Tim Key is executive producer for BBC1 crime drama Death in Paradise, which has been recommissioned for an eighth season to air in 2019. For his Six of the Best, he chooses an eclectic mix of classic adaptation, soap, comedy, mystery, western and one emotional rollercoaster.
The Box of Delights
Trying to choose a TV series from a childhood filled with iconic favourites (obviously Monkey, The Dukes of Hazzard and The A-Team spring to mind) is tricky, but this wonderful adaptation of John Masefield’s classic book was a spellbinding Christmas treat. A show the entire family could watch together, sections of it were filmed in the town I grew up in, which might explain some of my bias. Its then-astonishing special effects may seem a little creaky now, but the fact that so many people of a certain age remember it so fondly is testament to its quality.
I’m Alan Partridge
Not a drama, I realise, but it might as well be, such is the depth and pathos of the title character. This is the series that really put flesh on Alan’s bones, transforming him from a sketch-show character into a fully rounded, deeply flawed but instantly recognisable comedy legend. The fact that so many years later he continues not only to exist but also to develop is incredible. And it is really, really funny.
Hard to decide between the usual favourites (The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Wire and so on), but I’m going to go for this HBO series thanks to its remarkable – and brutal – sense of self and place. When writing, performance, costume, design and direction come together like this, you know you’re lucky to be living in a golden age of television.
The first two seasons of this show, for me, ushered in an era of high-budget and high-concept TV. I’m a sucker for a show with a proper mystery at its heart (which is why Life on Mars so nearly made the list too), so this had me from its cinematic pilot episode onwards. It lost its way, of course, infuriatingly failing to either answer its own questions or respect its own mythology, but its characters all felt real and rounded and its hooks were beautifully designed.
It’s easy to forget how genuinely groundbreaking this Channel 4 soap was, in every possible way, attracting exciting, up-and-coming writing talent, as well as a cast of which many are now household names. But its production style was revolutionary too – in particular, shooting in real houses gave it a realism that has inspired countless dramas since. I was lucky to work there much later, but its early years were especially powerful, passionate and transformative, truly defining the brand new television channel that featured the show on its first night.
This Is Us
There’s so much fantastic high-end television these days that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of stuff to watch. Which is why choosing a recent show was so difficult – The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, Better Call Saul and Big Little Lies all nearly made the six. But I’ve decided to go for the frankly underrated (in the UK at least) This Is Us, a masterclass in fine plotting, writing and acting. It can be accused of being shamelessly emotionally manipulative, but I don’t care – with each layer of back story it unravels, you just love the characters more, and I’m happy to cry at pretty much every episode when it’s this good and involving.
Amid all the controversy about the future of the BBC’s licence fee, it’s interesting to note that the UK public broadcaster’s flagship channel BBC1 has had a storming start to the year in terms of its scripted content. Whether it’s crime, espionage, period or soaps, it’s been delivering on every front.
Go back to the very start of January, for example, and BBC1 achieved an audience in excess of 11 million for its much-publicised Sherlock special. This was ably supported by the launch of War & Peace, which debuted to 8.4 million.
War & Peace continued to perform well throughout January and was joined by schedule stalwarts such as Death in Paradise, EastEnders and Silent Witness – all of which racked up audiences in excess of eight million. The latter show topped the ratings in the second week of January with 8.72 million – impressive when you consider it has been running since 1996.
In the week commencing January 11, BBC1 turned the screw on its rivals further still by launching the latest season of Call the Midwife, which immediately went to the top of the charts with 9.88 million.
Supporting it with eight million-plus viewers were Silent Witness, Death in Paradise and EastEnders, with the complex period drama War & Peace holding up well at 6.6 million. Not quite as strong, but still respectable, was the third season of crime series Shetland, which debuted with more than six million.
Late January and early February offered more of the same, but then the week commencing February 8 saw the return of Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley to a massive 8.63 million viewers. Only Call the Midwife scored higher, bringing in 9.6 million.
For the week commencing February 15, BBC1 upped its game again, with the launch of The Night Manager on Sunday evening. While it wasn’t able to outscore the much-loved midwives, it did debut with 8.25 million, neck and neck with episode two of Happy Valley. This meant the channel’s top five broadcasts were all dramas attracting in excess of 7.5 million viewers (with Shetland still bobbing along nicely at around six million).
The following week, all of the above were rock solid – with The Night Manager actually posting a slight increase to 8.42 million. That in itself is a very impressive achievement, because most dramas shed a million or so after their first episode. By this token, Happy Valley also deserves some credit for managing to keep its second and third episodes well above the eight million mark.
All of the above figures are BARB seven-day data. So we’ve now moved into territory where the latest figures have not yet been released. Instead, we need to look at BARB overnights (which are subject to change once time-shifted viewing is included).
With this proviso, The Night Manager continues to perform strongly. On Sunday, March 6, for example, it faced tough competition from the launch of Julian Fellowes’ new project on ITV, Doctor Thorne, but won convincingly. Around 6.2 million tuned into The Night Manager (overnight score) while 3.8 million opted for Fellowes’ Anthony Trollope adaptation.
ITV is BBC1’s main commercial rival. So how has it been doing across the same period? On the whole, the picture isn’t quite as healthy.
Coming into the new year, its ratings were led by its soaps, Coronation Street and Emmerdale, with audiences in the 5.5-7 million range. Behind this came crime dramas Endeavour, Vera and Midsomer Murders which, with audiences of around 5-5.5 million, lag behind Silent Witness.
It’s likely to be a similar story for the next few weeks, with Happy Valley’s final episode coming up and The Night Manager still good for a few more episodes. It will be interesting to see if BBC1 can sustain its performance through the spring and summer.
In the US, meanwhile, CBS CEO Les Moonves used the Deutsche Bank 2016 Media, Internet and Telecom Conference in Florida to say: “We have five new shows on this year. I believe all five will be renewed, and we own four of them.”
This comment has been interpreted to refer to Supergirl, Limitless, Code Black, Life in Pieces and Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders. However, there is some uncertainty because CBS also has a TV reboot of Rush Hour coming up. So either Moonves overlooked that show, or it’s already being lined up for the chop – which seems a bit harsh ahead of its actual launch.
In terms of the other five, Supergirl and Limitless were widely expected to get picked up again, as was sitcom Life in Pieces.
Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders doesn’t debut until March 16 but, as a spin-off of the popular Criminal Minds franchise, it stands a decent chance of doing well. The show that has, perhaps, dodged a bullet is medical drama Code Black.
With its 18-episode first season now complete, Code Black attracted an average audience of 7.1 million. This isn’t terrible but it is undermined by the fact that the show’s appeal to 18- to 49-year-olds is at the lower end of the CBS spectrum.
The fact it has survived is probably explained by CBS’s need for some classic procedural-style dramas to sit alongside hit series NCIS. If CBS can manage to make Code Black a hit then it will also have a useful asset for its international sales catalogue. The show has already been picked up in the UK by UKTV.
Still in the US, public broadcaster PBS has just given the greenlight to a second season of Mercy Street, its first original drama in more than a decade. A medical series set during the US Civil War, Mercy Street’s first season was executive produced by Ridley Scott, David W Zucker, Lisa Q Wolfinger and David Zabel.
The show debuted with an impressive 5.7 million viewers and its six-episode run was streamed two million times. It trended strongly on Twitter on numerous occasions and its website – filled with factual supporting material – has had more than 600,000 unique visitors since its launch.
“We are thrilled with the overwhelmingly positive response to Mercy Street and the return of high-quality American drama on PBS stations,” said Beth Hoppe, chief programming officer and general manager of general audience programming at PBS. “We’re looking forward to a second season offering more fascinating stories inspired by historical events. The effort from everyone involved, including producers, directors, historical consultants, actors and PBS stations, resulted in an extraordinary series.”
Mercy Street’s first season took place in the spring of 1862 in Alexandria, Virginia, a border town between north and south and the longest-occupied Confederate city of the war. Ruled under martial law, Alexandria was the central melting pot of the region, filled with civilians, female volunteers, doctors, wounded soldiers from both sides, free black people, enslaved and contraband (escaped slaves living behind Union lines) African Americans, prostitutes, speculators and spies.
The show follows the lives of these characters, who collide at Mansion House, the Green family’s luxury hotel, which has been taken over and transformed into a Union Army hospital. Season two picks up directly from the events at the end of the first run’s finale.
It’s 50 years since sci-fi adventure series Star Trek launched as a TV series. Since then it has given birth to seven TV series and 12 films – and that’s not the end of its intergalactic journey.
This summer there will be a new movie, Star Trek Beyond. And then in 2017 comes a new TV series, to be aired on CBS.
The CBS show is being co-created and produced by Bryan Fuller, who is also the showrunner. Fuller, whose major credits to date include Hannibal, revealed this week that he has invited Nicholas Meyer onto the writing team of the show.
Meyer is widely acknowledged to have re-energised the franchise with his work on the 1982 movie The Wrath of Khan and his subsequent involvement in the fourth and sixth films.
Fuller said: “Nicholas Meyer chased Kirk and Khan around the Mutara Nebula and around Genesis’ flames, he saved the whales with the Enterprise and waged war and peace between Klingons and the Federation. We are thrilled to announce that one of Star Trek’s greatest storytellers will be boldly returning as Nicholas Meyer beams aboard the new Star Trek writing staff.”
It’s too early to know how CBS plans to evolve the show (a female captain on the USS Enterprise, maybe?), but you can guarantee it will be a focal point in terms of international distribution during the coming year.
The last TV iteration of the franchise, Enterprise, aired on The UPN Network (a precursor to The CW) in the US from 2001 to 2005. Internationally, it was mainly restricted to science-fiction-themed channels. But the new Star Trek series feels like it has potential to have a greater impact on the global market.
The most likely outcome is that it will end up on a mix of pay TV and mainstream TV channels (though it is the kind of show that might just sneak into weekend teatime slots on some of the world’s bigger free TV broadcasters). But there are a couple of other possibilities.
One is that CBS might use the show to try to brand its international networks, in the way AMC is now doing with AMC Global and Fear The Walking Dead. Another is that CBS might get an irresistible offer from Netflix or Amazon, both of which have aired the Star Trek back catalogue on their platforms.
Whatever the outcome, expect to see a lot of Star Trek activity at Comic-Con International in San Diego in July.
Meanwhile, four episodes in and American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson has seen its audience slide from 5.1 million to 2.99 million on FX. That’s still very good, however, and has already led to a renewal. For anyone wondering what the subject of the next series might be, FX CEO John Landgraf has been telling the US media it will focus on 2005’s Hurricane Katrina and the devastating impact it had on the people of New Orleans.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Landgraf said next season won’t focus on a singular crime “but there were a series of pretty serious crimes that took place in and around Katrina. Part of what Ryan [Murphy], Nina [Jacobson] and Brad [Simpson] want do with this franchise is use these compelling and entertaining stories to delve into what lies beneath the surface of crime and of our society.
“Katrina is really an interesting decision in that regard. It’s a big, epic story. On one level, it’s a disaster story with all the sort of human scale and tragedy and interest that any story might have, but then inside it there are all these other fascinating sub-stories. Why were the levees flawed? How did they get that way? Why were there hospitals where life-support systems were being turned off? How did a bunch of people end up inside the Superdome, essentially living in squalid conditions?”
One point not raised in this comment is that Katrina brings with it the same background of racial tensions and media frenzy that swirled around the OJ case. Initially, African Americans were accused of committing a series of criminal acts under cover of the storm, but subsequent investigation found that this was the kind of hysterical misinformed rumour that often accompanies such tragic events. Instead, the real story of Katrina was the number of black deaths that took place at the hands of white gun-toting vigilantes. So it will be interesting to see how FX steers through this subject.
Spike Lee previously looked at Katrina for HBO in the documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. Released in 2006, this was a superb, award-winning piece of work but one that focused primarily on personal testimony related to the storm. It came out before stories about the vigilante killings had been properly investigated and accepted as genuine.
Other noteworthy stories this week include the news that multilingual video-streaming site Viki is partnering with The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman on a new scripted series. Five Year is an original story about a family living under the threat of a deadly meteor hurtling toward Earth.
In an interesting twist, the 16-part show is being produced as a Korean drama by Kirkman’s US-based company Skybound Entertainment.
“This has been a story I have wanted to tell for quite some time, but David [Alpert, production partner and Skybound president/co-founder] and I wanted to make sure it found a proper home where it could grow and breathe creatively. Looking at what Viki has done in not only the dramatic series space, but transforming the way viewers consume and translate media, we knew immediately Five Year had found its home.”
US-Asia TV collaborations are still rare but Viki CEO Tammy Nam believes this is changing: “We’re thrilled to be working with the creators of one of the most popular TV series of all time. The fact that David and Robert wanted to make Five Year as a K-drama is a testament to the popularity and quality of Asian programming. In many ways, Viki and Skybound represent the future of global entertainment, particularly with Hollywood-Asia collaborations and VoD platforms like Viki leading distribution and fan-building.”
In Europe, the biggest greenlight news of the week has been the BBC’s decision to give Red Planet Pictures’ Guadeloupe-based crime drama Death in Paradise a sixth season. Claimed to be the third highest-rating UK drama of 2015, it is also the fourth best-selling British drama export, having been sold to 237 territories.
Also in the UK, BBC2 has ordered a second season of Touchpaper TV’s confessional drama series Murder. The Bafta-winning series was co-created by Robert Jones and Kath Mattock and written by Robert Jones. Continuing with the same format, Murder uses confessions to revisit the missing moments leading up to a death, in search of the truth. Jones and Mattock spent months in the public galleries of the Old Bailey researching real-life murder cases for inspiration and authenticity.
Intercut with CCTV footage, live action and forensic evidence, the show sees protagonists speaking to the camera and giving their version of events. But where does the truth lie when different versions don’t add up?
Elsewhere, SVT in Sweden has ordered a multi-generational drama set at the end of the Second World War in and around a family-run restaurant. Our Time is Now is a 20-part series that explores the lives of the family members and delves into their ambitions following the end of the conflict. The show is set to air in late 2017 and is being coproduced by SVT, Modern Times Group-owned Viaplay and film fund Film Väst. The main writer is Ulf Kvensler and the story is based on an idea by Johan Rosalind.
Today is the last day of BBC Showcase, an annual event that sees around 700 programme buyers from around the world descend on Liverpool in the UK to view and potentially acquire BBC Worldwide (BBCWW)-distributed content.
At this year’s event, BBCWW has had a lot of its success with crime drama, selling around 900 hours of programming to markets including Europe, the Middle East and Japan. It’s a reminder that the Nordic nations aren’t the only ones capable of producing compelling noir.
Paul Dempsey, president of global markets at BBCWW, commented: “British crime drama is hugely popular around the world and accounts for over 40% of our drama revenue.”
The fact that the UK does so well is a testament to the quality of TV crime writing in the country, so this week we’ll take a look at some of the talent driving the international hit machine.
Luther, which stars Idris Elba as DCI John Luther, was acquired by German public broadcaster ZDF, Star India and also by platforms in South Korea and Africa. The fourth series, which aired in the UK during December 2015, consisted of two feature-length episodes. What it lacked in volume, it made up for in ratings, with the two episodes attracting around 7.5 to eight million viewers. All 16 episodes of Luther have been written by New Zealand-based Neil Cross, who has also written episodes of Doctor Who for the BBC. Cross has also been commissioned by the BBC to write Hard Sun, a six-part apocalyptic crime drama set in contemporary London.
The Inspector Lynley Mysteries was also picked up by ZDF for its ZDFneo channel. Originally broadcast from 2001 to 2008, the series (based on the novels by Elizabeth George) has proved a decent performer on the international market. In the US, for example, all 23 episodes have aired on PBS. Several scribes have written episodes, including Pete Jukes, Simon Block, Lizzie Mickery, Valerie Windsor, Kate Wood, Francesca Brill, Valerie Windsor, Ann-marie di Mambro, Kevin Clarke, Simon Booker, Julian Simpson, Mark Grieg and Ed Whitmore. Whitmore also wrote a large number of episodes for fellow long-running BBC crime drama Waking the Dead. His other credits include Silent Witness (which was also picked up by TV4 Sweden at Showcase), Arthur & George and Identity, an ITV production that was subsequently sold as a format to ABC in the US. Whitmore also has a couple of episodes of CSI to his name.
Happy Valley season two, was picked up by French PayTV broadcaster Canal+ (which also acquired the fourth season of Luther). The show’s first run was a strong seller overseas and there’s no reason to suppose the new outing will fare any less well. The show is produced by Red Production Company and written by Sally Wainwright. Wainwright also created Scott & Bailey, another popular female-led crime series that has been airing since 2011 on ITV.
Prey is broadcast by ITV in the UK but is distributed internationally by BBCWW. The first batch of three episodes aired in 2014 and starred John Simm, while a second run of three aired in late 2015 and starred Philip Glenister. The latter has just been sold to broadcasters including NRK Norway, YLE Finland and Canal+. Prey was created by Chris Lunt, who wrote all six episodes. Lunt’s success is a reminder that it’s never too late to break into the TV writing business. After 10 years of knocking on doors and pitching more than 80 projects, Lunt finally got his break at age 43. Media reports suggest he is also working on a modern-day adaptation of The Saint with the aforementioned Ed Whitmore.
Sherlock, created by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, has sold very well around the world since it debuted in 2010. At the start of this year, Gatiss and Moffat created one-off special The Abominable Bride, in which much of the action took place in the Victorian era (though a scriptwriting sleight of hand meant the story was actually linked back to the contemporary setting of the series). Broadcasters that picked up the special at Showcase include Degeto (Germany), SVT Sweden, Czech Television and Channel One in Russia. A fourth series of Sherlock is on the way in 2017, with stories for a fifth season also sketched out by Gatiss and Moffat. The show is very slow to come to market because of the busy schedules of Gatiss, Moffat and the lead cast members.
Maigret, based on the books by Georges Simenon, is a new ITV series starring Rowan Atkinson (Blackadder, Mr Bean). At Showcase it was picked up by Germany’s Degeto, which also acquired Sherlock: The Abominable Bride. The writer on this one is the experienced Stewart Harcourt, whose other credits include Agatha Raisin: The Quiche of Death, Love & Marriage, Treasure Island, Inspector George Gently, Poirot and Marple. So if anyone can handle a book-based period detective story, it’s Harcourt.
Unforgotten, like Prey, is an ITV series distributed worldwide by BBCWW. Aired in October 2015, the first six-part series focuses on four people whose lives are rocked when the bones belonging to a young man who died 39 years ago are discovered below a demolished house. At Showcase, the drama was picked up by France 3 and YES DBS Satellite in Israel. The show was produced by Mainstreet Pictures and written and created by Chris Lang. Lang started his career on The Bill and has had a successful writing career since, with credits including Amnesia, Torn, A Mother’s Son and Undeniable. The ratings success of Unforgotten convinced ITV to commission a second series. There’s no information yet on the plot but it looks like it will be another cold-case drama, with Lang saying there will be “a new story, where long-buried secrets will once again be slowly brought to light.”
Death In Paradise was part of a package of 232 hours of crime drama sold to SVT in Sweden. Produced by Red Planet Pictures, the show has also been given the greenlight for a sixth series this week by Charlotte Moore, controller of BBC1, and Polly Hill, controller of BBC drama commissioning. All told, that will mean there are 48 episodes, which is a good number for the international market. Maybe that explains why it has sold to 237 territories worldwide including China, South Africa, the US and the Caribbean countries close to where the show is set and filmed. Echoing some of the other BBC dramas, Death In Paradise is written by a number of people. But the best-known name is series creator Robert Thorogood, who came to Red Planet’s attention via its scriptwriting competition.
Father Brown is based on the books by GK Chesterton and perfectly fits into the British tradition of eccentric or unusual amateur sleuths. The central character, played by Mark Williams, is a Roman Catholic priest. Unusually for a British drama, the 1950s-set show is already up to 45 episodes after just four series. At Showcase it was picked up by PBC (PTV) in South Korea and ABC Australia. Given the high number of episodes, it’s no surprise Father Brown is an ensemble-written afffair, with credited writers including Tahsin Guner, Rachel Flowerday, Nicola Wilson, Rebecca Wojciechowski, Jude Tindall Dan Muirden, Lol Fletcher, Paul Matthew Thompson, Dominique Moloney, David Semple, Rob Kinsman, Stephen McAteer, Jonathan Neil, Kit Lambert and Al Smith. Particularly prominent has been Guner, who wrote the very first episode and the last one in series four (among others). Repped by David Higham Associates, Guner was selected for the 2009/10 BBC Writers Academy and has written scripts for dramas including Holby, Casualty and New Tricks. He is currently developing original drama series Borders.
Ripper Street was licensed this week to Multichoice VoD service Showmax. The show, which was famously saved by a financial injection from Amazon, is a period crime drama set in Victorian England. With four series of Ripper Street already produced and released, Amazon has already committed itself to a fifth season – taking the total number of episodes above 30. Another team effort, the key writer name attached to this is creator Richard Warlow, who tends to deliver about half of the episodes in each series. Warlow’s previous writing credits include Waking the Dead and Mistresses. Other writers on the show have included Toby Finlay (Peaky Blinders) and Rachel Bennette (Lark Rise to Candleford, Lewis and Liberty).
The Coroner is a daytime drama series about a solicitor who takes over as a coroner in the South Devon coastal town she left as a teenager. At Showcase it sold to AXN Mystery in Japan and Prime in New Zealand. The show was created by Sally Abbott, who also wrote three episodes of the first series. There’s a good blog from Abbott about how she got her break in the business here.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
With digital powerhouses such as Netflix fundamentally changing the TV distribution landscape, how are the world’s development executives reacting to the new environment, and what does the future hold for drama production, commissioning and funding?
It’s no secret that television’s traditional distribution model has been thoroughly shaken up by Netflix and Amazon during the past three years.
As a result, broadcasters, from ABC in the US to ZDF in Germany, are in the process of trying to reinvent themselves digitally, primarily by launching their own on-demand platforms in an attempt to future-proof their brands.
It would follow that the development slates of traditional production outfits require a similar level of transformation – but the question of whether content itself needs to change in line with consumption habits is a contentious one.
As the well-worn mantra of the television exec goes, despite all the noise around digital, great drama is still all about storytelling. And loud, addictive and exclusive must-see shows, alongside a large library of classics, are the key to building and retaining audiences.
Therefore, it’s the MO of every development exec to have a slate that boasts the kind of show that’s going to have people watching episode after episode, gorging well into the small hours and then telling their friends about it the next day.
“Everyone is chasing big, noisy event programming. There are variations, but everyone is kind of after that same thing,” says Adam Fratto, exec VP of development at the US arm of New Zealand’s Pukeko Pictures.
Fratto, whose drama credits include Haven and The Dead Zone, was hired by Pukeko in 2012 to develop and pitch scripted projects to US cable channels, which are seemingly falling over each other to commission drama projects.
Most drama is expensive, however, and Fratto says Pukeko’s approach is to target partnerships that are both creatively and financially logical in order to make as ambitious projects as possible. New Zealand has several international copro treaties, making Pukeko a potentially lucrative partner when it comes to budgets. Recent productions filmed and set there include Top of the Lake, a copro between BBC2 in the UK, BBC’s UKTV in Australia and New Zealand and SundanceTV in the US.
“We know exactly what we want to do. We look at Game of Thrones and say ‘Well, shit, you shot that in six countries and you could have shot it in one.’ That sweet spot of epic, world-building fantasy and sci-fi is exactly what we should be doing, and that’s what we’re focusing on,” Fratto says. “We’ve just been greenlit on a copro treaty with Australia and we’d really like to find one with the UK, as we think there are a lot of complementary opportunities. As an international company, we don’t feel we have to be particularly US-focused – we’re taking a very broad view.”
Sci-fi also happens to be on the to-do list of UK-based Death in Paradise producer Red Planet Pictures, which was founded in 2005 by Life on Mars scribe Tony Jordan and prides itself on being completely writer-led. The firm recently produced The Passing Bells (2×90’) for the BBC’s flagship channel, which aired the epic drama in November last year to mark the centenary of the First World War.
“We’re a truly writer-led company, so we want to nurture new talent under Tony’s wing and mentor them through that process,” says Simon Winstone, executive producer at Red Planet. “There are always things we wish we had. Tony and I share a desire to do a big sci-fi show, and it’s probably the time for it. Tony is quite militant in not taking briefs from people. We take the view that when you know what people are looking for, they’re rarely ever going to commission that. They always tend to commission something different.”
Others, meanwhile, are choosing to take inspiration from the international drama community, pitching successful local formats to US broadcasters looking to manage the level of risk around their next commission.
Take UK-based New Media Vision (NMV), which was set up by former US studio exec Todd Lituchy six years ago as a consultancy firm and has steadily branched into production and distribution. In 2013 it sold the popular Spanish format The Mysteries of Laura to NBC, which placed Will & Grace star Debra Messing in the lead role as a detective who solves murder cases while dealing with her two sons and an ex-husband.
“For us, it’s about finding great underlying material, where somebody has already built the world. We’re the opposite of a writer-driven company; we’re an execution company,” says Lituchy. “Our scripted development side has two halves. On one side, we work with production companies around the globe to identify IP that has a chance of successfully capturing a global audience. On the other, we’re working with new writers in both the US and the UK on ideas that we feel are really strong. We work with them to develop scripts and shoot pilot presentations, and then we take it to an audience. We’re not working to a specific channel brief, but on content that we think will resonate with viewers.”
The exec says he sees digital as a huge opportunity because, as a producer and a distributor, it means there are more buyers for his company’s content. “Even though it’s more competition for traditional linear channels, I don’t see them going away in the near future,” Lituchy adds, being careful not to rock the boat too much.
Pukeko’s Fratto concurs that digital distribution is presenting more “opportunities” to producers. However, he takes a more apocalyptic view when it comes to the future of linear broadcasters. The frenzy of drama commissions around the world is potentially unsustainable and could result in the demise of some channels, as the current drama marketplace faces the danger of becoming “saturated,” he believes.
“People in my neighbourhood are talking about a bubble. When I first started in scripted dramatic television, there were six legitimate buyers in the US – I think there are 42 now. But the number of eyeballs has not increased sevenfold.”
Fratto points to the recent closure of Microsoft’s short-lived Xbox Entertainment Studios (XES) as evidence that the “bubble” could be set to burst: “We had a very big miniseries project set up with XES. We closed the deal and the next week it was gone. I’m not saying that’s going to continue to happen, but it may. The fact is, we all have to think about whether the marketplace can sustain all these entities programming huge, expensive drama.”
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine every broadcaster and digital player being able to go toe to toe with Netflix in the future, given that one of the SVoD platform’s latest pieces of original programming, the 10-episode historical epic Marco Polo (pictured top), cost a reported US$90m to make.
“Everyone’s still going to want to consume content that they’re excited about. And it’s probably going to become more challenging to reach them and make money. But there will be money to be made, you just have to surf that tide,” Fratto adds. “A lot of broadcasters around the world, particularly in the US, are probably going to go out of business once things become unbundled from cable and decoupled from your TV set.”
Lituchy, meanwhile, can see the UK market going the same way as the US, with more and more channels using original content as a way to differentiate themselves from their competitors. “Ten years ago in the UK, you had four buyers. Now you’ve got UKTV, Comedy Central and Netflix commissioning UK content. I would expect more channels to move into original programming as well,” he says.
“Everything is in quite a healthy state,” believes Red Planet’s Winstone, who is quite happy to concentrate on continuing to produce primetime for the BBC and other UK channels, rather than chase the affections of the new kids on the block.
“ITV is commissioning more, Sky is commissioning more. Drama is doing well on Channel 4. At the moment it feels like drama is rewarding those channels. We’re in a good place. We have a brilliant relationship with the BBC.
“Ultimately, we love the idea of millions of people watching and talking about the show the next day. Digital is not our focus. We’re big fans of traditional viewing – we haven’t created anything yet that needs to work on digital. We want to make shows that go out at 21.00.”
For the moment, the programming strategies of Netflix, Amazon and Hulu all appear to be more a case of throwing premium content at a wall and seeing what sticks, rather than focusing on one style or genre in particular.
It’s hard to know whether they’re looking for cable-style, niche programming like Mad Men, or broadcast shows with wider appeal such as How to Get Away With Murder. Ask them and they’d probably say both.
In the case of the US remake of The Mysteries of Laura, which Lituchy now exec produces for NBC, NMV originally thought it would go on to become a cable show, but eventually decided to take it only to broadcast networks.
“We actually pitched it to ABC, CBS and NBC. Those were the three networks we decided it would fit well, and all of them made offers,” Lituchy says. “It’s not the kind of show a Netflix would be interested in buying. We’re going for a very large audience, not a smaller audience that would want to shell out money to watch the next episode. But we do have other formats on which we would be more than happy to partner with Netflix.”
Grand-scale international coproductions are only going to become more common in the future as broadcasters look to commission their own tent-pole shows to compete with big spenders such as Netflix. And, for small companies like NMV – which at the time of writing comprises a team of five people – they’re a way to get involved in more ambitious projects.
“For us, international coproductions are great,” Lituchy says. “We’re a small company, so the BBC might not give us £500,000 (US$782,000) per episode to produce a show. But if we partner up with other companies either in the UK or internationally, we’re more likely to get that funding.”
And, for Pukeko Pictures, which isn’t able to rely on its local broadcasters to get projects fully funded, international coproductions are a vital part of the business model. “We’re exploring coproductions with studios and producers from other countries, with a particular eye on where we can take advantage of the recently heightened incentive schemes. What we do have to offer, under a treaty coproduction, is 40% incentive out of New Zealand,” Fratto says.
Death in Paradise, which returned for a fourth season on BBC1 earlier this year and will come back for a fifth, has flourished precisely because of its international partners, according to Winstone – who adds that people initially thought Red Planet was “insane” to attempt a coproduction with France Télévisions.
“The English-French thing has made it a much, much better show. But, like anything, it’s something you have to manage. One of the things (exec producer) Tony Jordan has been brilliant at is steering a course and making sure there’s a vision. At times you have to be robust, know what the show is and hold on to the heart of it,” Winstone adds.
“TV is a collaborative process. You have to let people have their voice, particularly if they are putting money in. Make sure you listen to them when they’re making a good point – and when they’re not, try and explain why they’re wrong, in a very nice way.”
A good sense of diplomacy, it seems, looks set to be the one thing that any producer wanting to make next-generation drama will require in spades. But how the new digital distribution paradigm will change the game further is yet to be seen.
Not long ago, Robert Thorogood couldn’t get his foot in a production exec’s door. Now, the Death in Paradise creator is writing a series that caters for audiences in more than 200 countries. He gives DQ the inside track on his journey and how he makes the show work.
Robert Thorogood’s life has to some extent been a story of all-or-nothings. Five years ago, he was one of the thousands looking to make his first mark on the TV industry, having already spent years trailing from one production boss to another looking for someone to take his scripts.
His latest idea – a drama about an expat policeman working in St Lucia – was, as he readily admits, a tricky sell. Shooting in the Caribbean for five months straight was hardly going to make for a cheap show, and producers just weren’t interested in such an ambitious concept from a first-time writer.
Thorogood’s pedigree was solid enough, though. Having spent 15 years as a script reader, he had also sold a number of treatments to production firms across the UK and been commissioned to write three original scripts for the BBC and ITV. But by 2010, the only show to have been penned by Thorogood and produced was an afternoon play called From Abstraction, broadcast on BBC Radio 4.
Despite his ambition and confidence, the affable and remarkably honest Thorogood admits that, as he approached 40, he began to consider careers away from writing. It was only after an encounter with Tony Jordan at London-based Red Planet Productions that Thorogood finally got the break that would ultimately enable his Death in Paradise concept to become one of the most widely sold shows in the world.
Thorogood met Jordan after the producer set up a competition for ‘new’ writers. And although his ‘policeman in St Lucia’ idea did not claim the top prize, it was a finalist and, most importantly, caught Jordan’s eye – laying the groundwork for the two to work closer together. “He ignored the problems of making an expensive show in the Caribbean and decided to do it anyway,” Thorogood says of the Red Planet MD.
It turned out to be a pretty good call. The show was championed by Jordan, whose track record with such series as BBC1’s Life on Mars and Hustle saw him welcomed into the offices of TV commissioning execs across the UK’s capital. BBC eventually greenlit the show, and Death in Paradise – via the broadcaster’s commercial arm – has gone on to become a global juggernaut, airing in more than 200 countries. It’s now set for a fifth season on the UK pubcaster’s flagship channel next year.
The show has faced down its fair share of troubles, however – not least in getting around the financing issue. The solution was to create a coproduction between the BBC, its commercial arm BBC Worldwide and France Télévisions, with Red Planet and France’s Atlantique Productions at the coalface out in Guadeloupe making the show. The setup got Death in Paradise off the ground but it also meant there were regular competing interests that demanded subtle – and not so subtle – changes to the scripts.
“There are always an infinite number of challenges and an infinite number of ways of being miserable on a TV show,” Thorogood says, “but the cultural differences between working in the UK and in France were definitely noticeable.”
Such contrasts were magnified on subjects like physical humour – something the French were keen on but that the British disliked – and it was up to Thorogood and his creative team to devise a script that pleased both parties, conceding just enough on all sides to please everyone involved.
In a similar vein, British Primeval actor Ben Miller was cast as the lead detective, while French film star Sara Martins was brought in following roles in Little White Lies and Tell No One.
The balancing act continues today, but Thorogood now has the ominous task of pleasing viewers across the world. He admits characters are now developed at the start of a series with hundreds of potential buyers in mind, meaning the show’s scope has become much more global. “At a strategic level, when we create the characters we absolutely have that international outlook,” he says. “When we replaced Ben Miller, who was playing an uptight Brit in a suit, we wanted another archetypal Englishman, a Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral figure – someone a bit posh, lanky and middle class, because that plays around the world.”
The answer to that particular conundrum came in the form of Kris Marshall, of Love Actually fame, whose arrival in the third season had the desired effect. The show was able to continue where it had left off, playing to some of the stereotypes attached to an Englishman living a tropical country.
Commercial needs have also shaped the format of Death in Paradise, which consists of self-contained episodes that “reset” at the end. It’s a key facet of the show’s “ongoing financial health,” Thorogood says, and is one of the reasons why the series can, to an extent, be shown in any order, anywhere in the world.
Thorogood admits the show has had to deal with “revolving doors with actors,” but insists the changes have injected a freshness into the whodunit, which is now 32 episodes old and counting. The forthcoming exit of another (currently unnamed) star, however, is leading Thorogood to adapt the show’s structure, with a focus on producing episodes that are even more “standalone” in nature, centring on one main character each week. “It’s the sort of challenge I hope will make it a richer and more rewarding experience,” he says.
Despite the show’s global success, its creator – like many creatives – remains cautious about the long term and eager to work out where he’s going next. There haven’t been any huge dips in ratings from viewers, and BBC Worldwide, which sells the show abroad, has found buyers ranging from PBS in the US to AXN Mystery in Japan.
But much of Thorogood’s wariness is born from the same sort of concerns held by the production companies that repeatedly shut the door on him five years or so ago. And that’s led to a “mad bollock, kick, scramble,” he admits, as he ensures that once the boat sails away from Death in Paradise for the last time, he’s not left alone on the island. “As far as I’m concerned, the financing of the shoot – which takes place in Guadeloupe – makes it inherently unstable. We have to sell in those 200 countries because we have to earn so much money to break even,” he says.
“So when the show was greenlit and it became successful, I got a publishing deal to write a Death in Paradise novel. I love the murder mystery genre and I was aware that one day the show will be cancelled – not because it gets bad but because it’ll just become too expensive to make.”
The show’s success made last year one of the busiest of Thorogood’s life, as he juggled writing the novel with his existing responsibilities on the TV show that made him. “If you’re a writer, or any sort of creative, you really need to keep moving forward. So I’m also doing what I’ve always done: I come up with ideas and pitch them, but now I’m lucky enough to have some production companies coming to pitch ideas.”
Several of his projects are already placed at the BBC and ITV in the UK, and he is currently waiting for their notes and decisions. Other than that, it’s “hustle, hustle, hustle,” he says, with future ideas being noted, developed and ultimately pitched.
“I don’t actively have any other shows that have been greenlit,” he adds, providing an insight into the temporary world that a TV writer inhabits.
“We greenlight very few new shows here in the UK each year because, luckily, the schedules are filled up with returning series like mine. Trying to get the next thing off the ground is still just as hard as getting that first thing of the ground.”
The difference this time, though, will be that Thorogood has that all-important first credit to his name to not only open doors out but also attract producers and broadcasters alike.