Award-winning director Richard Eyre discusses his take on Shakespeare’s King Lear in a new BBC and Amazon film starring Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Andrew Scott and Jim Carter.
There can be few directors alive today more familiar with William Shakespeare’s works than Sir Richard Eyre.
A multi-award-winning director of film, television, theatre and even opera, Eyre has been behind high-profile stage productions of Hamlet and Richard III and also helmed TV versions of Henry IV: Part One and Henry IV: Part Two for the BBC’s The Hollow Crown, a five-film adaptation of multiple Shakespeare plays.
His most celebrated Shakespearean work to date, however, is surely his 1998 stage version of King Lear, starring Ian Holm. The production earned Olivier Awards for both Holm and Eyre, and now the director will be hoping for similar acclaim for his screen version of the tragedy, which airs on BBC2 in the UK next week and launches later on Amazon, which co-financed the film.
Leading the cast this time around is Sir Anthony Hopkins as Lear, who slowly descends into madness after disposing of his kingdom among his daughters.
The talent-laden ensemble also includes Emma Thompson, Emily Watson and Florence Pugh as Lear’s daughters Goneril, Regan and Cordelia respectively; Jim Broadbent as the Earl of Gloucester, whose sons Edgar and Edmund are played by Andrew Scott and John Macmillan; and Downton Abbey’s Jim Carter as the Earl of Kent.
The first thing viewers tuning in at 21.30 on Monday will notice is the one-off film’s decidedly un-Shakespearean setting, opening as it does with an establishing shot of present-day London with 95-storey skyscraper The Shard front and centre. However, the Bard’s unmistakable dialogue from the 1605-penned play remains intact.
Explaining the decision behind the modern setting, Eyre says: “It’s unusual for a Shakespeare play – it’s set in a pre-Christian era… the period is probably druidic. And if you ask, ‘How am I going to make it look?’, you’re thinking, ‘I don’t want it to look like druids in sheets at Stonehenge.’
“I decided I wanted to set it in a contemporary world. In some ways, the buildings are playing off against the language.”
As for why he was keen to return to King Lear 20 years after his theatre version, Eyre’s reasoning is straightforward: “I think it’s the best play ever written, and I’ve felt that for about 35 years.
“This is a story about two fathers, one with three daughters, one with two sons. It’s a play about family, amplified by being about the state, so the stakes are that much higher. None of its truths are going to change for hundreds of years.”
Bringing such a revered and challenging property to the screen was always going to demand a cast with serious acting chops, and producer Colin Callender of Playground Entertainment says he was delighted with the line-up put together for the show. “The ability to bring a play like this to the screen enables us to assemble a cast that you would never ever see on stage together, and it’s a testament to Richard that we were able to put together such an extraordinary ensemble,” he says.
“Part of the joy of seeing something like this on screen is that every role comes to life in the most extraordinary way; a way that doesn’t always happen on stage because you don’t get actors of this calibre playing all these secondary and tertiary roles.”
The choice of Hopkins as Lear, meanwhile, was a no-brainer – but that’s not to say it was simple to secure his services. The process can be traced back to when Eyre directed the actor in the 2015 BBC/Starz film version of Ronald Harwood play The Dresser, which also starred Ian McKellen. The story is set in the backstage area of a production of King Lear, which led to the pair discussing the Shakespeare play.
“I had directed King Lear, Tony had been in King Lear and we talked rather facetiously about how we’d make a film of King Lear one day,” Eyre says. Then, after Callender came to him with the project, it was the director’s wife who pushed him to move ahead, telling him: “You just have to do this with Tony Hopkins.”
Multiple emails back and forth between actor and director followed, with Hopkins busy with projects such as HBO drama Westworld. The pair talked “more or less everything King Lear” before, two years later, rehearsals finally began – and Hopkins didn’t disappoint.
“He’s the most extraordinary, eccentric, lovable, bizarre man,” Eyre says of the Silence of the Lambs star. “He generates a nuclear energy on set, benign energy.”
The actor’s performance as an increasingly bewildered and dishevelled Lear was apparently so convincing that he was mistaken for a homeless person during filming on location in the UK town of Stevenage. “A woman in a mobility scooter scooted up to Tony and said, ‘You know, there’s a hostel for the homeless up the road, so you might want to take your shopping trolley down there,’” Eyre recalls.
For Thompson, meanwhile, performing in the film led to a reappraisal of her own interpretation of the play, which she also describes as her favourite. As Goneril, who along with her equally devious sister Regan has long been perceived as one of the major villains of King Lear, the actor plays a character who schemes against her ailing father. But Thompson says: “This is the only production of King Lear I’ve ever seen in which you actually sometimes sympathise more with the children, and I think that’s an amazing insight into the play. I’d never been able to see that, so I’m very grateful.”
Describing working with Hopkins for a third time – the pair previously starred in The Remains of the Day and Howards End – as “joyful,” the Oscar winner adds: “It’s great to play all that rage. It’s really fun, I loved it. Anthony and I got very violent in one scene – it was really enjoyable!”
Andrew Scott was also thrilled to act alongside Hopkins. The Sherlock star, nominated for an Olivier Award for his stage portrayal of Hamlet last year, plays Edgar, who is betrayed by his malevolent and bitter half-brother Edmund. “What I found so extraordinary about Tony is how ferocious and alive he is about being an actor,” he says. “Every day he’d come in and if you asked him how he slept, he’d say, ‘Fuck sleep, I don’t sleep!’”
As for the film itself, which is produced by Playground and Sonia Friedman Productions in association with Lemaise Pictures, Scott notes: “A lot of it is about the vulnerability of our leaders. This is something that was written 400 years ago, but we rely on human beings to lead us and we have to see that they are human beings.”
Rejecting the suggestion that Shakespeare on TV might lack broad appeal, he says: “Human psychology has not changed, and I hate the idea that this kind of drama is only for a select few, because that means that only a select few are seeing it.”
Co-star Jim Carter, best known for playing butler Mr Carson in Downton Abbey, concurs, believing it’s crucial that Shakespeare’s works continue to be adapted for the small screen. “Having it in people’s living rooms, bringing it to people at home, rather than people having to make the effort to go out and see it, is hugely important,” he says of the drama, which is distributed internationally by Great Point Media.
“For this to come to people where they really feel things much more deeply – in their own home – is fantastic. Thank you BBC.”
But how can young people, in particular, be expected to connect with something written so long ago? Scott might have the answer. “Shakespeare is a little bit like rap,” he asserts. “The majority of the audience who are watching on television will go, ‘I don’t understand that, but I understand the music of it.’ There are still certain things that I don’t understand about it, but I understand the music and I understand the feeling.”
Hayley Atwell stars in Oscar winner Kenneth Lonergan’s adaptation of the beloved EM Forster novel Howards End, a coproduction for BBC1 and Starz. DQ visits the sumptuous set to find a period drama moving with modern times.
There is a stunning stately home overlooking a lake, an ornately decorated marquee and a beautiful bride in a wedding dress. This is the lavish setting for a key scene in a new BBC- and Starz-financed production of the seminal EM Forster novel Howards End. The only problem is the intermittent rain that is stopping filming every half-an-hour. But, as anyone who has ever filmed in England knows, that’s unavoidable.
“Poor Evie, getting married in the rain!” laughs Hayley Atwell, who plays the book’s central character, Margaret Schlegel, as she snuggles up in a warm coat on set (it may be April but it’s cold as well as wet). The scene being filmed at the West Wycombe Estate in the Chiltern Hills – when Evie Wilcox marries Percy Cahill – is key to the story as the worlds of the three families featured in the book come crashing together. No one comes out unscathed.
Howards End was made into a hugely successful Oscar-winning film 25 years ago with Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter and Anthony Hopkins, but the time is ripe to make a new adaptation, says Sir Colin Callender, whose Playground prodco has made the four-part miniseries in association with City Entertainment and KippSter Entertainment. It is distributed internationally by Lionsgate.
“The story is about two smart, free-thinking women who are trying to make their own way in the world,” he says of the series, which debuts this Sunday in the UK. “If you think about what is going in the world, particularly here in the UK and in America – the way women’s roles and their relationships with men are being discussed – then you see just how of the moment the story remains.”
The drama looks at three families occupying different levels of the Edwardian middle class. There are the Schlegels, Margaret and Helen (played by Philippa Coulthard), orphaned sisters who live in an intellectual world of money, loosely based on the Bloomsbury Set, a real-life group of intellectuals. While on holiday in Germany, they meet Henry Wilcox and his wife Ruth, played by Matthew Macfadyen and Julia Ormond, who are wealthy capitalists.
At the start of the story, Helen is staying with the Wilcoxes at their house, Howards End, when she falls in love with their younger son Paul (Jonah Hauer-King). But Paul is penniless and meant to be heading to Africa to work for his father; the romance is hurriedly finished before it even really begins, leaving Helen heartbroken.
Back in London, the Schlegels meet struggling clerk Leonard Bast, played by Joseph Quinn, at a classical music concert. He is entranced by their intellectual world of chatter and music and wants to be part of it, but the economics of his situation make it impossible. Meanwhile, the Wilcox family come back into their lives when they take a luxury flat opposite the Schlegel home.
The screenplay has been written by Kenneth Lonergan. The American has an Oscar and a Bafta under his belt for last year’s movie Manchester by the Sea, which he both wrote and directed, but this marks his first television adaptation. “I looked at the book and had lots of questions. And every time I asked a question, Colin and the BBC seemed to get more excited,” laughs Lonergan. “It was an interesting challenge for me to adapt something where the characters have such a rich internal life but also where the story is focused on the challenges and the different strata of society.”
He adds that while most of the dialogue in his scripts came directly from the book – around two thirds of it – the rest was made up based on his experience of watching other period dramas “…and Monty Python.”
The producers and director Hettie Macdonald were determined that while Howards End would have all the same production values of other BBC costume dramas, it should have a modern feel.
It certainly looks the part, introducing us to a world that was changing, where horse-drawn carriages were being shunted off the road by motor cars. The series was filmed partly on a stage in Twickenham, south-west London, and partly on location. Finding Wickham Place, the home of the Schlegels, proved particularly difficult. Many of the streets the producers like were unavailable due to building work, so exteriors were shot in Islington, north London, and interiors were built on the stage.
Just as challenging was finding the production’s Howards End, the mystical house that belongs to Mrs Wilcox and starts and ends the story. Forster based the story on his own childhood home, Rooksnest, a country house near Stevenage that once belonged to a farming family called Howard. The house used in the show is a private home in Godalming, Surrey, which has rarely been used for filming before but, like Rooksnest, was constructed around a Tudor building.
While every effort went into making Howards End look right for the era, it also feels surprisingly contemporary. “I think there was a temptation for all of the actors to start acting all period drama,” says Quinn. “Once you are wearing the costumes, you feel you need to act differently, but Hettie was really adamant that we didn’t do that; she even joked on set that she was going to have a ‘period acting bell’ if anyone went ‘too period.’ The story is funny and sad and very relatable. They are people just like us; they just lived in a different time.”
Atwell says she was immediately attracted to doing the project, particularly once she knew Lonergan was involved. “I had seen Manchester by the Sea just a few days before being offered the job and the idea of him adapting this story was very exciting,” she reveals. “He hasn’t given it a sense of reverence and he has written it in such a clever way. There are so many layers to it, and so much symbolism; themes in it that we try to tap into and hit upon. But it’s also very funny. There are pages and pages of dialogue where five or six actors are overlapping. What is funny is the truth of playing people who are not listening to each other, they are just overlapping. It is very quick-witted.”
The actor started in period drama, with starring roles in Brideshead Revisited and The Duchess, but for the last few years has been best known as Marvel hero Agent Peggy Carter. Atwell first portrayed Carter in 2011 movie Captain America: The First Avenger, before going on to star in spin-off Agent Carter for two seasons on ABC. She admits she revelled in playing a character who was a little deeper than your average superhero.
“I have been doing Captain America [the movies and associated series] seven or eight years now and it is full of people who I really love, but I am classically trained and I found this source material a lot more interesting, a lot more fulfilling,” Atwell says. “You can have conversations with our director and the other actors about what is in these scenes, what is the most interesting thing to play. You can analyse what is really happening because it is all really subtle. When you have to do a lot of exposition to drive the plot along, it can be tiring and a bit boring, with all due respect. When you have a job like this, there is so much to it. It was exciting creating such a rich inner world rather than just turning up and looking good and pointing a gun.
“Margaret is the heroine of the story. There is a line at the start of the book, ‘only connect,’ which is kind of the message of the story. The thing that drives her is a desire to connect people, which, given the context of the time, was quite unusual for a woman in her position and class. She’s just wonderful.”
US cable channel AMC is making headlines again this week by commissioning a 10-part anthology series based on a 2007 novel by Dan Simmons called The Terror.
Set in 1847, The Terror unfolds as a Royal Naval expedition searching for the Northwest Passage is attacked by a mysterious predator that stalks their ships and crew. The show continues the recent fascination with thrillers set against a backdrop of snow and ice (Fargo, Fortitude, Trapped and Liam Neeson movie The Grey, to name a few).
The Terror is being exec produced by Ridley Scott and will be adapted for the screen by David Kajganich, whose recent credits include the movie The Bigger Splash. Kajganich will also be a co-showrunner with Soo Hugh.
Joel Stillerman, president of original programming and development for AMC and SundanceTV, said: “Originality is still something that gets our attention every day, and the very unique mixing of historical non-fiction with a gripping and imaginative science-fiction overlay in Dan’s novel is something we hadn’t seen before. That, combined with an exceptional team behind the project, made this something we really wanted to bring to air on AMC.”
Meanwhile, Netflix has ordered an original western series from director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Frank. Called Godless, it is set in a 19th century New Mexico mining town.
As yet there are no more details. However, the news is generating a lot of excitement because of the Soderbergh/Frank link-up. The last time they worked together was on the acclaimed movie Out of Sight. Since then, Soderbergh has shifted much of his energy in the direction of TV with shows such as The Knick, while Frank has been screenwriting movies including Minority Report, The Wolverine and Marley & Me.
Netflix has also renewed its revival of US family sitcom Full House for a second season. The reboot, titled Fuller House, follows a pregnant and recently widowed woman who is living with her younger sister, best friend and teenage daughter. They all help to raise her two boys and prepare for the birth of the new baby. The original Full House aired on US network ABC from 1987 to 1995.
Elsewhere, projects now getting kickstarted out of the UK include Tina and Bobby, a three-part drama from ITV that will celebrate the life of England football legend Bobby Moore and his wife. The project writer is Lauren Klee, who has a strong track record on shows like EastEnders, Waterloo Road and Holby City.
Meanwhile, Colin Callender’s indie prodco Playground has picked up the rights to Guardian journalist Patrick Kingsley’s book The New Odyssey – The Story of Europe’s Refugee Crisis. It plans to make a TV series based on the book, which charts Kingsley’s journey to 17 countries where he met hundreds of refugees making their way across deserts, seas and mountains in a bid to reach Europe.
Discussing the decision to acquire the book, Sophie Gardiner, creative director of Playground’s UK office, said: “The New Odyssey is an epic piece of journalism that provides an intimate account of the people caught up in one of the biggest humanitarian crises since the Second World War. We believe this can be TV at its best – powerful, emotional and compelling storytelling that explores the complexities and human dimensions of the biggest story of our time.”
One of the most eye-catching stories to have come out of the US TV business in recent weeks was the news that Channing Dungey, executive VP of drama at Disney-owned network ABC, was being promoted to entertainment president, replacing incumbent Paul Lee. The story came as a surprise and got people wondering about how it might affect decisions over cancellations and renewals.
Well, Dungey hasn’t wasted any time making her mark, giving early renewals to a huge swathe of ABC shows this week. Among these are dramas like Quantico, Grey’s Anatomy, How To Get Away With Murder, Once Upon a Time and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. On the comedy front, Fresh off the Boat, The Goldbergs, Modern Family, Black-ish and The Middle got the nod.
Dungey’s renewals are interesting for a few reasons. First, because it looks like she is playing safe in season one. Rather than rip up the schedule, she has decided to play the percentages and give herself time to settle in. Second, because she has renewed the shows much earlier than Lee had a habit of doing. This is her way of quickly distinguishing herself from her predecessor.
Finally, Dungey’s list of renewals is also notable because of what she has not yet committed to. Long-running procedural Castle (nearly at the end of season eight), for example, has not yet been given the OK. Dungey has also delayed decisions on four other scripted series, Nashville, The Muppets, Marvel’s Agent Carter and Galavant.
Castle stands a reasonable chance of being renewed if star Nathan Fillion is prepared to sign up for a new season. However, the other series are harder to call.
In January, Paul Lee said Nashville would probably be back for a fifth season. But the show has never really been a massive ratings hit, so it might not secure the same support from Dungey. In the case of The Muppets, a strong start has given way to sub-par ratings. But this is a Disney-owned property so ABC won’t necessarily want to give up on it just yet. Similarly, Agent Carter hasn’t been particularly strong in ratings terms but it does come from the Disney-Marvel stable of scripted shows.
Galavant, a musical comedy/fantasy series, is coming to the end of its second season and probably looks like the easiest of the five to say goodbye to. Ratings haven’t been especially strong and there’s no obvious Disney 360-degree reason to keep it alive. That said, it does have a top creator behind it in the shape of Dan Fogelman (Tangled, Cars). So that might be enough to persuade ABC to give the show another chance.
Finally, in Scandinavia, Swedish commercial broadcaster TV4 has ordered two 10-part seasons of a medical drama based on a Finnish format called Nurses, produced by Yellow Film & TV and distributed by Eccho Rights. Jan Blomgren, CEO of Swedish production company Bob Films, said: “The original version of Nurses is well written and produced. We believe the audience in Sweden will relate to real stories in a glossy drama series.”
This isn’t the first time a Finnish drama has been adapted for the other Nordic territories. It’s also just happened with DRG-distributed thriller Black Widows.
Although the Finns make dramas to a decent standard, tight budgets mean their shows often aren’t glossy enough to appeal to audiences in the other Nordic markets. In the case of Nurses, a third season is about to air on YLE in Finland. Eccho Rights, which licensed the format to Sweden, has also sold it into the UK. At the same time, it has licensed the first two Finnish seasons to ProSiebenSat.1. Eccho will also sell the Swedish version of the show internationally.
UK TV audiences enjoyed some great drama over the Christmas period. But while all the major broadcasters offered something of interest, the BBC’s scripted output was simply outstanding.
A key reason for this is the corporation’s excellent relationship with writing talent. The Sherlock Christmas Special’s slightly warped view of the suffragette movement may have had its critics, but the episode – titled The Abominable Bride – was still a brilliantly written piece of TV from Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss that was watched by 8.4 million viewers.
Equally enjoyable were the opening episodes of Andrew Davies’s adaptation of Tolstoy’s War & Peace and Sarah Phelps’ take on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. And not to be overlooked is Tony Jordan’s Dickensian, an inspired piece of TV that I watched out of idle curiosity and which thus far has more than exceeded my modest expectations. See this Telegraph review for a good summary.
The strength of the BBC’s Christmas drama slate won’t have come as a surprise to those who have been following the broadcaster’s scripted output over the last year or two. Among numerous highlights have been Wolf Hall (adapted from the Hilary Mantel novel by Peter Straughan), The Honourable Woman (written by Hugo Blick), Banished (Jimmy McGovern), Happy Valley (Sally Wainwright) and Doctor Foster (Mike Bartlett). In each case, it has been the quality of the writing that has really shone through.
Coming into 2016, it looks like the BBC is sticking with the same successful formula. Announcing a new slate of 35 hours of drama, Polly Hill, controller of BBC drama commissioning, said: “I will continue to reinvent and broaden the range of drama on the BBC. It is because we make great drama for everyone that we can offer audiences and the creative community something unique and distinct. I want the BBC to be the best creative home for writers.”
So what’s on offer? Well, Hugo Blick will be back with Black Earth Rising, a BBC2 thriller set in Africa. Blick describes the show as a “longform thriller which, through the prism of a black Anglo-American family, examines the West’s relationship with Africa by exploring issues of justice guilt, and self-determination.”
The series will be produced by Drama Republic and Eight Rooks Production. Drama Republic MD Greg Brenman, whose company also produced The Honourable Woman and Doctor Foster, said: “We are excited to be teaming up with Hugo once more. Black Earth Rising is ambitious, thought-provoking and searingly relevant – the hallmarks that are fast defining Hugo Blick.”
Also recalled for 2016 is Bartlett, whose Doctor Foster was the top-rated UK drama of 2015. With Bartlett already committed to writing a follow-up series, Hill revealed the writer will also be writing a six-hour serial called Press for BBC1. Press is set in the fast-changing world of newspapers.
Explaining the premise, Bartlett said: “From exposing political corruption to splashing on celebrity scandal, editors and journalists have enormous influence over us, yet recent events have shown there’s high-stakes, life-changing drama going on in the news organisations themselves. I’m hugely excited to be working with the BBC to make Press, a behind-the-scenes story about a group of diverse and troubled people who shape the stories and headlines we read every day.”
Although Jimmy McGovern’s period drama Banished was not renewed, the programme was a tour de force – so it’s no surprise the BBC has commissioned McGovern to write a new show. Broken “plots the perspective of local catholic priest Father Michael Kerrigan and that of his congregation and their struggle with both Catholicism and contemporary Britain.”
Set in Liverpool, the six-hour series will be produced by Colin McKeown and Donna Molloy of LA Productions. McGovern and McKeown said: “We are both proud and privileged to be producing this drama from our home city of Liverpool. The BBC is also the rightful home for this state-of-the-nation piece.”
One writer joining the BBC fold for the first time is Pulitzer Prize and Academy Award-nominated screenwriter/playwright Kenneth Lonergan, who has been tasked with adapting EM Forster’s Howards End for BBC1.
“I’m very proud to have been entrusted with this adaptation of Howards End,” he said. “The book belongs to millions of readers past and present; I only have the nerve to take it on at all because of the bottomless wealth and availability of its ideas, the richness of its characters and the imperishable strain of humanity running through every scene.
“The blissfully expansive miniseries format makes it possible to mine these materials with a freedom and fidelity that would be otherwise impossible. It’s a thrilling creative venture transporting the Schlegels, Wilcoxes and Basts from page to the screen. I hope audiences will enjoy spending time with them as much as I do.”
The show is being produced by Playground Entertainment, City Entertainment and KippSter Entertainment for the BBC. Rights to use the original novel as source material for the miniseries were acquired from Jonathan Sissons at Peters, Fraser & Dunlop, on behalf of the Forster estate.
Playground founder and CEO Colin Callender said: “At a time when there is a raging debate about the BBC licence fee, it is worth reminding ourselves that it is because this great institution is funded by a licence fee rather than advertising or subscription that it is able to bring to the British audience dramas that no one else in the UK would produce. The boldness of commissioning a playwright like Ken Lonergan to adapt this great literary classic and make it accessible and relevant to a modern audience is a testament to the BBC’s crucial and unique role in the broadcast landscape worldwide.”
Equally exciting is the prospect of Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White coming to BBC1. Made by Origin Pictures with BBC Northern Ireland Drama, the four-part adaptation will be written by Fiona Seres, who wrote a new version of The Lady Vanishes for BBC1 in 2013.
David Thompson and Ed Rubin, from Origin Pictures, said: “We are so excited to be bringing a bold new version of Wilkie Collins’ beloved Gothic classic to the screen. His gift for gripping, atmospheric storytelling is as thrilling for contemporary readers as it was for Victorians, and Fiona’s unique take brings out the intense psychological drama that has captivated so many.”
Other writers lined up include Joe Ahearne (for The Replacement), Conor McPherson (for Paula) and Kris Mrksa (Requiem). The decision to work with Mrksa, best known for titles such as The Slap and Underbelly, is interesting because he is Australian.
The BBC’s blurb for Requiem (which will be produced by New Pictures) says: “What if your parent died and you suddenly discovered that everything they’d said about themselves, and about you, was untrue? Requiem is part psychological thriller – the story of a young woman, who, in the wake of her mother’s death, sets out to learn the truth about herself, even to the point of unravelling her own identity. But it is also a subtle tale of the supernatural that avoids giving easy answers, playing instead on uncertainty, mystery and ambiguity.”
Mrksa calls it “a show I’ve always wanted to make. To be making it with the team at New Pictures (Indian Summers), and for the BBC, a network that I so greatly admire, really is a dream come true.”
Right now, that would probably be true for any TV writer.
Playground Entertainment UK’s Louise Pedersen and Sophie Gardiner reveal what’s next for the prodco following the runaway success of Wolf Hall.
How do you follow one of the biggest critical hits of the past 12 months?
That’s the challenge facing Louise Pedersen and Sophie Gardiner, who are leading Playground Entertainment’s new London office, as they attempt to replicate the success of Wolf Hall, the BBC2/PBS drama based on Hilary Mantel’s historical novels.
Playground was founded by former HBO Films president Colin Callender in 2012 and its early credits also include The White Queen and The Missing, which both aired on BBC1 and Starz. Playground has a first-look deal with the US premium cable channel.
The company expanded across the Atlantic earlier this year when Gardiner, a former commissioning editor for drama at Channel 4, and Pedersen, previously MD of All3Media International, joined as creative director and MD respectively.
And with their team now in place, they’re firmly focused on developing a slate of indigenous British drama.
“The focus so far has been on development. The New York team had an existing slate and out of that came Wolf Hall and The Dresser (pictured top, an adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s play for Starz and BBC2 starring Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen),” says Pedersen. “The challenge for us is to get the UK slate up and running.”
Gardiner adds: “We’re mindful of a privileged relationship in the US. Some of our projects will work well in America with our relationship with Starz. But we’re also aware some of the biggest hits in the US historically have been British ideas for British broadcasters for British audiences.”
Playground UK has been busy buying up rights to novels and speaking to writers, with 10 projects currently in active development, including four adaptations. Gardiner explains: “We are developing some more historical pieces, some classic pieces, but we’re putting them with some exciting and unusual ideas to get something quite modern.
“The other thing that feels exciting is that we have Colin with his track record of established, quality contacts in front of and behind the camera, Louise’s strong commercial acumen and my experience at Channel 4, which was in working with newer, edgier and riskier ideas. In time I hope that exciting combination is visible on screen. You can see the DNA of the company in our slate – those three strong, different backgrounds united by a sense of quality and purpose in what we do.”
In particular, Pedersen says her background working for a distributor means the creative aspect of a potential series comes first and the commercial elements now come second. “When you’re sitting at a distributor, it’s all about what shows you’re going to invest in and whether they are going to travel,” she says. “At a production company, it’s about the creative integrity of the show and if the commercial follows, that’s great. We’re market-aware but not market-led. It’s been a bit of a journey.”
As for Gardiner, she’s relishing the prospect of being involved in the day-to-day production of a show following her stint as a commissioner. “I’m absolutely loving stepping back and seeing the breadth and discovering new writers and commissioners. But I also cannot wait to be on the frontline of production again. What’s wonderful about my position here is to be across all the development and eventually the production.”
But what kind of industry are they setting up in? The increasing number of channels and platforms now commissioning original drama is “good for everybody,” says Gardiner, who points to the number of film and theatre writers now looking at television as a place to tell their stories. “I know the phrase ‘golden age’ is overused but I’m really noticing that these young people are desperately passionate to write in longer form,” she says. “Maybe they used to think they’d make a movie one day. People from theatre and film all want to work in television and that’s where we’re well positioned because of Colin’s history at HBO Films and in theatre.
“People want things they’ve never seen before and that inevitably means we have to find new voices and new approaches. British broadcasters are all articulating that desire for fresh things, and that inevitably means a bit of risk-taking. But it’s all risk-taking – even with a top-name talent, a big idea is a risk. That’s where having a reputation as producers of quality matters to broadcasters so you can steer those ships.”
Playground UK hopes to be in production on at least two series in 2016, with shows already in development with the BBC and Channel 4.
Pedersen adds: “For us the challenge is building the business and getting commissions and making sure we keep the quality threshold up there. It feels like an exciting time and we both feel really lucky to be here.”
Looking for Victorian London? Try Dublin. Or perhaps you’re after the kind of quintessentially Italian setting one can only find in Prague? From tax credits to geography and architecture, DQ examines the factors far beyond plotlines that play a part in selecting drama production locations.
Jetting around the world in search of locations was once the domain of feature-film producers. But it is now increasingly common for high-end TV productions to scour the globe for the right backdrops to their stories.
A key reason for this is the rise of tax incentives. With a growing number of countries and regions introducing financial sweeteners to attract film and TV drama, producers now have an array of opportunities to positively impact their budgets, either by controlling costs or putting more value on screen.
Most scripted TV executives agree, however, that the pursuit of tax incentives shouldn’t be allowed to dictate the location decision-making process.
“I’ve been shooting around the world for 35 years so I know the pros and cons of tax incentives,” says Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik, “and the bottom line is it’s just one factor among many. The appeal of tax breaks has to be balanced with the creative needs of the project and the logistical set-up you find when you get to the other end.”
He cites hit Starz series Power as “a show that just had to be made in New York. We could probably have replicated New York in Toronto but I don’t think we would have got the authenticity that makes the show stand out.”
However, the network opted for a more exotic location for pirate drama Black Sails (pictured top), which shoots in Cape Town and will launch its third season in the US on January 23, 2016.
Zlotnik explains: “South Africa is a world-class location. You don’t just get tax incentives, you get a fantastic crew base and superb exterior locations. There is a construction team that knows how to build a ship and a deep pool of actors. In Black Sails, the second and third tiers of actors are great, which is something you wouldn’t get in every location. Details like that can have a real impact on whether the audience engages with a show.”
Patrick Irwin, executive producer and co-chairman at Far Moor, a coproduction specialist, takes a similar line. “I don’t think any producer would choose to shoot in a country simply to achieve tax breaks without considering the other factors,” he says. “They may well decide that the benefit from tax credits is outweighed, either by the creative sacrifices required or the additional logistical challenges, such as travel. Add to that the complications of meeting treaty and tax credit requirements and twin production bases in different countries, which means additional legal and potential collection agreements.”
The notion that tax incentives can be undermined by other financial factors is a common talking point. Aside from travel and accommodation costs, for example, the tax incentive premium can quickly dissolve if you need to bring in specialist equipment or if there are unanticipated production delays because of inexperienced or inefficient crews. This scenario is particularly common when countries have only recently introduced their tax incentives and are, as yet, unproven as filming locations.
“We took one of the first big drama productions, Parade’s End, into Belgium to take advantage of tax incentives,” recalls Ben Donald, another coproduction specialist who splits his time between working for BBC Worldwide and his own indie start-up Cosmopolitan Pictures. “While the shoot went very well, there was a lot of logistical running around. We found ourselves using several locations and flying in people we hadn’t expected to call on.”
There’s also “a human side to production that needs to be taken into account,” says Donald. “There is often an impulse among actors and other key talent to stay at home, which needs to be considered. It’s possible you will get a better end result if they are at home rather than in some temporary set-up.”
Having said that, it’s crystal clear tax incentives do influence location decision-making. California’s loss of film and TV work to Louisiana, Georgia, New York and Canada is a classic example of tax incentives redirecting work to other production centres. The UK has similarly lost out to Belgium, Ireland, Eastern Europe and South Africa over the years.
A case in point is Ripper Street, a BBC drama that recreates Victorian London in Dublin. It’s no surprise then that both California and the UK, despite the inherent strength of their infrastructures, have had to improve their own tax incentive schemes in order to reverse the runaway production trend of recent years.
Oliver Bachert, Beta Film’s senior VP for international sales and acquisition, says that in most cases there doesn’t need to be a conflict between creative and commercial considerations. “The economics of drama production mean you have to be realistic. But often we are in a position where the creative and financial requirements fall in line. Sometimes we can get the look we want in Eastern Europe at a lower price than we would get in Western Europe, so it makes sense to do that – especially when you’re dealing with places like Prague, in the Czech Republic, where the production infrastructure is excellent.”
Beta is currently involved in a US$17m miniseries called Maximilian that will shoot across Germany, Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic, thus achieving the right mix of authenticity and efficiency. Indeed, Bachert says there are occasions with period pieces “when you can find better examples of the locations or buildings you want in foreign territories than where the story is set. With Borgias, an Italy-based story, we shot some of the production in Prague because it had the renaissance backdrop required.”
Donald endorses this point: “We’re working on a new production of Maigret with Rowan Atkinson. Although it is set in 1950s France, some of it is being shot in Budapest, Hungary. Clearly there are financial benefits to this, but it’s not always easy to shoot in cities like Paris because of the permit rules and because of the way the character of the city has changed.”
Most producers start with the requirements of the story and go from there. As FremantleMedia Australia director of drama Jo Porter explains: “There’s always a point at the beginning of the process where you’ll pass on some projects because you just know the location choices inherent in the story would be too expensive. But after you get into development there are usually a few options for where you might produce a show. It’s at this point you start weighing up the best alternatives.”
Not surprisingly, being in Australia makes a difference. “There are no hard and fast rules, but it’s inevitable that where you are based plays into your decision-making,” says Porter. “With many of our projects, the question for us is about which part of Australia offers the best creative and financial solution – not whether we should take the production to another country.”
However, Porter adds that there are times when the story dictates that you go abroad: “Advances in technology like green-screen and VFX have really helped. But we recently made a TV movie biopic for Network Ten called Mary: The Making of a Princess, about a local woman who married a Danish prince. For the sake of authenticity we had to go to Copenhagen. There’s only a limited amount you can achieve with Australia’s architecture and climate – though we have made it snow in Sydney.”
Exchange rates are another factor that Porter says can make a difference: “Australia has everything you could possibly need to handle an incoming production, but the strength of the Australian dollar has had a negative impact. Now, though, the currency has dropped enough that I think you might start to see it coming back onto producers’ radars.”
Of course, not all locations are in direct competition with each other. “There’s some overlap,” says Donald, “but if you’re looking for action-adventure backdrops then you probably think first about South Africa (which has hosted series like Left Bank’s Strike Back). And if it’s a biblical epic then you’re swaying towards places like Malta or Morocco. As for Eastern Europe, it gives you another set of urban and rural options.”
Morocco is an interesting case, because it continues to attract big-budget TV series such as HBO’s Game of Thrones, BBC2’s The Honourable Woman, Spike TV’s Tut, Fox’s Homeland and NBC’s AD: The Bible Continues – despite having no tax incentive. With superb standing sets at Ouarzazate in the south, it has doubled for locations like Iran, Egypt, Somalia and Israel, among others.
Fans of Morocco cite a variety of factors for the country’s popularity, including the quality of the light, experienced crews, low production costs, political stability and a liberal attitude to Western filmmakers. But it remains to be seen whether the country can persist with its current stance on tax incentives.
With the UAE, Jordan, South Africa, Malta and Turkey all able to replicate some of Morocco’s landscapes, it may soon find itself having to join the increasing number of countries adopting incentives. South Africa, for example, is hosting ITV’s new four-part drama Tutankhamun, in which it will double for Egypt. Although usually thought of as a lush, fertile land, South Africa also doubled for Pakistan in Homeland and Afghanistan in Our Girl.
Echoing Porter’s point about location proximity, most US TV drama producers tend to make decisions about which US state to base their productions in (or whether to go north to Canada).
Gene Stein, the former CEO of Sonar Entertainment, says: “We looked at a number of southern US states before we located Sonar’s new series South of Hell in Charleston, South Carolina. We needed a beautiful city to be the backdrop for a southern gothic story and it fit the bill perfectly. The fact there was a good financial package also played into the final decision.”
However, Stein says the US market’s current drive towards high-end drama is encouraging producers to make ambitious decisions about locations. “With the increasing number of distinctive dramas, there’s a hunger for great locations. Sonar recently shot Shannara for MTV in New Zealand. That’s a massive show that demanded a striking visual approach. So when you combined New Zealand’s beautiful locations with its tax incentives and the quality of its craftsmanship, it all made sense. And we’ve come out with a fantastic show.”
This endorsement of New Zealand, which is a prime location for European and US shoots in winter because it is in the southern hemisphere, is echoed by Starz’ Zlotnik, who says film franchises like Lord of the Rings and Avatar helped establish a high degree of technical expertise and led to the premium cable network’s decision to film Ash vs Evil Dead there.
In addition, Zlotnik says there is a robust relationship between the US and New Zealand thanks to the work done by Ash vs Evil Dead producer Rob Tapert, who first started bringing productions like Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess to NZ in the 1980 and 1990s. “Having someone like Rob involved provides you with the security you need when shooting on location,” he explains. As a general rule, having a reliable production services company in the market can be a big influence when weighing up the relative merits of locations.
Another key point to understand about location decision-making is that the market is evolving all the time, adds Playground Entertainment founder and CEO Colin Callender. “No producer ever says they have enough money, so they’re always looking for way to secure a financial advantage that can improve the end result,” he says. “But things can change suddenly. With Wolf Hall we were looking at Belgium when the UK introduced its new tax credits. After that we knew we could afford to make the show in the UK and the decision became self-evident.”
There’s no question that the UK is a popular choice right now. Far Moor’s Irwin says: “Thanks to the additional tax credits, our first choice would always be to try to shoot domestically with potential enhancement from regional incentives such as Northern Ireland Screen (NIS) or Screen Yorkshire, unless there is an obvious creative rationale to shoot overseas. We’ve filmed numerous productions in Belfast, Northern Ireland, most recently with the ITV drama The Frankenstein Chronicles, which is produced by Rainmark Films. We have also filmed two seasons of BBC2 series The Fall in Northern Ireland and are about to start prep on the third. We’ve found the crew in Northern Ireland to be highly skilled and the NIS funding adds to the appeal.”
One exception to Far Moor’s UK-centric approach was BBC1 period fantasy Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which was partly filmed in Canada and Croatia. “The reason behind this was a combination of tax credit benefits of Canadian coproduction and the locations on offer. We added Croatia for its unspoilt locations, which were ideal for doubling as Waterloo and Venice; this couldn’t be achieved in the coproducing countries.”
While the Czech Republic and Hungary tend to be the preferred locations in Eastern Europe, they are facing increased competition within the region. The BBC’s new epic interpretation of the novel War and Peace has been shooting in Lithuania, where it benefited from a 20% filming incentive, while History’s 2012 miniseries Hatfields & McCoys recreated Appalachia in Romania. Rising star Croatia, which introduced a 20% tax credit in 2011, also secured work from Game of Thrones and Beta Film-distributed Winnetou, a Western adventure based on the books by German author Karl May.
Looking at the global map, you definitely get a sense of location clustering – rather like the way you see estate agents next to each other on the high street. The southern US states and Eastern Europe are the best examples. But it’s noteworthy that the Republic of Ireland also forms part of a popular block with the British mainland and Northern Ireland.
Aside from Ripper Street, titles to have been based there include Penny Dreadful, Vikings and The Tudors. In part, this is down to tax incentives and crew quality, but it is also significant that the ROI has two impressive studio complexes, Ardmore and Ashford. Studios are also a key factor in the popularity of territories such as the US, Canada, UK, Germany, South Africa and Australia.
For all the reasons outlined above, producers tend to be slightly conservative when choosing locations, preferring to go with tried and tested areas ahead of unused ones. But there are a few places starting to attract interest as a result of new tax incentives. FM’s Porter says: “We are starting to look at producing drama that has more of an international profile to it, and as we do we are thinking about Malaysia and Singapore, both of which are increasingly important production centres.”
Malaysia, with its 25% production incentive and the recent launch of Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios, has already managed to lure Netflix original series Marco Polo and Channel 4 returning series Indian Summers to its shores. With the latter set against the backdrop of British rule in India, producer New Pictures initially looked at Simla in that country, but found it was too built up.
It also considered Sri Lanka, but was dissuaded by the fact that Channel 4 News had recently aired an investigation into alleged Sri Lankan war crimes, thus putting a strain on UK/Sri Lankan relationships.
Indian Summers, commissioned for a second season in 2016, was shot on Penang Island in north Malaysia. At the 2014 C21 International Drama Summit, director Anand Tucker described how “we had to recreate 1930s India and the Raj in the country. My job in setting up the show was also about creating the infrastructure. The most any local crews had done were a couple of movies or commercials, so it was also about training them to manage a 160- or 170-day shoot.”
While this can seem like a lot of effort up front, it is something executives at the distribution end of the process often value. Sky Vision CEO Jane Millichip points to productions like Fortitude (shot in Iceland) and The Last Panthers (shot in London, Marseilles, Belgrade and Montenegro). “Buyers like the sense of breadth and scale locations bring,” she says.
Joel Denton, MD of international content sales and partnerships at A+E Networks, echoes Millichip’s view: “We’d always look at locations as a marketing tool, maybe organising trips for broadcasters to see the production.”
So what does the future hold for location-based production? Improvements in green-screen technology suggest more productions could stay closer to home. But this needs to be balanced against growing competition among channels, which encourages increasingly bold location choices.
Inevitably some countries and regions will fall off the locations map as they come to the conclusion that their tax incentives are not having much of an impact in attracting work. But others will always take their place.
Italy, for example, has seen a resurgence in film activity following the decision to introduce a tax credit in 2009 – and it’s not far-fetched to think TV productions may follow. Colombia has also seen an upturn since introducing its own incentive scheme in 2013. With Turkey talking about something similar, it seems producers with itchy feet can continue to scour the globe for the perfect backdrop.
BBC2’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall delivered the channel its best ratings for a drama series in more than a decade and won fawning praise across the board. DQ caught up with the creative talent behind the camera.
Distilling more than a thousand pages of Booker Prize-winning prose into six hours of television is no mean feat. Trying to condense the reasons behind the success of the BBC’s version of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies is rather easier: outstanding source material; an Oscar-nominated screenwriter; a multitudinously decorated director; a world-class cast; and an executive producer who ran HBO Films for almost a decade – a role for which he received recognition in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list.
There are other factors: its “sumptuous settings and jaw-dropping attention to detail,” to quote The Daily Mail, a normally staunch anti-BBC tabloid whose review wondered if the series, which combines both books, might be “the greatest period drama ever.”
For the uninitiated, Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012) are the first two novels in Mantel’s intended trilogy (the third, The Mirror and the Light, has yet to publish) telling the story of Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power as the right hand to Henry VIII through the first half of the 16th century.
Wolf Hall was the first book to which Colin Callender optioned rights when he set up Playground Entertainment after leaving HBO in 2008. Inevitably, there was plenty of competition but Callender was able to win the author over.
“I spent a lot of time with Hilary talking about how it could be adapted for the screen,” he recalls. “She had taken the form of the historical novel and really shaken it up and I thought there was an opportunity to do the same in television – to create a historical drama for the post-Sopranos, post-Breaking Bad audience.”
Peter Straughan, best known for movie adaptations including How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, The Men Who Stare at Goats and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, came on board as scribe but only after he was told the project was set for television.
“When I first got sent the book, I thought it was being suggested as a film and I was going to say no,” he reveals. “It does sometimes happen that you get a book which is simply too large a canvas to fit into a film-sized pot. But when they told me it was for TV, I said I definitely wanted to do it.”
Straughan had never worked in the medium before. “I’d never been given six hours to write a drama, and for a writer it’s a great place to be,” he says. He broke the novels down into half a dozen “mini films” – each with their own beginning, middle and end that needed to be slotted together to form the overarching canvas – and worked closely with Mantel, whom Straughan says was “helpful, constructive and generous all the way through… never intrusive or dictatorial.”
“The good novelists understand the process and know a slavish adaptation usually won’t make a good film or TV series,” he adds. “Hilary was certainly one of those. She was completely open to any change and I would usually run things by her and always send the episode as soon as I’d finished for her notes.”
The resulting series, starring Mark Rylance (main image) as Cromwell, Damien Lewis as Henry and Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn, is an intense, brooding piece of television, which lingers on the characters’ expressions and is as much about the silences and shadows between them as it is the whispered politicking and slow-burning menace of a king who is disarming in his vulnerability but primed to ignite at any time.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve had a drama that’s challenged the perceived notions of what tempo needs to be in television,” says Straughan. “There’s a kind of fear behind that, which I think is about ‘we’re going to lose the audience any second if we don’t do something quickly.’ So it was interesting to say we’re not going to do that, we’re going to go at a different pace, a different metabolic rate, and see whether a large audience would go with that. Luckily it seems they have.”
Indeed, Wolf Hall became BBC2’s highest-rating drama series in more than 13 years when it concluded in March this year, while coproducer Masterpiece began airing it in the US in April.
Straughan refers to a “post-HBO, post-Breaking Bad confidence” in TV drama, and the experience of working in the medium has encouraged him to explore other projects, potentially penning a pilot for HBO with Tom Hanks’s Playtone to bring Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir novels to the small screen.
“The adult, interesting, complex stories that you used to be able to expect from cinema, you now find in television,” he says. He believes TV is “the writer’s medium,” whereas film remains firm directors’ turf.
Peter Kosminsky has worked in both and won countless awards in each, but he was slightly surprised to be asked to direct Wolf Hall – his first period drama.
Kosminsky is celebrated for contemporary political dramas such as The Government Inspector (2005), which also starred Rylance, and The Promise (2011), starring Foy, but his career as a filmmaker spans three decades.
Wolf Hall is all about the politics of the Henrician court, he points out, and while he had read the books when they were first published, it was Straughan’s adaptation that convinced Kosminsky to sign up. “I read a lot of scripts – dozens every year – and I think they were just about the best I’ve ever read,” he says.
They were only first drafts, too, Kosminsky notes, making them all the more extraordinary. He talks about Straughan’s “apparently effortless distillation” of Mantel’s “densely typed prose.”
“Peter had rendered this into six hours of television without any sense of hurry or confusion. It seemed to go at a very measured pace and yet I wasn’t particularly aware of any major strands that had been excluded. Once I read those scripts, there was really no doubt in my mind this was something I wanted to do.”
If one of the hallmarks of Wolf Hall is its meditative, cerebral tempo then the decisions Kosminsky took behind the camera and in the edit suite are as much responsible as Straughan’s writing. “In filmmaking terms this is not an adventurous piece,” says the director. “Most of the scenes are two or three people sitting in a room talking to each other, so we had to think about how to give it some kind of style, how to make it feel unusual and fresh. We wanted to get a strong sense of atmosphere and, if possible, of silence. We wanted the silence of the rooms, the silence of the pauses between words to be a character as much as the words themselves.”
Kosminsky says this was something that naturally developed, rather than being imposed. “We rehearsed and then I let the actors play in front of the camera and I tended not to give them notes. I liked the pace at which they played the drama. It seemed to me it showed the complexity. You could see the wheels turning as Cromwell, who’s faced with death on a number of occasions, tries to decide on the safest course of action.”
Wolf Hall is very much about watching those wheels turn and the precision with which Rylance engineers them. The actor is in every scene, points out producer Mark Pybus, praising the former Globe Theatre artistic director for his stamina.
“In the novels you’re very much inside Thomas Cromwell’s mind and even though it’s not written in the first person, it somehow feels as if it is, and that’s one of the magic tricks Hilary pulled off,” Pybus adds.
“We wanted to give you Cromwell’s viewpoint. In order to convey that to the audience, you have to enter a room with him to establish we don’t know information before our lead character does. We experience events in that room with him and we leave with him. As a result, you have travelling shots in and out of rooms to get that sense of being on his shoulder.”
Part of the character’s allure, says Pybus, is that he was famously a man who gave little away. Therefore a voiceover would have been inappropriate. “With an actor like Mark Rylance, the subtlest hints are given but you have to have the right pace for those to come across. If you quickly cut between scenes, you lose those magical moments where suddenly it becomes clear what Cromwell was thinking.”
Just about the only point for which Wolf Hall faced criticism from British reviewers was its occasionally dim lighting, due to a reliance on real candles – something only made possible by the latest Arri Alexa cameras. But the reception was otherwise almost universally favourable. Kosminsky admits all involved were “slightly taken aback by the reaction” – even himself, after such a long career.
“It’s a difficult book and we didn’t set out to dumb it down, we set out to confront its difficulty. We expected this to be appreciated by a small group of devotees, quickly dumped by the rest of the viewing population and largely ignored by the popular press. Nothing in 35 years in television programme-making has prepared me for the scale of the response, so I’m slightly unnerved by it and still trying to come to terms.”