Tag Archives: Doctor Thorne

Mercurio’s Duty calls for viewers

Line of Duty has added viewers each season
Line of Duty has added viewers each season

BBC2 in the UK is having a great year in terms of its drama output. The first part of 2016 saw a solid performance for US acquisition American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson, while tomorrow sees the much-anticipated return of Peaky Blinders for season three.

Sandwiched between the two was the third season of Line of Duty, which has proven to be a huge hit for the channel. So successful, in fact, there are reports that season four, which is scheduled to air in 2017, will move to flagship channel BBC1.

As the dust settles on Line of Duty’s ratings, various claims are being made, but probably the most eye-catching is that the series is BBC2’s most successful drama in 15 years. With an average audience of just under five million per episode (live+7 day ratings), it even managed to outperform Wolf Hall, which was a strong performer in 2015 with an average audience of 4.4 million.

Line of Duty focuses on the activities of an anti-corruption unit led by superintendent Ted Hastings (played by Adrian Dunbar). It is the latest masterpiece from Jed Mercurio, widely acknowledged as one of the top talents working in British TV.

Mercurio actually started out as a doctor before breaking into the business with acclaimed medical drama Cardiac Arrest in the mid-1990s. Since then he has had pretty consistent success as a TV writer while also carving out a decent career as a novelist. Indeed, his second TV series was an adaptation of his first novel, Bodies.

He has proven particularly adept at creating procedurals with a twist. Aside from Cardiac Arrest, Bodies and Line of Duty, for example, he also created Critical, a medical drama for Sky1 set in a fictional trauma centre.

Critical
Mercurio created Critical for Sky1

He has also tried his hand at a number of other sub-genres of the scripted TV business. The Grimleys (1999-2001), for example, was a comedy drama, while Frankenstein (2007) was a modern-day re-imagination of Mary Shelley’s iconic gothic novel. He also set up Left Bank’s long-running action-adventure series Strike Back (2010) and adapted DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover for BBC1 last year.

Within the UK system, Mercurio is unusual in that he is more akin to a US showrunner than a European writer/auteur. Typically, he will write and produce his shows – sometimes directing as well. As a consequence of this level of control, Mercurio is well placed to ensure his creative vision hits the screen.

Mercurio recently gave a very insightful interview to Den of Geek in which he distinguished his work from procedurals that delve into the private lives of their protagonists. “Part of me isn’t that interested as a person and a viewer in people’s personal lives. I’m more interested in what people do in the workplace and what goals they set themselves. I guess that’s why I write a lot of precinct drama. (There’s often) an expectation, or pressure sometimes even, to feel that the way to succeed with drama is to see all sides of a character by going into their personal lives, even if you’ve got nothing to say.”

It’s interesting to note that Line of Duty’s ratings have been building across the first three seasons, giving it the feel of a show that slipped under the radar but is now attracting new swathes of fans. All of which augurs well for season four, regardless of the channel it airs on.

Liam Neeson starred in the Taken movie franchise
Liam Neeson starred in the Taken movie franchise

In the US, this is a critical time of year for the scripted business as the major networks decide which pilots to take forward to series. Most announcements will trickle through in the next few weeks, though a few new shows have already been given the go-ahead.

One of these is ABC’s Designated Survivor, which will star Kiefer Sutherland (24) and is being written by David Guggenheim (Safe House, Bad Boys 3). Another is Taken, a spin-off from the hit movie franchise. The TV version, for NBC, will be penned by Alex Cary (credits include Homeland, Lie To Me).

Not yet greenlit but looking good is Fox’s Lethal Weapon, another reboot of a movie franchise. This one is being scripted by Matt Miller, whose writing credits include ABC’s short-lived Forever.

Also, this week, DQ’s sister site C21 Media reports that long-running CBS drama The Good Wife is being adapted for the South Korean market by broadcaster TVN. The show, created by Robert and Michelle King, comes to the end of its seventh and final season in the US this week. All told, that means TVN will have 155 episodes to work with.

The Korean version of the show will be produced by Jung-Hyo Lee (I Need Romance, Heartless City) and written by Han Sang-Woon. Like the CBS original, it will centre on the complicated relationships of people in the legal system working against a backdrop of scandal and corruption.

The Good Wife is coming to an end in the US
The Good Wife is coming to an end in the US

Interestingly, this is not the first adaptation Han Sang-Woon has worked on. Last year, he wrote Spy for KBS2, based on Israeli drama The Gordin Cell. Previously, he wrote the movie My Ordinary Love Story. Commenting on the production, TVN parent company CJ E&M told C21: “For the Korean version of The Good Wife, we focused on the casting and were successful in casting Korea’s biggest actress, Jeon Do-Yeon – who has won many awards in her career, including best actress at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival – in the lead role, marking her return to television after 11 years.”

Finally, continuing the writers-as-brands theme we discussed in last week’s column, Amazon is about to air ITV period drama Doctor Thorne in the US (May 20). When it does, it will call the series Julian Fellowes Presents Doctor Thorne, another indicator of the marketing leverage that leading writers increasingly possess.

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November reign: How did the now ex-ITV drama boss do?

Following Steve November’s exit from ITV, Stephen Arnell assesses his tenure as the commercial broadcaster’s head of drama.

The news of ITV drama director Steve November’s departure brought to a close the first stage of new ITV director of television Kevin Lygo’s shake-up of senior commissioning roles at the network.

For the commercial broadcaster, drama is the most important genre in terms of cost, peaktime value and ratings.

Although Lygo’s background is chiefly in entertainment (his skills will be crucial in reinvigorating that critical part of the schedule), one shouldn’t forget that he was, under pseudonym Ruby Solomon, the writer of the one-off comedy-drama Walter, commissioned and broadcast by BBC1 in 2014.

And when Lygo was Channel 4’s director of television and content, drama successes under his regime included Shameless, The Devil’s Whore, Skins, Elizabeth I, Dead Set and Any Human Heart.

With characteristic speed, Lygo poached BBC drama chief Polly Hill to replace November – no doubt fulfilling a dual purpose in both attracting proven talent and inconveniencing the BBC during a period when drama is its strongest genre.

So how should we assess November’s tenure at the helm of ITV drama?

November oversaw some expensive flops, including Jekyll & Hyde - but the show has been picked up abroad
November oversaw some expensive flops, including Jekyll & Hyde – but the show has been picked up overseas

He was very fortunate in inheriting a department in rude health thanks to the previous team of Laura Mackie (director) and Sally Haynes (controller), who were responsible for a slate of hits including Downton Abbey, Broadchurch, Whitechapel, Appropriate Adult, Mr Selfridge, Scott & Bailey and Vera – all contributing to ITV’s Channel of the Year win at the Edinburgh Television Festival in 2013.

The pair rescued ITV’s reputation for quality drama, which had taken a major hit under then ITV director of television Simon Shaps, when new series such as Rock Rivals, Harley Street, Demons, Brittania High, Moving Wallpaper, Echo Beach, The Royal Today and The Palace proved major disappointments for both viewers and critics.

At the same time, Shaps axed ratings bankers Foyle’s War and Rosemary & Thyme in an attempt to change perceptions of the then-beleaguered network.

Once Shaps left ITV in 2008, his successor Peter Fincham swiftly recommissioned Foyle’s War, which continued to enjoy healthy ratings until the series eventually ended last year.

November’s tenure hasn’t had the same level of critical or ratings success as the Mackie/Haynes era, but neither has it plumbed the depths of the Shaps years; so it’s more of a qualified success.

November (pictured top at last year’s C21 International Drama Summit) was dealt a good hand in inheriting shows that still had a lot of mileage left in them; the reception given to his commissions, however, was mixed.

November's tenure ended on a strong note with the launch of Marcella
November’s tenure ended on a strong note with the launch of Marcella

He enjoyed critical success with the likes of Peter Morgan’s The Lost Honour of Christopher Jeffries and Jeff Pope’s Lucan, while new commissions including the single film Cilla and the series Grantchester, Home Fires, Safe House, Prey, Unforgotten and Black Work all attracted strong ratings and broadly favourable notices.

All these achieved audiences high enough to warrant sophomore seasons.

The strong 6.4 million (29% share) debut enjoyed by The Durrells on Sunday, April 3 will give ITV hope for a long-running pre-watershed hit in the vein of the Darling Buds of May and Wild At Heart.

With a very healthy 6.1 million viewers (27.6% share) for it’s opening episode, Nordic Noir-style crime drama Marcella also gave November a high note on which to bid farewell to the network.

But balanced against these achievements were a run of high-profile misfires. The strategy of commissioning early-evening drama for a move into territory previously solely occupied by the BBC (Doctor Who, Atlantis, Merlin and Robin Hood) proved a costly misjudgement.

Both Jekyll & Hyde and Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands returned low ratings accompanied by poor reviews, with many feeling the dramas fell between the two stalls of early-evening and post-watershed drama; too adult in tone for younger viewers and too juvenile for more mature audiences.

One wonders if doubts were expressed during development over whether commissioning apparently family-friendly ‘light’ takes on Penny Dreadful (Jekyll & Hyde) and Game of Thrones (Beowulf) would work for the Sunday early-evening ITV audience, but other considerations no doubt came into play.

With US cable-style orders of 10 and 12 episodes respectively, the underperformance of Jekyll & Hyde and Beowulf left sizeable holes in ITV’s peaktime share.

Both shows found a home in North America, with Jekyll & Hyde on Canada’s CBC and Beowulf on The Esquire Network – both transmitted post-21.00.

Doctor Thorne was well received but struggled to compete against the BBC in the schedules
Doctor Thorne was well received but struggled to compete against the BBC in its slot

It appears unlikely that ITV will venture this far from its comfort zone in the near future, as the last attempt to crack the pre-watershed weekend drama market was also a bust – the aforementioned Britannia High (2008) and Demons (2009).

Some of November’s dramas also failed to connect with audiences over the most recent Christmas holidays, avalanched by the traditional dominance of BBC1 over the period, which appeared to be the case with both Harry Price: Ghost Hunter and Peter & Wendy, which were otherwise critically well received.

Period miniseries The Great Fire, which aired in 2014, was seen as an attempt by ITV to explore an area not usually associated with the channel, but unfortunately for the network, reviews and audiences were largely indifferent.

Scheduling has been a problem for ITV when launching new dramas, with BBC1 able to overwhelm the opposition with an unusually strong slate of shows. Midwinter of the Spirit was crushed by Doctor Foster, Jericho was taken out by established hit Death in Paradise and Doctor Thorne was similarly dealt with by the huge success of The Night Manager.

In some cases, such as Doctor Thorne, ITV introduced shows after BBC1 had already established its new dramas in the slot with a number of episodes, making the task of winning viewers more difficult than if they had simply clashed head-to-head on their debuts.

With pay channel ITV Encore, it’s difficult to quantify what counts as a success in the limited universe of Sky subscribers – 2015’s Sean Bean starrer The Frankenstein Chronicles returned respectable consolidated figures and was picked up by A+E in the US.

Reviews were generally favourable but there’s no word yet on season two.

In recent weeks, Encore’s Edwardian detective mash-up Houdini & Doyle’s opening episode was given a preview on ITV to kickstart the show. It’s probably too early to see if this has paid off in terms of the ratings for the series on Sky, but reviews have been fairly poor, although production values were praised.

The casting of comedian Stephen Mangan as Arthur Conan Doyle in particular came in for criticism; it was also noted that this was the second ITV drama in to feature Doyle as a character in a year (Arthur & George being the first).

Now with Hill in the top drama job at ITV, Lygo will be hoping she can continue her run of hits, which include The Night Manager, Poldark and Doctor Foster.

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Hat Trick’s Mark Redhead reveals his Secret for ITV

Hat Trick Productions is adding to the current trend for true crime with forthcoming ITV drama The Secret. Head of drama Mark Redhead tells Michael Pickard why this real-life story will make compelling television.

While crime remains a staple genre of television, true crime is currently flavour of the month.

Following the success of podcast Serial and factual series such as HBO’s The Jinx and Making a Murderer on Netflix, scripted dramas such as American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson are satisfying audiences’ appetite for fact-based shows.

In the UK, ITV has a long history with true-crime dramas, with series such as Mrs Biggs, Appropriate Adult and The Lost Honour of Christopher Jeffries, to name but a few recent titles.

Next up is The Secret, which stars James Nesbitt (pictured top) and Genevieve O’Reilly as Colin Howell and Hazel Buchanan, who met at their local Baptist Church in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, and embarked on a passionate and destructive affair that climaxed in a plot to kill their partners.

Mark Redhead
Mark Redhead

Produced by Hat Trick Productions, it is distributed by Hat Trick International and is one of 12 dramas being presented to international buyers at the Mip Drama Screenings in Cannes this Sunday.

The project was first championed by Nesbitt himself, who was familiar with both the case and journalist Deric Henderson, who wrote the book on which the drama is based. The story was eventually picked up by screenwriter Stuart Urban, who brought it to Hat Trick head of drama Mark Redhead.

“As soon as I saw the story, I knew it was extraordinary and took it to ITV and they greenlit it really quickly,” explains Redhead, who executive produces the three-part series.

“It’s a fantastic story but what is extraordinary about it was these people committed these terrible crimes and they got away with it – but did they? You commit a crime and the police don’t get you but you can’t escape from it because it’s inside your head. So partly it’s about the crimes but it’s also about the relationship of the two protagonists and what happens if you commit a crime together and the effect that has on your relationship.

“That’s incredibly interesting and original. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it done. It’s a bit like Macbeth or Zola’s Thérèse Raquin. But this is a contemporary true story and we have an extraordinary amount of detail about their relationship.”

The series is currently in post-production, though Redhead – whose credits include other factual dramas Murder of Stephen Lawrence and Bloody Sunday – already says he is “enormously proud” of the drama.

“Jimmy (Nesbitt) says it’s his best work ever. He’s just breathtaking in it,” he continues. “He comes from the area and connects very much with the world. He’s such a brilliantly versatile actor that he delivers all the different moods and stages of this relationship and this extraordinary man in an incredibly convincing way. We partnered him with Genevieve – she gave the best audition I have ever seen. She’s just brilliant and they’re incredibly well matched so they go toe to toe. And 99.9% of the scenes feature one of them.”

Redhead says The Secret will chime with the current trend for true-crime stories, though this time viewers will see the effect murder has not only on the families of the victims but also the killers themselves.

The Secret stars and James Nesbitt
The Secret stars and James Nesbitt Genevieve O’Reilly as Colin Howell and Hazel Buchanan

“They pay a price and I think that’s really interesting and important,” he says, adding that director Nick Murphy (Occupation) has brought a naturalistic style to the drama. “We really wanted to make it feel very truthful so there’s minimal lighting, it’s handheld – it feels incredibly real.”

Part of filming a true story is a responsibility to ensure it is retold with as much accuracy as possible, and Redhead says creatives should resist an urge to tidy up real life if the facts don’t present a rounded story or fit in a traditional structure.

“It is a story that if it weren’t true, you wouldn’t believe,” he says of the plot at the heart of The Secret. “You can only tell this story because it’s true. If you presented it to the world as a piece of fiction, people wouldn’t accept it. It’s that extraordinary. And I believe that with true stories, you embrace the mess. You stay as faithful to the facts as possible, even if it causes you headaches in terms of scripting. Audiences accept there won’t be a neatness to a true story.

“Real life isn’t tidy and things happen that are slightly incomprehensible or there are loose ends that don’t get tied up. Our approach with Stephen Lawrence and subsequently Bloody Sunday was to accept it would be messy and trust an audience would understand that and buy that.”

The Secret marks the second time Hat Trick International has distributed one of its sister production company’s dramas. The first was Doctor Thorne, the Julian Fellowes adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s novel.

Rebecca Front and Tom Hollander in Doctor Thorne
Rebecca Front and Tom Hollander in Doctor Thorne

Another three-parter, which aired on ITV this month, it starred Tom Hollander (Rev, The Night Manager) as the eponymous medic who lives with his penniless young niece Mary. When Lady Arabella Gresham (Rebecca Front) discovers her son Frank has fallen in love with Mary, she conspires to find him a rich bride in order to save her own family from its own financial ruin. Her target is wealthy American heiress Martha Dunstable, played by Alison Brie.

The series was executive produced with US producer-distributor The Weinstein Company, which helped to finance the project and was also responsible for casting US star Brie, whose credits include Mad Men and Community.

Explaining the origins of the coproduction, Redhead says: “We had a deficit. You always have a deficit. But the options and places to go in the US are many and various. There are 57 or so places to sell drama in the US and, thanks to the Downton Abbey effect, there’s a much greater willingness on the part of US broadcasters and producers to get involved with the UK, even on a show like this.

“Five years ago, nobody would have touched a period drama of this sort but, thanks to the success of Downton breaking through, there’s now an acceptance that English period drama is something valuable. (The Weinstein Company) came in and it was a decent sum, and they took the rights for American and Canada. Of course, Julian himself is a factor – people want to be in business with him because he’s so brilliant and successful.”

Doctor Thorne is a project that had been in development for many years courtesy of producers Ted Childs (Inspector Morse) and Chris Kelly (Kavanagh QC). Fellowes had also written the script on spec, and Childs and Kelly brought it to Redhead. Downton broadcaster ITV jumped at the chance to pick up Fellowes’ next project.

When deciding who to cast in the lead role, the producers sought someone in the mould of James Stewart or Tom Hanks – a great actor with star appeal. They found their man in Hollander.

“It was great to get Tom,” Redhead says. “When we were talking about casting, Julian wanted what we described as charasmatic decency – the combination of being both good but having some star appeal – which is a very rare commodity and Tom’s definitely got it. I can’t think of many actors who have it.

The Weinstein Company's involvement in Doctor Thorne led to the casting of US star Alison Brie
The Weinstein Company’s involvement in Doctor Thorne led to the casting of US star Alison Brie

“He was keen to have the opportunity to play a straight lead role. There is some comedy in it but he’s the straight guy, the hero, and I think he really appreciated that chance and he carries it really well.”

Though Doctor Thorne could return for a second season, that decision has been put on hold while Fellowes continues work on his long-awaited period drama The Gilded Age, which is expected to begin production later this year for a 2017 debut on US network NBC.

That doesn’t mean Hat Trick, best known for its entertainment and comedy shows, isn’t continuing to build its drama slate, with Redhead confident he will be in production with two or three more series during 2016.

“Drama’s an important part of the mix and (Hat Trick MD) Jimmy Mulville’s very interested in drama,” Redhead reveals. “And the border between comedy and drama is quite moveable. It’s an important element of the company. Drama is going through a boom period so our energies as a company are focused on that.

“It’s cyclical – comedy is having a relatively quiet patch, whereas a few years ago it was the new rock ’n’ roll. Maybe in an era of international coproduction, comedy, which tends to be a local thing, is possibly slightly eclipsed because it’s hard to sell. People in different countries have difference senses of humour, so in a world dominated by international coproduction, humour is not going to be the prime selling point.”

But does Redhead think the drama boom is set to continue? “There’s a tremendous hunger for stories,” he says. “I’m sure there will be consolidation in terms of the number of hours – I can’t imagine the 57 US outlets will continue as they do. There will probably be shrinkage within that market, but the demand for drama will remain. And the UK is actually pretty good at selling itself internationally. Downton Abbey has made a huge difference to the credibility of UK drama internationally.”

But with The Secret and two BBC series – The Fall and Line of Duty (seasons two and three) – set and produced in Northern Ireland with support from Northern Ireland Screen, Redhead jokes that the industry might have swap Nordic noir for the next new drama trend – Ulster noir.

“There are some really talented people there,” he says. “It’s fantastic place to work and it would be great to do stuff set there. This is a place that’s had years of suffering and yet you couldn’t find a more welcoming and amiable part of Europe. It’s always a real pleasure to go there.”

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Vikings prosper on History

Vikings' 20-episode fifth season will air next year
Vikings’ 20-episode fifth season will air next year

The thesis that high-quality TV drama can lift the fortunes of any TV network, no matter its positioning in the market, was partly inspired by the success of Vikings on History in the US.

Launched in March 2013 as a nine-part series, the Michael Hirst-produced drama encouraged the reappraisal of a network that had become a little too reliant on reality TV series like Pawn Stars and Ice Road Truckers. The fact that History had previously been perceived as a factual-only TV channel also encouraged an array of other networks to try their hand with scripted series.

Vikings, which is positioned as an Irish/Canadian coproduction, has grown into a huge franchise for History. After following up the first season with two more batches of 10 episodes in 2014 and 2015, the channel upped its commitment to 20 episodes for season four, which is currently on air. And that isn’t the end of the story – History has just ordered a further 20 episodes for 2017.

In total, this means there will be 69 episodes of the show by the end of 2017, which is also great news for MGM TV, which handles international distribution.

To date the main headline regarding season five, aside from the number of episodes, is that Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers (The Tudors) will be joining the cast. Production starts this summer.

Vikings has proved a ratings stalwart for History at a time when the channel has been busy developing other scripted ideas for its slate. Shows set to appear on History in the near future include Roots, Six, Knightfall and the acquisition War & Peace.

Rowan Joffe
Rowan Joffe

Meanwhile, there are reports that Sky Atlantic has commissioned indie producer Kudos to make its next big-budget drama, Tin Star. Created by Rowan Joffe, The Calgary Sun in Canada says the series is “an epic tale of deception, betrayal, murder and revenge set against the backdrop of a remote and beautiful Canadian mountain town; a perfect idyll, transformed when big business moves into the area.” The series will shoot near Calgary in late spring.

Joffe, the son of renowned director Roland Joffe, has made a name for himself in recent years with productions such as Brighton Rock, The Shooting of Thomas Hurndall and Before I Go to Sleep. As yet there are no casting details on the project.

With Empire a breakout hit for Fox and American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson doing well on FX, it’s interesting to note that the depiction and treatment of African-Americans is starting to become a key focal point for the Fox family of channels.

At the mainstream end of the spectrum, Fox followed Empire with crime procedural Rosewood, while in the case of the American Crime Story franchise, FX is planning to look at the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in season two. Fox has also placed a straight-to-series order for Shots Fired, which will analyse the recent racial tensions and police shooting incidents that have spurred demonstrations and outrage across the country.

Created by Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood Hunt, Shots Fired looks set to be a major piece of work with a high-profile cast including Helen Hunt, Richard Dreyfuss and Stephen Moyer. It will focus on the political, commercial, legal and social repercussions of a North Carolina shooting, with Hunt playing a fictional North Carolina state governor and Dreyfuss a real-estate mogul who owns privatised prisons.

Shadowhunters
Shadowhunters has been given a second run on Freeform (formerly known as ABC Family)

In other developments, US cable channel Freeform, formerly known as ABC Family, has renewed its supernatural fantasy drama Shadowhunters. Based on book series The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare, it tells the story of humans born with angelic blood who protect humanity.

NBC, meanwhile, has confirmed the fourth show in its Chicago procedural portfolio will be a legal series called Chicago Justice. The new show will be introduced to viewers during episode 21 of sister series Chicago PD, which is coming up in April.

This isn’t an especially active time of year for new drama greenlights, with the emphasis being on renewals and acquisitions. In terms of the latter, UK pay TV channel Sky Living has added Jennifer Lopez crime drama Shades of Blue and season four of country music drama Nashville to its line-up (The latter previously aired on More4). These join an existing slate of US series that includes Scandal, Elementary, The Blacklist, Grey’s Anatomy, Criminal Minds, Bones and Blindspot. Shonda Rhimes’ new show, The Catch, will also soon feature on the channel.

Distributor Hat Trick International, meanwhile, has announced a number of sales of three-part period drama Doctor Thorne. Based on the novel by Anthony Trollope, the fact this is Julian Fellowes’ first project since Downton Abbey was always expected to generate strong interest among buyers.

Channels to have jumped on board so far include VRT Belgium, DR Byen Denmark, UTV Ireland, YES Satellite Services Israel, Prime New Zealand and SVT Sweden. The show has also been licensed for the US and Canada by The Weinstein Company.

Doctor Thorne
Doctor Thorne has sold into a number of territories

Hat Trick sales director Sarah Tong said: “Doctor Thorne received a great deal of interest from the outset and we are delighted to announce these pre-sales ahead of MipTV (the Cannes market at the start of April). The unique combination of the original Trollope story together with Julian Fellowes’ first-class adaptation and input from the production team at Hat Trick has delivered a miniseries that will no doubt become a classic. We are looking forward to screening episodes of the drama to our clients.” Next week we’ll take a closer look at some of the dramas being presented at Mip.

Finally, a cancellation story: ABC in the US has axed biblical drama Of Kings and Prophets after just two episodes. The show, which tells the story of Saul and David from the Old Testament, already had a shadow hanging over it after ABC moved it out of the autumn schedule to make a few changes. But dismal ratings in the first two episodes sealed the show’s unhappy fate.

Two interesting themes come out of this story. The first is that ABC has a major problem with Tuesday at 22.00, with a long line of shows failing to perform in the slot (including Wicked City). The second is that biblical stories don’t seem to be able to gain much traction on US network TV.

While Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s The Bible did exceptionally well for cable network History, its sequel, AD: The Bible Continues, was aired on NBC and only lasted a single season before it too was cancelled.

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BBC1 drama dominates UK viewing

Happy Valley stars Sarah Lancashire (left)
Happy Valley stars Sarah Lancashire (left)

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.

Gillian Anderson and Paul Dano in War and Peace
Gillian Anderson and Paul Dano in War and Peace

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's Doctor Thorne is the new series from Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes
ITV’s Doctor Thorne is the new series from Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes

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.

Code Black
Code Black has been picked up by UKTV

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.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Josh Radnor in Mercy Street
Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Josh Radnor in Mercy Street, which is heading into season two

“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.

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Good Fellowes

Fellowes 001
Julian Fellowes leaves Downton behind

Julian Fellowes is one of the hottest writing properties in global drama thanks to the success of Downton Abbey. So when it was announced that Downton’s next series will be its last, there was inevitable speculation about what he would do next.

The answer, revealed this week, is that Fellowes is working on a three-part adaptation of Doctor Thorne, Anthony Trollope’s novel about a doctor and his talented but penniless niece. Produced by Hat Trick Productions for ITV, filming starts later this year.

Trollope’s works don’t get as much attention as other 19th century authors such as Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. But there have been high-profile adaptations of The Pallisers, The Barchester Chronicles, The Way We Live Now and He Knew He Was Right. Explaining his choice of project, Fellowes says: “As a lifetime devotee of Trollope – my own favourite among the great 19th century English novelists and certainly the strongest influence over my work that I am conscious of – it is exciting to know that my adaptation of one of his best-loved novels is coming to ITV.”

While many of Fellowes’ screen credits, including Downton Abbey, are original works, Fellowes is no stranger to novel adaptations. In fact, he wrote the screenplay for Vanity Fair, a 2004 film version of the classic 19th century novel by William Makepeace Thackeray.

EPSON MFP imageAs a three-parter, Dr Thorne won’t occupy Fellowes for too long. So it will be interesting to see if he continues his partnership with ITV into 2016. In 2012, there were reports that he was planning a Downton Abbey prequel, focusing on the youthful romance between central characters Lord and Lady Grantham.

Other writer-based developments in the UK include news that in-demand Hugo Blick has been signed up to write a series for BBC2. In a vague statement, the BBC says the show is about “a compelling set of characters caught up in a very human moral dilemma and plays out in a setting drama rarely takes us to, contemporary Africa.”

Although details are currently under wraps, audiences can expect the complex conspiratorial storytelling that Blick gave us in The Honourable Woman, a political thriller set against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to the Guardian, “Viewing a Blick series is like someone coming to you with a ball of horribly knotted and twisted wool and promising to knit you a sweater.”

In the US, the civil rights and abolitionist movements continue to provide rich sources of material for writers. Kirk Ellis, writer of HBO miniseries John Adams (2008), has joined forces with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin TV, to pen a biopic for HBO about famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Based on Kate Clifford Larson’s book Bound for the Promised Land, the production will highlight Tubman’s involvement in leading slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad and later fighting during the Civil War.

Paul Giamatti, Laura Linney
HBO’s John Adams, starring Paul Giamatti (left) and Laura Linney

The John Adams miniseries was a multiple Golden Globe and Emmy winner, which explains why Ellis was a shoe-in for this new project. He was also credited as a co-writer with Stephen David and David C. White on Sons of Liberty, History US’s three-part miniseries about the early years of the American Revolution.

Fellowes, Blick and Ellis are all A-list writers these days. In terms of rising stars, this week saw James Wood (Rev, Ambassadors) named as writer on Game Changer (working title), a BBC factual drama starring Daniel Radcliffe and Bill Paxton. Aimed at an adult audience, this 90-minute drama tells the story of the controversy surrounding video game franchise Grand Theft Auto.

Stateside, Bravo Media is boosting its scripted output (like every other cable broadcaster). A new slate of shows includes White Collar Wives, which looks at the ripple effect of an FBI investigation into insider trading, as the women married to the financial elite go to extreme lengths to save themselves. The project is from BBC Worldwide-owned Adjacent Productions and is being written by Vanessa Reisen (Weeds, Californication).

Bravo’s new orders also reflect the way in which writing talent is crossing from movie to TV. One of its new shows, My So Called Wife, is co-written by Adam Brooks – whose movie credits include French Kiss, Wimbledon and Definitely Maybe. Brooks and writing partner Paul Adelstein previously scripted Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce for Bravo and are reuniting for My So Called Wife.

house of cards
Kevin Spacey in House of Cards

In terms of projects that need writers, the big story is that Fox 21 Television Studios and Kevin Spacey are linking up to produce a TV drama adaptation – The Residence, by Kate Andersen Brower, a best-selling non-fiction book about life at the White House. At the time this story was published, no writer had been attached to the show.

Some good news for British writers, meanwhile, is this week’s decision by commercial broadcaster ITV to raise wages for drama writers. They will get a 5% pay increase following negotiations between ITV and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain. The rate for a one-hour drama will rise to £13,283, up from £12,650. Rates for writing series increase to £10,395 per episode, up from £9,900. Presumably this is a minimum, with the likes of Mr Fellowes able to command a much higher pay packet for Dr Thorne.

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