Tony Jordan, CEO of Red Planet Pictures, got his break writing for BBC soap EastEnders before creating shows including Life on Mars, Echo Beach/Moving Wallpaper, Hustle, The Passing Bells, Dickensian, Hooten & The Lady and Babs.
In this video, the showrunner offers his views on the drama boom, why the genre continues to define television networks and why there will always be an appetite for scripted series.
He also talks about the challenges of balancing broadcaster ambitions with strict budgets, how he learnt his craft on EastEnders and why he’s most excited about merging genres.
Tony Jordan has brought together some of literature’s best-known characters in a celebration of Charles Dickens. DQ went on the set while Dickensian was still filming to find out why those behind the show were sure of its success.
He’s the revered author of such classics as A Christmas Carol, Bleak House, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby.
But what would it be like to peer inside Charles Dickens’ mind and bring the characters from his novels – Fagin, Scrooge, Mrs Gamp, Miss Havisham et al – into the same world?
Wonder no more, because that’s exactly what Tony Jordan has done with Dickensian, a 20-part, 10-hour drama now airing on BBC1.
Set within the fictional realms of the author’s novels, Dickensian brings together many of Dickens’ best-known characters as their paths cross in 19th century London.
It’s produced by Red Planet Pictures, with Red Planet MD Jordan acting as lead writer alongside Sarah Phelps, Simon Winstone, Julie Rutherford, Chloe Moss and Justin Young. Jordan and Belinda Campbell executive produce along with BBC1’s Polly Hill, with David Boulter producing.
Yet while viewers can enjoy spotting characters from different novels, another character that may receive less attention is the set itself. Described as a working set, its exteriors are joined to its interiors to create an all-encompassing world where The Old Curiosity Shop sits next to a fully functional Three Cripples pub.
The set was built inside a huge warehouse on a nondescript industrial estate in north-west London, inside which you are instantly transported into Victorian London. When DQ visits, it is dusk, with only the glow emanating from the Three Cripples providing light outside. Shops are painstakingly detailed along Market Street and as you walk across the cobbles, you can pick out such stores as Mantalini’s (Nicholas Nickleby) and The Old Curiosity Shop and the office of Scrooge and Marley (A Christmas Carol).
Inside Satis House – the town house belonging to Amelia Havisham and her half-brother Arthur (Great Expectations) – statues line the hallway and chandeliers hang from the ceilings, with a dining table laid for a feast. In contrast, Fagin’s den is dark and dingy, with barred windows keeping out the light.
The scale and scope of the Market Street set is breathtaking – and it needed to be, says Jordan, who began working with production designer Michael Ralph before a script had even been written. “I had to build the world. That was key to making it work,” he explains. “I didn’t think it would work like a traditional show with a bit here and a location there. Dickens used atmosphere almost as a character – there’s always mist, smog and snow. So building the world became the only way to make this work. That’s what we’ve done.
“Satis House is in there, a church, the Three Cripples pub. I’ve got horses and carriages going round. It’s crazy beyond belief but that makes it a magical place to work and it’s created this family-company atmosphere among cast and crew.”
Jordan says that for Dickensian, which cost more than £1m (US$1.5m) an hour to produce, he tried to delve into Dickens’ imagination: “It’s all Dickens’ characters, all his stories, everything he’s ever written, but inside his head they’re allowed to mix up and to have slightly different outcomes. Timelines can mix, stories can mix, characters can mix. One story can affect another.”
The writer admits he’s not a Dickens scholar, joking that his starting point was The Muppet Christmas Carol. But by working with Dickens experts, Jordan ensured he remained faithful to the characters while bringing viewers stories never seen on screen before.
“Every time you’ve ever seen Miss Havisham, you’ve only ever seen this mad bird in a dress and a veil,” Jordan says. “But do you really need to see another adaptation of that? There’s a passage in the book where Pocket explains to Pip the history of Miss Havisham and how she had a half-brother who felt cheated after the death of their father and conspired with a man called Compeyson to steal her money. It’s still faithful to the story, the character and the spirit of what Dickens wrote but you haven’t seen that before. You haven’t seen the young Miss Havisham, falling in love, meeting that man. We see her on her wedding day – that’s exciting.
“As a writer, writing the scene between Ebenezer Scrooge and Fagin, that’s sexy stuff. I don’t care about broadcasters. Buy it or don’t buy it – I’m gonna write it anyway. I’ll do it on a Saturday morning. (Before I started) I thought somebody must have done this already, but they hadn’t. It was like Christmas. I felt like Bob Cratchit on Christmas Eve.”
Jordan and Ralph previously worked together on Death in Paradise, Hustle and The Ark, so before the script stage of Dickensian, Ralph created some artwork and even built a model of the main Market Street set. Jordan was then able to use that in his writing while the full-size set was being built.
“There’s no way you would know this show is filmed entirely on a set,” Jordan says. “It doesn’t feel claustrophobic, you’re just wondering where the fuck it is because it looks stunning. There’s no way you’d know, and that was really important.”
Ralph describes Dickensian as the “biggest and most ambitious series” he has ever worked on, adding that he was thrilled to work on a set where every element of weather and lighting could be controlled. “I delight in delighting Tony, finding him what he wanted when he wrote it and what he envisaged,” he says. “I was totally released with my imagination and creativity. I had so much freedom to produce what I did, it was unbelievable.
“I dressed nearly every set individually, sometimes on my own, especially The Old Curiosity Shop. If you can spend long enough dressing a set, it feels like you’re invading someone else’s space and that’s what it was like. I won’t let anyone put anything on the set that doesn’t have something written on it that actually relates to the character. That detail does take a lot of time, but we were given the time.”
Ralph says his designs are always inspired by the script and reveals the final set was almost identical to his initial sketches and models. “With all productions these days, no one ever thinks they have enough money to do anything,” he notes. “For me, less money is what I want. It opens up a well of creativity and means people have to be more focused on what the camera is really seeing. I’m a great believer in using the camera. The camera lies like a bastard and I’m embracing the deceit. We’re making films; man-made dreams for people who are awake.”
With a starring role in fellow BBC period drama War & Peace, Tuppence Middleton, who plays Amelia Havisham, is no stranger to epic productions. But while she travelled across Europe for Andrew Davies’ retelling of Tolstoy’s classic, she says she “loved” filming Dickensian on the purpose-built set.
“As soon as we walk through the doors of the studio, you’re transported into this world,” she says. “It’s such a huge job to build an entire street. I don’t think that ever happens. I’ve never done anything that has been like this.”
Describing Miss Havisham as an “iconic character,” Middleton adds: “To a lot of people she’s this crazy old woman living in a house, who looks like a ghost and has lost her mind. Actually, she was a normal young woman once and I think that’s a really interesting thing to explore.”
Also in the cast is Joe Quinn, who plays Arthur Havisham. Quinn left drama school early to take his place in the cast and admits it was an offer he couldn’t refuse. “The story gives me a lot of creative freedom to flesh out a character that hasn’t really been portrayed before but is still in existence. He is an entitled, spoiled little brat with a bit of an alcohol problem. So no acting required,” he jokes.
Quinn says his first day on the set was “daunting,” adding: “It’s enormous – it’s a whole world. And the detail is such a testament to the craftsmen and the creative team that built it. They’ve done an amazing job.”
Viewers also meet Bleak House character Captain James Hawdon (played by Ben Starr), in a storyline that serves as a prequel story to Dickens’ novel, in which he is the father to Lady Dedlock’s illegitimate daughter.
Starr was equally impressed by the set, which he said helped him get into character: “We’re going into Mantilini’s and you can look in the drawers and there are 100 types of buttons and different kinds of fabrics. Looking around this set is so helpful as an actor. It’s a huge playground in which you get 30 actors to fool around and pretend to be Dickens characters.”
But would Dickens have ever created Dickensian? Jordan certainly thinks so. “With everything I know about him, I’m pretty sure he’d be doing this, and if not this, something very like this,” he says. “He was a showman. This is big, noisy and features all his characters – it’s a celebration of Dickens. So of course he would be doing this, and I like the thought of that.”
UK TV audiences enjoyed some great drama over the Christmas period. But while all the major broadcasters offered something of interest, the BBC’s scripted output was simply outstanding.
A key reason for this is the corporation’s excellent relationship with writing talent. The Sherlock Christmas Special’s slightly warped view of the suffragette movement may have had its critics, but the episode – titled The Abominable Bride – was still a brilliantly written piece of TV from Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss that was watched by 8.4 million viewers.
Equally enjoyable were the opening episodes of Andrew Davies’s adaptation of Tolstoy’s War & Peace and Sarah Phelps’ take on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. And not to be overlooked is Tony Jordan’s Dickensian, an inspired piece of TV that I watched out of idle curiosity and which thus far has more than exceeded my modest expectations. See this Telegraph review for a good summary.
The strength of the BBC’s Christmas drama slate won’t have come as a surprise to those who have been following the broadcaster’s scripted output over the last year or two. Among numerous highlights have been Wolf Hall (adapted from the Hilary Mantel novel by Peter Straughan), The Honourable Woman (written by Hugo Blick), Banished (Jimmy McGovern), Happy Valley (Sally Wainwright) and Doctor Foster (Mike Bartlett). In each case, it has been the quality of the writing that has really shone through.
Coming into 2016, it looks like the BBC is sticking with the same successful formula. Announcing a new slate of 35 hours of drama, Polly Hill, controller of BBC drama commissioning, said: “I will continue to reinvent and broaden the range of drama on the BBC. It is because we make great drama for everyone that we can offer audiences and the creative community something unique and distinct. I want the BBC to be the best creative home for writers.”
So what’s on offer? Well, Hugo Blick will be back with Black Earth Rising, a BBC2 thriller set in Africa. Blick describes the show as a “longform thriller which, through the prism of a black Anglo-American family, examines the West’s relationship with Africa by exploring issues of justice guilt, and self-determination.”
The series will be produced by Drama Republic and Eight Rooks Production. Drama Republic MD Greg Brenman, whose company also produced The Honourable Woman and Doctor Foster, said: “We are excited to be teaming up with Hugo once more. Black Earth Rising is ambitious, thought-provoking and searingly relevant – the hallmarks that are fast defining Hugo Blick.”
Also recalled for 2016 is Bartlett, whose Doctor Foster was the top-rated UK drama of 2015. With Bartlett already committed to writing a follow-up series, Hill revealed the writer will also be writing a six-hour serial called Press for BBC1. Press is set in the fast-changing world of newspapers.
Explaining the premise, Bartlett said: “From exposing political corruption to splashing on celebrity scandal, editors and journalists have enormous influence over us, yet recent events have shown there’s high-stakes, life-changing drama going on in the news organisations themselves. I’m hugely excited to be working with the BBC to make Press, a behind-the-scenes story about a group of diverse and troubled people who shape the stories and headlines we read every day.”
Although Jimmy McGovern’s period drama Banished was not renewed, the programme was a tour de force – so it’s no surprise the BBC has commissioned McGovern to write a new show. Broken “plots the perspective of local catholic priest Father Michael Kerrigan and that of his congregation and their struggle with both Catholicism and contemporary Britain.”
Set in Liverpool, the six-hour series will be produced by Colin McKeown and Donna Molloy of LA Productions. McGovern and McKeown said: “We are both proud and privileged to be producing this drama from our home city of Liverpool. The BBC is also the rightful home for this state-of-the-nation piece.”
One writer joining the BBC fold for the first time is Pulitzer Prize and Academy Award-nominated screenwriter/playwright Kenneth Lonergan, who has been tasked with adapting EM Forster’s Howards End for BBC1.
“I’m very proud to have been entrusted with this adaptation of Howards End,” he said. “The book belongs to millions of readers past and present; I only have the nerve to take it on at all because of the bottomless wealth and availability of its ideas, the richness of its characters and the imperishable strain of humanity running through every scene.
“The blissfully expansive miniseries format makes it possible to mine these materials with a freedom and fidelity that would be otherwise impossible. It’s a thrilling creative venture transporting the Schlegels, Wilcoxes and Basts from page to the screen. I hope audiences will enjoy spending time with them as much as I do.”
The show is being produced by Playground Entertainment, City Entertainment and KippSter Entertainment for the BBC. Rights to use the original novel as source material for the miniseries were acquired from Jonathan Sissons at Peters, Fraser & Dunlop, on behalf of the Forster estate.
Playground founder and CEO Colin Callender said: “At a time when there is a raging debate about the BBC licence fee, it is worth reminding ourselves that it is because this great institution is funded by a licence fee rather than advertising or subscription that it is able to bring to the British audience dramas that no one else in the UK would produce. The boldness of commissioning a playwright like Ken Lonergan to adapt this great literary classic and make it accessible and relevant to a modern audience is a testament to the BBC’s crucial and unique role in the broadcast landscape worldwide.”
Equally exciting is the prospect of Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White coming to BBC1. Made by Origin Pictures with BBC Northern Ireland Drama, the four-part adaptation will be written by Fiona Seres, who wrote a new version of The Lady Vanishes for BBC1 in 2013.
David Thompson and Ed Rubin, from Origin Pictures, said: “We are so excited to be bringing a bold new version of Wilkie Collins’ beloved Gothic classic to the screen. His gift for gripping, atmospheric storytelling is as thrilling for contemporary readers as it was for Victorians, and Fiona’s unique take brings out the intense psychological drama that has captivated so many.”
Other writers lined up include Joe Ahearne (for The Replacement), Conor McPherson (for Paula) and Kris Mrksa (Requiem). The decision to work with Mrksa, best known for titles such as The Slap and Underbelly, is interesting because he is Australian.
The BBC’s blurb for Requiem (which will be produced by New Pictures) says: “What if your parent died and you suddenly discovered that everything they’d said about themselves, and about you, was untrue? Requiem is part psychological thriller – the story of a young woman, who, in the wake of her mother’s death, sets out to learn the truth about herself, even to the point of unravelling her own identity. But it is also a subtle tale of the supernatural that avoids giving easy answers, playing instead on uncertainty, mystery and ambiguity.”
Mrksa calls it “a show I’ve always wanted to make. To be making it with the team at New Pictures (Indian Summers), and for the BBC, a network that I so greatly admire, really is a dream come true.”
Right now, that would probably be true for any TV writer.
As BBC1 prepares to air Dickensian, which brings together multiple characters from across Charles Dickens’ works, DQ highlights some of the other shows to have taken the shared-universe approach.
At first glance, Tony Jordan’s mash-up of some of Charles Dickens’ most memorable characters in BBC1’s upcoming Dickensian (pictured above) appears particularly novel. However, the idea of multiple characters from writers’ various works appearing in a wholly original script is, in fact, not especially new.
And the idea of spinning-off or reimagining Dickens’ characters has actually been undertaken before – witness the late John Sullivan’s four-part series Micawber (ITV, Christmas 2001), which starred David Jason, and the previous year’s modern-day take on A Christmas Carol (also ITV), with the network’s then ‘actor de jour’ Ross Kemp.
Back in 1998, Gravity director Alfonso Cuaron helmed a contemporary version of Great Expectations, boasting a cast including Robert De Niro, Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke.
But with 20 30-minute episodes over the Christmas period (echoing Jordan’s EastEnders origins), there is certainly a risk for the BBC in commissioning Dickensian. The corporation must be hoping that viewers will make the commitment to watch at such a competitive time of the year.
Furthermore, there’s always the risk that the series will merely be a clever pastiche, when compared with viewers’ recollections of the novels or previous TV versions and films.
Dickens’ work has long provided a steady stream of adaptations for TV, the episodic nature his novels ideally suited to the medium. Most recently there has been the BBC’s Mystery of Edwin Drood (2012) and 2011’s three-part Great Expectations, which starred Gillian Anderson and Ray Winstone.
John le Carre’s Circus spy novels provide an example of an author’s shared universe of characters appearing in multiple stories – sometimes in leading roles, sometimes as support. For example, George Smiley’s relatively small amount of page time in The Honourable Schoolboy and The Looking Glass War contrasts with his dominance in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People.
Returning to the subject of mash-ups, these shows have become increasingly popular recently, no doubt aided by the fact that many of the characters featured now reside in the public domain, meaning no fees are due to the estate of the authors.
Both Penny Dreadful (Sky Atlantic/Showtime) and Jekyll & Hyde (ITV) feature or will feature a number of the characters from the novels of Oscar Wilde (Dorian Gray), Mary Shelley (Dr Frankenstein), Bram Stoker (Dracula) and generic figures or urban myths such as werewolves, witches, Spring Heeled Jack and other supernatural beings.
Season three of Penny Dreadful will apparently see the debut of HG Wells’s warped geneticist Dr Moreau.
The progenitor of these shows was, of course, Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novels, which were unfortunately marred by a weak movie version back in 2001 (incidentally providing a rather sad finale to Sean Connery’s on-screen career).
Recent rumours over the summer were that the books were going to be re-booted as a TV series by The Blacklist producer John Davis – this time with a brief to stay faithful to the source material. Fans are waiting with bated breath, but don’t expect Alan Moore to be involved in the production process – numerous bad experiences on previous movie adaptations of his work having soured him on the idea.
The world of the police procedural has always been fecund in terms of shared universes, with the CSI/Law & Order franchises, Hawaii Five-O and others featuring crossovers; the character of Detective John Munch (Richard Belzer) has incredibly managed to appear in Homicide: Life on the Street, The X-Files, The Wire and Law & Order: SVU.
Similarly, Dick Van Dyke’s Dr Mark Sloan has featured in both Diagnosis: Murder and Jake & The Fat Man.
Diagnosis: Murder also showcased a bewildering array of characters from other shows, including Ben Matlock (Matlock), Cinnamon Carter (Mission: Impossible) and Joe Mannix (Mannix).
The Simpsons have met Family Guy and Futurama, while Aliens have battled Predators on the big screen. Fox’s The X-Files, meanwhile, had a phenomenal tour of duty in its first nine seasons, sharing an on-screen universe with Millennium, The Lone Gunman, Picket Fences, Homicide: Life on the Streets and, of course, the aforementioned Simpsons.
But the real market leader in terms of cinematic/TV shared universes is Marvel, with company president Kevin Fiege’s long-term strategy paying off in spades, judging by the stellar box-office returns achieved by Marvel-produced movies since 2008’s ground-breaking Iron Man.
When Marvel made a serious move into TV with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC) in 2013, it was generally felt to be a rare misstep, as although the show has made it to a third season, it has never really set pulses racing.
Rushed writing schedules to capitalise on the success of the movies may have had something to do with season one’s perceived problems.
Generic storylines and a rather dated approach (reminiscent of Marvel’s Mutant X in the early 2000s) have hampered what on paper looked like a sure-fire hit.
As ever, Marvel learned from its mistakes, and when Netflix ponied up for a number of series, the company rose to the challenge, with the first Daredevil hitting a home run in terms of critical and fan reaction, which has since been overtaken by the recent release of Jessica Jones, which has prompted talk of Emmy nominations.
The two series, together with upcoming shows Luke Cage and Iron Fist, will culminate in the team-up miniseries The Defenders, which will apparently have a wider role in the Marvel Universe than the environs of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen district.
And, of course, an honourable mention should be made of ABC’s Agent Carter, a series filler that is felt to have surpassed its bigger-budget sibling, boasting some critically praised performances and a strong sense of place in its late-1940s US setting.
Never one to miss an opportunity, DC Comics has recently enjoyed great success in TV, with Arrow, The Flash and Supergirl all performing well internationally. Interestingly, unlike Marvel, the DC cinematic universe will be standalone, so there’ll be no Arrow, Flash or Supergirl appearances in the current movie production slate – or at least not in their TV incarnations.