Tag Archives: Damien Timmer

Worlds apart

Science fiction crashes into Edwardian England in The War of the Worlds, a new BBC adaptation of HG Wells’ iconic 1897 novel. Writer Peter Harness, executive producer Damien Timmer and director Craig Viveiros tell DQ how they took this futuristic story back to its period setting.

Screen adaptations often update or revise their source material in some way. Take HG Wells’ 1897 novel The War of the Worlds for example: it’s been brought to the big screen twice, first by director George Pal in 1953 and then by Steven Spielberg in 2005, and both times it was updated with a contemporary setting. The same approach was taken when it was recently remade http://dramaquarterly.com/dangerous-new-world/ for television by Canal+ in France and Fox Networks Group.

So when writer Peter Harness (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell) and UK producer Mammoth Screen (World on Fire) set about developing a new three-part version of the classic science-fiction tale for the BBC, it seemed like an innovative idea to set the action at the time Wells wrote the now iconic Martian invasion story.

Eleanor Tomlinson (Poldark) and Rafe Spall (The Big Short) lead the cast as Amy and George, who face the escalating terror of an alien invasion and are forced to fight for their lives against an enemy they had never dreamed of. Rupert Graves and Robert Carlyle also star in the drama, which is directed by Craig Viveiros (And Then There Were None).

Eleanor Tomlinson and Rafe Spall lead the cast in the BBC’s The War of the Worlds

Harness began work on the project back in 2015, when Mammoth MD Damien Timmer first asked him about adapting Wells’ novel. A fan of the book – and of Jeff Waynes’ 1970s rock musical version – he was intrigued by the idea of setting it in the time of Wells, mashing up Edwardian England with Martians and death rays.

“It’s quite a brutal book,” he says of the source material. “There’s nothing cosy or Jules Verne about it. It’s very much a description of what it must be like to be attacked and invaded by far superior forces and technology.”

The challenges of creating a television version were clear from the outset, with the story following a nameless narrator who is little more than a witness to events. Harness was, therefore, tasked with creating characters the audience could root for.

Another change he made from the book was to give Amy, who hardly features in the novel, a more prominent role. “It is very much her journey,” Harness says. “She’s a tough and resilient character who really takes the role of the action hero in it. Her husband, George, is slightly more emotional and vulnerable, and I thought it would be interesting to have her as the one who copes and him being badly affected by things.”

Harness says every adaptation can be tricky, and The War of the Worlds was no exception. It wasn’t just the lack of characterisation that he had to overcome in bringing the story to the screen, but also the fact that the show would be telling a story that is now incredibly well known. “It’s more or less the first alien invasion story and I wanted to make it reasonably surprising, to try to get some of that feeling of newness and shock that would have been in the original book for people who hadn’t heard of Martians, alien invasions or spaceships,” he says. “So that’s been quite interesting and fun to do.”

Writer and exec producer Peter Harness on set

Harness sought to create tension by establishing the stakes early on and keeping “the terrible thing” from happening for as long as possible. Then once the invasion begins, he looked for ways to isolate people and put them in seemingly inescapable situations.

Without a big-screen budget, Harness wanted to keep the action on the ground and present the ensuing conflict from the point of view of the characters as they charged around London and Surrey to the south of the capital, with the production actually filmed in and around Liverpool in north-west England. “So you don’t necessarily ever get a big pullback and see the big destruction all around,” he says. “It’s what it must be like on the street running from something, being attacked. I wanted it to feel more like a contemporary horror film mashed up with a traditional period drama, so I concentrated quite a lot on making it unsettling, mysterious and tense. We’ve got some very nice set pieces that go a long way with tension and terror.”

“I hope it’s a scary and emotional ride and one that still has the power to surprise people, even after all this time,” Harness adds. “I hope you get everything out of it that you would get out of a period drama and everything you would get out of a weird, spooky sci-fi horror show.”

Behind the camera, Viveiros was keen to be faithful to the era in which the story is set, though in a way that resonates with contemporary audiences. “Back then, it was all about the fear of mechanical machines,” he notes. “We’re past that now, they’re part of our lives. The fear now is technology you cannot see. We’re trying to make the tripods feel like a living thing with alien technology far more advanced than anything we have.”

Robert Carlyle also appears in the drama

Actors on set were often playing against a green screen or staring into the sky at something that wasn’t there, but Viveiros says Spall and Tomlinson’s “perfect partnership and great chemistry” brings horror and terror to the screen. He also reserves particular praise for Harness’s take on Wells’ story. “To try to find a human story within the book, where we can invest in characters and feel an emotional tug and also be taken on an emotional rollercoaster, Peter has done the job,” says the director, who has seen his own sketches of the Martians realised during post-production.

Exec producer Timmer had waited 25 years to adapt Wells’ novel, and his persistence paid off once the rights recently became available. But he admits the “irresistible” project was a “foolhardy” thing to take on. “A world has been turned upside down by an army with death rays and huge tripods, and the thing they are trying to conquer is Edwardian England – that’s all quite expensive,” he explains. “Alien invasions are also two-a-penny now, so I thought it was really interesting to go back to the original genre-defining story. HG Wells creates a compelling and ground-breaking story, and it’s conceptually so rich and written with such panache. But what he is not trying to do is emotionally engage the reader with the characters. What Peter has done really cleverly is tell a story about a group of characters that is hopefully very moving and very complex emotionally.”

ITV Studios Global Entertainment is handling international distribution of the series, which Timmer describes as “madly overambitious.” But despite the challenges he has faced, by the time the series airs, hopefully Timmer will think it has been a war worth fighting.


Campbell’s out-of-this-world design
With credits to her name including BBC2’s award-winning Wolf Hall, production designer Pat Campbell is well versed in the art of period drama. Henry VIII never had to face off with Martians, though.

The series was filmed around Liverpool, England

At the outset, The War of the Worlds is the most typical of costume series, setting the scene in Edwardian England and introducing the characters viewers will root for once the invasion begins. “What we tried to do was make the Edwardian world as real as possible so you absolutely believe you are in that time and place – and then suddenly everything changes and you have these hideous monsters from outer space,” Campbell explains.

The production demanded three worlds be created: before, during and after the invasion. “That was one of the challenges because we saw so many places prior to destruction, during destruction and after destruction, so we had to decide which way we worked. Would you start with it destroyed and work backwards, or start good and work your way through the stages of destruction? We did a bit of both.”

The series was filmed around Liverpool, including London exteriors, with the village of Great Budworth doubling for more rural Surrey. Location reconnaissance began in October 2017, before prep started in January last year. Once production was underway, Campbell and her team would work around the camera units, setting things up for them to come in and shoot and then cleaning up once they’d finished.

The War of the Worlds premieres on BBC1 this Sunday

With sets built 12 feet tall, there was a wide mixture of in-camera effects and VFX, which notably created the Martians themselves, save for a leg or two. But the biggest design challenge was arguably creating the red weed, the creeping Martian plant that begins to spread across the Earth. After a lot of trial and error, the design team carved a landscape out of polystyrene, clad it in silicon gel and then attached enormous crystal spikes to create the red weed effect, with stringy roots falling down.

Summing up working on The War of the Worlds and its mash-up of genres and settings as “just a really interesting experience,” Campbell says: “Doing a period drama is lovely but this was a period drama that really stretched you. What we all found challenging in the art department was the amount of problem-solving we had to do to create the red weed, to create the Martians’ capsule and the different worlds. They were massive problems that had to be solved in a way that would be good visually but also had to meet our budget. That was really interesting because it wasn’t just putting in lots of lovely period props. There were challenges with many different elements.”

tagged in: , , , ,

Easy as ABC

The ABC Murders is the latest Agatha Christie novel to be reinvented for the BBC by writer Sarah Phelps and producer Mammoth Screen. The creative team behind the project gathered at Content London 2018 to discuss the adaptation process and casting John Malkovich as Poirot.

Based on the classic 1936 novel, The ABC Murders is next instalment in the collection of Agatha Christie novels to be adapted for the BBC.

Following in the footsteps of And Then There Were None (2015), The Witness for the Prosecution (2016) and Ordeal by Innocence (2018), the three-part miniseries sees John Malkovich step into the storied shoes of iconic Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.

The cast also includes Rupert Grint as Inspector Crome, Andrew Buchan as Franklin Clarke, Eamon Farren as Cust, Tara Fitzgerald as Lady Hermione Clarke, Bronwyn James as Megan and Freya Mavor as Thora Grey.

Set in 1933, the show sees Poirot face a serial killer known only as ABC. First the killer strikes in Andover, then Bexhill. As the murder count rises, the only clue is the copy of the ABC Railway Guide at each crime scene. If Poirot is to match his nemesis then everything about him will be called into question: his authority, his integrity, his past and his identity.

Directed by Alex Gabassi and produced by Farah Abushwesha, The ABC Murders is a Mammoth Screen and Agatha Christie Limited drama for BBC1 and Amazon, with Endeavour Content distributing. The executive producers are writer Sarah Phelps, plus Damien Timmer and Helen Ziegler for Mammoth Screen, James Prichard and Basi Akpabio for Agatha Christie Limited and Elizabeth Kilgarriff for the BBC. It debuts in the UK on Boxing Day.

The ABC Murders was the subject of a case study at Content London 2018, where Phelps, Prichard, Timmer and Kilgariff discussed making the series.

L-R: James Prichard, Sarah Phelps and Damien Timmer at Content London

Meet Poirot

James Prichard, CEO and chairman of Agatha Christie Limited and great-grandson of Agatha Christie: In terms of Agatha Christie’s full body of work, The ABC Murders is relatively early. We’re in the mid-1930s but, in terms of this story, Poirot is quite well developed. This is a story about Poirot ageing, and there are significant references to the fact his hair is changing colour. Part of the point of the story is Poirot being tested by this serial killer [and we get to see] whether he still has the faculties to solve it. It’s very different in terms of most of the Christie stories in that it plays over the canvas of the whole of the UK. Most of her stories are set in a country home or an enclosed location. The whole point of this is technically the killer could be anyone – it isn’t just a list of 10 suspects you have to work through, and that’s half the fun of it and half the power of it. It is testing Poirot to a level that he probably hasn’t been tested to anywhere else.

Sarah Phelps, writer and executive producer: A confession: I’d never read a Poirot book before I read The ABC Murders. A confession: I’ve never watched a Poirot adaptation all the way through. Obviously I know he has been played by Peter Eustinov, Albert Finney and, most famously, David Suchet. He’s unmissable. I have seen Kenneth Branagh in Murder on the Orient Express. So in much the same way I was familiar with Agatha Christie before I started working on these books but I hadn’t actually read any of the books, I was aware of him. But I didn’t know him at all. So I deep-dived into it to ask all the questions that get asked of Poirot throughout: Who are you? What compels you? Why do you do the things you do? Right down to the fact that I never refer to him as Poirot in my script. He’s always character-headed as Hercule, because I want to know who the private man is behind the famous public persona.

Damien Timmer, executive producer, MD of Mammoth Screen: I grew up with Agatha Christie, read all the books more than once, collected the books, loved the covers. In my weird young Hinterland, Poirot was a huge deal. In later years, I was privileged to work on the later David Suchet adaptations for ITV, which was wonderful. But I was sad because there were certain titles that had already been done, and one of them was The ABC Murders, which I genuinely thought was the most exciting Poirot novel. It has such scale. There was a sense that at some point soon we might be allowed to do a Poirot. There wasn’t a lot of discussion about what the title was. I just think we all instinctively felt The ABC Murders was the one to do.

Elizabeth Kilgariff, senior commissioning editor for drama, BBC: We talked about lots of different options and I agree that as a Poirot and as a standalone Poirot, it is a brilliant story. So it stands on its own merit as a real event piece for us.

Hollywood heavyweight John Malkovich as Hercule Poirot

Playing detective

Phelps: The thing is, I didn’t really want to do a sleuth. I like the Christie mysteries where no one’s going to come along and save you. I really love And Then There Were None – what a brutal, savage book. I really love the short story of The Witness for the Prosecution and Ordeal by Innocence because no one is going to come along and help. No one’s going to come along and explain things. They’re not going to parcel it up and return this sense of security and Englishness back to you and you can carry on playing your game of tennis or whatever it is you were doing before this body so rudely arrived on the carpet. So I really didn’t want to do a sleuth, I didn’t want to do the thing where they come along and they’ve got all the answers. But I liked the story and I thought it was grubby and seedy and you could smell that 1930s world. Then if I’m going to do it, Hercule has to be the mystery, because he’s a mystery to me as I don’t know him. So I just ran with that. There were two mysteries running side by side. That felt to be the right way to go about it, rather than presuming all this knowledge because somebody has always been the way they’ve been just because we think we know them.

Meet Poirot

Phelps: The story was written in 1936 but I’ve set it in 1933, very specifically, which is the date when the British Union of Fascists started to gain real traction in Britain. The language of the British Union of Fascists is exactly the language of Brexit and Trump that we see now. Hercule Poirot is a foreigner. He’s not from Britain, he’s from Belgium and the backlash against people who had arrived as part of the exodus from Europe before the First World War had changed very specifically. Hercule finds himself rather diminished, rather friendless, in this new world. The place he was comfortable in, Scotland Yard, he’s no longer really welcome.

Harry Potter star Rupert Grint plays Inspector Crome

Changing Christie

Phelps: There was a stage adaptation of And Then There Were None after the Second World War in America and the producers of that apparently said, “Look, everyone’s really depressed – we need to have a happy ending and cheer everyone up.” So in this stage adaptation, Philip Lombard and Vera Claytorne escape – because there’s nothing like a multiple murderer and a child killer going off into the sunset hand in hand to really put a zip in your stride. Yes, I made changes. When I was writing The Witness for the Prosecution, I carried on long after that story had left off. I made changes to And Then There Were None. But, in this, I took very seriously what is utterly canonical about this character. Because I was unfamiliar, I could deep-dive into those things and deconstruct it a little bit to find the man beneath it. In many ways I think it’s faithful, but it’s my interpretation; like everybody has an interpretation, this is mine. James and the Christie estate are incredibly generous and trusting.

Prichard: Sarah pushes us to places that make me deeply uncomfortable but the point of it is these are adaptations; they’re not direct translations, and you don’t get someone with the genius of Sarah if you don’t allow them a little bit of licence to interpret the things in the way that she sees them, and that’s the point. With The ABC Murders, the clue is in the title. I thought we’d be safe because it is A, B, C. Little did I know that she’d go a little bit further, to E.

Kilgariff: That this is Sarah’s interpretation is actually very important for us. This is a story that’s been adapted before – why do it if you’re not going to bring something new for the audience? We all know Sarah will always do something brilliant and special to any of the pieces she adapts but, in a way, that always makes them feel new and distinctive, and that’s obviously really important for us. Otherwise, why would we do it?

On location

Timmer: We were filming in different places around Yorkshire. The story is set in London but the first murder is in Andover, the second is in Bexhill-on-Sea – we did film there. But principally we have brilliant locations in and around Yorkshire doubling up for all sorts of different bits of the UK.

Phelps: Bradford has the most beautiful council buildings, and they played the role of Scotland Yard in the 1930s. But they are still council buildings, so you’d have all these people going about their business with clipboards and lanyards, going up and down these stairs past the cameras and every now and again encountering John Malkovich and Rupert Grint in period costume. It was quite surreal.

Brazilian director Alex Gabassi (centre) pictured during filming

Building the cast

Phelps: John said the scripts went to his agent and his agent gave him a call and said, ‘It’s the BBC and it’s Poirot and it’s Christmas, you don’t want to do this.’ He went, ‘Have you read the scripts?’ and his agent said, ‘Yes we read the scripts, you don’t want to do this.’ He said, ‘I’ll take a look anyway.’ He gets the scripts and calls them back and says, ‘You didn’t read these scripts did you? I didn’t think so, because I’m doing it.’ Con Air [in which Malkovich stars] is one of the greatest movies ever made and you just think, ‘What the hell?’ Every now and again I go, ‘John Malkovich is in my show!’

Kilgariff: These pieces do attract an amazing cast but this one is really special, and that’s testament to Sarah’s scripts. Of course, it’s Agatha Christie. Everyone knows what that is, which is very exciting, but I do think it’s the quality of the scripts. More and more, the scripts and the writing speak for themselves and we are getting some amazing casts.

Phelps: We only had one casting disappointment – there’s a pug, and the first pug we had kept peeing on the furniture, so we had to sack it and get a new pug.

Behind the camera

Timmer: Alex Gabassi, our completely magnificent director, is a really extraordinary talent. It was a big deal for him because it’s the first big British show he’s done [Gabassi is Brazilian], but we’ve all been impressed by the skill he has. He’s taken such ownership of every aspect of the show with such a cheerful twinkle.

Phelps: Alex likes to storyboard so he brought in a lot of storyboards and a lot of mood boards and we talked a lot about everything, which means by the time we’re ready to go, I completely and utterly trust him to do what he’s brilliant at.

Reinventing Christie

Prichard: It’s not stretching a point too far to say [the BBC adaptations] were almost the beginning of a change in perception of my great-grandmother, where people began to take her seriously again. I’m not doing down any of the ITV shows, because I think they were brilliant and some of the later Poirots were among the best. But there was a feel to them and they felt of their time. And Then There Were None blew the doors off that, and since then people have realised you can do Agatha Christie in a different way, that she is a serious writer, and it has opened doors for us. We even got nominated for a Bafta, which would never have happened five years ago. There’s a credibility that’s come from the way Sarah has treated these stories that has definitely made an impact.

tagged in: , , , , , , ,

Reinventing Agatha Christie

Beginning with And Then There Were None in 2015, UK producer Mammoth Screen and screenwriter Sarah Phelps have reinvented several classic Agatha Christie stories for BBC1.

This Christmas, they return with their fourth collaboration, Poirot thriller The ABC Murders.

In this DQTV interview, Mammoth MD Damien Timmer talks about the company’s approach to adapting Christie, what Phelps brings to the titles and how each miniseries takes a different view of events of the 20th century.

The ABC Murders is produced by Mammoth Screen and Agatha Christie Ltd for BBC1 and Amazon Prime Video, and distributed by Endeavor Content.

tagged in: , ,

Phelps bears Witness

Writer Sarah Phelps reunites with Mammoth Screen and Agatha Christie Productions to adapt another classic Christie novel. Michael Pickard finds out more about The Witness for the Prosecution.

At just 23 pages long, Agatha Christie’s classic mystery novel The Witness for the Prosecution might seem a fairly lightweight proposition for a television adaptation.

But after the success of 2015’s And Then There Were None, writer Sarah Phelps and coproducers Mammoth Screen and Agatha Christie Productions have combined once again to bring another Christie tale to BBC1. It is due to premiere later this year and will also air on Acorn TV in the US.

“In the world of Agatha Christie, in terms of her iconic titles, it’s absolutely up there,” executive producer Damien Timmer says of the source material. “Some of her novels cast a very long shadow but The Witness for the Prosecution is one of her best conceits. It’s a very dark, twisted love story that collides with a big courtroom drama. It’s irresistible.”

Set in 1920s London, the short story opens with the brutal murder of glamorous and rich Emily French (played by Kim Cattrall, pictured top). All the evidence points to Leonard Vole (Billy Howle), a young chancer to whom the heiress left her vast fortune and who ruthlessly took her life, at least according to the housekeeper, Janet McIntyre (Monica Dolan).

Sarah Phelps
Sarah Phelps

Leonard, however, is adamant that his partner, enigmatic chorus girl Romaine (Andrea Riseborough), can prove his innocence. Solicitor John Mayhew (Toby Jones) and Sir Charles Carter KC (David Haig) represent him in court.

“It is one of her absolute best stories,” exclaims James Prichard, chairman of Agatha Christie Ltd and the author’s great-grandson. “It’s got a phenomenal twist to it. Romaine is one of the best characters my great-grandmother wrote. It’s a great story and it deserves the Sarah [Phelps] treatment.”

The length of the original tale failed to faze Phelps, who was new to the story and has stuck to her rule of not seeing previous adaptations of a property she is working on. She also specifically wanted to adapt the original short story, rather than the 1953 play Christie wrote based on it.

“I wanted to do the short story because it was the one that grabbed my imagination,” she admits. “Even though it’s incredibly brief, it builds up to this extraordinary twist and it felt exciting, like there was a lot of room in it for extrapolation and interpretation and creative input.”

She adds of the adaptation process: “It’s always about finding the story. You can have a novel that’s 800 pages long or a 20-page short story, but it’s always about asking what the story is. Whether it’s finding the key line through it like with Great Expectations, or with Witness, it’s the tiny little mentions and suggestions that make me think of something and it just sort of breathes and grows. I really enjoyed working on it.”

Published in 1925, it was one of Christie’s earliest works, set during a fascinating period of British history in which society was polarised between the rich and glitzy society life and the poverty experienced by many people in London in the years after the First World War.

Aidan Turner in And Then There Were None
Aidan Turner in And Then There Were None

“We talk about the glamour of the 1920s but the champagne, the shingled hair and the dancing on tables was only present for the proportion of the population who had money,” says Phelps. “Everybody else was caught up in a terrible postwar depression where people were starving. People came back from the war and pawned their medals and begged on street corners. So within those two extremes of that world, you throw in a story about money, sex and murder and it feels really explosive.”

Prichard continues: “There is this extraordinary disparity between the rich world of Emily and her ilk and the poorer world of Leonard, Romaine and Mayhew. Whereas And Then There Were None played towards the fears of the Second World War, this harks back to the after-effects of the First World War and how it impacted on everyone.”

Filming for the two-part drama took place earlier this year in Liverpool, which Timmer explains was a good match for a foggy 1920s London. “But we also needed locations outside London – big theatre set pieces and scenes set in the south of France,” he reveals. “We scouted all over the place and found Liverpool had more to offer than anywhere else. It has some glorious exteriors that do a very good job of passing for period London, arguably better than London itself.”

Telling a story that spans several different locations also presented a challenge for Timmer and Mammoth Screen, with just 120 minutes of screen time to fill.

“It’s two hours of television but in that time you’ve got to recreate large-scale courtroom scenes, London exteriors, 1920s vaudeville, big lavish scenes in the south of France and scenes in First World War trenches,” he notes. “We’re lucky to have [director] Julian Jarrold, who is one of our best filmmakers, and a pretty amazing production team assembled around him. We haven’t stinted at any of these things; the sheer scale of it is pretty remarkable.”

Phelps picks up: “It’s claustrophobic as well. You do spend a lot of time in the courtroom but it became a set of staircases and small rooms full of dark corners. It felt like place was really important and it was about creating a city around the people in The Witness for the Prosecution, all of whom were carrying this trauma of the war with them.

Damien Timmer
Damien Timmer

Collaborating with Jarrold was also a positive experience for Phelps, though the writer admits her scripts can be quite detailed in how she sees the story being brought to life on screen.

“I’m very descriptive with stage directions and almost what you could smell or feel if you were really there,” she admits. “I explain how cold it is or whether the carpet’s thin or so plush that your foot sinks in and leaves a footprint like Robinson Crusoe seeing a footprint on the beach. So that’s all there for anybody reading it to feel the world the way I feel it.

“You always have these conversations with your directors and you can tell people get really into it. Our art designer fell in love with the Mayhew house and was incredibly proud of the set. You have those conversations and you understand each other. The director and director of photography will also have thoughts and ideas of how to realise what I’ve written in the script, so there’s always got to be a trust and you’ve got to give people their own artistic licence.”

Timmer says Phelps is “brilliant” at adapting classic material. “Sarah claims not to have read any Agatha Christie so by coming to her work fresh and simply treating it as a classic novel, it leads to something very fresh in the world of Christie adaptations,” he explains. “Having been on the journey with her for And Then There Were None, we all felt her sensibility applied to Agatha Christie’s best stories is a very fruitful one.

“Sometimes people see Agatha Christie as much lighter than the writing actually is. They think it’s a very chintzy, Cluedo murder mystery but actually she is almost always much more complex than that. And Then There Were None was partly an exercise in making people reassess her and see quite how stark and dark and psychologically complex her writing can be, and Sarah is well placed to get to grips with that.”

Prichard says of Phelps: “She seems to be able to get between the lines of Agatha’s writing in a way that is very special. One thing she says is it’s an adaptation, it’s not a translation, so she does adapt, but to adapt means you’re working from the original and it has to be based in the original. And she does have this ability to take my great-grandmother’s stories and make them very real and bring them into a modern sensibility in a way I haven’t seen for a while. She’s just a great writer, and great writers create fantastic television.”

Following the success of And Then There Were None might seem daunting, but while Prichard admits that show was “the best thing we’ve done on TV ever,” he adds that with Phelps and Mammoth back at the helm, The Witness for the Prosecution could be even better. A+E Networks is distributing the series around the world.

“What Sarah and everyone else has brought to this is a different insight,” he says. “Everything Sarah puts in the story is in the original works if you read them properly. Particularly with Witness, which is just a short story, she’s added bits and given backstories but actually it all feels as if it fits within that. She’s taken a cough that the solicitor Mayhew has and she’s built a complete backstory around this one line in the book. It’s extraordinary how she gets this feel from these stories.”

Mammoth and Phelps will be back together again for another Christie adaptation in 2017, this time taking on Ordeal by Innocence, which is the first of seven adaptations the BBC will air over the next four years. Death Comes as the End and The ABC Murders will follow, with writers and producers to be confirmed.

“I’m in no way an aficionado of her work; all I can say is this is my take and this is what I think, what I see and what I think these stories are about,” Phelps explains. “But maybe because I’m unfamiliar with them, that unsettling quality perhaps comes across because I don’t have any prior relationship with them.

“I think she is an unsettling writer and she nails very succinctly and very forensically a sense of identity, a sense of Englishness where actually there’s a real tension to that identity – and there’s a tension to it because there’s a body on the floor and that body’s been murdered. They’re entertaining stories and deliciously plotted but there’s also something else going on, something quite worrying and dangerous.”

Having produced the long-running Poirot series for ITV, Timmer says he has a soft spot for the author and hopes to continue that relationship in the future.

“We’re relishing this chance to take some of the very best titles and treat them as standalone modern classics,” he adds. “As long as one can access those titles, we’re happy to continue as long as we’re wanted.”

tagged in: , , , , , ,

Victoria’s reign extended by ITV

Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria
Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria

In one of the least surprising renewal stories of the year, UK broadcaster ITV has commissioned a second series of ratings hit Victoria from Mammoth Screen. Scripted by Daisy Goodwin, the show has had an excellent first season – even managing to hold off strong competition from the BBC’s returning hit Poldark.

Series one launched in late August and is currently averaging around 7.7 million viewers, which makes it ITV’s top-performing drama of the year so far. ITV director of television, Kevin Lygo said: “Mammoth Screen and Daisy Goodwin have brought the characters so vividly to life in this series and we’re thrilled with the reception for Victoria. We’re pleased to be able to confirm Jenna Coleman and Tom Hughes will return to continue the story on ITV.” Just as significantly, Goodwin will again be writing and executive producing the series.

Season one starts with the young Victoria’s coronation and explores how she becomes increasingly sure-footed in the fields of politics and diplomacy. It also looks at her close relationship with Lord Melbourne and burgeoning romance with Prince Albert, her eventual husband. As with series one, the new season will be a coproduction with PBS Masterpiece.

Goodwin added: “Even though she reigned in the 19th century, Victoria is a heroine for our times. In the next series she faces the very modern dilemma of how to juggle children with her husband and her job. As Victoria will discover, it’s hard to be a wife, a mother and ruler of the most powerful nation on earth.”

Tom Selleck in Magnum PI
Tom Selleck in Magnum PI

Mammoth Screen’s Damien Timmer, another executive producer on the show, said: “Following the audience response to Victoria, we are delighted that Jenna Coleman will be returning to her throne for a second series. The next few years of Victoria’s reign are packed full of extraordinary real-life events, with constitutional crises, scandals at court and personal challenges aplenty for the Queen and Prince Albert. God Save the Queen!”

Meanwhile, in the US, the trend towards TV drama series revivals seems to be picking up pace. After CBS launched MacGyver this week with a decent 10.9 million audience, there are now reports that ABC is lining up a spin-off series based on the 1980s classic Magnum PI, which starred Tom Selleck. Echoing another recent trend in US TV, the plan is for the show to have a female lead – with Magnum’s daughter moving to Hawaii to take over the business.

The reboot business is in full swing now with The X-Files, Gilmore Girls, 24 and Prison Break all having been revived, or coming up. The new Magnum will be written by John Rogers, whose TNT series Leverage ran for five seasons from 2008 to 2012. Rogers also created TNT’s hit scripted series The Librarians.

Still in the US, there’s good news for fans of Atlanta, the new comedy from Donald Glover that airs on FX. The network has just announced a second season. It has also revealed that it is returning Better Things, another comedy that has been performing well. “It’s really gratifying to launch two new comedies that have received overwhelming critical acclaim right out of the gate and that are emblematic of FX’s award-winning brand,” said Nick Grad and Eric Schrier, heads of original programming for FX Networks and FX Productions. “It is clear to us Atlanta and Better Things have struck a nerve with viewers.”

Donald Glover's Atlanta will return to FX
Donald Glover’s Atlanta will return to FX

Atlanta follows two young, black cousins as they try to make it rich out of rap. International buyers will get to see what the fuss is about when Fox brings the show to the Mipcom market in Cannes next month as part of its slate. Better Things is co-created by Pamela Adlon and Louis C.K. Adlon plays Sam, a woman trying to raise her three daughters, while also attempting to hold down a career in Hollywood. Still with Fox’s international ambition, the distribution arm of Fox Networks Group is also heading to Mipcom with Ron Howard’s forthcoming space epic Mars. The six-part series, about a fictitious mission to colonise the red planet in 2033, will receive its world premiere in Cannes ahead of its debut on National Geographic later this year.

Also in the US, The CW is developing a new supernatural series called Stick Man with Cameron Prosandeh (Helix) and Tim Kring (Heroes). Stick Man is about an amateur documentarian who returns to her hometown to chronicle the events of her brother’s murder and the ensuing trial. While there, she discovers evidence linking her brother’s death to supernatural events.

Designated Survivor stars Kiefer Sutherland
Designated Survivor stars Kiefer Sutherland

There was also more evidence this week of Netflix’s considerable clout in the international rights market following news that it has secured international streaming rights (excluding North America) to ABC drama Designated Survivor, starring Kiefer Sutherland. The deal was done with rights holder Entertainment One (eOne). Last month, Netflix also secured the rights to CBS’s highly anticipated new iteration of Star Trek, which is coming some time in 2017.

In one of the week’s more intriguing commissions, Verizon has greenlit a political comedy for its streaming service Go90. Executive produced by Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, the 6×30′ show is called Embeds. It explores five reporters covering the US presidential election and has been created by Scott Conroy and Peter Hamby. Go90also also recently commissioned a live-action series inspired by the Battlefield video game franchise.

Back in the UK, Scottish producer Synchronicity Films is developing a crime thriller based on Graeme Macrae Burnet novel His Bloody Project. The book, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, explores the sanity of a teenager convicted of a brutal triple murder in 1869 in a remote Scottish crofting community. Early discussions are underway with a major UK broadcaster, with screenwriters currently being considered.”

Claire Mundell, creative director at Synchronicity, said: “We are delighted to have discovered this wonderful novel on our own doorstep. It’s also great to work with an indie publisher [Saraband Imprint Contraband] that believes in backing undiscovered talent as much as we do.”

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Drama queen

Jenna Coleman swaps the TARDIS for Buckingham Palace in a forthcoming ITV period drama. DQ speaks to writer Daisy Goodwin and executive producer Damien Timmer about Victoria.

If the mere mention of Queen Victoria conjures up the image of a “boot-faced old bag in a bonnet,” an eight-part drama starring Jenna Coleman (pictured above) could be about to change perceptions of Britain’s second longest-reigning monarch.

Previously travelling the galaxy as Doctor Who’s companion, the actor’s first starring role away from the TARDIS is as the young queen in an ITV drama simply titled Victoria, which opens with her ascension to the throne at the tender age of 18.

Daisy Goodwin
Daisy Goodwin

The series then follows the monarch through the first three years of her reign, including her courtship and marriage to Prince Albert (played by Tom Hughes).

While being a teenager on the throne might have thrown up some challenges for Victoria, series creator and writer Daisy Goodwin also faced a steep learning curve – this is her first ever screenwriting commission.

But she describes the experience as “a revelation, an education and a great privilege,” adding: “To do something you feel very passionately about and have it realised so splendidly is something most writers spend their entire career waiting for and it’s happened to me right out of the gate. I’m totally thrilled. And I find none of it boring because I’ve never done it before.”

Goodwin reveals her “affair” with Victoria started when she was 18 and studying history at Cambridge. “I was reading her diaries and came across this extraordinary entry that described how head-over-heels in love she was with Albert and it made me laugh,” she recalls. “I had a moment where I realised she was a teenager who was having to learn how to be queen in the full glare of the public eye.”

Goodwin went on to have a successful television career, not in drama but in the factual space, first with Talkback Productions, where she devised shows such as Grand Designs and How Clean is your House?. She then founded Silver River Productions, before her first novel – the Victorian era-set My Last Duchess – was published in 2010. Her second, The Fortune Hunter, landed in 2014.

“I was reminded what an interesting character Victoria was – and at the same time I have a daughter who’s a teenager and the same height as she was, just under five foot. We had a huge row one morning and I looked at her and wondered what would happen if she woke up tomorrow to find she was the most powerful woman in the world. I thought that was the starting point for a fascinating drama and I like the idea that Victoria’s a teenage queen with all that that implies.”

Victoria
Victoria will premiere on ITV on Sunday August 28

In particular, Goodwin says she was drawn to the idea of making a historical drama with wit, verve and humour. “Just because it has bonnets doesn’t mean it has to be stuffy in any way,” she asserts. “I’ve tried to tell the story as it would have unfolded at the time. Our perception of Victoria is always as a boot-faced old bag in a bonnet, which is the old Victoria, but in her early years there was huge unease about whether this little girl could take on this hugely important role. That’s what I’ve tried to convey in the early part of the series.”

As a historian and Victoria expert, it would be understandable if Goodwin felt pressure to ensure the series’ factual accuracy – but she says she isn’t fazed by the prospect of criticism for any dramatic licence in her scriptwriting.

“Obviously I’ve fiddled a bit with chronology, but dramatically it was necessary,” she says. “I know enough about the history to know what I’m doing. Where I’ve changed things, I’ve done it for dramatic effect. But I have been faithful to the emotional truth of the characters I’m writing about. So all the real people, that’s who they were and, as much as possible, I’ve tried to use their own words. When people see episode one, the things they think I’ve made up are the true bits.”

UK broadcaster ITV was obviously impressed by Goodwin’s pitch, handing out a series order despite only one script being written at the time. Mammoth Films (Poldark) then came on board to produce, with Damien Timmer, Goodwin and Dan McCulloch executive producing. ITV Studios Global Entertainment is distributing Victoria worldwide.

Perhaps the biggest piece of the jigsaw, however, was who would play Victoria – the young woman who went on to rule for 63 years and was Britain’s longest-serving monarch until she was overtaken by Elizabeth II on September 9, 2015.

“One of the things we had to get right was Victoria, who was really small and very diminutive – something that hasn’t always been captured in previous translations of her life,” Timmer says. “But it’s one of the things that give her such huge power – she’s this small dynamo. From the beginning we agreed we were looking for a real powerhouse of an actress and, in my mind, Jenna was the obvious person.

Victoria
The show has been producer by Mammoth Screen, which is behind BBC1’s Poldark

“Doctor Who is always shrouded in secrecy and it wasn’t clear whether she would be available. While we had Jenna as our holy grail, we did do some investigating elsewhere – but when we discovered it could work with Jenna, we were utterly thrilled because it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in that part now. Victoria’s a real force of nature – when she was happy she made the room laugh, but when she lost her temper it was probably rather scary. Jenna conveys that in a way that always feels truthful. She manages to be both very sympathetic and properly brutal.”

Goodwin, who describes Coleman as “miraculous,” adds: “Our Victoria is a heroine but she gets things wrong as often as she gets them right. We’re lucky to have an actress in Jenna who can do bad things but makes you realise why she’s doing them. You understand where she’s coming from and you feel towards her like you do your teenage daughter.”

While crowning Coleman as Victoria was a major coup, the rest of the production wasn’t without its challenges. In particular, production designer Michael Howells was tasked with recreating Buckingham Palace, with numerous staterooms, ballrooms and a throne room, as well as quarters for Victoria and her family and the downstairs servants.

“It’s boring to go on about how big a set is but the detail and scale are truly impressive,” Timmer says. “That’s one of the distinctive things about this – the central character’s home is also one of the biggest palaces in the world. You can’t cheat with that, you can’t hide. You’ve got to do it properly. It’s a big place to fill and you’ve got to believe the life of the palace. It’s stuffed to the gills with courtiers and when there’s a ball, these are big spaces to fill. But it’s also a home, somewhere intimate scenes can play.

“The exterior of Buckingham Palace now is not at all what it looked like in Victoria’s reign, which is the key to the show. You think you know what the story will be, but think again. The truth is much more interesting than the story we all think we know.”

Timmer also praises Goodwin – a self-confessed super fan of another ITV period drama, Downton Abbey – for the cast of characters she has built around the young monarch, with actors including Rufus Sewell, Alex Jennings, Paul Rhys, Peter Firth and Catherine Flemming among the ensemble.

“One of the challenges Daisy set herself was portraying the world around Queen Victoria,” he explains. “You have her family, the world of the servants below stairs and all manner of important dignitaries. It’s a big cast and Daisy has managed to make sure all the actors are very well served. It’s rare to encounter a cast as jolly as this lot are because although it’s an ensemble, they really feel they’re getting enough attention because the scripts managed to serve them all very well.”

But what is it that sets Victoria – due to air later this year on ITV and in 2017 on US network PBS – apart from other period dramas?

“Unlike most costume dramas where it’s the woman trying to get the attention of a man, in this you’ve got a woman who from the beginning is the boss,” Goodwin says. “And that makes it different to pretty much any other costume drama out there. Plus it’s a story people think they know but they don’t know. There’s also enough real history there for people who are interested in the period, so I hope it will satisfy on those two levels.”

tagged in: , , , ,

Second to None: DQ on the darkest Agatha Christie adaptation yet

And Then There Were None is Agatha Christie’s seminal murder mystery – but just how was this story of 10 strangers stranded on an isolated island brought to the screen?

It was first published in 1939 as the world stood on the brink of war, but Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (ATTWN) remains the celebrated author’s most popular work.

More than 70 years after it was written, the chilling murder mystery is still the best-selling crime story of all time and was recently voted Christie’s most popular novel.

And now it’s been given the television treatment after BBC1 and US cable network Lifetime partnered to bring it to the small screen – but just how did Agatha Christie Ltd (ACL), producer Mammoth Screen and writer Sarah Phelps adapt the story?

And Then There Were None sees 10 strangers brought together on a mysterious island, but as they wait for their hosts, they find themselves cut off from civilisation. The guests then start to die, one by one, according to the rules of Ten Little Soldier Boys, a nursery rhyme that ends with the words: “… and then there were none.”

Aidan Turner of Poldark fame is among And Then There Were None's star-studded cast
Aidan Turner of Poldark fame is among And Then There Were None’s star-studded cast

The ensemble cast includes Douglas Booth, Charles Dance, Maeve Dermody, Burn Gorman, Anna Maxwell Martin, Sam Neill, Miranda Richardson, Toby Stephens, Noah Taylor and Aidan Turner.

Best known for her “cosy crime” stories featuring Miss Marple and Poirot, it was time for people to see the other side of Agatha Christie, says Hilary Strong, CEO of ACL. “And Then There Were None is probably Christie’s seminal book,” she says. “Sarah did an amazing adaptation but the book itself is very dark and brutal. We haven’t changed the tone of it. That’s how she wrote it.”

Mammoth’s executive producers Karen Thrussell and Damien Timmer have a long history with Christie, having previously produced Poirot for ITV. Thrussell says that with no detective at the centre of the plot, ATTWN immediately stands out as “amazingly different and inventive.”

She adds: “It’s a dark, dark book – the original slasher thriller – but it’s also very psychological. It was absolutely the one we most wanted to do. So we got in touch with Sarah, who’s one of our favourite writers. I don’t think she’d actually read Agatha Christie before and I think she was knocked over sideways actually reading this book because it’s not what you expect from Christie.”

Phelps describes the story as “remorseless. You thought you knew what this woman (Christie) was about,” she says. “Her mind was absolutely extraordinary. You kind of forget that. Agatha the writer and Agatha the brain get lost in Agatha the brand. I was profoundly shocked by it in a really exciting way. That’s what I really hope comes across. It’s brutal.”

When writing the book, Christie worked backwards, starting at the end when everyone is dead and the police arrive too late, penning it over two years. Phelps similarly approached the adaptation as a puzzle, trying to make sure all the characters’ whereabouts were known when another person died and yet ensuring that each remained a suspect.

Veteran British actor Charles Dance (Game of Thrones) also stars
Veteran British actor Charles Dance (Game of Thrones) also stars

“You have to build it inside your head and let the characters walk around it,” she says. “I took the dog on really long walks and stamped around to get the atmosphere of it and then I sat down and threw everything I had at it and hoped for the best. You can find yourself thinking, ‘Well, in the book you know this person’s there because you’re told.’

“When you put it in a three-dimensional setting, you need to make sure that when a murder happens, viewers know where everybody is and yet they could all legitimately be the murderer of the person that’s just died. You can bash your head against the walls a couple of times thinking about how to solve that. But that’s part of the fun. And if you can make those reasons characterful, then it’s dramatic.”

The reveal in the original text was also saved for two epilogues at the end of the story, meaning Phelps also had to find a way for the story to be resolved on screen – one of several changes she made to Christie’s novel.

“The two epilogues tell you everything that happened after the event and how it was all planned, giving insight into the process of doing it. But you don’t want to finish your drama and have a couple of epilogues, so you want to pull that into the structure of the drama itself,” she says.

“There are little things we changed slightly to facilitate bringing that stuff into the body of the drama. I changed one of the crimes just because I wanted the character to have a much closer connection to it; I wanted to actively make him a murder victim rather than somebody who did something and then death just happened. I wanted them to be active agents in the destruction of another life.”

Craig Viveiros was brought in to direct the series, while production designer Sophie Becher was often found trawling antique shops and junk markets to find props that were authentic to its 1939 setting.

And Then There Were None has been described as Agatha Christie's darkest work
And Then There Were None has been described as Agatha Christie’s darkest work

“Sophie very much wanted to keep the style as Sarah had written, with the house on the island very white and modern,” Thrussell says. “There’s a theme of deterioration as the show goes on because you start with a slightly more optimistic lighting set-up, the characters get to the house and it’s rather nice and the food’s excellent.

“Then gradually as it descends into chaos, it gets darker and their appearance becomes dishevelled and not so neat. There’s that progression that’s been carefully tracked throughout. We also did that that with the music – it got more experimental as we went through. It was a bit of a journey.”

Having aired in three-parts on BBC1 over Christmas, ATTWN will also appear as two 90-minute instalments on Lifetime in the US in spring.

Joel Denton, MD of international content sales and partnerships at Lifetime parent A+E Networks, says joining forces with the BBC for the miniseries was a “no-brainer.”

“For Lifetime, it doesn’t get much better,” he says. “Sarah’s retelling of a book we all think we know but actually don’t quite know is extraordinary. For us, looking at a piece like this as an event and Agatha Christie as a brand, along with the great cast and two great storytellers, it was a no-brainer.

“We’re excited to be able to use the brand, which still means a lot in the States. Rob Sharenow (Lifetime’s executive VP of programming), who bought the show very early on before he’d seen anything from Sarah, knew the book well. He’d read the book as a child, loved it and they just needed some hooks – which are the cast as well as Agatha – to be able to market it to the audience in the US.”

Agatha Christie Ltd boss Hilary Strong
Agatha Christie Ltd boss Hilary Strong

Strong says the show was always conceived as a coproduction in order to bring together the high-profile cast they wanted from the outset.

“It was never going to be a cheap thing to do so we started talking to America very early on in the process, even before Sarah had written the script,” she explains. “Working with Joel at A+E and Lifetime was a revelation because, at the same time as we were trying to ensure the world saw a different side to Agatha Christie’s work, Lifetime was also trying to move away from its very female audience, so it was a real brand match in terms of what we were trying to do.

“This is a BBC show written by Agatha Christie – it’s very inherently British. A+E and Lifetime needed a cast that resonated with their audience so we got them an extraordinary cast. Charles Dance, Aidan Turner looking very different to Poldark, Sam Neil, Burn Gorman – it’s just a fantastic team of people and they worked so well together. They loved it.”

With the story literally coming to a dead end, there’s no chance of a second season – so why was this adapted for television and not made into a movie?

“What I love about TV is you have time to explore things,” Thrussell says. “One of the things Sarah did beautifully was to really get to know these people and I don’t think you could do that in a two-hour film. What’s brilliant about TV is that you can explore the longevity of things. I don’t know how you’d do it justice as a film. TV is great for character development, that’s what makes it interesting.”

With a big-screen remake of Murder on the Orient Express, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, due in November 2017, ACL is continuing to find ways to bring Christie to new and younger audiences.

“We would love to make more TV in the future but we will do it very carefully and very sparingly,” Strong adds. “We don’t want to have a thousand Christies in production. But I’d love to adapt Witness for the Prosecution next.”

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , ,

International Drama Summit: Round-up

The international drama community gathered at the BFI on London’s South Bank for three days of screenings, panel sessions, case studies and awards. Michael Pickard looks back on C21 Media’s International Drama Summit, part of Content London.

On the south bank of the River Thames, hundreds of producers, writers and broadcasters from around the world gathered in London for C21 Media’s International Drama Summit this week.

Held at the British Film Institute, the event took in three days of screenings, panel sessions and interviews covering the hottest talking points in the business – from budgets and coproductions to what commissioners are looking for to fill their schedules.

Audiences took in the first images of new Icelandic drama Trapped, written by Clive Bradley and produced by Dynamic Television. Producer Klaus Zimmermann discussed the challenges of working with nine commissioning broadcasters, among them SVT, DR1, DRK, France Télévisions and BBC4.

Figures from all areas of the drama industry descended on London for C21's International Drama Summit
Figures from all areas of the drama industry descended on London for C21’s International Drama Summit

Bradley also spoke about his positive experience working in a US-style writers room for the first time. “It’s always going to be true that if you have four rather than one brain that you will create more,” he said. “The turnaround was always going to be very quick because you’ve got at least eight months to do 10 episodes.”

There was also a packed house for a first glimpse at ITV’s forthcoming period drama Victoria, starring former Doctor Who companion Jenna Coleman. “Jenna was born to be queen,” said Damien Timmer, from producer Mammoth Screen.

Writer Daisy Goodwin added: “I’ve tried to tell the story of a teenager growing up with a crown. She’s not the queen you expect. It’s drama but everything that happens is true.”

Among the drama case studies, the creative teams from shows including Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, The Collection, Dickensian, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, Capital and Jekyll & Hyde took to the stage to reveal secrets from behind the scenes.

Agatha Christie Ltd CEO Hilary Strong said she always envisioned And Then There Were None to be a coproduction, with the three-parter due to air on BBC1 in the UK and Lifetime in the US.

“Working with Joel [Denton, A+E Networks ] and A+E has been a real revelation. This is a BBC show, it’s inherently British, but A+E didn’t demand we put any US stars in as per the old coproduction thing. That is over. Instead, we knew it needed a cast that resonated [in the US] so there was a dialogue.”

DQ editor Michael Pickard (far left) discusses Jekyll and Hyde with the team behind the show
DQ editor Michael Pickard (far left) discusses ITV’s Jekyll and Hyde with the team behind the show

Elsewhere, executives discussed spiralling budgets, creating an increasing need to piece together funding through multiple streams – whether via licence fees, private funding, distribution financing or pre-sales.

And while there was plenty of talk about the alleged saturation of the TV drama market, it was clear that many executives simply believe that while there might be too many shows, there aren’t enough great shows.

Morgan Wandell (pictured top), head of drama series for Amazon Studios, said as much during his keynote session when he warned producers against making run-of-the-mill, “industrial grade” procedurals.

He told delegates that Amazon Studios is aiming to make shows that are a “step above” what is already on offer, such as the SVoD platform’s recently launched The Man in the High Castle.

“If you’re making industrial-grade procedurals then good luck, but you do run the risk of being washed out,” he said, adding that some producers and writers “have built up specific muscles in TV. We’ve stripped away narrative tropes they relied on.”

Meanwhile, UK commissioners noted the changing television landscape as genre tastes and viewing habits continue to evolve.

BBC drama commissioner Polly Hill claimed TV audiences are now more open than ever to “complex, tricky” plots as she unveiled a new series from Luther creator Neil Cross set in a pre-apocalyptic London.

Sky Anne Mensah
Sky head of drama Anne Mensah took to the stage alongside commissioning editor Cameron Roach

Hard Sun, which will air in 2017 and is produced by Euston Films, follows detectives Elaine Renko and Robert Hicks, partners and enemies, who seek to protect their loved ones and enforce the law in a world slipping closer to certain destruction.

Hill told the Drama Summit that the success of the BBC’s recent drama slate, including Sherlock and Happy Valley, was evidence that “mainstream is really moving and big audiences will watch really complex, tricky subjects.”

Sky head of drama Anne Mensah and drama commissioning editor Cameron Roach described the differences between the networks they look after. Watching Sky Atlantic was compared to buying a ticket for a blockbuster film, while Sky Arts was likened to an art house cinema – though not for niche storytelling.

The pair said story was key across the board, however, adding that the pay TV broadcaster’s development team is now commissioning year-round for all three networks, including Sky1, and that channel boundaries remain fluid depending on the project.

ITV director of drama Steve November was more specific when describing his channel’s needs for the next two years. With shows such as Victoria and Jericho coming up in 2016, the broadcaster is well placed to retain viewers following the end of long-running hit Downton Abbey, which concludes with a Christmas special later this month.

And while ITV remains keen on period dramas – with Dark Angel and Doctor Thorne also coming up next year – November said he was looking for a range of new contemporary dramas to fill the 21.00 slot.

ITV drama director Steve November
ITV drama director Steve November

“I have got to be honest, I watched [the BBC’s] Dr Foster with a degree of envy and I wish we had that show,” he said. “Big romantic thrillers and a family relationship drama are real priorities for us.”

Channel 4 drama team Piers Wenger and Beth Willis also talked about the challenge of building a year-round drama slate, and how they approach traditional genres such as crime, period and sci-fi in a fresh way (see No Offence, Indian Summers and Humans respectively).

Deputy head of drama Willis said: “If it could be on another channel, we shouldn’t be doing it. We’re always looking for shows with an edge.”

Wenger, C4’s head of drama, revealed there are a variety of funding models in play at the broadcaster, such as its international coproduction strategy that saw Humans produced with US cable channel AMC.

As the conference drew to a close, the challenges of the future came into view – keeping viewers tuning into linear broadcasts, judging success in ways other than overnight ratings, piecing together financing in a world where there are no longer any set models for production and finding ways to tell new stories in an increasingly competitive market.

There will never be a formula for creating a hit series, but the ambition to find the next big hit is continuing to drive the business forward in new and innovative ways, ensuring the appetite for television drama will remain undiminished for some time to come.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,