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.
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.
3. Bryan 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.”
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?
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.”
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.”
“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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
Channel 4’s one-off drama Unspeakable follows a mother investigating whether her new boyfriend is in an inappropriate relationship with her 11-year-old daughter. Filmmaker David Nath and stars Indira Varma and Luke Treadaway discuss a story lifted straight from the headlines.
You’re a divorced woman in a new relationship with a handsome younger man when an anonymous text arrives on your phone, saying: “There is something going on between your boyfriend and your daughter.” Then a second text arrives: “It’s not right.” What do you do?
Do you approach your new boyfriend, knowing that if you are wrong he will be appalled that you even suspected him? Do you ask your 11-year-old daughter – and if so, how? These questions are at the heart of Unspeakable, a new one-off drama for Channel 4.
Created, directed and produced by Bafta-winning documentary maker David Nath of Story Films, a production company he set up with fellow journalist Pete Beard a year ago, the story could not be more current. Indeed, the project came out of several news stories in which accusations both real and false have been levelled against people from anonymous sources.
Nath is best known for his documentaries including Bedlam and The Murder Detectives, but he decided this story was best told via a drama.
“It’s fictional but this is based on real stories that have happened,” says Nath, who made his first drama, The Watchman (also for C4), just a year ago. “The consequences of a sexual allegation are quite terrifying. Initially I did look at making a documentary about it, but it became clear quite quickly that it wouldn’t be possible. The anonymity would have made it difficult, but even if you had got past that I felt the power in these stories is when the protagonist – in this case a woman – goes through a period of uncertainty, where she questions everything. That is difficult to represent in a retrospective film; I wanted to show it as it was happening.
“It was based on a real story I heard where an allegation had been made from an anonymous source and there was this window where the mother didn’t know what to think. In the real story the window was only two hours, but I thought that period of doubt was so interesting. It shows an accusation can completely change your view and perception of someone you think you know.”
Luther and Game of Thrones star Indira Varma plays Jo, the woman who receives the mysterious text message just minutes after dropping her obviously upset daughter and son off to school. The tense 60-minute film, set over 48 hours, is a masterclass in acting as you see her character go through the gamut of emotions as, at first alone and too terrified to talk to anyone about the information she has just received, she tries to figure out what is going on. Once Luke is home from work, she has to work out what she now thinks of him.
“The first third of the film is like an inner monologue representing a journey of increased suspicion,” says Nath. “Uncertainty creeps into terror as every seemingly innocuous thing becomes loaded as she looks for clues. The nature of that accusation is something you would find very difficult to ignore or compartmentalise because of the nature of what it is.
“Once the poison is in there, it is very, very difficult to remove. It has a hold over you. Your mind starts to play tricks and you selectively recall things. I wanted there to be a strong sense of her rattling around her house looking for clues.”
Varma admits she was worried that the first third of the film, being solely focused on her, would be “boring” but she quickly realised how dramatic the situation was. “The nuances are so clever,” she says. “This is someone who wants to stay in control of the situation and not get ahead of herself. She is on this knife edge because she wants to be a responsible parent but she is also a woman who is in love and wants to hold on to her relationship. You see her wrangling with this dilemma and that makes it a very interesting thing to play.”
Nath says he tried to get into the head of how a woman would react by asking female friends, who all said – as the daughter in the story was staying at her already-paranoid father’s house – they would confront the boyfriend. “But they struggled when I asked them how would you confront them, how would you say the words: ‘Did you do this?’”
“What worked so well is that it is all very subtle,” says Luke Treadaway, who plays Jo’s boyfriend Danny. “There is no dastardly twiddling of a moustache. Danny doesn’t know what is going on. He thinks he is having a normal weekend until Jo tells him about the text.
“The thing about the script was even as you get to the end you don’t know what is going to happen. The writing is so subtle that the ending might well have been different.”
During the making of the film, which debuts on C4 this Sunday and is distributed by All3Media International, the team thought deeply about this particular crime. “I have come to think that men have somehow lost the trust of women,” says Nath. “There is an anxiety about new relationships. People who abuse children are manipulators, which is why [Jo] would be so worried. In society there is a presumption of guilt that has to be disproved, which makes the currency of this particular allegation very, very strong.”
Although this is his second short film, Nath says making a drama is very different to documentary-making and admits he found it nerve-wracking. “It’s more exposing,” he says. “With documentaries, you have a small crew and you direct them by being invisible and putting people at ease, while in drama it’s the opposite. You have to be quite demonstrative and everybody from the props to the lighting and the actors all want you to reassure them and make decisions. You can’t hide in any way when you are directing a drama.”
But, of course, dramas also hold plenty of advantages over documentaries – chiefly in that you are not confined by what you’ve been able to film. “The thing that is the same is that both are absolutely about telling stories powerfully and the best that you can,” says Nath. “In documentary you might not have all the elements; you only have the elements you have been able to gather. In drama you can construct any story you want, so the responsibility is on you tell it perfectly. That is a different pressure.”
But despite Nath’s fears, Varma says she didn’t even notice he was practically a novice. “It’s hard to believe it was his second drama, as he was brilliant,” she says. “He told me that, as a journalist, he can tell what makes a good story, and he was right. And what was particularly brilliant was he was able to articulate what he wanted, which not all directors can do. It’s an intricate story and I felt David let me do what I wanted, but then he would tweak things very delicately. I felt very led. The drama is so precise, but that is also the joy of the piece.”
Multi-award-winning writer Jack Thorne chose The Commuter as his entry into sci-fi anthology series Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams. Here, the writer, director Tom Harper and stars Tuppence Middleton and Anthony Boyle discuss making the episode and the dilemma at its heart.
When it came to choosing one of Philip K Dick’s short stories to adapt for sci-fi anthology series Electric Dreams, it’s surprising Jack Thorne didn’t choose one centring on time travel – because surely time travel is only way the award-winning writer can juggle the remarkable number of television projects to which he is currently committed.
Best known for his work on Skins, Shane Meadow’s This is England series, The Last Panthers and National Treasure, Thorne’s upcoming projects include The Eddy, Kiri and another Meadows project, The Virtues. He is also adapting Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials for the BBC.
On the side, he’s also written film screenplays for Wonder, War Book and A Long Way Down, among others, and has been brought in to work on the script for Star Wars XI. And if that wasn’t enough, he co-created and wrote the book for the awards-laden play Harry Potter & the Cursed Child.
Yet when the producers of Electric Dreams (including Ronald D Moore and Bryan Cranston) came calling, it was understandably hard to resist. So Thorne took inspiration from his own experiences when he chose to bring Dick’s The Commuter to the screen.
In the affecting adaptation, which airs as the third of 10 hour-long films in the series this Sunday on Channel 4, Timothy Spall stars as Ed Jacobson, an unassuming employee at a train station who is alarmed to find a number of daily commuters are travelling to a town that shouldn’t exist. When he makes the journey himself, he finds himself confronted with an alternate reality that forces him to confront his relationship with his wife Mary (Rebecca Manley) and his troubled son Sam (Anthony Boyle).
“It made me think about my granddad, who was a ticket clerk at Euston and whose son was a paranoid schizophrenic and who ended up quite seriously depressed,” Thorne explains. “He couldn’t cope with having my uncle for a son. So when I was thinking about that idea, his ideal wouldn’t be desert islands and coconut juice, it would be a pretty town that he could walk through where everyone was nice. It was just thinking about the idea of removing things from your life and whether that would make your life better.”
At the centre of the story is a choice offered to Ed by Linda (Tuppence Middleton), who is perhaps best described as a guardian angel, steering Ed towards the town of Macon Heights – a place that doesn’t exist on any maps. In this seemingly perfect place, Ed finds the problems brought about by his son don’t exist – because neither does he. Ed then faces a decision about whether to live this new life or revert back to his old one, with his son back in the family home.
“I’m interested to know whether people think he makes the right choice, actually, because I think there is a logic [to both options],” Thorne adds of the dilemma.
Middleton admits her only previous experience of Philip K Dick was Blade Runner-inspiration Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, a full-length novel. “I actually hadn’t read any of [Dick’s] short stories before doing The Commuter,” says the actor, who recently starred in the BBC’s War & Peace.
“I didn’t want to read the entire back catalogue of his short stories before we did this. I just wanted to concentrate on The Commuter. What I really like about this story is I love sci-fi that’s really rooted in reality and it feels like something extraordinary happens in a very ordinary world. There’s such a huge spectrum with sci-fi – it can be otherworldly, outer space, aliens, or just something very ordinary with something strange going on, and that’s the sci-fi that interests me the most and why I was excited to do this.”
In the original text, Linda is actually a short, bespectacled man. But Thorne opted to change things around for the television adaptation – “very fortunately for me,” says Middleton, who adds: “I felt like I had quite a lot of creative freedom with it. There wasn’t anything I was basing it on particularly. But we talked quite a lot about Linda before we started in that we didn’t want to make her either angel or devil.
“She was kind of this fairy godmother figure. She feels she’s doing something to better people’s lives but it’s debatable whether she’s doing something morally right. She’s offering a service she feels will make other people’s lives better.”
In contrast, Boyle based his character on something very real after speaking to a counsellor who had worked with kids with psychotic issues. “We spoke a lot about how they behaved and dressed,” he explains. “There was a lot about hats and keeping their heads low and their body language, so it was really useful to have the counsellors to speak to. It was amazing working with Tom and Jack because they just guided me through. It was an absolute joy. It was a bit difficult at times but Tom was just like a dad on set – if anything got a bit much, he was there for a cuddle!”
Harper, known for his work on Peaky Blinders and War & Peace, was drawn to Thorne’s study of one man’s breakdown, which he describes as “really emotional.”
“What really appealed to me about it, and I’m not a massive sci-fi fan, was that it was sci-fi through the prism of one man’s experience,” he explains. “The original short story is fascinating, it’s clever and makes you think, but it’s not such a rich character study, certainly. It was that human story that really appealed to me and how you would fight for the love of your son, despite the costs, for better or for worse.”
The cast and crew descended on Woking, Surrey, to film scenes set in the train station, while Poundbury, the Dorset ‘new town’ championed by Prince Charles, doubled for the otherworldly Macon Heights.
“We did nothing to it,” Harper says of Poundbury. “It was built very recently and it has a very artificial feel. It’s an ideal town, built to spec from a set of plans rather than having emerged over time, so it does have this strange feel. I think it will get less strange as it matures.”
Middleton continues: “It’s such an amazing place. What makes it so bizarre is all the buildings are built as if they’re period buildings, but they’re all new, so it kind of feels like something isn’t right. You can’t feel the history coming out of the buildings. So it does feel like a set, which really helped for those scenes because we’re in this unreal world.”
Thorne compares his work on The Commuter to writing a short film, with less than 60 minutes to tell a complex, emotion-filled story that the audience must be challenged by, yet not so challenged that its themes and ideas are incomprehensible.
To help him, the writer would often have calls to discuss the episode and receive notes from the executive producers, among them Battlestar Galactica’s Moore.
“I’m a massive Battlestar fan so working with him was very exciting,” Thorne says. “To be honest, you do these notes calls and get these voices – there was like 10 of them – and I think I knew which notes were coming from him but I wasn’t entirely sure. It was just these disembodied voices on the end of the phone. I got lots of clever notes from lots of clever people.”
While Electric Dreams populates a very different strand of science fiction, comparisons to another genre series, Black Mirror, which also started life on Channel 4, are inevitable. It’s interesting to note, however, that rather than dismiss any similarities between the two series, Thorne actively sought to put distance between The Commuter and anything that might make a Black Mirror episode.
“I was determined that it wouldn’t be a Black Mirror story; there’s no way this could fit into the Black Mirror universe,” he says of the Sony Pictures Television series. “I’m sure there’s some Philip K Dick stories that could very easily, but it was important to me that this was something that could not ever be seen [as part of Black Mirror]. Black Mirror’s not interested in stuff like this, so it was important it wouldn’t be. I love Black Mirror, by the way.”
It’s the ending to The Commuter that could prove divisive among viewers, as Ed faces the extremely personal decision about whether to fight for his relationship with his son or to continue life in an altered reality.
“Jack and I spoke a lot about it and we maybe even have slightly different ideas about what Ed should do at the end,” Harper says. “What I really hope is people take different things away from it.”
Thorne adds: “For me, it’s about someone who has, at the back of his head, a better reality than the one he lives in, and what it’s like to live with that and then what it means for that to become reality for them. It’s about the horrors of that.”
The creative team behind Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams discuss the origins of the ambitious sci-fi anthology series and reveal how they brought together a host of A-list actors, writers and directors for the show.
To say Philip K Dick adaptations are a fixture on screen at the moment is akin to saying the sky is blue. The late sci-fi writer’s work is hot property.
The trend was set two years ago with global giant Amazon launching original series The Man in the High Castle. Based on Dick’s novel of the same name, a third season of the show was greenlit earlier this year. Looming large on the horizon too is Blade Runner 2049, the much-anticipated follow-up to the revered 1982 movie Blade Runner, also based on a Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.
And now Channel 4 has jumped on the bandwagon with Electric Dreams, a sci-fi anthology series of 10 hour-long episodes, drawn from a selection from the 120-plus short stories the author penned during his life.
The genesis of the Sony Pictures Television coproduction came five years ago when Michael Dinner, writer and series executive producer, was approached by US prodco Anonymous Content and Dick’s daughter Isa Dick Hackett with the idea of doing a series based on one of the short stories. Two weeks later, at a screening of episodes The Hood Maker and Crazy Diamond, Dinner recalls: “I had the nerve to call and say, ‘How about all of them?’”
The Hood Maker, the season premiere, debuted on September 17 to broadly positive reviews. In the pantheon of stars on board the show, Holliday Grainger (who also stars in BBC1’s Strike, the adaptation of JK Rowling’s three crime novels written under her Robert Galbraith pseudonym) is not perhaps the biggest name; but her turn as telepath Honor is balanced and full of range for a character essentially supposed to be a dispassionate drone. Her rapport with co-star Richard Madden (Game of Thrones) is full of feeling and has depth, which is impressive since the episode unfolds at 100 miles per hour.
The acting line-ups for the nine other episodes are star-studded. Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad), Timothy Spall (Mr Turner), Anna Paquin (True Blood), Terrence Howard (Empire), and Janelle Monae (Hidden Figures) are but a few of the recognisable faces on screen.
Sidse Babett Knudsen (Westworld, Borgen), who stars alongside Steve Buscemi (Boardwalk Empire) in Crazy Diamond, says the adaptability of the sci-fi genre allowed the actors to bring individuality to their roles and not feel restricted by the character in the original script.
“It’s a strange read, the script; I couldn’t explain it, but I liked it,” she says. “The whole thing is very odd – we’re odd, and the style is odd, but it’s exceptionally playful.
“What this genre allows is that nobody can come and say, ‘That’s not really believable,’ because what is believable? You can always insist on things being the way they are – this is the way we choose to interact and have emotions.”
Noma Dumezweni (Harry Potter & the Cursed Child), who features in The Hood Maker, says the stellar casts caught her eye, and that this unique quality, along with the individuality of each episode, is the series’ strength.
“Just watching these two episodes, I can’t wait to see the others because they’re so fucking individual,” she says. “For me, there is no meaning; Electric Dreams is the thing that’s holding this all together. I want to see what each director’s done with their vision.”
It’s not just in front of the camera where there is variety. Electric Dreams is made up of five UK and five US productions, has 10 different writers, 10 different directors and multiple executive producers. It is unsurprising, then, that Dinner calls the episodes “little movies.”
“I had this crazy notion of doing an anthology show, but one that encompassed 10 different unique points of view, not done like traditional American television,” he says. “So, then I solicited friends [to help].”
Dinner turned to veteran sci-fi producer and screenwriter Ronald D Moore – the “resident sci-fi geek” at Sony’s studio lot – before bringing on board Cranston, who happened to be moving into an office below Dinner’s, and who too is an avid Dick fan.
“We went after writers whose work we really liked. Some of them brought with them the stories that were favourites of theirs, and we also curated stories and sent them to writers. We put this all-star team together,” says Dinner.
“[We had a vision that] each show would have a diversity of viewpoint and we’d really give artists who came and joined us the opportunity to bring their own vision and interpretation to it,” Moore adds.
Along with Moore and Dinner, Maril Davis (Tall Ship Productions) exec produces. Cranston, who stars in episode Human Is, is also exec producing on behalf of Moon Shot Entertainment, along with James Degus. Isa Dick Hackett, Kalen Egan and Christopher Tricarico of Electric Shepherd Productions and Anonymous Content’s David Kanter and Matt DeRoss also have executive producer credits.
So was having so many bodies on each show – literally thousands of miles apart from each other at any given stage – a challenge for the producers? Though he is satisfied with the outcomes of each individual project, Dinner says it was tricky at times.
“We were crazy because we were shooting on two continents, almost simultaneously,” he says. “We started shooting in Great Britain about five weeks earlier than the US. There were a lot of producers, so people would come and go to [and from] Great Britain.”
Moore jokes that they undertook such an extravagant project “because we’re insane,” but concedes the complexity of the series was tough.
“It’s a lot of ground to cover and I can’t even begin to tell you how difficult it is to produce a show like this,” he says. “Every episode is a new cast, new locations, new costumes, new sets, everything. It’s hard to produce. It’s unique, I’ve never done anything like it. I suspect none of us have.”
It seems like a bit of a departure for C4 too. Electric Dreams was commissioned by outgoing chief creative officer Jay Hunt, Piers Wenger (who is now at the BBC) and Simon Maxwell, head of international drama. Earlier this year, Maxwell said the budget for Electric Dreams was “significant” and that the show would have been unaffordable without forming a coproduction. Amazon Prime has the US rights.
It is not solely monetary success C4 needs. There is perhaps some pride to salvage owing to the big hole in the channel’s scheduling left by fellow sci-fi show Black Mirror, which moved to streaming giant Netflix last year. However, there is confidence among Dinner and Moore their show can emulate the dramatic success of its predecessor. Indeed, the former believes they have brought a cinematic experience to linear television.
“With each one as we finish it up, it’s thrilling. I’m as excited about the other directors’, the other writers’ [episodes] as I am about the one I did,” he says. “It’s fun to work with the talent and work with people we really admire, [bringing together] directors with writers and writers with directors.
“We get to make 10 movies in a season. The ability to 10 stories and do 10 movies is awesome.”
Given the series is only a 12th of Dick’s short story output, do the producers have hopes they could be future Electric Dreams series?
“Five years ago, we said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to invite people to play in our sandbox?,’” Dinner adds. “We wondered if people would come and they did. If it’s a success, more people will come to the sandbox.”
Films including Blade Runner and Minority Report saw the work of acclaimed novelist Philip K Dick transformed for the big screen to great success. Now the late author’s writing is coming to television in an anthology series featuring 10 standalone stories based on his short stories.
Holliday Grainger, Richard Madden, Steve Buscemi, Bryan Cranston, Timothy Spall and Anna Paquin are among the stars in front of the camera, while writers and directors include Jack Thorne, Matthew Graham, Tony Grisoni and David Farr.
In this DQ TV interview, executive producers Michael Dinner and David Kanter discuss why Electric Dreams is more than a dystopian show but also a “very human show,” and how the programme was produced on both sides of the Atlantic.
They also explain why3 the deal to make the series took years to put together, with multiple producers attached to the project, which will air on Channel 4 in the UK and Amazon Prime in the US.
Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams is produced by Rooney McP Productions, Electric Shepherd Productions, Anonymous Content, Tall Ship Productions, Moonshot Entertainment and Left Bank Pictures in association with Sony Pictures Television. Sony is also the distributor.
Bafta-winning writer and director Peter Kosminsky joins the cast of his latest miniseries, The State, to discuss the show, which tells the story of four Britons who leave their UK lives behind to join so-called Islamic State in Syria.
When HBO revealed that the next project from Game of Thrones showrunners DB Weiss and David Benioff would be an alternative-history drama about slavery continuing into the modern US, the backlash was swift.
While July’s announcement of Confederate came at a time of heightened political and racial tensions in the country, events in Charlottesville and their aftermath in the past week have taken the situation to boiling point, forcing the US premium cable network to defend its plans for the show, describing accusations of irresponsibility as “simply undeserved.”
From the outset, one of the chief concerns about the series was how a story in which the South successfully seceded during the Civil War would be dealt with by two white writers. The presence of fellow writers and executive producers Nichelle Tramble and Malcolm Spellman, who are black, has allowed Weiss and Benioff to assure commentators it would not be a series centred on whips and plantations.
But it boils down to the question of whether somebody can, or should, tell the story of a race or culture they are not themselves a part of. That same question was posed to Peter Kosminsky, the Bafta-winning director of Wolf Hall, when he was asked why the story of four non-white British Muslims who join Islamic State (IS) was one he – a white filmmaker – felt qualified to tell.
Responding at a screening of the drama, four-part miniseries The State, he described himself as a generalist who moves from subject to subject while briefly becoming an expert on each one.
“Prior to doing this, I became moderately expert on Henry VIII [for Wolf Hall] and what was going on in Tudor England,” he explained. “Prior to that, it was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict [for The Promise]. I believe there’s room for a whole choir of different voices on these issues and, for better or for worse, I’m lucky enough to have access to the airwaves.
“Television is a very serious matter; it’s fine that some of it’s escapist, but primarily it’s a powerful tool and we should use it responsibly. If the only people who could make these kinds of shows were people who were themselves immersed in the story, first of all it’s hard to bring objectivity, and what do they do next? So there is a role still in programmes that are rooted in reality and research for the generalist. I’m not saying it’s the only way to make these programmes, but I do think it’s a legitimate way.”
Produced by Archery Pictures and distributed by Fox Networks Group Content Distribution, The State follows best friends Jalal and Ziyad, student Ushna and mother and nurse Shakira (with her nine-year-old son Isaac in tow) who have left their UK lives behind to join IS in Raqqah, Syria.
Initially exuberant at what awaits them in the caliphate, their journeys soon diverge as their motivations for joining clash with the reality of day-to-day life.
Describing his own motivation for making a drama that has already courted controversy, Kosminsky says he saw a space for a series that starts on the border and uncovers what happens to Britons when they join IS. For 18 months, he worked with a research team to find real-life testimonies on the conditions in Syria, and two years after he first began work, the series is due to premiere on Channel 4 this Sunday. It will air in the US on National Geographic in September.
Kosminksy admits it is an uncomfortable watch, as his intentions were to humanise the characters to ensure The State acts as a “cautionary tale.”
“I don’t think we do any service to the people who have suffered at the hands of IS to pretend the people who go over there are all clinically insane,” he says. “It’s easy and comfortable to think that, but unfortunately it’s not true. They seem to come from all socioeconomic backgrounds, all different levels of academic attainment. The one common factor seems to be a shallowness of their connection to their faith.
“These people are either converts to Islam, or Muslims who have only been born again relatively recently. From the research, it seems the deeper your faith, knowledge and understanding of Islam, the less likely you are to travel. So the first thing was to make characters who are real, faithful to the research and didn’t allow us the easy out of thinking these people are all mad. The second thing – I’ll be quite open about it – is this is meant to be a cautionary tale. The main characters’ attitudes change. I didn’t think it would act as a cautionary tale if you couldn’t associate with the characters.”
As such, Kosminsky is acutely aware of why Muslims might be upset with the show, and admits that concerns over Islamophobia were at the forefront of his mind during the production process.
“A dramatist’s job is to hold a mirror up to society and, given the fact thousands of Brits decided to go over there [to Syria] and now that issue is spilling back onto our streets in London and Manchester and in some European cities and capitals, I think this is an issue we need to address,” he says.
Breaking down the first episode, Kosminsky says it leans on research that suggests one of the driving factors behind people going to Syria is a sense of exclusion at home and the promise of brotherhood and sisterhood when they arrive.
“Episode one ends with almost a sense of euphoria among a band of brothers and sisters,” Kosminsky says. “It’s misplaced with a sense of purity, of having found a safe place. If we hadn’t done that, it wouldn’t have faithfully reflected the research. The next three episodes are spent unpicking that view and I think you see at the end that it isn’t the main characters’ faith that departs, it’s their belief in the caliphate that departs – and that’s the key part. If this film in some ways suggested the characters rejected their faith as a result of rejecting Islamic State, that would be not realistic and would be quite destructive.”
The main cast members – Shavani Cameron (Ushna), Sam Otto (Jalal), Ony Uhiara (Shakira) and Ryan McKen (Ziyad) – admit to feeling a sense of responsibility when they took on their roles.
Otto, whose character heads to Syria in the footsteps of his brother who was killed in combat, says it was important to understand where these people are coming from. “It was a real challenge to get into the mind of somebody who’s decided to up ship and go to Syria,” he says, adding that he spoke to a cab driver who knew people who had joined IS. “He said these people don’t have a deep understanding of their faith. The pious guys wouldn’t go. That was an interesting thing for me to think about.
“This is the most sensitive issue of our time. When I found out I had this part, there was a sense of doing it justice and doing it right because I’m representing groups of people in this really sensitive subject. For Jalal, it’s about duty and honour, which is what some of these guys actually feel.”
The mix of characters was also identified through the show’s research. Kosminsky says certain character types emerged, including siblings of people who had already been to Syria (Jalal), young girls radicalised on the internet (Ushna) and those with skills to offer (nurse Shakira).
Subsequently, Uhiara has several scenes set inside a hospital, and she admits learning lines in Arabic was tough. “It was a fun, difficult challenge,” she says of the series, which was filmed in Spain. “I approached it like learning a song. We broke it down phonetically and, once you get to grasps with the pronunciations of the language, you can move on to find ways to pinpoint what word means what so when you’re playing the scene, you can hear those. Most of my scenes in Arabic were with natural Arabic speakers so it was pressured sometimes and there was a lot of tension. But I love languages so it was a good additional aspect of the job.”
Beth Willis, head of drama at Channel 4, praises Kosminsky for his “passion, dogged determination, his forensic eye for factual detail, coupled with a deep understanding of humanity and of drama.” In fact, she says The State surpasses his previous “jaw-dropping” work.
“This show has reminded me of the power and the importance of drama – to be able to get to those places factual programming sometimes just can’t reach,” Willis adds. “By inviting you to experience this world with these characters from their point of view, we’re offered an insight that goes well beyond the headlines. This is everything a Channel 4 drama should be – bold, thoughtful, compelling and important.”
The work of renowned author Philip K Dick has inspired a new anthology series heading to Channel 4 in the UK and Amazon. Michael Pickard takes a look at the 10 imaginative stories that make up Electric Dreams.
Since Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams was first announced in May last year, it seems not a week has passed without a new A-list actor, star writer or acclaimed director joining the anthology series.
Comprising 10 single films, each inspired by one of author Dick’s renowned short stories, a roster of leading British and American writers and directors have taken up the challenge to adapt the works for television.
Each story is set in a different and unique world, with some at the far reaches of the universe and others much closer to home. But while on the surface they may seem poles apart, they all focus on the importance and significance of humanity.
From Sony Pictures Television, Electric Dreams is executive produced by Michael Dinner of Rooney McP Productions alongside Isa Dick Hackett, Kalen Egan and Christopher Tricarico of Electric Shepherd Productions, David Kanter and Matt DeRoss of Anonymous Content, Ronald D. Moore and Maril Davis of Tall Ship Productions, Bryan Cranston and James Degus of Moonshot Entertainment, Lila Rawlings and Marigo Kehoe of Left Bank Pictures, plus Don Kurt and Kate DiMento. Sony is also handling international distribution.
Here, DQ takes a look at the details of all 10 episodes, which are due to air on Channel 4 in the UK and Amazon in the US later this year.
Boardwalk Empire’s Steve Buscemi plays Ed Morris in what is described as “the ultimate Philip K Dick comic film-noir nightmare.” Inspired by the story of the same name, the story follows average man Ed, who is approached by a gorgeous synthetic woman with an illegal plan that could change his life completely. He agrees to help – and then his world begins to crumble.
Starring alongside Buscemi are Sidse Babett Knudsen (Westworld, Borgen), Julia Davis (Gavin & Stacy) and Joanna Scanlan (No Offence). The episode (pictured top) is written by Tony Grisoni and directed by Marc Munden.
The morning commute is turned on its head in this mysterious tale from Bafta-winning writer Jack Thorne (National Treasure, This is England). Timothy Spall (The Enfield Haunting) stars as Ed Jacobson, an unassuming employee at a train station who is alarmed to discover that a number of daily commuters are taking the train to a town that shouldn’t exist. This one is directed by Tom Harper (War & Peace).
In an episode that promises two be out of this world, Jack Reynor (Free Fire) and Benedict Wong (Marco Polo) play two disillusioned, disenchanted and indifferent space tourism employees who agree to an elderly woman’s (Geraldine Chaplin, A Monster Calls) request for a trip back to Earth – the existence of which is a long-debunked myth. She appears easily confused, plus she’s rich – so, for the right payment, what’s the harm in indulging her fantasies? As the journey unfolds, however, their scam begins to eat away at them and they ultimately find themselves dealt a bittersweet surprise. Impossible Planet is written and directed by David Farr (The Night Manager) and based on the short story of the same name.
Essie Davis (Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries) stars as a woman suffering in a loveless marriage who finds that her emotionally abusive husband (played by Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston) appears to be a different man upon his return from battle – in more ways than one. With a cast that also includes Liam Cunningham and Ruth Bradley, this episode is written by Jessica Mecklenburg and directed by Francesca Gregorini.
The world is under attack in Father Thing as aliens quietly invade our homes. Charlie, played by Jack Gore (Billions), must make the most difficult decisions imaginable as he tries to protect his mother (Mireille Enos, The Catch) and the human race as he is among the first to realise that humans are being replaced by dangerous monsters. Greg Kinnear (As Good As It Gets) also stars in this instalment by writer and director Michael Dinner (Sneaky Pete).
This future-set episode sees Anna Paquin (True Bloood) play Sarah, a police officer who shares ‘headspace’ with George (Terrence Howard, Empire), a brilliant game designer, with each pursuing violent killers whose plans could have shattering consequences. In a race against time, and sharing a bond that no one else can see, they learn that the very thing that connects them could also destroy them. Additional cast members include Rachelle Lefevre (Under the Dome), Lara Pulver (Sherlock), Jacob Vargas (Luke Cage), Sam Witwer (Once Upon A Time) and Guy Burnet (Hand of God). The episode is written by Ronald D Moore (Outlander, Battlestar Galactica) and directed by Jeffrey Reiner (The Affair).
The Hood Maker
Set in a world without advanced technology, mutant telepaths have become humanity’s only mechanism for long-distance communication. But their powers have unintended implications, and when the public begin to embrace mysterious, telepath-blocking hoods, two detectives with an entangled past are brought in to investigate. Richard Madden (Game of Thrones), Holliday Grainger (The Finest Hours) and Anneika Rose (Line of Fire) star in The Hood Maker, which is written by Matthew Graham (Life on Mars) and directed by Julian Jarrold (Becoming Jane).
Kill All Others
A man hangs dead from a lamppost, apparently murdered and inexplicably ignored by passers-by, after a politician (Vera Farmiga, Bates Motel) makes a shocking statement encouraging violence. But when one man, the extraordinarily average Philbert Noyce (Mel Rodriguez, The Last Man on Earth), dares to question the situation, he becomes an instant target. Written and directed by Dee Rees (Bessie), this episode also stars Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton), Glenn Morshower (Aftermath) and Sarah Brown (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation).
Set in a world where society has collapsed, a massive, automatic product-manufacturing factory continues to operate according to the principles of consumerism – humans consume products to be happy and, in order to consume continuously, they must be denied freedom of choice and free will. When a small band of rebels decide to shut down the factory, they discover they may actually be the perfect consumers after all. Juno Temple (Vinyl) stars as Emily, one of the rebels, alongside Janelle Monae (Hidden Figures) as Alexis, an Autofac representative. Jay Paulson and David Lyons also appear in the episode, which is written by Travis Beacham and directed by Peter Horton.
Safe and Sound
Annalise Basso (Captain Fantastic) stars as a small-town girl, already gripped with social anxiety, who moves to a big futuristic city with her mother, played by Maura Tierney (The Affair). Exposed for the first time to urban society’s emphasis on security and terrorist prevention, it isn’t long before her schooldays are consumed by fear and paranoia. However, soon finds guidance and companionship in the most unexpected of places. Safe and Sound is written by Kalen Egan and Travis Sentell and directed by Alan Taylor.
Director Kath Mattock tells DQ how she became involved in factual drama The Trial: A Murder in the Family and how this complex series blends reality and fiction in order to record the deliberations that take place by a jury deciding the outcome of a murder trial.
Dragonfly was commissioned to make a five-part series by Channel 4’s factual department, which was excited by the proposition of being able to get a documentary crew into places that are normally impossible to access.
In this case, the initial spur was to be able to witness jury room deliberations; to record the dynamic that opens up between 12 randomly selected people and the process by which they reach their verdict when judging a serious crime.
This also presented the opportunity to capture the mostly elusive way barristers approach and craft cases.
Documentary director Nick Holt had made a film called The Murder Trial, which I had seen and admired. He contacted me after seeing Murder, a drama film I had made for BBC2, which told the story of a joint-enterprise case using direct-to-camera testimony (or ‘confessions’) and evidential material – CCTV, photographs, archive content and so on. It was strongly influenced by Errol Morris documentary film The Thin Blue Line, but was clearly a drama. We started talking about the channel’s proposition and the space between drama and documentary; how one might unlock the other.
Quickly it became clear that to achieve our aims we had to create a fictional case that we could put into the courtroom in a way that felt as real as possible, both in content and in performance; that would engage and sustain both the prosecution and defence teams and the members of the jury in their willing suspension of disbelief.
We knew we had to shape a case and then document it so it could be delivered to the prosecuting QCs [Queens Counsel barristers] in evidential bundles in the same way they would receive a real case, so they could run it as they saw fit.
But to allow them to do so, the courtroom had to operate as much like a real court as possible – no one could call cut once we were underway. Once we had settled on the idea that the final episode of the series would reveal the truth of the crime in drama scenes, we knew we were embarking on something that had multidimensional challenges.
I had recently read a script called Ellen, by writer Sarah Quintrell, which Channel 4 was just about to shoot as a single drama. There was something very arresting about the writing. It was simple and direct, yet it had a heightened, almost hyper-real quality. Nick, Sarah and I met and looked over a number of existing cases before settling on the idea of a ‘quiet’ murder – something domestic and relatable for the jury. We set it in Newbury [a town in southern England]. This specificity seemed important to hold on to. Then we drafted a number of scenarios and key character biographies.
Julia Horan came in to cast it. This was crucial, as we needed someone who could find actors not just with a willingness to play and create in the rehearsal room, but also possessing real composure in the court setting to deal with the challenge of real-time improvisation when being cross examined by top QCs. We pushed actors in casting with various scenes (there was no script at this stage) and improvised interviews.
Then, in tandem with the channel and legal advisor David Etherington, the story was honed and we began a two-week workshop period, with director Roxanne Silbert coming in to work alongside us and the actors to develop intricate timelines, character relationships and truths.
These histories had to have a real depth and complexity. Secrets were kept judiciously – only the actors playing the victim and the perpetrator knew for sure who had really committed the crime. Everyone knew only what they needed to know. As in real life, everything is partial, and so while we appreciated each actor’s ability to play their character with nuance and skill, this would be undoubtedly more effective if they were only party to certain instances or pieces of information.
As such, it intrinsically demanded a generosity from everyone involved. Everything was serving the story. Michael Gould is the accused and Emma Lowndes plays his estranged wife; her current boyfriend is played by Kevin Harvey, and his daughter is played by Fern Deacon. They were all at the heart of things and carrying the piece, but the detail of a seemingly casual witness also held its place.
As this process came to an end we called in former police officers to interview each witness and member of the family in something approximating normal police procedure. From these interviews, paper witness statements were generated. These interviews were run in real time and were the first interactions between ‘real’ professionals and improvising actors. Something came alive immediately.
We then shot all the remaining police interviews and CCTV footage needed to complete the pre-trial evidence in designed spaces, the actors now costumed and prepped but still improvising and running in real time. Nick and I developed a technique whereby he would prep the police and I would prep the character and we would then send them into the space together, so neither side would know exactly what the other was going to do. This co-directing approach kept things alive and served us well across the course of the trial itself. When shooting the scripted drama elements I maintained this direct relationship with actors, whilst consulting with Nick on all key decisions.
Simultaneous to this work, the jury were being selected and interviewed, as were the QCs. The evidence bundles were revised and revised. Maps and professional reports covering DNA and forensics were completed with fresh perspectives that impacted timelines and details that the actors had to keep across.
A recently decommissioned court was rigged with cameras, as were the jury and the barristers, and the filming apparatus and process was kept to a minimum. The actors and professional witnesses came in as called daily in the shape of a trial created by the prosecution (as in real life, they decide how best to serve the case). The QCs Max Hill and John Ryder approached things diligently and adversarially, the actors relished an extraordinary challenge and the jury then entered into the world of the story, so much so that the burden of decision took a real weight by the end.
Writing, prepping and shooting the scripted and the additional phone/archive material was relatively straightforward compared with the staging of the trial itself. We made the decision to keep the camera still and to be bold stylistically in this way and to let the actors continue with their trajectory across the piece. After all, they were extremely in tune with the story at this stage.
The scale and ambition of the whole series was then revisited in a demanding edit that had to come to terms not only with reams of material, but a density and a need to find a way of telling that served deliver the story best.
Channel 4 launches The Trial: A Murder in the Family on May 21, running across five consecutive nights.
Keshet UK’s head of drama Howard Burch reveals the story behind Channel 4 and AMC comedy-drama Loaded, about four friends who suddenly become millionaires.
In the motoring industry, they call it ‘platform sharing.’ If you’re driving a Mercedes M-Class, you are essentially driving a Jeep Grand Cherokee. The two vehicles may look very different, but they share the same ‘platform,’ or chassis. Underneath its sleek skin, the Cherokee is really a highly modified M-Class, sharing the latter’s efficient structure and sophisticated suspension.
Such sharing is common practice throughout the car industry and it’s becoming more and more successful in the scripted TV business too. Reformatting foreign series – taking the ‘chassis’ of a foreign hit and remodelling it for a domestic market – has exploded since the success of Homeland, which was based on the ground-breaking Keshet drama Prisoners of War.
For the automotive business, it’s a way of saving money and sharing expertise, whereas in the TV industry it’s about tapping into and exploiting an engaging narrative that has already undergone a considerable development process – and, in most cases, a sizeable bit of audience research.
Outside of novel adaptations or true stories, the overseas scripted series market is yet another stone to look under for homegrown hits. The US has a long history of taking foreign shows – even English-language programmes – and remaking them for a domestic audience, and now British and European broadcasters are doing the same.
The Bridge begat Sky’s The Tunnel, Keshet’s Yellow Peppers led to the BBC’s The A Word, and Channel 4’s Humans is the bastard offspring of the Swedish show Real Humans.
Some reformats are virtual cut-and-paste copies of their overseas progenitors, with London replacing Stockholm or Berlin and English dialogue replacing cumbersome and mainstream audience-averse Hebrew or French subtitles. Others are more thorough overhauls, where the kernel or key concept at the core of the foreign series is kept but the local adaptor brings their own unique creative vision to the characters, setting and themes.
A case in point is our new comedy-drama Loaded, based on the hit Keshet show Mesudarim, which was written by Muli Segev and Assaf Harel. The UK series, which launches tonight and is distributed by Keshet International, is a coproduction between Keshet UK, Hillbilly Television, Channel 4 and US cable network AMC, which will air the show later this year. It is written by Jon Brown, whose other credits include Veep, Fresh Meat and Babylon.
Loaded’s original premise is universal but now it feels uniquely British, with the show tackling the awkwardness and first-world problems that arise when you become a millionaire in your early 30s.
Jim Howick, Samuel Anderson, Jonny Sweet and Nick Helm play the four tech entrepreneurs and childhood friends who become millionaires overnight when they sell their start-up video game company. Mary McCormack co-stars as the VP of acquisitions at the firm’s new parent company.
Keshet UK is very much a fully fledged indie, producing and developing original ideas. However, when Loaded was initially being developed as an adaption for the British market, we looked towards a coproduction, as we did with The A Word. After a small but select beauty contest of potential suitors, we decided to work with the Bafta-winning Hillbilly Television on the series. Their response to the brief was the most exciting and they already had an existing relationship with Jon Brown.
Working with Polly Leys and Kate Norrish from Hillbilly was a truly collaborative process, with terrific input from both Roberto Troni and Lee Mason at Channel 4, as well as our inspirational and supportive co-exec Kristin Jones at AMC. Throw in an experienced producer and three directors, and you end up with a lot of voices around the table, but luckily there was consensus on the big decisions. Many an hour was spent off-set discussing what was funny, what worked, what moved – and whether a Toby jug would mean anything to anybody in America.
Leys says: “We loved Mesudarim when we saw it and thought it had real potential as a change format. The setup of four ordinary blokes running their own company, which sells for millions, was a starting point we really connected to. It was warm, funny and a great way to explore male friendship. But we knew we couldn’t do a line-by-line adaptation, it just wouldn’t have translated.
“For a start, we have less sunshine than Israel and the British have very idiosyncratic attitudes to money and success. Instead, we took the premise and told our showrunner [Jon Brown] to go in whichever direction he wanted. Apart from the running time [original episodes were 30 minutes as opposed to our 60 minutes], one of the other key differences is that we were very keen to boost the female characters. It was great to work with Keshet UK on this, who trusted us completely and helped us create a fresh, original series. Together, we’re really proud of the resulting show.”
Some foreign shows are never going to travel far beyond their own borders, because they are too culturally specific or parochial. Humour, we are forever being told, plays differently in different territories. But a good idea is a good idea the world over and, in an age of a voracious global appetite for more and more varied dramas and comedies from an explosion of buyers both domestic and international, having access to an overseas scripted catalogue is proving to be a godsend.
It’s not the be-all and end-all, and local broadcasters are always going to want to pick and choose, balancing the number of reformats and adaptations on their schedules with original pieces from home-grown voices. But at the end of the day, a successful reformat is always going to be packaged and sold to the consumer as a wholly original series. The average viewer isn’t going to know where the series came from or how it has evolved. As a must-see drama, it simply needs to excite and appeal, as would a shiny new car in a showroom.
Look beneath the bonnet, however, and you might spot that your Audi A3 shares more similarities to the Skoda Octavia than you first thought.
Channel 4 drama Born to Kill explores the psychotic desires of an seemingly normal teenager. DQ spoke to co-creator Kate Ashfield, with contributions from the cast and director Bruce Goodison.
Most recognisable as the co-star of Edgar Wright’s zombie-filled comedy-horror Shaun of the Dead, Kate Ashfield has also appeared in small-screen hits such as Line of Duty, Collision and the US remake of Australian drama Secrets & Lies.
But for her next project, the first-time writer has partnered with Tracey Malone (Rillington Place) to create an exceedingly dark and sometimes disturbing four-part drama with a teenage psychopath at the centre.
Born to Kill is described as a haunting exploration of the mind of Sam (played by newcomer Jack Rowan, above), a schoolboy on the verge of acting out hidden psychopathic desires.
His mum, Jenny (Romola Garai), a nurse at the local hospital, meets Bill (Daniel Mays), who’s trying to reconnect with his elderly mother Margaret (Elizabeth Counsell). Just as Jenny and Bill start to hit it off, Sam meets Bill’s daughter Chrissy (Lara Peake), to whom he forms an instant attraction.
Meanwhile, Jenny learns that her incarcerated ex, Sam’s dad, a violent man named Peter (Richard Coyle), is nearing his parole date. And having told Sam that his father died in a car crash, she must now face telling her son that not only is his father alive, he’s also a convicted murderer.
The four-part series, which debuts on the UK’s Channel 4 tomorrow, is directed by Bruce Goodison, produced by World Productions, executive produced by Jake Lushington and distributed by BBC Worldwide.
Ashfield and Malone first met while they were both living in LA and their sons attended the same school. Their friendship then developed into a writing partnership when they became intrigued by the story of a teenage psychopath and the question of why people do what they do.
Subsequently, the first episode introduces Sam as a caring schoolboy who reads to patients on his mum’s hospital ward and protects a boy getting bullied on the school bus.
“It’s a coming-of-age story at the same time as Sam’s coming to terms with his feelings and emotions and what he’s drawn to do,” Ashfield explains, pointing to influences such as The Ice Storm and Let the Right One In. “He doesn’t look weird. We wanted him to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He’s a schoolboy, just a kid that would be undetected as he went about his daily life. So it looks like he’s being nice but it’s all a game for him.”
When this caring facade gives way to something decidedly more sinister and Sam’s true nature is revealed, causing him to act on his fascination with death, Ashfield hopes viewers will feel both sympathetic and unsympathetic towards the character.
“There will be moments of both from scene to scene, hopefully,” she says. “That’s the whole point of him being a child – could something stop him? If the stars aligned, would he have done it differently? But then in the end, his personality takes over. Even at the end of it all, you still have some kind of feeling for him because it’s not all within his control – the way he is the way he is, which you get to by the very end.”
Questions over whether Sam’s personality and behaviour is caused by nature or nurture and if he was truly born to kill come increasingly into focus when Jenny receives news that Sam’s father may be released from prison for a horrific crime not entirely detailed in the opening episode.
“He’s fascinated by death, but not in a usual way where you see psychopaths torturing animals,” Ashfield says of Sam. “From the outside, to the other nurses, it looks a bit odd [that he spends so much time at the hospital]. But as a parent, you think it’s quite sweet because he’s reading to these people. It’s good karma that he cares for older people, but it is all about control and that they are weak sitting ducks to him. It’s an environment that makes him feel stronger, not weaker.
“Then, as it goes on, there are questions over what his mum should do and how much you can put down to normal teenage behaviour. You don’t actually call children psychopaths because a lot of teenage behaviour is very similar. At what point do you say they’re definitely a psychopath?”
Through a potential love story, Sam’s character is placed in stark contrast with Chrissy, who on the surface is a brash rebel but in truth is somewhat vulnerable.
Rising star Peake, who plays Chrissy, reveals: “Bruce and I discussed whether she is or she isn’t [a psychopath]. She definitely possesses some traits, but the thing with psychopaths is, from my research, there’s a formula that makes a psychopath. There’s got to be a few factors. She’s just drawn in by Sam, she’s lost and is intoxicated by him and is happy to just have someone to reach out to because her dad is a bit in his own head with Margaret.
“It gets pretty tense [in later episodes]. It all comes to a head and she realises the mess she’s in and how she’s gone too far with trusting her instincts and going with the flow. She goes in a circle of wanting to be with her dad, drifting away from that and being a rebel kid, and then realising what she’s getting herself into.”
Director Goodison adds: “It’s safe to say Chrissy finds her moral compass after being thrown off it by the charms of Sam. Sam’s moral compass never really waivers.”
Rowan watched documentaries and films and read lots of background material when preparing to play Sam, but ultimately decided not to base the character on any particular real-life psychopath.
“I’m creating my own psychopath here so I took something from each of these people and put it in a box, shook it up and came up with something,” the actor says. “There’s a bit where Jenny is talking to his headmaster and they talk about Sam not having any friends. Really that’s a choice by Sam. When he meets Oscar, that’s someone Sam can control, somebody he can make do what he wants them to do, a puppet for him. They’re not properly friends – there’s no emotional involvement there because this is someone Sam can just use.”
As Chrissy’s dad Bill, Mays jokes that he is playing a less fiery character than he is known for, having previously appeared in small-screen dramas including Line of Duty and Ashes to Ashes.
“He’s kind of hapless but is a relatively normal character for me to play – it was refreshing,” he admits. “It was nice to play someone not as explosive for a change. He meets Jenny and that relationship blossoms and it’s the tentative beginnings of a relationship between those two, as it is between the children as well. So as you can imagine, it becomes incredibly complicated.
“The power of Born to Kill is that the main protagonist is going through a coming-of-age story as well as succumbing to these psychopathic tendencies, but it plays out in a very domestic setting. It could be any small town in any part of the country. So that contrast really is what I think is compelling about the piece. It’s the extraordinary happening in a very ordinary environment.”
When it was first conceived, Born to Kill was set in America and intended for a US network, owing to the writers’ desire to set it in an anonymous small town. Following Channel 4’s interest, however, the series was relocated to the UK, with filming taking place near Cardiff in Wales.
“Originally this was 10 seasons in our head. We had all sorts of ideas, such as Sam going into the army,” Ashfield says. “It was a long-running, ongoing drama but now it’s very much a contained piece.
“It was set in America because of those vast spaces where you think anything can happen. You wouldn’t know what was going on, so Sam could get away with things quite easily. The difficulty with setting it here [in Britain] was we didn’t want it to be anywhere specific. If we set it in the Scottish Highlands, for example, it would just be about Scottish people that were crazy and it wouldn’t be as relatable. So the idea of it was it was a commuter town that you wouldn’t really go to unless you lived there, so it was meant to be anywhere.”
Goodison came on board early in pre-production, after Channel 4 had greenlit the series, and Ashfield notes that he bought into the creators’ vision for the show.
“We didn’t want it to look like a TV show, more like an independent film, like something you don’t normally watch,” the writer says. “It’s otherworldly, like a magical fairytale nightmare. It’s our world but also it’s definitely not our world, it’s a darker world.”
For the director, the challenge was bringing an audience to a character who has no empathy for others and ultimately gives in to his desire to kill.
“I was trying to give the audience as much access emotionally to how that happens, even to the point of before he does kill, there’s a point of return,” Goodison observes. “It was just about making sure we edged up every moment we could access to Sam, whether it was observing a dying bird or when there’s a tear off, these are access points where Sam’s character starts to leak and you start to look at his subconscious in a way other people wouldn’t notice.”
Ashfield, who is also an executive producer with Malone, confesses that Born to Kill was a hard piece to cast, owing to the fact that she believes actors can make or break the show through their portrayal of the story.
That’s why she is particularly impressed with Rowan, who she describes as “amazing.” She continues: “There were some other really great contenders and they all had different qualities. But what Jack seemed to have is he can change the quality of his face quite quickly and seems to be able to make his cheeks go red and look quite vulnerable, but then look angry and dislocated the next. That was really impressive.”
Goodison is equally full of admiration for Rowan, who echoes Ashfield’s compliments of the young actor’s ability to change emotions very quickly.
“Being able to sell a line convincingly when you’re a teenager while trying to hide a certain mental illness, let’s say, is a tricky thing to do as an actor because you put on faces and masks all the time,” he says. “But what Jack was able to communicate was a sense of self through that. It was that kind of ability to be able to change very rapidly and emotionally given whatever was thrown at him.
“Plus he has these soft, 1950s matinee idol looks, which play against some of the sharpness of the part. I felt genuinely empathetic for him, even though he was doing and saying some horrible things. It’s a very tricky thing to get right for an actor and Jack’s got it in spades. All of these scenes could be played so many ways and having the ability to be that flexible and open was terrific testament to Jack and the rest of the cast.”
As dark and edgy as you might expect from a Channel 4 drama, Born to Kill is certain to leave viewers gripped as Sam’s story plays out to its conclusion.
Andy Fry casts his eye over this year’s selection for the MipTV Drama Screenings and finds an eclectic mix vying for the awards on offer.
In 2016, MipTV organiser Reed Midem decided to celebrate the global boom in scripted TV by launching its own drama awards. Dubbed the MipDrama Screenings, the first year was such a hit with buyers that the event has been brought back for 2017.
Just like last year, 12 finalists have been pre-selected for the awards in Cannes by an advisory board made up of experienced buyers. These shows will now compete for three awards – one decided by a jury of producers, another by critics and a third by buyers, who get to vote for their favourite show after screenings.
There are a couple of points about the MipDrama Screenings that make them particularly interesting. The first is that they focus on non-US titles, meaning that producers from less high-profile markets get a better chance to stand out from the crowd.
This year’s 12 comprise dramas from the UK (three), Germany (two), Russia (two), Canada, France, Denmark, Norway and Brazil. This echoes the story last year when Public Enemy, a drama from Belgium, was selected as the event’s top drama.
The second is that they are all new titles, which means many of them haven’t had much market exposure until now. A couple, like Babylon Berlin and Ride Upon the Storm, have been flagged up for a while – but this is not an awards programme for endlessly returning series like Game of Thrones or American Horror Story. In fact, around half the series being showcased are still in the middle of production.
So what can we learn from the 12 finalists? Well, in terms of subject matter, several deal with themes that have been pretty prominent in film and TV drama recently. Federation Entertainment’s Bad Banks, for example, is a new look at the world of big finance, while Sky Vision’s Bad Blood is a gangster series based on a true story.
All Media Company’s Russian drama Better Than Us (pictured top) is an exploration of AI’s role in our lives, while TV Globo’s Jailers is a new take on prison drama – this time from the point of view of guards, rather than inmates.
There are also a couple of cop shows, though perhaps not the kind we’re used to. The Territory, for example, is an eight-part drama from Sreda Production in Russia. The story is set in a town where a series of ritualistic murders take place. As a result, a pugnacious detective is called in to deal with the situation.
There is also Germany’s Babylon Berlin, a high-end drama series based on the thrillers by Volker Kutscher. Set in 1920s Berlin with Tom Tykwer as showrunner, this could be one of the landmark series of the year if it lives up to the hype.
The rest of the finalists tackle an eclectic and unusual range of subjects. For example, Missions, distributed by AB International, is a futuristic thriller focused on a Mars mission that goes wrong. While we’ve seen Mars as the focus of films and documentary series, this is the first recent TV drama to come to market (though others are in the pipeline).
Ride Upon the Storm is another leftfield drama. From Borgen creator Adam Price and produced by DR Drama in coproduction with Arte France and SAM le Francais, this is a story about faith, both in the traditional religious sense and in the wider context of what it is that guides us through our existence. It centres on an alcoholic, abusive priest and his two sons.
Faith may seem like a tough subject for a TV drama, but after Borgen (politics) and Follow the Money (finance), DR Drama is as likely as any to pull it off. Speaking about the series, Price says: “Despite the fact the Danes might not see themselves as a religious nation, we are surrounded by faith in our daily life. Faith fills the public debate – when atheists encourage people to leave the church, when we discuss integration, the refugee crisis, terrorism or the US presidential election. But also when we nurture mindfulness, ‘hipster Buddhism’ or the familiar blend of superstition and spirituality.”
Interestingly, the other Scandi finalist goes to the other end of the moral spectrum. Produced by HandsUp Stockholm for Viaplay Nordic, Veni Vidi Vici tells the story of a failing movie director who attempts to revive his career by working in the adult entertainment industry. However, this suspect career move forces him into a double life that threatens his family.
The show is part of Viaplay’s push into original drama. Explaining why his company backed the show, Viaplay CEO Jonas Karlén says: “We are convinced combining acquired TV dramas such as Empire and Blacklist with original Nordic drama is our future. Viaplay will take the lead on original productions in the Nordics, with 50 projects in the pipeline until 2020 with great stories that also have the potential to travel.”
A strong UK pool consists of ITV’s Fearless, Channel 4’s Gap Year and the BBC’s Clique – projects that all benefit from having strong writers at the tiller. Fearless, for example, is from Patrick Harbinson (Homeland). Starring Helen McCrory (Peaky Blinders), it tells the story of a solicitor who gets caught up in a political mystery while investigating the killing of a schoolgirl.
“Fearless is a legal thriller, but one that’s written in the crash zone where law and politics collide,” says Harbinson. “The so-called War on Terror has put serious stress on the workings of the law. National security justifies all sorts of police and state over-reach, and the majority of us accept this. So I wanted to create a character who challenges these assumptions.”
The other two UK entries are novel attempts to appeal to a younger audience – something TV drama desperately needs to do. Gap Year, written by Tom Basden (Fresh Meat) and distributed by Entertainment One, tells the story of a group of young travellers heading off on a three-month trip around Asia.
All3Media International’s Clique, created by Jess Brittain (Skins), is about two best friends drawn into an elite circle of alpha girls led by lecturer Jude McDermid in their first few weeks at university in Edinburgh. “It is about the different ways ambition plays out in young women at university,” says Brittain. “It’s a heightened version of a certain type of uni experience, pulled from my time at uni, then ramped up a few notches into a psychological thriller.”
In terms of the mechanics of the above shows, a few have been set up as coproductions, but for the most part they are centred around a strong central vision that originates in one territory. The impression is that the advisory board favoured shows that seek to tell local stories with universal themes. It’s also noticeable that most of them have a limited series feel to them. While this doesn’t preclude them from returning, it confirms the impression that the scripted sector outside the US is most comfortable in the six-to-10-episode range, working with season-long narratives rather than story-of-the-week projects.
Some of the talent involved is well established: Tykwer, Harbinson, Basden and Price, for example. But the overall list looks like a serious attempt to give buyers some interesting new angles,rather than simply showcasing big MipTV clients.
Public Enemy’s victory last year proves it’s hard to predict which show will come out on top. But the three-pronged winner selection process means the shows will be scrutinised pretty rigorously. Expert judges include Filmlance International MD Lars Blomgren (The Bridge), showrunner Simon Mirren (Versailles), screenwriter Virginie Brac (Cannabis, Spiral), Mediapro head of international content development Ran Tellem (Prisoners of War) and Big Light Productions founder Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files). That’s an impressive line-up of global drama talent with a good eye for spotting winning projects.
Finally, of course, it’s worth asking: is entering worth the effort? Well, the experience of Public Enemy would suggest so. Barely known before MipTV last year, the show was later sold by Banijay Rights to a wide range of broadcasters including TF1 and Sky Atlantic. So the message seems to be that creative recognition at the awards can have a financial pay-off.
Tony Grisoni enthuses about the merits of collaboration as he discusses career highlights including Southcliffe and Red Riding and reveals more about new projects The City & The City and Philip K Dick anthology Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.
The best thing and the worst thing about being a screenwriter is that it takes a lot of people to make a film – it’s no good unless it’s actually made into something,” Tony Grisoni (pictured above), the award-winning writer of The Brothers Grimm, Red Riding and Southcliffe, explains thoughtfully. “I love that social part, that collaboration, but if you’re spending a lot of time writing and nothing’s happening, it can be tough.”
It’s fair to say that’s not a problem the 64-year-old Grisoni faces too often these days. Since his breakthrough feature Queen of Hearts back in 1989, he’s had something produced at least once every year – from 1998’s Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, through 2009/10’s purple patch of Red Riding and Southcliffe, to his collaboration with writer-director Paolo Sorrentino for Sky’s The Young Pope.
And yet one crucial part of his overall writing process effectively depends on dry spells – his unpaid collaborations with conceptual artists like sculptor Brian Catling. “There’s no money involved – it’s just somewhere to play,” he says, grinning widely. “We’ll make the kind of films no one would commission. But the important thing is that it stirs the cauldron. There are lots of ideas that begin there – in Southcliffe there’s an old lady with Alzheimer’s who had her beginnings in a piece I did with an artist Oona Grimes, for instance. It keeps you alive and it keeps you inventing.”
It’s the kind of spirit that took him from sound assistant, through production manager, to runner, then assistant director on commercials and music videos across the 1970s and 1980s. “I spent my spare time writing ideas for films, or sometimes collaging images, and I shot bits of Super 8,” he explains. “It was a way of starting the filmmaking process without the funds or army of people. Then a friend who had risen up the ranks got me a commission, but it was five years before Queen of Hearts got made.”
Queen of Hearts’ story of Italians immigrants wasn’t exactly autobiographical but it was rooted in a lifetime of research growing up in London’s Italian community. Since then, deep research has been the core of half of Grisoni’s work. In 2001, he made the trek along the people-smuggling route from the Pakistan/Afghan border, through Iran and Turkey, to Europe with director Michael Winterbottom.
“When Michael said he wanted a refugee journey shot documentary-style with non-professional actors – or what we call real people – it meant I had to think carefully about the writing,” he recalls. “How are you going to write dialogue when they can’t deliver it? The starting point was to meet a lot of people who had been smuggled overland into London. Then we went out and tested the route – dangerous things happened to us and I thought that was such an exciting way to write, because instead of me making stuff, it’s about real experiences.”
The resulting film, In This World, won the 2002 Berlinale Golden Bear. Similar research infused 2008’s Kingsland, a collection of short films that Grisoni directed as well as wrote, based on a gang fight in his Hackney neighbourhood. Even the modern gothic thriller Southcliffe was based on his research into shooting sprees such as those that occurred in Hungerford (1967) and Dunblane (1996).
“I started with the idea of writing a series set in Faversham, a market town in Kent, and I wanted to explore how a community coped with a number of people dying in this small town,” Grisoni explains. “The most interesting thing was to have someone from within the community have executed these people – it makes it more complex. All credit to Channel 4, they agreed to that when I didn’t know if it was three, four or five parts. I didn’t know what happened, I knew a lot of people died and that was kind of it.”
From Southcliffe’s first draft, the writer opted to identify the killer in the first scene – “because it was about how it happened, not who did it,” he explains. “I knew that if you saw someone doing something atrocious and then you saw him repairing a radiator, you wouldn’t be able to take your eyes off him. That non-linear approach engages me as a viewer because I’ve become part of the storytelling. I’m not just being fed stuff; I’m trying to puzzle it out.”
If research is roughly half Grisoni’s writing practice, adaptations are effectively the other half. “I think it’s unlikely that a production company will come to me with an idea they’ve researched as a package and say, ‘Are you up for this?’” he explains. “I find it very difficult to get into those projects. I always feel they’ve been very thought out by someone else. But if someone brings me a book and asks if I’m interested then it could happen.”
For Grisoni’s remarkable Red Riding trilogy, that’s exactly what took place. “I knew Anne Reid and Revolution Films after In This World,” he says. “They came with this quartet of books by David Peace and asked if I was interested in adapting them. I started reading the first one. It’s difficult to describe them, they’re so angry and they’re full of literary experiment but they’re also exciting, with images that repel you but draw you in at the same time. I was scared of them, to be honest, and so I said I’d only do the first one.
“Then I kept reading and had conversations over meals and drinks and, finally, I gave in and did them all. I just waded in and started to take the books to pieces. It helps to have someone – a producer – who’s on top of the books and effectively plots which character is where for you, who you can check in with every day. That’s the main thing about adapting.”
Grisoni clearly loves working on books that would scare other writers. His version of the China Mieville novel The City & The City – which will air on the BBC as a four-part drama later in 2017 – is a case in point. “It’s a noir-ish detective story in two cities – one Eastern European and crumbling, and one all glass and steel. But they coexist in the same geographical space,” he grins. “The populations of each city know it’s a sin to see the other. Once you’ve got that wrinkle, you’ve got your detective story and it becomes very interesting and very complex. And almost impossible to adapt, by the way,” he bursts out laughing. “That’s when you need a good director to fix everything.”
If Grisoni likes working with good directors, they love working with him. He’s written for and with Monty Python member Terry Gilliam on The Brothers Grimm and Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. “Working with Terry is like a hard play,” he nods. “For Fear & Loathing he’d seen loads of scripts – including one by Hunter S Thompson [the author of the autobiographical novel] – but he didn’t like them, so we tore the book in half. He took the front half and I took the second half and we collaged it. When we needed lines or events or anything, we took them from the book. It’s about people trusting you, people being willing to take a risk.”
Grisoni also wrote the script for Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote – a movie that famously collapsed back in 2000 while a documentary crew were following the making of the film. “Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe were documenting us not making this film – there was one point where it was clearly collapsing and they said to Terry, who was mic’d up all the time, do you want us to stop filming?” Grisoni recalls. “He said, ‘No, someone has to get a film out of this.’”
The resulting 2002 doc – Lost in La Mancha – appealed to Grisoni and he worked with Fulton and Pepe on Brothers of the Head, a dark tale of conjoined twins. “But Don Quixote is finally due to shoot next year – I’ve been re-writing it twice a year for the past 17 years and the script’s getting OK now,” he laughs.
If there’s one project that knits together all Grisoni’s technique and learning, it’s his contribution to Channel 4’s forthcoming Philip K Dick anthology series Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. His script is part research, part adaptation and part lived experience. And, in a way, he’s been working on it for years.
“Ages ago I came across a Philip K Dick interview about a story he hadn’t got around to writing, about a really crap film composer who’s kidnapped by aliens so fascinated by sound that they biochip one of their kind into his head and send him back out into the world where he starts to compose amazing avant garde music,” Grisoni explains enthusiastically. “I wanted to write that story and dovetail Philip K Dick’s life with it, so I went to California and met his five ex-wives and his friends, and [visited] the places where he saw God.
“It was the most intensive bit of research I’d ever done. Towards the end I was staying with ex-wife three and every time I used the bathroom there was this frog sitting watching me. On the last day, I looked at it and thought, ‘There’s something about that frog’s face that looks a bit like Phil K Dick.’ The moment I thought that, the frog just disappeared and I thought, ‘I have to go home now, this project is too much.’”
Recently, Sony and Channel 4 approached Grisoni to contribute to the anthology – “and I’ve never written anything faster,” he grins. “It’s purely because that frog story was there waiting to go into something. Very often someone gives you a book or suggests something and you pick up on it because it connects with something you were thinking earlier but just couldn’t crack,” he smiles. “That’s the other best/worst thing about being a screenwriter – everything is material.”
As Channel 4’s genre-defying cop show No Offence returns for its second season, DQ hears from the cast and creator about the strength of its female characters and striking the show’s unique tone.
It’s hard to imagine there are many laughs to be found in a show centring on the hunt for a deranged killer who targets young girls with Down’s syndrome.
Yet somehow the team behind No Offence managed to pepper the first season of the Channel 4 series with comedy moments. That they did so without detracting from or trivialising the hard-hitting subject matter, or creating an awkwardly mishmash tone, was all the more impressive.
The police procedural comedy drama, whose debut outing was a major ratings hit for C4 in 2015, returns to UK screens tonight, with DI Deering (Joanna Scanlan) and her team of detectives back to tackle criminals on the streets of Manchester.
This time around, a pair of warring crime families take centre stage, with the first episode beginning with a bang – quite literally, thanks to a huge explosion in the opening minutes.
Creator and writer Paul Abbott, perhaps best known as the man behind the original UK version of Shameless, which also ran on C4 and has since spawned a hit US version, admits getting No Offence’s unique tone right is a continuous challenge.
“It’s a very tight bandwidth to try to pin down, but when we did, we fired. It was great,” says Abbott, who assembled a writers’ room for the show. “You’ve no idea until you hit it – and it’s very hard to describe what that moment is.”
With No Offence’s first run tackling topics including honour killings, racism and drugs, one could forgive executives at C4 for feeling a bit shaky about some of its storylines – especially when comedy is being added to such a hefty mix. But Abbott praises the channel’s flexibility.
“We’ve had to calibrate certain storylines where Channel 4 didn’t like the way we’d approached the story, and that wasn’t rude to say – it was a very sensitive story,” he explains.
This season, controversial subjects include female genital mutilation, and Abbott says no topic was off-limits. “You have to negotiate your way through. We went round it all and we basically found a very grown-up, intelligent way through it. We didn’t have to back down on anything.”
Will Mellor, who plays DC Spike Tanner, picks up: “That’s the show, though. We don’t pull punches. There are certain shops that put this box set in the comedy section!
“I was thinking, could you imagine going to the wife and saying, ‘Let’s watch something really funny tonight – season one of No Offence.’ Then one minute you’re [seeing someone] dragging a Down’s syndrome girl out of a river and the next there’s someone getting sucked off in a bush.
“Where can you put this show? There’s no genre for it. I don’t think it’s a comedy, but what is it? That’s why I think it’s genius.”
Scanlan admits to having trouble finding the right balance in her performance. “Tone is the hardest thing to nail on the show. When we were shooting, I didn’t really know what the character was until I saw what was done in the edit. I was never certain who she was, because that tone is so very particular, and it was nerve wracking,” says the actor, adding she felt much more comfortable the second time around.
“It’s got a flavour unlike anything else,” she continues. “You’re taking the story seriously and the characters’ set of coordinates really seriously, but there is also some levity in it and some lightness. It’s an odd confection.”
Scanlan’s no-nonsense, authoritative Deering is just one of several terrifically written leading female characters in No Offence – another thing that makes the show stand out.
The most notable addition to this season’s cast is Rakie Ayola as the fearsome Nora Attah, matriarch of the Attah crime family, while Elaine Cassidy (DC Dinah Kowalski) and Alexandra Roach (DS Joy Freers) both reprise their leading roles from season one.
Asked how he manages to write such compelling female parts, Abbott’s response is typically wry. “People ask me why I write women so well, but they don’t ask other writers why they’re such lazy fuckers,” he says.
“As women get older in this industry, I realised really early on as a writer that, if you write really good parts for women, you get the best available, because they all think there’s nothing left for them.
“All the females in the show, whatever axis they come from, they’re all defined as people you’d take out for a pint. The whole point is to attract the male viewers as well, and not by changing the politics of the show, just by making unmissable females.”
Scanlan believes Abbott is “just reflecting reality” in terms of the female presence in police forces. And, reinforcing the writer’s comment about parts for older women, she says: “I feel lucky in that I’m part of the generation who, in the eighties, might have thought we’d run out of road by now.
“I’m not sure we’re making a programme about gender politics, we’re making a programme about a family. Deering plays this matriarchal role but she also plays a sort of patriarchal role. She’s mum and dad in one.”
It’s not just in front of the camera where women have a strong presence in No Offence, with no fewer than three females among those who took to the directors’ chair in season two.
In addition to Catherine Morshead (Doctor Who), who directed several episodes of the first season, Deutschland 83 director Samira Radsi and Sara O’Gorman (New Tricks) have helmed new episodes.
Meanwhile, although the cast believe No Offence is a realistic depiction of police work, what do real-life police officers – like Abbott’s son, Tom – think?
“They love it, and I love phoning Tom because he’s a writer as well. When I phone him, I don’t get the kind of research question back – he knows exactly how I’m trying to squeeze in something that really shouldn’t fit. He gives me an intelligent perspective on how we can make it fit for us. It’s very useful.”
Furthermore, Mellor’s brother-in-law acts as police advisor to the show. “He told me about the script before I was even in it!” the actor says. “He was like, ‘Ooh, it’s good, this. There’s some good stuff in here.’ I know he loved it as well. He’s in CID [Criminal Investigation Department] and he advises on all the scripts.”
But despite the help on offer from the real thing, Abbott reveals No Offence – produced by the writer’s own AbbottVision and distributed by FremantleMedia International – is one of the hardest shows he’s ever had to write.
“Every single episode had umpteen drafts beyond what I thought we would need,” he says. “You have to accurately and, with all dignity, write a procedural cop show at the same time as you’re trying to be subversive and witty and to occupy that yawning space that isn’t always there.
“You wring yourself mad in the mornings trying to climb back into a scene. But when you do, and it’s speaking for itself in its own overcoat, we can all fly.”
UK indie producer Sister Pictures has picked up the rights to Naomi Alderman’s acclaimed novel The Power with a view to turning it into a long-running global series.
The rights were acquired from Georgina Ruffhead at David Higham Associates after what was described as an 11-way auction – all of which shows the continued importance of books as the basis of TV drama.
The Power imagines a world where women gain the physical ability to electrocute at will. This results in an overhaul of the existing world order with women using their new-found power to wrest control of society from men.
The series will be written by Alderman, who said: “I’m thrilled to be working with Sister Pictures and [CEO] Jane Featherstone. Jane’s track record and her commitment to excellence in writing speak for themselves, and Sister Pictures’ deep understanding of the book impressed me.”
Explaining how a single book will be turned into a long-running global series, Alderman added: “Readers of The Power are already asking me if there’ll be a sequel. There won’t be another novel, probably, but there are definitely so many more stories to tell than I had room for in the book. I can’t wait to expand this story and bring electric women to TV screens around the world.”
Featherstone added: “Naomi is one of the boldest and most interesting authors of our time and we are beyond thrilled to be working with her as she adapts her own brilliant and compelling book for TV. The Power is a story of our times; clever, funny, important and original, it asks us to consider a world where the shifting balances of power create a new and dangerous dynamic.”
The Power is the latest in a line of projects from Sister Pictures focusing on strong female characters created by women writers. The company is already working on a show for Channel 4 called The Bisexual. Written by Desiree Akhavan and Cecilia Frugiuele (Appropriate Behaviour), it focuses on a New York woman navigating the world of gay and straight dating in London. Sister calls it “an honest look at the last taboo, bisexuality, and what it means to refuse to compromise on what you want.”
Akhavan, a bisexual Iranian-American who was brought up in New York, echoed Alderman’s enthusiasm: “Getting to play in the sandbox with such intelligent collaborators at Sister Pictures and Channel 4 is an absolute dream come true. They’re the perfect partners in crime for a taboo sex comedy.”
Sister has also teamed up with Abi Morgan (River, Suffragette, The Hour) on The Split, a new BBC1 drama that examines the fast-paced circuit of high-powered female divorce lawyers through the lens of three sisters – Hannah, Nina and the youngest, Rose. Hannah and Nina are leading divorce and family law lawyers, while Rose is still searching for her place in life.
Morgan said: “As Robin Williams once said, ‘Divorce is expensive – like ripping your heart out through your wallet.’ The Split exposes the complex realities of high-end divorce and broken marriage through female divorce lawyers and sisters bound by their own troubled past.”
Sticking with the subject of talented and empowered women, it was revealed this week that movie icon Julia Roberts is to star in a new limited TV series. Based on Maria Semple’s novel Today Will Be Different, the show tells the story of a woman named Eleanor Flood who makes plans to have the best day of her life, but wakes up to find a strange new future unfolding.
Semple, who has worked as a TV writer and producer (she was nominated twice for WGA Awards for comedy Arrested Development), will pen the screen adaptation. She said: “I’m giddy that Eleanor will be brought to life by Julia Roberts. This will be a fun ride!” No network has been confirmed for the show as yet.
In Spain, meanwhile, media giant Mediapro has picked up the rights to Lo Que Esconde Tu Nombre (What Your Name Conceals), a bestselling novel by Clara Sánchez that has shifted 1.5 million copies in 25 countries.
A psychological thriller, the book centres on a young pregnant girl called Sandra, who goes to live by the sea to decide what to do with her life. There she meets an old couple, who take her in as part of their family. However, Sandra’s path crosses that of a Second World War concentration camp survivor, who reveals things from the past that cause her to distrust the couple. What Sandra doesn’t realise is that the end of her innocence will put her in danger.
Sánchez was born in Guadalajara in 1955 and grew up in Valencia before moving to Madrid. In 1989 she published Precious Stones and has gone on to publish a total of 11 novels to date (the latest in 2013). What Your Name Conceals was written in 2010. There are no details yet as to who will handle the TV adaptation.
Also in the news is 1980s teen star Molly Ringwald, who has been lined up to star in The CW’s new TV series Riverdale, a dark and subversive take on a classic Archie Comics franchise. This project is being developed/written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Greg Berlanti, Sarah Schechter and Jon Goldwater. Aguirre-Sacasa, who has worked on series like Glee, wrote the pilot episode of Riverdale. He is also chief creative officer of Archie Comics and wrote the 2013 screen adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie.
Finally, on the novel-adaptation front, French producer Authentic and Federation Entertainment, the firm behind Netflix drama Marseille, have secured the TV rights to Le Temps Est Assassin (Time is a Killer), a thriller by best-selling French author Michel Bussi.
The deal, with French publishing house Presses de la Cité, will see an eight-part series created from the book, which tells the story of a woman who suffers a tragic accident resulting in the loss of her family. Federation will distribute the show abroad.
The producers of Humans and The Young Pope are probably a bit down in the dumps right now. The second season of the former show has just launched on Channel 4 in the UK with an estimated audience of around two million. That’s well down on season one’s average of five million-plus, despite a pretty heavyweight marketing campaign. As for The Young Pope, the much-anticipated Jude Law scripted series is reckoned to have attracted just 141,000 viewers for its debut screening on UK pay TV channel Sky Atlantic.
The most likely explanation is that there is just so much drama on TV right now that it’s impossible for viewers to keep up. In my household, Humans is on our hit list but didn’t stand a chance of being watched ahead of the penultimate episode of BBC1’s Poldark. As for The Young Pope, it’s in a queue that consists of Westworld, Victoria and The Night Of. Oh, and Humans of course…
The Night Of, an HBO crime drama starring Riz Ahmed, is another show that hasn’t been rating particularly well in the UK. Having launched on Sky Atlantic with an audience around 240,000, the latest numbers (mid-October) put it at around 160,000.
This is surprising for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because it’s a really good series – as evidenced by a strong IMDb score and a positive response from the UK’s TV critics. Secondly, because its ratings curve did the opposite in the US. After the first episode managed a mediocre 0.77 million viewers, word obviously got out that the show was good – because by episode two it was up at 1.28 million. It then continued to build throughout its run, peaking at 2.16 million for the finale. Presumably, the show is continuing to do well now that it has moved into the realm of on-demand.
This should be a cause for encouragement for the teams behind Humans and The Young Pope. Even if you don’t get good ratings on launch night, genuine quality will eventually get you noticed, even if it does take a year or two sitting in box-set land.
Sticking with HBO, the network will be pretty pleased with the resilience of its own robot-themed drama Westworld. In the US, the show debuted with 1.96 million and is currently at 1.49 million after five episodes. That suggests it isn’t going to turn into a Game Of Thrones-style monster hit but it’s not bad – especially when you also consider it has a 9.2 rating on the IMDb scale.
The show is also doing very well for Sky Atlantic in the UK. The opening episode attracted 1.7 million for the channel and the following two have come in around 1.2 to 1.4 million. As we’ve seen from the ratings for The Night Of and The Young Pope, that’s an excellent showing for a network that rarely gets above 500,000 viewers (Game of Thrones being the big exception). Maybe there’s a positive point here about movie reboots, at least in the context of pay TV, where they seem to do pretty well.
Another show that seems to be bedding in well is Amazon’s Goliath, a David E Kelley legal drama starring Billy Bob Thornton. Although Amazon doesn’t do audience ratings, it is reported this week as being “the top-binged first season of a US-produced Amazon original series ever over its first 10 days.” That’s a bit of a mouthful but it does suggest the show is proving popular and is a strong candidate to secure renewal.
Of course, shows like Goliath are fortunate in that they don’t get put under the microscope in the same way as Humans and The Young Pope. Likewise with Netflix’s new royal drama The Crown. At timing of writing the show has a perfect 10/10 score on IMDb and is attracting five-star ratings from media critics. Clearly it’s a good show – but for all we know, it could be getting an audience in the UK that is half the size of Sky Atlantic’s The Young Pope.
Back in the US, another show that is in pretty good shape is Lucifer, created by Warner Bros TV for Fox. Currently in its second season, the show has just been granted an extended second season, taking its total run from 13 to 22 episodes. Fox says the show is attracting around eight million viewers an episode when all multiplatform viewing is factored in. “Lucifer continues to deliver, with great blasts of dark humour and ambitious storytelling,” said Fox entertainment president David Madden. “The show has turned out to be a true wicked pleasure, the perfect companion to [Batman prequel series] Gotham. We couldn’t be more pleased.”
In Australia, meanwhile, there is a general sense that domestic drama is beginning to fight back against foreign imports. In the year to June 30, Screen Australia estimates that the number of hours of local TV drama rose from 518 to 561 – representing a total spend of A$376m (US$288.91m), up from A$300m.
One title that continues to do well is Network Ten’s Offspring, season six of which aired this summer. Although the show’s numbers dropped from 950,000 at launch to around 600,000 later in the season, that was still good enough for the network to announce that there will be a seventh season in 2017.
Finally, a plug for the C21 International Drama Awards, which take place on November 30 as part of C21’s Content London event. This week, the finalists were announced.
In the Best English-language Drama Series category, finalists are London Spy, Marcella, The A Word, The Night Manager, The Night Of, Unforgotten and War & Peace. Up for Best Non-English-Language Drama Series are Black Widows, CASE, Follow the Money, Highway Of Love, Public Enemy, Section Zero, The Writer and Trapped. And the Best Miniseries contenders are And Then There Were None, Beyond The Walls, Ku’damm 56 – Rebel with a Cause, Sotto Copertura, Roots and The Secret of Elise.
Child murder and disappearance are common starting points for crime dramas, as series like Broadchurch, Top of the Lake, The Guilty, The Missing and The Five have shown in recent times.
This is no surprise given that the loss of a loved child is just about the worst thing that most people can conceive of ever happening to them.
All of the above shows are fictional. But there are also a few shows coming through right now that deal with real-life stories. One of them, which we have discussed in this column, is HBO’s upcoming series about the lynching of black teenager Emmett Till. Another is an HBO/Keshet coproduction about the kidnapping and subsequent murder of three Israeli teenagers in 2014.
Real-life child murder is an especially shocking subject, so it’s clear that it can only be approached by television if there is a substantive point to make. In the case of the Emmett Till story, for example, the underlying theme is the role that the boy’s death played in the emerging civil rights movement.
In the case of Keshet’s drama, it is the protracted unrest in Israel and Palestine that informs the story. Without these bigger themes, it would be hard to justify producing TV dramas about such grisly subjects.
In the UK, a current example of real-life child-murder being used as the base of a scripted series is Little Boy Blue, a four-part drama for ITV about the death of 11-year-old Rhys Jones, who was shot in the back by a 16-year-old gang member in 2007.
Rhys’s parents, Melanie and Steve Jones, have given the drama their blessing and released the following statement to explain why: “We wanted to get involved in this drama because we thought it was important for people to understand what really happened – how close Rhys’s murderer came to escaping justice, and how in the end the simple courage shown by some of those involved in these events, and their refusal to be intimidated, led to the conviction of Sean Mercer and others involved in Rhys’s murder. The part Merseyside Police and especially Detective Superintendent Dave Kelly played in this cannot be overestimated. But beyond this we wanted to show the devastating effect the loss of our beloved son Rhys had on our family, and how the grieving process affected us long beyond the ‘closure’ of a guilty verdict. Though some may find what happened to us shocking, we think it is right to tell the whole story.”
The job of telling the story appropriately and sensitively has fallen to award-winning screenwriter and executive producer Jeff Pope. A former journalist who worked his way up through the UK’s factual TV business, Pope has written and produced a number of dramas rooted in real-life stories. Among these are Fool’s Gold: The Story of the Brink’s-Mat Robbery, Cilla and See No Evil: The Moors Murders.
The latter, written by Neil McKay, was also made with the backing of the victims’ families and was based on two years of research – including interviews with detectives, relatives of the victims, and Moors murderer Myra Hindley’s brother-in-law David Smith.
Pope also co-wrote the 2005 movie Pierrepoint, in which Timothy Spall played the UK’s best-known executioner Albert Pierrepoint.
Pope received the Alan Clarke award at the 2015 Baftas, with Bafta TV committee chairman Andrew Newman calling him “one of the finest exponents of his craft.” Accepting the award, Pope said: “Writing is all about facing down the tyranny of the blank screen, but my message to all aspiring writers is that once you’ve hit that first key, you discover it’s really not so difficult as you imagined.”
Another new drama that deals with similarly tough subject matter is Damilola, Our Beloved Boy, a 90-minute production that will air on the BBC in the UK on November 7. This drama centres on the death of 10-year-old Damilola Taylor in 2000, and was made with the consent and support of Damilola’s father, Richard Taylor OBE.
The film does not depict the crime that ended Damilola’s life, but goes behind the headlines to explore the emotional repercussions of Damilola’s death on his family and their quest for justice. It was written by award-winning screenwriter and playwright Levi David Addai, who calls it a story about “family, fatherhood and hope.”
Addai broke into the business via theatre, initially putting on a play at the Royal Court. His previous television work includes the E4 series Youngers, which follows a group of London teens aiming to become the next big thing on the urban music scene.
Next up he is writing a TV adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s acclaimed novel Noughts & Crosses, produced by Mammoth Screen for the BBC. Clearly, Addai has the right credentials to tackle such an emotive subject – and he is well aware of the importance of pitching it right. Commenting on the sensitivity of the subject, he said: “Albeit a huge responsibility, I am very determined to do it justice.”
Elsewhere this week, Channel 4 in the UK is launching a new talent scheme aimed at writers and directors from groups that are currently under-represented in TV drama –women, disabled people and those from BAME and disadvantaged backgrounds.
Called 4Stories, the scheme will give three directors and three writers the opportunity to work on a new three-part series of half-hour interconnected films. It will tell one main story from three perspectives and is being produced by Touchpaper Television.
The opportunity is open to writers who have not had an original single, serial or series broadcast on UK TV. Writers who have contributed to episodes on soaps, series or serials are eligible to apply but can have had no more than two hours of credits.
Nina Bhagwat, Channel 4’s off-screen diversity executive, said: “4Stories is a unique talent initiative that will showcase the work of emerging writers and directors who bring a distinct and alternative view of Modern Britain. Writers and directors play a key creative role; their voices have a huge impact both on what we sound and feel like as a channel, and how we connect with diverse audiences. 4Stories talent will be immersed in a development programme that aims to land [successful applicants] brilliantly into the wider industry post transmission.”
Rob Pursey, MD of Touchpaper Television, added: “We’re looking for bold, unique voices that can deliver ambitious, witty, fearless entertainment. This is an opportunity to find diverse talent and bring a fresh perspective to UK drama.”
As part of the paid development programme, writing trainees will participate in a writers room that will create the series. They will be tutored by, and work with, experienced drama producers at Touchpaper TV where their scripts will be developed. They will also be mentored by high-profile drama talent, and will take part in a bespoke training programme to run alongside and beyond the production of the series. It will include masterclasses, networking sessions, coaching, career development and access to key events.
The closing dates are November 14 for writers’ applications and December 12 for directors’ applications.