Tag Archives: David Nicholls

Making Melrose

Screenwriter David Nicholls, director Edward Berger and executive producer Michael Jackson tell DQ about adapting Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels into a five-part limited series for Sky Atlantic and Showtime.

There is no shortage of acclaimed writers willing to endorse Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. The five-book collection – Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk and At Last – boasts cover quotes from literary figures including Zadie Smith, Alan Hollinghurst, Alice Sebold and Maggie O’Farrell.

Also among them is David Nicholls, the author of novels including One Day and Starter for 10 – and the screenwriter who adapted both for the cinema. “I’ve loved Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. Read them all, now,” he says.

Nicholls is likely demanding people watch them, too, now that he has adapted St Aubyn’s semi-autobiographical books into a five-part limited series for Sky Atlantic in the UK and US premium cable network Showtime.

The sweeping saga follows Melrose from the South of France in the 1960s to 1980s New York and Britain in the early 2000s, while each episode focuses on one of St Aubyn’s five novels, skewering the upper class as it tracks the protagonist’s journey from deeply traumatic childhood to his drug addiction and ultimate recovery.

In an often dazzling and dynamic performance that might surprise those who only know him from Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Melrose, while the sprawling ensemble cast also includes Hugo Weaving, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Anna Madeley, Blythe Danner, Allison Williams, Pip Torrens, Jessica Raine, Prasanna Puwanarajah, Holliday Grainger, Indira Varma and Celia Imrie.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Patrick Melrose

The journey to bring Patrick Melrose to the screen began five years ago when executive producers Michael Jackson and Rachael Horovitz snagged the rights to St Aubyn’s novels. Jackson, a former Channel 4 and BBC executive, describes the books as a “very compelling, human saga” with a “sense of sweep of narrative that appealed from a television perspective.”

There was a fair amount of untangling for Nicholls to do during the writing process, however, as he tackled St Aubyn’s literary prose, the protagonist’s internal thoughts, flashbacks and other structural devices contained within the novels.

“He’s a very skilful adapter and a novelist himself and loved the books, so it wasn’t a hard decision,” Jackson says on bringing Nicholls to the project.

For his part, Nicholls admits he jumbled the source material, most notably by starting the series with the second book, Bad News, in which Melrose embarks on a crazed and drug-riddled visit to New York to collect his father’s ashes. Stories and characters were also transplanted and conflated into different episodes to ensure continuity through the series.

“There was a certain amount of manipulation of the material to give the impression that this was conceived as a saga,” Nicholls says. “The novels weren’t written with the expectation of there being five over 20 years. That came to Edward as he was writing them. So, as you work on them retrospectively, you wonder if we can introduce Mary, his wife, in the third episode so she doesn’t appear out of nowhere in the fourth, and maybe this other character who isn’t in the first episode ought to be.

The Sky Atlantic and Showtime series also stars Hugo Weaving

“There’s a certain amount of retrospective reorganisation and I couldn’t really set about that until I had all five books in my head. Literally for years, I would walk around London listening to the audio books over and over again until I had a map of the whole five volumes and five episodes in my head. That seemed like the only way to do it.”

The original idea had been to create two 90-minute films based on the first two books, and it was quite late into development when the decision was made to adapt all five as individual hour-long episodes. Patrick Melrose is produced by Two Cities Television, SunnyMarch and Little Island Productions and distributed by Sky Vision.

“It was a challenge and quite a puzzle so, in that sense, it was a monster,” Nicholls notes. “It was a much more demanding adaptation than anything I’ve ever done. But after a while, a shape started to appear and a sense that actually it was important to treat the five books as a whole, rather than treat them as five very separate episodes, and to forge links between them rather than separate them out.”

One particular challenge was externalising Melrose’s inner thoughts, of which there are many throughout St Aubyn’s texts. A date from hell between Melrose and Marianne (Williams), in the episode Bad News, doesn’t have a single line of dialogue for Marianne in the book, so Nicholls had the “slightly nerve-racking business” of writing it in the voice of the original author.

Each of the five films, as well as being drawn from a different book, also represent Patrick’s state of mind at that particular point in the story, with different settings, visual styles and even camera techniques used to define each individual episode.

The show comprises five episodes, covering the five Patrick Melrose books

“Episode three is an ensemble, epic, huge piece and number four is a much more intense, claustrophobic family drama, and five is a rather melancholic memory piece,” Nicholls explains. “Each one has a completely different quality and, at the same time, you want to feel this is the same character. There’s also a satisfaction in watching not just Patrick but all the other characters change as the years go by.”

Taking charge behind the camera is Edward Berger (Deutschland 83, The Terror), who told exec producers Jackson, Horovitz and Cumberbatch that he had imagined making five different films before he was officially brought on board.

“When I read the scripts, they all felt very different,” he says. “The first one was very subjective and anchored in Patrick’s head, running around New York with him. On set in Glasgow, I was really with Benedict, always behind him with the camera and very much trying to emulate the subjectivity of being this crazy heroin addict in the 80s in New York. Episode two, when I read it, felt, instead of subjective, objective – as if Patrick had stepped back and looked at this psychologically strange arrangement of his family, looking at it from the outside rather than inside, so we just stepped back with the camera. It’s much more static than the first one, much more composed. It’s much more distant, just looking at it as a psychological experiment, almost like a [Michael] Haneke movie.

“The third one is like Patrick has moved on. He’s trying to get sober, he’s trying to get clean. We felt it should still be very subjective but more together, more fluid, so we changed from this very handheld style to a very fluid steadicam, five-minute-take style where we just roam around this party and stay much longer on one shot.

“I thought maybe at the end of the series, it feels like a step towards normalcy in Patrick Melrose’s life, so let’s just try to make it more normal and not so frantic. Every film jumps to a very specific moment in Patrick’s life, so it also needs a very specific language according to that moment.”

Get Out’s Allison Williams is part of the ensemble cast

Berger joined the production in March 2017 and went straight into meetings with Nicholls to discuss the script before beginning casting alongside Nina Gold. But what excited the director most about the project was the very fact he had no idea how he would do it.

“The potential of failure is always there – you think, ‘I might really fuck this up. This might be really terrible if done badly,’” he says. “I find that interesting, I find that challenging. You have to rise to the occasion and work hard. As soon as you feel you know how to do it and know how it works, I think it’s time to change jobs and do something different, because then it gets quite boring.

“Fantastic characters and great scripts have to be there, of course, and Patrick Melrose is something I wanted to do because the potential to not live up to the books was just immense. My love of the books is so big that I really wanted to see if I could do something that brought back the feeling I had when I first read it.”

Cumberbatch, who also executive produces, shares the creative team’s love of St Aubyn’s books, and Jackson was immediately impressed by the actor’s understanding of the central character. “You could tell right from the very first conversation he would be perfect in the role,” he says. “I don’t think there could have been an actor as good as Benedict in the role. He was perfectly cast.”

The exec highlights Cumberbatch’s subtle ability to move between tragedy and sadness, which he describes as “amazing to behold.”

Patrick Melrose is directed by Edward Berger (Deutschland 83, The Terror)

“We were in awe of it during filming,” he continues. “Just his ability, particularly in the first episode, Bad News, when he’s undergoing the fractured personalities of the heroin addict and speaking in all the different voices. His ability to hold the jigsaw puzzle of the character together is remarkable.”

Berger describes Cumberbatch as “a very intuitive actor” who imagined five or six different versions of a scene and how he might play it. That meant on set, the pair would work through different ways of playing Melrose, before settling on how they wanted to take the character forward. “He likes to experiment a lot, play a lot, and my task is almost to help find that voice and give him the platform to try out what he wants to do and then talk to him about it,” the director says. “It’s not like Benedict comes on set, does three takes and says, ‘Great, let’s move on.’ No, he can do 12 different versions, and trying to find the right one is not easy for me or for him. So finding it together is the most important thing you can do.”

Nicholls echoes Jackson’s comments of their leading man: “It’s really committed performance. That was the thing that struck me, because he really went for it and did all the research. He was respectful of the scripts but drew on the books and was also very attentive to every single detail. He’s not in the second episode very much, but in the rest of the show he’s barely off screen. It was absolutely exhausting but he was entirely committed to it throughout. The whole range of his performance is really stunning.”

Cumberbatch lifts the sharp humour and satire in Nicholls’ scripts off the page while also portraying an emotionally fragile man who is trying to shed the spite and anger he has carried from childhood.

“What’s fascinating to me is the scripts are very faithful [to St Aubyn’s story] but when you put humans on screen and actors put a face or expression to a line of dialogue, they can’t help but make it more emotional,” Nicholls concludes. “That’s what’s been striking for me. The drama on screen is quite moving; it is harrowing in places; but it’s also tackling and emotional. So I’m pleased with it. We’ve brought out that quality without sentimentalising it.”

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BBC reveals diverse slate

David Nicholls' Us
David Nicholls’ Us is being adapted by Nick Payne

The BBC last week renewed its commitment to Steven Knight’s acclaimed 1920s gangster series Peaky Blinders with a two-season order.

But that was actually just one of a number of scripted announcements from the UK public broadcaster. There was also a renewal for The A Word, based on an Israeli format from Keshet, and a raft of new series and single drama announcements.

The most high profile of the new productions is Us, an adaptation of David Nicholls’ most recent novel of the same name. The book will be adapted by Nick Payne and produced by Drama Republic.

As for the single dramas, Tony Jordan is writing a show about Barbara Windsor, the Cockney actress who came to fame in the Carry On films and then became a regular fixture on EastEnders. Entitled Babs, the drama will be produced by BBC Studios in association with Red Planet Pictures.

Windsor said: “Although it’s been spoken about in the past to do my life story, it wasn’t until two years ago, when I was approached by the brilliant writer Tony Jordan and the BBC, that I knew this was the right time, and undoubtedly the only person I felt knew me well enough to tell my story. Tony knows the real me and what makes me tick, and I was particularly taken by the way he wants to tell my tale, which is not in the way people will expect. Tony certainly has captured the moments of my life that have made me who I am today. I am honoured and excited that Tony and the BBC have commissioned this.”

Barbara Windsor
Barbara Windsor

Jordan added: “The opportunity to tell the story of the amazing Barbara Windsor was too good to miss. I think people will be surprised there’s a lot more to her than just the Carry On Films and EastEnders. She was starring in movies and was a star of the theatre long before any of those things came along. In the Sixties, she was nominated for a Bafta for her work in the film Sparrows Can’t Sing, and a Tony award after appearing on Broadway. There’s a reason that, as a nation, we’ve all taken Barbara to our hearts. I think it is because she’s always been one of us, never forgetting where she came from – that combination of someone in the business with the highest level of professionalism, but without the airs and graces to go with it. She’s a national treasure and one of the most remarkable women I’ve met.”

For BBC2, there will be an adaptation of Sathnam Sanghera’s memoir The Boy with the Topknot, produced by Parti Productions and Kudos. Set in Wolverhampton, the series tells the humorous, touching and emotional story of a second-generation Indian growing up in Britain, exploring how he juggles his family, love life and career.

Sanghera commented: “I’m delighted that The Boy with the Topknot is being adapted for screen. Delighted and a little trepidatious. The latter because the book is a personal exposition of my childhood and family, and delighted because it’s a story I want people to know about and understand. I feel confident the BBC and Parti, along with Kudos, will handle the themes explored in the book with great warmth and sensitivity, because ultimately my family’s story is one of hope.”

The Boy With the Topknot
The Boy With the Topknot is being made into a series for BBC2

Charlotte Moore, the BBC’s acting director of TV, said: “Following BBC Drama’s tremendous start to the year, it is clear audiences are looking for greater ambition and high quality. So I’m announcing a mix of contemporary, provocative pieces and surprising stories, with three new titles and two returning series.”

On the streaming front, Amazon is set to launch two new pilots on June 17. The first, which has been discussed since late last year, is The Last Tycoon, based on F Scott Fitzgerald’s last unfinished novel. Starring Matt Bomer, the show will be available in multiple markets including the US, UK, Germany, Austria and Japan (it was previously a movie starring Robert De Niro in 1976). The other new pilot is The Interestings, based on the book by Meg Wolitzer. This one stars Lauren Ambrose and tells the story of a group of summer-camp friends over the course of their lives.

Hulu, meanwhile, has teamed up with ITV in the UK on a new series called Harlots, which is set in the world of the 18th century London sex trade. The eight-parter, produced by Monumental Pictures, will air on ITV Encore in the UK and stars Samantha Morton as a woman struggling to reconcile her roles as a mother and a brothel owner.

Harlots is written by Moira Buffini, based on an original idea by her and Alison Newman. “In 1760s London, there were brothels on every corner run by women who were both enterprising and tenacious,” said Monumental co-founder Alison Owen. “History has largely ignored them, but their stories are outrageous, brutal, humorous and real.”

The show is the latest in a line of originations involving ITV Encore, others including The Frankenstein Chronicles, Midwinter of the Spirit and Houdini & Doyle. The show will be distributed outside the US and UK by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.

Other streaming news this week included the announcement that the European Commission may impose a 20% local-content quota on streaming services like Amazon and Netflix. The move is aimed at preserving cultural diversity and supporting European production. On the face of it, this is good news for European producers, though it has the potential to increase the streamers’ content costs.

To Be a Better Man
To Be a Better Man centres on a Chinese chef

Netflix, which has recently started investing in original European content, is unhappy about the move, saying it would distort the streaming market and adversely impact on its personalised recommendation service. It added: “Rigid numerical quotas risk suffocating the market for on-demand audiovisual services. An obligation to carry content to meet a numerical quota may cause new players to struggle to achieve a sustainable business model. The focus should be on incentivising the production of European content and not imposing quotas.”

In Asia, Fox Networks Group Asia has signed a deal with Linmon Pictures to broadcast Chinese romantic drama series To Be a Better Man to viewers across the region. The show will air on general entertainment service Star Chinese Channel the same day as in China.

The 42-part series follows the story of a tough Chinese chef working at a three-star Michelin restaurant in the US. After his best friend is killed in a car accident, he returns to China with his remains and gets embroiled in various problems. To Be a Better Man was written by Li Xiao and directed by Zhang Xiao Bo.

Finally, there was more bad news this week for US movie spin-off projects. After Rush Hour and Damien were shut down last week, Limitless has become the latest casualty. This CBS show, spun off from the Bradley Cooper movie of the same name, started well but faded badly in the second half of its run.

Next autumn in the US will see the launch of new spin-offs from Training Day, Lethal Weapon, The Exorcist, Time After Time and Frequency. Presumably if this batch fares as badly as the class of 2015/2016 then the networks will need to have a rethink.

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BBC’s novel approach

US is the first of David Nicholls' novels to be adapted for TV, with two previous books having been made into movies
US is the first of David Nicholls’ novels to be adapted for TV, with two previous books having been made into movies

There are reports this week that UK-based indie producer Drama Republic is developing David Nicholls’ hilarious and poignant novel Us for the BBC. The UK pubcaster is yet to confirm the project but it is likely to be a three- or four-part miniseries, with acclaimed British playwright Nick Payne lined up to write the screenplay. It’s the kind of high-profile book-based project that would sit comfortably in the Sunday evening slot that has been occupied in recent times by The Casual Vacancy and Jonathan Norrell & Mr Strange.

Nicholls has written three previous novels, two of which were adapted as movies (Starter for Ten and One Day). So the fact this one is being lined up as a TV project is another indication of the shift in the balance of power towards small-screen drama.

The switch from film to TV will suit Nicholls’ work, which is narratively and emotionally very rich. In the case of Us, the story is told from the point of view of Douglas, a married man whose wife Connie announces that she plans to leave him when their 17-year-old son Albie goes to college. Douglas takes the two of them on holiday to Europe to try to convince Connie to change her mind, while also hoping it will be an opportunity to emotionally reconnect with his son. Inevitably, the trip doesn’t go to plan.

Nicholls recently wrote 7.39 for the BBC
Nicholls recently wrote 7.39 for the BBC

It’s interesting that Payne will handle scriptwriting duties, given that Nicholls has a good TV screenwriting track record himself. Having first come to prominence as a writer on series such as Cold Feet and Rescue Me, he recently wrote 7.39 for the BBC, about a man who starts an affair with a woman he meets on a commuter train. Aired in 2014, that project drew an audience of 5.7 million across two episodes on consecutive nights, which isn’t too bad. Perhaps, though, the decision has been swayed by the poor reviews that the movie version of One Day received, with the LA Times calling it a “heartbreaking disappointment of a film.” There’s no question that One Day the novel is far superior to the film, so maybe Us will benefit from some outside input, with Nicholls presumably on hand in an executive producer role.

Just last night, I was thinking to myself that there aren’t enough dramas about female serial killers. So imagine my surprise when I saw that World Productions (Line of Duty) is making a two-part drama for ITV about Mary Ann Cotton, a Victorian serial killer who used arsenic to kill three of her husbands so she could claim against their insurance policies. Called Dark Angel, the production is based on David Wilson’s book Mary Ann Cotton: Britain’s First Female Serial Killer and was commissioned by ITV director of drama Steve November and controller of drama Victoria Fea.

Downton Abbey's Joanne Froggatt (right) will star in ITV's Dark Angel
Downton Abbey’s Joanne Froggatt (right) will star in ITV’s Dark Angel

As far as anything in this life is a dead cert, this is it. Why? Because it will be directed by Brian Percival (Downton Abbey) and star Joanne Froggatt (also Downton). Anyone familiar with Downton will recall that Froggatt’s character Anna Bates spent some time under suspicion of murder – so there’s a neat link between the two shows.

Fea said of the show: “The combination of a tautly written script, an outstanding cast and great producers in World Productions make this a really exciting addition to the slate.” Dark Angel will start filming in August in Yorkshire and County Durham. It will be supported by Screen Yorkshire’s Yorkshire Content Fund, while Endemol Shine International is distributing it globally.

Still with ITV, the channel has also just commissioned six more episodes of WW2 drama Home Fires. Inspired by Julie Summers’ non-fiction book Jambusters, it follows a group of women in a rural community during the war. It was created and written for TV by Simon Block (Lewis, The Shooting of Thomas Hurndall).

WW2 has inspired a surprising number of drama series in recent years. The UK’s other recent offerings include the BBC’s Land Girls and ITV’s Foyle’s War, while Canada has given us Bomb Girls (set in a munitions factory during WW2) and, more recently, X Company. The latter is a spy thriller that debuted on CBC in February 2015. After the show’s first season generated a good response, CBC quickly took the decision to give the series a second run of 10 episodes.

ITV has renewed WW2 drama Home Fires for a further six episodes
ITV has renewed WW2 drama Home Fires for a further six episodes

WW2 has also inspired some good dramas out of continental Europe. The most high profile is Germany’s Generation War, which is one of the few German dramas to have secured sales to the English-speaking market. Another interesting title is Un Village Français (A French Village), a French show created by Frédéric Krivine, Emmanuel Daucé and Philippe Triboit. Set in a fictional village in German-occupied France, the show first aired on France 3 in 2009 and has slowly but surely picked up a loyal international fanbase. With a seventh and final series planned for 2016, the entire oeuvre was sold by 100% Distribution to MHz Networks in the US (and has also sold to MBC in Korea).

Explaining why Un Village Français has found an audience in such diverse markets, Cecilia Rossignol, director of sales & acquisitions at 100% Distribution, said it is because the show is not primarily a story of war. “It is about people who find themselves in extreme situations and must make choices. In this, it is a universal series.”

Un Village Français will air its seventh and final season next year
Un Village Français will air its seventh and final season next year

In recent weeks, we have discussed the success of Jane the Virgin, a Venezuelan telenovela that was remade for The CW in the US. With a second series recently recommissioned by The CW, there are now reports that Mediaset in Spain is to make a local version of the show. The deal underlines the beauty of having a strong formattable scripted franchise. Not only can buyers choose between licensing the Venezuelan or the US format, they can also acquire either of the completed series. With every new completed series the options increase, turning small local successes into globally successful franchises.

On a separate note, SVoD service Netflix announced this week that it will continue its rapid global roll-out with launches in Italy, Portugal and Spain during October. Echoing the recent launch in France, this may result in a new wave of investment in local productions. It might also provide a way for shows from these countries to break into the English-speaking markets (Netflix could, for example, acquire global rights to a local show and then test it in different territories if it performs well in its originating market). Overall, Netflix now has 62.3 million subscribers and is aiming to have services in around 200 countries within two years.

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