With so much television to choose from, viewers can be incredibly fickle – so how do you keep hold of them? Writing for DQ, screenwriter Danny Brocklehurst talks about the contrasting styles he used in his two most recent commissions, BBC1’s Come Home and Netflix thriller Safe.
Every writer lives in fear of losing their audience. If they don’t come in the first place, that’s not my fault. But if they come and don’t hang around, I have to take responsibility. This year I’ve had two shows launch: Come Home, a three-part miniseries that aired over three consecutive Tuesdays on BBC1; and Safe (pictured above), a Netflix original with all eight episodes currently streaming. Both dramas have found an audience, but these shows couldn’t have been more different in their construction and the relationship we hoped they would have with an audience.
Come Home tells the story of a mother who walks out on her family. It interrogates the last taboo of parenting and the impact her leaving has on her husband and children; the way the stigma of the ‘deserted mother’ stuck to her like glue. It is character-driven, emotional and purposely avoids thriller twists and genre conventions.
By contrast, Safe is an unapologetic, twisty-turny thriller about a mysterious death and disappearance in a gated community. It mines hidden secrets and charts the impact upon the people who live there, most notably Tom Delaney, played by Michael C Hall (Dexter). It was designed like a ‘holiday read’ novel, with must-have massive hooks at the end of every episode, luring viewers into bingeing multiple episodes.
People might find it strange that two such different shows could come from the same writer, in such a short space of time, but to me the contrast perfectly represents what I love about the job: variety. I hate the idea of being typecast as a certain type of writer, and the challenge of each new project is to work within a style or genre that feels like it is testing my abilities.
Come Home is social realist, deeply personal, in parts semi-autobiographical. It was extremely hard work to craft because the story couldn’t rely on plot to drive it forward. I needed to find compelling drama in smaller moments, in emotional reveals and, ultimately, in a family law court. I wrote the whole story alone and knew it would succeed or fail by how truthful it felt.
Safe, working once again with the formidable story brain of novelist Harlan Coben, was a more collaborative affair. Harlan’s novels sell in their millions because they are the epitome of the engaging page turner. His central conceit is always smart and his hooks addictive. In creating Safe, as we did previously on Sky show The Five, we spent an enormous amount of time together cracking the story. Harlan always likes to know where a story ends. So once we have the beginning and the end, we start – like bridge construction – to piece together the middle.
When you are creating eight episodes of elaborately plotted story, this can be a hard process. Luckily, we were assisted by the brilliant Richard Fee, head of development at Red Production Company, who constantly steered the ship forwards. The three of us worked together for weeks at a time in Harlan’s place in New York (I know, tough gig!) and then after we cracked the basic story, the rest of the work was done across the ocean via Skype and email. Ideas were being thrown back and forth until we had a workable story document that outlined the eight episodes in considerable detail. I wrote the start and end of the series, which accounts for four episodes, we then brought on board other writers for the rest.
At every point in the process, we have in our minds the importance of retaining our audience. Constant twists, propulsive plot, humour, characters you want to spend time with. And the fact it’s for Netflix means that one word shines brightly at all times – binge.
The success of Safe has been as much about the fact that viewers can watch all episodes immediately as anything else. Countless people have told us they watched the whole thing in a weekend, or one night after the next. A few even managed the whole thing in a day!
This is the reality of modern TV viewing, and we all have to get to grips with it. People want content they can watch when they please. The model of consecutive weeks is becoming a thing of the past. Sure, there is the ‘water cooler’ factor that a show like Line of Duty creates when it airs every Sunday but, more and more frequently, viewers are drifting away or saving the episodes up and then bingeing when they are all available on BBC iPlayer or Sky Go.
When Come Home aired, I would have loved all three episodes to have all gone at once. Instead, we had to attempt to maintain our audience over Easter, with all the distractions of European football, school holidays and The Great Celebrity Bake Off. It’s a tough ask.
Of course, not every show can be a longform ‘binge’ show, nor should it be. The beautifully constructed single film or the perfectly formed three-parter is a vital part of our TV landscape. But in a busy viewing environment, writers have to be increasingly aware that viewer patience is thin and, unless you grab them and hold them, they can soon disappear.
Harlan Coben’s Safe, starring Michael C Hall and Amanda Abbington, written by Danny Brocklehurst and produced by Red Production Company, is now streaming on Netflix.
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.
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.”
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.”
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!”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
Hardly a week goes by without some new development on the scripted format front. So here we explore 12 of the shows that have been adapted – successfully and unsuccessfully – for the US, and the writing teams behind them.
Where images have been included, the original series is on the left and its adaptation on the right.
Broadchurch was a big hit for ITV in the UK when season one aired in 2013. It then sold around the world and was adapted by Fox in the US as Gracepoint, with the same lead actor (David Tennant). The UK version, which then had a moderately successful second season, was created and written by Chris Chibnall – who is now working on a third and final run before taking over on the BBC’s Doctor Who.
The 10-part US version was set up by Chibnall before being handed over to Anya Epstein and Dan Futterman, who wrote all of the remaining episodes except for number six (Jason Kim). Gracepoint was pretty well reviewed by critics and sold to other English-speaking markets. But it was not renewed after failing to secure a sizeable audience (average ratings were around 3.5 to four million).
Collision, created by UK writer Anthony Horowitz (Foyle’s War), attracted an audience of seven million when it aired on ITV in the UK during 2009. In November last year it was picked up by NBC as a 10-part series. Interestingly, Horowitz will be the showrunner for the US version, with CSI exec producer Carol Mendelsohn on board as partner. Mendelsohn is also exec producer of Game of Silence (see below), suggesting she is now regarded as a safe pair of hands for format adaptations after her many years working on CSI.
The original version of Collision comprised five episodes but Horowitz says he has no concerns about the project being extended because he believes the storyline will benefit from the extra episodes. Sometimes formats suffer from being stretched in this way.
Forbrydelsen (The Killing) is a Danish series (DR/ZDF Enterprises) created by Soren Sveistrup. Active across three seasons, it became an international hit and made its star Sofie Gråbøl a household name. It was adapted by AMC in 2011 and has so far run to four seasons – despite being cancelled a couple of times along the way. It was saved by Netflix, which came on board as a partner for season three and then took over the show in its entirety for season four.
The US version was developed by Veena Sud, whose previous big credit was CBS procedural Cold Case. Sud shared writing duties with a large team, including the likes of Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective) and Jeremy Doner (Damages). She stayed with the show through season four, by which time writing duties were shared with Dan Nowak, Sean Whitesell, Nicole Yorkin and Dawn Prestwich (the latter two a writing team whose credits include Chicago Hope, FlashForward and The Education of Max Bickford).
Hatufim, aka Prisoners of War, is perhaps the most celebrated example of a successful scripted format. Created in Israel by Gideon Raff, it was adapted as Homeland for Showtime in the US by Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa. Five seasons of the US show have aired so far, with a sixth ordered in December 2015.
As is common with US series, there is a big team involved in writing a show like Homeland. The latest season of 12 episodes involved 11 writers altogether. Key names include Chip Johannessen, who has been involved with the show since the start. A new name on the season six team sheet was David Fury, who has worked on an array of titles ranging from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Hannibal.
Janus is proof that US networks are looking further afield in search of great ideas. A crime story originated in Austria, it was picked up by ABC last autumn. Kevin O’Hare, who has written pilots for ABC and Syfy, is adapting the thriller and writing the pilot. The original version was written by Jacob Groll and Sarah Wassermair.
Prior to this seven-part serial, Groll was best known for documentary The Sound of Hollywood, while Wassermair’s credits include musicals for children’s theatre. However, the pair have also been working together on ORF’s popular crime series Soko Donau.
Juana La Virgen is a Venezuelan telenovela that was adapted for The CW network in the US as Jane the Virgin. The original was created by Perla Farias and the US version by Jennie Snyder Urman, whose writing efforts are supported by a large team (the show has 22 episodes per season).
As evident from the titles above, a lot of adaptations don’t get further than the end of their first season. So the fact that this one has just been greenlit for a third run is a notable achievement. Although season two ratings are down compared with season one, the show has settled into a stable 0.9 to one million range.
Les Revenants was hailed as evidence that French TV drama had become a force to be reckoned with. A hit for Canal+ in 2012, the format was snapped up by A&E in the US – where it was remade as The Returned. The French version (based on a film) was created by Fabrice Gobert, who then wrote the screenplay for season one with Emmanuel Carrere and Fabien Adda (with writing credits also going to Camille Fontaine and Nathalie Saugeon).
A second season was aired at the end of 2015, with Audrey Fouche joining Gobert and Adda as a key writer (also credited on one episode was Coline Abert). Despite being led by showrunner Carlton Cuse alongside Raelle Tucker (True Blood), the US version failed to secure a second-season renewal following lacklustre ratings.
Øyevitne is a Norwegian crime thriller that is being adapted as Eyewitness for USA Network. In the US it has received a 10-episode, straight-to-series order. The US version comes from Shades of Blue creator Adi Hasak, who wrote it and will serve as showrunner. The original series creator is Jarl Emsell Larsen, who will executive produce the US version.
The series explores a grisly crime from the point of view of the eyewitnesses, two boys involved in a clandestine gay affair. While the Nordics have been getting a lot of attention in recent times, this is actually the first Norwegian scripted show to be adapted for the US.
Penoza is a popular Dutch drama created by Pieter Bart Korthuis and Diederik van Rooijen for KRO-NCRV. The show has run for four seasons (2010-2015), with a fifth, commissioned in February, set to air in September 2017. The format was acquired by ABC in the US in 2012 and ran for one season during 2013 with the name Red Widow.
The US version performed poorly and wasn’t renewed, dropping from 7.1 million at the start of its run to 3.47 million at the end. That was a rare blip for writer Melissa Rosenberg, whose credits include the entire Twilight saga of movies, Showtime’s Dexter and Netflix hit series Jessica Jones.
Rake is an Australian television series that centres on a brilliant but self-destructive lawyer. It was created by Peter Duncan, who then shared writing duties with Andrew Knight across the first three series. A fourth season will be broadcast this year on ABC Australia.
The show was adapted for Fox in the US in 2013, with Peter Duncan at the helm of a writing team of five. However, the show didn’t rate well and was moved around the schedule before being cancelled.
Shameless: Company Pictures produced Shameless for Channel 4 in the UK before it was picked up as a format by premium pay TV channel Showtime. The UK version was the brainchild of Paul Abbott, who also wrote a number of episodes. Other high-profile names involved included Danny Brocklehurst, who is now enjoying some success with Sky1’s The Five. Another prominent writer among many was Ed McCardie (Spotless).
Abbott was involved in setting up the US version, which may explain why the show has been a success, with six seasons already being aired. Key names in terms of transitioning the show included John Wells (ER, The West Wing) and Nancy Pimental – both of whom are still heavily involved, alongside a team of five writers for the latest season. Interestingly, the last season of the UK version also used a team approach, with eight writers penning 14 episodes.
Suskunlar is a Turkish drama that first aired on Show TV in 2012 and was then sold in its completed form to 30 countries. It was written by Pinar Bulut, who has also written a number of projects with her husband Kerem Deren, including fellow international hit Ezel.
The show was picked up by NBC in the US and has just started airing under the title Game of Silence. The pilot for the US version was written by David Hudgins, whose credits include Everwood and Parenthood. The second episode was penned by Wendy West (The Blacklist and Dexter). Hudgins has expressed a desire to take the show on into a second season, but early ratings suggest that it will need to do better for that to happen. After attracting 6.4 million viewers for episode one, it dropped 39% to 3.9 million for episode two.
Director Mark Tonderai talks to Michael Pickard about helming every episode of new Sky1 drama The Five and finding inspiration from football managers.
A former radio DJ, Mark Tonderai made his name as a director in feature films – most notably 2012 thriller House at the End of the Street, starring a then relatively unknown Jennifer Lawrence (it was filmed before but released after The Hunger Games).
He’s now about to break out on the small screen after directing all 10 episodes of Sky1’s latest original drama, The Five.
The series, created by novelist Harlan Coben and with Danny Brocklehurst as lead writer, follows a group of friends who are haunted by the disappearance of a young child while he was in their care. Years later, they are forced to revisit their past when the missing boy’s DNA turns up at the scene of a murder.
Produced by Red Production Company (Happy Valley) and distributed by StudioCanal, it stars Tom Cullen, O.T. Fagbenle, Lee Ingleby and Sarah Solemani.
It’s rare for a TV director to helm every episode of a single show, especially one that runs to 10 parts – still an unusually high number of episodes for a British drama.
“Most people don’t do 10 episodes. It’s a real ask,” Tonderai admits. “I come from features and it’s equivalent to three films. It’s a long time to shoot – it took over 127 days. It’s a massive deal.”
The director was initially brought on board to oversee three episodes of The Five, which launches tonight, but says the material and the team around him gave him the confidence to take on the whole season.
“You are only as good as your producer, and Karen Lewis has got a wonderful way of leading – she just lets you be,” he says. “I thought, ‘I could go into battle with this lady because, if I’m honest, she’s stronger than me.’ I had the right foundations to go forward, and I thought it would really help to have one person immersed in all of the creativeness.”
In particular, Tonderai says he was drawn to the project because he could relate to the idea of a group of people who haven’t been able to move on with their lives and are in a position in life where they don’t want to be.
“I lived like that for years,” he explains. “I used to put up posters in football stadiums. The job wasn’t beneath me but I didn’t want to be putting up posters in urinals in football stadiums. I wanted to be making films. That feeling of living in limbo, stasis and ambiguous grief that the characters have is where I was. It was a form of grief. So it was a combination of the material, the personnel involved and thinking I had to go for it because I might not get an opportunity to do all 10 with this sort of platform again. Sky were fantastic about it. It just felt like the right thing to do.”
A self-confessed fan of Coben’s thrillers, Tonderai shared the author’s intention to replicate his page-turning plot twists on television: “My goal was I didn’t want people to go to the toilet. I want people to sit there or, if they do go to the toilet, they rush back because they want to know what happens next.
“What you get is this rollercoaster where every episode is better than the one before. By the time you get to eight, nine and 10, you’re like, ‘Woah.’ It’s really good. I really believe that. I’m hoping that people just hook into it.”
He also praises Brocklehurst – “a really class writer” – who was one of the key contributors to what Tonderai describes as a “perfect storm” of talent behind the scenes.
It’s that collaborative effort that resonates most with Tonderai, who believes everyone on set should work for the story, rather than any individual. “I always say to the crew, ‘You’re not working for me and I’m not working for you, we’re working for the story.’ I come into work and say, ‘We’re going to do this right and we’re going to do it from the story’s perspective.’ I don’t care who’s got an opinion. If it’s not about the story, I don’t want to hear it. That’s my philosophy.
“A lot of my inspiration for how to direct comes from football managers because they all have ways of getting the best out of their players. You need a strong philosophy and everyone has to buy into it. If they don’t, you get clashes. But if everyone does, and they know what’s going to happen and exactly how you’re going to do it, it’s OK.”
Tonderai gets a new tattoo after every job he does, this time choosing to have the words ‘Take a position’ inked on his skin. The phrase represents his directorial style on The Five, he explains, because “you have to do that in life and you have to do that when you film. You have to take a position. You can’t be mediocre, cute or middle of the road. We live in mediocrity. Take a position because if it’s wrong, it doesn’t matter.”
He adds: “Every moment in life is unique and I believe every scene should be unique. You look around and find the angles. That’s what we did with every scene, so it meant sometimes we used a whole lot of operating styles – steadicam, handheld, we used the crane a lot and filmed in widescreen as much as we could. We took a position.”
But the thing the director is most proud of? That everyone came to the wrap party. “It means everyone enjoyed the experience,” he says. “That’s a big deal to me. Everybody had a really good time on it.”
As a director, Tonderai’s career has been mostly in features, with one episode of Syfy drama 12 Monkeys also to his name. And he says the changing film business in the US prompted his move into television and the opportunity to join The Five.
“House at the End of the Street made US$66m – a lot of money. It only cost US$3.5m,” he reveals. “I couldn’t make that film now. That isn’t because I couldn’t get it made – the point is I couldn’t get it distributed. The whole distribution model has changed because studios now control a lot of release dates because of their blockbusters.
“We now have global releases, whereas five years ago you had this slow roll-out. So the nature of the film business has changed. Really you only get three sorts of films being made – low-budget horror, massive blockbuster and Oscar-bait, which actually is a genre now. The latter is only triggered by actors; you’ve got to get the right actors. So I started to realise that if I didn’t adapt, I was going to starve.”
The former BBC Radio 1 DJ, who helps his actors get into character by playing music on set, first looked to the US TV market but admits that once he broke through, “I hated it because you’re basically there just to collect footage. You have four days in the edit and you just work out what you’ve done.”
That led Tonderai to leave his LA home and return to England, where he says a television director is still central to the creative process. After The Five, his next step is to have ownership of the content he’s creating, either in television or film.
“There are lots of directors but very few storytellers,” he says. “David Fincher, Ang Lee – these people are allowed to tell their own stories. It’s very hard to be in that camp –writers who direct their own stuff – and that’s the space I want to be in. You have to earn that right and you can’t do too much of other people’s work. You’ve only got so much juice in the tank as a director.”
In particular, he’s passionate about stories from Africa that reflect his own heritage and is working on a project about asylum seekers travelling from the continent to Europe.
“I’m from Africa and I’m very passionate about African stories, but they don’t get a look in because they don’t sell, especially in America,” Tonderai notes. “I’m an immigrant over there. I’m there by their grace so this idea I went to America to better myself, my position and my standing is something I really relate to. So when I see all these people coming from Africa, all they want is a better life. They’re not coming here to steal our money, our jobs or our women; they want a better life for themselves and that strikes a chord with me.”
He adds: “But you’ve got to dress it up in genre or something else so people hook into it. The best example is (Neil Blomkamp’s 2009 sci-fi movie) District 9 – a fantastic film that uses allegory and metaphors to say something quite profound about Apartheid. That’s a space I would love to be in.”
Prolific author Harlan Coben says he’s ‘shooting for greatness’ with The Five, his first original TV series. DQ talks to the novelist and others behind the production and finds out why they’re convinced they’ve got their hands on a five-star hit.
A group of friends are haunted by the disappearance of a young child years earlier while he was in their care. Now they are forced to revisit their past when the missing boy’s DNA turns up at the scene of a murder.
If you thought this sounded like the gripping plot to the next story by author Harlan Coben, you would be right. Only this isn’t a book that’s heading straight to the top of the New York Times Best Seller list.
Instead, it’s the chilling set-up to The Five (pictured above), the novelist’s first original story for television.
The 10-part series stars Tom Cullen, O-T Fagbenle, Lee Ingleby and Sarah Solemani as four friends who are forced to confront their past when a terrible childhood tragedy comes back to haunt them.
Produced by Red Production Company and distributed by StudioCanal, it is due to air on Sky1 in the UK in early 2016.
Mystery writer Coben has penned more than 25 novels, with more than 60 million copies in print worldwide. His books have been translated into 43 languages.
But 25 years since his first book, Play Dead, was published in 1990, he has now written for television for the first time.
Coben says he was first approached about working in TV by Red founder Nicola Shindler, an exec producer on The Five, and he happened to have an idea for the perfect show.
He explains: “I had this idea that I was thinking of writing as a novel but for some reason I always thought that instead of writing a novel and adapting it, it would be better to go straight into making it into a TV series. I had a big idea that I always saw more visually, more spread out, on a different canvas than a novel. So I gave her the story in three or four sentences and Nicola jumped on it, and that’s how it all started.”
But what was it about this one story that made it a better fit for television? “It was mostly because there are more lead characters,” Coben says, “but partly because I always saw it visually. The idea of these five kids playing in the park, four of them supposed to be watching the younger one. They kind of make fun of him. And I could almost see in my mind the kid crying and running down the path, never to be seen again.
“These four kids have to spend 20 years growing up, not knowing what happened. I could see him walking down that path. I could see the mother of that child years later looking out at that same path where her son disappeared. It always came to me very visually and that’s why I thought it would work best this way.
“I do see my novels cinematically, but not quite as much as this one. I wanted to see the lives of all four characters, but it wouldn’t make a movie. With the four characters, it would be better to have it spread out in something like this where we have 10 episodes to tell the story.”
Red’s previous productions include Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax and Scott & Bailey, while it is also known for working with such notable writers as Sally Wainwright, Russell T Davies and Bill Gallagher.
Shindler says: “We wanted to do something that was incredibly hooky, with a story at the centre of it that meant you couldn’t switch off and you had to watch the next episode. That’s Harlan’s novels. You get really compulsive – I have to stay up late, I have to keep reading, I have to know what happens. And it felt like to try to translate that on screen would be brilliant.”
Coben adds: “Once we started doing it, I became completely obsessed. I think about this show night and day, about how we can do this and that. When I write a novel I become completely obsessed in that world too.
“I’m boring company because I’m always looking off and thinking about my story. And that’s how it is with this thing. I’m completely obsessed with everything about it; we all are, frankly. Once we got into it and saw the potential for it, we just wanted to keep going.”
For The Five, Shindler paired Coben with Danny Brocklehurst (Ordinary Lies, Shameless), who is the lead writer on the project. But that doesn’t mean Coben stepped back from proceedings, despite never having previously worked alongside another writer.
“I’ve been working with Danny a lot and I know he can tell interesting stories with a lot of pace,” says Shindler. “Danny has written the script by himself but what Harlan brings is the story and the idea – the plot. Danny said it was something he was interested to try.”
Brocklehurst says he was excited to collaborate with Coben but, like the author, had only previously worked on stories he had devised himself.
“To work like this with this brilliant idea that Harlan has created but also to collaborate together, it was a great opportunity,” he says. “I would read one of Harlan’s books just before I wrote each script so I was very much in that Harlan world. Trying to write with those twists and characters in mind was a challenge but one I really enjoyed.”
Coben adds: “Nicola was the one who came up with the idea, telling both Danny and I separately that we would work well together.
“I don’t collaborate, I write my own novels. I don’t work well with others, but I’ve actually been shocked at how in sync Danny and I are, how our sensibilities are so similar, and how we’re brothers under the skin in terms of this. There will be times when he’s writing and it’s like I wrote it – but better. When we were meeting, we realised we really have the exact same vision for what this show should be. That really helps.”
To demonstrate their working relationship, Brocklehurst recalls a moment on set where he was required to rewrite a scene: “Harlan sent me an email making some very amusing suggestions, which I very quickly typed up. So sometimes there’s been this very close collaboration where you get to a point where you don’t know where an idea came from. There are just so many ideas swirling around. But it’s been great. It’s been a really healthy collaboration.”
Shindler adds: “We told the crew all the way through that they’ve all got a mental bumper sticker that says, ‘What would Harlan do?’ and it’s really helped. Reading his books before you make any decisions also helps because it’s kept it different and ensured the show feels like it’s one of his stories. Our fear and Sky’s fear was that it would just fall back into that British way of storytelling, which we didn’t want.”
As well as forging a writing partnership, The Five also goes against the grain by having one director – Mark Tonderai – take charge of all 10 episodes. This, says Shindler, has removed any differences in style that can occur if new directors are brought in at different stages of production.
“It’s really unusual, but we have longer prep weeks between each filming block and the actors have loved it because they’ve had one person giving notes,” Shindler continues. “We’ve loved it because we understand what Mark’s trying to do and what to push him on. It’s hard when a director comes in halfway through and tries to pick up the style, so we’ve not had any of that. That’s really what’s set it apart on the set. Mark described it as making a film each week, and that’s what it looks like. He’s so cinematic in his approach.”
Though The Five is Coben’s first original story for television, it is not his first television series. He has also been working on No Second Chance, an adaptation of his own novel that has been made for French broadcaster TF1.
The six-part action thriller, produced by VAB Production and distributed by TF1 International, tells the story of a woman (played by Alexandra Lamy) who wakes up from a coma to discover her husband has been murdered and her baby is missing. Suspected by the police and on the run from hitmen, she turns to a former criminal investigator – who is also her first love – to help find her daughter.
So why has it taken Coben so long to turn his attention to television? “If I’d tried making a series 10 years ago, you may have wanted a procedural with a weekly crime, that sort of thing,” he says. “That would hold no interest to me. But this is a new canvas I can tell the story on. No one has to push here, there’s an ambition we all share.
“I don’t need to have a TV series, I can continue to write my novels. We’re shooting for greatness or there’s no point. We’re not shooting just another TV show. I don’t need it, the rest of the team doesn’t need it. So that’s something we’re all sharing on The Five. We all want to do something a bit different.”
The author also compares his experience writing for television to that of writing a novel as he immerses himself in the world he is creating: “It’s how I work when I’m obsessed with something. I don’t know how to take my foot off the accelerator. I’ve probably made some of the crew a little crazy by this stage of the game. If they thought I was just going to be a name on the credits, they were sadly mistaken. So that obsession is just how I work.
“It has been more fun than I thought. I didn’t think I would enjoy collaborating as much as I have, but I have loved it. I’ve loved working with the actors and trying to talk to them. Mark was a wonderful director, and Danny, Nicola and I have also had a great deal of fun trying to make this happen.”
Coben’s move into TV wasn’t just about finding the right story, however. It also had something to do with the creative partners he was able to link up with and the freedom he would be given to bring his story to life. That, says the American author, is why he chose to work in the UK and France, rather than within the US studio system.
“The opportunities presented themselves at a time when I was open to the idea,” he explains. “I’ve probably been given more freedom than I would have been given in America. There’s notes and all that stuff but they’re minimal. I’m not going to say, ‘Oh the network made me do it this way and that’s why it didn’t work out.’ I’ve been able to do what I wanted, and that’s more important to me than what country I’m working in.”
On a similar note, Shindler says the UK drama business in particular is enjoying something of a high at the moment as broadcasters open their doors to new ideas. “Sometimes you get really annoyed, but on the whole it’s really healthy,” she says of the industry. “There’s no prescriptive notes about what people need anymore. We’re not told at 21.00 on a Wednesday night people will only watch dramas that do this or that. Now all the broadcasters constantly give us ideas, so it’s brilliant for us.”
Brocklehurst adds: “There’s a lot of competition out there now and that’s driving ambition. All the channels are having to up their game because of what others are doing, and that can only be a good thing.”
If The Five turns out to be as gripping as one of Coben’s bestselling novels, the chances are that viewers won’t have to wait another 25 years for his next original TV series.