Tag Archives: Dan Sefton

Character study

While series have a shelf life, some characters become immortal. DQ speaks to a group of writers about how they create the people we watch on screen.

When it comes to television drama, an intriguing plot might entice you to tune in and watch a pilot, a few episodes or even an entire season. But storylines can only take you so far.

For a series to break out beyond its log line and take viewers on a journey across multiple seasons – perhaps becoming a piece of timeless television that enters the zeitgeist along the way – it all comes down to character.

A drama about advertising executives in 1960s New York might not sound that thrilling on paper, but add the dynamic ensemble of Don Draper, Peggy Olson, Joan Holloway, Betty Draper, Pete Campbell and Roger Sterling and Mad Men becomes an Emmy-winning series that runs for seven seasons.

Similarly, describing Breaking Bad as the story of a desperate man with nothing to lose and what he is willing to do for his family’s survival creates enough curiosity to pique some interest. But throw Walter White, Jesse Pinkman, Skyler White, Hank Schrader, Gus Fring and Saul Goodman into the mix and you have some of the most watchable television characters of the past decade.

The same can be said for characters including Tony Soprano (The Sopranos), Villanelle (Killing Eve), Fox Mulder and Dana Scully (The X-Files), Buffy Summers (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Carrie Matheson (Homeland), Olivia Pope (Scandal), the Lannisters (Game of Thrones) and the inmates of Litchfield Penitentiary (Orange is the New Black), who themselves become the focal points of their respective shows, rather than any single plots they might become involved in.

Brazilian series First-Time Parents comes from Antonio Prata

But how do writers look to create compelling characters and how are they served through the story? “These are two pieces that are created and go together: characters and story,” says Brazilian screenwriter Antonio Prata. “One does not exist without the other. So we imagine the characters according to the theme covered in the series, the tone and the stories we want to tell.”

Prata’s Globo series Pais de Primeira (First Time Parents) explores the trials and tribulations of a modern couple who discover they are expecting their first child. “We wanted to talk about maternity and paternity nowadays, so we were interested in talking about a mother who grew up focused on her career and does not identify herself with the feminine stereotypes of the 20th century,” Prata says. “We also created a guy who tries to get involved as much as he can, who tries to be the best father in the world – but who tries so hard that he gets in the way and overloads his wife with his theories and opinions. They are characters that need to operate on the kind of path we create.”

The authenticity and relatability of those characters and their situation is what attracts viewers to the series, Prata believes. “The audience does not necessarily need to see themselves in them, but they must believe in their suffering and aspirations. Obviously, it is not enough for the characters to be well written; the role of the actors, the direction, the scenography, the lighting – everything helps or disturbs the ‘truth’ brought by the characters. The impact of the characters is also very much created by the way the actors embody them.”

Similarly, Dan Sefton imagines character and plot are on a feedback loop, constantly informing each other. The British writer has created series such as The Good Karma Hospital, Delicious and The Mallorca Files, while season two of his medical thriller anthology Trust Me aired on the BBC earlier this year. The latter’s story followed a soldier who, while hospitalised with spinal injuries, begins to investigate a new enemy as patients around him start dying.

“I just write everything down; every little idea I have goes down in the notes section on my phone,” Sefton explains. “This was an idea I thought of a long time ago and thought it would be a good idea for a thriller – Rear Window in a hospital, where this guy with a spinal injury is hunting down a murderer. Then we started to flesh out the characters and the plot.

The second season of Dan Sefton’s Trust Me centres on an injured soldier

“You start with that single idea on a note and expand and expand, and the details grow until you’ve got the whole show – four hours of stuff. It’s amazing to me, each time I do it, how it starts with something tiny and ends up being a production involving so many people to get it the best they possibly can.”

At the centre of Trust Me’s second season is Jamie, played by Alfred Enoch, who becomes convinced something sinister is unfolding in the hospital where he is confined to his bed.

“Initially with this story, I knew I wanted somebody who was very physical, because who’s the worst person to have a spinal injury? It’s someone who’s lived their entire life in a very physical way, someone who is very fit and active,” Sefton says. “Then you go, ‘He could be in the army – that works.’ Then you build on that and add some backstory that works for the plot.

“I don’t think it’s as simple as creating a fixed character. It goes round and round as they’re developed. Sometimes you have these cool ideas that could work for a scene and then you reverse-engineer the character so that it fits in. Sometimes it’s the other way round. It goes round and round – that’s why it takes so long.”

Set in the 1950s, Finnish period drama Shadow Lines is rooted in reality when it presents Helsinki as the heart of the Cold War, with CIA and KGB agents all vying for control of the capital of a country wedged between the US and Soviet Union.

Shadow Lines is written by mother-and-daughter duo Kirsti and Katri Manninen

It’s here that Helena (Emmi Parviainen), a student recently returned from the US, is recruited by a fictional top-secret task force hell-bent on keeping the country independent and preventing outside forces meddling in Finland’s presidential election. But as Helena discovers the truth about her past, her personal and professional lives collide.

Made for Finnish VoD and digital TV service Elisa Viihde, the show is written by mother-and-daughter writing team Kirsti and Katri Manninen. They devised the series based on research about the period and Finland’s place in the world at that time, setting a spy story against a factual global conflict. Its mixture of fact and fiction isn’t restricted to the setup, with some characters based on real people and the majority made up.

Helena is educated, ambitious and well-travelled, but once she joins this covert organisation, she begins to discover secrets from her past that change who she thought she was. “In thrillers, it’s good if the main character has some secret they are trying to uncover,” Katri Manninen says. “From Helena, we then started developing different characters. We also realised we wanted the group to be a family, because we are a very close family with my siblings and my parents. We wanted to have that family feeling, so we saw the characters through family members.”

That’s not to say Shadow Lines, produced by Zodiak Finland and distributed by APC Studios, leaves its villains out in the cold. “The Soviets were the bad guys, but even when we developed those characters, we were trying to make them interesting, and at least one or two of them really lovable and understandable, so that you could understand their struggle and you wouldn’t see the story from only one side.”

Manninen says that if writers have a structure in place, those boundaries can enhance creativity, because without limits, characters might be left underdeveloped. That structure, however, forces you to push further into their story.

Poldark was adapted by Debbie Horsfield from the books by Winston Graham

“We are writers who invent very elaborate backstories for our characters. We know where they were born, where they went to school, what they did,” she explains. “Then we have a general idea where that will lead them. But the twists and turns and what happens when they interact with each other, that is where the creativity happens, where there is a lot of freedom, where we follow the characters. People always say writing is so hard. We think writing is amazing. Because we know where we are going, we have the map; we don’t get completely lost. If I get stuck at some point, then I just take a pause and jump to the next point and start writing from there.”

Meanwhile, BBC period drama Poldark, set in the late 18th century, concluded earlier this year. Based on the books by Winston Graham, the series was created by Debbie Horsfield, who is also behind original series such as salon-set shows Cutting It and Age Before Beauty. Like Manninen, Horsfield creates characters by blending fact and fiction. “I take elements of people from real life and create a character out of that,” she explains. “Sometimes it might just be an event that happens where I think, ‘That could make a good story.’ But normally it’s something that is current in my own life or family life.”

For example, Horsfield’s six-part BBC marathon-running drama Born to Run followed three generations of a family who all decide to train for a marathon. Though it wasn’t directly about her, it was based on her experiences of starting running after having her first baby.

“So it’s generally things I have first-hand experience of, either because I know somebody who has been through it or I’ve done it myself. I like to work like that because when it’s something you have a close experience of, there’s an integrity to it. There’s an authenticity to it. I find human nature is much more extraordinary than anything you can actually imagine, so that’s why I like to base things on real events and real people.”

Cutting It and Age Before Beauty also have roots in real life, as Horsfield’s sisters run a hairdressing business. “I come from quite a big family, so it’s interesting to look at family dynamics. It’s something I write about quite a lot,” she continues. “With Poldark, I have become much more fascinated by 18th and early 19th century history than I ever was at school because Winston Graham researched it so brilliantly, but he makes it about individuals. History used to be taught at school as a series of battles and acts of parliament, which was so dreary, but now I’m actually interested if they incorporate characters I’m engaged with. I’ve had a lot of people say they have started to take an interest in the period of Poldark because of the way they can see it impacted the characters.”

South African murder mystery The Girl from St Agnes

For Gillian Breslin, head writer of South African murder mystery The Girl from St Agnes (pictured top), “character influences or creates plot, so our first step is to figure out who they are.” In the eight-part series, produced by Quizzical Pictures for streamer Showmax, the death of popular student Lexi (Jane de Wet) is recorded as a tragic accident. Unconvinced by the police verdict, drama teacher Kate (Nina Milner) starts her own investigation that reveals a myriad of secrets.

Breslin and her team spent two months working out character and plot before writing began, with particular focus on building Lexi. “We thought it would be best if she was somehow manipulative. Then I did a lot of reading on these teenage crises and the more I read, the more I got a picture of who this girl was,” Breslin explains. “We knew we wanted Lexi to be an outsider somehow, whether it was economically or because of her family. As we started exploring that, it gave us more insight into the kind of character she was. Then once we had Lexi, we built her friends.

“In fact, Kate became the hardest to build, because though she’s the driver of the drama, she’s the seeker. It becomes quite hard to get her story outside of that. So she was the most challenging one for us to come up with. But once we found her, it was easier from there.”

Once the characters had been worked out – their personalities and their secrets – Breslin pulled them all together through motives and shared relationships. Then when their character arcs through the series were drawn out, every beat of every episode was plotted out.

“When you write at a pace, the characters tend to be very shallow and one-dimensional,” The Girl from St Agnes director Catharine Cook adds. “What I loved about these characters, particularly Lexi, is that she’s lovely enough but she is manipulative, so you don’t just love her, you don’t just say she’s a nice girl that got murdered. She had this fallibility about her; she had this other side that we have to take in. None of [the characters] are simply likeable – all of them have something about them that isn’t so cool, like all of us have.”

Shadow Lines’ Manninen sums up the golden rules of character building: “You have to feel it. You have to feel the emotions and really try to get into each of your characters, even the bad guys, because if you can’t do that, it’s probably a sign that you’re writing them from outside. If you want to write characters that feel real, you have to really go inside them and see where they come from so that you can know where they are going and how they will to react to different situations.”

Once you get inside the heads of your characters, she continues, you still need those “Oh my God” moments where they turn in ways that shock even the writer. “You should really have a feeling in the pit of your stomach, like, ‘This is horrible. I’m a horrible person, I’m really going to hurt my characters.’ That means you’re going to create these emotional moments. Then you’re getting somewhere.”

As an increasing amount of drama is produced, much of it left unseen behind the revolving carousels of streaming services, it is ultimately the characters that leave a legacy that will last beyond this golden age of television.

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Winter sun

The Mallorca Files aims to be the bright and breezy antidote to the trend for dark, melancholic crime dramas. DQ visited the set on the Balearic isle.

If you heard the word ‘Mallorca,’ your immediate reaction might well be to imagine Magaluf (or its ruder nickname) echoing to the sound of wall-to-wall British stag dos dressed in matching Viking helmets and singing ‘ere we go!’

What you might not think of is breathtaking scenery, marvellous architecture, picturesque town squares, delightful restaurants, historic churches, gorgeous coastlines and mighty mountains.

Ben Donald

But that’s exactly what you get in The Mallorca Files, BBC1’s sunny 10-part daytime detective drama. Created by Dan Sefton (The Good Karma Hospital, Trust Me, Delicious), the series offers less of the lager louts and more of the luscious landscapes.

A variation on the theme of the buddy cop movie, The Mallorca Files centres on a mismatched pair of detectives, Miranda (Elen Rhys) from the UK and the German Max (Julian Looman). They reluctantly team up to investigate crimes on the otherwise idyllic Spanish island.

In this series, which is produced by Clerkenwell Films and Cosmopolitan Pictures and distributed by BBC Studios, the twist is that Miranda and Max overturn the national stereotypes: Miranda is uptight and efficient, while Max is charming and easy-going.

Ben Donald, the executive producer, is sitting on a bench in the capital city of Palma, outside the splendiferous Gothic Cathedral of Santa Maria. Known locally as La Seu, this stunning edifice commands a spectacular view of the glistening blue sea.

It is a stone’s throw away from the Port Authority building that is doubling as the exterior of the police station in The Mallorca Files. Over more decades in this job than I care to remember, this may well be the most glamorous location for a fictional police station that I have ever visited. It certainly beats an industrial estate on the outskirts of a gloomy London suburb.

Donald, who has previously exec produced such BBC hits as Wolf Hall, Death in Paradise, Parade’s End and Spies of Warsaw, begins by outlining what he hopes to achieve with The Mallorca Files, which starts on BBC1 on Monday. “Mallorca is not all Kiss Me Quick hats and lobster-red, sunburnt Brits on the lash. It’s a beautiful island.

Elen Rhys as Miranda Blake and Julian Looman as Max Winter in The Mallorca Files

“When Miranda is posted here, she starts off very buttoned up. But quickly we begin to explore every aspect of the island through her eyes, and she soon grows to love it. She is very happy to stay because it’s so gorgeous and there are so many different facets to it. She sees that it’s a great place to be, and we want viewers to feel the same thing. When they see the show, I want everyone to go, ‘Wow! I would love to be Miranda and Max!'”

Like many feel-good dramas filmed in sunlit foreign locations – Death in Paradise, The Good Karma Hospital or Wild at Heart – The Mallorca Files is cannily scheduled in the bleak British midwinter. “Winter is often a depressing time of year. They call the last Monday in January ‘Blue Monday,’” Donald notes. “We hope that The Mallorca Files will cheer people up in the way that Death in Paradise does. It’s the time of year when series like this do well and when holiday companies start to advertise. People think, ‘Ooh, I wish I was there and on holiday.'”

The Mallorca Files certainly makes the most of the island’s ravishing scenery, also a draw for the makers of upmarket commercials and series as diverse as The Night Manager, Mad Dogs and, of course, reality series Love Island. “We thought about filming this on the Isle of Sheppey,” jokes Dominic Barlow, the show’s producer. “Mallorca is a unique island. It’s got so much going for it. I’m always surprised by what you see around the next corner in Mallorca. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”

Dan Sefton

Donald is keen to emphasise that The Mallorca Files – which is also heading to BritBox in the US and Canada and Germany’s ZDFneo – could not have been filmed anywhere else. “We are not in generic Spain. The stories in this series are very much connected to this place and embedded in the local culture. Mallorca has got a very proud history and a strong cultural sense of its own identity, which is reflected in the cuisine and the dialect.

“The Mallorca Files is not a parallel universe of expats. What you get is a very strong sense of this particular island, as opposed anywhere else in the Mediterranean. It’s not an invented island.”

The production has shot everywhere from the airport, a vineyard and an oligarch’s yacht to a nightclub, a bike race, a bullfighting arena and a judge’s house in a TV talent show.

Bryn Higgins, who directs the opening and closing blocks of The Mallorca Files, has found the island an eye-catching and extremely versatile backdrop for the drama, 95% of which is shot on location.

“Mallorca is the third character in the drama after Miranda and Max,” he observes. “It’s an island of great variety and history, and it allows you to go into so many different worlds. In 20 minutes, you can move from the ancient history of the old town to the modernity of the marina. It offers a huge range of locations. The island is a giant film lot.”

Higgins, who has also directed Black Mirror, Garrow’s Law, Casualty 1909, Inspector George Gently and Silent Witness, says what distinguishes this series is its cinematic feel. “In my very early conversations with Dan, most of our references were to American movies of the 1970s. There is a retro movie feel to it. It has pace, style and energy, and each episode draws on a different genre.

“The first episode is a chase movie like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The second is a western set in the world of bullfighting, which borrows from Sergio Leone. Then we did an episode about drugs in the clubs using handheld cameras, which has an element of The French Connection. We also did a wonderful satire of The X Factor. It’s wild, funny, intense and has references to Dog Day Afternoon, Network and The King of Comedy.”

The show has a ‘bright and breezy’ tone, according to its producers

The producers go on to underline that, in contrast to many fashionably dark cop dramas at the moment, the tone of The Mallorca Files is bright and breezy.”Sometimes police dramas can be very serious, gritty and depressing. But this is fun and has a lot of energy. It’s like Moonlighting or Dempsey & Makepeace,” Barlow says.

“The police station is not important in The Mallorca Files. It’s not a procedural show. Miranda and Max solve cases in cafés and sitting on the seawalls. We try to keep the island in view all the time. It’s like The Holiday Programme, where you just love looking at the locations. This is Dempsey & Makepeace mashed up with The Holiday Programme.”

Sefton chips in: “The tone is very clear. When we created the show, we said there is going to be no sex crime or missing children – just good, wholesome murder!

“It’s full of interesting themes – drugs, death and bullfighting. It’s not anodyne, but we haven’t gone to the places other cop shows go to – that’s just not my thing.”

One blot on the landscape is the memory of BBC1’s last drama set in Spain: the late and very unlamented El Dorado. Unsurprisingly, the producers of The Mallorca Files think there is no comparison between the two series. “The only similarity is they’re both set in Spain,” asserts Higgins.

“That was a soap. This has genuine cinematic ambition and style. It’s a beautifully written piece, and every film is very distinctive. Yes, it’s a detective series, but it doesn’t settle into familiar detective tropes.”

Before we go, there is one character trait of Miranda’s that we have so far neglected to mention: her piano playing. Might we see more of that in the second season of The Mallorca Files, which the BBC has just announced? “Why not?” laughs Rhys. “We could have The Mallorca Files: The Musical. Who wouldn’t enjoy that?”

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Developing Trust

Dan Sefton, creator and writer of BBC miniseries Trust Me, talks about the show’s evolution into an anthology after losing its star and explains how the second season has been inspired by the work of Alfred Hitchcock.

When Jodie Whittaker was unveiled as Doctor Who’s first female lead in July 2017, it proved to be a huge boon for the team behind another BBC series starring the actor, which happened to be launching just a couple of weeks after the announcement.

Dan Sefton

Trust Me went on to draw a consolidated average of six million viewers over its four-episode run, with writer Dan Sefton’s thriller following Whittaker as a nurse who, after losing her job, steals a doctor friend’s identity to start a new life in Edinburgh.

But while Whittaker was swept up in a wave of Whovian anticipation, Sefton was left to work out how a second season of Trust Me might shape up without its lead.

“It’s one of those things that happened,” he says stoically. “Jodie was the standout in the whole of the first season. She’s a brilliant actress. We had ideas of how we could carry it on, but when it was announced she would be playing the Doctor, we realised that would be almost impossible.

“But the BBC were very keen to keep the conversation going because it had been such a big hit. So we pitched them something brand new and, luckily, they thought it was a good idea – and here we are. If this one is popular, we can keep going and dig into the dark side of medicine in lots of different ways.”

That idea of shining a light on medicine’s dark side has become a key building block for the series. Season one saw Whittaker’s Cath work in a hospital, treating patients and performing operations, having presented herself as a different – and more qualified – medic. Season two, which debuted on BBC1 this month, moves to a Glasgow hospital, where Corporal Jamie McCain (played by Harry Potter’s Alfred Enoch) is recovering from a spinal injury that has left him paralysed. When patients on the ward begin to die suddenly, Jamie believes a killer is striking in the hospital – but his injuries make his investigation dangerous and difficult. John Hannah, Ashley Jensen and Richard Rankin also head the cast.

When he looked back at season one to identify a DNA or formula that he could extract and apply to season two, former doctor Sefton says he was drawn to the things people fear in hospitals.

“The whole point is these storylines are edgy and tense and you can’t believe they would actually happen,” he explains. “Season one was the story of an imposter treating you in a hospital, and some people really found it unpleasant. The idea that a healthcare professional could be a murderer and people could be killed in hospital is also a horrible idea, especially when you’re at your most vulnerable. It does happen; it’s not common, but it does happen. So that was the common thread we picked up on.”

Trust Me stars Alfred Enoch as Corporal Jamie McCain

With that in mind, the story quickly became a version of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 classic Rear Window transplanted to a hospital, with an immobile patient trying to snare a suspected killer. John Alexander directs the season, which is again produced by Red Production Company and distributed by StudioCanal.

“I’ve always said it’s two stories at the same time, kind of like two movies,” Sefton continues. “You’ve got the thriller movie of somebody up to no good in this hospital, somebody murdering patients, and the question of who is it and can they be stopped. Then you’ve got a movie about somebody whose life has completely changed after a spinal injury. How are they going to cope, and what challenges do they face psychologically?

“It’s a tricky form because, on the one hand, a thriller is always pushing you to go to the next thing as quickly as possible. That’s a balance you have to try to strike in these shows, because you don’t want the audience to be bored. With four hours, you want to really dig into the character and work out what makes them tick. Through the whole process of writing and editing, you’re trying to keep the pace up and also to have enough time to get into his background and why he is where he is.”

The Hitchcock influence goes beyond just the story, also permeating the gothic set design –Jamie is on the James Stewart wing of the hospital, which shares its name with the frequent Hitchcock collaborator who starred in Rear Window. It can be heard, too, via the use of strings in the music. The drama also bears a touch of horror, with Sefton, who admits he’s a “massive fan” of the seminal British director, hoping to keep viewers feeling uncomfortable throughout the drama.

Paralysed Jamie suspects foul play after a spate of deaths in the hospital where he is staying

“Everybody doing it has just paid a little homage to him in the writing, the directing and the music, but hopefully not to the point where it’s a pastiche but an acknowledgement that Rear Window was there and this idea of somebody stuck trying to remotely sort something out is interesting,” he notes.

The fact that lead character Jamie is either in bed or largely immobile for much of the four-hour running time made the writing process tough for Sefton. Jamie’s journey to recovery is slightly accelerated to make the drama work, but the Sefton was keen to realistically depict the difficulty of overcoming a spinal injury.

“The first episode is [almost entirely] in that hospital room and we found it quite challenging because you’ve got to keep giving him interesting things to do – the idea that just reaching over and getting a glass of water is a massive challenge for someone who’s hardly moved in five or six weeks. If people buy into that small challenge being massive for this character, hopefully you’ve got an interesting thriller set up where crawling across the floor is like walking across a bridge for somebody else, or scaling a mountain. That was the idea, but it was tricky.”

In fact, Sefton highlights one such scene as a standout from the entire show. It takes place towards the end of episode one, when Jamie is forced to crawl across the floor in a desperate attempt to retrieve evidence he thinks could point to the killer.

Ashley Jensen and John Hannah also star

“I think it works really well,” Sefton asserts. “It’s a combination of it being written that way, John directing it brilliantly and Alfie performing it, and then the music has the ‘Hitchcock strings.’ That’s the time I got a tingle – you felt it was playing out like one of those classic thrillers where you’ve got the building crescendo of the music. And even though he’s just crawling across the floor to grab this iPad, it’s the biggest thing. I really like that.”

Sefton says the scene works because of the combination of his script and the vision of Alexander, who directed all four episodes of this season having helmed two for the first run. But he doesn’t think the visual style of a series, which airs episode three tomorrow and is available on BBC iPlayer, is entirely down to the director, believing writers should also be encouraged to think visually.

“That’s the biggest misconception of screenwriting – that you just write the dialogue and the director does everything else,” he adds. “That’s absolutely not true. Screenwriting is all about what happens. It’s about actions, what people are doing – what they’re saying is actually quite peripheral.”

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A dose of Karma

British India-set medical drama The Good Karma Hospital returns for a second season as the eclectic cast of characters face new challenges in their professional and personal lives. DQ goes behind the scenes on location in Sri Lanka.

Setting a feel-good drama in a sun-soaked paradise has proven a fruitful formula for British TV makers. It’s been deployed with success in series from Death in Paradise and The Durrells to Wild at Heart, The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and even Doc Martin.

Most recently it’s been a winner for ITV’s The Good Karma Hospital, which is back this month for a second season. Good Karma’s USP is that it’s a medical drama that offsets its palm-fringed backdrop with emotional stories from a run-down rural Indian hospital. There’s added comfort for viewers in finding familiar faces stationed in this exotic destination, including Amanda Redman and Neil Morrissey.

Set in Kerala in southern India, Good Karma is actually filmed in Unawatuna on Sri Lanka’s west coast to avoid India’s monsoon season. It’s based on the experiences of writer Dan Sefton, who also pens Sky 1’s Delicious and was the man behind last year’s Trust Me with Jodie Whittaker, recently renewed for a second season by BBC1. Accident and emergency doctor Sefton – currently taking a hiatus from medicine due to his writing workload – got the idea from working in a cash-strapped cottage hospital in South Africa after qualifying as a doctor.

The Good Karma Hospital stars Amanda Redman (left) and Amrita Acharia

DQ is visiting the stiflingly hot set of the drama at the dilapidated Amarasooriya Teachers Training College, which has been taken over for filming. Though set on a busy main road, it’s surrounded by large gardens that bring a blast of colour to the screen, and on which sits a charming open-air shack that serves as the doctors’ café. Off-camera, it’s a different story: dozens of extras mill about, crew members carry cables and lights, and there’s a queue for the food service truck’s fresh coconuts. Ask for one and the man behind the counter takes a machete, whacks the top off a coconut and sticks a straw in it – not a common sight at British craft service tables.

Redman is a regular customer. “I find the best way to deal with the heat and humidity is to keep still and drink coconut water,” says the actor, who works inside the college in temperatures that regularly reach 40°C. “Between scenes I’ll just sit with my coconut water and a fan on my face.”

Redman is Good Karma’s biggest name, playing the outspoken Dr Lydia Fonseca, an ex-pat surgeon with a big heart and brusque manner. Redman is a fixture of British TV, having starred in At Home with the Braithwaites, Mike Bassett: England Manager and New Tricks, and the no-nonsense Fonseca is a character close to her heart. “I love her passion and her warmth,” says Redman. “She says it like it is, which, in an increasingly PC world, is very refreshing.”

Rounding out Fonseca’s staff is handsome-but-surly Dr Gabriel Varma (James Krishna Floyd), Nurse Mari Rodriguez (Nimmi Harasgama) and Anglo-Indian Dr Ruby Walker (Amrita Acharia).

Neil Morrissey plays Greg, who owns the local beach bar

As Greg McConnell, Fonseca’s long-term boyfriend, Morrissey has lucked out – his character owns the local beach bar, which means the bulk of his scenes are played out in an open-air set cooled by Indian Ocean breezes.

Season one dealt with Walker’s impetuous decision to leave her NHS job and emigrate to India, only to find herself at Fonseca’s cash-strapped hospital. To avoid a sophomore slump, Sefton and producers Tiger Aspect had to find new storylines for season two, which begins in the UK this Sunday. Adding to the difficulty of their task was the fact that a major character, Maggie Smart (played by Downton Abbey’s Phyllis Logan), died at the end of season one.

“One of the big decisions we made was not to bring in any new regulars,” explains executive producer Lucy Bedford. “What we felt when reflecting on season one is that we had this amazing core cast, and that the nature of show meant we didn’t get to know them as well as we should have.

“So, along with our robust stories of the week, we also wanted to give a bit of space to the serial elements of the show, with all the characters going on big journeys.” Dr Walker will explore her Indian heritage and Dr Fonseca her inability to commit, while McConnell helps Maggie’s widower, Paul (Phillip Jackson), through his grief.

To ensure the exotic setting remains eye-catching, new filming locations were found for the series, which is distributed globally by Endemol Shine International. Dr Walker has been moved away from her cottage in the rice fields into an urban flat in fictional Barco – filmed in Weligama, a half-hour drive down the coast. “We did it to keep evolving the visual palette of the show and to give Ruby a different connection to the world, because she’s not a tourist anymore,” explains Bedford.

James Krishna Floyd as Dr Gabriel Varma

Episodes three and four are set on a lush tea plantation (three different plantations were used) and the final episode features a full-scale Indian wedding with all the regulars in traditional dress. Another big set piece sees Dr Fonseca visit her former medical mentor (played by British stalwart Sue Johnston) on her houseboat, built on a private jetty on nearby Koggala Lake.

The benefit of shooting in Sri Lanka is the low cost of labour and materials that enabled the production to mount big set pieces. For starters, up to 300 extras per day could be hired and clothed, as opposed to 20 to 30 per day in the UK. “The production side is one of the great gifts about shooting out there,” explains Bedford. “Because construction is cheap, we were able to mount these sets we wouldn’t normally be able to. The art department built a full-sized replica Keralan houseboat for the finale, so we could tell an emotional story but in a stunning setting.”

The downsides to filming in the country, says Bedford, are that vehicle hire can be expensive and certain equipment is unavailable – a portable ultrasound machine had to be flown from in the UK. A few actors went down with stomach troubles, and a serious outbreak of dengue fever – a potentially fatal mosquito-borne disease – in Sri Lanka saw two crew members admitted to hospital.

But the benefits of filming in such an alien locale outweigh the drawbacks. Over drinks at their hotel, the actors enthuse and laugh about their encounters with Sri Lanka’s wildlife. Morrissey flashes photos he took of a snake that slithered into his hotel’s lounge and Acharia recounts how she found a scorpion nestled inside her yoga mat. Redman spotted a crocodile in Koggala Lake, though from a safe distance – the houseboat she filmed in had safety nets around it.

Bedford, Sefton and their team are busy working on storylines for Good Karma’s third season, should it be recommissioned. Along with developing the characters’ personal lives, they conduct meticulous research into relevant medical storylines reflecting Indian culture in a bid to provide an engrossing hour of television that has a satisfying emotional payoff but remains upbeat.

Morrissey describes his take on Good Karma’s selling point: “When you’ve got those vistas of Sri Lanka on your 55-inch Samsung, there’s a feelgood factor. At the same time, we show people having serious issues, and it’s good to know that people in far-flung places are having the same problems as you are having at home.”

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Red hot TV

With credits including Happy Valley, Cucumber and The Five, Red Production Company has built a reputation for being a writers’ producer. DQ speaks to executive producer Nicola Shindler – and some of the A-list scribes lining up to work with her.

Among the numerous writers to have walked through the doors of Red Production Company, it’s notable how many of them have returned.

Nicola Shindler

Russell T Davies first linked up with the Manchester-based outfit on Queer as Folk and returned for 2015’s Cucumber, Banana and Tofu. Danny Brocklehurst got his first break on the writing team of Clocking Off, before reuniting with Red for two seasons of Ordinary Lies plus Exile, The Driver and The Five.

Meanwhile, the peerless Sally Wainwright created detective series Scott & Bailey, family drama Last Tango in Halifax and award-winning crime series Happy Valley all under the Red banner. Bill Gallagher also created Blood and Blackout before returning with Paranoid.

“We aim to make the writers’ work as good as it can be, rather than change what they want to write,” Red executive producer Nicola Shindler says of her relationship with writers at the label she founded in 1998. “It’s really an exposing thing that writers do. They have to draw ideas from themselves, they have to go to some dark or deep places and have to feel their work won’t be judged for the wrong reasons.

“It’s always about what they want to get out of it, and we have to work our arses off to get there, rather than us imposing ideas on them, which I don’t think is right.”

Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley

The development process of BBC1 medical thriller Trust Me (pictured top) is a case in point. In-demand writer Dan Sefton (Delicious, The Good Karma Hospital) had taken a spec script to Red years ago that was so extraordinary “I don’t think it will ever get made,” Shindler admits. “But we knew he was a great talent.”

Then discussions over Trust Me – about a nurse who loses her job and moves to Edinburgh where she pretends to be a doctor – began. “First of all, we tried to make it a long-running, weekly medical story-of-the-week. But with such an exceptional story, you really can’t do that,” she says of the show, which was subsequently turned into a four-part miniseries. “It’s great when you find a solution. It became a shorter-form, potentially returning format, but you could really be honest about the story Dan wanted to tell.”

Ideas come to Red in all shapes and sizes, be it in the form of a script, something scribbled onto a scrap of paper, or even the result of a casual chat.

“We’ve definitely started with the tiniest of ideas,” Shindler says, highlighting Prey, the 2014 ITV crime drama from then newcomer Chris Lunt. “The first season started when our now head of development, Richard Fee, drove past an overturned police van. He was having a meeting with Chris that morning and just started talking about it, and that was the very beginning of the first season of Prey. They used that image of an overturned police van as the beginning of a story about a man on the run. That was a tiny idea and it went to two seasons.”

Michael C Hall during filming for Safe

But across a range of genres and writers, what makes a Red drama? Shindler describes a recipe comprising one compelling story, a dash of pace, a spoonful of reality and a pinch of humour.

“Everything we do, however dark we go, has humour,” she explains. “To me, Happy Valley was funny at times, because that’s what life is like. I really need realistic dialogue and characters I can engage with, and a really strong sense of storytelling.”

As an executive producer, Shindler is on hand throughout development of every project on Red’s books to ensure they all meet her approval. She admits she will be “all over everything,” from reading scripts, following story development and working with the producer and director to watching rushes every day and being in every edit.

“I will read every draft of every project we’re making, without doubt,” she admits. “I can’t not. We’ve now got another executive producer, which we haven’t had before. Some of my development team are exec-ing as well, so people are gradually getting their own little slates, but I will never not read everything. I actually really enjoy doing it. I don’t read books anymore, I just read my work!”

The Five came from Harlan Coben and Danny Brocklehurst

Alongside Trust Me, Red is also behind new dramas including Brocklehurst-penned duo Come Home and Safe. Of the former, a three-parter for the BBC, Shindler says: “It’s about a woman who walks out on her family and it’s a brilliant emotional exploration of a relationship, which you kind of don’t see a lot of on TV anymore. It’s really warm in the way Danny is, and has humour in it, but it puts you through the wringer in terms of this big relationship.”

Safe, meanwhile, is a spiritual sequel to The Five that again pairs Brocklehurst with author Harlan Coben, who created the story. An eight-part mystery thriller, it centres on buried secrets that come to the surface of a small community after a murder and a disappearance. The show is coproduced by Netflix and French pay TV broadcaster Canal+, and marks the first time series lead Michael C Hall (Dexter) has worked on a British show.

“It’s totally the opposite of the other Danny project,” adds Shindler, a self-confessed devotee of US musical drama My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a show as far removed from Safe as one could possibly conceive. “With Harlan, it’s just such a great process. He’s brilliant on character and he’s got amazing ideas.”

Shindler and Red are also taking advantage of new opportunities in television, a result of broadcasters’ continuing focus on scripted series. But the exec adds that she’s not swayed by the amount of competition or the rising budgets on offer.

“It doesn’t really make a difference,” she says. “Everyone can tell you they want different things, but all they actually want is a really good idea, a really good script and a really good writer, and there are only so many of them. It doesn’t change my world; I’m just happy to keep on making drama.”


Danny Brocklehurst
After landing his big break in television with 2000’s Clocking Off, Danny Brocklehurst has a long working relationship with Red – one he describes in terms of trust and honesty. “It’s just every single aspect of the relationship. From development and being in the edit to talking about casting and Nicola being brutally honest about my scripts, it’s one of total trust. There’s no game playing. Those kinds of relationships are invaluable in television.” The writer describes his latest project, Come Home, as an emotional family drama about a mother (played by Paula Malcomson) who leaves her kids. “The BBC wanted a show about a family that’s about emotions – there’s no dead bodies, no police,” he says. “It’s very much about getting to the heart of these characters and making it as complex as possible. What you want is to play around with the viewers’ emotions a bit so at different times, they’re feeling different things about the characters and perhaps blaming different people. At first, you’re very sympathetic to Greg (Christopher Eccleston), the father, but by the end of episode one, we’ve done something where you maybe change that a little bit and you’re thinking differently about him.”


Harlan Coben
Following 2016’s Sky1 drama The Five, acclaimed novelist Harlan Coben has reunited with Red and Danny Brocklehurst for Safe, a mystery set in a small community where a murder and a disappearance bring buried secrets back to the surface. “It wasn’t an idea I had for a novel,” Coben explains. “I came up with this as a TV series after we did The Five and I liked the idea of somebody missing and somebody dead, so I combined them. It will be very different, and really suspenseful and intriguing to follow two different storylines and see how they match up.” As per The Five, the story was created by Coben, with Brocklehurst as lead writer, but the US author says he’s involved in every level of production, despite being based in New York, thousands of miles from the Manchester set. “They’re showing me set designs, costuming, locations, talking about tone, how we want to shoot it. We even had a long discussion over camera lenses with the director of photography when I was there. So every aspect I try to be involved with in some way.” On working with Red, Coben says Shindler, “more than most producers I know, really does appreciate the writer,” adding: “She’s a wonderful conduit for writers, she’s a wonderful partner to have.”


Dan Sefton
With his medical background – he still walks the wards as a doctor of emergency medicine – it’s natural that Dan Sefton (pictured alongside Jodie Whittaker) finds compelling drama within hospitals. ITV drama The Good Karma Hospital, which aired earlier this year, gave the genre an Indian flavour, while Sefton’s latest series is Trust Me, a four-part thriller for the BBC. Jodie Whittaker – recently revealed as Doctor Who’s first female lead – stars as Cath, a nurse who loses her job for whistleblowing and starts a new life by stealing her best friend’s identity as a doctor. “It’s a combination of writing what you know about and people wanting to commission the stuff they feel I’ve got an additional angle on because of my work,” Sefton says, admitting he’d love to write a British version of ER. “A medical show about a doctor who’s not really a doctor is something I always found interesting, so it’s just a matter of how you find a fresh angle on something.” Sefton has also enjoyed working with Red: “They speak to you like you’re a grown-up, which is really important as a writer. I find sometimes people infantilise you a bit, but it was very much a relationship of mutual respect, which I really appreciated. There’s a lot of loyalty from writers who have worked with Red and it’s a two-way street.”

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Doctor who?

New Doctor Who star Jodie Whittaker plays a medical imposter in Trust Me, a thriller penned by real-life doctor Dan Sefton. DQ hears from the duo about making the show.

Doctorates appear to be arriving like buses for actress Jodie Whittaker, who will become a doctor not once but twice over the next few months.

The actor was recently announced as the 13th incarnation of the BBC’s famous Time Lord in Doctor Who – the first woman to take the prestigious primetime title in the show’s 54-year history. The star, best known for her role in Broadchurch, will replace the outgoing Peter Capaldi when he regenerates during the upcoming Christmas special.

Writer and part-time doctor Dan Sefton advises Jodie Whittaker on set

Before then, however, she’ll be seen on BBC1 as another medic as she takes the lead role in gripping drama Trust Me. She plays Cath Hardacre, who, after being suspended from her job as a nurse for whistleblowing, steals the identity of a doctor friend who has emigrated to New Zealand.

She moves from Sheffield to Edinburgh to work as an A&E doctor, but it’s not easy to shake off her past. Not only is she unqualified but her bitter ex Karl (played by Blake Harrison) and a hungry investigative journalist Sam Kelly (Nathan Walsh) are both on her case.

Written by Dan Sefton, best known for ITV’s The Good Karma Hospital and Sky1’s Delicious, Trust Me plunges viewers into a world the writer knows well, as he also works part time as an A&E doctor. StudioCanal is distributing the series internationally.

“As a doctor, I’ve encountered imposters in real life. There was actually one in the department where I worked,” he says. “Often they are well liked and competent; I’ve also met qualified doctors who are frankly dangerous. For me there’s a delicious irony in the idea that the imposter doctor is better than the real thing, both clinically and with patients.”

Trust Me sees new Doctor Who star Whittaker as a nurse who fakes doctor qualifications

It took him seven years from first reading a book about imposters to getting his drama made. “My first thought was making it about a pair of identical twins. The story changed in various ways until I came up with the idea of a nurse impersonating a doctor,” he recalls. “The problem was a lot of people didn’t believe it was credible, even though I, as a doctor, was telling them it was credible – there have been so many stories of people doing it.

“It was really frustrating because I knew it was a good idea and I was worried that someone else would get there first. It wasn’t until Red Production Company came on board that they really listened to the story and immediately saw the potential in it.”

Whittaker says she was hooked from the moment she read the first script. “It really fascinated me because it went in a completely different direction to how I thought it was going to go,” she says of the series, which launches on BBC1 on August 8. “At the beginning, when she’s suspended for whistleblowing and loses her job, it could have gone in so many ways. The fact she takes on a new identity isn’t the way I thought it would go. I love the fact that her choices are quite morally dubious; they certainly aren’t black and white.”

Sefton says he looked at US shows where the lead is often an anti-hero. No one walking into an NHS hospital would like to think they are being treated by an unqualified doctor, yet at the same time Cath is good at her job. The story is told from her point of view and the viewer is on her side – at least at first.

The Inbetweeners’ Blake Harrison also plays a role

“I enjoyed the push-and-pull feel of playing with the audience’s sympathies,” the writer explains. “She is a good person but she shouldn’t be doing this. She’s an honest woman who has done one dishonest thing; there will be consequences. I read a lot about the different types of imposters; there are far more men than women. Men always do it for egotistical reasons; they want to be something impressive. But the women generally do it for a way of getting on in life.

“In this show Cath is giving herself the opportunities she’d never had. But once she’s made that choice, that changes who she is. She begins to like her new life and that’s where it becomes complicated.”

Whittaker agrees: “It’s really interesting to play flawed characters. I would be terrified by the choice this protagonist has made – I’m a crap secret-keeper. Often we are surrounded by people who do things that we don’t agree with. For the audience not to agree with her but still be emotionally behind her is an interesting thing to play.”

Sefton worked as a medical consultant on the Glasgow and Edinburgh set (the show was co-executive produced by Gaynor Holmes for BBC Scotland), helping the cast find their way around a busy emergency department. He also allowed the actors to experiment on him with minor procedures – up to a point where the producers had to step in because they were worried he could sue them for health and safety breaches.

“I kept volunteering to be a guinea pig,” he admits. “But the producers were worried I would get hurt and sue them. I still encouraged the actors to stick needles in me. The only way you understand the tension of doing something like that – of crossing a line – is when you do something like that to another human.”

Although Sefton has scripted medical dramas including Doctors, Casualty and Holby City, he says he deliberately made the medical stories in Trust Me different. “There is a horror show element to it,” he says. “A lot of things Cath has to tackle are the things that still scare doctors. She sees some very nasty cases; they all do.

“In episode two, you see Sharon Small’s character, Dr Brigitte McAdams, talk about the patients she has killed and how much that has affected her. People know about medical mistakes but don’t see how it can also hurt the doctors.

“Because this drama isn’t about the medical stuff, there is a nihilism which you don’t normally get as you don’t need to resolve the medical stories. In real life there is often no easy answer, there is no meaning to the problems people come in with. They aren’t resolved. I want this to be a tough watch because even though she is doing a bad thing, she is still turning up there every day to help people.”

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The horror, the horror!

Bob Cranmer’s book The Demon of Brownsville Road is being adapted as Haunted
Bob Cranmer’s book is being adapted by Fox as Haunted
With shows like AMC’s The Walking Dead and FX’s American Horror Story performing so well, it’s no real surprise that everyone wants to climb aboard the horror show bandwagon.

FX sister channel Fox, for example, has already backed Scream Queens and is now planning another horror comedy series based on Bob Cranmer’s book The Demon of Brownsville Road. Called Haunted, the new show centres on a military agent who is partnered with her demonologist ex-boyfriend to help a family overcome a demonic infestation at their house. William Brent Bell (The Devil Inside) has been signed up to write the project.

ABC Family, soon to be renamed Freeform, is also moving into horror for the first time with Dead of Summer, which is set in a doomed summer camp in the late 1980s. The network, which has given the show a straight-to-series order, is from Adam Horowitz, Edward Kitsis and Once Upon a Time writer Ian Goldberg.

Meanwhile, Syfy has advanced a horror project it first started talking about in the summer. Channel Zero is an anthology series developed by Nick Antosca (Hannibal). This week Syfy greenlit what is being described as two six-part seasons. The first is based on Candle Cove by Kris Straub, which originates from an online horror concept known as creepypasta. There is no news yet on the second batch of six, though the assumption is that it will centre on a different story.

Meanwhile, in the UK, broadcaster ITV has ordered a three-part horror miniseries called Him. Produced by Mainstreet Pictures and written by Paula Milne, the story focuses on a 17-year-old boy with a hidden supernatural power inherited from his grandfather.

In the realm of sci-fi, one of the week’s most interesting projects comes courtesy of The CW, which is working on Cry, a drama about a doctor who works out how to bring cryogenically preserved people back to life. In an interesting twist on the Frankenstein myth, he starts by unfreezing his own father – but there are, of course, unexpected consequences. The show is being made in partnership with Paulist Productions, a Catholic-oriented company that makes shows exploring moral dilemmas.

Original cult sci-fi series Lost in Space is set for a TV reboot
Cult 1960s sci-fi series Lost in Space is set for a TV reboot courtesy of Netflix

Bigger news for sci-fi geeks is that Netflix is planning a remake of cult classic Lost In Space, which ran for three seasons in the 1960s. Created by Irwin Allen, the original story centred on an ordinary family called the Robinsons that becomes marooned in space along with the reprehensible Dr Zachary Smith. The franchise, which started life in a comic book, was brought back in 1998 as a not-very-good movie starring Matt LeBlanc. However it is probably better suited to TV. The challenge for writers Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless will be getting the tone of the project right. While it will need to be more plausible than the original to satisfy sci-fi fans, it would probably be a mistake to take it too far from the family-adventure feel of the original.

In the UK, meanwhile, actor Ray Winstone is to star as visionary author HG Wells in a new drama for pay TV channel Sky Arts. Called The Nightmare Worlds of HG Wells, the Clerkenwell Films drama will be an anthology series consisting of four stories about madness, obsession, hallucinations and horror (there it is again). These are based on Wells’ stories and will be adapted by Graham Duff. The series was commissioned by Sky Arts director Phil Edgar-Jones, who says: “One of my earliest memories is seeing row upon row of blue-covered HG Wells books on my grandad’s bookcase and being fascinated by the strange and disturbing worlds inside them. The team at Clerkenwell has brought four fantastic Wells stories to life in a wonderfully realised, stunningly performed compendium.”

There’s also some buzz around medical series this week. After a strong opening on NBC for Chicago Med, CBS has now given an extended order to its own medical show, Code Black. Although the show has not rated well, it now has 18 episodes to prove its worth.

Medical show Code Black has had its run extended by CBS
Medical show Code Black has had its run extended by CBS to 18 episodes

In the UK, another ITV commission announced this week is The Good Karma Hospital. Set in Goa, India, this six-parter follows a team of UK and Indian medics as they cope with work, life and love at an over-worked, under-resourced hospital. ITV says: “Run by a gloriously eccentric Englishwoman, the Good Karma turns no-one away – locals, ex-pats and tourists are all welcome. With a stunning location, exotic medical cases and unforgettable characters, the series mixes the heartbreaking with the humorous, as the doctors, nurses and patients discover that the hospital is more than a rundown medical outpost – it’s a home.”

The show goes into production next year and is being produced by Tiger Aspect. It is created and written by Dan Sefton, whose credits include Death in Paradise. There’s some logic to this since Death In Paradise (about a British policeman in the Caribbean) is another show that uses the interaction of different cultures as a backdrop.

UK dramas that showcase the Indian sub-continent are in vogue at the moment. First came Channel 4’s Indian Summers (shot in Malaysia but set in India) and then ITV’s Jekyll & Hyde. Also in the mix have been the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movies.

The Good Karma Hospital has been commissioned for ITV by director of drama Steve November and controller of drama Victoria Fea. November says: “Dan Sefton’s scripts are beautifully written and deal with themes we’ll all identify with – love, loss, relationships, family conflict, facing adversity and the importance of seizing the day. The Good Karma Hospital is a feel-good drama full of warmth and characters we will love.”

The Bastard Executioner has been axed by FX after one season
The Bastard Executioner has been axed by FX after one season

From Germany, news this week that ARD is producing a series based on the novels of Swiss author Martin Suter. Allmen, produced by UFA Fiction and Mia Film in the Czech Republic, is the story of a rich bon vivant who gets caught up in a murder after turning to crime to pay off his debts. Filming is taking place in Switzerland and the Czech Republic until mid-February next year.

Finally, there was bad news this week for showrunner Kurt Sutter whose medieval drama The Bastard Executioner has been axed after just one season by broadcaster FX. Having opened in September with an audience of four million, it fell away to 1.9 million by the end of its run. But this probably doesn’t signify the end of the sword and savagery genre. HBO’s Game of Thrones, Starz’s Outlander and History’s Vikings continue to do well while the BBC’s The Last Kingdom has also received decent reviews. Also coming up is ITV’s retelling of the Beowulf saga, which should provide us with another indicator of the genre’s popularity.

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