Tag Archives: Debbie Horsfield

Character study

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brazilian series First-Time Parents comes from Antonio Prata

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

South African murder mystery The Girl from St Agnes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pol position

As Poldark returns for its fifth and final season, series creator and writer Debbie Horsfield tells DQ how the period drama departs from its source material and outlines her approach to bringing the saga to a close.

It’s the last season of a costume drama, based on a series of popular novels, where the writer has left behind the source material to round out the story. But while Poldark may not generate the same number of furious Tweets as Game of Thrones’ finale, surely one of the most polarising in television history, creator and writer Debbie Horsfield is looking forward to the inevitable discussion that will surround her show’s conclusion.

“What’s not to like about robust and hearty debate?” Horsfield tells DQ. “There are always going to be people attached to certain versions of the books. I’m personally attached to a certain version of my script and I often lament the fact the scripts don’t make it in their entirety to the screen, for all kinds of reasons. We all have an attachment to our own personal version of something because we all view things through our own personal perspective. That’s just part and parcel of doing an adaptation.”

Debbie Horsfield

The writer believes there is less pressure on the conclusion to a piece of original drama, as viewers and fans will have no pre-existing expectations of what may or may not happen, unlike with an adaptation of a popular set of novels. “But even then,” she continues, “once you get to the second season of something, people have a set idea of how they want it to go, but that’s the deal. You write something, you put it out there and you expect people to have an opinion about it. You at least want them to watch and have a debate.”

As Poldark returns for a fifth and final eight-part run, it’s very much business as usual, with a new story unfolding and characters old and new uniting at the turn of a new century.

In terms of the production, everything is as it should be, from the magnificent, sprawling Cornish landscapes to the fast-paced scenes and quick cuts that propel the story forward and ensure the main characters are all serviced during the hour-long opening episode, setting them on the path that will lead to the series’ conclusion.

Season four ended in 1799, at the end of Winston Graham’s seventh Poldark book The Angry Tide. But in a departure for the series, Horsfield has set this new season in 1800, filling the time jump before the eighth novel, The Stranger from the Sea, which opens in 1810.

Episode one begins with Ross Poldark (Aidan Turner) determined to spend more time with his family following the death of Elizabeth Warleggan (Heida Reed). But when Ross’s former army colonel Ned Despard (Vincent Regan) and his wife Kitty (Kerri McLean) ask for his help, he is compelled to challenge the establishment and question his loyalty to king and country.

Meanwhile, as Dwight and Caroline Enys (Luke Norris and Gabrielle Wilde) join the cause, Ross’s wife Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) must contend with dangers closer to home, while George Warleggan (Jack Farthing), deep in grief over Elizabeth’s death, courts corrupt powers whose influence spans the British Empire.

Aidan Turner in Poldark, which will conclude with its fifth season

At first, Horsfield adapted two of Graham’s books per season. Then, as the novels grew longer, the adaptation slowed down to one-and-a-half books for each of the most recent two seasons due to the amount of material the show needed to cover. Season four concluded at the end of book seven, but owing to the fact book eight takes place after a 10-year time jump, Horsfield decided season five would bridge that gap, taking place between 1800 and 1802, immediately after season four.

“I hadn’t done an adaptation before Poldark so normally I just make stuff up, but it wasn’t quite as straightforward as that,” Horsfield says about her approach to the new season. “We wanted to preserve the integrity of the later books. There are five more books and we didn’t want to do anything in this season that was going to go against anything that happened in the later books. Also, in book eight, there are a lot of details and references to things that happened in that intervening decade, so I used that as a basis for a lot of the storylines.”

Season four and book seven end with Poldark as a mine owner and a rather frustrated politician, unable to effect change in the way he had hoped. Book eight then picks up with him on a secret mission in Portugal as a government agent.

“There’s very little in the books about what led him to that, so basically season five imagines what circumstances might have conspired to put Ross on that journey,” Horsfield explains. “Then my path was to look at what was happening historically in the period 1800 to 1802. Was there even a secret service in existence at that point? It turned out there absolutely was. There was a very active spy network in London because it was a time of fear of there being an English revolution following the American and French ones.

“So what I discovered in the research was the context was very much there for Ross to become an agent of the government, but it was just tracing those steps one by one to see how he gets there.

Set in the 18th century, Poldark is based on the books by Winston Graham

“We did work very closely with Andrew Graham [Winston Graham’s son and series consultant for his estate] and put all the storylines to him. He was very much in agreement that the methodology we were going with was what his father would have done. It was great to have that support.”

Horsfield admits the production team never knew from season to season whether the series would return, while the “best case scenario” was always that it would last for five seasons – the length of the stars’ contracts. The series is produced by Mammoth Screen and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.

As a result, she says writing this season’s finale – the show’s ultimate conclusion – was no different to penning the final episode of previous seasons. “You always want your final episode to be very climactic but leaving the audience wanting more,” she says. “It’s always nice to quit while you’re ahead and leave the audience wanting more, so that was in my mind as I was writing that finale.”

But with other Poldark books yet to be adapted, is this really the end for the show? “You can never say never,” Horsfield responds, though there is certainly no immediate plan to return to Cornwall.

“Who knows where everybody’s going to be in 10 years’ time and whether there will be an interest from anyone, the public included. I know most of the cast and crew, and certainly myself, are on other projects, so a lot of people are busy for quite some time. Obviously there are five more books, so one can never predict what will happen.”

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Passion pitfalls: The risky business of passion projects

Writers and producers often spend years crafting their passion projects before they come to air – but the risk is always whether the audience cares as much as they do, writes Michael Pickard.

Kurt Sutter
Kurt Sutter

When US cable network FX commissioned bloody medieval drama The Bastard Executioner (pictured above), it was billed as the eagerly anticipated next act from writer Kurt Sutter.

Sutter had built his career at FX, first working on ground-breaking cop drama The Shield and then creating hit biker series Sons of Anarchy, which ran for seven seasons until 2014.

The Bastard Executioner, which made its UK debut this week on History, would represent an entirely different direction from his previous work. It was an ambitious Middle Ages drama that told the story of a warrior knight in King Edward II’s charge who is broken by the ravages of war and vows to lay down his sword. But when that violence finds him again he is forced to pick up the bloodiest sword of all.

Sutter developed the series from an idea from Brian Grazer, who executive produced the 10-episode show with Sutter and Francie Calfo.

And it was immediately clear how Sutter he had invested in the show, exclaiming at the time of its commission in May 2015: “I love history. I love theology. I love blood. It’s been very satisfying weaving fact and fiction to create a new mythology that combines all these elements. And with this extraordinary cast – Stephen Moyer, Katey Sagal and newcomer Lee Jones – this world explodes on screen.”

But as Sutter would discover, no amount of excitement can turn the tide of public opinion if the audience doesn’t share the same interest in your passion project as you do.

Writers and producers can spend years developing a series, often focusing on obscure or niche stories or time periods. But in most cases, they must build their reputations working on other shows before being given the chance – and freedom from a network – to bring their passion projects to life. And even if the story does connect, there is still a possibility the project could be undone by its execution.

Among the successes is Poldark, BBC1’s adaptation of Winston Graham’s novels, starring Aidan Turner and written by Debbie Horsfield.

When it first aired in 2015, no one could have predicted how quickly the show would develop a devoted following in both the UK and the US, where it airs on PBS. The series has since been renewed for a third season to air in 2017 – ahead of its season two launch this September.

Poldark
Aidan Turner in Poldark, which is written by Debbie Horsfield

“Poldark is a passion project for all of us, and it’s with real excitement that we prepare for both the launch of season two and our return to Cornwall to shoot season three,” said Damien Timmer, MD of Poldark prodco Mammoth Screen. “Winston Graham and Debbie Horsfield’s extraordinary flair for storytelling means the saga of [lead character] Ross, his friends and enemies will go to even more thrilling places!”

Writer/actor Mark Gatiss is a long-time fan of sci-fi series Doctor Who and has written eight episodes of the show since it was revived in 2005. But it was the opportunity to write a special film to mark the franchise’s 50th anniversary that proved a real labour of love. Gatiss, who also co-created Sherlock, penned An Adventure in Time and Space, which followed the creation of the series with David Bradley portraying the first Doctor, William Hartnell.

“The strange thing is, because I’m a Jon Pertwee child, this was before my time,” Gatiss said at the film’s 2013 premiere, referencing the third actor to play the Doctor. “But I grew up with the story – almost like a bedtime story – of how the show came together. These very unlikely people coming together… nobody liking the Daleks… all these little stories that were like holy writ.

“I always thought it would just be a fantastic story to tell and it’s just come together at the right time.”

Steven Knight was best known for his film work before taking on Peaky Blinders
Steven Knight was best known for his film work before taking on Peaky Blinders

Steven Knight may consider himself a film writer, having penned movies such as Locke, Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises, but it’s in television that he found a home thanks to Peaky Blinders, a series that began life as a novel until Knight transformed it for the small screen with Nurse Jackie creator Caryn Mandabach.

When the series was given a two-season renewal by BBC2 following its successful third run earlier this year, Knight admitted: “I am thrilled at the response to the third season. The prospect of writing season four and five is truly exciting. This is a real passion project for me and I look forward to telling more stories of the Shelby family.”

More recently, Emmy-nominated spy drama The Night Manager was discovered to be a long-held passion project for star Hugh Laurie – so much so that the actor once tried to option the rights to the John Le Carré novel on which the show was based, only to find they had already been snapped up by Sydney Poitier.

The stylish BBC1/AMC series, which aired earlier this year, saw Laurie play arms dealer Richard Roper opposite Tom Hiddleston’s hero Jonathan Pine, with the adaptation penned by David Farr.

Hugh Laurie (right) tried to buy the rights to The Night Manager years before it came to TV
Hugh Laurie (right) tried to buy the rights to The Night Manager years before it came to TV

“I can’t claim any credit for getting the thing off the ground,” former House star Laurie said. “I just told the producers that I would be happy to take any job on the production, as actor, caterer, anything I could do to make it go – I just wanted to be involved with it.”

Meanwhile, HBO’s The Night Of, an adaptation of BBC drama Criminal Justice, was a passion project for the late actor James Gandolfini, who championed the series that was brought to air last month by Steven Zaillian.

Less successful, however, was Vinyl, HBO’s big-budget music industry drama set in 1970s New York City. Said to have been a passion project of former network programming chief Michael Lombardo, the series looked a surefire hit with a creative team comprising celebrated director Martin Scorsese, Terence Winter (The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire) and The Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger.

Vinyl was cancelled after one season
Vinyl was cancelled after one season

However, after disappointing reviews and lacklustre ratings, plus the departure of Winter and a change in management at the premium cable network, the show was cancelled in May after one season – reversing an earlier decision in February to order a second season after just one episode had aired.

“After careful consideration, we have decided not to proceed with a second season of Vinyl,” HBO said. “Obviously, this was not an easy decision. We have enormous respect for the creative team and cast for their hard work and passion on this project.”

Hoping to have better luck is forthcoming Amazon drama The Collection, which has been a long-time ambition for its creators, Oliver Goldstick and Kate Croft.

The series is set in an illustrious Parisian fashion house, emerging from the end of the Occupation into a golden age of design. The story focuses on two brothers while exposing the grit behind the glamour of the couture business.

The Collection
The Collection was a labour of love for Oliver Goldstick

“The Collection has been a passion project of mine for years; an entrepreneurial fable set in a pivotal moment in history, when fashion served as the ultimate vehicle for transformation and reinvention,” admitted showrunner Goldstick, best known for his work on US drama Ugly Betty. “It’s the story of a war-scarred family – upstairs and downstairs – tethered together by its success and its secrets.”

Croft, who executive produces the series and worked with Goldstick to develop the show, continued: “Out of our shared passion for the world and the period, Oliver has created his extraordinary vision of Paris and the golden age of couture. It’s full of his signature flourishes, and his unique take means we get to peek behind the elegant façade and realise it is not just about the dresses, but more about what they are covering up.”

Elsewhere, Laeta Kalogridis held the rights to Richard Morgan’s novel Altered Carbon for four years before Netflix commissioned a 10-part series in January.

The story is set in the 25th century when the human mind has been digitised and the soul is transferrable from one body to the next. Takeshi Kovacs, a former elite interstellar warrior, has been imprisoned for 500 years and is downloaded into a future he had tried to stop. If he can solve a single murder in a world where technology has made death nearly obsolete, he’ll get a chance at a new life on Earth.

“Altered Carbon is one of the most seminal pieces of post-cyberpunk hard science fiction out there – a dark, complex noir story that challenges our ideas of what it means to be human when all information becomes encodable, including the human mind,” Kalogridis says.

As for Sutter and The Bastard Executioner, the writer took the unusual decision to cancel his own show when it failed to connect with viewers – an announcement he made by placing an advert in several Hollywood television industry magazines.

“Good reviews are wonderful and so are awards, but for me, I’m very aware of ratings because my job as a storyteller is to engage and hook an audience,” Sutter said. “Ratings let me know that I’m doing my job. This show premiered low, and we never really established a baseline where we could say, ‘OK, that’s our audience.’”

He added: “When a show gets cancelled, there’s often this perception that, oh, it’s a failure, or the network didn’t support it and pulled the plug. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

A common saying among writers is only write what you love – why waste your time on anything else? But with passion projects, there will always be a risk that the audience might not care as deeply as those who created it.

As Sutter concluded in his advert: “The audience has spoken and unfortunately the word is ‘meh.’ So with due respect, we bring our mythology to an epic and fiery close.”

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James Patterson enters the true crime arena

Steven Avery, the subject of Making a Murderer
Steven Avery, the subject of Making a Murderer

Series that deal with real-life crimes are nothing new, but until recently they have mostly inhabited the factual/reality TV space. Currently, however, there is a growing trend towards true crimes as the subject of scripted series.

Netflix’s Making A Murderer was one of the triggers for this genre. Although it was a documentary series, its filmic style – combined with the way it unravelled over 10 episodes – had an immediate impact on the way producers looked at the potential of true crime. Then there was The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, an excellent FX drama that has picked up a number of Emmy nominations this year.

Choosing the right crime is clearly half the battle in making a series like this appeal to audiences. But then you also need a writer who knows how to skilfully balance fact with fiction, someone who is willing to do the necessary research – for the sake of accuracy – but also knows how to make the characters and storylines engaging and immersive over several episodes.

Last week, for example, we reported that Rene Balcer is going to write a Law & Order-branded true crime scripted series based around Lyle and Erik Menendez, the brothers convicted of murdering their parents in 1996. Balcer is an ideal example of the kind of writer who can handle this type of project, because he combines a forensic attention to detail with a storyteller’s verve.

James Patterson
James Patterson

This week, US network Investigation Discovery announced that it is also getting into the true crime game. Although it hasn’t yet named the subject, it has signed a development deal with author James Patterson – who will create a six-part series. Explaining why the channel has elected to work with Patterson, Henry Schleiff, group president for ID, American Heroes Channel and Destination America, said: “As the best-selling author around the world since 2001, there is no bigger name than James Patterson. He is the ultimate storyteller, and for a television network known for its own powerful storytelling, to have him as our ‘partner in crime’ is truly a match made in heaven for his readers and ID’s viewers.”

It’s not clear yet whether Patterson will actually pen the scripts, or simply provide the storyline to the ID show. However, there’s no question his name will add gravitas to the project, in the way the Law & Order franchise will do for the Menendez project.

The blurring of the line between fact and fiction – and the need for writers to be able to operate in this space – is also evident in the case of Harley & The Davidsons, another high-profile production doing the rounds. Discovery Channel has just released a trailer of the limited series, which tells the story of the founders of Harley Davidson Motorcycles at the start of the 20th Century. At time of writing the trailer had been viewed seven million times, more than any other Discovery programme trailer ever.

Harley and the Davidsons
Harley & The Davidsons is being prepared for Discovery

The show is being made by Raw Television, a company best know for its factual productions, and written by Evan Wright and Seth Fisher. Wright’s credits include Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle and FX’s The Bridge, while Fisher worked on National Geographic’s founding-fathers drama Saints and Strangers. Harley Davidson opened up its archives and family members provided historical details to help the production form characters and key events. However, producers had complete editorial independence, underlining the need for a compelling story to carry the show.

In other news, UK broadcaster ITV has commissioned a four-part drama series to be written by Chris Lang and Matt Arlidge. Called Innocent, the show tells the story of a man who spends seven years in prison after being convicted of murdering his wife. When he is acquitted over a technicality, he sets about proving his innocence to his estranged family. Lang’s writing credits go all the way back to sketch comedy series Smith & Jones in the 1980s, though more recent credits include Unforgotten, Undeniable and The Tunnel. Arlidge counts Mistresses and Monarch of the Glen among his credits. The show was commissioned by ITV controller of drama Victoria Fea, who said: “Innocent is a contemporary relationship drama with a thriller pulse. Chris and Matt’s scripts have created an intense web of characters with interwoven lives – with a seemingly ordinary husband and father at its heart.”

Curtis '50 Cent' Jackson
Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson

Other projects revealed to be in the works this week include a superhero drama for Starz that has been created by Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson. Jackson was also involved in the creation of Starz hit series Power, though the actual writing job on that is handled by Courtney Kemp Agboh. The new project, called Tomorrow Today, is about a military veteran who, after being falsely imprisoned, becomes the experiment of a mad doctor trying to create the perfect man.

Starz is also working with Lionsgate and Televisa USA on an adaptation of Mexican telenovela Teresa. Writer/producer Carlos Portugal will showrun the series, which follows an undocumented young Latina as she makes her way into the world of LA wealth. “Teresa will showcase a modern take on what it means to be Latina in America,” said Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik.

Portugal’s previous credits include Meet the Browns and East Los High. The latter is an Emmy-nominated Hulu series about a group of Latino teens in their final years at a fictional high school in East LA. Portugal and the producers of the show worked with various public health organisations to incorporate storylines that encouraged young Latinos to make healthy life choices.

Katori Hall
Katori Hall

Starz has also unveiled plans for a series called Pussy Valley, which looks at the lives of pole dancers working in a strip club in Mississippi. That might look like controversial territory, but Starz has put the project in the hands of playwright Katori Hall – whose numerous acclaimed theatre shows include The Mountaintop, about Martin Luther King Jr’s last night before his assassination.

Commenting, Zlotnik said Hall “has successfully created exciting and complex roles for black women in American theatre and we’re confident she’ll continue to do so with Pussy Valley.”

This week has also seen announcements about a brace of new shows centred on personal grooming. In the US, Eliot Laurence (Welcome to Me) is writing a series called Claws that is said to be in the vein of Desperate Housewives. It follows the lives of five Florida manicurists. In the UK, the BBC has ordered a drama from Poldark writer Debbie Horsfield called Age Before Beauty.

The new drama will follow the lives and loves of workers in a salon. It is the second time Horsfield has explored this area (after Cutting It in 2002). The show is being made by Mainstreet Pictures, the independent production company set up by Laura Mackie and Sally Haynes. Commenting on the series, Mackie said: “Debbie is writing at the top of her game and in Age Before Beauty she’s created a colourful and memorable set of characters and a story that examines our obsession with the ageing process in an emotional, entertaining and surprising way.”

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Brits dominate Rose D’Or scripted

Mum
Big Talk Productions’ Mum aired on BBC2

The Rose D’Or Awards were dominated by the UK last year with wins in nine out of 11 available categories – and following this week’s release of the Rose D’Or shortlists for 2016, it looks like the UK stands an extremely good chance of repeating its success.

One thing is for sure, the UK will win both the sitcom and the newly created drama series categories. In sitcom, the three shows slugging it out are Episodes from Hat Trick Productions, Mum and Raised by Wolves, the latter two from Big Talk Productions.

In drama, the contest is between Happy Valley, River and This Is England ’90. The winners will be revealed in Berlin on September 13.

Looking first at the dramas, Happy Valley (written by Sally Wainwright) and This Is England ’90 (Shane Meadows/Jack Thorne) have already received plenty of plaudits. River, a six-part drama for the BBC, is probably the least-known of the three, despite being written by one of the UK’s top talents, Abi Morgan.

Having started out writing for theatre, Morgan’s earliest credits were in TV (Peak Practice, My Fragile Heart), but more recently she has moved effortlessly back and forth between film and TV. Her best-known films include Brick Lane, The Iron Lady and Suffragette, while stand-out TV credits include novel adaptation Birdsong, The Hour and River.

River
Six-part drama River earned positive critical notices in the UK press

Regardless of whether River triumphs in Berlin, Morgan certainly got the thumbs up from critics. In the UK, The Daily Telegraph critic Michael Hogan said the series was “beautifully written by Abi Morgan, stylishly directed and superbly acted. [Lead actor] Stellan Skarsgård delivered a powerhouse performance: sad and soulful in one scene, sardonically spiky and manically energetic in the next. With his craggy face and crumpled demeanour, the haunted detective prowled the streets of London like a wounded bear. I’m torn between wanting River to get recommissioned and wanting this series to stand alone as six near-perfect episodes.”

Aside from its UK screening on the BBC, River has also been available via Netflix internationally. In Canada, Globe and Mail critic John Doyle added his voice to Hogan’s, calling the show a masterpiece of melancholy crime drama: “It is the sort of drama critics rejoice in seeing. It is a stunningly successful hybrid of Nordic noir and the traditional, gloomy British police procedural. It is about solving a murder, but mainly about the intricacies of the human mind dealing with loss and terrible grief.”

The Rose D’Or sitcom category, meanwhile, brings international recognition for Stefan Golaszewski, writer of BBC2’s Mum. Golaszewski previously wrote Bafta-winning sitcom Him & Her for BBC2. In Mum, he tells the story of a woman seeking to rebuild her life following the death of her husband.

Catastrophe
Rose D’Or-winning sitcom Catastrophe is set for third and fourth seasons

When the show was commissioned, Shane Allen, controller of comedy commissioning, said: “Commissioning Mum was a delightfully easy decision after seeing the sure-footed pilot. Stefan is a unique author and this is a very confident next chapter in what promises to be a distinguished career in comedy. All his hallmarks are there – painful authenticity, comedy grotesques, emotional tenderness, revelation and depth – it’s a class act. I think it will connect with a lot of people as a refreshing take on an overlooked stage in life.”

Conveniently for the sake of narrative flow, last year’s Rose D’Or-winning sitcom Catastrophe is also in the news this week, with Channel 4 commissioning a third and fourth season of the critically acclaimed show. Created by and starring Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, the second season of Catastrophe was C4’s second-highest performing comedy of the year. The show has also been streamed in the US by Amazon Prime and picked up for adaptation for French-speaking Canada.

Announcing the news, Phil Clarke, C4’s head of comedy, said: “I am thrilled to commission a third and fourth season. It’s a welcome return for the brave, razor-edged, excruciatingly honest and painfully funny portrayal of a modern, long-term relationship.”

Raised by Wolves
Big Talk Productions’ Raised by Wolves

Critics have also been effusive in their praise of the show. The Guardian’s Will Dean said it “inverts the classic romcom with sexual honesty, a barrage of swearing and a wonderfully dysfunctional support cast. Catastrophe is a modern great. All 12 episodes [the first two seasons] were superb in pretty much almost every aspect. At its heart it’s an ordinary love story, couched in some first-class swearing, about sexual honesty, served with a side-plate of adultery, lust, elderly parents, flirtatious colleagues, money worries and a dead dog. The love story we deserve.”

The Times’ Hugh Rifkind added that it is “the funniest British comedy of the past five years. I shan’t say more, because it is so funny that me telling you the funny bits would be considerably less funny than you actually watching it, which is definitely what you should do. It’s tight and sparse and there’s never a wasted moment. In a nutshell, the best bits are about all the terrible things you never quite say to your friends, family and significant other, and what would happen if everybody just said them.”

Announcing the recommission, Horgan and Delaney said: “We are thrilled to be making a third season of Catastrophe. Rob and Sharon are a blast to spend time with. And we’re not talking about ourselves in the third person, we’re talking about the characters. We’re eager to breathe life back into Rob and Sharon. Okay, now we are talking about us. In the first season Rob and Sharon went through a lot (us) and even more in the second season (back to the characters). We’re looking forward to putting Rob and Sharon (both us and the characters) through further pain for your enjoyment (now we’re talking about you).”

This is England '90
This Is England ’90, written by Shane Meadows and Jack Thorne, is up for a Rose D’Or

Delaney recently took part in a panel session at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, during which he talked about the challenges of delivering great comedy. He talked about the need to keep ego under control, even when the world is telling you how great you are. “I had this fear of becoming this walled-off guy who wouldn’t listen. So I’m a real believer in humility,” he said.

Explaining why he persisted with comedy as a career, Delaney said: “I realised after the global financial collapse that no career is safe, that everyone else knows how comedians feel. So I thought I might as well do exactly what I want to do.”

He was also very refreshing on the subject of encouraging diversity, observing that it is “insane” not to draw on diverse voices. “My advice is to be selfish, make money by embracing diversity,” he quipped.

Finally, in the UK, there are reports that the new season of BBC period drama Poldark will go head-to-head on Sunday night with ITV’s new period drama Victoria (September 4, 21.00). Fortunately, most of us have time-shifting technology these days, so my guess is that people will store Victoria so they can avoid the ad breaks.

Poldark is written by Debbie Horsfield while Victoria is created and written by novelist Daisy Goodwin in her screenwriting debut. Alongside the likes of Sally Wainwright, Sarah Phelps and Abi Morgan, these shows may be indicators that female writers are starting to hold more sway in primetime – a section of the schedule that, from a writer’s point of view, can sometimes resemble a London gentleman’s club. Or Muirfield Golf Club.

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