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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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