Tag Archives: Channel 4

Virtues reality

Stephen Graham gives an award-winning performance as a man facing up to his haunting past in Channel 4 miniseries The Virtues. Shane Meadows, the director known for This Is England, details how his own life experiences inspired the drama.

Best known as the man behind the This Is England film and its trio of TV sequels, Shane Meadows has a well-earned reputation as a writer and director who can deliver an emotional gut punch like no other.

So it should come as no surprise that his new series, The Virtues, promises to be just as powerful and affecting, touching on themes of child abuse, alcoholism, revenge and redemption. The show sees Meadows reunite with This Is England actor Stephen Graham, who goes straight from starring in season five of BBC1 police drama Line of Duty to leading the cast in this Channel 4 miniseries.

Graham plays Joseph, a recovering alcoholic who falls off the wagon in spectacular fashion when his ex-partner moves to Australia with their young son. Physically and mentally at rock bottom, Joseph withdraws the scant contents of his bank account and boards a ferry to Ireland to confront the truth about his childhood in the care system, a past he had gone to great lengths to bury.

After an arduous trip, he tracks down his long-lost sister Anna (fellow This Is England alum Helen Behan), who, after overcoming her shock and disbelief at being reunited with her brother, lets him stay at the home she shares with husband Michael (Frank Laverty). Taking on work at Michael’s construction company, Joseph is quickly forced to deal with long-repressed trauma when he meets Craigy (Mark O’Halloran), an outsider dogged by troubling rumours who recognises his new colleague.

Shane Meadows clutching his award for The Virtues at Series Mania

Meanwhile, Joseph soon finds himself drawn to Michael’s sister Dinah (Niamh Algar), another character haunted by a deeply held secret.

The drama is given extra gravitas by the fact the story was inspired by traumatic events from Meadows’ own life, something he hints at when discussing the origins of the show, which he co-wrote with This Is England ’86, ’88 and ’90 collaborator Jack Thorne (National Treasure, Kiri).

Admitting the project had been in his head for some time, Meadows explains: “I’d been through something in my childhood that I didn’t realise had happened until I got to about 40. I got to the bottom of this thing that had happened in my life as a kid – I’d had fragmented memories. The sort of acorn, if you like, for Joseph’s journey was born out of what happened to me as a kid.

“When I discovered this thing, I sort of went into a place of trying to track down the people who had done it. I was like Columbo – but not a good Columbo; a sort of Travis Bickle-style Columbo. I was sat with my kids having tea one night and I’d just about tracked down this guy I wanted to find, and I wanted to confront him, basically.

“But I knew if I confronted him and, at any stage in that conversation, he smirked at me, I was probably going to jump over the table and bite something off his face. So I decided to ring Jack and talk about making something instead, which was probably far healthier.”

The Virtues stars Stephen Graham as Joseph

Meadows subsequently met up with his frequent collaborator to discuss the disturbing genesis of the story in the somewhat incongruous surroundings of a leisure centre. “I sat in a room with Jack and told him about this thing and said, ‘Ultimately, I don’t want this to be about me; it’s not about me. But I want to create a series where I get a chance to face somebody who wronged me.’ We [ended up] knowing we were going to make something rather than me go off and be naughty.”

Recalling the emotional meeting, Thorne picks up: “It was extraordinary. Just imagine two bald men sobbing. It was a real privilege to be trusted to be part of that – an experience the like of which I’d never had before. From then, it was just about trying to do our best with Shane’s heart.

“It felt very, very important and significant. It was an honour and also a burden, both things at once. You didn’t want to do wrong by this man who’s very important and special to me.”

Lightening the mood for a moment, he adds: “So yeah, that was the writing process – one of fear!”

With such delicate material, a heavyweight cast was always going needed to portray The Virtues’ array of troubled and layered characters. As such, Graham (Boardwalk Empire, Little Boy Blue, Save Me), another of Meadows’ regular collaborators, was the director’s choice for the lead from the beginning. And hearing the actor speak of his admiration for Meadows, it’s instantly clear there was no chance he was going to turn this one down.

Joseph goes off the rails after his ex-wife moves to Australia with their son

“The experience is so overwhelming and it’s from a place of such purity and honesty and joy that, without wanting to sound wanky and pretentious, it’s not acting,” he says of working with the filmmaker. “You embody that character and that situation.

“Every single member of the crew, they’re so emotionally involved. They create this platform to enable you to play. The joy about Shane, without being disrespectful, is I’ve worked with a couple of directors who can be extremely opinionated about what [a performance] is meant to be and what it is, whereas Shane will take an idea and allow anyone to bring something else to the table.

“When you’re working with him, there’s no ‘wrong,’ it’s just looking at things in a different way. With how beautifully he orchestrates it and puts it together, these words just come flying out of your mouth.

“Shane was the first person to really have trust in me and to make me believe in my own ability. People would give their right arm to work with him.”

Both Meadows and Graham highlight the freedom afforded to the dialogue, with actors allowed to deviate from the script when caught up in the emotion of their performance. “There’s no script supervisor saying, ‘Ooh, where does it say that?’” Graham notes. “That doesn’t exist in this situation. It’s such a collaboration.”

On screen, this brings an added layer of realism to the drama as the characters’ lines never feel forced. Recalling a scene in episode one when Joseph talks to his son for the last time before his move to the other side of the world, Meadows says: “If you were writing it all out [not just the dialogue], you’d need something like 150 pages. But like in real life, there’s not that many lines. There are only two or three emotional moments, but they tell you everything.

Niamh Algar as Dinah, another troubled character to whom Joseph is drawn

“Sometimes when you write that on a page, it doesn’t seem like there’s enough information. But the great thing about working with actors like Stephen and the kid in that scene is they’re able to [pick up on] the subtext, and the things that aren’t said are sometimes the things that can push you back in your chair.”

A drama’s score is often key to heightening its emotional moments, and The Virtues seizes this opportunity thanks to music from celebrated British singer-songwriter PJ Harvey, whose involvement in the project was seemingly meant to be.

Contrasting the show’s music against This Is England’s very of-the-era soundtrack, Meadows says: “This was always going to be much more cinematic – I knew it had to be a score, rather than a soundtrack. As I was on the cusp of having a word with my agent about approaching PJ Harvey to see if she’d be interested, a letter arrived for me from her, saying she liked my work and would be interested in scoring it. So I got to play it cool in the first meeting!”

The director and musician collaborated on the score in a somewhat unusual manner. “The whole thing was done completely mobile. She read the scripts, she wrote tunes and she sent them to me,” Meadows explains. “She would never put the images on. A lot of times, people will score and they’ll sit there [and write to it], but she just wrote it and sent it to me.

“Sometimes she didn’t know which scenes I was going to use it in. She sent me these incredible soundscapes and they really inspired me, so it wasn’t the traditional thing where I would give her a finished episode and she would then write over the top of it. It was a two-way thing.”

Although the tracks Harvey supplied were intended as demos that could be tweaked according to the final episodes, both agreed they worked perfectly in their original form.

Produced by UK duo Warp Films and Big Arty, with distribution by ITV Studios Global Entertainment, The Virtues launches on UK broadcaster Channel 4 tomorrow night following its world premiere in March at Series Mania, where it won the official competition’s grand prize. Graham was also named best actor.

While viewers will have to wait and see whether Joseph gets a happy ending, the journey to bring this deeply personal story to the screen certainly seems to have been a cathartic experience for Meadows.

“I first spoke to Stephen about this part I don’t know how many years ago. I kind of knew it was coming but I didn’t quite know the reason why,” he says, adding that it “didn’t come to fruition” until his aforementioned realisation of childhood trauma. “This Is England and The Virtues were the two that I knew I had to get out the door before I went crackers.”

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Chimerican dream

Alessandro Nivola talks to DQ about his starring role in Channel 4 political drama Chimerica, making the leap from film to television and his commitment to working with only the best directors.

It has been more than 20 years since Alessandro Nivola scored his big-screen break, starring opposite Nicolas Cage and John Travolta in director John Woo’s epic, balletic action movie Face/Off. In the intervening years, he has mostly focused on features, save for roles in Cold War miniseries The Company, comedy Doll & Em and HBO telemovie The Wizard of Lies.

But as talent in front of and behind the camera has migrated from film to television, particularly over the last five years, Nivola has started to shift too. First, he set up King Bee, the production company he founded with his wife, British actor Emily Mortimer (the Em in Doll & Em). Then he took the lead in Channel 4’s four-part miniseries Chimerica, which concludes in the UK this evening. The full series, produced by Playground (Wolf Hall) and distributed by All3Media International, is available on the broadcaster’s All4 catch-up service.

“When I was starting out as an actor and starting on movies, to do a TV show meant capitulation,” Nivola says bluntly. “That was your career done; you gave up the fight for having the most prestigious career you could have and you were just trying to pay the bills. Obviously that has completely changed.

“For people like me, just given how that had been drilled into me growing up in terms of what my ambitions were, I guess I’ve been slow on the draw in terms of being aware of how that playing field has changed. But I’ve definitely embraced it. That’s only going to continue.”

When he received the offer to join Chimerica, “it just seemed totally obvious it was a job I should do,” the actor says, describing the “incredible” role of Lee Berger, the topical subject matter at the heart of the story and the “great dialogue” written by Lucy Kirkwood, who has adapted and updated her 2013 stage play of the same name for television.

The story opens in Beijing in 1989, where photographer Berger captures an image of the Tank Man of Tiananmen Square, when a man carrying two shopping bags stood in front of a line of tanks during protests in the Chinese capital.

The series then moves to New York in 2016. Donald Trump is on the verge of becoming US president, while Berger’s career is in jeopardy when rumours swirl that he faked an award-winning image of a Syrian war victim. To salvage his reputation, he decides to find Tank Man.

The opportunity to star in the series “dropped into my lap,” Nivola recalls, with his agent sending him the script while he was on a ski trip. “When you get a straight offer that requires you not to do anything at all to get the job, it’s usually a piece of shit,” he says. “So it was kind of a shock it was as good as it was. I jumped in immediately.”

The actor describes his character as a “radical idealist” who feels passionately about injustices suffered by underprivileged people. But he’s so zealous that it leads him to make poor decisions, such as doctoring the photo – an act he carries out to bring more attention to the suffering of those in Syria but one that only ends up bringing himself under the spotlight.

“It really becomes a story about the complete disintegration of his reputation and sense of himself and how he tries to restore that,” Nivola says. “This obsession that grows in him, about trying to find that man whose picture he took 30 years ago, becomes a monomaniacal hunt that destroys a lot of people’s lives in its wake. One of the things I found interesting about the character was this is a man whose good intentions end up wreaking all kinds of havoc on the lives of the people who he cares about most.”

In Chimerica, Nivola plays war photographer Lee Berger

Nivola was hooked by the “nervous energy” of Kirkwood’s scripts, which chart Lee’s descent into madness as he tries to save himself — a journey hampered by his exacting and emotionally draining experiences as a war photographer.

“The personalities and people who are drawn to that line of work, there’s a real restlessness about them,” the actor observes. “They don’t have a lot tying them down and there’s an addictive quality to going back repeatedly into those danger zones. Of course, there are all different types of people who do that kind of journalism, and it’s so important that there are people who are willing to put themselves into that kind of situation. It definitely requires a certain personality and, from the people I spoke to, it does alter you in the same way that being a soldier does.”

As the son of a political science university professor, Nivola grew up discussing politics and surrounded by people in government. So he is also uniquely placed to recognise the political ramifications of Lee’s actions, taking place in Kirkwood’s updated storyline at a time when Trump is rallying against ‘fake news’ on his way to the White House.

“There’s real pressure on liberal America to be squeaky clean. Anybody who is guilty of this kind of move would have to be sacrificed by a newspaper like The New York Times because they can’t be seen to have a double standard, even if his intentions were pure,” he explains. “Photography in particular is something that is going to become more difficult to monitor because of the veracity of images and because digital doctoring is becoming so ubiquitous. It won’t be long before they can put my head on anybody’s body and put out a sex tape or who knows what. In the digital world of photojournalism, the rules are unbelievably strict in order to stave off that moment where there’s no way of telling. In these times where photojournalists have been caught out in this lie, the community really closes ranks on them because they don’t want to be associated with them.”

King Bee, and by extension Nivola, looks to make television that is driven by directors. Series, he notes, have always been writer-led, as it’s difficult for a director to make every episode of the type of open-ended series still being commissioned by US networks. With miniseries and limited series, which are now becoming more prominent stateside, single directors are able to work across every episode and ensure continuity of visual style.

The series opens in Beijing in 1989 amid mass protests

“That can allow for a more cinematic style to be imposed on the TV format,” he says. “That’s been our big goal with the company, and I feel the same way as an actor. I made a decision about six years ago that that was my main priority with choosing jobs – just following directors. It’s really changed my career. For a while, I was taking small roles just to work with directors. Even those more supporting performances got more attention than some of the stuff I’d done before, just because I was working with the top guys.”

In that time, Nivola has worked with directors including David O Russell (American Hustle), Sally Potter (Ginger & Rosa), Nicholas Winding Refn (Drive), Barry Levinson (The Wizard of Lies), JC Chandor (A Most Violent Year) and Ava DuVernay (Selma).

“I realised at this late date that movies and television really belong to directors, and I’ve relinquished any kind of control over it as an actor and just given myself over to directors in a way I hadn’t as a young actor,” he continues. “That’s why this changing format is so good for television, because it’s attracting [Boardwalk Empire’s Martin] Scorsese or whoever to be directing television.”

On Chimerica, Nivola worked alongside director Michael Keillor, whose credits include Critical, Line of Duty and Strike: The Cuckoo’s Calling.

“Some of the people I’ve worked with early on may have been bright and good guys but just lacked something really particular or eccentric about them that made their style and vision original. Michael really has that,” the actor says. “He’s not like anybody else, and I felt that from the first time I met him. All of his inspiration for the show [came from the] kinds of movies that I have loved in the political thriller canon, so I totally put my trust in him.”

Nivola (right) alongside Nicolas Cage in John Woo’s Face/Off

Shooting took place in the UK, which doubled for New York, and Bulgaria’s Sofia, which stood in for China. Nivola was joined on set by a cast including F Murray Abraham, who plays Frank Sams, and Cherry Jones as Mel Kincaid – both longtime friends of Nivola, having appeared on Broadway at the same time he was acting in his first play.

The scripts called for Nivola, as Lee, to be run over by a car and thrown to the ground in a pile of rubble when a bomb explodes in a Syrian market. “Those were fun,” he jokes, praising the Bulgarian stunt team who were willing to put themselves on the line to get the shots required.

But while the series begins with a bang, it grows increasingly taut across its four episodes, with tension and mystery building to the final instalment. “The idea is that he’s brought so low by this whole event, and all of his closest relationships he slowly destroys,” the actor says of Berger. “He’s left a solitary figure by the end but is also redeemed in some way by the experience. There is a great final twist in the story that will have a profound effect on him.”

Away from producing duties, Nivola was free to focus on his character and performance to help Keillor tell the story the way he wanted. And now that he’s crossed the boundary between television and film, he says he wants to continue hunting down those opportunities to work with the best of the best behind the camera, no matter how big the role and regardless of the format the project takes.

“More and more, the best actors are working in both media and I certainly think there are great opportunities in both television and films,” he concludes. “Now there’s all these movies being made for Netflix, so the lines are completely blurred. For me, it’s all about directors.”

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Playing politics

DQ meets the main players in four-part Channel 4 drama Chimerica, based on the hit play but updated to include the uncertain global politics of the Donald Trump era.

Lucy Kirkwood’s award-winning 2013 play Chimerica examined the shifting balance of power between East and West through the personal struggles of an American photojournalist.

The title is a portmanteau of the world’s two superpowers, and given the unstable feel of current geopolitics, it seems there’s no better time for a revival. Kirkwood has expanded and updated her work to create a four-part TV drama for Channel 4, produced by Playground Entertainment and distributed globally by All3Media International.

Crucially, the writer has moved the action forward to the 2016 US presidential election to reflect what’s happened since Donald Trump became a major player in global politics.

“Lucy has brought an emotional story to a relevant political aspect,” explains producer Adrian Sturges. “Moving the action from 2012 to 2016 naturally felt like the right thing to do because, in the meantime, Trump was elected and all the accusations of fake news and attacks on journalists have come more to the fore. It was felt to be a useful thing to grapple with in the overall piece.”

Star Alessandro Nivola and writer Lucy Kirkwood on the Chimerica set

The story centres on fictional American photojournalist Lee Berger (Alessandro Nivola, pictured top), who is covering the war in Syria for a respected New York broadsheet. But when Lee doctors a photo in a bid to make the front page, he gets caught and exposed. He tries to salvage his reputation by searching out a new scoop – finding Tank Man, the lone protester who stood up to Chinese tanks during the Tiananmen Square protest of 1989. Back then, a young Lee had made his name by photographing Tank Man.

DQ meets cast members Nivola and Cherry Jones on set at Twickenham Studios in south-west London, where the characters’ New York apartments have been recreated. It’s Nivola’s first lead in a TV series after roles in films like Face/Off, Mansfield Park and American Hustle.

“I liked the idea of a character who became obsessed with one thing,” explains Nivola. “He’s got this singular focus about something that ended up really damaging the people who he felt this discovery would serve. That just seemed like a great paradox, that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Nivola was also convinced Chimerica would have the directorial flair he looks for in projects under the stewardship of Michael Keillor (Line of Duty). “When you have one director directing all four episodes, you know there’s going to be some kind of continuity of the vision,” continues Nivola, who runs production company King Bee with his wife, British actor Emily Mortimer. He produced her comedy series Doll & Em for Sky Living and HBO and they currently have a production and distribution deal with Entertainment One.

Cherry Jones plays Mel Kincaid, ‘a salty dog, a war journalist’

Theatre legend Jones plays Lee’s long-time collaborator, Mel Kincaid. An Emmy and Tony Award winner most recently seen in Transparent and The Handmaid’s Tale, Jones describes her character as “a salty dog, a war journalist.” Mel has curtailed her career in war zones because she’s in treatment for alcoholism, so when Lee proposes she help him find Tank Man to lend credibility to any discovery he makes, she agrees.

Although Kincaid is male in the original play, Kirkwood turned her into a woman without altering the character or dialogue. For Jones, signing up was a no-brainer. “For one thing, you attach the name Lucy Kirkwood to anything and a theatre actress will jump up and come running,” she says with a chuckle. “And secondly, you say ‘London’ to me and I’ve already packed my bag. I would live here if I could.”

Jones consulted You Tube for tips on how to play a war correspondent. “I looked online at people like the great Kate Adie,” she says. “And there’s a great journalist called Deborah Amos who’s on NPR who I always love to follow – it seemed she was always crossing the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, wearing brown contact lenses. It was so dangerous what these women were doing.”

The rest of the cast is equally as exalted: Sophie Okonedo plays Tessa Kendrick, a high-flying British market researcher who catches Lee’s eye, and F Murray Abraham plays the broadsheet’s news editor, Frank Sams.

Though set in New York and China, Chimerica was actually filmed in the UK and Bulgaria. Sofia’s Nu Boyana Studios has a New York City block that was dressed as Chinatown, and communist-era apartment blocks doubled for downtown Beijing.

Sophie Okonedo and Terry Chen also feature in the drama

Dunsfold Aerodrome in Surrey provided a decommissioned 747 for airplane scenes and, most impressively, served as the location of the series’ biggest set piece – recreating the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989.

New scenes are melded with archive footage to create the atmosphere of the Trump election and Tiananmen Square, explains Sturges. “We had a really good archive producer who searched high and low for real Tiananmen Square footage, and did a sort of archive edit in pre-production to make sure the Tiananmen scenes would all fit together – the burned-out bus and various bits of banners are copied from what was actually there, so although the original footage is pre-HD, we tried carefully to match what’s in the footage.”

Green screens and CGI were used at the airbase to suggest the scale of Tiananmen Square. “We managed to hire one of the Russian tanks the Chinese used in Tiananmen Square to stage the Tank Man moment,” continues Sturges. “It was terrifying – I hadn’t realised how loud they are. But it was fantastic to recreate that scene.”

A bonus was the crew discovering that two Chinese extras hired for the Tiananmen Square scenes had been at the original protests. “One said it was extraordinary how much it was like the original Tiananmen Square, which was great,” says Sturges. “We asked him what chants were being used. We had experts on set, but it was great to get that texture.”

Alongside telling a personal story against a global geopolitical backdrop, Sturges says Chimerica commemorates a pivotal moment in recent history.

“This summer it’s 30 years since the Tiananmen Square massacre and I haven’t heard of anything else that’s attempted to tackle that subject,” he says. “I hope people will find Chimerica thrilling and mysterious and illuminating on a subject they haven’t thought much about since it happened.”

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Back in the field

Three years after German breakout drama Deutschland 83 travelled around the world, Deutschland 86 continues the story of reluctant Stasi agent Martin Rauch. DQ visits the set to find out why this spy thriller is more than a history lesson.

Deutschland 83, from American writer Anna Winger and her German husband Joerg, aired in 110 territories, winning an International Emmy for telling a relatively untold story through the prism of a spy thriller, with all the trappings of the era – from the music to the fashion – present and correct. It also launched Channel 4’s foreign-language streaming service Walter Presents, and became the UK’s highest-rating subtitled drama when it aired on its parent broadcaster in 2016.

Three years have passed since then, both in the real world and in that of the series. Deutschland 86 picks up the story of reluctant Stasi agent Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay) in the unlikely environs of an Angolan orphanage. It feels like scant reward for saving the world from nuclear disaster in 1983, but he has been banished there, far from his girlfriend and infant son, for the crime of blowing his cover. When his aunt, Lenora (Maria Schrader), herself tainted by his perceived blunder, arrives in West Africa to send him back into the field, he consents on the understanding that he can return home when he completes his mission.

“A lot of people are interested in Martin,” says Anna Winger. “His legend from 1983 has travelled, then people meet him and no one believes it’s him. He’s asking himself what kind of life he wants to live now that he can try to take control of his own destiny. He has to decide whether to live up to that reputation or escape it.”

Anna Winger

“Falling in love, killing a man, being separated from his family for three years… These experiences have changed Martin a lot,” says Nay. “His motivation for the whole season is to get back home, meet his three-year-old son and start a new life.”

This is easier said than done, of course, when his assignment includes running with Libyan insurgents, terrorists in Paris and journeying to Cape Town, another divided city also caught between global superpowers. The fall of the Berlin Wall all but coincided with the collapse of Apartheid, the Wingers noted. Was there a connection?

It turned out that there was. East Germany supported Nelson Mandela and the ANC as fellow socialists, training the latter’s militant wing, the MK. West Germany, meanwhile, observed the UN boycott on trading with South Africa while trading arms with the Apartheid regime on the side. The ‘good guys’ were, it seems, on the wrong side of history.

Most peculiar of all was the prospect of the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR), increasingly distant from Moscow and running out of money, propping up an ailing regime by engaging in criminal capitalism. This need for hard currency, and a growing sense of panic, brought them into the world of illicit arms dealing, running drug trials for Western Big Pharma, even selling dissidents to and borrowing huge sums from West Germany.

“The theme of the season is that it all comes down to money,” says Anna. “The wall came down because they ran out of cash and Apartheid failed for the same reason. 1986 was getting darker in the GDR – the iceberg is on the horizon. There was an exhaustion setting in about the Cold War. People were done, they didn’t want it any more, and the same was true of Apartheid.”

D86 also tracks the green movement, given a huge if unfortunate boost by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and the growing AIDS crisis, while the so-called Summer of Anxiety, when terrorist attacks blighted Europe, unavoidably invokes present-day concerns over terrorism, albeit religiously rather than politically motivated these days.

Lest that all sounds a little heavy, the Wingers are keen to reiterate that D86 is above all a spy yarn. “Like D83, we built a timeline of events, created a backdrop of real history then set our characters free across it,” says Anna. “It’s an adventure, a spy story and coming-of-age story rather than a history lesson.”

Deutschland 86 continues the story of Jonas Nay’s Martin Rauch

Which makes it a little ironic that DQ is sitting in a room that feels a little like a lecture theatre. We’re in the former Stasi HQ in Berlin – now the Stasi Museum, a grey memorial to an unloved regime but doubling as GDR offices for the series. It’s the final week of a 100-day shoot split between Cape Town and Berlin, and the cast are demob happy in defiance of the oppressively brown surroundings, yet conscious of the legacy contained in the walls of the building.

“The power of this building…” muses Schrader. “You can recreate something on a soundstage but I think people felt the authenticity and attention to detail in the first season. I’m from the West, and this is a loaded place. Knowing what some of my colleagues went through, it was very different for them, but when I entered the building it took a lot of energy.”

Cape Town, meanwhile, proved the perfect location, with its abundance of mid-80s architecture and a surfeit of spectacular scenery allowing it to double for other settings including Johannesburg and Tripoli.

“There’s a huge variety of landscapes and possibilities here,” says Joerg, “although to our chagrin it’s become much more expensive because of all these productions, which is great for the local economy but annoying for us!”

Filming in South Africa was an eye-opening experience for some of the cast, who discovered alarming evidence of Apartheid’s baleful legacy. “People would call it economic problems,” says Schrader, grimacing. “But the economic war is a racist war in South Africa. It’s normal in a restaurant that all the guests are white and the staff are black.”

Maria Schrader returns as Martin’s aunt, Lenora

The new locations also created openings for new characters, many of them women, most notably Rose Seithathi (Florence Kasumba) and Brigitte Winkelmann (Lavinia Wilson). It all makes for a breath of fresh air after D83’s predominance of middle-aged white men in cheap suits.

“Brigitte is a symbol for all the Western 80s decadence you can imagine,” says Wilson, a German resident despite the name. “She’s the wife of a German diplomat in Cape Town and her official job is a dentist, then one day Martin shows up at her clinic… She has another job, of course – she’s an undercover agent for West Germany, a player with lots of attitude and a really good liar, which I am definitely not. She’s full of surprises.”

“Rose grew up with a mother working in a German Jewish household,” Kasumaba, who played an ally of King T’Challa in Marvel’s Black Panther, explains. “She’s a secret agent for the MK who has had to leave her family and country in the past because of her total commitment to the cause. Somewhere along there, she met Lenora and they became a team: they fight together, and Rose needs Lenora’s contacts.”

Nay is thrilled to be back in a series that paved the way for Sky Atlantic’s Babylon Berlin, Netflix’s Dark and the rebooted Das Boot in a genuine renaissance for German television.

“Everybody’s excited,” he grins. “We’re telling the stories we want to tell. We’re late starters in Germany in getting series sold abroad, but we have high-end drama coming now. We were good at art-house cinema, sometimes a miniseries or TV film, but now doors are opening for serials.”

Back in 2015, the Wingers spoke of their concern that D83 would prove an unorthodox fit for RTL, the German broadcaster and coproducer better known for procedurals and gameshows. Domestic viewing figures were indeed disappointing, and so an amicable parting of the ways became almost inevitable. “We were given freedom to make the show we wanted to make, but it wasn’t the right show for them or their audience. There’s no animosity there,” Anna says.

Black Panther’s Florence Kasumba is among some notable female additions to the cast

RTL parent company Fremantle and coproducer UFA Fiction took the show to Amazon Prime, which, attracted by the drama’s international performance and binge-worthy qualities, provided a budget boost to reflect the story’s global remit and extended length, running as it does at 10 rather than eight episodes. Amazon has also committed to a third season, making the Wingers’ dream of completing the trilogy in 1989 a reality.

D86 launches in the UK tonight on More4, with the whole season available on Walter Presents after transmission of the first episode.

“Viewers now don’t care so much about where a series is from,” says Joerg, considering the show’s international success. “They want to be surprised; they’re looking for original material. We’re telling our story in a familiar way for international audiences. The whole grammar and dramaturgy of the show is in line with that. We didn’t strategically plan an international hit. Our goal from the very beginning was to make a show we would love, and if you’re really interested in something, that enthusiasm communicates somehow.”

Said enthusiasm is expressed most effectively, once again, through the diligent, affectionate recreation of the era. “Our make-up artists always said we tell the main story with the characters and we tell the 80s with the extras, who get the big hair and crazy stuff,” laughs Wilson.

Alongside the story, D83 stood out most for its use of music. This year there will be songs from everyone from metal legends Megadeth to synth-pop duo Pet Shop Boys and, perhaps inevitably for a show set in part in Apartheid South Africa, Paul Simon’s Graceland. Nay confides, laughing, that he has once again been lobbying for the inclusion his favourite band, The Police, whose final studio album was released back in 1983. But while he was disappointed at this omission, his passion for the new season is undiminished.

“Having two more episodes than for D83 means more characters and more layers,” he says. “Season one was following Martin; now it’s more an ensemble thing. We had to make up a vision for the first one. Now it feels bigger, and the more I saw, the more interested I got, which I think will be the same for the viewer.”

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Uncovering Traitors

Channel 4’s stylish new spy thriller Traitors, starring Keeley Hawes and Michael Stuhlbarg, looks at the communist threat to Britain just after the Second World War through the eyes of a young woman. DQ joined the cast on set in London.

Imagine a Britain deeply divided over political matters, with well-founded fears of Russian government interference and its ‘special relationship’ with the US seemingly on shaky ground.

While that may be a perfect description of today’s UK, in this case it applies to a period three-quarters of a century ago in the fledgling days of the Cold War. It’s that correlation that makes Channel 4’s new thriller, Traitors, even more relevant in its portrayal of international turbulence and murky government goings-on.

Eleanor Moran

Created and executive produced by playwright Bash Doran, who wrote four of its six episodes, Traitors is set during the pivotal time from the end of the Second World War up until 1948.

“The series is extremely timely as it tackles an extraordinary moment in British history that has continued to play out across the years,” explains Emma Willis, MD of Twenty Twenty Productions (part of Warner Bros International Television Production), which is producing alongside 42 for Channel 4 and Netflix, in a deal negotiated by All3Media International. “At the end of the Second World War, as is true today, the nation was divided with deeply opposing views on what Britain’s place in the world should be.

“Many of the series’ key themes are extremely relevant to today – race, gender, class inequality, the role of the welfare state, the special relationship with the US and a distrust of Russia. I’m sure this is one of the reasons why C4 commissioned the project – together with the fact it had a fantastic creator in Bash Doran and strong female leads.”

On the surface, Traitors is a young woman’s coming-of-age story. Clique’s Emma Appleton plays Feef Symonds, a naive young aristocrat who lands a job in the civil service immediately after the war, eager to make her mark rather than be married off to an earl. Actress-of-the-moment Keeley Hawes (Bodyguard, The Durrells) plays her influential boss, Priscilla Garrick, and Call Me By Your Name’s Michael Stuhlbarg plays a US agent, Rowe. He quickly tries to turn Feef into a double agent, eager to root out Soviet operatives in the British government.

Executive producer Eleanor Moran laughs about the moment she approached Doran with the idea for Traitors. “It was 2013 and I was thinking politics was in a really depressing place, which is hilarious to think of now,” she says.

Emma Appleton as civil servant Feef alongside Luke Treadaway’s MP in Traitors

She’d had an idea about a female-centric period political drama with an international feel – and she had a particular female in mind. “My grandmother had this incredible experience during the war where she had a great deal of freedom,” explains Moran. “She worked in the spying business and was a codebreaker. And after the war, all of that ambition was shut down when she got married.

“I thought that moment in 1945 was incredible for women in that there was this incredible push to go back into the home, but also with the Labour [Party’s landslide general election victory] and beginning of the welfare state, the civil service offered these huge opportunities for women.” However, the ban on married women working for the service forced females to resign their jobs upon tying the knot.

On set at one of Traitors’ many London locations last summer, a church in a leafy Georgian square in Islington, Hawes is looking business-like in Priscilla Garrick’s utilitarian work suit. Sitting down for a chat in a church hall – she’s here to film a scene with Stuhlbarg in the churchyard – Hawes explains her dismay at learning of the marriage ban.

Keeley Hawes as Feef’s boss, Priscilla

“I knew nothing about that,” she says. “The women in the civil service are being asked to go back to being housewives after spending the war being ambulance drivers. Suddenly being given the sack! It’s just terrible.

“Priscilla campaigns against the marriage ban, even though she’s not married. She is a real champion of women and really modern in that way. And when Feef comes in, Priscilla sees she’s bright.”

Traitors, which is distributed globally by All3Media International, weaves John le Carré-style spy plots into a story about women’s social struggles. It’s 1945 and the Soviet Union has replaced the Nazis as the biggest threat to global stability and democracy. But just at that moment, in September, President Truman decides to close America’s wartime spying agency, the OSS (Office of Strategic Services).

“We’re capturing that moment when the Soviets were trying to influence the whole of Europe and did manage to get people within British secret service to great effect,” explains Moran. “Michael Stuhlbarg’s character, Rowe, who is an OSS agent, is ahead of the game and realises there is infiltration, and his job is find out how much.” It’s the era of the Cambridge Spy Ring, which would come to light several years later.

Stuhlbarg was lured to British shores by the prospect of working again with Doran – he’d been in episodes of Boardwalk Empire and The Looming Tower that she’d written – and Dearbhla Walsh, who directed him in the third season of Fargo.

Rowe, explains Stuhlbarg, becomes a rogue agent after Truman’s disbanding of the OSS. The actor’s research impressed upon him the complexity of real-life OSS agents.

“Some of these men of the OSS balance a kind of integrity with an ability to lie, cheat, steal and murder,” explains Stuhlbarg. “So there’s this great juxtaposition of and being able to live with all that stuff – these are people fighting for the survival of democracy and are willing to do anything for it.

Michael Stuhlbarg plays US agent Rowe

“Rowe thinks it’s essential that America has an operational intelligence agency to compete with all the other spies.”

The 17-week shoot took place last summer in studios in Cardiff, in Morocco (doubling for Egypt) and in various picturesque London spots in which real spies surely operated – the Inns of Court, Whitehall and St James’s Park. Innovation was required, too – a replica House of Commons was built at University College School in Hampstead for scenes featuring a newly elected Labour MP played by Luke Treadaway.

Ultimately, Traitors chimes with what’s going on in the world today and also delivers a period thriller about a time not often depicted in spy stories.

“It’s very much about the kind of global fight for hearts and minds, much like the way we’re going at the moment, with Russians infiltrating the US election and Brexit,” says Moran. “This is a call back to that and also a depiction of a very specific moment in British social politics.”

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For better or worse

With season four of Catastrophe set to be its last, creators, writers and stars Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney reveal the secrets of the partnership that drives the hit comedy-drama both in front of and behind the camera.

In this age of partisan politics, Russian bots and fake news, Twitter wouldn’t be the first port of call for many internet users looking for a cordial interaction. Yet it was the social media platform that became the unlikely launching pad for one of the most acclaimed sitcoms of recent years when US comedian Rob Delaney struck up a conversation with Irish writer and actor Sharon Horgan via the site.

Discovering a shared comedy chemistry, the two strangers went on to create, write and star in Channel 4’s hit relationship comedy-drama Catastrophe, which returns to screens for its fourth season on the UK network tonight.

Delaney, who rose to prominence via his jokes on Twitter and was once named by Comedy Central as the platform’s funniest person, recalls the pair’s initial connection fondly: “I wrote to Sharon because she had made [BBC3 comedy] Pulling, and that was the greatest sitcom I’d ever seen, so when I saw that she followed me on Twitter, I was like ‘Wow.’ So we met, we chatted and it was really fun.”

While the idea to collaborate on a series didn’t come immediately, “we just sort of knew that we’d like to work together at some point on something,” says Horgan.

Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney came up with Catastrophe after meeting on Twitter

The rest, as they say, is history, with the duo birthing a show that centres on the inventively named Sharon and Rob, who find themselves facing parenthood after a fleeting hook-up during the latter’s business trip to London.

However, things could have turned out very differently had execs at the BBC – who must now be kicking themselves – not decided to pass on the Bafta-winning series after Horgan and Delaney wrote a pilot for the pubcaster. “We took it to the BBC, who said, ‘This is great – we don’t want to make it,’” Delaney jokes.

Asked why the BBC wasn’t keen, Horgan says: “I don’t know. They’ve been lovely about it. Maybe it wasn’t the right thing for them at the time. I can’t remember.”

“Great networks,” adds Delaney, “can obviously make horrible mistakes.”

C4 made no such error, with Catastrophe airing for three lauded seasons to date and covering topics such as sex, fidelity, divorce, depression, drugs and alcoholism as Sharon and Rob, married since season one, raise their family in middle-class London.

After season three ended with Rob facing a drink-driving arrest having relapsed into alcoholism, the new run sees him struggle to regain the trust of his wife, who finds herself having her own brush with the law. “Season four is about the struggle of staying together when there’s no other option,” Horgan explains. “They’ve both fucked up but they’re both trying to stay together.”

Season four picks up after Rob (Delaney)’s drink-driving incident

Delaney picks up: “At the end of season three, they’ve realised, ‘OK, this is our pile of garbage,’ and they both have to weave it into a tapestry and use it as a blanket. They love each other, and it’s about enduring love – and real love takes work.”

The theme of sticking together is one to which Horgan and Delaney will no doubt relate, with the duo involved in an intense working relationship as the driving force for Catastrophe both on- and off-camera.

Horgan’s behind-the-scenes involvement in the show goes further still, with her prodco Merman (Women on the Verge) coproducing along with Avalon Television and Birdbath Productions. And early last year she struck an overall deal with Amazon, which holds the rights to Catastrophe in the US. ‘Busy’ doesn’t quite cover it. “It’s a lot harder work than I thought it would be, fucking hell!” she says of running her own production company. “It’s really hard work, but it’s fun and rewarding, and it’s exciting getting work picked up.”

Discussing their writing process, the pair reveal that they speak all the characters’ lines out loud, accents included. “We do all the voices, it’s pretty great. You should hear Rob doing my mum – he doesn’t sound anything like Mrs Doubtfire,” Horgan says sarcastically.

As for how much they are like their characters, Delaney explains: “We are Sharon and Rob, but I’m as much Sharon as I am Rob, and we’re also [supporting characters] Chris and Fran, and little Jeffrey.”

“One thing we really try to do is not have anybody sound ‘clever’ or written, so we make sure to say things out loud, then transcribe, then read it out loud 100 times so it doesn’t sound like some smart, clever writer or anything like that,” he adds.

Horgan has a two-year overall deal with Amazon Studios

“That’s the difference,” says Horgan. “When you’re writing on your own, you can’t really do that, unless you’re insane. The thing with Rob is he doesn’t always know when amazing stuff is coming out of his mouth – so I just immediately start writing it down.”

Episodes come together via “really, really detailed outlines,” says Horgan, with Delaney agreeing: “We outline like crazy people, write terrible first drafts and then rewrite, rewrite and rewrite.”

Script notes from collaborators are also crucial. “We love notes,” says Horgan. “If we send in a draft of anything and we don’t get notes back, we’re immediately suspicious.”

“Yeah, like either the person is stupid or lazy,” adds Delaney.

When it comes to plot points, Horgan and Delaney admit to drawing quite heavily on real-life experiences, both their own and those of people they know, although they add that this has decreased as the show has gone on. “There are always parts of us in there,” Horgan explains. “That’s helped us – if you’ve lived it, you can be braver.”

One wonders to what extent this might apply to the show’s infamous sex scenes, which are characterised by their mixture of realism and hilarity. “I think we both wanted the sex to be like, ‘Oh Christ…,’” says Delaney, placing a hand over his face in faux embarrassment.

“We didn’t want the sex to ever look pretty,” adds Horgan. “We wanted it to look real and rank.”

And while she notes that such scenes between Rob and Sharon have become less frequent as the series has gone on, fans of sexual slapstick can rest assured that other characters carry the torch in season four, including a very public liaison involving Fran, played by the always excellent Ashley Jensen (Agatha Raisin, Extras).

Mark Bonnar and Ashley Jensen play Chris and Fran

Jensen returns to the show as part of a strong supporting cast that also includes Mark Bonnar (Unforgotten) and Daniel Lapaine (Black Mirror). But one actor who will unfortunately be missing from the show is Star Wars legend Carrie Fisher, who played Rob’s insufferable meddling mother, Mia. Best known for portraying Princess Leia in George Lucas’s original sci-fi trilogy, Fisher died at the end of 2016.

Like Horgan and Delaney’s meeting, the improbable casting of a Hollywood star came about in unconventional circumstances. “We were at an awards show for a gay magazine – the Attitude Awards,” Delaney recalls. “[Fisher] was presenting an award, and her speech was so funny that Sharon leaned over to me and said, ‘We should get her to play your mother.’ And I was like, ‘Ha ha, you’re drunk.’

“But anyway, we sent her all the scripts and the pilot, and she agreed to do it – probably because she enjoyed spending time in London,” he jokes. “She would improvise – ferociously. It was scary at first, but then we knew to prepare for it and she was just so wonderful.”

Horgan continues: “The first scene she ever did was between me and her on the phone, and we ended up just insulting each other. We just went at each other. This was the first time we’d ever met, and she definitely called me a c**t.”

She adds that Fisher’s passing will be addressed in the final episode of the new season. And with Horgan’s Amazon deal and production commitments, plus Delaney’s increasing presence in Hollywood – he recently appeared in Deadpool 2 and has been cast in the forthcoming movie about disgraced Fox News exec Roger Ailes – Horgan has revealed in an Instagram post that this will be the series’ last outing.

“We’ve been doing it for five years and we’ve made four seasons we love,” says Horgan. “We give it an ending.”

Delaney adds: “We’re very proud and we’ve made exactly what we wanted to make, for better or for worse. We’ve said what we want to say.”

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Nothing but the truth

Channel 4’s factual one-off The Interrogation of Tony Martin is a groundbreaking film billed as the first verbatim drama. Writer/director David Nath reveals how it was pulled together from real police interview transcripts.

Tony Martin is a hard man to find. The subject of a new Channel 4 factual drama, he lives a remote existence and rarely answers his mobile phone. Even his friends might not hear from him for weeks at a time.

So it’s easy to see why making The Interrogation of Tony Martin took up to two years, with the producers often resorting to staking out his home or other locations he was known to frequent in the hope of simply bumping into him.

If his name rings a bell, it’s because he was turned into a British cause celebré after tragedy struck one night in August 1999. The farmer from Norfolk became headline news when he shot dead 16-year-old burglar Fred Barras, who had broken into his home. At his trial, he argued he used reasonable force to defend himself and his property, and his subsequent murder conviction provoked national outcry.

After a successful appeal, his conviction was reduced to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility and he was released from prison after three years behind bars. Almost 20 years later, his case is still recalled every time a similar incident occurs and the debate over the right to protect your home resurfaces.

Martin has told his story before in numerous documentaries and interviews, but Channel 4 factual drama The Interrogation of Tony Martin goes one step further, using the transcripts of his police interviews conducted over three days following his arrest. In fact, the script is an entirely verbatim account of what happened between Martin and the two policemen who questioned him, all within the confines of a featureless and unremarkable concrete grey room.

Steve Pemberton was sought for the part after exec producer Peter Beard saw him in an episode of his dark comedy series Inside No. 9

Steve Pemberton (Inside No. 9, The League of Gentlemen, Benidorm) stars as Martin, with Daniel Mays (Line of Duty) and Stuart Graham (The Fall) playing the police officers and Tristan Sturrock as Martin’s solicitor. The drama is written and directed by David Nath (Unspeakable, The Murder Detectives) for Story Films.

The film originated as a verbatim drama first, before focus turned to Martin’s story. Nath recalls the broadcaster wanted a subject “that had a high profile, was quite iconic and one that had a societal reach and issues beyond the crime itself.” Martin’s case was a perfect fit.

“The thing that makes this case really interesting and why the content of the transcripts works well for drama is it’s quite layered,” Nath says. “You get a biographical sense of Tony Martin as well as what happened that night and the background about a unique set of circumstances around this case.”

After getting in touch with one of Martin’s friends, the film’s producer made contact with the former farmer and proposed the idea of the film, to which he responded positively owing to the fact it would use entirely his own words.

“The other thing is that Tony believes he was right to do what he did. He believed that then and believes that now,” Nath continues. “He still wants to tell people that as well. He was interested to collaborate.”

The production team met with Martin over a dozen times in the following 18 months, keeping him informed of the film’s progress, showing him the footage and also filming the real Martin himself for scenes that make up a post-script to the drama.

Story Films’ David Nath (left), who wrote and directed the one-off, and Peter Beard

“He found it quite emotional, quite overwhelming,” Nath says. “It’s part of his life that has informed his whole identity for the last 20 years. This story had a massive impact on his life. It’s difficult to put that behind you. When he watched Steve Pemberton walk into the police interview room for the first time, it put him back there in that room. He’s listening to his own words. Even with the passing of 19 years, those worlds will be familiar because they are the words he spoke. It’s got a more visceral impact to him than if we wrote the script from scratch.”

In fact, Nath reveals there was no scriptwriting involved at all, with every word coming from four hours of taped police interviews that were boiled down to a 45-minute drama. By omitting parts of the conversation that head off on a tangent or that repeat previous statements, Nath crafted a narrative that remained authentic to the real conversations. The drama is supplemented by further verbatim transcripts that are used in the form of voiceovers, taken from statements provided by witnesses, Tony’s mother and his neighbour, while real news footage is also used to relay the court’s verdict.

With the action largely confined to the dour interrogation room, direction provided a greater challenge to Nath, who utilises a range of camera movements to keep viewers engaged, from straight-on shots of the two policeman and Martin and his solicitor, side profiles of the characters and an overhead shot looking down on the four men and the dark table that separates them. Cutaways include images of the tape deck whirring around as it records the interviews.

With four actors and one static set built inside a Bristol studio, “it’s a play; there are no gimmicks,” Nath says of the six-day shoot. “It’s all about the actors’ performance.” Minor scenes in a prison cell and a police station corridor were shot at a real station in nearby Weston-super-Mare. But by rarely leaving the interview room, the filmmaker was also faced with a sound problem — one that he overcame by introducing sound effects as Martin or the police officers describe the events that led to Martin’s arrest.

“The camera has got to do a lot of work for you. It’s very easy in one location for the viewer to get bored, so it’s important for the camera to show different points of view,” says Nath, who “heavily” storyboarded the drama before filming began. “What you don’t want is the camera starting to have a life of its own, so the camera movement has to be informed by our story.”

Starring opposite Pemberton are Daniel Mays and Stuart Graham as a pair of police officers

Pemberton might seem an unusual casting choice as Martin, given his reputation for comedy. But the actor gives a toughened, forceful performance as the accused, portraying a man set in his ways and wondering why he is being questioned at all when he was the one put in a “regrettable” position.

Executive producer Peter Beard had sought out Pemberton for the role after watching an episode of Inside No. 9 called Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room, in which the actor played an ageing comedy performer who had an uncanny resemblance to Martin. The dark comedy is co-written by Pemberton, who co-created the series alongside his League of Gentlemen collaborator Reece Shearsmith.

Nath recalls: “I rang Steve and mentioned it on the phone quite tentatively. He became curious and I sent him the script. He read it that night and again the next morning and said he wanted to do it.”

The role didn’t require an imitation of Martin, however, but an interpretation of him, and Pemberton opted not to meet the real man in order to avoid a mimicry. Then, with 50 pages of verbatim dialogue to learn, there was no let-up during the shoot, which took place after a week of rehearsals. “It’s an incredibly demanding role,” Nath says, revealing Pemberton also spent time with a voice coach to perfect Martin’s Norfolk accent. “In some ways, it’s a perfect stage for an actor to show everything they’ve got. But it’s unforgiving as well. It’s not easy to play, but it’s an interesting, powerful character. You have to learn every word as well as deliver the performance.”

No matter how well known his story may be, The Interrogation of Tony Martin promises to show a new angle never seen before.

“We could have told Tony Martin’s story in several ways, but one thing about this is in criminal cases you hear about the crime that’s reported and the trial that’s reported. But the police interview is largely hidden from public view,” Nath surmises. “It’s part of the story you never get to see. There’s a lot of detail that unfolds about the case that will give you a much greater understanding of it – and when someone is questioned for murder, the stakes are huge.”

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Bi the way

Desiree Akhavan (The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Appropriate Behaviour) co-writes, directs and stars in The Bisexual, a comedy-drama that offers a raw, funny and unapologetic take on the “last taboo” – bisexuality – and the prejudices, shame and comic misconceptions that surround it.

Akhavan, in her first television project, plays Leila, who has decided to take a break from her long-term relationship with her girlfriend and business partner Sadie (Maxine Peake). She then begins sleeping with men and comes out as bisexual to her gay friends, as the series explores the differences between dating men and women from the perspective of someone who is doing both.

In this DQTV interview, Akhavan talks about the personal story behind the concept for the series and explains why she wanted to see greater representation of bisexuals on screen.

She discusses her role behind the scenes and the female-led team she put together to make the six-part series, and outlines why she believes storytelling is seeing “a new wave” as viewers no longer want to see the same stories, narratives and faces time and time again.

Akhavan also opens up about the types of stories that interest her and how she is striving for greater diversity on screen.

The Bisexual is produced by Sister Pictures-owned Hootenanny for Channel 4 in the UK and Hulu in the US, and distributed by All3Media International.

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Shooting for Mars

House of Cards creator Beau Willimon joins the space race with Channel 4 and Hulu coproduction The First, but as DQ discovers, this eight-part drama keeps its feet firmly on the ground.

Mars has fascinated writers of fiction for more than a century, from the outlandish late Victoriana of HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds and Percy Greg’s Across the Zodiac to the recent CGI extravaganzas of Ridley Scott’s The Martian, Julien Lacombe’s French series Missions and Ron Howard’s blend of documentary and drama for National Geographic, Mars.

The most ambitious of them all, however, is also the one most grounded in realism and minutiae. The First – co-financed by Channel 4 in the UK, US streamer Hulu, IMG and AG Studios and created by House of Cards nabob Beau Willimon – barely leaves the planet for its first eight-episode season, set in 2031, with Willimon determined to honour both the efforts that go into making any space mission a success and the human costs.

“We wanted to delve deeply into the lives of the crew, the ground team and the aerospace moguls to see what their motivations were for embarking on this journey and the sacrifices required,” says Willimon. “Our focus is how hard it is to get to the starting line. When you talk to people in NASA or the private sector, who devote a decade of their lives just to getting a rover to Mars, it would be irresponsible not to explore that side.”

The First stars Sean Penn, who accepted the role at the second time of asking

The series was, in a sense, decades in the making. Willimon was inspired by his father’s years as chief engineer on US navy submarines: the space-age technology of subs, his father’s necessarily lengthy absences on tour and the concept of epic journeys all fed into The First. “I see this as an ancient story that happens to be set in the near future, rooted in a little kid fascinated by his dad working on a submarine,” he says.

Willimon recalls how, ater a snatched coffee at a Tribeca bistro with C4’s now-outgoing head of international drama, Simon Maxwell, three years ago “I said, ‘how do you feel about a show about a mission to Mars?’ and luckily he leaned forward rather than said, ‘I’ve got a plane to catch.’”

The scripts began to take shape and the cast was assembled, headed up by Sean Penn in his first TV role, playing rugged but troubled Mars mission leader Tom Hagerty, and Natascha McElhone as distant, cerebral aerospace CEO Laz Ingram.

McElhone signed up after an eight-hour coffee meeting with Willimon (“For all future actors I may work with, they need not worry, it’s not a requirement!”); Penn took a little longer, Willimon explains. “His rep said he was unavailable, but I’ve been around long enough to know you should always ask at least twice. We got the scripts to him and he responded well, so I flew to Dallas to discuss the story and character, and eventually he came on board. Actors who take their careers and craft seriously take the time to be sure this is where they want to invest their talent. It’s why they have the careers they have – they’re rigorous.”

Underpinning the series is research perhaps even more rigorous than Penn’s quality control. Not every show, for example, features ‘futurist’ among its credits  for helping to make tangible and feasible the technology on display.

Natasha McElhone plays the CEO of an aerospace company

“The difficult thing about the near future us that it’s near,” laughs Willimon. “If you were setting something 100 years from now, you could have warp speed or teleporting and the audience will accept as a given that these things will be figured out between now and then.”

The solution came from looking back, explains The First executive producer Jordan Tappis, documentary-maker and co-founder with Willimon of Westward Productions; The First is the company’s debut drama series. IMG is handling worldwide distribution of the series, which launched in Hulu in September and comes to C4 on November 1.

“Step one was going backwards into what the world looked like 15 years ago, before trying to predict what happens 15 years from now,” says Tappis. “We focused on communications and cars, two areas where the eye can see the evolution of technology. The big prediction we made is that people could use smart technology built into earbuds and glasses. We effectively took the same idea that Google Glass represented, but made it cool and integrated. The aesthetic was, in some ways, as important as the technology itself.”

The space travel elements needed to look absolutely accurate to the people whose job it is to do it for real. NASA was “extraordinarily forthcoming,” says Tappis, as were the veteran astronauts and representatives from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California who were consulted.

“From the jargon to the designs, you won’t find many liberties taken with tech and science,” says Tappis. “But when we’ve had to make a narrative choice that doesn’t chime exactly with the research, it’s never by accident. For example, the rocket used is an original design, but derivative of the SLS rocket that NASA will likely use for their first manned missions. The capsules are technically accurate, but we also needed bigger cameras so we changed the dimensions a little bit.”

The eight-episode series is set in 2031

Ditto the presence of Laz Ingram, a female leader in an industry many might assume to be male-dominated. “There are loads of women in senior positions in aerospace,” says McElhone. “Julie van Kleeck is a VP at Aerojet, Gwynne Shotwell runs SpaceX, Leanne Caret is CEO at Boeing Defense, Space and Security. I’m sure the ladder isn’t straightforward, but we did a screening at JPL and every gender and ethnicity was represented. The show reflects that rather than altering reality.”

Even the selection of New Orleans as the centre for the launch was carefully thought through, with NASA having built a manufacturing facility there. Aesthetic and financial incentives also played a part, of course.

“New Orleans is an incredibly diverse and vibrant city,” says Tappis, “which makes a nice contrast to the surface of Mars. It’s also custom-built for the film community. There are incredible tax incentives, the state rallies behind productions and there are wonderful crews. The only challenging aspect is the unpredictable weather, but the looming danger of a hurricane or rainstorm is thrilling and in line with some of the themes we’re exploring in the show.”

In short, the psychological and physical peril of such a mission is placed front and centre, yet Tappis is convinced the appeal of the red planet will endure. “Why do people climb Mount Everest? Why did ancient humans see birds flying over the horizon, seemingly towards nothing, and decide to paddle in that direction? Mars is the great unknown, the ultimate antagonist. It’s staring at us, daring us to give it a shot, and I guess that’s what we’ve done with The First.”

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Watch this Space

As London faces increasing demand for studio space, DQ visits Manchester to find out how the UK city and Space Studios are proving to be an attractive filming proposition for high-end television drama productions.

For many television makers and watchers, Manchester will always be known as the home of ITV’s iconic soap Coronation Street. The long-running series, its former home at Granada Studios and its move to MediaCityUK, where the BBC can also now be found, have certainly helped to put the north-west English city on the map when it comes to TV production.

Sky1’s Curfew, starring Sean Bean, involved racing scenes shot on the streets of Manchester

But with the demand for studio space in London at an increasing premium, coupled with the requirement of UK broadcasters to see dramas created and set outside the capital, Manchester is now becoming an attractive destination for high-end drama producers through Space Studios and its partnership with Screen Manchester.

Located on the outskirts of the city centre, Space Studios still looks box fresh, with an array of towering sound stages, workshops, business units and car park space that doubles as room for unit bases. Equipment companies including Panavision and Provision are among those on site.

It was here that upcoming Sky1 street-racing drama Curfew took over three stages for six months of filming, while walking down the numerous corridors reveals that offices have been allocated to ITV crime drama The Bay’s costume department, BBC period series World on Fire’s art department and Amazon and Liberty Global’s psychological drama The Feed’s art department and production office.

Other recent dramas to have been filmed there include Cold Feet and The A Word.

Space Studios offers six sound stages after a £14m expansion

Built on the site of the former West Gorton housing estate, which became synonymous with Channel 4 drama Shameless, Space Studios opened in May 2014 as a purpose-built facility for high-end TV, film and commercial production. Six sound stages offer more than 85,000 sq ft, with the imposing stage six, which opened in February this year as part of a £14m (US$17.9m) expansion, offering 30,000 sq ft alone, with adjacent room for props, set builds and dressing rooms.

The Space project was originally devised by Sue Woodward, a former MD of ITV Granada, founding director of social enterprise Sharp Futures and founder of The Sharp Project, a hub that is home to more than 60 entrepreneurs in the city specialising in digital content production, digital media and film and TV production. Both Space Studios and The Sharp Project are managed by Manchester Creative Digital Assets (MCDA), which was set up by Manchester City Council to oversee the city’s digital, production and creative sectors.

Colin Johnson

The Sharp Project was opened on the site of a former Sharp electronics distribution warehouse, which was bought by the city after the company vacated the premises. Series such as comedies Fresh Meat and Mount Pleasant have been filmed there and the success of the venture led to the decision to create a dedicated production facility on the site of a former Fujitsu electronics factory.

Colin Johnson, director of screens and facilities at Space Studios, recalls: “We knew that we could make television in the city because we’d done it at The Sharp Project, and we could tell there was going to be a big uplift in demand [for production space] because of OTT and SVoD platforms commissioning drama, tax breaks and people being displaced from London.”

Phase one was completed in 2014 and since then, “we’ve been pretty full ever since,” Johnson adds.

The land where stage six was built was a former Victorian pump factory, which was adopted by Space Studios once it became clear there was sufficient demand for a larger sound stage. Further space on an adjacent site has recently been cleared, with the potential to expand further.

Throughout its development, and beyond, it has also sought to be an anchor in the local community, working with Sharp Futures to offer apprenticeship schemes and keen to plug into the surrounding talent pool through job opportunities and skills days.

Rob Page

“London’s full and we’re here. It’s as simple as that,” Johnson says of Space Studios’ success. “We’ll show producers the space before they get the job and then they pick up the phone to us and say, ‘Have you got availability?’ We’re getting those calls because of the ground work we’ve put in early on. Some of the people bringing jobs in we showed round when stage six wasn’t there or showed round when we were a building site. We’re here – and London seems to be full.”

Rob Page, commercial director of MCDA, continues: “The ecology’s here as well, most importantly, in Manchester, whether it be crews or Screen Manchester assisting you while you’re on location. We’re not just another warehouse in the middle of nowhere without an ecosystem surrounding you.”

Much has been made of new studios planned for London, in particular a £100m proposal to build 12 sound stages as part of a complex in Dagenham, east London. Approval for the plans was received in February this year. But Johnson and Page stress that, in contrast, Space Studios is ready now. “We’re really well placed in that we have the skills, we’re in the centre of the country, we have the stages and these facilities,” Johnson adds.

Beyond Space Studios, Manchester has been home to location shoots for series including Age Before Beauty, No Offence, Our Girl, Snatch and Scott & Bailey. Castles and coastlines are also within reach of the city centre.

Manchester-shot Age Before Beauty

But until Screen Manchester launched in July 2017, the city didn’t have a formal film office. Since then, development manager Bobby Cochrane says Sky1’s Curfew has become the biggest drama Manchester has done to date. The office facilitated racing scenes by closing Mancunian Way, an elevated highway linking the east and west of the city.

Streets around Manchester’s viaducts, Northern Quarter and Spring Gardens areas can also double for London and New York, while Hugh Grant’s BBC1 drama A Very English Scandal also spent several days filming inside Manchester Town Hall, which shares similar interior architecture to the Houses of Parliament.

Working in partnership with Space Studios, the aim is to become a one-stop shop where producers can find studio space, locations and seek permissions such as road closures under one roof.

Cochrane adds: “Manchester has got a central hub where everything you can do in the city is under one umbrella. We want it to be a global film-friendly city.”

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Virtual insanity

Six-part drama Kiss Me First is an innovative thriller that combines live action with computer-generated virtual reality sequences.

The series moves between the real and animated worlds as it tells the story of Leila (Tallulah Haddon), who stumbles across Red Pill, a secret paradise hidden on the edges of her favourite computer game.

There she meets hedonistic, impulsive and insatiable Tess (Simona Brown). But when a member of the group mysteriously disappears, Leila begins to suspect this digital Eden isn’t the paradise its creator claimed it to be.

In this DQTV interview, executive producers Bryan Elsley (Skins) and Melanie Stokes talk about how they adapted Lottie Moggach’s debut novel for television, including updating the book’s chatroom settings for modern-day VR technology.

They also discuss the challenges of making television drama, such as a lack of risk-taking by broadcasters and the prohibitive cost of making high-end series.

Kiss Me First is produced by Kindle Entertainment and Balloon Entertainment for Channel 4 and Netflix.

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Telling the truth

Factual dramas are a staple of the scripted television landscape and can often be relied upon to bring in big ratings. DQ explores how these series are developed and brought to air, with contributions from the writers behind Waco and Kiri.

It’s a well-established fact that telling true stories through the lens of TV drama can work wonders in terms of ratings. Tanya Lopez, executive VP of movies, limited series and original movie acquisitions for A+E’s Lifetime and Lifetime Movie Network, says: “The right story can be a magnet for curious audiences. That feeling of ‘I can’t believe this happened’ is a real hook.” Beyond the initial thrill of recognising real-life events, Lopez says “viewers then really like to get into the detail of a story, to find out things they didn’t know or see a new point of view.”

One of the most recent true-life stories to roll off the Lifetime production line is Cocaine Grandmother, which stars Catherine Zeta-Jones as Griselda Blanco, a highly successful Miami-based drug lord who is reputed to have ordered 200 murders during her reign of terror in the 1970s and 1980s.

As a starting point for true-life projects, Lopez says she likes to have some IP to work with, such as a book or a documentary, but adds that Lifetime’s approach is not to take too much dramatic licence with its central characters. “The audience trusts us to tell the truth and we don’t want to deceive them. Where the dramatic licence does tend to come in is with the fourth or fifth lead characters where you might bundle a number of real-life figures into one composite. This can help to provide a frame of reference for the audience.”

In the case of 2017 real-life drama Flint, which investigated a toxic water scandal in the state of Michigan, “the story is told through the eyes of three women – two of whom are real-life characters that we had the rights to and a third who is a composite,” says Lopez. “That allowed us to draw attention to the issues affecting the people of Flint in the right way.”

Catherine Zeta-Jones in Cocaine Godmother

Historically, factual dramas have tended to live in the world of feature-length biopics or miniseries. But if there has been a recent trend, it has been towards extended exposition over a number of episodes or, in some cases, seasons. FX proved this could work in 2016 with American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson, a superbly cast series that won awards, achieved strong ratings in the US and sold in international distribution.

Based on Jeffrey Toobin’s book, The Run of His Life: The People v OJ Simpson, the tone of this Ryan Murphy-produced series was harder edged than the content on Lifetime. And for this reason it also attracted some criticism from those depicted in the series. In an interview with The New York Post, Mark Furhman, a police officer who comes out of the series in a bad light, said: “In a time when Americans read less and less and investigative journalism is on vacation, it is sad that this movie will be the historical word on this trial.” Other critics included relatives of the two murder victims, Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown, who complained about a lack of consultation.

These complaints highlight a potential challenge with fact-based drama, which is that there are inevitably going to be differing opinions about how events are portrayed. FX has run into a similar situation with its new Crime Story series: The Assassination of Gianni Versace (pictured top), which launched this winter.

As with the OJ project, there is a best-selling book at the heart of the project – Vulgar Favors by Maureen Orth. The book is generally recognised as well researched but has been dismissed by the Versace family as scurrilous. In a statement, the family said: “Since Versace did not authorise the book on which it is partly based nor has it taken part in the writing of the screenplay, this TV series should be considered as fiction.”

FX has stuck to its guns, saying it “stands by the meticulous reporting of Ms Orth.” And short of a legal challenge by the Versace family, it’s likely that the only practical outcome of the dispute will be more promotion for both channel and brand.

Flint, which focuses on the Michigan drinking-water crisis

So what draws TV writers to these projects? The potential for ratings can’t be ignored, but just as often it seems rooted in indignation that a story has not been adequately reported or followed up on by authorities. Nicole Taylor’s award-winning Three Girls is a compelling insight into the lives of vulnerable teenage girls, while Jimmy McGovern’s work is often an expression of the injustice that those involved feel. Recently, McGovern wrote Reg for the BBC, in which Tim Roth played Reg Keys, the father of a murdered serviceman who stood against Tony Blair in the 2005 UK general election. McGovern also penned ITV’s Hillsborough, a dramatisation of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster in which 96 football supporters died. This film has been screened four times since it first aired in 1996 and also laid the foundations for a new ITV production called Anne, made by World Productions (Little Boy Blue).

Back in the US, Paramount Network has just aired Waco, a six-part miniseries about the 1993 Waco siege, a stand-off between US law enforcement agencies and a religious group called The Branch Davidians that were holed up in a Texas compound. After 51 days, the stand-off ended with 76 people being killed. According to the show’s writers, Drew and John Erick Dowdle, the trigger for this project was reading A Place Called Waco, an account of the siege by one of the few survivors, David Thibodeau. That, say the brothers, was the start of a painstaking research process that lasted four years and involved interviews with participants on both sides, as well as months of listening to transcripts and examining forensic reports.

The end result was that “we uncovered a different story to the one we’d been hearing for years,” says John Erick. “Waco is such a seminal moment in US history but there is so little about the people who were in the compound – how they got there and what they were like. They are presented as mindless cultists but a lot of them were discerning, educated people. We wanted to get beyond the image most people have of Waco, which is of tanks rolling in to break the siege.”

Waco tells the story from both sides, exploring the law enforcement failures and the personality of David Koresh, the charismatic leader of the Branch Davidians (played by Taylor Kitsch). While Koresh had his dark, disturbing side, he was a far more compelling character than the writers expected. “We went in expecting to find a crazy, malicious person, but he had a funny, light-hearted side that appealed to people,” says Drew. “For all his flaws, he was a gifted communicator and leader.”

Taylor Kitsch as David Koresh during filming for Waco, about the 1993 siege that left 76 people dead

A key challenge for the writers, however, was finding a way into the law enforcement side of the story. “Eventually we found it in the shape of FBI chief negotiator Gary Noesner, whose involvement allowed us to provide a compassionate two-sided version of events,” John Erick says. “Gary ran negotiations for the first part of the siege and was convinced that any attempt to take the compound by force would be doomed to fail. But ultimately he was overruled.”

‘Why now?’ is always a key question in the decision to tell a fact-based story. In Waco’s case, Drew says the brothers were drawn to the project because the issue of proportionate law enforcement remains critical. “If anything, Waco seems even more relevant now than when we started researching. The breakdown of truth we are witnessing makes Waco seem even more relevant, because it was a kind of Kafkaesque nightmare played out on the world stage.”

Of course, one of the problems with fact-based drama is that writers are inevitably limited by the parameters of their subject matter. For this reason, there is also a strong strand of work that takes a fictionalised approach to factual scenarios. UK writer Jack Thorne, for example, has produced a couple of compelling pieces in this vein – National Treasure, which tackled the high-profile issue of historic sex abuse allegations against celebrities, and Kiri, which delved into the raw and emotive world of interracial adoption and fostering.

“My starting point is to explore stories I don’t know the answers to,” Thorne explains. “The issue behind National Treasure felt very tricky to me – because the police felt they had to put people’s names in the spotlight to encourage potential victims to come forward. But this created a presumption of guilt.”

Kiri started with another unanswerable question, says Thorne, arising from the notion that black children should only be adopted by families of their own ethnicity. “But what do you do about the fact that there are more black children awaiting adoption than can be placed within black families?”

Delta Goodrem in Olivia: Hopelessly Devoted to You, the forthcoming Olivia Newton-John biopic – a genre that has proved popular down under in recent years

Thorne says he particularly likes “talking to experts who are passionate about what they do and have a sense of what is morally right.” Some of this clearly creeps into Kiri, in which Sarah Lancashire plays Miriam, a social worker hung out to dry by the system because a judgement call seemingly leads to a bad outcome. Flawed and impetuous she may be, but most viewers will come away from Kiri believing the world would be a better place if there were more Miriams to turn to.

Thorne shares some of the Dowdles’ concerns about the dissemination of information, observing how “Twitter is sending us all mad with what it is doing to the news agenda. What I really try to do with all my stuff is encourage a discussion afterwards. TV is great at generating debate, and I love that.”

The importance of fact-based drama has also been evident in Australia, where a string of high-profile biopics have played a key role in helping the domestic scripted sector bounce back.

Recent biopics have included dramas about INXS frontman Michael Hutchence and tycoons Kerry Packer, Gina Rinehart and Alan Bond, while on the way are FremantleMedia productions about movie stars Paul Hogan and Olivia Newton-John.

Interestingly, the Aussie thirst for biopics has thrown up a couple of other issues with factual drama – namely that good subjects can soon run out and the stories don’t necessarily travel well overseas. At a recent Screen Producers Australia event in Melbourne, Posie Graeme-Evans, who created McLeod’s Daughters, speculated about whether the industry had reached “peak ‘Famous Australian,’” adding: “Biopics based on the B-list… are not quite the same.”

And while biopics “play brilliantly at home” she continued, “time and sales have suggested that not all do quite so well in the overseas market.”

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Do the robot

As sci-fi drama Humans enters its third season, movement choreographer Dan O’Neill reveals the new challenges he faces turning the show’s expanding cast into its iconic ‘synths.’

If the cameras are rolling on the set of Channel 4 and AMC’s sci-fi drama Humans, the chances are that Dan O’Neill will be there too. Each season, the movement choreographer is responsible for turning actors into the robotic ‘synths’ central to the show’s premise.

But what started out as a relatively small cast of synths in season one, which debuted back in 2015, has grown dramatically in season three, now airing in the UK and launching in the US on June 4.

To complicate matters further, the synths are no longer all at the same juncture in terms of their emotional or physical capability. Following the mass synth awakening at the end of season two, millions of androids are now able to think and feel, just like the original ‘synth family’ of remaining members Mia (Gemma Chan), Niska (Emily Berrington) and Max (Ivanno Jeremiah).

Dan O’Neill

Meanwhile, season three also introduces a new breed of synths, collectively called ‘orange eyes’ (earlier models have green eyes), which are advanced versions of the original models but without the prospect of them being hacked or gaining consciousness – or so they say.

“In the original season, we had the family of these bespoke synths and then the background synths, who have now become conscious too,” O’Neill explains. “Now there’s been a relaunch of new synths, so that was a real challenge for me this time around because not only did I have to flesh out what a newly sentient AI would be like, but also what would this new product would be like.

“We took a decision to make the new ones simpler, plainer and more clearly robots in their costume and make-up. Everyone’s played into this idea that this new product, being so clearly a synthetic that there’s no way it could pass off as a human, there’s no way it could be corrupted or hacked. So we created something very standard, very identifiable, so it means we’ve got these various layers of AI and consciousness, which has been loads of fun to explore.”

O’Neill compares the ‘green eyes’ synths, those with consciousness at this point in the story, to teenagers, whose personalities are being shaped by their experiences and knowledge of the world they find themselves in.

“But certainly in terms of physicality, all of us creatively have had to work really hard to get these distinct nuances between three types of AI wandering around, if you include Gemma, Emily and Ivanno,” he explains. “So there’s lots of layers. It’s the third season. It’s great to still have so many challenges being set by [the writers] Jon [Brackley] and Sam [Vincent].”

Before each season, O’Neill takes charge of what he calls ‘Synth School’ – casting auditions for groups of 20 people at a time who are put through their paces as he teaches them the basics of becoming synths, covering how they stand, talk, walk, run and interact. For season three, he saw up to 350 people, including many returning actors whose characters had survived the first two seasons.

Humans centres on androids, known as ‘synths,’ gaining conciousness

“It isn’t just about movement, it’s about the look, and the make-up and costume departments have a big say in that, so we agree on this consistent look and feel to it,” he explains. “Then some of those people were selected to be orange eyes, so I had to make up a whole new workshop process to teach them to be different from the standard original green eyes. So that’s all a bit complicated.”

Synth School starts up to six weeks before shooting begins, and O’Neill also held individual sessions with new leading actors Holly Earl (who plays Agnes), Ukweli Roach (Anatole) and Dino Fetscher (Stanley).

Original cast members Chan, Berrington, Jeremiah and Ruth Bradley (as Karen Voss) also returned to “brush up” on their synth skills. “They’ve been away doing other things, doing plays, waving their arms about, expressing things with their faces and generally acting,” O’Neill jokes, “so I get them back in the room. They say it takes a while but, once they get it back, it’s like an old friend. They’re astonishing, those original synths who helped me create this stuff and have been on board since. They just come to work every day and are just a joy.

“When we started, we didn’t know what we were making. I remember Gemma after day one said two things to me: ‘I can’t do anything else but worry about being a robot. I’m not acting, I don’t feel like I’m doing anything at all,’ and, ‘I’m not going to be a character. I’m just going to be this dead machine.’ I told her she was the most interesting thing I’d seen in such a long time because I don’t know what’s going on behind the eyes. That’s been the real power these actors have found. That’s the thing they have shown me with the movement. It’s not stuck on, it’s inhabited.”

O’Neill working with Humans star Gemma Chan on set

O’Neill says the hardest part about becoming a synth is walking, the challenge of which is to remove any individuality and remain consistent. “It seems so simple but there’s loads of little tells that we do that we don’t want to see a machine do,” he explains. “And finding emotion without being able to express it in ways one would normally use is also tough.”

On set, cast and crew shoot four pages a day on average – four minutes of screen time – and O’Neill notes that the ambition and scale of season three has been ramped up beyond anything seen in the show before.

“There are literally hundreds of synths in the show. But despite that ambition, bigger action and bigger set pieces, we still achieved it on time because the actors are good at what they do,” O’Neill says. “We don’t need to work out how to get in and out of a car anymore, we’ve done that. Over the years we’ve ticked off walking down the stairs without looking and other thing synths can do. Sometimes you get some very complicated takes where there are special effects that may take a while but they’re always ready, always off book. They’re a great team.”

There has been one unlikely new skill for the synth actors to get to grips with,  however. Season three features a scene set in a bar that becomes a popular hangout for both humans and robots, calling for synth dancing. “I did it as one of my improvs in the very early development stage before we started filming season one,” O’Neill says. “I did a whole improv based on going out for a night with synths and what would happen. So we’ve got a flash of that.”

Season three is airing in the UK now and will launch in the US next month

Being on set every day, O’Neill also works closely with the directors to ensure the synths keep to the specific movements that have been established over the first two seasons. This means he can jump in and suggest scenes be reshot if something isn’t quite right. But that’s a judgement call, he admits. “If it’s 18.30 and you’ve got half an hour left and they want to grab another setup, obviously you think, ‘We can live with that, they’ll cut round it or won’t use it.’ So you can’t be precious but, at the same time, you have to be as adaptable as possible within the boundaries of making TV drama. It’s not like working in the theatre or the movies, you don’t get that indulgence.”

But the attention to the detail of the synth’s movements is one of the reasons O’Neill thinks the eight-part drama is credible, which has translated into its popularity in the UK, the US and around the world.

“The quality of the people who come now to casting —–dancers, movement specialists, choreographers – all kinds of people have started coming just to have the experience of it and be on the show,” adds O’Neill, who is also working on Sky1 street-racing drama Curfew. “It means the quality of the standby artists is fantastic. I hope it’s flawless. They’re really committed and they really enjoy being part of a process. For me, that’s a real strength of a show. Without that care and detail they bring, it would lose its credibility. It’s been a gift as a choreographer to work on the show.”

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Lifting the mask

London’s Royal Festival Hall hosted the most prestigious night of the year for British television as prizes were handed out to dramas including Peaky Blinders, Three Girls and The Handmaid’s Tale. DQ went behind the scenes at the Bafta Television Awards 2018.

Crowds were hanging over balconies, hoping to catch a glimpse of their favourite TV stars as dozens of plush cars lined up to drop off their A-list cargo at London’s Royal Festival Hall. The red carpet outside was a scene of organised chaos as guests made their way past photographers and fans cheering their name before they arrived inside the venue for this year’s Bafta Television Awards.

Inside the grand building, which sits on the city’s Southbank beside the River Thames, the atmosphere was one of relative calm as the auditorium’s seats slowly filled up ahead of the start of the show, this year presented by former Great British Bake-Off host Sue Perkins.

BBC comedy This Country and drama Three Girls, which was based on real events, each scooped two prizes, while Molly Windsor (Three Girls) and Sean Bean (Broken) scooped the gongs for leading actress and actor. In the best drama category, Peaky Blinders beat competition from Line of Duty, The Crown and The End of the F****** World, while US series The Handmaid’s Tale triumphed over scripted rivals Big Little Lies and Feud: Bette and Joan to be named best international drama.

After the winners were escorted off stage, DQ was on hand to hear some of their reactions.

A fifth season of Peaky Blinders is on the way

Drama Series: Peaky Blinders (Caryn Mandabach Productions, Tiger Aspect Productions, BBC2)
This was Peaky Blinders‘ first Bafta award for best drama since the period drama set in 1920s Birmingham debuted on BBC2 in 2013. Season four aired last year, with a fifth commissioned by BBC2.
Steven Knight, creator and writer: “I’m shocked. I think it took that long just for people to get the idea of what it’s all about. Some things do take time. I’m really pleased. I’m hoping that next year it will be [actors] Helen [McCrory], Paul [Anderson] and Cillian [Murphy]. They are the Peaky Blinders. My ambition was to make it a story of family between two wars. I’ve always wanted to end it with first air-raid siren in Birmingham in 1939 – three more seasons. Now we’re getting approached to do all kinds of things – ballet, musical, a movie would be great. I wouldn’t want to do it at the very end but maybe between two of the seasons.”
Caryn Mandabach, executive producer: “I’m gobsmacked. What Steve’s not saying is many people were saying, ‘It’s not for me, it’s too northern, it’s too violent.’ What people didn’t understand was what he was really writing about was the effect of violence on people and the importance of respect for the family. Now finally everyone’s catching up with an honest depiction of people everywhere after some giant thing like the First World War. I don’t know how he actually writes them, personally. I think he’s got writer fairies that visit occasionally.”

O-T Fagbenle in The Handmaid’s Tale

International: The Handmaid’s Tale (MGM, Channel 4)
After claiming victory at the Golden Globes and Emmys, Hulu’s adaptation of Margret Atwood’s dystopian novel – a timely and often challenging watch – was a sure thing to continue its award-winning run following its UK broadcast on Channel 4.
O-T Fagbenle, who plays Luke, Offred (Elisabeth Moss)’s husband before Gilead: “The source material, Margaret’s book, is just a phenomenal piece of literature. Also we live in scary times, changing times, with populist governments on the rise and a greater awareness of the way patriarchy affects women’s rights in the world.
“What’s been really interesting about it is how so many people from so many walks of life related to it. When it first came out, Donald Trump had just been elected and everyone related it to Trump. Then there was the great #MeToo movement and people related it to that. Also people around the world are relating to the different ways, large and small, that men have oppressed women.
“Elisabeth is the greatest actress I’ve ever had the chance to work with, in so many ways. She’s phenomenal and she carries such a load with her. The material is so challenging and she’s just charming and generous on set. You couldn’t wish to work with a better partner in a scene.”

Brían F O’Byrne as grieving father Steve Jones in Little Boy Blue

Supporting Actor: Brían F O’Byrne, Little Boy Blue (ITV Studios, ITV)
O’Byrne and Sinead Keenan starred as parents Steve and Melanie Jones in the four-part ITV series, which dramatises the real-life killing of 11-year-old Rhys Jones in Liverpool in 2007.
“Jeff [Pope]’s script is so good and Paul [Whittington]’s such a wonderful director, you know you’re going to be in safe hands but also worried they may have actually called the wrong guy – there must be a mistake. I was living in LA at the time and I had just decided to move back to Ireland after being over there for three decades. I hadn’t worked in the UK before and got a call to go to Liverpool. I didn’t have the fear of getting a job until I met Mel and Steve, and then there was the realisation I could really fuck this up really badly and it would be terrible. It’s too sensitive a material.
“You’re not really thinking about it from an acting point of view as much as you’re invited into [the Jones family’s] home, and I got to meet two people who are grieving a decade later and are processing something we could all have empathy with and identify with. It would be our horror that your child, just coming back from football practice, could be indiscriminately killed.
“This award is Sinead’s really. I got to witness an incredible performance take after take. Actresses are the ones who really have to go from 0-100 right now and it’s expected take after take. She was living in grief for those several months. It was a really tough job for her.
“The odd thing was going to work on a set like that because everybody thought of it as we’re not just making a shit TV show. If you go and work on something like that, everybody there had care for the piece. There was great care and attention taken because we all met [the family at the heart of the story] and we didn’t want to lessen the loss they had in any way.
“They obviously wanted their story told because of their love for Rhys. I know they were happy about how the show ended up. [The existence of the show means] Rhys’s memory is still out there. I think ultimately that’s what they wanted. They want to show their grief continues and the senseless act of his murder is not just nightly news thing, it goes on and it stays with them.

Three Girls told the true story of a sexual abuse scandal

Miniseries: Three Girls (BBC Drama Studios, Studio Lambert, BBC1)
The BBC three-parter retold the true stories of victims of grooming and sexual abuse in the English town of Rochdale between 2008 and 2012. The series also won writing, editing and directing prizes at the Bafta Television Craft Awards last month.
Nicole Taylor, writer: “The first thing I did was turn it down repeatedly because I was scared to do it. I thought I had good reasons for turning it down but actually I was just scared  – and what I was really doing was turning away from the girls because I didn’t want to look, like everyone else. They didn’t want it to be true. I didn’t want it to be true. I was scared of approaching it, and that was actually an appropriate place to start from. Once I went up to Rochdale and met the girls and their mums and dads, I was so stunned myself at the gap between the idea of Girl A and Girl B and Girl C and these anonymous people, and getting to know them was so enormous. I was so shocked by that; I thought, ‘Right, I’m definitely going to do this – I can’t not do this.’ I didn’t really do anything else for three years.”
Philippa Lowthorpe, director: “The really urgent thing for me as a director was to get inside those girls’ heads and see their experiences from their point of view, not on the outside, but to really try to understand from the inside what they might be experiencing and to be really truthful to their experience and honour their experience and to not walk away. It was very emotional. We had a brilliant casting director in Shaheen Baig and we chose very carefully girls not only for their talent, but also their maturity to be able to deal with this kind of subject matter.”
Simon Lewis, producer: “Before the programme could be broadcast, we showed it to [the real-life victims]. They came and watched it individually because we were obviously nervous and because we knew it would be emotional. One by one, sometimes with a family member or a friend, they all came in to watch. We were expecting them to say, ‘That’s not quite right,’ or ‘I didn’t go in that door’ or ‘I was never in that car,’ but actually the essence, the big stuff, they all said that’s how it was. When we showed it to them, there were a lot of tears. But there were a lot of tears all the way through making it.”
Susan Hogg, executive producer: “One of the girls said, which has really made me proud, that until she watched the programme, she didn’t realise she was a victim. Watching the programme, because we’d interviewed her and then put her character on the screen, she could see she was absolutely a victim, and that meant a huge amount to her. It’s not just about the three girls on screen, it’s about the thousands of others who have been abused and those trials keep coming up and more and more victims come to light. It’s for all them really that we made this programme, for them to be heard, because, for a long time, even when they went to the police, they weren’t being heard and weren’t being believed. Now we know that is changing. For the BBC to support a programme like this and for [director of content] Charlotte Moore to put her weight behind it and have the confidence to commission it is massive. With the way funding now works and we have a lot of money coming in from America and the SVoD channels, we’re doing a lot of coproductions, this really important domestic drama is very hard to fund, and the BBC absolutely does that. Long may that continue.”

Vanessa Kirby accepts her award for her performance in The Crown

Supporting Actress: Vanessa Kirby, The Crown (Left Bank Pictures, Netflix)
Kirby stars in the epic British royal drama as Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy)’s younger sister. The award marked the first major Bafta for Netflix, following craft prizes for photography & lighting and sound
“I just felt like the luckiest person in the world to play someone so colourful, vivid, brave and strong, so actually this is for Margaret, wherever she is.”

Aysha Rafaele on stage at the Baftas last night

Single Drama: Murdered for Being Different (BBC Studios Documentary Unit, BBC3)
This film, from the award-winning team behind Murdered by my Boyfriend, retold the brutal 2007 killing of 20-year-old Sophie Lancaster, who was kicked to death by a gang of teenagers. Her boyfriend Robert Maltby was also severely beaten and ended up in a coma. Both were targeted because they were goths.
Aysha Rafaele, the former creative director of BBC Studios Documentary Unit who is now setting up a drama hub within the organisation: “A big thank you to Robert Maltby and Sylvia Lancaster, Sophie’s mum, for their bravery and courage in allowing us to tell this devastating story. Sadly since Sophie’s death, hate crime in this country has continued to rise. It’s our duty and our privilege as filmmakers to not look away from the dark corners in our society.”

Daisy May Cooper writes and stars in This Country

Scripted Comedy: This Country (BBC Studios, BBC3)
Female Performance in a Comedy Programme: Daisy May Cooper, This Country
The BBC3 mockumentary, about two young people living in a small village in the Cotswolds, also earned its stars and co-creators (and siblings) writing accolades at the Bafta TV Craft Awards last month.
Charlie Cooper, writer and actor: “We had an idea in our head that we thought might be funny but we were never intelligent enough to articulate it. As soon as we met these guys [producers Tom George and Simon Mayhew-Archer], they knew immediately what we were on about and transformed what was a seed of an idea into something that’s good and funny. It’s amazing.”
Daisy May Cooper, writer and actor: “What we were worried about when the first season came out was that people might not be able to find it [on online network BBC3]. Now with a second season coming out, people are really talking about it and I get stopped a lot more, which is brilliant. I absolutely love it.”

Toby Jones clutches his award

Male Performance in a Comedy Programme: Toby Jones, Detectorists (Channel X North, Treasure Trove Productions, Lola Entertainment, BBC4)
The comedy series, written and directed by Mackenzie Crook, saw Crook and Jones play a pair of metal-detecting enthusiasts. It previously won the 2015 Bafta for scripted comedy. Jones won the award for its third and final season.
“I think it’s fantastic writing. It’s a strange thing in world of TV now that I was cycling through New Orleans making a film last October and these guys came out of a bar and just went, ‘Man we love the Detectorists.’ It’s so extraordinary that a show made in a village in Suffolk is big in America and Canada. It’s a testament to how Mackenzie’s created characters that are archetypal. It’s about friendships, maybe about a life a lot of people want, where they can go to the pub with their mates and they have time.
“Mackenzie and I have worked on the same things before but never worked in a scene together. Then we were in Muppets Most Wanted as a double act and he said to me, ‘I’ve written this thing with you in mind. You don’t have to do it. I know it’s a nightmare when people tell you they’ve written something for you but, if you don’t mind, I’ll email it to you. You probably won’t like it and you don’t want to do a comedy show, do you?’ He emailed it to me and it was just the most amazing dialogue. It’s not comedy in the sense of gags, it’s about humane characters. That’s what appealed to me.
“I always think the most glamorous thing about our job is the contrast. You get to move medium, you get to move where you’re working, the scale you’re working at and the people you’re working with. That always feels to me like the most glamorous thing you can possibly do. So to work on Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and then go and stay in a pub and make Detectorists, it just feels fantastic. Neither one is better. It’s just a huge contrast.
“Mackenzie was pretty clear that he didn’t want to say goodbye in a big way, but there’s a challenge in the show that you find treasure. You can’t keep finding treasure. It felt great that he’d found a third season because it felt like the second one, where we found treasure at the end, that was a good place to stop. Nut he said, ‘What if the treasure was up in the sky?’ So it actually feels good and appropriate to finish it. I really miss those actors because it was such a chilled-out job. You stroll to work in a field in the sunshine every day. The scripts are immaculate. It’s very rare you don’t have to change anything.”

Casualty first aired in 1986

Soap & Continuing Drama: Casualty (BBC Studios Continuing Drama, BBC1)
The long-running BBC drama follows the staff and patients at the fictional Holby City Hospital’s emergency department.
George Rainsford, who plays Ethan Hardy: “Casualty has been around for 30 years. It keeps challenging itself and keeps challenging the viewers, keeps producing big stories people can relate to, hopefully, and it keeps championing the NHS. I’m really speechless. I genuinely didn’t think we’d be here.”
Chelsea Halfpenny, who plays Alicia Munroe: “I think it shows authentically the realities of the NHS. The business, the lack of funding…  I get a lot of tweets and messages from nurses and doctors saying thank you for showing the struggles.”
Simon Harper, executive producer: “There isn’t particularly a gender pay gap on Casualty, I wouldn’t say. One thing that came to light in the [BBC] pay publication thing last summer was just how hard our artists work, and every single one of them deserves every single penny that they earn. I would agree in the industry wide there’s still a lot of work to be done but I think we can hold our heads high on that issue.”

Sean Bean collects the leading actor prize

Leading Actor: Sean Bean, Broken (LA Productions, BBC1)
Former Game of Thrones star Bean won the award for his portrayal of Father Michael Kerrigan, a Roman Catholic priest who tries to be a confidant, counsellor and confessor for a congregation struggling with its beliefs amid the challenges of daily life in contemporary Britain. The series was written by Jimmy McGovern.
“It kind of developed with Jimmy as an idea. I’ve worked with Jimmy before on a thing called Tracie’s Story, where I played a transvestite, so I knew it would be something unusual. It was kind of semi-autobiographical for Jimmy; it was based on his experiences but it stemmed from scratch really. There was no script, no story, it was just his ideas and he was very passionate about that. I got on board very early and said I’d love to work with him again and let’s see what you come up with. I wasn’t really taking a gamble because I love him – and whatever he comes up with, it’s going to be interesting. But it was very exciting for me. It was a nucleus that developed.
“We got the first episode and that was brilliant. It started off well and it was great to work with Anna [who played Christina Fitzsimmons], who was someone I’d wanted to work with for a long time. She was so perfect for the role, she was so fragile and vulnerable and yet a very strong woman, a woman with great self-belief but who has been battered around by her circumstances.
“I like looking at who the characters are, how they’re written and how they develop. That’s always been the case. When you read a script, if there’s detail that’s great but, in terms of characters, there are not a great deal of scripts that have characters that develop and we can relate to. There are quite a few one-dimensional characters you can play but you’re trying to supplement it with whatever you do to improve the character, whereas something like Broken, Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, the characters are there and you live up to their expectations. It’s up to you to reach that peak of characterisation. I’m just a bit more selective [now] and I like to know the directors and producers. Fortunately I’ve worked a few years and got to know quite a few people. I look forward to playing characters like Father Michael Kerrigan again.
“I worked as a producer on Broken. I’d like to spend some time looking at other things and maybe books I’ve read or ideas people have and become a producer. I wouldn’t say I’d like to direct, I can’t see myself doing that at the moment, but I’d like to be involved in the process of starting something from scratch and developing it and finding interesting characters to play. I don’t want to play something extreme. I think often the very simple stories as in Broken are the most powerful.”

Three Girls star Molly Windsor on stage

Leading Actress: Molly Windsor, Three Girls
Windsor plays Holly, a young girl new to Rochdale who is keen to make friends and fit in, but soon finds herself drawn into a world she cannot escape, despite her pleas for help.
“It’s surreal, absolutely bizarre. Philippa [Lowthorpe, director], Nicole [Taylor, writer] and Simon [Lewis, producer] were working on Three Girls for a long time before I came on board. They’d done so much research that they were my first port of call and they introduced me to Sara [Rowbotham, an NHS health worker] and Maggie [Oliver, a police officer who investigated the real case] and some of the real girls. Any questions or bits of research or bits of things I wanted to know, they were so great and kept us all in the loop and told us everything. The biggest challenge was the responsibility, the weight of knowing, because you want to do it right. If you look at it as a big mountain, that becomes a bit scary. So for me it was taking it scene by scene and taking it each day as it came and just committing to it – because if you look at it as a big project, that’s a big challenge.”

Hear from the winners of the Bafta Television Craft Awards 2018 here.

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Dystopian blues

The television landscape is awash with series set in alternative – and not particularly bright – futures. Stephen Arnell casts his eye over the dystopian series on screen, and also finds sci-fi series with a more optimistic outlook.

All-conquering AI, robots that are more human than human, apps that can mimic any possible experience, egomaniacal billionaires searching for eternal life, a world wreathed in perpetual smog, unstoppable viruses, re-animated corpses, Nazi victors in the Second World War and the knock on the door from black-garbed members of the secret police.

Sound familiar?

One would think that in a world with Donald J Trump as US president, Brexit, North Korea, Russia, global warming, cyber warfare and other woes, viewers would be looking for escapist entertainment. But perhaps counter-intuitively, the vision of an even more dire future provides some comfort in the present.

Dystopian drama has become a major TV trend over recent years, and it’s showing no sign of stopping, although there are some signs of possible fatigue, with lacklustre audiences in the UK for SS-GB (BBC1, 2017), Channel 4’s Electric Dreams (2017-18) and the recent Hard Sun (BBC1, 2018).

All had very different themes. SS-GB envisioned a Nazi occupation of the UK, Electric Dreams is an anthology series based on the work of hard sci-fi author Philip K Dick and Hard Sun was a police thriller set in a pre-apocalypse London.

Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams didn’t perform as well as Channel 4 would have hoped

In terms of the BBC1 dramas, it could be said that the rather bleak material was better suited to sister channel BBC2, while the hit-and-miss nature of portmanteau series such as Electric Dreams are known to sometimes struggle to find audiences – with the obvious exception of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror (the former C4 show now at home on Netflix).

In the US, Syfy’s Incorporated (2016-17), a Matt Damon/Ben Affleck production set in a US ruled by corporations folded after one season, as did the channel’s exploitation Death Race homage Blood Drive (2017).

Are we approaching ‘peak dystopia?’ Not just yet. In fact, not by a long chalk.

It must be noted that anticipation was high for the second seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu) and Westworld (HBO), both of which premiered recently and have been well received. Viewers are now eagerly awaiting season three of The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime), while Black Mirror goes from strength to strength, with filming on season five beginning recently. And AMC’s future feudal Samurai-style society drama Into the Badlands returned in April for a third run.

Netflix’s Brazilian sci-fi series 3% deals with a world very much divided into the haves and have-nots; after favourable reactions to 2016’s debut run, the drama returned for season two on April 27.

On cable, dystopian series continue to thrive. The 100 (The CW) returned for a fifth season on April 24, The Colony came back for a third run on May 2 and Van Helsing (Syfy) had a third season order in December 2017.

Netflix’s The Rain focuses on a virus carried by precipitation

Netflix’s Altered Carbon (pictured top) launched to mixed reviews this February – there was high praise for the set design and production values but it was also criticised by some as owing too much to Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner (1982) and for objectifying its female characters.

Weeks after Altered Carbon dropped, Netflix also released two dystopian movies – Duncan Jones’s generally slated Mute (which shared a similar visual palate to Altered Carbon) and Alex Garland (Ex Machina)’s well-reviewed Annihilation – which may have been overkill in such a short space of time.

Data from Parrot Analytics suggests the budget-busting Altered Carbon’s patchy performance could make a sophomore season unlikely.

This year will see new dystopian drama on our screens in addition to returning series. Last week, continuing its interest in the genre, Netflix dropped the Danish thriller The Rain, which is being touted by some as its answer to The Walking Dead, except with a distinct young-adult skew.

The show is set after a brutal virus wipes out most of the population, as two young siblings embark on a perilous search for safety.

The fact the virus is spread through precipitation has led some to draw somewhat unfortunate comparisons to Chubby Rain, the fictional ‘film within a film’ in the Steve Martin/Eddie Murphy comedy Bowfinger.

Netflix Brazilian original 3% recently returned for a second season

ABC’s The Crossing, meanwhile, debuted on April 2. The show centres on an influx of refugees in present-day Oregon, but with the twist that they are from a war-torn USA, 180 years in the future.

Starring Steve Zahn (War for the Planet of the Apes, Treme), The Crossing debuted with a modest 5.5 million viewers, with audiences declining for subsequent episodes.

On May 19, HBO will premiere its feature-length version of Fahrenheit 451, an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi classic that depicts a totalitarian society where books are outlawed and burned by ‘firemen.’

Fahrenheit 451 takes its title from the autoignition temperature of paper. The book was last adapted for the screen in 1966 by French auteur filmmaker Francois Truffaut and was his only English-language movie. HBO’s version boasts a stellar cast including Michael Shannon (The Shape of Water) and Michael B Jordan (Black Panther). Shannon has previously worked with Fahrenheit 451 director Ramin Bahrani on the award-winning foreclosure drama 99 Homes (2014).

On the horizon from Fremantle’s UFA Fiction (Deutschland 83) is Kelvin’s Book, from art-house film writer/director Michael Haneke (The Piano Teacher, Hidden). An English-language project, the 10×60′ series tells the story of a group of young people in the not-too-distant future who are “forced to make an emergency landing outside of their home and are confronted with the actual face of their home country for the first time.”

Michael Shannon (left) and Michael B Jordan in Fahrenheit 451

Next year sees the debut of Amazon Prime Video/Liberty Global’s London-set series The Feed, which “centres on the family of the man who invented an omnipresent technology called The Feed. Implanted into nearly everyone’s brain, The Feed enables people to share information, emotions and memories instantly. But when things start to go wrong and users become murderous, they struggle to control the monster they have unleashed.”

Guy Burnet, Nina Toussaint White, David Thewlis and Michelle Fairley will star in the psychological thriller, which will be distributed by All3Media International.

One new project that many spectators now believe may never make it to the screen is HBO’s Confederate, as creators David Benioff and DB Weiss (Game of Thrones) are now on board the Star Wars franchise – and the show’s concept of a continuing Southern slave-owning state has proved highly controversial in the current US political climate.

FX has recently ordered a pilot of Y: The Last Man, set in a world with only one surviving male – with strong production credentials from co-showrunners Michael Green (Logan, Bladerunner 2049, American Gods) and Aida Mashaka Croal (Turn, Luke Cage).

Israeli VoD service/cablenet HOT TV will debut Autonomies this year, which imagines the present-day country divided by a wall into two Jewish states – secular in Tel Aviv and ultra-orthodox in Jerusalem.

And to round off the dystopian shows in development, Amazon recently announced a series based on William Gibson’s The Peripheral, set in a bleak not-too-distant future (and beyond), with the Westworld team of Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan as showrunners.

Seth McFarlane’s The Orville serves up more lighthearted sci-fi fare

Syfy’s 2015 miniseries adaptation of Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End must take the prize for one of the most downbeat endings ever – concluding as it does in the total destruction of the Earth, after the planet’s mutated psychic children have been subsumed into an all-powerful alien ‘overmind.’

But lest we fall into total despair, it should be recognised that there are actually a few sci-fi TV dramas that depict a future that isn’t unrelentingly grim.

The Star Trek franchise is notable for showing an optimistic view of the times to come, with mankind becoming a force for good in the galaxy after (with notable exceptions such as Harry Mudd) curbing its greed and war-mongering.

Seth McFarlane’s affectionate Trek tribute The Orville (Fox) also has rosier take on the future, whileNetflix’s Lost in Space reboot has a not-entirely-pessimistic vision of humanity in the 21st century.

Hulu/Ch4’s upcoming Beau Willimon-scripted Martian colony drama The First (starring Sean Penn and Natasha McElhone) appears to promise a relatively upbeat approach, or at least one that’s not tipped totally in the direction of dystopian misery.

The long-running Stargate SG1 and its spin-offs portrayed a universe that was inhabited by at least a few alien species willing to befriend mankind rather than instantly vaporise Earth.

Meanwhile, Doctor Who (BBC1) generally takes a more upbeat road, as befits its family audience. Although end-of-the-world scenarios and alien domination feature frequently, the Doctor usually conveys a positive attitude, occasionally (in some incarnations) to the point of what some may deem mania.

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Fact file: Kiss Me First

Melanie Stokes, from Kindle Entertainment, and Balloon Entertainment’s Bryan Elsley offer six points of interest about Kiss Me First, a drama series set in both the real and virtual-reality worlds coming to Channel 4 in the UK and Netflix.

1. Kiss Me First tells the story of Leila, a lonely 17-year-old girl who is addicted to a fictional online gaming site. While playing the game, Leila meets Tess, a cool and confident party girl who harbours a dark secret. The pair become friends in the real world, but after Tess disappears, Leila decides to assume her friend’s identity and is quickly drawn into the mystery behind her disappearance.

Kiss Me First is based on a book by Lottie Moggach

2. Melanie Stokes: The show is a thriller, a coming-of-age story. It’s full of intrigue but essentially it’s about female friendship, set in the real world and the virtual reality (VR) world. It’s based on a book by Lottie Moggach, which I read at manuscript stage about four years ago.
I wanted to do something that looked at the impact of the digital world on young people, how it’s changed the way they identify and communicate, and how they can hide in the internet in a way we just don’t understand. So when I read the book, it felt absolutely ripe for adaptation. Bryan wrote Skins so I sent him the book and, luckily, he liked it. The biggest challenge was that, in the book, it’s set in chat rooms and it didn’t particularly lend itself to dramatisation so we were really struggling to represent that on screen. Then Bryan had the idea we should make it a VR world so when she comes into the internet, she becomes an avatar. That was the breakthrough idea.

3Bryan Elsley: Combining live action and animation wasn’t easy to start with because we didn’t know anything about animation. Four years later, we know a little bit more. We were lucky that we found a fantastic studio, Axis Animation in Glasgow, and just sat with them for a year working out how to put live action and CGI animation together. It was a long process. It’s a very new kind of project, so there was skepticism from all sides – could we actually do it? We just had to pretend we did know how to do it for quite a long time.

The show blends real life and virtual reality

4. Elsley: Our main concern was working out how to tell a coherent story set in two different worlds. My main inspiration for the way we’ve approached the show is Mary Poppins, which made a huge impression on me when I saw it at the age of six. I just wanted to go through that pavement like the kids in Mary Poppins.
The idea of escaping to another place where you can be different is at the heart of the story. The jury’s out on what will happen with VR and how it will be utilised in future. I’m sure many exciting things are going to happen, but our main priority was to tell an arresting story about young characters. There is already a prototype VR experience that goes with this show.

5. Elsley: The principal element of the animation is motion capture, so the actors’ performances were captured and then we proceeded to animation. I thought that would be quite easy, but it was the beginning of a very long road of experimentation. We placed a lot of focus on getting nuance and believability into the animated characters’ faces, which is a difficult task. If you do it in too much detail, they cease to become believable or relatable, so you have to tactically limit the facial expressions.
Stokes: If you map the face and do an absolute replica, the likeness becomes uncanny so the animator wanted to create a more idealised avatar to give a sense of it being painted, which gives them more soul and brings them closer to the emotion of the original actor.

6. Stokes: The show was originally put into development by Channel 4, which was very supportive from the get go. Then Bryan spoke to Netflix, which already plays Skins in the US, and they were keen on the combination of C4 and Bryan, so it was that alchemy that came together.
Elsley: We’re in conversations about season two. We’re hopeful. We like the show and we think it’s come out quite well.

Kiss Me First debuts on Channel 4 on April 2 and Netflix later this year.

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Jack of all trades

As British drama Kiri makes its US debut, writer Jack Thorne tells DQ about penning the four-part miniseries and his approach to writing, with upcoming projects including The Eddy and His Dark Materials.

Widely regarded as one of the busiest people working in television, Jack Thorne hardly has a spare moment. So it’s no surprise that when DQ catches up with him, the writer is in New York combining promotion of his four-part miniseries Kiri with preparations for the Broadway transfer of his West End play Harry Potter & the Cursed Child.

Having worked on Skins and the Bafta-winning The Fades, Thorne is best known for collaborating with Shane Meadows on miniseries trilogy This Is England, as well as The Last Panthers, feature film Wonder and an episode of dystopian anthology series Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams.

More recently, he penned National Treasure, which sought to examine the fallout from a public figure being accused of historical sexual assault. But his most recent television outing is Kiri (pictured above), which launches on Hulu on April 4 and examines the disappearance of a young black girl (Kiri) who is soon to be adopted by her white foster family, and the trail of lies, blame, guilt and notoriety that follows.

Jack Thorne

Central to the drama is social worker Miriam (Sarah Lancashire), who arranges for Kiri to have an unsupervised visit with her biological grandparents, leading to her abduction. The series reunites Thorne with National Treasure producer The Forge and distributor All3Media International.

“It was quite stressful,” Thorne says of writing Kiri. “I was so happy with National Treasure and I feel very confident now in it in terms of what it said. So I was very anxious Kiri had something to say and what it had to say was something worth saying. The first draft of Kiri was one of the worst drafts I have ever handed in. [Executive producer] George Faber took me to dinner to say, ‘This is brilliant but a mess.’ He was being nice by saying it was brilliant but there wasn’t anything brilliant about it. Then started a long process of excavation.”

Writing Kiri was particularly troublesome because it was so personal, Thorne explains. His mother was a social worker, while he and his wife have looked into the adoption process, so transplanting those experiences and memories into a television drama proved to be a “scary process,” particularly when the transracial element opened up even more avenues to consider.

He continues: “All you have got to do as a writer is tell the truth but sometimes telling the truth is really tricky, and on Kiri it was. You’re dealing with a wasp’s nest of issues and that wasp’s nest is full of other people’s scars. Episode two sent me mad.”

Faber was also instrumental in helping solve the conundrum of the story’s structure, which shifts perspective between several different characters in a narrative method known as a relay race. “I thought about how to structure it and that idea came about, which is what Abi Morgan did brilliantly with [BBC drama] Murder. If I’ve got another show that can be my model, that makes me feel better,” he says.

Kiri stars Sarah Lancashire as social worker Miriam

Thorne says he works out a lot of knots in the storyline by writing through the problems, though he admits he needs to know the end of the story and what he thinks about it before he turns out a script. National Treasure proved to be an exception to the rule, however, when it came to deciding the courtroom verdict.

“I remember the moment when we realised [central character] Paul was not guilty as being quite late on, but we were talking about how we felt about him all the way through. He was guilty for a long time. It was just in that moment, going, ‘It’s a drama about someone who’s going to be found not guilty,’ and what that means and what that says.”

“In Kiri, it was about who did it and what that means. When it became clear it was about someone’s indignation that someone else wasn’t grateful for what they’d given them and that psychopathic anger inside him, we thought, ‘OK, that’s the truth we’re getting to, so how does every episode ask a question that leads to that ending?’”

Like National Treasure, the themes of blame and responsibility and the role of the media run through Kiri, so although it wasn’t billed as such in the UK (where both shows aired on Channel 4), the two miniseries form the first two instalments of a planned trilogy. In the US, it will air under the title National Treasure: Kiri.

Robbie Coltrane in National Treasure, the first part of a trilogy from Thorne that includes Kiri and an as-yet-unrevealed story

“Hopefully we’re going to get a chance to do a third one, and hopefully [the link] will become clear,” Thorne explains. “It was always in my head as a trilogy of different things. Season one was gender, season two was race. Season three I know what it is but I don’t want to curse it [by revealing too much] and hopefully it will all join together in a way that makes sense for people. I’ve got a story but I’m trying to work out how to make it function.”

Work only seems like work when you’re not enjoying it, and that’s certainly the view Thorne takes, admitting that he takes on so many jobs simply because he likes writing. He points again to Morgan who, speaking on the Royal Court podcast, describes the moment she realised she had taken on too much work was when she had 14 projects on her slate and felt like she was constantly having affairs with each one, forcing her to strip back her workload.

“I don’t feel I’m quite in that place,” Thorne admits. “But I recognise the danger and it’s important not to overexpose. I’m also working out how, in an age when inclusivity is becoming increasingly important, to use my voice to make things better, rather than just propagate a world that is over-dominated by white men. I’m doing a lot of thinking about that at the moment. Visibility has always been very important to me and my logic has always been if I can get those faces and stories on TV, then I’m doing alright. I’m just working all that out.”

For television, Thorne is now developing The Eddy, a musical drama for Netflix with La La Land director Damien Chazelle, and the highly anticipated adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials triology of novels, first announced by the BBC back in 2015. Thorne came on board in April 2016. Season one, based on the first book, Northern Lights, introduces Lyra, an orphan whose search for a kidnapped friend uncovers a sinister plot involving stolen children, all set in a parallel universe where science, theology and magic are entwined.

Thorne also penned The Last Panthers

“We’ve been together working on it for so long now. I’ve written all eight episodes of the first season and am rewriting them now,” Thorne says. “It’s been joyous so far, working out how to do it to make it work.

“There’s huge pressure. My job is to tell Philip’s story as well as I can. In doing so, I have to make decisions [about what to keep or cut out]. There are constant battles in how we tell these stories as well as you possibly can, but we’ve got a lot of time to tell them as well. Hopefully we can please everyone. That’s the aim but I’m tremendously scared.”

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On the right track

As the battle for the best projects becomes ever more fierce, leading drama commissioners and producers open up about their own development processes and reveal how they work to bring new series to air. 

For television drama commissioners, the development process must feel a lot like spending their working hours at the races, looking for the right horse on which to bet and willing it to cross the line in first place.

The financial power of SVoD platforms has changed the game for those picking up series for their networks, with the battle for projects now increasingly fierce as partners come together earlier in the process than ever.

Meanwhile, producers are reaping the benefits of an increasing number of buyers looking for original, brand-defining shows. But how is the development process changing at both broadcaster and producer level, and what challenges do they face in the new television landscape?

Sky Atlantic’s epic Roman drama Britannia

Anna Croneman, SVT’s newly installed head of drama, admits very few of the Swedish broadcaster’s scripted series are developed in-house. Instead, writers or writer-producer teams will pitch her ideas and SVT will then board a project from the start. But Croneman says her development slate has been slimmed down to ensure viable projects are singled out early on.

“Last year we cut the development slate significantly, which means we can spend more time on things we really believe are right for us,” she explains. “We lose some projects to the international players, but there is really no other broadcaster doing what we do in Sweden, in the Swedish language. But once again, getting the right talent is an even greater challenge now.”

That challenge is amplified by the competition from Netflix and HBO Nordic, which is starting to commission local original series. “I see companies trying to tie down writers by employing them, or doing first-look deals on ideas,” Croneman adds.

HBO Europe pursues projects from both single authors (such as Štěpán Hulík’s Pustina) and those that use writers rooms (Aranyelet). “In some cases we go through quite a lot of storylining processes; other developments go to first script very quickly,” explains Steve Matthews, VP and executive producer of drama development at the firm. “Sometimes we will polish a pilot through a number of drafts, sometimes we will commission a number of first drafts. It all depends. There is no set system; every project grows organically – we are proudly writer-led in our developments and do our best in each case to find the best support we can bring to the process.”

The company seeks to join projects as soon as possible, and Matthews says there are no rules about what materials it needs to consider a pitch. “We like to be involved early so that we can offer support in that crucial inception,” he says. “That’s when we can help the team understand our needs as a broadcaster and, crucially, for us to understand what the writer is trying to do or say and so support them in that process. A shared vision early in the development fosters a sense of joint ownership and collective focus on the core idea.”

HBO Europe’s Aranyelet is adapted from Finland’s Helppo Elämä

When its original-programming operation was in its infancy, HBO Europe’s attention centred on adaptable formats. But Matthews says the network group wanted the same thing then as it does now – shows that feel fresh and relevant in the territories for which they are made, whatever their origins.

“The results include shows that are based on formats, like Aranyelet [Finland’s Helppo Elämä] and Umbre [Australia’s Small Time Gangster], but that push ahead into new stories that are entirely authored by our local teams,” he explains. “Furthermore, adapting formats has proven an excellent training ground. Our brilliant teams in the territories have nurtured stables of writers who have learned their craft on series like our various versions of In Treatment and are now showrunners passing on their knowledge to the next groups of talent we bring in. So we feel we have the experience and confidence to no longer rely on formats. For our new slate in Adria, for instance, we decided at the start we would only develop original ideas from local talent.”

UK broadcaster Channel 4 is known for its eclectic drama output, from topical miniseries The State and National Treasure to shows that take an alternative approach to familiar genres, like Humans (sci-fi) and No Offence (crime).

“We have regular conversations with producers and writers and have a realistic development slate,” explains head of drama Beth Willis. “We don’t want to flirt unnecessarily with projects we don’t love – it’s a waste of time for the producer and the writer. So we will be clear from the off about whether we think it’s for us. And if we do say we think it’s for us, we really mean it.”

As a commissioner, Willis says she will offer her thoughts on early drafts and throughout production, and that the increased competition for scripted projects means her team is now more conscious of the defining characteristics of a C4 drama. However, like Croneman, she notes that “the biggest competition is in securing talent for projects rather than specific projects themselves.”

Producer Playground Entertainment adapted Little Women

“We receive hundreds of pitches a year from independent production companies,” says Rachel Nelson, director of original content at Canada’s Corus Entertainment. Her team read and review each piece and have bi-weekly meetings where they determine what might be suitable for Corus’s suite of networks, which includes Global and Showcase.

“We work mostly with producers, rather than with a writer only. We are open to ideas and will accept any creative, from scratches on a napkin to full scripts,” she says, adding that Corus’s focus now falls on projects within targeted genres. “We’ve also learned how important it can be to take risks and not be afraid of doing that when we feel strongly about specific projects. We experienced this first-hand with Mary Kills People. We received the script, read it right away and were so impressed that we moved to an immediate greenlight on this show by an unknown writer, pairing her with an extremely experienced team.”

Fellow Canadian broadcaster Bell Media – home of CTV and Space – is also open to developing projects that arrive in any form, though a producer should be attached fairly early in the process, says director of drama Tom Hastings. That said, its development process hasn’t radically changed in recent years, even as the company moves with programming shifts such as the trend for shorter serialised dramas.

“We take a ‘steady ship during stormy weather’ approach,” Hastings says. “As our channels have strong brands and identifiable audiences, we remain committed to developing drama programmes that best fit those brands and work for those specific viewers.  We remain very selective about what we develop and we take our time, demanding the best of everyone, including, most especially, ourselves.”

Arguably the biggest battleground in the world of development is the race to secure IP, with producers scrambling to pick up rights to films, stage shows and, in particular, books – often before they have even been published.

James Richardson

Transatlantic producer Playground Entertainment is behind new adaptations of Howards End and Little Women, and has previously brought Wolf Hall, The White Queen and The White Princess to the small screen. But adaptations, like every development project, are not a “one-size-fits-all process,” says Playground UK creative director Sophie Gardiner. “Sometimes we will commission a script before going to a broadcaster – maybe because nailing the tone is crucial to the pitch and you can’t do that in a treatment – but more often we prefer to work with a partner in the initial development.

“Not only does this mean you are on their radar and they are invested in it from the get-go, but they can often be genuinely helpful. However, there’s no doubt the SVoD firms are looking for material to be pretty well developed, and more packaged [compared with what traditional broadcasters want].”

The Ink Factory burst onto the television scene with award-winning John Le Carré adaptation The Night Manager in 2016 and is following up that miniseries by adapting two more Le Carré novels – The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and The Little Drummer Girl. Both are  again with Night Manager partners AMC and the BBC.

“Relationships with broadcasters are vital, and it is via those connections that we get to know each other and forge a sense of where our taste synthesises – and, from there, opportunities evolve,” explains Ink Factory head of development Emma Broughton. “Sometimes we will work on the seed of an idea and build it ground-up with a broadcaster. Some of our projects have broadcaster attachments before they have a writer or director. On other occasions, we will develop an idea ourselves to one or two shaped scripts and take those – with a series bible and, potentially, a director and cast attachments – to a broadcaster.”

Broughton says the development process has become “more innovative and collaborative,” thanks to opportunities to build stories not confined to the UK. But increasing competition means The Ink Factory must be more distinctive, original and bold in its ambitions, she adds.

Author Štěpán Hulík’s Pustina for HBO Europe

“It’s a terrific challenge,” the exec continues, “from bringing passion and vision when pitching in a highly competitive situation to secure a book, or developing projects that attract the most exciting and creative on- and off-screen talent. It’s all about the excellence of the work, being collaborative and honouring authorship.”

A “fairly traditional” approach to development is employed at Komixx Entertainment, which follows the tried-and-tested method of sourcing existing IP with a built-in audience and using recognised writers and producers. Keeping the original author of the IP closely involved is also seen as an important step to stay true to the material, in an effort to remove as much risk to broadcasters as possible.

What is different about Komixx, says Andrew Cole-Bulgin, group creative officer and head of film and TV, is where the company sources its IP, using both recognised authors such as Robert Muchamore (the Cherub series of novels) and new content from non-traditional publishers, such as self-publishing community Wattpad.

“As a young-adult producer, it’s crucial to consider that Generation Z is an audience made up of digital natives, so the best content comes from within their digital roots,” Cole-Bulgin argues. “Transitioning and retaining this audience from one digital platform, like Wattpad, to another, such as Netflix, is easier and more successful than pursuing a linear broadcasting approach.”

Komixx now has a raft of projects in development simultaneously, instead of focusing on a select few. Cole-Bulgin also believes the increasing power of SVoD platforms has transformed the production landscape, providing huge opportunities for producers. “As they look to quickly expand their libraries of content, we have to adapt our development method to fit their needs,” he notes.

Feature producer Vertigo Films has built its reputation on the back of Football Factory, Monsters and Bronson but is now breaking into TV with Sky Atlantic series Britannia. The epic Roman-era drama is set to debut in the UK early in 2018. Co-founder James Richardson says the firm is regularly “idea led,” often by the talent involved. “But every show needs to be somehow off-kilter – commercial but never straight,” he adds. “And we like projects that we feel we haven’t seen before, or that are tackling a subject we have seen before in a completely different way. Britannia, for example, subverts the historical genre.”

Vertigo has also had Sky pick up Bulletproof, a crime drama starring Ashley Walters and Noel Clarke and showrun by Nick Love. “Going from film to TV has been such an exciting transition creatively and I am in awe of execs in the TV world for creating shows over such a long space of time, since we have just had to make 90-minute films for most of Vertigo’s lifetime,” Richardson adds. “The process – and why we want to make a project – is the same, but there’s just more story, much more story.”

Looking forward, Richardson believes the development process for television drama, which can already take several years, will take even longer. “Getting projects to a place where they are ready before shooting – the film model – will become the norm for many shows. It makes a big, big difference.”

Komixx’s Cole-Bulgin concludes: “With companies like Facebook launching into the broadcast market, it will be fascinating to see how producers deal with the increasing demand for shortform scripted content for the audiences who are consuming their content via mobile platforms.”

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The stuff Dreams are made of

Matthew Graham, the writer behind the first episode of Electric Dreams, the 10-part anthology series based on the works of acclaimed author Philip K Dick, tells DQ about his favourite scene from The Hood Maker, which is based on the short story of the same name.

Matthew Graham

The Hood Maker takes place somewhere in the future. There has been a global disaster that has resulted in technology moving backwards – there is clearly no internet, while power and transportation are limited. The world we see is a relatively oppressive one, and the natural disaster that reduced our electrical power and cut off our telecommunications also gave rise to mutation – some are born with telepathic ability, the ‘teeps.’

The Anti-Immunity Bill has just been passed, allowing the police, known as Clearance in the story, to use teeps to read the minds of suspects, even against their will. As a lot of governments and institutions do, they justify it by saying if you’re not guilty of anything, you have nothing to hide. However, a mysterious man known as the Hood Maker begins sending out hoods that block teeps from reading the mind of the person wearing them.

Very early on, I wanted to have a scene where we see the oppressive power of the teeps and how it’s being used. The first person wearing a hood, Rathbone (played by Tom Mothersdale), is arrested, brought into the police station and strapped to a chair. Initially he is interrogated by a Clearance officer called Ross (Richard Madden). Even though Ross comes in and interrogates him quite hard, as you imagine a cop would do, there’s also a reluctance in Ross, the sense that he is saying, ‘It would be easier for you if you just told me what you know, rather than letting me bring a teep in to read your mind.’

L-R: Holliday Grainger, Richard Madden and Tom Mothersdale in the interrogation scene

Then a teep called Honor, played by Holliday Granger, comes in. Because Rathbone has resisted having his mind read, Honor forces his mind open. But I wanted it to be a process like ransacking a house; I didn’t want it to be neat and gentle. I wanted it to be like rummaging through someone’s drawers and throwing things over your shoulder.

She wants him to give up the names of his accomplices but he’s buried them deep in the back of his mind, and what you put in the back of your mind are the things you don’t want people to know. Things start coming out about him being bullied, about having a sexual fixation on his mum – things he feels really ashamed of.

I came up with this idea that Rathbone uses the phrase ‘The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’ as a mantra he repeats over and over again, like putting up a wall. Then I thought it would be cool if it became a battle of minds and will. Honor starts repeating her own mantra but she’s perverted it and made it more subservient, repeating ‘The slow black dog bows before the regal fox.’ Gradually she twists him round. At the end, when she does get the names from him, he is left spent, like the victim of an assault. He’s crying and broken.

Grainger plays a ‘teep,’ or telepath

The director, Julian Jarrold, brought two things to the scene that weren’t in the script. One was a suggestion that we have Ross watching this process, with the audience seeing his discomfort. Ross is a non-teep, so to anyone who’s not a mind-reader, this process looks unpleasant and creepy.

The second thing we did on the day they were filming, after talking to Holliday, was putting in that the process of mind-reading makes Honor cry. In a way, it’s a painful process for the teeps as well as the people being read. Holliday actually came in to rehearse that scene before filming and she started crying for real, so we ran with it.

In this scene, it was very much the writer, the director and the actors working together to build up the layers. Everyone had a part to play, which is why I think the scene works really well. It’s one of my favourite scenes in the story.

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Down with the kids

While some say young people are no longer watching TV, the global success of series like Riverdale and Pretty Little Liars has turned that theory on its head. DQ explores how series are driving youth audiences back to the box.

Attracting elusive youth audiences has always been high on the TV industry’s to-do list. But as more and more youngsters turn their backs on traditional forms of viewing, the debate around how to win their attention has intensified.

Indeed, you very quickly get a sense of how serious the issue has become when you realise that Channel 4 in the UK – long regarded as a radical, alternative network – has an average viewer age of 55. In the US, The CW, AMC and FX all average 40-plus, despite being home to cross-generational favourites like The Flash, The Walking Dead and American Horror Story respectively.

From the perspective of scripted content, the first obvious question is whether TV drama can play a role in pulling young audiences back in the direction of traditional viewing platforms.

George Ormond, co-founder of indie producer The Forge and executive producer of C4’s school-set drama Ackley Bridge, believes so: “With Ackley Bridge, we set out to make a show that would attract a broad, multigenerational audience but would also bring the younger audience that is so hard to attract to linear TV.

Ackley Bridge targeted a ‘broad, multigenerational audience’

“We did well on both counts. The show has lots of young fans that connected with it, but also the broader audience.”

Ackley Bridge is set in a multicultural school in Yorkshire, explains Ormond: “This felt like a great world to set a show in; contemporary, muscular, and unexplored on television. We wanted to make a show that would smack you between the eyes with surprising, untold stories that feel very modern.”

Key to ensuring younger audiences bought into the show was getting the right tone of voice, he adds. “We knew the show needed to offer something original: a strong premise and surprising, engaging and addictive stories that are outrageous and contemporary but unpatronising. It is sometimes provocative, always irreverent, never worthy. And it has heart.”

Another show that attempts to appeal to the youth demo as part of a broader audience is You Me Her, a romantic comedy that debuted on AT&T’s Audience Network in 2016 and has been renewed for a third season. In this case, the story revolves around Jack and Emma, a married, 30-something couple whose love for each other is being undermined by their fading sex life. To reinvigorate their relationship, they hire Izzy, a 25-year-old college student and part-time escort. The three develop romantic feelings for each other – creating the unfamiliar (for TV) dynamic of a polyamorous relationship.

You Me Her has a strong social media following

Creator John Scott Shepherd says the life-stage difference between the older couple and Izzy gives the show “an interesting, schizophrenic feel,” adding: “It allows us to explore issues around relationship choices but also to see the world from Izzy’s younger perspective. She lives downtown and shares an apartment with her friend Nina. So the show is recognisable as a romcom but also appeals to a younger, progressive audience because it deals with sexuality and romance in a fluid way.”

You Me Her, which airs on Netflix outside the US, has built up a strong following on social media – which Shepherd believes is to do with the show’s authentic tone. “It fits with the younger generation’s belief that you should follow your bliss. It’s OK to live how you want as long as you’re not hurting anyone.”

While Ackley Bridge and You Me Her are examples of shows that are bringing down the average age of cross-demographic networks, many broadcasters choose to position youth dramas on channels specifically targeted at a younger audience. The classic example of this is Skins, an exuberant drama that ran for seven seasons from 2007 to 2013 on C4’s youth channel E4. But a more recent example is Clique, commissioned for the BBC’s online youth channel BBC3 and made by Skins producer Balloon Entertainment.

Balloon head of development Dave Evans says show creator Jess Brittain “wanted to write a show about female friendships and how they survive – or don’t survive – through major transitions. University can be an exhilarating time for change but it can also be a hard place to survive, to learn what you want to do.”

Clique was made by Skins producer Balloon Entertainment

The show is a thriller, which is unusual, says Evans, because “university-set drama tends to sit in a comedic space – such Fresh Meat or Dear White People. But with Clique we wanted to hit the heart of the experience with more dramatic firepower.”

In terms of how you grab this audience’s attention, Evans says: “It’s about getting onto young people’s radar. Attention-grabbing scenes are useful in that if people are saying, ‘Oh wow did you see that bit when…’ or making animated GIFs, it’s more likely to hook in new viewers. That said, a young audience won’t stay unless the drama grabs them outside of all the flash and bang.”

Ironically, there are occasions when youth drama can have an ‘ageing up’ impact. German kids’ channel KIKA, for example, recently commissioned Five2Twelve (pictured top) as a way of appealing to a slightly older audience. Speaking to DQ, producer Marcus Roth says the show “plays in the 20.00 slot and deals with more mature editorial themes.”

Five2Twelve centres on five teenage boys who have all been in trouble with the police. “The courts give them one last chance to escape detention by sending them to a boot camp in the Bavarian Alps,” says director Niklas Weise. “Here they have to cope with the challenges of everyday life and learn how to get on with each other. Although most kids haven’t been on the wrong side of the law, they will recognise the issues.”

Like their counterparts, Weise and Roth say the biggest challenge is getting the language right – but that this also requires a supportive broadcaster. “The youth audience is quick to see anything fake or artificial, so you need to talk to them in a way that is authentic,” Weise adds. “But this also requires a broadcaster that is willing to support the vision you have for the project.”

NRK Norway’s Skam (Shame)

While the success or failure of a youth drama generally comes down to the relatability of the story and characters, it also helps if the producer or broadcaster can give the audience a sense of ownership over the production. In the case of hit Nordic youth series Skam (Shame), for example, originating broadcaster NRK launched the show via its website, a move that helped the show build up a strong online community.

Here, the focus of the story was high-school students attempting to deal with classic teen issues. The first season, which premiered in September 2015, focused on relationship difficulties, loneliness, identity and belonging. Subsequent series have addressed feminism, eating disorders, sexual assault, homosexuality, mental health and cyberbullying.

All of this was supported by fresh digital content that was published on the NRK website each day to maintain a connection with the audience. Other social media-savvy shows include Freeform’s cult youth drama Pretty Little Liars, as well as the aforementioned Ackley Bridge. “We did a big push on Snapchat,” says Ormond, “and ran a parallel, specially shot Snapchat strand that involved Snaps being released from characters at key points throughout each episode, as well as between episodes and in ad breaks.”

This raises another key question: how can digital media be harnessed in other ways? Komixx Entertainment has sought out youth source material in the digital realm. “With the explosion of digital platforms and social media, some social influencers now hold arguably more power than traditional celebrities,” says Andrew Cole-Bulgin, Komixx group chief creative officer and head of film and TV. “This is relevant for young-adult adaptations, as [viewers of these shows] are digital natives, having grown up with social media networks.”

Freeform teen success Pretty Little Liars

This led Komixx to back The Kissing Booth, a feature-length Netflix commission based on a teen novel sensation by Beth Reekles. “Beth was 15 when she self-published this book but it went on to generate more than 19 million reads on [online storytelling community] Wattpad,” says Cole-Bulgin. “We optioned the book because we could see that her connection with and understanding of the audience would prove a great starting point for a television production.”

The decision to make the film for Netflix, rather than a TV network, is interesting. Broadcasters may want to reach youth audiences, but producers also need to take a view on what is best for the long-term prospects of their property. In the case of The Kissing Booth, “SVoD was an obvious choice for us because that was where the youth audience have been going,” says Cole-Bulgin. “If we had this particular property for a more traditional channel, I think we’d have lost a lot of the audience.”

While Komixx adapted a digitally self-published work with The Kissing Booth, there is – still – a market for youth series based on traditional book properties. Komixx has optioned the rights to adapt Robert Muchamore’s best-selling young adult novel series Cherub into a TV drama, while The CW in the US is airing an Archie Comics adaptation called Riverdale (see box).

Elsewhere, Eleventh Hour Films is embarking on an adaptation of Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider novels, with UK broadcaster ITV as a partner. Jill Green, founder and CEO of the prodco, says: “Alex has a core audience of eight- to 15-year-olds but our aim is to reach as wide an audience as possible. We’re inspired by Stranger Things, which appealed to adults and kids.”

Stranger Things’ second season landed on Netflix last week

Reasons to feel positive about the project are varied, says Green: “The books have now sold 16 million copies worldwide. Alex Rider is known in more than 30 countries, and fans all over the world have been asking for a new dramatisation. There’s an official website and Anthony Horowitz has his own website and a Twitter platform where he engages with fans. It’s also worth noting that many 20- to 30-year-olds grew up with the books.”

Alex Rider has, in fact, had a previous outing as a movie in 2006. So why does it make sense to revive the franchise on the small screen? “TV now has the ambition, the scale, the technology and the budgets to do justice to Alex Rider,” says Green. “We’re writing it for a generation that thrives on box sets and binge-viewing.”

On the merits of free TV vs SVoD, Green adds: “We are very happy to be working with ITV but there’s no reason this series can’t go on to become a signature show on SVoD. A gripping story and great characters will always attract an audience. Whatever the platform, standout ideas and story come first.”


Riverdale Rundown
The CW’s hit youth series Riverdale is based on Archie Comics characters originally created in the 1940s.

Show creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is a lifelong fan but he admits there were “a lot of discussions about how the show might work for a modern audience. We knew there was a lot of wish-fulfilment and aspiration attached to the central group of characters, but the real breakthrough came when we decided to add a mystery genre element to the show. There’s a darkness and subversiveness to the show that has appealed to audiences and differentiates it from One Tree Hill or Beverly Hills 90210.”

Key to getting the show right was casting, says Aguirre-Sacasa, to the extent that “we wouldn’t have made the show if we hadn’t got the perfect cast. Great casting is what connects the audience to the characters. You can aim for it, but it’s not easy to get right, and when you do it’s a kind of alchemy.”

Asked whether he takes social media into account, he says: “Everyone in TV is trying to do what they can to make their show stand out – but we didn’t specifically look for people with a large fanbase. The only cast member who really had that was Cole Sprouse (star of Zack & Cody, pictured above left in Riverdale) but he was in the show because he fought for, and is perfect as, Jughead Jones.”

The CW is known for its youthful profile, but Riverdale, which returns for a second season this autumn, sits slightly apart from some of its big-hitting network siblings because it’s not a superhero show. “I think the execs at the network recognise that it’s good to have all different kinds of shows for fans to get passionate about,” says Aguirre-Sacasa.

In terms of feeding that passion, he says youthful shows inevitably include a social media component. “We did some live tweeting involving the cast,and I think that gets the fans really excited. We also know – because the show airs on Netflix outside the US – that there’s a global fanbase for Riverdale who love the whole Americana, US high-school kind of world.”

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