this is meant to be a cautionary tale. The main characters’ attitudes change. I didn’t think it would act as a cautionary tale if you couldn’t associate with the characters.”
As such, Kosminsky is acutely aware of why Muslims might be upset with the show, and admits that concerns over Islamophobia were at the forefront of his mind during the production process.
“A dramatist’s job is to hold a mirror up to society and, given the fact thousands of Brits decided to go over there [to Syria] and now that issue is spilling back onto our streets in London and Manchester and in some European cities and capitals, I think this is an issue we need to address,” he says.
Breaking down the first episode, Kosminsky says it leans on research that suggests one of the driving factors behind people going to Syria is a sense of exclusion at home and the promise of brotherhood and sisterhood when they arrive.
“Episode one ends with almost a sense of euphoria among a band of brothers and sisters,” Kosminsky says. “It’s misplaced with a sense of purity, of having found a safe place. If we hadn’t done that, it wouldn’t have faithfully reflected the research. The next three episodes are spent unpicking that view and I think you see at the end that it isn’t the main characters’ faith that departs, it’s their belief in the caliphate that departs – and that’s the key part. If this film in some ways suggested the characters rejected their faith as a result of rejecting Islamic State, that would be not realistic and would be quite destructive.”
The main cast members – Shavani Cameron (Ushna), Sam Otto (Jalal), Ony Uhiara (Shakira) and Ryan McKen (Ziyad) – admit to feeling a sense of responsibility when they took on their roles.
Otto, whose character heads to Syria in the footsteps of his brother who was killed in combat, says it was important to understand where these people are coming from. “It was a real challenge to get into the mind of somebody who’s decided to up ship and go to Syria,” he says, adding that he spoke to a cab driver who knew people who had joined IS. “He said these people don’t have a deep understanding of their faith. The pious guys wouldn’t go. That was an interesting thing for me to think about.
“This is the most sensitive issue of our time. When I found out I had this part, there was a sense of doing it justice and doing it right because I’m representing groups of people in this really sensitive subject. For Jalal, it’s about duty and honour, which is what some of these guys actually feel.”
The mix of characters was also identified through the show’s research. Kosminsky says certain character types emerged, including siblings of people who had already been to Syria (Jalal), young girls radicalised on the internet (Ushna) and those with skills to offer (nurse Shakira).
Subsequently, Uhiara has several scenes set inside a hospital, and she admits learning lines in Arabic was tough. “It was a fun, difficult challenge,” she says of the series, which was filmed in Spain. “I approached it like learning a song. We broke it down phonetically and, once you get to grasps with the pronunciations of the language, you can move on to find ways to pinpoint what word means what so when you’re playing the scene, you can hear those. Most of my scenes in Arabic were with natural Arabic speakers so it was pressured sometimes and there was a lot of tension. But I love languages so it was a good additional aspect of the job.”
Beth Willis, head of drama at Channel 4, praises Kosminsky for his “passion, dogged determination, his forensic eye for factual detail, coupled with a deep understanding of humanity and of drama.” In fact, she says The State surpasses his previous “jaw-dropping” work.
“This show has reminded me of the power and the importance of drama – to be able to get to those places factual programming sometimes just can’t reach,” Willis adds. “By inviting you to experience this world with these characters from their point of view, we’re offered an insight that goes well beyond the headlines. This is everything a Channel 4 drama should be – bold, thoughtful, compelling and important.”
The work of renowned author Philip K Dick has inspired a new anthology series heading to Channel 4 in the UK and Amazon. Michael Pickard takes a look at the 10 imaginative stories that make up Electric Dreams.
Since Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams was first announced in May last year, it seems not a week has passed without a new A-list actor, star writer or acclaimed director joining the anthology series.
Comprising 10 single films, each inspired by one of author Dick’s renowned short stories, a roster of leading British and American writers and directors have taken up the challenge to adapt the works for television.
Each story is set in a different and unique world, with some at the far reaches of the universe and others much closer to home. But while on the surface they may seem poles apart, they all focus on the importance and significance of humanity.
From Sony Pictures Television, Electric Dreams is executive produced by Michael Dinner of Rooney McP Productions alongside Isa Dick Hackett, Kalen Egan and Christopher Tricarico of Electric Shepherd Productions, David Kanter and Matt DeRoss of Anonymous Content, Ronald D. Moore and Maril Davis of Tall Ship Productions, Bryan Cranston and James Degus of Moonshot Entertainment, Lila Rawlings and Marigo Kehoe of Left Bank Pictures, plus Don Kurt and Kate DiMento. Sony is also handling international distribution.
Here, DQ takes a look at the details of all 10 episodes, which are due to air on Channel 4 in the UK and Amazon in the US later this year.
Boardwalk Empire’s Steve Buscemi plays Ed Morris in what is described as “the ultimate Philip K Dick comic film-noir nightmare.” Inspired by the story of the same name, the story follows average man Ed, who is approached by a gorgeous synthetic woman with an illegal plan that could change his life completely. He agrees to help – and then his world begins to crumble.
Starring alongside Buscemi are Sidse Babett Knudsen (Westworld, Borgen), Julia Davis (Gavin & Stacy) and Joanna Scanlan (No Offence). The episode (pictured top) is written by Tony Grisoni and directed by Marc Munden.
The morning commute is turned on its head in this mysterious tale from Bafta-winning writer Jack Thorne (National Treasure, This is England). Timothy Spall (The Enfield Haunting) stars as Ed Jacobson, an unassuming employee at a train station who is alarmed to discover that a number of daily commuters are taking the train to a town that shouldn’t exist. This one is directed by Tom Harper (War & Peace).
In an episode that promises two be out of this world, Jack Reynor (Free Fire) and Benedict Wong (Marco Polo) play two disillusioned, disenchanted and indifferent space tourism employees who agree to an elderly woman’s (Geraldine Chaplin, A Monster Calls) request for a trip back to Earth – the existence of which is a long-debunked myth. She appears easily confused, plus she’s rich – so, for the right payment, what’s the harm in indulging her fantasies? As the journey unfolds, however, their scam begins to eat away at them and they ultimately find themselves dealt a bittersweet surprise. Impossible Planet is written and directed by David Farr (The Night Manager) and based on the short story of the same name.
Essie Davis (Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries) stars as a woman suffering in a loveless marriage who finds that her emotionally abusive husband (played by Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston) appears to be a different man upon his return from battle – in more ways than one. With a cast that also includes Liam Cunningham and Ruth Bradley, this episode is written by Jessica Mecklenburg and directed by Francesca Gregorini.
The world is under attack in Father Thing as aliens quietly invade our homes. Charlie, played by Jack Gore (Billions), must make the most difficult decisions imaginable as he tries to protect his mother (Mireille Enos, The Catch) and the human race as he is among the first to realise that humans are being replaced by dangerous monsters. Greg Kinnear (As Good As It Gets) also stars in this instalment by writer and director Michael Dinner (Sneaky Pete).
This future-set episode sees Anna Paquin (True Bloood) play Sarah, a police officer who shares ‘headspace’ with George (Terrence Howard, Empire), a brilliant game designer, with each pursuing violent killers whose plans could have shattering consequences. In a race against time, and sharing a bond that no one else can see, they learn that the very thing that connects them could also destroy them. Additional cast members include Rachelle Lefevre (Under the Dome), Lara Pulver (Sherlock), Jacob Vargas (Luke Cage), Sam Witwer (Once Upon A Time) and Guy Burnet (Hand of God). The episode is written by Ronald D Moore (Outlander, Battlestar Galactica) and directed by Jeffrey Reiner (The Affair).
The Hood Maker
Set in a world without advanced technology, mutant telepaths have become humanity’s only mechanism for long-distance communication. But their powers have unintended implications, and when the public begin to embrace mysterious, telepath-blocking hoods, two detectives with an entangled past are brought in to investigate. Richard Madden (Game of Thrones), Holliday Grainger (The Finest Hours) and Anneika Rose (Line of Fire) star in The Hood Maker, which is written by Matthew Graham (Life on Mars) and directed by Julian Jarrold (Becoming Jane).
Kill All Others
A man hangs dead from a lamppost, apparently murdered and inexplicably ignored by passers-by, after a politician (Vera Farmiga, Bates Motel) makes a shocking statement encouraging violence. But when one man, the extraordinarily average Philbert Noyce (Mel Rodriguez, The Last Man on Earth), dares to question the situation, he becomes an instant target. Written and directed by Dee Rees (Bessie), this episode also stars Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton), Glenn Morshower (Aftermath) and Sarah Brown (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation).
Set in a world where society has collapsed, a massive, automatic product-manufacturing factory continues to operate according to the principles of consumerism – humans consume products to be happy and, in order to consume continuously, they must be denied freedom of choice and free will. When a small band of rebels decide to shut down the factory, they discover they may actually be the perfect consumers after all. Juno Temple (Vinyl) stars as Emily, one of the rebels, alongside Janelle Monae (Hidden Figures) as Alexis, an Autofac representative. Jay Paulson and David Lyons also appear in the episode, which is written by Travis Beacham and directed by Peter Horton.
Safe and Sound
Annalise Basso (Captain Fantastic) stars as a small-town girl, already gripped with social anxiety, who moves to a big futuristic city with her mother, played by Maura Tierney (The Affair). Exposed for the first time to urban society’s emphasis on security and terrorist prevention, it isn’t long before her schooldays are consumed by fear and paranoia. However, soon finds guidance and companionship in the most unexpected of places. Safe and Sound is written by Kalen Egan and Travis Sentell and directed by Alan Taylor.
Director Kath Mattock tells DQ how she became involved in factual drama The Trial: A Murder in the Family and how this complex series blends reality and fiction in order to record the deliberations that take place by a jury deciding the outcome of a murder trial.
Dragonfly was commissioned to make a five-part series by Channel 4’s factual department, which was excited by the proposition of being able to get a documentary crew into places that are normally impossible to access.
In this case, the initial spur was to be able to witness jury room deliberations; to record the dynamic that opens up between 12 randomly selected people and the process by which they reach their verdict when judging a serious crime.
This also presented the opportunity to capture the mostly elusive way barristers approach and craft cases.
Documentary director Nick Holt had made a film called The Murder Trial, which I had seen and admired. He contacted me after seeing Murder, a drama film I had made for BBC2, which told the story of a joint-enterprise case using direct-to-camera testimony (or ‘confessions’) and evidential material – CCTV, photographs, archive content and so on. It was strongly influenced by Errol Morris documentary film The Thin Blue Line, but was clearly a drama. We started talking about the channel’s proposition and the space between drama and documentary; how one might unlock the other.
Quickly it became clear that to achieve our aims we had to create a fictional case that we could put into the courtroom in a way that felt as real as possible, both in content and in performance; that would engage and sustain both the prosecution and defence teams and the members of the jury in their willing suspension of disbelief.
We knew we had to shape a case and then document it so it could be delivered to the prosecuting QCs [Queens Counsel barristers] in evidential bundles in the same way they would receive a real case, so they could run it as they saw fit.
But to allow them to do so, the courtroom had to operate as much like a real court as possible – no one could call cut once we were underway. Once we had settled on the idea that the final episode of the series would reveal the truth of the crime in drama scenes, we knew we were embarking on something that had multidimensional challenges.
I had recently read a script called Ellen, by writer Sarah Quintrell, which Channel 4 was just about to shoot as a single drama. There was something very arresting about the writing. It was simple and direct, yet it had a heightened, almost hyper-real quality. Nick, Sarah and I met and looked over a number of existing cases before settling on the idea of a ‘quiet’ murder – something domestic and relatable for the jury. We set it in Newbury [a town in southern England]. This specificity seemed important to hold on to. Then we drafted a number of scenarios and key character biographies.
Julia Horan came in to cast it. This was crucial, as we needed someone who could find actors not just with a willingness to play and create in the rehearsal room, but also possessing real composure in the court setting to deal with the challenge of real-time improvisation when being cross examined by top QCs. We pushed actors in casting with various scenes (there was no script at this stage) and improvised interviews.
Then, in tandem with the channel and legal advisor David Etherington, the story was honed and we began a two-week workshop period, with director Roxanne Silbert coming in to work alongside us and the actors to develop intricate timelines, character relationships and truths.
These histories had to have a real depth and complexity. Secrets were kept judiciously – only the actors playing the victim and the perpetrator knew for sure who had really committed the crime. Everyone knew only what they needed to know. As in real life, everything is partial, and so while we appreciated each actor’s ability to play their character with nuance and skill, this would be undoubtedly more effective if they were only party to certain instances or pieces of information.
As such, it intrinsically demanded a generosity from everyone involved. Everything was serving the story. Michael Gould is the accused and Emma Lowndes plays his estranged wife; her current boyfriend is played by Kevin Harvey, and his daughter is played by Fern Deacon. They were all at the heart of things and carrying the piece, but the detail of a seemingly casual witness also held its place.
As this process came to an end we called in former police officers to interview each witness and member of the family in something approximating normal police procedure. From these interviews, paper witness statements were generated. These interviews were run in real time and were the first interactions between ‘real’ professionals and improvising actors. Something came alive immediately.
We then shot all the remaining police interviews and CCTV footage needed to complete the pre-trial evidence in designed spaces, the actors now costumed and prepped but still improvising and running in real time. Nick and I developed a technique whereby he would prep the police and I would prep the character and we would then send them into the space together, so neither side would know exactly what the other was going to do. This co-directing approach kept things alive and served us well across the course of the trial itself. When shooting the scripted drama elements I maintained this direct relationship with actors, whilst consulting with Nick on all key decisions.
Simultaneous to this work, the jury were being selected and interviewed, as were the QCs. The evidence bundles were revised and revised. Maps and professional reports covering DNA and forensics were completed with fresh perspectives that impacted timelines and details that the actors had to keep across.
A recently decommissioned court was rigged with cameras, as were the jury and the barristers, and the filming apparatus and process was kept to a minimum. The actors and professional witnesses came in as called daily in the shape of a trial created by the prosecution (as in real life, they decide how best to serve the case). The QCs Max Hill and John Ryder approached things diligently and adversarially, the actors relished an extraordinary challenge and the jury then entered into the world of the story, so much so that the burden of decision took a real weight by the end.
Writing, prepping and shooting the scripted and the additional phone/archive material was relatively straightforward compared with the staging of the trial itself. We made the decision to keep the camera still and to be bold stylistically in this way and to let the actors continue with their trajectory across the piece. After all, they were extremely in tune with the story at this stage.
The scale and ambition of the whole series was then revisited in a demanding edit that had to come to terms not only with reams of material, but a density and a need to find a way of telling that served deliver the story best.
Channel 4 launches The Trial: A Murder in the Family on May 21, running across five consecutive nights.
Keshet UK’s head of drama Howard Burch reveals the story behind Channel 4 and AMC comedy-drama Loaded, about four friends who suddenly become millionaires.
In the motoring industry, they call it ‘platform sharing.’ If you’re driving a Mercedes M-Class, you are essentially driving a Jeep Grand Cherokee. The two vehicles may look very different, but they share the same ‘platform,’ or chassis. Underneath its sleek skin, the Cherokee is really a highly modified M-Class, sharing the latter’s efficient structure and sophisticated suspension.
Such sharing is common practice throughout the car industry and it’s becoming more and more successful in the scripted TV business too. Reformatting foreign series – taking the ‘chassis’ of a foreign hit and remodelling it for a domestic market – has exploded since the success of Homeland, which was based on the ground-breaking Keshet drama Prisoners of War.
For the automotive business, it’s a way of saving money and sharing expertise, whereas in the TV industry it’s about tapping into and exploiting an engaging narrative that has already undergone a considerable development process – and, in most cases, a sizeable bit of audience research.
Outside of novel adaptations or true stories, the overseas scripted series market is yet another stone to look under for homegrown hits. The US has a long history of taking foreign shows – even English-language programmes – and remaking them for a domestic audience, and now British and European broadcasters are doing the same.
The Bridge begat Sky’s The Tunnel, Keshet’s Yellow Peppers led to the BBC’s The A Word, and Channel 4’s Humans is the bastard offspring of the Swedish show Real Humans.
Some reformats are virtual cut-and-paste copies of their overseas progenitors, with London replacing Stockholm or Berlin and English dialogue replacing cumbersome and mainstream audience-averse Hebrew or French subtitles. Others are more thorough overhauls, where the kernel or key concept at the core of the foreign series is kept but the local adaptor brings their own unique creative vision to the characters, setting and themes.
A case in point is our new comedy-drama Loaded, based on the hit Keshet show Mesudarim, which was written by Muli Segev and Assaf Harel. The UK series, which launches tonight and is distributed by Keshet International, is a coproduction between Keshet UK, Hillbilly Television, Channel 4 and US cable network AMC, which will air the show later this year. It is written by Jon Brown, whose other credits include Veep, Fresh Meat and Babylon.
Loaded’s original premise is universal but now it feels uniquely British, with the show tackling the awkwardness and first-world problems that arise when you become a millionaire in your early 30s.
Jim Howick, Samuel Anderson, Jonny Sweet and Nick Helm play the four tech entrepreneurs and childhood friends who become millionaires overnight when they sell their start-up video game company. Mary McCormack co-stars as the VP of acquisitions at the firm’s new parent company.
Keshet UK is very much a fully fledged indie, producing and developing original ideas. However, when Loaded was initially being developed as an adaption for the British market, we looked towards a coproduction, as we did with The A Word. After a small but select beauty contest of potential suitors, we decided to work with the Bafta-winning Hillbilly Television on the series. Their response to the brief was the most exciting and they already had an existing relationship with Jon Brown.
Working with Polly Leys and Kate Norrish from Hillbilly was a truly collaborative process, with terrific input from both Roberto Troni and Lee Mason at Channel 4, as well as our inspirational and supportive co-exec Kristin Jones at AMC. Throw in an experienced producer and three directors, and you end up with a lot of voices around the table, but luckily there was consensus on the big decisions. Many an hour was spent off-set discussing what was funny, what worked, what moved – and whether a Toby jug would mean anything to anybody in America.
Leys says: “We loved Mesudarim when we saw it and thought it had real potential as a change format. The setup of four ordinary blokes running their own company, which sells for millions, was a starting point we really connected to. It was warm, funny and a great way to explore male friendship. But we knew we couldn’t do a line-by-line adaptation, it just wouldn’t have translated.
“For a start, we have less sunshine than Israel and the British have very idiosyncratic attitudes to money and success. Instead, we took the premise and told our showrunner [Jon Brown] to go in whichever direction he wanted. Apart from the running time [original episodes were 30 minutes as opposed to our 60 minutes], one of the other key differences is that we were very keen to boost the female characters. It was great to work with Keshet UK on this, who trusted us completely and helped us create a fresh, original series. Together, we’re really proud of the resulting show.”
Some foreign shows are never going to travel far beyond their own borders, because they are too culturally specific or parochial. Humour, we are forever being told, plays differently in different territories. But a good idea is a good idea the world over and, in an age of a voracious global appetite for more and more varied dramas and comedies from an explosion of buyers both domestic and international, having access to an overseas scripted catalogue is proving to be a godsend.
It’s not the be-all and end-all, and local broadcasters are always going to want to pick and choose, balancing the number of reformats and adaptations on their schedules with original pieces from home-grown voices. But at the end of the day, a successful reformat is always going to be packaged and sold to the consumer as a wholly original series. The average viewer isn’t going to know where the series came from or how it has evolved. As a must-see drama, it simply needs to excite and appeal, as would a shiny new car in a showroom.
Look beneath the bonnet, however, and you might spot that your Audi A3 shares more similarities to the Skoda Octavia than you first thought.
Channel 4 drama Born to Kill explores the psychotic desires of an seemingly normal teenager. DQ spoke to co-creator Kate Ashfield, with contributions from the cast and director Bruce Goodison.
Most recognisable as the co-star of Edgar Wright’s zombie-filled comedy-horror Shaun of the Dead, Kate Ashfield has also appeared in small-screen hits such as Line of Duty, Collision and the US remake of Australian drama Secrets & Lies.
But for her next project, the first-time writer has partnered with Tracey Malone (Rillington Place) to create an exceedingly dark and sometimes disturbing four-part drama with a teenage psychopath at the centre.
Born to Kill is described as a haunting exploration of the mind of Sam (played by newcomer Jack Rowan, above), a schoolboy on the verge of acting out hidden psychopathic desires.
His mum, Jenny (Romola Garai), a nurse at the local hospital, meets Bill (Daniel Mays), who’s trying to reconnect with his elderly mother Margaret (Elizabeth Counsell). Just as Jenny and Bill start to hit it off, Sam meets Bill’s daughter Chrissy (Lara Peake), to whom he forms an instant attraction.
Meanwhile, Jenny learns that her incarcerated ex, Sam’s dad, a violent man named Peter (Richard Coyle), is nearing his parole date. And having told Sam that his father died in a car crash, she must now face telling her son that not only is his father alive, he’s also a convicted murderer.
The four-part series, which debuts on the UK’s Channel 4 tomorrow, is directed by Bruce Goodison, produced by World Productions, executive produced by Jake Lushington and distributed by BBC Worldwide.
Ashfield and Malone first met while they were both living in LA and their sons attended the same school. Their friendship then developed into a writing partnership when they became intrigued by the story of a teenage psychopath and the question of why people do what they do.
Subsequently, the first episode introduces Sam as a caring schoolboy who reads to patients on his mum’s hospital ward and protects a boy getting bullied on the school bus.
“It’s a coming-of-age story at the same time as Sam’s coming to terms with his feelings and emotions and what he’s drawn to do,” Ashfield explains, pointing to influences such as The Ice Storm and Let the Right One In. “He doesn’t look weird. We wanted him to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He’s a schoolboy, just a kid that would be undetected as he went about his daily life. So it looks like he’s being nice but it’s all a game for him.”
When this caring facade gives way to something decidedly more sinister and Sam’s true nature is revealed, causing him to act on his fascination with death, Ashfield hopes viewers will feel both sympathetic and unsympathetic towards the character.
“There will be moments of both from scene to scene, hopefully,” she says. “That’s the whole point of him being a child – could something stop him? If the stars aligned, would he have done it differently? But then in the end, his personality takes over. Even at the end of it all, you still have some kind of feeling for him because it’s not all within his control – the way he is the way he is, which you get to by the very end.”
Questions over whether Sam’s personality and behaviour is caused by nature or nurture and if he was truly born to kill come increasingly into focus when Jenny receives news that Sam’s father may be released from prison for a horrific crime not entirely detailed in the opening episode.
“He’s fascinated by death, but not in a usual way where you see psychopaths torturing animals,” Ashfield says of Sam. “From the outside, to the other nurses, it looks a bit odd [that he spends so much time at the hospital]. But as a parent, you think it’s quite sweet because he’s reading to these people. It’s good karma that he cares for older people, but it is all about control and that they are weak sitting ducks to him. It’s an environment that makes him feel stronger, not weaker.
“Then, as it goes on, there are questions over what his mum should do and how much you can put down to normal teenage behaviour. You don’t actually call children psychopaths because a lot of teenage behaviour is very similar. At what point do you say they’re definitely a psychopath?”
Through a potential love story, Sam’s character is placed in stark contrast with Chrissy, who on the surface is a brash rebel but in truth is somewhat vulnerable.
Rising star Peake, who plays Chrissy, reveals: “Bruce and I discussed whether she is or she isn’t [a psychopath]. She definitely possesses some traits, but the thing with psychopaths is, from my research, there’s a formula that makes a psychopath. There’s got to be a few factors. She’s just drawn in by Sam, she’s lost and is intoxicated by him and is happy to just have someone to reach out to because her dad is a bit in his own head with Margaret.
“It gets pretty tense [in later episodes]. It all comes to a head and she realises the mess she’s in and how she’s gone too far with trusting her instincts and going with the flow. She goes in a circle of wanting to be with her dad, drifting away from that and being a rebel kid, and then realising what she’s getting herself into.”
Director Goodison adds: “It’s safe to say Chrissy finds her moral compass after being thrown off it by the charms of Sam. Sam’s moral compass never really waivers.”
Rowan watched documentaries and films and read lots of background material when preparing to play Sam, but ultimately decided not to base the character on any particular real-life psychopath.
“I’m creating my own psychopath here so I took something from each of these people and put it in a box, shook it up and came up with something,” the actor says. “There’s a bit where Jenny is talking to his headmaster and they talk about Sam not having any friends. Really that’s a choice by Sam. When he meets Oscar, that’s someone Sam can control, somebody he can make do what he wants them to do, a puppet for him. They’re not properly friends – there’s no emotional involvement there because this is someone Sam can just use.”
As Chrissy’s dad Bill, Mays jokes that he is playing a less fiery character than he is known for, having previously appeared in small-screen dramas including Line of Duty and Ashes to Ashes.
“He’s kind of hapless but is a relatively normal character for me to play – it was refreshing,” he admits. “It was nice to play someone not as explosive for a change. He meets Jenny and that relationship blossoms and it’s the tentative beginnings of a relationship between those two, as it is between the children as well. So as you can imagine, it becomes incredibly complicated.
“The power of Born to Kill is that the main protagonist is going through a coming-of-age story as well as succumbing to these psychopathic tendencies, but it plays out in a very domestic setting. It could be any small town in any part of the country. So that contrast really is what I think is compelling about the piece. It’s the extraordinary happening in a very ordinary environment.”
When it was first conceived, Born to Kill was set in America and intended for a US network, owing to the writers’ desire to set it in an anonymous small town. Following Channel 4’s interest, however, the series was relocated to the UK, with filming taking place near Cardiff in Wales.
“Originally this was 10 seasons in our head. We had all sorts of ideas, such as Sam going into the army,” Ashfield says. “It was a long-running, ongoing drama but now it’s very much a contained piece.
“It was set in America because of those vast spaces where you think anything can happen. You wouldn’t know what was going on, so Sam could get away with things quite easily. The difficulty with setting it here [in Britain] was we didn’t want it to be anywhere specific. If we set it in the Scottish Highlands, for example, it would just be about Scottish people that were crazy and it wouldn’t be as relatable. So the idea of it was it was a commuter town that you wouldn’t really go to unless you lived there, so it was meant to be anywhere.”
Goodison came on board early in pre-production, after Channel 4 had greenlit the series, and Ashfield notes that he bought into the creators’ vision for the show.
“We didn’t want it to look like a TV show, more like an independent film, like something you don’t normally watch,” the writer says. “It’s otherworldly, like a magical fairytale nightmare. It’s our world but also it’s definitely not our world, it’s a darker world.”
For the director, the challenge was bringing an audience to a character who has no empathy for others and ultimately gives in to his desire to kill.
“I was trying to give the audience as much access emotionally to how that happens, even to the point of before he does kill, there’s a point of return,” Goodison observes. “It was just about making sure we edged up every moment we could access to Sam, whether it was observing a dying bird or when there’s a tear off, these are access points where Sam’s character starts to leak and you start to look at his subconscious in a way other people wouldn’t notice.”
Ashfield, who is also an executive producer with Malone, confesses that Born to Kill was a hard piece to cast, owing to the fact that she believes actors can make or break the show through their portrayal of the story.
That’s why she is particularly impressed with Rowan, who she describes as “amazing.” She continues: “There were some other really great contenders and they all had different qualities. But what Jack seemed to have is he can change the quality of his face quite quickly and seems to be able to make his cheeks go red and look quite vulnerable, but then look angry and dislocated the next. That was really impressive.”
Goodison is equally full of admiration for Rowan, who echoes Ashfield’s compliments of the young actor’s ability to change emotions very quickly.
“Being able to sell a line convincingly when you’re a teenager while trying to hide a certain mental illness, let’s say, is a tricky thing to do as an actor because you put on faces and masks all the time,” he says. “But what Jack was able to communicate was a sense of self through that. It was that kind of ability to be able to change very rapidly and emotionally given whatever was thrown at him.
“Plus he has these soft, 1950s matinee idol looks, which play against some of the sharpness of the part. I felt genuinely empathetic for him, even though he was doing and saying some horrible things. It’s a very tricky thing to get right for an actor and Jack’s got it in spades. All of these scenes could be played so many ways and having the ability to be that flexible and open was terrific testament to Jack and the rest of the cast.”
As dark and edgy as you might expect from a Channel 4 drama, Born to Kill is certain to leave viewers gripped as Sam’s story plays out to its conclusion.
Andy Fry casts his eye over this year’s selection for the MipTV Drama Screenings and finds an eclectic mix vying for the awards on offer.
In 2016, MipTV organiser Reed Midem decided to celebrate the global boom in scripted TV by launching its own drama awards. Dubbed the MipDrama Screenings, the first year was such a hit with buyers that the event has been brought back for 2017.
Just like last year, 12 finalists have been pre-selected for the awards in Cannes by an advisory board made up of experienced buyers. These shows will now compete for three awards – one decided by a jury of producers, another by critics and a third by buyers, who get to vote for their favourite show after screenings.
There are a couple of points about the MipDrama Screenings that make them particularly interesting. The first is that they focus on non-US titles, meaning that producers from less high-profile markets get a better chance to stand out from the crowd.
This year’s 12 comprise dramas from the UK (three), Germany (two), Russia (two), Canada, France, Denmark, Norway and Brazil. This echoes the story last year when Public Enemy, a drama from Belgium, was selected as the event’s top drama.
The second is that they are all new titles, which means many of them haven’t had much market exposure until now. A couple, like Babylon Berlin and Ride Upon the Storm, have been flagged up for a while – but this is not an awards programme for endlessly returning series like Game of Thrones or American Horror Story. In fact, around half the series being showcased are still in the middle of production.
So what can we learn from the 12 finalists? Well, in terms of subject matter, several deal with themes that have been pretty prominent in film and TV drama recently. Federation Entertainment’s Bad Banks, for example, is a new look at the world of big finance, while Sky Vision’s Bad Blood is a gangster series based on a true story.
All Media Company’s Russian drama Better Than Us (pictured top) is an exploration of AI’s role in our lives, while TV Globo’s Jailers is a new take on prison drama – this time from the point of view of guards, rather than inmates.
There are also a couple of cop shows, though perhaps not the kind we’re used to. The Territory, for example, is an eight-part drama from Sreda Production in Russia. The story is set in a town where a series of ritualistic murders take place. As a result, a pugnacious detective is called in to deal with the situation.
There is also Germany’s Babylon Berlin, a high-end drama series based on the thrillers by Volker Kutscher. Set in 1920s Berlin with Tom Tykwer as showrunner, this could be one of the landmark series of the year if it lives up to the hype.
The rest of the finalists tackle an eclectic and unusual range of subjects. For example, Missions, distributed by AB International, is a futuristic thriller focused on a Mars mission that goes wrong. While we’ve seen Mars as the focus of films and documentary series, this is the first recent TV drama to come to market (though others are in the pipeline).
Ride Upon the Storm is another leftfield drama. From Borgen creator Adam Price and produced by DR Drama in coproduction with Arte France and SAM le Francais, this is a story about faith, both in the traditional religious sense and in the wider context of what it is that guides us through our existence. It centres on an alcoholic, abusive priest and his two sons.
Faith may seem like a tough subject for a TV drama, but after Borgen (politics) and Follow the Money (finance), DR Drama is as likely as any to pull it off. Speaking about the series, Price says: “Despite the fact the Danes might not see themselves as a religious nation, we are surrounded by faith in our daily life. Faith fills the public debate – when atheists encourage people to leave the church, when we discuss integration, the refugee crisis, terrorism or the US presidential election. But also when we nurture mindfulness, ‘hipster Buddhism’ or the familiar blend of superstition and spirituality.”
Interestingly, the other Scandi finalist goes to the other end of the moral spectrum. Produced by HandsUp Stockholm for Viaplay Nordic, Veni Vidi Vici tells the story of a failing movie director who attempts to revive his career by working in the adult entertainment industry. However, this suspect career move forces him into a double life that threatens his family.
The show is part of Viaplay’s push into original drama. Explaining why his company backed the show, Viaplay CEO Jonas Karlén says: “We are convinced combining acquired TV dramas such as Empire and Blacklist with original Nordic drama is our future. Viaplay will take the lead on original productions in the Nordics, with 50 projects in the pipeline until 2020 with great stories that also have the potential to travel.”
A strong UK pool consists of ITV’s Fearless, Channel 4’s Gap Year and the BBC’s Clique – projects that all benefit from having strong writers at the tiller. Fearless, for example, is from Patrick Harbinson (Homeland). Starring Helen McCrory (Peaky Blinders), it tells the story of a solicitor who gets caught up in a political mystery while investigating the killing of a schoolgirl.
“Fearless is a legal thriller, but one that’s written in the crash zone where law and politics collide,” says Harbinson. “The so-called War on Terror has put serious stress on the workings of the law. National security justifies all sorts of police and state over-reach, and the majority of us accept this. So I wanted to create a character who challenges these assumptions.”
The other two UK entries are novel attempts to appeal to a younger audience – something TV drama desperately needs to do. Gap Year, written by Tom Basden (Fresh Meat) and distributed by Entertainment One, tells the story of a group of young travellers heading off on a three-month trip around Asia.
All3Media International’s Clique, created by Jess Brittain (Skins), is about two best friends drawn into an elite circle of alpha girls led by lecturer Jude McDermid in their first few weeks at university in Edinburgh. “It is about the different ways ambition plays out in young women at university,” says Brittain. “It’s a heightened version of a certain type of uni experience, pulled from my time at uni, then ramped up a few notches into a psychological thriller.”
In terms of the mechanics of the above shows, a few have been set up as coproductions, but for the most part they are centred around a strong central vision that originates in one territory. The impression is that the advisory board favoured shows that seek to tell local stories with universal themes. It’s also noticeable that most of them have a limited series feel to them. While this doesn’t preclude them from returning, it confirms the impression that the scripted sector outside the US is most comfortable in the six-to-10-episode range, working with season-long narratives rather than story-of-the-week projects.
Some of the talent involved is well established: Tykwer, Harbinson, Basden and Price, for example. But the overall list looks like a serious attempt to give buyers some interesting new angles,rather than simply showcasing big MipTV clients.
Public Enemy’s victory last year proves it’s hard to predict which show will come out on top. But the three-pronged winner selection process means the shows will be scrutinised pretty rigorously. Expert judges include Filmlance International MD Lars Blomgren (The Bridge), showrunner Simon Mirren (Versailles), screenwriter Virginie Brac (Cannabis, Spiral), Mediapro head of international content development Ran Tellem (Prisoners of War) and Big Light Productions founder Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files). That’s an impressive line-up of global drama talent with a good eye for spotting winning projects.
Finally, of course, it’s worth asking: is entering worth the effort? Well, the experience of Public Enemy would suggest so. Barely known before MipTV last year, the show was later sold by Banijay Rights to a wide range of broadcasters including TF1 and Sky Atlantic. So the message seems to be that creative recognition at the awards can have a financial pay-off.
Tony Grisoni enthuses about the merits of collaboration as he discusses career highlights including Southcliffe and Red Riding and reveals more about new projects The City & The City and Philip K Dick anthology Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.
The best thing and the worst thing about being a screenwriter is that it takes a lot of people to make a film – it’s no good unless it’s actually made into something,” Tony Grisoni (pictured above), the award-winning writer of The Brothers Grimm, Red Riding and Southcliffe, explains thoughtfully. “I love that social part, that collaboration, but if you’re spending a lot of time writing and nothing’s happening, it can be tough.”
It’s fair to say that’s not a problem the 64-year-old Grisoni faces too often these days. Since his breakthrough feature Queen of Hearts back in 1989, he’s had something produced at least once every year – from 1998’s Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, through 2009/10’s purple patch of Red Riding and Southcliffe, to his collaboration with writer-director Paolo Sorrentino for Sky’s The Young Pope.
And yet one crucial part of his overall writing process effectively depends on dry spells – his unpaid collaborations with conceptual artists like sculptor Brian Catling. “There’s no money involved – it’s just somewhere to play,” he says, grinning widely. “We’ll make the kind of films no one would commission. But the important thing is that it stirs the cauldron. There are lots of ideas that begin there – in Southcliffe there’s an old lady with Alzheimer’s who had her beginnings in a piece I did with an artist Oona Grimes, for instance. It keeps you alive and it keeps you inventing.”
It’s the kind of spirit that took him from sound assistant, through production manager, to runner, then assistant director on commercials and music videos across the 1970s and 1980s. “I spent my spare time writing ideas for films, or sometimes collaging images, and I shot bits of Super 8,” he explains. “It was a way of starting the filmmaking process without the funds or army of people. Then a friend who had risen up the ranks got me a commission, but it was five years before Queen of Hearts got made.”
Queen of Hearts’ story of Italians immigrants wasn’t exactly autobiographical but it was rooted in a lifetime of research growing up in London’s Italian community. Since then, deep research has been the core of half of Grisoni’s work. In 2001, he made the trek along the people-smuggling route from the Pakistan/Afghan border, through Iran and Turkey, to Europe with director Michael Winterbottom.
“When Michael said he wanted a refugee journey shot documentary-style with non-professional actors – or what we call real people – it meant I had to think carefully about the writing,” he recalls. “How are you going to write dialogue when they can’t deliver it? The starting point was to meet a lot of people who had been smuggled overland into London. Then we went out and tested the route – dangerous things happened to us and I thought that was such an exciting way to write, because instead of me making stuff, it’s about real experiences.”
The resulting film, In This World, won the 2002 Berlinale Golden Bear. Similar research infused 2008’s Kingsland, a collection of short films that Grisoni directed as well as wrote, based on a gang fight in his Hackney neighbourhood. Even the modern gothic thriller Southcliffe was based on his research into shooting sprees such as those that occurred in Hungerford (1967) and Dunblane (1996).
“I started with the idea of writing a series set in Faversham, a market town in Kent, and I wanted to explore how a community coped with a number of people dying in this small town,” Grisoni explains. “The most interesting thing was to have someone from within the community have executed these people – it makes it more complex. All credit to Channel 4, they agreed to that when I didn’t know if it was three, four or five parts. I didn’t know what happened, I knew a lot of people died and that was kind of it.”
From Southcliffe’s first draft, the writer opted to identify the killer in the first scene – “because it was about how it happened, not who did it,” he explains. “I knew that if you saw someone doing something atrocious and then you saw him repairing a radiator, you wouldn’t be able to take your eyes off him. That non-linear approach engages me as a viewer because I’ve become part of the storytelling. I’m not just being fed stuff; I’m trying to puzzle it out.”
If research is roughly half Grisoni’s writing practice, adaptations are effectively the other half. “I think it’s unlikely that a production company will come to me with an idea they’ve researched as a package and say, ‘Are you up for this?’” he explains. “I find it very difficult to get into those projects. I always feel they’ve been very thought out by someone else. But if someone brings me a book and asks if I’m interested then it could happen.”
For Grisoni’s remarkable Red Riding trilogy, that’s exactly what took place. “I knew Anne Reid and Revolution Films after In This World,” he says. “They came with this quartet of books by David Peace and asked if I was interested in adapting them. I started reading the first one. It’s difficult to describe them, they’re so angry and they’re full of literary experiment but they’re also exciting, with images that repel you but draw you in at the same time. I was scared of them, to be honest, and so I said I’d only do the first one.
“Then I kept reading and had conversations over meals and drinks and, finally, I gave in and did them all. I just waded in and started to take the books to pieces. It helps to have someone – a producer – who’s on top of the books and effectively plots which character is where for you, who you can check in with every day. That’s the main thing about adapting.”
Grisoni clearly loves working on books that would scare other writers. His version of the China Mieville novel The City & The City – which will air on the BBC as a four-part drama later in 2017 – is a case in point. “It’s a noir-ish detective story in two cities – one Eastern European and crumbling, and one all glass and steel. But they coexist in the same geographical space,” he grins. “The populations of each city know it’s a sin to see the other. Once you’ve got that wrinkle, you’ve got your detective story and it becomes very interesting and very complex. And almost impossible to adapt, by the way,” he bursts out laughing. “That’s when you need a good director to fix everything.”
If Grisoni likes working with good directors, they love working with him. He’s written for and with Monty Python member Terry Gilliam on The Brothers Grimm and Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. “Working with Terry is like a hard play,” he nods. “For Fear & Loathing he’d seen loads of scripts – including one by Hunter S Thompson [the author of the autobiographical novel] – but he didn’t like them, so we tore the book in half. He took the front half and I took the second half and we collaged it. When we needed lines or events or anything, we took them from the book. It’s about people trusting you, people being willing to take a risk.”
Grisoni also wrote the script for Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote – a movie that famously collapsed back in 2000 while a documentary crew were following the making of the film. “Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe were documenting us not making this film – there was one point where it was clearly collapsing and they said to Terry, who was mic’d up all the time, do you want us to stop filming?” Grisoni recalls. “He said, ‘No, someone has to get a film out of this.’”
The resulting 2002 doc – Lost in La Mancha – appealed to Grisoni and he worked with Fulton and Pepe on Brothers of the Head, a dark tale of conjoined twins. “But Don Quixote is finally due to shoot next year – I’ve been re-writing it twice a year for the past 17 years and the script’s getting OK now,” he laughs.
If there’s one project that knits together all Grisoni’s technique and learning, it’s his contribution to Channel 4’s forthcoming Philip K Dick anthology series Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. His script is part research, part adaptation and part lived experience. And, in a way, he’s been working on it for years.
“Ages ago I came across a Philip K Dick interview about a story he hadn’t got around to writing, about a really crap film composer who’s kidnapped by aliens so fascinated by sound that they biochip one of their kind into his head and send him back out into the world where he starts to compose amazing avant garde music,” Grisoni explains enthusiastically. “I wanted to write that story and dovetail Philip K Dick’s life with it, so I went to California and met his five ex-wives and his friends, and [visited] the places where he saw God.
“It was the most intensive bit of research I’d ever done. Towards the end I was staying with ex-wife three and every time I used the bathroom there was this frog sitting watching me. On the last day, I looked at it and thought, ‘There’s something about that frog’s face that looks a bit like Phil K Dick.’ The moment I thought that, the frog just disappeared and I thought, ‘I have to go home now, this project is too much.’”
Recently, Sony and Channel 4 approached Grisoni to contribute to the anthology – “and I’ve never written anything faster,” he grins. “It’s purely because that frog story was there waiting to go into something. Very often someone gives you a book or suggests something and you pick up on it because it connects with something you were thinking earlier but just couldn’t crack,” he smiles. “That’s the other best/worst thing about being a screenwriter – everything is material.”
As Channel 4’s genre-defying cop show No Offence returns for its second season, DQ hears from the cast and creator about the strength of its female characters and striking the show’s unique tone.
It’s hard to imagine there are many laughs to be found in a show centring on the hunt for a deranged killer who targets young girls with Down’s syndrome.
Yet somehow the team behind No Offence managed to pepper the first season of the Channel 4 series with comedy moments. That they did so without detracting from or trivialising the hard-hitting subject matter, or creating an awkwardly mishmash tone, was all the more impressive.
The police procedural comedy drama, whose debut outing was a major ratings hit for C4 in 2015, returns to UK screens tonight, with DI Deering (Joanna Scanlan) and her team of detectives back to tackle criminals on the streets of Manchester.
This time around, a pair of warring crime families take centre stage, with the first episode beginning with a bang – quite literally, thanks to a huge explosion in the opening minutes.
Creator and writer Paul Abbott, perhaps best known as the man behind the original UK version of Shameless, which also ran on C4 and has since spawned a hit US version, admits getting No Offence’s unique tone right is a continuous challenge.
“It’s a very tight bandwidth to try to pin down, but when we did, we fired. It was great,” says Abbott, who assembled a writers’ room for the show. “You’ve no idea until you hit it – and it’s very hard to describe what that moment is.”
With No Offence’s first run tackling topics including honour killings, racism and drugs, one could forgive executives at C4 for feeling a bit shaky about some of its storylines – especially when comedy is being added to such a hefty mix. But Abbott praises the channel’s flexibility.
“We’ve had to calibrate certain storylines where Channel 4 didn’t like the way we’d approached the story, and that wasn’t rude to say – it was a very sensitive story,” he explains.
This season, controversial subjects include female genital mutilation, and Abbott says no topic was off-limits. “You have to negotiate your way through. We went round it all and we basically found a very grown-up, intelligent way through it. We didn’t have to back down on anything.”
Will Mellor, who plays DC Spike Tanner, picks up: “That’s the show, though. We don’t pull punches. There are certain shops that put this box set in the comedy section!
“I was thinking, could you imagine going to the wife and saying, ‘Let’s watch something really funny tonight – season one of No Offence.’ Then one minute you’re [seeing someone] dragging a Down’s syndrome girl out of a river and the next there’s someone getting sucked off in a bush.
“Where can you put this show? There’s no genre for it. I don’t think it’s a comedy, but what is it? That’s why I think it’s genius.”
Scanlan admits to having trouble finding the right balance in her performance. “Tone is the hardest thing to nail on the show. When we were shooting, I didn’t really know what the character was until I saw what was done in the edit. I was never certain who she was, because that tone is so very particular, and it was nerve wracking,” says the actor, adding she felt much more comfortable the second time around.
“It’s got a flavour unlike anything else,” she continues. “You’re taking the story seriously and the characters’ set of coordinates really seriously, but there is also some levity in it and some lightness. It’s an odd confection.”
Scanlan’s no-nonsense, authoritative Deering is just one of several terrifically written leading female characters in No Offence – another thing that makes the show stand out.
The most notable addition to this season’s cast is Rakie Ayola as the fearsome Nora Attah, matriarch of the Attah crime family, while Elaine Cassidy (DC Dinah Kowalski) and Alexandra Roach (DS Joy Freers) both reprise their leading roles from season one.
Asked how he manages to write such compelling female parts, Abbott’s response is typically wry. “People ask me why I write women so well, but they don’t ask other writers why they’re such lazy fuckers,” he says.
“As women get older in this industry, I realised really early on as a writer that, if you write really good parts for women, you get the best available, because they all think there’s nothing left for them.
“All the females in the show, whatever axis they come from, they’re all defined as people you’d take out for a pint. The whole point is to attract the male viewers as well, and not by changing the politics of the show, just by making unmissable females.”
Scanlan believes Abbott is “just reflecting reality” in terms of the female presence in police forces. And, reinforcing the writer’s comment about parts for older women, she says: “I feel lucky in that I’m part of the generation who, in the eighties, might have thought we’d run out of road by now.
“I’m not sure we’re making a programme about gender politics, we’re making a programme about a family. Deering plays this matriarchal role but she also plays a sort of patriarchal role. She’s mum and dad in one.”
It’s not just in front of the camera where women have a strong presence in No Offence, with no fewer than three females among those who took to the directors’ chair in season two.
In addition to Catherine Morshead (Doctor Who), who directed several episodes of the first season, Deutschland 83 director Samira Radsi and Sara O’Gorman (New Tricks) have helmed new episodes.
Meanwhile, although the cast believe No Offence is a realistic depiction of police work, what do real-life police officers – like Abbott’s son, Tom – think?
“They love it, and I love phoning Tom because he’s a writer as well. When I phone him, I don’t get the kind of research question back – he knows exactly how I’m trying to squeeze in something that really shouldn’t fit. He gives me an intelligent perspective on how we can make it fit for us. It’s very useful.”
Furthermore, Mellor’s brother-in-law acts as police advisor to the show. “He told me about the script before I was even in it!” the actor says. “He was like, ‘Ooh, it’s good, this. There’s some good stuff in here.’ I know he loved it as well. He’s in CID [Criminal Investigation Department] and he advises on all the scripts.”
But despite the help on offer from the real thing, Abbott reveals No Offence – produced by the writer’s own AbbottVision and distributed by FremantleMedia International – is one of the hardest shows he’s ever had to write.
“Every single episode had umpteen drafts beyond what I thought we would need,” he says. “You have to accurately and, with all dignity, write a procedural cop show at the same time as you’re trying to be subversive and witty and to occupy that yawning space that isn’t always there.
“You wring yourself mad in the mornings trying to climb back into a scene. But when you do, and it’s speaking for itself in its own overcoat, we can all fly.”
UK indie producer Sister Pictures has picked up the rights to Naomi Alderman’s acclaimed novel The Power with a view to turning it into a long-running global series.
The rights were acquired from Georgina Ruffhead at David Higham Associates after what was described as an 11-way auction – all of which shows the continued importance of books as the basis of TV drama.
The Power imagines a world where women gain the physical ability to electrocute at will. This results in an overhaul of the existing world order with women using their new-found power to wrest control of society from men.
The series will be written by Alderman, who said: “I’m thrilled to be working with Sister Pictures and [CEO] Jane Featherstone. Jane’s track record and her commitment to excellence in writing speak for themselves, and Sister Pictures’ deep understanding of the book impressed me.”
Explaining how a single book will be turned into a long-running global series, Alderman added: “Readers of The Power are already asking me if there’ll be a sequel. There won’t be another novel, probably, but there are definitely so many more stories to tell than I had room for in the book. I can’t wait to expand this story and bring electric women to TV screens around the world.”
Featherstone added: “Naomi is one of the boldest and most interesting authors of our time and we are beyond thrilled to be working with her as she adapts her own brilliant and compelling book for TV. The Power is a story of our times; clever, funny, important and original, it asks us to consider a world where the shifting balances of power create a new and dangerous dynamic.”
The Power is the latest in a line of projects from Sister Pictures focusing on strong female characters created by women writers. The company is already working on a show for Channel 4 called The Bisexual. Written by Desiree Akhavan and Cecilia Frugiuele (Appropriate Behaviour), it focuses on a New York woman navigating the world of gay and straight dating in London. Sister calls it “an honest look at the last taboo, bisexuality, and what it means to refuse to compromise on what you want.”
Akhavan, a bisexual Iranian-American who was brought up in New York, echoed Alderman’s enthusiasm: “Getting to play in the sandbox with such intelligent collaborators at Sister Pictures and Channel 4 is an absolute dream come true. They’re the perfect partners in crime for a taboo sex comedy.”
Sister has also teamed up with Abi Morgan (River, Suffragette, The Hour) on The Split, a new BBC1 drama that examines the fast-paced circuit of high-powered female divorce lawyers through the lens of three sisters – Hannah, Nina and the youngest, Rose. Hannah and Nina are leading divorce and family law lawyers, while Rose is still searching for her place in life.
Morgan said: “As Robin Williams once said, ‘Divorce is expensive – like ripping your heart out through your wallet.’ The Split exposes the complex realities of high-end divorce and broken marriage through female divorce lawyers and sisters bound by their own troubled past.”
Sticking with the subject of talented and empowered women, it was revealed this week that movie icon Julia Roberts is to star in a new limited TV series. Based on Maria Semple’s novel Today Will Be Different, the show tells the story of a woman named Eleanor Flood who makes plans to have the best day of her life, but wakes up to find a strange new future unfolding.
Semple, who has worked as a TV writer and producer (she was nominated twice for WGA Awards for comedy Arrested Development), will pen the screen adaptation. She said: “I’m giddy that Eleanor will be brought to life by Julia Roberts. This will be a fun ride!” No network has been confirmed for the show as yet.
In Spain, meanwhile, media giant Mediapro has picked up the rights to Lo Que Esconde Tu Nombre (What Your Name Conceals), a bestselling novel by Clara Sánchez that has shifted 1.5 million copies in 25 countries.
A psychological thriller, the book centres on a young pregnant girl called Sandra, who goes to live by the sea to decide what to do with her life. There she meets an old couple, who take her in as part of their family. However, Sandra’s path crosses that of a Second World War concentration camp survivor, who reveals things from the past that cause her to distrust the couple. What Sandra doesn’t realise is that the end of her innocence will put her in danger.
Sánchez was born in Guadalajara in 1955 and grew up in Valencia before moving to Madrid. In 1989 she published Precious Stones and has gone on to publish a total of 11 novels to date (the latest in 2013). What Your Name Conceals was written in 2010. There are no details yet as to who will handle the TV adaptation.
Also in the news is 1980s teen star Molly Ringwald, who has been lined up to star in The CW’s new TV series Riverdale, a dark and subversive take on a classic Archie Comics franchise. This project is being developed/written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Greg Berlanti, Sarah Schechter and Jon Goldwater. Aguirre-Sacasa, who has worked on series like Glee, wrote the pilot episode of Riverdale. He is also chief creative officer of Archie Comics and wrote the 2013 screen adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie.
Finally, on the novel-adaptation front, French producer Authentic and Federation Entertainment, the firm behind Netflix drama Marseille, have secured the TV rights to Le Temps Est Assassin (Time is a Killer), a thriller by best-selling French author Michel Bussi.
The deal, with French publishing house Presses de la Cité, will see an eight-part series created from the book, which tells the story of a woman who suffers a tragic accident resulting in the loss of her family. Federation will distribute the show abroad.
The producers of Humans and The Young Pope are probably a bit down in the dumps right now. The second season of the former show has just launched on Channel 4 in the UK with an estimated audience of around two million. That’s well down on season one’s average of five million-plus, despite a pretty heavyweight marketing campaign. As for The Young Pope, the much-anticipated Jude Law scripted series is reckoned to have attracted just 141,000 viewers for its debut screening on UK pay TV channel Sky Atlantic.
The most likely explanation is that there is just so much drama on TV right now that it’s impossible for viewers to keep up. In my household, Humans is on our hit list but didn’t stand a chance of being watched ahead of the penultimate episode of BBC1’s Poldark. As for The Young Pope, it’s in a queue that consists of Westworld, Victoria and The Night Of. Oh, and Humans of course…
The Night Of, an HBO crime drama starring Riz Ahmed, is another show that hasn’t been rating particularly well in the UK. Having launched on Sky Atlantic with an audience around 240,000, the latest numbers (mid-October) put it at around 160,000.
This is surprising for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because it’s a really good series – as evidenced by a strong IMDb score and a positive response from the UK’s TV critics. Secondly, because its ratings curve did the opposite in the US. After the first episode managed a mediocre 0.77 million viewers, word obviously got out that the show was good – because by episode two it was up at 1.28 million. It then continued to build throughout its run, peaking at 2.16 million for the finale. Presumably, the show is continuing to do well now that it has moved into the realm of on-demand.
This should be a cause for encouragement for the teams behind Humans and The Young Pope. Even if you don’t get good ratings on launch night, genuine quality will eventually get you noticed, even if it does take a year or two sitting in box-set land.
Sticking with HBO, the network will be pretty pleased with the resilience of its own robot-themed drama Westworld. In the US, the show debuted with 1.96 million and is currently at 1.49 million after five episodes. That suggests it isn’t going to turn into a Game Of Thrones-style monster hit but it’s not bad – especially when you also consider it has a 9.2 rating on the IMDb scale.
The show is also doing very well for Sky Atlantic in the UK. The opening episode attracted 1.7 million for the channel and the following two have come in around 1.2 to 1.4 million. As we’ve seen from the ratings for The Night Of and The Young Pope, that’s an excellent showing for a network that rarely gets above 500,000 viewers (Game of Thrones being the big exception). Maybe there’s a positive point here about movie reboots, at least in the context of pay TV, where they seem to do pretty well.
Another show that seems to be bedding in well is Amazon’s Goliath, a David E Kelley legal drama starring Billy Bob Thornton. Although Amazon doesn’t do audience ratings, it is reported this week as being “the top-binged first season of a US-produced Amazon original series ever over its first 10 days.” That’s a bit of a mouthful but it does suggest the show is proving popular and is a strong candidate to secure renewal.
Of course, shows like Goliath are fortunate in that they don’t get put under the microscope in the same way as Humans and The Young Pope. Likewise with Netflix’s new royal drama The Crown. At timing of writing the show has a perfect 10/10 score on IMDb and is attracting five-star ratings from media critics. Clearly it’s a good show – but for all we know, it could be getting an audience in the UK that is half the size of Sky Atlantic’s The Young Pope.
Back in the US, another show that is in pretty good shape is Lucifer, created by Warner Bros TV for Fox. Currently in its second season, the show has just been granted an extended second season, taking its total run from 13 to 22 episodes. Fox says the show is attracting around eight million viewers an episode when all multiplatform viewing is factored in. “Lucifer continues to deliver, with great blasts of dark humour and ambitious storytelling,” said Fox entertainment president David Madden. “The show has turned out to be a true wicked pleasure, the perfect companion to [Batman prequel series] Gotham. We couldn’t be more pleased.”
In Australia, meanwhile, there is a general sense that domestic drama is beginning to fight back against foreign imports. In the year to June 30, Screen Australia estimates that the number of hours of local TV drama rose from 518 to 561 – representing a total spend of A$376m (US$288.91m), up from A$300m.
One title that continues to do well is Network Ten’s Offspring, season six of which aired this summer. Although the show’s numbers dropped from 950,000 at launch to around 600,000 later in the season, that was still good enough for the network to announce that there will be a seventh season in 2017.
Finally, a plug for the C21 International Drama Awards, which take place on November 30 as part of C21’s Content London event. This week, the finalists were announced.
In the Best English-language Drama Series category, finalists are London Spy, Marcella, The A Word, The Night Manager, The Night Of, Unforgotten and War & Peace. Up for Best Non-English-Language Drama Series are Black Widows, CASE, Follow the Money, Highway Of Love, Public Enemy, Section Zero, The Writer and Trapped. And the Best Miniseries contenders are And Then There Were None, Beyond The Walls, Ku’damm 56 – Rebel with a Cause, Sotto Copertura, Roots and The Secret of Elise.
Child murder and disappearance are common starting points for crime dramas, as series like Broadchurch, Top of the Lake, The Guilty, The Missing and The Five have shown in recent times.
This is no surprise given that the loss of a loved child is just about the worst thing that most people can conceive of ever happening to them.
All of the above shows are fictional. But there are also a few shows coming through right now that deal with real-life stories. One of them, which we have discussed in this column, is HBO’s upcoming series about the lynching of black teenager Emmett Till. Another is an HBO/Keshet coproduction about the kidnapping and subsequent murder of three Israeli teenagers in 2014.
Real-life child murder is an especially shocking subject, so it’s clear that it can only be approached by television if there is a substantive point to make. In the case of the Emmett Till story, for example, the underlying theme is the role that the boy’s death played in the emerging civil rights movement.
In the case of Keshet’s drama, it is the protracted unrest in Israel and Palestine that informs the story. Without these bigger themes, it would be hard to justify producing TV dramas about such grisly subjects.
In the UK, a current example of real-life child-murder being used as the base of a scripted series is Little Boy Blue, a four-part drama for ITV about the death of 11-year-old Rhys Jones, who was shot in the back by a 16-year-old gang member in 2007.
Rhys’s parents, Melanie and Steve Jones, have given the drama their blessing and released the following statement to explain why: “We wanted to get involved in this drama because we thought it was important for people to understand what really happened – how close Rhys’s murderer came to escaping justice, and how in the end the simple courage shown by some of those involved in these events, and their refusal to be intimidated, led to the conviction of Sean Mercer and others involved in Rhys’s murder. The part Merseyside Police and especially Detective Superintendent Dave Kelly played in this cannot be overestimated. But beyond this we wanted to show the devastating effect the loss of our beloved son Rhys had on our family, and how the grieving process affected us long beyond the ‘closure’ of a guilty verdict. Though some may find what happened to us shocking, we think it is right to tell the whole story.”
The job of telling the story appropriately and sensitively has fallen to award-winning screenwriter and executive producer Jeff Pope. A former journalist who worked his way up through the UK’s factual TV business, Pope has written and produced a number of dramas rooted in real-life stories. Among these are Fool’s Gold: The Story of the Brink’s-Mat Robbery, Cilla and See No Evil: The Moors Murders.
The latter, written by Neil McKay, was also made with the backing of the victims’ families and was based on two years of research – including interviews with detectives, relatives of the victims, and Moors murderer Myra Hindley’s brother-in-law David Smith.
Pope also co-wrote the 2005 movie Pierrepoint, in which Timothy Spall played the UK’s best-known executioner Albert Pierrepoint.
Pope received the Alan Clarke award at the 2015 Baftas, with Bafta TV committee chairman Andrew Newman calling him “one of the finest exponents of his craft.” Accepting the award, Pope said: “Writing is all about facing down the tyranny of the blank screen, but my message to all aspiring writers is that once you’ve hit that first key, you discover it’s really not so difficult as you imagined.”
Another new drama that deals with similarly tough subject matter is Damilola, Our Beloved Boy, a 90-minute production that will air on the BBC in the UK on November 7. This drama centres on the death of 10-year-old Damilola Taylor in 2000, and was made with the consent and support of Damilola’s father, Richard Taylor OBE.
The film does not depict the crime that ended Damilola’s life, but goes behind the headlines to explore the emotional repercussions of Damilola’s death on his family and their quest for justice. It was written by award-winning screenwriter and playwright Levi David Addai, who calls it a story about “family, fatherhood and hope.”
Addai broke into the business via theatre, initially putting on a play at the Royal Court. His previous television work includes the E4 series Youngers, which follows a group of London teens aiming to become the next big thing on the urban music scene.
Next up he is writing a TV adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s acclaimed novel Noughts & Crosses, produced by Mammoth Screen for the BBC. Clearly, Addai has the right credentials to tackle such an emotive subject – and he is well aware of the importance of pitching it right. Commenting on the sensitivity of the subject, he said: “Albeit a huge responsibility, I am very determined to do it justice.”
Elsewhere this week, Channel 4 in the UK is launching a new talent scheme aimed at writers and directors from groups that are currently under-represented in TV drama –women, disabled people and those from BAME and disadvantaged backgrounds.
Called 4Stories, the scheme will give three directors and three writers the opportunity to work on a new three-part series of half-hour interconnected films. It will tell one main story from three perspectives and is being produced by Touchpaper Television.
The opportunity is open to writers who have not had an original single, serial or series broadcast on UK TV. Writers who have contributed to episodes on soaps, series or serials are eligible to apply but can have had no more than two hours of credits.
Nina Bhagwat, Channel 4’s off-screen diversity executive, said: “4Stories is a unique talent initiative that will showcase the work of emerging writers and directors who bring a distinct and alternative view of Modern Britain. Writers and directors play a key creative role; their voices have a huge impact both on what we sound and feel like as a channel, and how we connect with diverse audiences. 4Stories talent will be immersed in a development programme that aims to land [successful applicants] brilliantly into the wider industry post transmission.”
Rob Pursey, MD of Touchpaper Television, added: “We’re looking for bold, unique voices that can deliver ambitious, witty, fearless entertainment. This is an opportunity to find diverse talent and bring a fresh perspective to UK drama.”
As part of the paid development programme, writing trainees will participate in a writers room that will create the series. They will be tutored by, and work with, experienced drama producers at Touchpaper TV where their scripts will be developed. They will also be mentored by high-profile drama talent, and will take part in a bespoke training programme to run alongside and beyond the production of the series. It will include masterclasses, networking sessions, coaching, career development and access to key events.
The closing dates are November 14 for writers’ applications and December 12 for directors’ applications.
Israel’s Keshet International (KI) looks to have achieved another major breakthrough in the scripted formats sector. After In Treatment, Homeland and The A Word (all based on Keshet formats), it has now teamed up with HBO in the US on a drama about the true-life kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers in 2014.
The 10-episode series is the first project to be produced for HBO by its former boss Michael Lombardo, who has a production deal with the network. The creative team behind the show, which will be filmed in Israel, is headed by Hagai Levi and Noah Stollman.
“HBO has always been a home to me. I’m so thrilled to work with them again, and regroup with my good friends from Keshet,” said Levi, who also created hit series The Affair for Showtime.
HBO president Casey Bloys added: “We’re excited to work with Keshet and this talented and creative group led by Hagai Levi. We look forward to sharing this important story with our subscribers.”
The series centres on the disappearance and subsequent search for the three teenagers amid escalating tension and conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. It will be distributed internationally by KI. Avi Nir, the head of KI’s parent company Keshet Media Group, said: “We are thrilled to partner with HBO, the ultimate quality TV powerhouse, and to bring together Israel’s finest in TV and film, led by Hagai Levi, Noah Stollman and Joseph Cedar [the director of the as-yet-unnamed series]. We are all ready for the challenging journey on which this extraordinary story will take us.”
Another interesting story on the format front is NBC’s decision to pilot Infamous, a legal drama based on a 2009 Icelandic series called Réttur. The new version is being written/executive produced by Eli Attie (House) and executive produced by the team behind This Is Us (John Requa and Glenn Ficarra).
Infamous centres on a hotshot attorney who is jailed for a murder he doesn’t remember, and believes he didn’t commit. Six years later, he’s released on a technicality and tries to juggle his day job with finding out what actually happened to put him in jail. The original, created by Sigurjón Kjartansson, ran for three seasons.
Still in the US, ABC is piloting a new series called Protect & Serve. The series centres on a city struggling to cope with the unrest that is stirred up when the police shoot an unarmed man. The show was created by Barbie Kligman and Aaron Kaplan, with Kligman and her husband Billy Malone writing the script.
This seems to be a popular theme for US TV drama at the moment, reflecting the number of high-profile incidents in which controversial police shootings have inspired riots and retaliation. Fox, for example, is working on Shots Fired, a drama that explores the aftermath of racially charged shootings in a Tennessee town.
Also within the ABC family, cable channel Freeform has commissioned a third season of drama series Stitchers. The show hasn’t been a huge hit for Freeform (season two averaged 387,000 per episode) but will provide some stability as Freeform’s top two shows Pretty Little Liars and Switched At Birth move inexorably towards extinction. For those unfamiliar with the show, it focuses on a female hacker who joins a government agency that investigates murders by hacking into the brains of the deceased.
Turning to Europe, UFA Fiction and ZDF began production this week on their new miniseries drama Heaven & Hell – Martin Luther (working title). Marking 500 years since the Reformation, the series tells the story of Martin Luther, the visionary reformer and one of the most important religious figures in history.
Filming commenced in Prague and the surrounding areas and will continue until early December. Executive producers Benjamin Benedict and Joachim Kosack of UFA Fiction said: “The radical perspective on those early days of the Reformation that Heaven & Hell – Martin Luther enables us to portray human inconsistencies, depths and conflicts. This is a story of a group of people alive 500 years ago whose internal convictions led them to forge a new path – one that ultimately changed the world.”
The show is the latest in a line of big-budget coproductions that have tackled pre-20th century European historical subjects. Others include Borgia, Versailles, 1864, Victoria, Maximilian and Marie de Bourgogne, Medici: Masters of Florence and the BBC’s literary adaptations such as Wolf Hall and War & Peace (and the in-development Les Miserables and A Place of Greater Safety) . The new Martin Luther project will be distributed by FremantleMedia International.
There has also been a lot of movement in drama acquisition and distribution business this week. Channel 4 in the UK, for example, has acquired the rights to ABC comedy Black-ish for its digital channel E4.
Dynamic Television, meanwhile, has acquired the global rights to Hulu original series East Los High, which tells the story of a group of inner-city high-school students in LA. Dynamic managing partner Daniel March said: “The series is a game-changer that has completely shattered the bar in the genre. This is a high-powered, emotional drama that speaks to the most sought-after youth audience by tackling everyday challenges.”
Also this week, German, UK and French on-demand services have picked up 12-part Norwegian drama Young & Promising from Nevision-owned distributor About Premium Content. The show, which follows a group of aspirational young urban women, will be streamed on ARD/ZDF-owned Funk in Germany, Channel 4’s Walter Presents in the UK and CanalPlay in France.
Laurent Boissel, joint CEO and co-founder at APC, said: “VoD platforms and broadcasters continue to look for quality drama targeted at millennials. With its strong female leads and a tone that resonates with our time, Young & Promising will appeal to this audience.”
Still in the world of streamers, US-based Acorn is partnering the BBC and All3Media International on Close to the Enemy, a Stephen Poliakoff drama set in a bomb-damaged London hotel in the aftermath of the Second World War. The drama, which Poliakoff discussed during last year’s C21 Drama Summit in London, follows an intelligence officer captain whose last task for the Army is to ensure that a captured German scientist starts working for the British RAF on developing the jet engine.
There’s also good news this week for Dori Media Group, which has licensed acclaimed series El Marginal to French pay TV channel Canal+. Nadav Palti, CEO of Dori Media, said: “Canal+ is a premium pay TV channel that provides its subscribers with access to the highest-quality content. The sale of El Marginal is, therefore, a ringing endorsement of the quality of the show.”
The series focuses on the story of Miguel Dimarco, an ex-cop who enters the San Onofre prison under a false identity as a convict. His mission is to infiltrate a gang of prisoners who have organised the kidnapping of a judge’s daughter. Miguel must discover the whereabouts of the girl and set her free. He meets the objective but someone betrays him, leaving him behind bars with no witnesses who know his true identity.
After a promising debut for This Is Us, NBC has given the new drama an additional five episodes, taking the total number of instalments for the first season to 18. The decision was made on the eve of the show’s second episode.
Citing Live+5-day data, NBC said the show’s premiere attracted 14.3 million viewers. It also set records on NBC’s digital platform.
Commenting on the decision to extend the show from its initial 13-episode order, NBC’s Jennifer Salke said: “It’s a rare moment in this business when a show so instantly delivers both critical acclaim and hit ratings, but This Is Us is just such an achievement. Creator Dan Fogelman, along with co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa and the producers, cast and crew, has delivered the kind of heart and depth that resonates with every segment of the audience and we’re proud to extend it.”
This Is Us is also making waves in the international market, with Channel 4 in the UK picking up the show last week. Jay Hunt, Channel 4’s chief creative officer, said: “This Is Us is unmissably life affirming with a warmth that has drawn critical acclaim and bumper ratings. It’s a great addition to our slate of acquired shows – from Deutschland 83 to Fargo.”
Fogelman’s other new series, Pitch, hasn’t had such a bright start, however. The story of the first-ever female Major League Baseball pitcher, the show was one of Fox’s weaker performers last week, bringing in 4.2 million viewers.
It has had a decent amount of critical approval, which means it will almost certainly complete its initial 13-episode run, but it will need to win over audiences quickly to secure an extended run or second season.
Among the other new US series to have hit the air, CBS reboot MacGyver has had a strong start, securing an audience of around 10.9 million for its first episode. This is the best performance by a Friday-night scripted series on the network since Hawaii Five-0 in 2014.
With the show’s debut clearly benefiting from in-built name awareness, it will be interesting to see if it manages to hold on to that number through episodes two and three. If it does, it means the revival is an inspired move. If it drops away quickly, it will resemble ABC’s experience with The Muppets last year – namely a strong start followed by rapid loss of audience interest.
The fate of MacGyver may have some influence on whether the big four US networks continue to look at reviving classic series. Others currently in the works are The Rockford Files and LA Law, and success for MacGyver will certainly mean more.
By contrast to MacGyver, ABC’s Notorious has started very badly and looks like a prime candidate for early cancellation. Fox’s reboot of The Exorcist, with 2.9 million viewers, has also started slowly but may find its niche in international distribution because of its name recognition and supernatural subject matter.
Still in the US, FX has revealed that season four of its vampire virus series The Strain will be the last. The Strain’s writer and showrunner is Carlton Cuse, who is also coming to the end of A&E’s Bates Motel.
There had been talk of The Strain operating to a five-season story arc, but four seasons is probably enough to play the concept out. Strong in season one, the pace and direction of the narrative started to falter in season two – something that has been reflected in the ratings.
The downward path of the ratings tells the story. While season one averaged 2.2 million, season two came in at 1.34 million (this season also suffered from an awkward piece of recasting). Now in season three, the show is averaging 1.1 million but the latest episode attracted just 880,000 – the sign of a franchise coming to the end of its life.
Elsewhere, it has been a busy week for Australian drama. On the domestic front, Nine Network has commissioned a second season of Doctor Doctor, a local comedy drama about a formerly high-flying surgeon who is forced to work as a GP in the small country town where he grew up. The series, which sounds similar to DRG’s hit format Doc Martin, was only two episodes into the first season when Nine announced the recommission.
The show’s synopsis says: “When he is knocked off his pedestal and on to the Impaired Registrants Programme, prodigal Sydney surgeon and party boy Hugh Knight must return to his home in rural Whyhope where he might learn to swallow his pride and mend his ways – or not.”
Meanwhile, US-based SVoD platform Acorn has acquired two Australian series from distributor DCD Rights. The first is Deep Water, a four-part series inspired by a crime wave targeting gay people in Sydney’s coastal communities in the 1980s and 90s. The show is a Blackfella Films production for SBS Broadcasting Australia, Screen Australia and Screen New South Wales.
Acorn TV has also picked up the second season of political thriller The Code, which is produced by Playmaker Media for Australian public broadcaster ABC. Both series have also been acquired by BBC4 in the UK, a channel that is often used as a barometer of whether a show has international sales potential.
Finally, some desperately sad news this week with the untimely death of Gary Glasberg, executive producer/showrunner of NCIS and creator/executive producer of NCIS: New Orleans. Glasberg, just 50 years old, died suddenly in his sleep on September 28.
A well-liked figure, Glasberg joined NCIS in 2009 and helped confirm its status as one of the biggest drama hits in the world – a huge ratings success in the US and widely distributed internationally.
His previous credits included The Mentalist, Crossing Jordan and Bones.
“Today is an overwhelmingly sad day for NCIS, CBS and anyone who was blessed to spend time with Gary Glasberg,” said CBS president of entertainment Glenn Geller. “We have lost a cherished friend, gifted creative voice, respected leader and, most memorably, someone whose warmth and kindness was felt by all around him. Our heartfelt thoughts and sympathies go out to his wife, Mimi, his two sons and all his family and friends.”
CBS TV Studios president David Stapf added: “He brought kindness, integrity and class to everything he did. His remarkable talent as a writer and producer was only matched by his ability to connect with people.”
The 2016 Primetime Emmys didn’t spring too many surprises when its winners were unveiled at the weekend. One of the top performers on the night was HBO’s magnificent Game of Thrones (GoT), which was named Best Drama for the second year running.
Aside from being one of US cable TV’s most-watched series ever, it has now broken the record for the highest number of Emmys won by any fictional series (38, beating Frasier’s 37).
GoT’s two showrunners, David Benioff and DB Weiss, also picked up Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series for the season six’s Battle of the Bastards. This follows their win in 2015 for the exceptional Mother’s Mercy episode.
The big irony surrounding GoT, of course, is that there is such a schism between the progress of the TV series and the progress of the books it is based on. The novels’ author George RR Martin is, much to the consternation of his fans, taking an eternity to finish his magnum opus.
But the end of the show is now just two seasons away and there is no question that Martin will still be tapping away at his keyboard when Benioff and Weiss’s TV adaptation concludes in 2018 with season eight.
For those of us who fell in love with GoT as a written work, that creates a conundrum regarding the story’s closure.
HBO also has a conundrum, which is what to do when its most popular show by far ends. It seems so unlikely that HBO would let such an important franchise slip through its fingers that everyone remotely interested in GoT is speculating on whether there is scope for a prequel.
When this subject came up after the latest batch of Emmy wins, Martin kept that possibility open – with a proviso. “I do have thousands of pages of fake history of everything that led up to Game of Thrones, so there’s a lot of material there and I’m writing more,” he said, before adding: “At the moment we still have this show to finish and I still have two books to finish, so that’s all speculation.”
If there is a prequel, however, it seems Benioff and Weiss have already decided they won’t be involved. In response to questions about the idea, Benioff said: “You might want to ask George about that. It’s a great world that George created. I think it’s a very rich world, and I’m sure there will be other series set in Westeros but, for us, this is it.”
Of course, this means HBO actually has two challenges – how to keep the spirit of GoT alive and how to hold on to Benioff and Weiss. Maybe it’s time for a Lord of the Rings reboot…
Another writer to go home with an Emmy last weekend was DV DeVincentis for Marcia, Marcia, Marcia – an episode of FX’s excellent series The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story (Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie or Dramatic Special). All told, The People vs OJ won nine Emmys from 22 nominations, making it the top performer on the night.
DeVincentis wrote three of the show’s 10 episodes and was part of a writing team led by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. Echoing an increasingly common theme in the TV business, his previous credits are mostly movies (but with some extended career gaps).
He co-wrote the John Cusack film Grosse Pointe Blank in 1997 and then penned the Nick Hornby adaptation High Fidelity (also starring Cusack) in 2000. Short-lived TV series Dead Last (2001) and movie Lay the Favourite (2012) followed. The latter, which didn’t review well, reunited him with director Stephen Frears, with whom he worked on High Fidelity. Now he’s in the TV big league, but there is no news yet on his next scripted project.
The winner of Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series was Netflix’s Master of None, written by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang. This makes it a good year for SVoD comedy, with Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle picking up a Golden Globe in early 2016.
While Ansari, the star of the show, is by far the better known of the two, Yang put himself firmly in the spotlight this week with an Emmy acceptance speech that pleaded for more diversity – but immediately managed to stir up a controversy on the subject.
He said: “There’s 17 million Asian Americans, and 17 million Italian Americans. They have The Godfather, Goodfellas, Rocky and The Sopranos. We’ve got Long Duk Dong [a character from Sixteen Candles regarded as a racist stereotype by the Asian community]. So we have a long way to go. But I know we can get there, I believe in us, it’s just gonna take a lot of hard work. Asian parents out there, if you can do me a favour: just a couple of you, get your kids cameras instead of violins, we’ll all be good.”
While Yang’s intentions can’t be faulted, the sensitivity of the diversity issue was underlined when his comments received a disapproving response from The National Italian American Foundation, which said it was “disturbed by the very public degradation of Italian American history. Mr Yang listed what he considered to be notable representations of Italian Americans in the entertainment industry citing Goodfellas, The Godfather, and The Sopranos. Mr Yang’s comments, while meant to point out the under-representation of Asian Americans in film, ended up including a reckless disregard for Italian Americans by citing films that portray Italian Americans as violent, dim-witted, and involved with organised crime – all three – and insensitive stereotypes that in no way reflect the lives of everyday Italian Americans.”
Away from the Emmys, Channel 4 in the UK and NBCUniversal-owned comedy streaming channel Seeso have announced there will be a second season of Flowers, a dark dysfunctional dramedy that stars Olivia Colman (Broadchurch) and Julian Barratt (The Mighty Boosh). Produced by Kudos and distributed by Endemol Shine International, the show was created by Will Sharpe.
Sharpe is best-known as an actor (Casualty, Sherlock, Dirk Gently), with Flowers his first significant breakthrough on the writing front. Commenting on the re-commission, he said: “Channel 4, Kudos, Seeso and [executive producer] Naomi de Pear have all been such supportive partners on this show and I’m very excited about working with them on another series of Flowers.”
C4 deputy head of comedy Nerys Evans added: “Covering complex issues like fidelity, mental health, sexuality and fraying family bonds, Will Sharpe’s hilariously awkward and heart-breaking show offers another unmissable look at the Flowers’ messed up world. Will’s scripts and the show’s perfect cast are so brilliant at making you wail with laughter one minute, and well up the next.”
Also this month, French production group Newen and the distribution and production arm of Keshet Media Group, Keshet International (KI), unveiled a drama development initiative for French and Israeli writers of high-end drama series. The two companies are calling for professional writers to submit proposals and projects in either English or Hebrew for unique one-hour or half-hour drama series with appeal for European audiences.
The initiative is being led by Atar Dekel, head of global scripted coproductions and Nelly Feld, KI sales director for Europe, on behalf of KI, and Sandra Ouaiss, Newen head of coproductions.
Dekel said: “Within KI’s aim to grow its global drama coproductions, we are excited to be partnering up with a company as prestigious as Newen. This is a unique opportunity for the creative communities in both France and Israel to take their local stories to the international stage. There is a keen appetite in the global market for Israeli and French scripted content and we hope this collaboration will instigate several high-end international coproductions.”
The submission period began on September 6 and ends on October 31 this year. Each candidate may submit a maximum of two projects via the KI or Newen websites (where full terms and conditions are available). The firms have committed to selecting at least one and up to three projects that they will co-develop and coproduce if appropriate. The finalists will be announced in January 2017 and given the opportunity to work with an experienced European showrunner.
Operation Yewtree, the investigation led by British police into historical sexual abuse carried out by Jimmy Savile and other high-profile personalities, is now the subject of four-part drama National Treasure. DQ hears from writer Jack Thorne and stars Robbie Coltrane and Julie Walters.
It was a 2012 documentary that first lifted the veil over the late British entertainer Jimmy Savile’s trail of sexual abuse across many decades. The revelations kickstarted a police investigation, coded Operation Yewtree, that examined allegations of abuse made against Savile and others, and went on to uncover similar crimes committed by other celebrities including Rolf Harris and Stuart Hall.
Four years later, a four-part television drama is exploring the fallout when a beloved entertainer is suspected of historical sex crimes.
National Treasure, which debuts tonight on the UK’s Channel 4, sees Paul Finchley, a much-loved, ageing comedian find his world shaken to its foundations after an accusation of rape that dates back to the 1990s. As he is taken for questioning, his wife Marie must decide whether to stand by him, while their troubled daughter, Dee, begins to question her relationship with her father.
Robbie Coltrane stars as Finchley, with Julie Walters playing Marie, his deeply religious wife of 40 years who has stuck by him through thick and thin. Andrea Riseborough completes the stellar cast as Dee, a recovering addict who is struggling to stay sober and be a good mum to her kids.
The project comes from writer Jack Thorne, director Marc Munden and production company The Forge, with executive producers George Ormond and George Faber.
Thorne recalls: “George Faber took me for lunch and suggested the idea. It’s an overwhelming idea in lots of ways because the responsibility of it is so massive and the idea that we might get it wrong felt very dangerous because so many people have been damaged by this stuff.
“But the idea of telling a story about it, particularly where our country is now and the fact that we let not just an evil man but a monster [Savile] onto our television sets for that amount of time. So the opportunity to examine these cases felt important. We just immersed ourselves in research and tried to tell it as well as we possibly could.”
Thorne, whose credits include The Last Panthers and the This is England franchise, met with abuse victims, police officers and barristers, among others, to try to get as much insight into their experiences as possible.
“It was sometimes incredibly hard to hear,” he says, “people telling me they were pretty sure they were abused on such a date but they were aware their memory wasn’t strong and they didn’t know they would be able to stand it up. [There were] transcripts of trials where you see someone being torn apart really gently as the geography of a house undermines them. Then amazing police officers who have devoted their lives to catching these people and who have all got different ways of helping.
“One of the most extraordinary insights was the fact that an officer we worked with said she would watch YouTube clips of the person she was interviewing before she interviewed them in order that she could flatter them on the way to the interview room. You kind of go, ‘That’s so brilliant that you would think to do that.’ And that, I think, is what drama can do better than any other form in terms of telling a story about this. Drama is about seeing behind the eyes of a case. It was a really daunting prospect but one that felt important to do.”
That sentiment holds true for Walters and Coltrane. The latter, the star of police series Cracker, says the quality of the script and the responsibility of the subject matter meant National Treasure was a project he was keen to join.
“Every day another stone gets lifted and somebody in the judiciary or parliament or a medic [is exposed]. It’s just appalling and I think it appalls all of us,” Coltrane says. “Importantly, at the risk of sounding pious, the power of drama is that you can deal with these things in a way that the judiciary, the police and parliament can’t, or seem unable to. I thought it was an important thing to do.”
While Coltrane faced countless scenes in a police interview room, Walters’ Marie is left at home to come to terms with what her husband has been accused of.
“It was just fascinating playing a woman like that,” the actress admits. “It was wonderfully written; written in a complicated, multi-faceted way and all of the reasons she stands by him were fascinating to go into. Her faith, because she’s a Catholic, is the thing that’s kept everything together. It’s just really interesting – her slightly buttoned-up way and how she could be with someone for that length of time despite whether he’s done this or not, the string of infidelities that have gone on throughout their life, the fact that she wants to keep the family together and the fact she loves him. He’d be out the door but she’s not like that and it’s just really interesting to do.
“It’s a drama about family and that’s what’s fascinating. In the end, it’s how you respond to one another and emotionally how we deal with one another. That’s the most fascinating thing for me about drama and I think it is for most people. You do look at these cases and for me it’s the wife [of the person accused] – I think, ‘I want to know about her.’”
Coltrane, Walters and Riseborough were able to explore the complexities of their characters in full during what Coltrane calls “an almost unparalleled joy” of two weeks of rehearsal before the cameras started rolling.
“It was fantastic because we had a chance to talk through our characters, what their relationship was and how they made a go of their lives together,” he says. “And Jack, the amount of research he did, we asked him questions non-stop for two weeks and he always knew the answer.
“The crucial thing about it is, at some time or other, [the accused is] going to have to stand in front of 12 ordinary people who are going to decide whether it happened or not. So it doesn’t matter how technical or convincing your arguments are to a policeman or a lawyer, they’re not going to be making the judgment. It’s going to be you and me – a butcher, a baker and a candlestick maker – and that’s absolutely crucial. It was fascinating from that point of view.
“Episode one is not about whether he did it or didn’t do it. That’s hardly mentioned. What it’s about is what it would be like for any one of us if someone came to the door and said you’d raped somebody 20 years ago and your life literally falls off a cliff. Whether you did it or not, that’s what episode one is. It’s not until episodes two and three where there’s a shift.”
Director Munden credits Thorne with leaving viewers in the dark about whether Finchley is guilty: “The writing’s very clear about this man being neither innocent or guilty,” he adds. “We’re kept on a knife-edge and my job really was to try and preserve that and invite the audience in with their own prejudices to bring to bear on that and just keep people throughout four hours of a drama guessing and because they’re guessing and bringing something to the debate.”
That guessing will continue over the next four weeks as viewers will be left wondering whether Paul Finchley retains his status as a national treasure.
A few years ago, Israeli producers started to make serious inroads into the US market with local adaptations of their dramas. Exemplified by shows like In Treatment, Traffic Light and Homeland, we looked at this trend in a column in June 2015.
Subsequently, Israel has also started to have notable successes in other parts of the world. A good example is Keshet International (KI)’s The A Word, a comedy drama adapted by the BBC in the UK. Having secured strong ratings in BBC1 primetime, the show has now been recommissioned for a second season and is being adapted for the Greek market. It has also been licensed to broadcasters including Sundance in the US, CBC (Canada), BBC First (Australia) and, ironically perhaps, pay TV broadcaster YES in Israel.
It’s not just Israeli adaptations that are winning over buyers. Original Hebrew-language dramas have also started to generate interest. In October 2015, for example, Fox International Channels acquired KI drama False Flag – the first time it had bought a non-English-language scripted series for use on a global scale.
Federation Entertainment and Armoza Formats, meanwhile, have had a lot of joy selling Hebrew-language series Hostages internationally, and there is also an English-language version of the show. Additionally, Endemol Shine International recently sold Israeli thriller Mossad to Turner Latin America.
This week, there was another positive development for Hebrew-language drama, with the news that Channel 4 in the UK is to air Endemol’s Israel-produced comedy-drama The Baker and the Beauty – the first time C4 has ever aired an Israeli drama in its original form. The show, distributed by KI, was picked up earlier this year for use on the C4-backed foreign-language VOD service Walter Presents. But airing on C4’s main channel means it will get much greater exposure in the UK market.
The show, which has been adapted for Greece, The Netherlands and Russia, is a top performer in Israel and has been greenlit for a second season. It follows the love story between a female celebrity and a baker who still lives with his parents. A chance encounter results in their romance, but the big question is whether their relationship can survive her jet-setting lifestyle, her overbearing agent, his unworldly family, both their exes and media intrusion.
Elsewhere this week, there are reports that Sony PlayStation is cancelling superhero drama Powers after two seasons. The news was broken on Twitter by creator Brian Michael Bendis.
this is hard to tweet, but word is that @POWERStheSERIES is sadly, no more. season 2 was the last. at least for now. 1/2
The ‘at least for now’ may mean Bendis is planning to look for another network home for Powers. But the show has not been especially well received by critics, so a season three revival seems unlikely. At least Bendis can console himself with the fact that Powers will continue in comic book form with Marvel.
Powers was PlayStation’s first original drama commission, so the fact that it has been cancelled may signal that the Sony-owned gaming platform is pulling back from investment in television. That wouldn’t be too much of a surprise given that Sony is now ploughing money into scripted productions for Crackle.
Another show in trouble this week is Houdini & Doyle, which we have discussed before in this column. The show’s first season aired on ITV Encore in the UK and Fox in the US earlier this year, drawing modest ratings. Fox has now said it won’t recommission it, so it remains to be seen if ITV will go searching for other partners to keep the franchise alive.
This week also saw the conclusion of The Secret Agent on BBC1. The three-part miniseries was an adaptation of one of Joseph Conrad’s finest novels. As far as I can tell, it’s the first Conrad TV adaptation since Nostromo in 1997. The Secret Agent itself was previously adapted as a film in 1996, with Bob Hoskins.
I was very much looking forward to the production – because Conrad is one of my favourite authors and lead actor Toby Jones (Verloc) is one of my favourite actors. But it seems to have missed its mark with the audience. The first episode came in below the slot average, which doesn’t bode well for the next two episodes (the ratings aren’t in yet). It also scored just 5.8 on IMDb, which is low. And entertainment critics weren’t exactly enthusiastic.
There appear to be two key problems with the show. The first is that the story is so bleak, a point well articulated by Gerard O’Donovan in The Telegraph. The second is that Conrad novels are not structured in a way that lends themselves to adaptation. So often in his works, key pieces of action happen early and then become the basis for extended psychological studies. This is very different, for example, from a Thomas Hardy novel – where there is usually a powerful setup, some unexpected twists and turns and a dramatic conclusion.
The strength of the acting and writing certainly make The Secret Agent worth watching – it’s only three hours long, after all. But the show should be a warning to anyone thinking of adapting other Conrad novels. Those tempted should probably focus on his sea stories – and should perhaps look for a contemporary setting (echoing the way Francis Ford Coppola created Apocalypse Now from Heart of Darkness). Anyone interested in following up on this subject should see this Guardian article.
Finally this week, Starz Digital, the on-demand licensing arm of US cable network Starz, has licensed comedy-horror series Ash vs Evil Dead to Amazon in Germany. The first season of the show was a big hit for Starz in the US, reaching 8.7 on IMDb. Season two will hit US screens on October 2, while Amazon’s deal will see it air season one next month.
The Rose D’Or Awards were dominated by the UK last year with wins in nine out of 11 available categories – and following this week’s release of the Rose D’Or shortlists for 2016, it looks like the UK stands an extremely good chance of repeating its success.
One thing is for sure, the UK will win both the sitcom and the newly created drama series categories. In sitcom, the three shows slugging it out are Episodes from Hat Trick Productions, Mum and Raised by Wolves, the latter two from Big Talk Productions.
In drama, the contest is between Happy Valley, River and This Is England ’90. The winners will be revealed in Berlin on September 13.
Looking first at the dramas, Happy Valley (written by Sally Wainwright) and This Is England ’90 (Shane Meadows/Jack Thorne) have already received plenty of plaudits. River, a six-part drama for the BBC, is probably the least-known of the three, despite being written by one of the UK’s top talents, Abi Morgan.
Having started out writing for theatre, Morgan’s earliest credits were in TV (Peak Practice, My Fragile Heart), but more recently she has moved effortlessly back and forth between film and TV. Her best-known films include Brick Lane, The Iron Lady and Suffragette, while stand-out TV credits include novel adaptation Birdsong, The Hour and River.
Regardless of whether River triumphs in Berlin, Morgan certainly got the thumbs up from critics. In the UK, The Daily Telegraph critic Michael Hogan said the series was “beautifully written by Abi Morgan, stylishly directed and superbly acted. [Lead actor] Stellan Skarsgård delivered a powerhouse performance: sad and soulful in one scene, sardonically spiky and manically energetic in the next. With his craggy face and crumpled demeanour, the haunted detective prowled the streets of London like a wounded bear. I’m torn between wanting River to get recommissioned and wanting this series to stand alone as six near-perfect episodes.”
Aside from its UK screening on the BBC, River has also been available via Netflix internationally. In Canada, Globe and Mail critic John Doyle added his voice to Hogan’s, calling the show a masterpiece of melancholy crime drama: “It is the sort of drama critics rejoice in seeing. It is a stunningly successful hybrid of Nordic noir and the traditional, gloomy British police procedural. It is about solving a murder, but mainly about the intricacies of the human mind dealing with loss and terrible grief.”
The Rose D’Or sitcom category, meanwhile, brings international recognition for Stefan Golaszewski, writer of BBC2’s Mum. Golaszewski previously wrote Bafta-winning sitcom Him & Her for BBC2. In Mum, he tells the story of a woman seeking to rebuild her life following the death of her husband.
When the show was commissioned, Shane Allen, controller of comedy commissioning, said: “Commissioning Mum was a delightfully easy decision after seeing the sure-footed pilot. Stefan is a unique author and this is a very confident next chapter in what promises to be a distinguished career in comedy. All his hallmarks are there – painful authenticity, comedy grotesques, emotional tenderness, revelation and depth – it’s a class act. I think it will connect with a lot of people as a refreshing take on an overlooked stage in life.”
Conveniently for the sake of narrative flow, last year’s Rose D’Or-winning sitcom Catastrophe is also in the news this week, with Channel 4 commissioning a third and fourth season of the critically acclaimed show. Created by and starring Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, the second season of Catastrophe was C4’s second-highest performing comedy of the year. The show has also been streamed in the US by Amazon Prime and picked up for adaptation for French-speaking Canada.
Announcing the news, Phil Clarke, C4’s head of comedy, said: “I am thrilled to commission a third and fourth season. It’s a welcome return for the brave, razor-edged, excruciatingly honest and painfully funny portrayal of a modern, long-term relationship.”
Critics have also been effusive in their praise of the show. The Guardian’s Will Dean said it “inverts the classic romcom with sexual honesty, a barrage of swearing and a wonderfully dysfunctional support cast. Catastrophe is a modern great. All 12 episodes [the first two seasons] were superb in pretty much almost every aspect. At its heart it’s an ordinary love story, couched in some first-class swearing, about sexual honesty, served with a side-plate of adultery, lust, elderly parents, flirtatious colleagues, money worries and a dead dog. The love story we deserve.”
The Times’ Hugh Rifkind added that it is “the funniest British comedy of the past five years. I shan’t say more, because it is so funny that me telling you the funny bits would be considerably less funny than you actually watching it, which is definitely what you should do. It’s tight and sparse and there’s never a wasted moment. In a nutshell, the best bits are about all the terrible things you never quite say to your friends, family and significant other, and what would happen if everybody just said them.”
Announcing the recommission, Horgan and Delaney said: “We are thrilled to be making a third season of Catastrophe. Rob and Sharon are a blast to spend time with. And we’re not talking about ourselves in the third person, we’re talking about the characters. We’re eager to breathe life back into Rob and Sharon. Okay, now we are talking about us. In the first season Rob and Sharon went through a lot (us) and even more in the second season (back to the characters). We’re looking forward to putting Rob and Sharon (both us and the characters) through further pain for your enjoyment (now we’re talking about you).”
Delaney recently took part in a panel session at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, during which he talked about the challenges of delivering great comedy. He talked about the need to keep ego under control, even when the world is telling you how great you are. “I had this fear of becoming this walled-off guy who wouldn’t listen. So I’m a real believer in humility,” he said.
Explaining why he persisted with comedy as a career, Delaney said: “I realised after the global financial collapse that no career is safe, that everyone else knows how comedians feel. So I thought I might as well do exactly what I want to do.”
He was also very refreshing on the subject of encouraging diversity, observing that it is “insane” not to draw on diverse voices. “My advice is to be selfish, make money by embracing diversity,” he quipped.
Finally, in the UK, there are reports that the new season of BBC period drama Poldark will go head-to-head on Sunday night with ITV’s new period drama Victoria (September 4, 21.00). Fortunately, most of us have time-shifting technology these days, so my guess is that people will store Victoria so they can avoid the ad breaks.
Poldark is written by Debbie Horsfield while Victoria is created and written by novelist Daisy Goodwin in her screenwriting debut. Alongside the likes of Sally Wainwright, Sarah Phelps and Abi Morgan, these shows may be indicators that female writers are starting to hold more sway in primetime – a section of the schedule that, from a writer’s point of view, can sometimes resemble a London gentleman’s club. Or Muirfield Golf Club.
In honour of ITV’s Brit noir series Marcella, DQ looks at some of the women detectives who have helped reinvigorate a genre that used to be the preserve of cantankerous middle-aged men.
When ITV launched the excellent Prime Suspect in 1991, female coppers were still a novelty on UK television. But these days it seems as though the entire police system is in the hands of no-nonsense women taking on a world of desensitised or deranged male bastards.
When they aren’t dealing with criminals, they generally have to contend with the fact that their husbands and colleagues are also a) psychotic, b) philanderers or c) perversely obstructive.
For the most part, the female cop formula seems to be working, with little indication as yet that the UK audience is getting bored by it.
Despite its various structural flaws, ITV’s Marcella, starring Anna Friel, has just finished its eight-part run with a solid audience of around five million and looks like a decent bet for a season two renewal.
Other female cops who have secured a strong fanbase include DS Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) in Broadchurch, Sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) in Happy Valley, DI Lindsay Denton (Keeley Hawes) in Line of Duty and Superintendent Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) in The Fall, which returns for a third season this year.
And it doesn’t end there. Other female crimefighters include the cast of Channel 4’s No Offence and Detectives Janet Scott and Rachel Bailey in ITV’s Scott & Bailey. The latter, which starred Lesley Sharp and Suranne Jones, finished this April.
Without exception, all of these shows have achieved good to great ratings. Sometimes this is down to the writing, but more often than not it feels as though the real secret of their success is the quality of the female leads. All of the above shows have been graced with exceptional acting performances that make you stay loyal even if the wider production starts to lose its direction.
Based on IMDb scores, Marcella doesn’t actually fare that well, scoring 7.1. This is probably a reflection of the gaps in the plot, which caused a lot of angst on social media platforms like Twitter. Much stronger are shows like Happy Valley, Broadchurch, The Fall and Line of Duty, which achieved scores in the 8.3 to 8.5 range.
With the general success of female cops, it’s no surprise that ITV is going back to its Prime Suspect franchise with Tennison. This show, from Lynda La Plante, imagines the central character, Jane Tennison, as a young woman starting out on her career. Set in Hackney in the 1970s, it recreates a world where women police constables are treated with suspicion by their male colleagues.
The female cop theme is not, of course, restricted to the UK. It has played a big part in the emergence of Nordic noir as a global force. Writer Hans Rosenfeldt, who gaves us Marcella, previously introduced us to Saga Noren (Sofia Helin) in his acclaimed Danish/Swedish copro The Bridge. And this then gave rise to UK/France copro The Tunnel, where viewers have been beguiled by feisty French cop Elise Wassermann (Clemence Poesy).
Equally important has been Danish broadcaster DR’s The Killing, which saw Sofie Grabol playing DI Sarah Lund. This was adapted for the US, where Grabol’s role was played by Mireille Enos as Sarah Linden.
In France, meanwhile, audiences on public broadcaster France Télévisions have recently been introduced to Sandra Winckler (Marie Dompnier) in Witnesses (Les Temoins). More mainstream is Candice Renoir, about a French police commandant, played by Cecile Bois, who solves crimes in the South of France. The show has also secured a number of sales around Europe.
The US, of course, has never been afraid to place female cops on the frontline – think back to Cagney & Lacey or Angie Dickinson as Sergeant ‘Pepper’ Anderson in Police Woman. More recently the mantle of number one tough female cop has been taken up by Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) in NBC’s long-running procedural Law & Order: SVU. The character of Benson has appeared in 385 episodes of the show and risen to become commanding officer of the SVU division.
Angie Harmon, as Jane Rizzoli in TNT’s Rizzoli & Isles, is another who deserves to be given a medal for services to the TV industry. Among the new female cops is Harlee Santos, a single-mother NYPD detective played by Jennifer Lopez in Shades of Blue.
Countries where female cops are not so prominent include Germany and Italy, where the chaps still get to solve most crimes. But even here there are a few exceptions.
One is Charlotte Lindholm, a detective in the Hanover-set production of ARD’s long-running crime franchise Tatort. She has been played by Maria Furtwangler since 2002, making her something of a German TV icon. Italy, meanwhile, gave us Donna Detective, in which Detective Lisa Milani (played by Lucrezia Lante Della Rovere) requests a desk job in a small town outside of Rome in order to spend more time with her family. As luck would have it, she gets called back to assist with a major case and is placed in charge of an entire investigative squad in the capital.
The clear message from all of the above is that female cops have reinvigorated the detective genre, creating a new kind of character-based complexity around ideas like work-family balance, competing in what is perceived to be a man’s world, tackling problems from a female perspective and demonstrating skill sets that run counter to traditional assumptions.
What’s missing, perhaps, is a black or Asian female lead. There have been fleeting sightings (in US shows like Southland, The Wire, Rogue and Deception). But as yet there is nothing comparable to the breakthrough made by Idris Elba in BBC hit series Luther.
Given the recent strength of British broadcasters in the female cop genre, this is an area where they should really bite the bullet.
UK commercial broadcaster ITV launched pay TV channel ITV Encore in June 2014. Available exclusively on DTH platform Sky, the drama-exclusive channel is part of ITV’s attempt to build a stronger presence in the subscription TV business.
Much of ITV Encore is made up of repeats of shows that have previously aired on the flagship channel (Downton Abbey, Vera, Poirot). But in a bid to woo new viewers, Encore also airs the occasional original series or first-run acquisition.
Recent examples have included The Frankenstein Chronicles, Midwinter of the Spirit, Gracepoint, Jordskott and The Americans (though this one, a US acquisition from Fox, actually started out on ITV).
Another new show currently airing on ITV Encore is Houdini & Doyle, a Canadian-British coproduction that imagines that escapologist Harry Houdini and Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle teamed up to solve crimes together. Not a bad idea as far as it goes, but one that is not getting much exposure among UK viewers. With just a couple of episodes to go, it is attracting an audience of around 90,000 to 100,000 (based on BARB’s seven-day data).
This isn’t especially the fault of the show – which is actually ITV Encore’s top-rated programme at present. For some reason, the channel is not making much of an inroad with Sky’s subscriber base.
To put it in perspective, in the last week of April, Houdini & Doyle attracted 96,000 viewers compared with 2.2 million for Sky Atlantic’s top-rated drama Game of Thrones. If that comparison seems a little unfair, then it’s also worth noting that Sky1’s top-rated drama was The Flash (917,000), Fox UK’s was NCIS (909,000), Sky Living’s was Elementary (808,000) and 5USA’s was The Mysteries of Laura (574,000). Houdini & Doyle’s audience was actually lower than factual entertainment shows on Discovery and Lifetime.
ITV could argue that the channel is quite new (only two years old) and that competition in the UK pay TV market is intense. But its cross-promotion from its flagship channel (and others in its portfolio) ought to be having more of an impact.
So what conclusions can we draw? Well, it looks like ITV has two choices. Firstly, it could really invest in making ITV Encore a competitor to the channels mentioned above. This would require more investment in original programming and acquisitions, so that viewers would routinely check the channel on the EPG.
At the moment there simply isn’t enough new content flowing through Encore to make it a habit. To illustrate this point, the fact that The Walking Dead airs on Fox at 21.00 means I am now in the habit of looking at Fox for new shows, which is how I discovered 11.22.63. In a similar vein, Sky Atlantic’s Fortitude was the reason I went on to discover The Affair.
I’ve also watched The Frankenstein Chronicles and Midwinter of the Spirit but not found enough additional content on ITV Encore to develop the same kind of brand engagement (there’s actually a kind of profile mismatch, since I have little interest in shows like Vera).
Of course, more heavyweight content is expensive. So an alternative would be to settle for a more modest proposal – in which case ITV would be better airing shows like Houdini & Doyle on the main commercial channel and then passing them on to ITV Encore as repeats. Houdini & Doyle is only getting around 20,000 more viewers than repeats of Vera on ITV Encore, so the broadcaster wouldn’t be losing much through this approach.
But what of the show itself? While the modest UK performance of Houdini & Doyle is primarily down to ITV Encore’s lack of traction, it has to be said that the series isn’t performing very well by other measures.
In the US, it has started slowly on Fox. With 2.6 million viewers for its opening episode and a poor response from 18-49s, it is one of the channel’s lowest performers of the year (about the same as Minority Report – and we know how that ended up). Combined with a low score on IMDb and some pretty poor reviews (see this one from The Telegraph), it looks like Houdini & Doyle will go the same way as Beowulf and Jekyll & Hyde.
While we’re on a downer, we may as well deal with the death of Channel 4’s £15m epic Indian Summers. C4 says it is “incredibly proud” of the show but took the decision to cancel it after the audience dropped from around three million in season one to 1.7 million in season two.
There has been a suggestion that the falling ratings are the result of tough competition from shows like The Night Manager. But the critics have, for the most part, responded negatively to the latest run. While they have enjoyed “the sumptuous settings,” the prevailing view is that it lacks substance and suffers from a plodding plot. Hopefully, though, there will be plenty of job offers for Nikesh Patel, who has soldiered on throughout the series as Aafrin Dalal.
For good news stories, we have to return to the BBC, which has been on fire this year. Its latest success story is The A Word, which chalked up a remarkably consistent audience of 5.5 million during its recent run on Tuesday nights at 21.00.
Adapted by Peter Bowker from a format by Israel’s Keshet, the show tells the story of a couple who learn their son is autistic. It has been warmly received by critics and is certain to pick up more format deals after its run in the UK.