After nearly two years off screen, gangster drama Peaky Blinders has returned for a fifth season, once again following the notorious Shelby family on the lawless streets of Birmingham.
In this new season, set against the financial crash of 1929, gang leader Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) has risen from backstreet crime lord to member of parliament. When he is approached by a charismatic politician with a bold vision for Britain, he realises his response will impact not only his family but the entire nation.
The cast also includes Helen McCrory, Paul Anderson, Sophie Rundle, Finn Cole, Kate Phillips, Natasha O’Keeffe and Aidan Gillen, with new cast members such as Sam Claflin, Anya Taylor-Joy and Brian Gleeson.
In this DQTV interview, Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight reflects on the success of the series and the opportunities that presents to a writer.
He also talks about why season five is the best yet, reveals details about his writing process and explains why he enjoys working in television.
Peaky Blinders is produced by Caryn Mandabach Productions and Tiger Aspect Productions for BBC1 and distributed by Endemol Shine International.
Anna Friel, Sinead Keenan and Rosalind Eleazar star in ITV’s emotional thriller Deep Water. Writer Anna Symon introduces the series, produced by Kudos and distributed by Endemol Shine International, and discusses a key scene in the first episode that lays the groundwork for events to come.
Deep Water tells the story of three ordinary mothers who each go on an extraordinary, emotionally compelling journey. Told through a female lens, it places modern women and their needs and desires at the centre of the drama.
The series is based on two books by Paula Daly: Just What Kind of Mother Are You? and The Mistake I Made. So often in TV drama, the family, and the home in particular, are a place of safety and retreat from where the real story is going on, be it a police investigation, the world of intelligence or a business setting. But in these books, as in most of our real lives, the highest stakes surround the families themselves. The question each woman is being asked throughout the series is: how far would she go to protect her family? It’s a question that, to me, feels highly relatable but also surprisingly under-examined in TV drama.
Paula was born and bred in the Lake District, and when you read her page-turning novels, you really feel you’re being taken to Lake Windermere by someone who understands it from the inside out. By placing our women in this beautiful but, at times, harsh landscape, we hope to have further added to the epic scale of their stories – even if that meant filming the show was often hindered by rain, hail and snow.
Just What Kind of Mother Are You? tells the story of two mothers, Lisa and Kate, while The Mistake I Made is about Roz. In developing the series, I put all three characters in the same world by placing all their younger children in the same class at school. It’s quite a departure from the books, but I have kept the brilliant characters Paula invented and her very authentic vision of the Lake Windermere and the surrounding villages.
One line from Paula’s books that really struck me is: ‘The Lakes have always been littered with two extremes of women – the ones who never work and the ones who never stop.’ That class divide in the Lakes is one of the key themes of the series. Kate (played by Rosalind Eleazar) is one of the women who doesn’t work, whose family own lots of property in the Lake District.
Lisa (Anna Friel) runs the local kennels, so her life is about servicing the moneyed class who leave their dogs with her while they go on holiday. Her husband is a taxi driver, so he’s also in the service industry. Together, they’re busy parents who both work really long hours. In other words, they are very different from Kate, although we soon discover she has real challenges of her own. Roz (Sinead Keenan), a physiotherapist, is in serious financial trouble, so she is also working every hour she can to make ends meet.
In the first episode, Kate invites Lisa and her husband round for dinner. There is already an uncomfortable undercurrent to the invitation because Kate has accused Lisa’s 10-year-old son of bullying her own boy. Intimidated and wanting to please, Lisa accepts the invite. As soon as she and her husband arrive, Lisa gets whisked into the kitchen by Kate. Kate’s sister Alexa is also there, who’s as polished and impressive as Kate – at least in Lisa’s eyes.
Lisa soon feels completely out of her depth, amazed that Alexa can afford to send her four children to boarding school. A very awkward conversation ensues between the three women about how they bring up their kids. It’s the sort of conversation to which many of us have been party in one form or another. As women, we often compare and judge each other’s choices, at least in my experience.
This is a pivotal scene because it’s about who has money, who doesn’t, who works, who doesn’t and how that impacts on your family. As the evening progresses, the scene moves to the dinner table.
Here, Kate and her sister argue about whether you should stay together for the sake of your children if your marriage is in trouble. Kate storms out, and there’s a sense that something very strange has happened in her life. It’s the first clue we give the audience for them to try to work out what has happened to Kate in her past, and what secrets there are within her household.
At the same time, we notice Lisa starts to flirt gently with Adam, Kate’s brother-in-law, and this leads to a major transgression. This kicks off one of our main storylines, examining female desire.
Overall, in this scene, I’m laying down all the themes that are going to emerge throughout the series: class, marriage, parenting and sex, all told through a female lens.
Jordi Frades, director of Spanish period drama La Catedral del Mar (Cathedral of the Sea), tells DQ about filming the epic series and why he wanted to stay true to its source material.
Four months after its debut on Spain’s Antena 3, period drama La Catedral del Mar (Cathedral of the Sea) is now available worldwide on Netflix.
Set in Barcelona during the 14th century, the series uses the construction of the real-life church of Santa María del Mar as its backdrop. It focuses on a servant who, after escaping his father’s abuse, harbours ambitions to secure wealth and freedom – much to the disdain of the noble class and the suspicion of the Inquisition.
The large ensemble cast is led by Aitor Luna (Arnau) and Daniel Grao (Bernat), who share the screen with 2,500 extras. It is based on the book of the same name by Spanish author Ildefonso Falcones.
The eight-part drama is produced by Diagonal TV and distributed by Endemol Shine International.
Here, director Jordi Frades tells DQ about the origins of the series, the challenges of production, filming epic battle scenes and why its intimate style means it shouldn’t be labelled Spain’s Game of Thrones.
How would you describe the story of La Catedral del Mar?
It is the story of how a child becomes a man and how a servant becomes a free man while Santa María del Mar is built in Barcelona during the 14th century. It is a story of pain, love and guilt – guilt as heavy as the stones that Arnau carries for the construction of the cathedral.
What was the origin of the series and how did you become involved?
When the novel was published in 2006, my father told me about it, saying there was a great movie or series in it. I read it and it impassioned me. But I found it impossible to produce for the screen because of the high budget that would be needed.
At that time, there was no tradition of period drama series in Spain. Years passed and I began to direct some period series: La Bella Otero, La Señora and República… Suddenly, the production company I was working for, Diagonal TV, told me to make a first document about the possible adaptation of La Catedral del Mar, to license the rights. So I made that document and they gave us the rights.
At that moment, the script process began. Rodolf Sirera, Antonio Onetti and Sergio Barrejón were going to be the writers who would adapt the novel. Meanwhile, I directed the three seasons of historical series Isabel and a film called The Broken Crown. Then the long process of pre-production for La Catedral del Mar began.
What was the appeal of directing this series?
I was passionate about recreating something that had touched me so much – a truly powerful story with great characters and emotional moments. I wanted to have the chance to show what life was like in Barcelona during those times, and at the same time it was the biggest production I had ever faced. It would have been a great challenge for any director.
How did you work with the writers during the script stage?
We had a great relationship because we agreed on almost everything. They made the great decisions on how to take the novel to script. They wrote a first draft with absolute freedom, and from there we worked together. I believed the adaptation should be totally faithful to the novel so the readers wouldn’t be disappointed. We incorporated some parts that had disappeared and that I wished to keep. We also changed the number of episodes from six to eight to find the right pace for the story.
The writers worked with humility, respecting the original author’s work. As we were having difficulties fully financing the series, shooting was delayed. That inconvenience, paradoxically, gave us the opportunity to improve the script in new versions.
How was the series developed with Antena 3?
We had the chance to work creatively with total freedom. As is often the case, they gave us some notes on the first versions of the script. At no time did I have the feeling that they intruded; they supported us completely and made the series better. In fact, I have always been lucky enough to work with total freedom.
Are there many parallels to contemporary Spain or does this series serve only as a historical story?
Class struggle is something timeless and universal. The same goes for feelings: love, pain, guilt…
How much did you use the original novel by Ildefonso Falcones as a guide to creating the show’s visual style?
I tried to shoot the scenes the way I imagined them when I read the novel. I went back to the novel to remember the feelings I had when I read it for the first time. I also delved into the atmospheric descriptions in the novel. Many of them gave me the right pacing and breakdown I was looking for.
Tell us about production – how did you approach filming this series?
It was very complex, because although the money needed to shoot the series had been collected, it was a very tight budget. That forced us to cut some scenes, which was very painful. I worked hand-in-hand with the production manager and assistant director to adjust the shooting days, locations, CGI and so on according to the budget. But I was sure that I wanted to tell the story in an intimate way and not try to emulate series like Game of Thrones or do things we did not have enough budget for.
Most of the series is shot on location – where did you film and how do you authentically recreate 14th century Spain in the modern day?
We shot in many parts of Spain: Cáceres, Madrid, Segovia, Sos del Rey Católico and Barcelona. The sum of all those locations was going to give us the feeling of period that we needed. We also had a lot of sets on a soundstage.
What was the biggest challenge during filming?
The most important thing was that the audience recognised the novel in the series and did not feel frustrated. So all decisions were made with this in mind. Regarding the production, the castle assault and the sea battle were the most difficult scenes. We were short of money, time and extras, and the CGI budget was also tight. In addition, I didn’t have much experience with those kinds of scenes. The stunt crew saved my life.
The construction of the cathedral was a great challenge as well. Marcelo Pacheco, the production designer, did great work by building the exterior cathedral set over a real cathedral in Cáceres.
What scene stands out as being particularly difficult with the number of extras, and how did you film this?
Without any doubt, the castle assault was the most difficult. We had to make 200 extras seem like more than a thousand people. The three armies involved in the battle were played by the same extras. First we shot one army, then we changed clothes and we shot the other army and so on. It was complex because we only had two days to shoot the entire battle.
Why does Spain continue to be fascinated by period dramas? Will this trend continue?
The historical genre exploded in Spain because of the success of Isabel. So far we have had a lot of period dramas, but not historical. I think period works so well because the audience is moved away from reality in all senses. The music, performances, costume and sets are far from our daily life. It gives the story a unique and poetic point of view.
Of course, it is also a matter of trends. Our market is now in a new cycle where everything is a thriller, but there is always a period series in development or production.
Is your role as a director changing?
I have always worked in the same way; there is nothing I do now that I did not do before. What has changed is technique. Before, almost every series was shot with multiple cameras on a set. Now they are shot in real locations with one or two cameras, like movies.
Is there a second season planned? What are you working on next?
La Catedral del Mar has a second part written: Heirs of the Earth, and we already have an adaptation proposal, but I guess it is still early days given the series is still airing on TV Cataluña and has just launched on Netflix. Now we are about to premiere Matadero, a very Spanish black comedy thriller, for Antena 3 and Amazon Prime Video.
British India-set medical drama The Good Karma Hospital returns for a second season as the eclectic cast of characters face new challenges in their professional and personal lives. DQ goes behind the scenes on location in Sri Lanka.
Setting a feel-good drama in a sun-soaked paradise has proven a fruitful formula for British TV makers. It’s been deployed with success in series from Death in Paradise and The Durrells to Wild at Heart, The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and even Doc Martin.
Most recently it’s been a winner for ITV’s The Good Karma Hospital, which is back this month for a second season. Good Karma’s USP is that it’s a medical drama that offsets its palm-fringed backdrop with emotional stories from a run-down rural Indian hospital. There’s added comfort for viewers in finding familiar faces stationed in this exotic destination, including Amanda Redman and Neil Morrissey.
Set in Kerala in southern India, Good Karma is actually filmed in Unawatuna on Sri Lanka’s west coast to avoid India’s monsoon season. It’s based on the experiences of writer Dan Sefton, who also pens Sky 1’s Delicious and was the man behind last year’s Trust Me with Jodie Whittaker, recently renewed for a second season by BBC1. Accident and emergency doctor Sefton – currently taking a hiatus from medicine due to his writing workload – got the idea from working in a cash-strapped cottage hospital in South Africa after qualifying as a doctor.
DQ is visiting the stiflingly hot set of the drama at the dilapidated Amarasooriya Teachers Training College, which has been taken over for filming. Though set on a busy main road, it’s surrounded by large gardens that bring a blast of colour to the screen, and on which sits a charming open-air shack that serves as the doctors’ café. Off-camera, it’s a different story: dozens of extras mill about, crew members carry cables and lights, and there’s a queue for the food service truck’s fresh coconuts. Ask for one and the man behind the counter takes a machete, whacks the top off a coconut and sticks a straw in it – not a common sight at British craft service tables.
Redman is a regular customer. “I find the best way to deal with the heat and humidity is to keep still and drink coconut water,” says the actor, who works inside the college in temperatures that regularly reach 40°C. “Between scenes I’ll just sit with my coconut water and a fan on my face.”
Redman is Good Karma’s biggest name, playing the outspoken Dr Lydia Fonseca, an ex-pat surgeon with a big heart and brusque manner. Redman is a fixture of British TV, having starred in At Home with the Braithwaites, Mike Bassett: England Manager and New Tricks, and the no-nonsense Fonseca is a character close to her heart. “I love her passion and her warmth,” says Redman. “She says it like it is, which, in an increasingly PC world, is very refreshing.”
Rounding out Fonseca’s staff is handsome-but-surly Dr Gabriel Varma (James Krishna Floyd), Nurse Mari Rodriguez (Nimmi Harasgama) and Anglo-Indian Dr Ruby Walker (Amrita Acharia).
As Greg McConnell, Fonseca’s long-term boyfriend, Morrissey has lucked out – his character owns the local beach bar, which means the bulk of his scenes are played out in an open-air set cooled by Indian Ocean breezes.
Season one dealt with Walker’s impetuous decision to leave her NHS job and emigrate to India, only to find herself at Fonseca’s cash-strapped hospital. To avoid a sophomore slump, Sefton and producers Tiger Aspect had to find new storylines for season two, which begins in the UK this Sunday. Adding to the difficulty of their task was the fact that a major character, Maggie Smart (played by Downton Abbey’s Phyllis Logan), died at the end of season one.
“One of the big decisions we made was not to bring in any new regulars,” explains executive producer Lucy Bedford. “What we felt when reflecting on season one is that we had this amazing core cast, and that the nature of show meant we didn’t get to know them as well as we should have.
“So, along with our robust stories of the week, we also wanted to give a bit of space to the serial elements of the show, with all the characters going on big journeys.” Dr Walker will explore her Indian heritage and Dr Fonseca her inability to commit, while McConnell helps Maggie’s widower, Paul (Phillip Jackson), through his grief.
To ensure the exotic setting remains eye-catching, new filming locations were found for the series, which is distributed globally by Endemol Shine International. Dr Walker has been moved away from her cottage in the rice fields into an urban flat in fictional Barco – filmed in Weligama, a half-hour drive down the coast. “We did it to keep evolving the visual palette of the show and to give Ruby a different connection to the world, because she’s not a tourist anymore,” explains Bedford.
Episodes three and four are set on a lush tea plantation (three different plantations were used) and the final episode features a full-scale Indian wedding with all the regulars in traditional dress. Another big set piece sees Dr Fonseca visit her former medical mentor (played by British stalwart Sue Johnston) on her houseboat, built on a private jetty on nearby Koggala Lake.
The benefit of shooting in Sri Lanka is the low cost of labour and materials that enabled the production to mount big set pieces. For starters, up to 300 extras per day could be hired and clothed, as opposed to 20 to 30 per day in the UK. “The production side is one of the great gifts about shooting out there,” explains Bedford. “Because construction is cheap, we were able to mount these sets we wouldn’t normally be able to. The art department built a full-sized replica Keralan houseboat for the finale, so we could tell an emotional story but in a stunning setting.”
The downsides to filming in the country, says Bedford, are that vehicle hire can be expensive and certain equipment is unavailable – a portable ultrasound machine had to be flown from in the UK. A few actors went down with stomach troubles, and a serious outbreak of dengue fever – a potentially fatal mosquito-borne disease – in Sri Lanka saw two crew members admitted to hospital.
But the benefits of filming in such an alien locale outweigh the drawbacks. Over drinks at their hotel, the actors enthuse and laugh about their encounters with Sri Lanka’s wildlife. Morrissey flashes photos he took of a snake that slithered into his hotel’s lounge and Acharia recounts how she found a scorpion nestled inside her yoga mat. Redman spotted a crocodile in Koggala Lake, though from a safe distance – the houseboat she filmed in had safety nets around it.
Bedford, Sefton and their team are busy working on storylines for Good Karma’s third season, should it be recommissioned. Along with developing the characters’ personal lives, they conduct meticulous research into relevant medical storylines reflecting Indian culture in a bid to provide an engrossing hour of television that has a satisfying emotional payoff but remains upbeat.
Morrissey describes his take on Good Karma’s selling point: “When you’ve got those vistas of Sri Lanka on your 55-inch Samsung, there’s a feelgood factor. At the same time, we show people having serious issues, and it’s good to know that people in far-flung places are having the same problems as you are having at home.”
British gangster drama Peaky Blinders is back for a fourth season, with some new faces and enough action and tension to leave even the most placid viewer a nervous wreck. DQ hears from the cast and creative team about what to expect next from the BBC2 series.
Like a fine wine, Peaky Blinders is getting better with age. But that’s not just my view – it’s one shared by its creator, Steven Knight.
Confident, self-assured and with its own unique swagger, Peaky returns to BBC2 in the UK this week running at full throttle, bypassing any gentle reintroduction to 1920s Birmingham and instead opening as the fates of the series’ heroes (or should that be villains?) are hanging in the balance, the executioner standing close by.
What follows is a spell-binding, bloody and savage hour of drama that sees Tommy, Aunt Polly, Arthur and the rest of the Shelby family estranged, apparently split with no sign of repair, until a new threat – one more determined and sophisticated than they have ever faced – looms large on the horizon. If they are to survive, they must put their differences aside and reunite.
It’s the start of what promises to be another mind-blowing season of an award-wining series that has only grown in critical and popular acclaim since its terrestrial debut in 2013. New fans are arriving every day by catching up with previous seasons on Netflix, with seven million reportedly watching the trailer for season four online.
“As it progresses, this phenomenon doesn’t seem to be running out of steam,” Knight says. “It seems to be getting faster and better and bigger in terms of audience and all that stuff. With the confidence of knowing the actors, the characters and the environment, it makes it a lot easier to be quite bold and confident. Each season gets better and I think this is by far the best.”
Part of that success is down to Knight’s writing, the production design, the music and the star-filled cast it is able to attract. This season sees ever-present Cillian Murphy (Tommy), Helen McCrory (Polly) and Paul Anderson (Arthur) joined by new faces including Adrien Brody (Luca Changretta) and Aidan Gillen (Aberama Gold), while Charlotte Riley (May Carleton) and Tom Hardy (Alfie Solomans) will return.
“It’s odd because we get incoming from the most amazing actors who want to be in it,” Knight reveals about the show, produced by Caryn Mandabach Productions and Tiger Aspect and distributed by Endemol Shine International. “It’s very tempting [to cast them all] but what we don’t want to do is turn it into this celebrity show. Most of them are American so it’s difficult to get them in, but with Adrien, he’s a brilliant actor and he was right for that role so it was good to get him in.”
Charlie Murphy (Happy Valley) also joins the cast as Jessie Eden, based on the real-life women’s rights campaigner of the same name.
“She has an amazing line to introduce the character,” Charlie Murphy says of Jessie’s first appearance, which takes place in the men’s toilet at Tommy’s factory. “It sums her up completely, being in that man’s world, being in the gents’ toilets, having to push forward and make a difference. She is an extraordinary woman.
“It’s strange there is not a lot online to investigate [about her], but the stuff I found… you can imagine what her life was like back then. She brought 10,000 people out on strike for equal pay in her late 20s. That alone today is extraordinary, to have that voice and strength, but back then it would have been phenomenal. She’s a very brave and powerful person to play. That’s so much fun.”
Those sentiments are shared by fellow cast members Cillian Murphy and Anderson. “This part is a gift,” says the former of playing Tommy Shelby. “For any actor to be given a part like this with the excellent calibre of writing and then to be told you can play a character like that for five years, it’s an absolute total privilege. He is quite exhausting, he’s quite demanding. He is really not like me – the furthest away from my personality. But I love him and it’s a privilege.”
Anderson picks up: “Steven writes these interesting, great characters and I have a lot of fun playing Arthur even at his worst, his lowest. It is a lot of joy. It’s really good to do it for such a long time. It’s my first experience of playing a character with this much depth.”
Helming every episode of season four is Irish director David Caffrey, who is finally getting the chance to join Peaky Blinders after missing out on season two due to conflicting schedules. He describes the show as one that “punches above its weight,” owing to its big set pieces, thriller elements and the fact it’s a costume drama despite having a relatively modest budget compared with similar US series.
“Because of the size of the show, you’re standing on the shoulders of the giants that have come before you, all the creative time, directors and production designers,” he explains, adding that the brief coming into a returning series is “always to be bigger, badder, bolder but with the same amount of money.”
“So it’s a question of getting myself, the cameraman, the designers, everybody to just look at what’s in the script and try to build on what’s come before us,” he continues. “I feel quietly confident we’ve done that this season.”
With an established series now fully in its stride, one of the challenges facing a new director can be to lead a team that knows more about the show than they do. But Caffrey (Love/Hate) says he enjoyed learning from the cast and helping them to push their characters forward.
“When you’ve got stars like Paul, Helen and Cillian, they still come to you and are very open about what you want but, in a way, they’re custodians of their characters and how they behave and what situations they find themselves in,” he says. “I learn from them and then I try to give them notes on where we think characters are going. Like anything, when you have a short amount of time, they’ve got to bring their own gift to the party, which they do in abundance.”
According to executive producer Jamie Glazebrook, every season of Peaky Blinders leans on a different genre. So while season one was a western, season two was a gangster movie and the third run drew parallels to a Hitchcockian drama. Back on the streets of the Small Heath slums in season four, which begins tomorrow, viewers can look forward to an action drama that also draws influences from 1952 feature film High Noon, in which an embattled sheriff must face a gang of killers alone.
“They’re under siege so they have to man up and actually get back into the driving seat and away from the country house world and back onto the streets to physically contend with quite a dangerous enemy,” says Glazebrook of the dilemma facing the Shelby family.
Filming took place in Manchester, Liverpool and Bradford, though the return to Small Heath meant the production team faced a dilemma of their own, as many of the locations used in season one have since been developed, forcing them to find alternatives for the location-based shoot.
“The scale of Steve’s writing against our budget and schedule has also been a challenge everyone’s risen to,” Glazebook notes. “We’ve also had to keep it fresh. We’ve seen a lot of shows set in the 1920s so, for example, costume designer Alison McCosh really went out there looking for 1920s dresses that hadn’t been seen before. She went to Rome and found dresses that almost needed to be put back together again because they were rotting away somewhere. Everyone’s really dedicated to making sure the show isn’t like anything else set in the 20s – it’s seen through a particular filter and it’s got that certain magic.”
“The world has changed,” he responds. “I got lucky to get in early with Peaky. Priorities in Hollywood now, everything is changing by the day. The television phenomenon is now of equal importance to writers more than anyone, because writers have the power in TV, whereas they don’t in film. I’ve just finished a film – that’s great, and I love the 90-minute or two-hour length as a piece of work – but there are certain ideas you want 24 hours for, and that’s what television is great for. At the moment, there is an equal weight to both. Part of it is screens. Twenty years ago when people were watching television on those little things, what was the point? Now everybody’s got their big screens, there’s something about the whole thing that’s better.”
Knight has written every episode of Peaky, admitting that the show is so personal, he could never hand it over to someone else. And having won a double commission for seasons four and five, the screenwriter found himself in the rare position of being able to pen the upcoming six new episodes knowing there was still more to come. However, that fifth season, which is likely to begin filming in late 2018 for a debut the following year, looks set to be its last, if the writer’s plans hold firm.
“I know what direction it’s going in and what it’s going to be about,” he reveals. “I’ve always had the same destination in mind. It will be sad to stop and, if five has the same momentum that four has got, or more, maybe you do carry on. But at the moment that’s the plan, to finish at the end of five.
“I know when I want to end it [with the first air raid siren in Birmingham at the start of the Second World War] but that doesn’t necessarily mean that season five will take place in or around that year. I’m thinking there is a way to resolve the story in a certain year and then fast-forward to where it’s going to be.”
Kit Harington stars in and exec produces BBC1’s Gunpowder, which dramatises the plot to kill King James I. Alongside co-star Liv Tyler and the show’s writer and director, he reveals his very personal reason for getting involved.
Most people have at least one black sheep in their family tree, a relative who perhaps earned a less-than-honest living or brought dishonour to the family name with their actions or lifestyle.
However, very few of us can claim to be related to someone who tried to kill the king of England. Step forward Game of Thrones star Kit Harington – a direct descendant of the chief conspirator in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot to assassinate King James I.
For anyone thinking that means Jon Snow himself is related to Guy Fawkes, think again, as while Fawkes was the man caught red-handed guarding the gunpowder under the House of Lords, it was Harington’s “great, great, great, great, great something-or-other” Robert Catesby who actually spearheaded the plot.
As such, it’s Catesby, played by Harington, who is at the forefront of BBC1’s three-part miniseries Gunpowder, which aims to be a faithful dramatisation of the events now marked across the UK every November 5 with fireworks and bonfires.
The Game of Thrones star also executive produced the show, which launches this Saturday at 21.00 – “the Taboo slot” – and was produced by Kudos. Endemol Shine International is the distributor.
Discussing the appeal of the programme, Harington says he “prefers to avoid the term ‘passion project,’” but admits: “Really the idea spawned from a piece of family curiosity, which is that my mother’s maiden name is Catesby, my middle name is Catesby… I was always told, ‘Did you know you were related to the leader of the Gunpowder Plot?’
“More than that, me and Dan [fellow exec producer Dan West] couldn’t really work out why it hadn’t been dramatised. It’s such a significant piece of typically English folklore and we mark it every year, so it seemed odd.”
Indeed, while the gist of the Gunpowder Plot is one of the best-known slices of history in the UK, the facts and detail behind the story are much less widely understood.
With a PhD in history, writer Ronan Bennett is surely better equipped than most TV scribes to bring a truthful account of the events to the small screen. Yet even he admits that, upon being approached to pen the series, “I had forgotten if I ever knew about Catesby; that Catesby was actually the real mastermind of it.”
Bennett adds: “If you ask most people what they know about the Gunpowder Plot, they’ll go, ‘Guy Fawkes tried to blow up parliament’ – something like that – and everything else is empty. People don’t really know anything about it.”
Making the show, therefore, became something of a history lesson for all involved, including the impressive cast, which also boasts Hollywood star Liv Tyler, Sherlock’s Mark Gatiss and Downton Abbey’s Tom Cullen, who plays Fawkes.
“I think I knew more than some people about the Gunpowder Plot, but not a lot,” says Harington. “It was only by doing some research into it that I started to understand who [the conspirators] were.
“[Catesby] is a widower, he doesn’t connect with his son, he’s experiencing huge persecution and he’s a very proud man,” he says of his ancestor who, along with his accomplices, attempted to take drastic action against the king’s discrimination against Catholics. “In some ways, he’s on some kind of a death wish and he pulls a lot of people – some innocent people – with him into this plot.
“It was just fascinating learning about this piece of history.”
Harington also reveals that, as the production went on, his feelings towards the plotter changed significantly, adding that what was once almost a sense of pride over Catesby shifted to feeling “desperately sorry for him.”
“As you will see, he was a deeply sad man who botched the one thing he wanted to do. He fucked it up. Deep down, he was tortured.”
Securing Tyler’s services marked something of a coup for the production, with the high-profile actor only having one other TV series to her name, HBO’s magnificent Damon Lindelof drama The Leftovers.
Now living full time in the UK, having moved to London last year, Tyler’s first UK series sees her play Anne Vaux, who assisted Catholic priests when practising the religion was outlawed.
“I don’t think these guys would have been thinking of me at all for this part, but I read it and I loved it,” she says. “I was really drawn to it. As an American, I know a little about the story but I don’t know everything, and it’s always nice to be learning something.”
As for her convincing English accent, Tyler, who previously had to lose the American twang to play Arwen in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, says it “kind of just came back – it’s like skiing.”
Gunpowder also marked a first for J Blakeson, who became the latest in the ever-growing line of film directors to try their hand at TV when he signed up for the show.
Having helmed features such as The Disappearance of Alice Creed and The 5th Wave, Blakeson says the involvement of big names like Harington, combined with the subject matter, meant it was an “easy decision” to board the project.
“You get a lot of scripts and read them, but very rarely are they ones you want to do. But this one… to read a script where you’re 25 pages in and you’re still in the first scene, it’s a rare thing.
“It was incredibly well written and it had that dream thing for a project, which is that people think they know [the story] and there’s recognition of it, so people are interested in it, but actually you have a story to tell that’s interesting and enlightening and people don’t know it. So there’s a real opportunity there.
“But primarily it was just a really good script and I really liked it.”
A strong sense of authenticity runs through the production, not least in the language, with Bennett explaining that many lines in the script were lifted directly from historical accounts.
That realism also extends to the depiction of the harsh era in which the story unfolds. One scene begins with King James defecating into a bucket just inches from his bed, with the royal stool then being carried away by an unfortunate servant.
But what really stands out in the first episode is the explicit portrayal of capital punishment. Indeed, a grisly and prolonged execution scene is as graphic as anything you’re ever likely to see on the Beeb.
Warts-and-all representation of the era was key to Blakeson, who says: “We have this very nostalgic view of the past, of it being this lovely place, but one of the great things about Ronan’s script is it’s not described as that at all. There’s no indoor plumbing, there’s no sewer system. People would die in the street – death was everywhere. It’s a horrible place.
“So showing the history as being like that – being textured, being lived-in – was quite important. It was like a living, breathing version of history.”
Gunpowder’s story is obviously not one that lends itself to a sequel, but having clearly enjoyed his first taste of exec producing, could more work behind the camera follow for Harington after Game of Thrones concludes?
“Yes,” is the resounding answer from the actor, who has launched prodco Thriker Films along with West and describes Gunpowder as being “like a tester” for projects to come.
“We very much want to continue looking for things, sourcing things, producing things. We’re looking for that next thing now,” he explains. “This was a test to see if, on a personal level, this was something I enjoyed doing, and I did enjoy it very much. I felt so proud of it all the way along, in a way that I find much harder to do as just an actor.”
Still, with Harington’s Catesby bearing Jon Snow’s trademark curly locks and beard, no one could blame the actor for seeking something totally different next time out. “Why I keep desiring to film in cold, muddy places on horses, I have no idea,” he jokes. “It must be something built into me from a past life.”
Kit Harington and Liv Tyler travel back in time as the stars of historical thriller Gunpowder. Production designer Grant Montgomery tells DQ how he recreated 17th century England for the three-part miniseries.
It’s one of the best-known stories in the UK – but a three-part drama aims to shed new light on the people and the politics behind the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.
Every year on November 5, Guy Fawkes Night is marked with bonfires and fireworks to celebrate the discovery of the conspiracy to kill King James I by blowing up the House of Lords during the state opening of parliament in 1605.
The festivities take their name from the man who, having been caught red-handed guarding the gunpowder, became most strongly associated with the plot. But as forthcoming BBC1 drama Gunpowder depicts, Robert Catesby was actually the lead conspirator.
Kit Harington takes the lead as Catesby – of whom the Game of Thrones star is a direct descendant – in a cast that also includes Peter Mullan, Mark Gatiss and Liv Tyler.
But long before the cameras began rolling, it was production designer Grant Montgomery who was tasked with recreating 17th century England.
The series was filmed predominantly at Dalton Mill in Keighley, Yorkshire, where Montgomery also recently recreated Victorian London for horror film The Limehouse Golem.
“The problem with a lot of Elizabethan or Jacobean properties is you can’t recreate them, there aren’t many streets left,” he says. “They don’t really exist. We looked at The Shambles [a period street] in York but to close that down and physically take it over on the budget we had was probably nigh on impossible.
“So essentially we built a backlot at Dalton Mill. Then we built the Tower of London set inside that as well, a cavern where they plot, houses, plus a section of the Palace of Westminster, which is what they were trying to destroy. That was all built in there, we took it over.”
The seven-week shoot took place between February and April this year, but Montgomery estimates just seven or eight days were spent filming on location during that period. The reason, he reveals, was somewhat unusual: “We found that at a lot of locations, we couldn’t burn enough candles. There are a lot of restrictions on a lot of these properties, especially [those owned by the] National Trust. We went to one and we were told we could only light 25 candles, and we wanted to light 150.”
That meant sets were built for Baddersley Clinton, a manor house that served as a refuge for Jesuit priests at the height of Catholic persecution, the king’s bedchamber and spymaster Robert Cecil’s (Gatiss) war room. In total, about 80% of the shoot was filmed on set, which was first built to represent London and was later redesigned as Warwick, where the plot began.
Locations used included Fountains Abbey, in North Yorkshire, which served as both the undercroft beneath the House of Lords where the gunpowder was stored and the exterior for Baddersley. Hadham Hall in Hertfordshire was used for Catesby’s family home.
Location scout Nick Marshall had scoured great swathes of northern England looking for suitable filming sites, but when few possible places turned up, Montgomery and producers Kudos and Thriker Films decided to build the sets instead. That convenient and cost-effective decision also turned out to be a creative masterstroke.
“The more research I did, the more I realised that a lot of the panel work [inside these houses] had been decorated. If you were rich, you painted your panels,” he explains. “So while we didn’t necessarily colour-code them, we started to paint the interiors. It gives it such a distinctive look and the audience also knows where it is at any one point. That’s really important because it’s quite a convoluted plot – it feels like a John le Carré spy story.”
Some sets couldn’t be built, however. The River Thames, for example, was recreated by adding CGI to a section of water in York. “We cheated a bit,” admits Montgomery, whose other small-screen credits include Peaky Blinders, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, Jamaica Inn and Brontë sisters drama To Walk Invisible. “I like to do everything I’m able to [on camera] but as long as you blend live with CGI, you get something that looks interesting. It’s complete CGI shots that have to be really well done [if they are to look believable].”
Throughout the project, authenticity was a keyword for the design team. Montgomery even joined a tour of the Tower of London to ensure the show was as true to its period as possible – even if the truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.
“It has an authenticity because it was there in the language and embedded in the script when I first read it,” the designer says of the show, which is distributed by Endemol Shine International. “It was great to be able to get that muddy London look and to try to keep away from it being super clean. You even see a scene where the king is at his toilet and you just think this must be a really filthy world, even at the court. No wonder they didn’t live long!”
Despite the BBC series, which launches on October 21, not falling on a particularly notable anniversary, Montgomery says the ever-present threat of terrorism in modern-day Europe means this 400-year-old story remains hugely relevant.
“It’s still contemporary,” he concludes. “The questions it asks you are still pertinent – what does the government do to control you? How does it rule? Does it take away people’s liberties? All those questions are bound up within the script.
“I don’t think it’s black and white; it’s much more complex than that, and that makes it a very relevant piece of television. Even though it’s a period piece, it still has something to tell us from the past.”
Casting director Shaheen Baig and executive producer Katie Swinden tell DQ about tapping a host of British stars to appear in Guerrilla, John Ridley’s six-part study of race relations in 1970s London.
It was before 12 Years a Slave, the film that earned him a screenwriting Oscar, that John Ridley began to sow the seeds of a story that would become Guerrilla – an examination of race relations in 1970s London.
Ridley had met Patrick Spence, MD of producer Fifty Fathoms, while he was in the UK capital editing Jimi Hendrix biopic Jimi: All Is by My Side (2013) and as they talked, Ridley’s story about the black movement was transplanted from the US to the UK.
Researchers uncovered information about the Black Power Desk inside the Metropolitan Police in the 70s and suddenly Ridley had something to build a story around. Then the project took a backseat, as Ridley won his Academy Award and partnered with ABC Studios to produce the acclaimed American Crime for ABC.
Such was Ridley’s limited availability that it was five years after those first discussions that Guerrilla finally came to air on Sky Atlantic and Showtime this April. The show was produced by Fifty Fathoms and ABC Signature, and is distributed by Endemol Shine International.
“First and foremost, it was the story we fell for – a love story set during a time of revolution and in a time in the 1970s when you had hope. As a young person, you felt like you could effect change,” says Katie Swinden, executive producer and co-MD of Fifty Fathoms. “That was very seductive to us, just in terms of storytelling. But Patrick and I are both Londoners born and bred and I didn’t know anything about this. So it was slightly shaming, and it’s a part of history we should talk about.”
Guerrilla is described as a love story set against the backdrop of one of the most politically explosive times in UK history. The plot sees Jas (played by Freida Pinto) and Marcus (Babou Ceesay) finding their relationship and values put to the test after they liberate a political prisoner and form a radical underground cell in 1970s London. Their ultimate target becomes the Black Power Desk, a true-life, secretive counterintelligence unit within the Met’s Special Branch dedicated to crushing all forms of black activism.
The cast also includes Rory Kinnear and Daniel Mays as the police officers assigned to the desk, plus Nathaniel Martello-White, Denise Gough, Brandon Scott, Zawe Ashton and Nicholas Pinnock.
With Ridley attached to write and direct most episodes, it was unsurprising that the series was able to attract a starry array of British talent.
But how did casting director Shaheen Baig, who had worked with Swinden previously on Marvellous and Peaky Blinders, begin to piece together the cast that would lead this emotion-packed drama?
“It’s always about script, the people involved, the director and the producers,” she explains. “It has to be. You start with the script first and see the people who are already involved. Early on, we all had a strong sense of what the show wanted to be, and everyone was on the same page about that. The scripts were really vivid, and the more vivid the script, the more detailed the characters and the easier my job is. If each character is really well drawn, it points me in the right direction.”
Baig began with the main ensemble of characters and worked from there, breaking down the characters, discussing ideas and auditioning several actors for those central roles.
“We saw a lot of actors for Marcus and Jas,” she recalls. “There were lots of different ways you could have played the couple. Then we just started to pick the strongest reads and what felt natural. There was something really exciting about Babou and Freida. Babou is such a quiet, detailed actor and there’s something about watching an actor like that. Maybe he’s a new face for many people who will develop and grow over the series, and I thought that was really exciting.”
“Pretty much across the board, John wanted actors, even if they were supporting roles – so we were asked to cast ‘Man in stairwell,’” she continues. “It’s about casting interesting characters because when you watch it, you can see these moments where it lands because the actor was really vivid. There were a lot of really tiny moments where he wanted actors.”
One actor already heavily involved behind the scenes was Luther star Idris Elba, who was an executive producer on Guerrilla through his company Green Door Pictures. It wasn’t until much later, however, that he took his involvement in front of the camera as well.
“As John was an American writing a British story, we all felt we needed a producer who could make sure it felt authentic and truthful, and Idris was absolutely the right fit,” Swinden says. “We sat down and talked it through, he met with John, so he came on as an exec producer. But then, of course, it’s hard not to go, ‘Is there a role for him?’
“He and John found a role that inspired both of them. That’s how the casting came about, but we had a really tiny window between a couple of movies where [Elba] could come back over [to the UK], and we worked him into the ground for seven days! Nobody ever wanted to cast him as the lead. It always felt like the story was about two young people concentrating on their relationship and what they stand for in the world. As much as we love Idris, casting from the beginning wasn’t towards him and we would have had to twist the show quite substantially to make it one he could have been a lead in.”
Once the majority of the casting was in place, Ridley led mini read-throughs from six weeks before filming began so whoever had been cast would come together to read the script, allowing him to edit it as he felt necessary.
“That was an incredibly helpful process for the cast but also for John in that he was constantly rewriting as he went,” Swinden says. “That was the real joy of having a director, writer and creator in one person – he was constantly listening to feedback and absorbing, tweaking and polishing it the whole time.”
The desire to secure such a talented cast, however, led to a challenging shooting schedule as the production team attempted to align actors’ schedules.
“Rory Kinnear was amazing because he was shooting during the day and then at night he was on stage at the National Opera,” Swinden adds. “It was extraordinary. There was lots of that going on. But the biggest challenge was how to find down-and-dirty 1970s London in gentrified London. There’s not many pockets left. We mostly filmed on the outer edges of Hackney [in east London] and a little in south London, but we moved a lot.”
For Baig, who is also casting Channel 4/Amazon anthology series Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams and Elba-led feature film Yardie, the process stays the same across both films and TV series, though the number of small-screen dramas currently in production means the demand for actors is increasingly fierce.
“The television industry at the moment is so healthy, it’s sort of overflowing because you’ve got so many different outlets and there’s a huge amount being made,” she notes. “Film is still tough. It’s a hard climate unless you’ve got one of the five actors who greenlight films.
“Television is very competitive. I’ve never known quite so many scripts around. It’s bonkers – good but very busy.”
Dutch drama Brussel (Brussels) sees the powerful and powerless collide against the backdrop of the city at the heart of the European Union. DQ speaks to the writer, director and producer of this landmark 10-part series.
From the opening credits, it’s immediately clear that Brussel (Brussels) is more than just a political drama set in the confines of the European Parliament. Against the landmarks and monuments of the eponymous Belgian capital, an eagle swoops through the air, a wolf drinks blood from the pavement and a snake slithers along a cobbled street.
Then suddenly, the animation builds to a crescendo where animals attack – a lion savages a zebra, the snake swallows up a mouse, a leopard drags a horse to the ground.
It’s a startling opening sequence that hints at what is to come in this series, with characters out for blood in an increasingly high stakes game of lobbying, deal-making and conspiracies. Just minutes into the first episode, one character is told: “Happy hunting.”
Director Arno Dierickx explains: “We have tried to use the city of Brussels, where all the power is located, as an arena for where animals are very active. There are strong powerful animals and little animals that get eaten. It’s obviously a metaphor for what is going to happen in the course of the season.
“It starts off almost conventional; it’s a political drama with a little bit of corruption going around. But the story quite quickly explodes in all directions involving Afghanistan, the Congo, the north of Africa and Holland. So it’s much more than Brussels. The topics are terrorism, immigration, big money, oil, corruption and power structures inside the EU, so it’s very complex. It’s very difficult to summarise what this series is about!”
The series opens with oil power broker Moniek van Dalen (played by Johanna ter Steege), who is seeking EU support for a new project in Brussels until Viktor Petrenko (Alexander Lazarev), a Ukrainian billionaire and Moniek’s former lover, succeeds in scuppering her ambitions and restarting their affair.
When a plane carrying Pjotr, the fiancé of Moniek’s daughter Nadja, disappears over the Pacific on its way to an environmental conference, Nadja becomes caught up in conspiracy theories about Viktor, believing many of his enemies were also onboard. But what she doesn’t know that he is also her biological father.
Produced by Endemol Shine Netherlands, Brussels was created and written by Dutch writer Leon de Winter and directed by Dierickx. Debuting in January this year, it is the first original series commissioned by Dutch telco company KPN for its new OTT service and is distributed worldwide by Endemol Shine International.
The concept of Brussels was triggered by the series that launched another streaming platform, US giant Netflix. De Winter “adores” House of Cards, the drama starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright that debuted in 2013 and takes viewers inside the corridors of power in Washington DC.
“After seeing the first season, I thought, ‘We have our own DC and it’s called Brussels,’” he says. “It really triggered my imagination. I was full of admiration for [the show], it’s truly a masterpiece.
“So I went to Brussels to meet with people, talk to lobbyists, parliamentarians and the federal police and slowly started to collect material, although I wasn’t sure what to do with it. Was it a novel, was it a film or a TV series? But I was confronted with so many different types of people, cultures and languages that it had to be a TV series. So I started to develop a treatment and build all these various storylines over two years or so, and a little bit later I started writing all the episodes.”
Politics alone wasn’t enough for de Winter, who decided to put a family conflict at the centre of the series: “It’s so essential for human beings and there are great TV series that are built around family relationships – and that’s how we start up the main storyline of the mother, the father and the child. It can be very complicated, as it is in this story, but House of Cards and even [Danish drama] Borgen are not about politics, it’s always about human relationships, hate, love, greed, hope and deception.”
Looking for a director to partner with, de Winter was impressed by Dierickx’s previous credits (Russen, Overspel) and, as a stranger to the city, he loved the fact Dierickx had spent 10 years living in Brussels as the son of a European politician.
He grew more impressed when he saw the director in action: “I was preparing to be a writer on set and to bother him as much as possible but, on the very first day, the actors did the first rehearsal and it was terrible,” de Winter recalls.
“I thought it was so bad – then he sat down with them for 15 or 20 minutes, they came back and did a first take and it was absolutely brilliant. I realised he really knew what he was doing. I still don’t know how he did it, but he did! Day after day, whatever the scene was, in a short space of time, he brought an excellence with his cast. So I thought I should not bother him, it’s his thing. I saw the dailies, I discussed it with him but I was truly happy and for me it was one of the most amazing experiences as a writer to work with Arno.”
Dierickx says he was drawn to the show by the opportunity to work with de Winter, a writer and columnist who first invited the director to discuss the series before he first put pen to paper.
“We did this whole show in a very short period of time,” he reveals. “From nothing to the finished 10 episodes, it was one-and-a-half years, which is incredibly short. It meant the script wasn’t finished before we started shooting. And during shooting, things kept changing and we kept adapting. It’s like a kaleidoscope – any way you turn it, it’s confusing but brilliant at the same time.”
Dierickx admits he is known as a difficult director because he challenges actors to step out of their comfort zone, believing they are more likely to excel in a role when they play someone completely different from themselves.
“If they can say it’s not really me, it’s much easier for them,” he says. “There is a lot of open dialogue and I have certain things in mind about characters, but as soon as we get to do the actual work, I’m only looking at whether I’m intrigued. This story was so kaleidoscopic and it was going in all directions that the only thing I could do was treat each scene as if it was the most important scene in the whole show.
“There were no transition scenes, no scenes that were less important. Every scene for me was as important as the other and maybe that helped to make it a show that is very diverse. It created a lot of opportunities in the edit to create different styles – from very stylistic, slow-paced and neatly composed to completely chaotic.”
Iris Boelhouwer, CEO of producer Endemol Shine Netherlands, describes Brussels as a “very special commission” due to the fact it was KPN’s first series and “the biggest commission in Dutch drama history, budget-wise.”
She continues: “The other thing that was new about this project was they believed in Leon. He had this idea for a drama series about this powerful city and the people who work in it – but he didn’t work along the lines of a regular drama series. Sometimes it drove the producers mad, but I can say that now because we had a happy ending!
“In the beginning, we said it might be eight episodes, 10 episodes, 12 episodes – it all depended on the rhythm of the story and how we felt as we were shooting it. That was quite a difficult way to work, but we managed quite nicely and delivered a 10-part series.”
With a budget of €7m (US$7.6m), Brussels was made for “absolutely nothing,” according to Dierickx, who says KPN “gave us the money and told us to come back when it was finished.”
In fact, De Winter, Dierickx and Boelhouwer all describe working with KPN as a “dream,” thanks to the complete freedom the creative team had to deliver the show they wanted to make.
“There was a tremendous amount of freedom for us to do whatever we wanted and as long as it fitted in the budget, there were no questions asked,” Dierickx says. “Even when we presented it to the network, it was just to show them what we had done. It wasn’t to discuss the edit or what they might not like. It was clear they also wanted it like that.
“We really believe you need this freedom to do something out of the ordinary and not fall into the trap of doing the same things over and over again. We tried to play with this phenomenon of binge-watching, where you’re watching it like you would read a book. We called them chapters, not episodes, and they have different lengths – which is common these days but in Holland it’s quite new. Also, we didn’t end every chapter with a classic cliffhanger, and we suddenly introduce completely new characters or Africa and slowly you understand there is a tie to other stories.”
That’s not to say it was not without the challenges that come with shooting in 98 locations in just 90 days, with a script featuring 126 speaking characters. Tragically, the production became complicated further on just the second day of filming when suicide bombers targeted the Belgian capital’s airport and a metro station, killing 32 people and injuring more than 300 others.
“We were very close to the subway station where it happened, which made it even more complex,” Boelhouwer explains. “We had all these scenes prepared but Brussels didn’t become an easier city to shoot a drama production in after the attacks, obviously. It was a complicated series to make. Now we can say it all worked out but during the whole process, I had a nightmare or two.
“At one point before we started shooting, I accused Leon of being Nostradamus because in the original script, there was a final scene in which a group of terrorists attacked Paris in a brasserie. It was a shooting, before The Bataclan attack [in November 2015]. So when this idea became close to reality, it changed a bit because it was a bit too close to home. In the end, it’s just a drama about people and their lives, with the arena of Brussels, so we never considered stopping.”
De Winter describes the making of Brussels as an “amazing adventure – the type of project you can only dream of, with enormous artistic freedom. I also tried to do all the things I’ve been dreaming of doing since I started to realise that modern TV series are a fully grown, completely mature new art form. That’s an amazing development that’s taken place in the last three decades and has brought TV series to the same level as literature. The modern TV series is as interesting, fascinating and expressive as the great 19th century novels.”
He is now prepping storylines and scenes for a potential second season, though he is still waiting for the official greenlight. “I hope it will be official very soon,” he adds.
From Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley, Guerrilla is a love story set against the backdrop of one of the most politically explosive times in UK history. It tells the story of a couple whose relationship and values are tested when they liberate a political prisoner and form a radical underground cell in 1970s London.
Their ultimate target becomes the Black Power Desk, a true-life, secretive counter-intelligence unit within Special Branch dedicated to crushing all forms of black activism.
Leading couple Babou Ceesay and Freida Pinto, who play Marcus and Jas, discuss their characters and their roles in the ensuing struggle, why they both wanted to work with Ridley, diversity in television and why this story is more than relevant in the present day.
Guerrilla is produced by Fifty Fathoms and ABC Signature for Sky Atlantic and Showtime, and is distributed by Endemol Shine International.
For more about Guerrilla, read DQ’s interview with series creator John Ridley here.
Director Bill Eagles and cinematographer Michael Snyman discuss their work and partnership on ITV’s new India-set medical drama The Good Karma Hospital, and reveal the challenges of filming on location in Sri Lanka.
For the cast and crew of a television drama, there can be worse places to spend a 12-week shoot than on location in idyllic Sri Lanka.
The island doubles for neighbouring India in The Good Karma Hospital, a six-part medical drama for UK broadcaster ITV. But while they were able to capture its luscious landscapes and striking sunsets, lead director Bill Eagles and director of photography Michael Snyman say filming in Sri Lanka posed a unique set of challenges.
“It was very exhausting,” Eagles admits. “The heat and the weather meant there were quite a lot of early nights but very early starts. The sun came up about 07.00 and went down around 18.00, so to get an 11-hour day we had to begin shooting at dawn. So we were up at 05.00 for hair and makeup and for me to prowl the set. By the end of the day, because of the heat and the rain, people were exhausted.”
The show tells the story of junior doctor Ruby Walker (played by Amrita Acharia), who leaves the UK to join the over-worked staff of the run-down Good Karma Hosptial. Led by eccentric Brit Lydia Fonseca (Amanda Redman), the cottage hospital is the beating heart of the community and soon becomes home from home home for Ruby.
The cast also includes Neil Morrissey, Phyllis Logan, James Floyd, Darhsan Jariwalla and Sagar Radia.
Produced by Tiger Aspect, the series was created and written by Dan Sefton (Delicious), with scripts from Vinay Patel and Nancy Harris. Stephen Smallwood produces, with exec producers Will Gould, Frith Tiplady and Iona Vrolyk. Endemol Shine International distributes internationally.
“When I first got the script, I thought they’d sent it to the wrong guy!” jokes Eagles, who directs the first four episodes, with Jon Wright picking up the final pair. With a background in series such as CSI, Gotham, The Mentalist and Strike Back, he admits he has a reputation for blowing people up or setting them on fire – and there was none of that in the Sefton’s scripts.
“But it came from Tiger, who I’d worked for the previous summer on a low-budget but incredibly well-written ensemble cop show called Cuffs,” he continues. “I did the car chases in that and it played into my background as an action and crime director, but it also had quite nuanced dramatic scenes with really interesting cast members. Obviously Tiger saw something in the way I delivered that and thought, ‘Why not?’
“The last show I did before this was an episode of Gotham, so this was a breath of fresh air and I absolutely loved the script. To feel the quality of Dan Sefton’s writing – so economical, so dense in story but so rich in character… he knew that if we could get this right, it would play with the heartstrings and it would have you raising your hopes with the characters, crying with their despair but feeling a sense of new hope, a new dawn as they face their troubled lives and overcome emotional obstacles along the way. I was really impressed that Tiger came to me and it was perfect timing for what I wanted to do.”
Eagles says he was particularly drawn to the project by Sefton’s “sophisticated” scripts, plus the interplay between Redman’s eccentric matriarch and Acharia’s naive, wistful and optimistic stranger abroad.
He continues: “If you’re shooting Casualty or a British hospital show, there’s only so many types of people who you can really bring in through the hospital doors. But, of course, if you set it in the backwaters of an Indian town, you’ve got a wonderful, rich array of characters, both rich and poor, European and local, with cultural issues and issues of custom and religion.
“Then, of course, it’s set in India. As a director, I have shot all around the world, a lot in Britain and the backstreets of LA but, actually, it doesn’t quite compare to the possibilities of a beautiful sunset over the Indian ocean, an epic vista from the top of a mountain over a jungle or having an early morning mist rise over paddy fields that seem to go on forever. These are landscapes to which any director would give their back teeth to point a camera at. The mission was to make it epic and make it feel like we were taking the audience on a journey.”
Unusually, Eagles chose to mix up the production by shooting episodes three and four first, rather than beginning with the first two, as might have been expected. But there was good reason behind his thinking. Often with a new series, particularly in the US, a single pilot is commissioned, meaning there is just one episode to set up the story. But with The Good Karma Hospital’s full season being ordered from the start, Eagles reasoned that by jumping ahead, the cast would have time to refine their performances and fully embody their characters before filming the opener.
“That really did play to our strengths and to our advantage,” he says. “Often you don’t get the chance because you have to shoot the first one to sell it to a broadcaster. But in this instance, it was great. And while we’re very happy with episodes three and four, we did learn along the way. So when it came to making the opening episode, which will make or break the series, we were so super confident about where we were with our characters and storytelling. What the audience will make of it, who knows, but at least we have no regrets.”
That process was made easier due to Eagles’ partnership with his director of photography, Michael Snyman (The Night Manager, Of Kings and Prophets). The pair had previously worked together in South Africa on Strike Back – Snyman was then a camera operator – so when they landed together in Sri Lanka, there was already a shorthand between them that meant they could hit the ground running.
“Mike is a consummate artist with light. He’s also incredibly inventive and he’s a wonderful force of energy on the set,” Eagles says. “He and I never go to a scene without both of us having read it, understood it and known what it’s about. He never offers up a shot that gets in the way of storytelling. The camera serves the action, the emotion and the meaning of a scene. Sometimes you will be offered a super-cool, creative shot by a DOP but actually it’s getting in the way of the scene. He totally gets it, so it was a joy to join forces with him. He keeps the energy of his crew high and he’s prepared to work fast on a ridiculously tight TV schedule.”
Snyman says the “big idea” behind shooting Good Karma was to embrace India through the show’s Sri Lankan location – a teacher-training college in Galle, two hours from the capital Colombo – and taking the camera outside as much as possible.
“A lot of interior scenes were moved outside just to get out of that hospital because, if you shoot two or three episodes there, you start to shoot the same rooms and beds over and over again,” he reveals. “Breaking that mould was very beneficial for us. So we moved a lot of scenes outside just to see the country because it’s so beautiful. It’s so green and luscious.”
Working outside in the heat provided its own problems, of course, but it meant the crew agreed to shift the filming schedule.
Snyman explains: “We started off shooting an 11-day fortnight but a lot of people weren’t able to sustain that pace. So we suggested we’d be better working a five-day week with 12-hour days, which makes up for that extra day – which the producers embraced, thank God, because it was getting very taxing. It was just too hot to work at that pace. You get in in the morning and by 06.30 you’re sweating, and you get home at night at 19.30 and you’re sweating. It was very difficult for a few people.”
Beyond the heat, there was also the issue of Sri Lanka’s near non-existent production infrastructure, meaning much of the crew with whom Eagles and Snyman worked had no experience in television. “It was quite interesting to see the crew develop through the show,” Snyman says. “How they took up the lead on things was just magnificent. By the end of the show, they were comparable to [production crews] anywhere around the world.”
Eagles chips in: “Making six hours of high-end European TV is not something anybody even remotely near us was used to, but we did take in a lot of local crew and it was great. Our gaffer was training some of the people on his team in electricity and cabling, and Mike and his camera department had people.
“Often we had 100 to 150 extras on set and none of them had ever done any extra work before. So just explaining why we needed them to walk from here to there and that they had do it again and again, and telling them not to bump into the cast or stand between the camera and the cast, that took a bit of time.”
The number of extras swelled to more than 1,000 during an episode that required a recreation of the Hindu festival of Holi, which Eagles describes as a “massive rave” featuring dancers, drummers and two elephants.
To meet the demand, production staff were sent out to nearby beaches to find holidaymakers who could join the festival scenes alongside the mass of locals.
“It was the most massive endeavour, and there was a certain amount of trepidation – how could we pull this off?” Eagles admits. “We had two elephants that day as well. It was quite late in the shoot and, even though we were dealing with 1,000 people, most of whom had not done any extra work before, it’s a spectacular sequence and it worked brilliantly. That was a tribute to everyone learning along the way and to working with people who were hungry to learn. It was an epic thing to pull off and very cool that we managed it.”
Likely to draw comparisons to BBC detective drama Death in Paradise, which sees a British police officer relocated to the (fictitious) Caribbean island of Saint Marie, The Good Karma Hospital promises to provide a burst of colour in the dreary winter months when it debuts on February 5.
“That’s what ITV are looking for – a show that will make you laugh, make you cry and send you home feeling warm and happy with the world,” Eagles surmises. “It’s a little bit of escapism but it’s an emotional treat with a bit of humour along the way. It was really fun to make.”
Snyman adds: “I think people will really enjoy it. We didn’t hold back, we did the best with what we had and the crew can be very proud of what they produced. Sri Lanka and its people did us proud. I was proud to be a part of it.”
Nordic drama has made its mark on the international stage over the last few years. But what’s coming next? A good source of information is the Nordisk Film & TV Fund, which provides regular updates on shows in development, production and distribution. So this week we look at some of the latest developments from the region.
Next Summer: Bob Film is remaking Norwegian comedy Next Summer for Kanal5/Discovery in Sweden. The original version aired on TVNorge/Discovery and was one of the country’s most popular local TV dramas. The Swedish remake, which will air in 2017, centres on a man who shares a summer house with his wife and in-laws in Stockholm’s archipelago. Bob Film also remade the Finnish drama Nurses for TV4 Sweden. That show, known locally as Syrror, launched on October 19, attracting an audience of one million. It’s part of wider trend of local Nordic adaptations that also includes Gåsmamman and Black Widows. Bob Film is also working with Sweetwater on a crime drama called Missing (Saknad) for CMore and TV4, which focuses on the investigation into the murder of a young girl in a Swedish Bible-belt town.
Bonusfamiljen (The Bonus Family): Nordisk Film & TV Fond has just allocated a total of NOK9.4m (US$1.14m) to a slate of new film and TV projects. One of them is season two of The Bonus Family, a comedy drama about a recomposed family and the complications that go with it. Season one is due to air on SVT in 2017, as well as on NRK, YLE, RUV and DR. Season two, granted NOK2.4m (US$290,000), started filming in September and will continue until February 2017.
Downshifters: This Finnish series has just secured a French sales rep (ACE Entertainment) while Sweden’s Anagram has optioned remake rights for its own market. The 10-part comedy from Yellow Film & TV has been generating a good buzz since it launched on OTT service Elisa in late 2015. More recently, it aired on YLE2 and established itself as the second most watched programme. The series tells the story of a couple who face financial problems and are forced to cut down on their extravagant lifestyle. A second series, Upshifters, will launch on Elisa in December 2016.
The Rain: News of this Danish show has been doing the rounds in the last couple of weeks. Produced by Miso Film (Dicte, 1864, Acquitted), The Rain is a dystopian drama commissioned by Netflix. The series is set in Copenhagen 10 years after a biological catastrophe that wipes out most of the population in Scandinavia and sees two young siblings embark on a search for safety. Guided only by their father’s notebook about the virus and the hazards of this new world, they start a dangerous journey through the country and join up with a group of other young survivors. Miso has had a busy few months, with the second season of Acquitted recently launching on TV2 in Norway.
Midnight Sun: This Swedish/French crime show recently debuted to 1.39 million viewers (38.1% share) on SVT1 in the Sunday 21.00 slot. According to the channel, this performance is comparable with The Bridge (Bron/Broen). Midnight Sun also trended at number two on Twitter – and online viewers, which are still to be added to the count, could pass 200,000. The show also secured strong reviews in the Swedish media, with five stars out of five in Aftonbladet. Elsewhere in Scandinavia, Midnight Sun will premiere on RUV on December 5. DR, NRK and MTV3 are likely to air the show, which is distributed internationally by StudioCanal, in early 2017.
Nobel: Trapped and Nobel were among 26 European fiction TV series selected for the Prix Europa Media awards last month. Trapped, an Icelandic crime show, won Best European TV Series while Nobel, a Norwegian political/war drama, won Best European TV Movie/Miniseries. Nobel was described as “a precisely crafted original script, perfectly executed and directed, that takes the viewer on a journey into a world of lies, betrayal, mistrust and political games.” Produced by Monster Scripted for NRK, Nobel secured 800,000 viewers for its first episode across NRK1 and NRK streaming service NRK.TV. Both Trapped and Nobel were supported by Nordisk Film & TV Fond. Nobel was directed by Per Olav Sørensen, who also directed The Heavy Water War.
Heartless: In a recent interview with The Nordisk Film & TV Fond, SVoD service Walter Presents’ curator Walter Iuzzolino said 25-30% of the platform’s shows are from Scandinavia. In terms of titles doing well, he mentioned Heartless: “Our curated programme goes way beyond the tradition of Nordic Noir that has been established by the BBC. I would say that 30% of our audience is 16 to 34, the rest 35-plus. The sexy Danish vampire series Heartless, for example, was a huge hit among 16-24s. Normally I hate fantasy and sci-fi but it’s elegant, poetic, cleverly done and an interesting portrayal of a family – a sort of vampire version of The Legacy. It was a huge success, pushed only by word of mouth.”
Watchdog: At last month’s Mipcom market in Cannes, ZDF Enterprises announced an exclusive first-look rights deal for all scripted content from the Finnish producer Fisher King. Matti Halonen, Fisher King MD and producer, said: “ZDF Enterprises is a well-established company that can give a lot of support to a smaller player like Fisher King.” The first joint project that ZDFE is working on is the upcoming political thriller series Watchdog. Set in present-day Helsinki, The Hague and London, it’s described as an adrenaline trip into the heart of European justice policy and security regulations concerning source protection and privacy insurance. Fisher King is also behind Bordertown, which is represented worldwide by Federation Entertainment and has been sold to Sky Deutschland and CanalPlay France, while English-language series Crypted is also in its pipeline.
Deadwind: Paris-based financing and distribution boutique About Premium Content (APC) recently picked up Finnish crime drama Deadwind. The 12-part series is about a detective in her 30s who is trying to get over her husband’s death when she discovers the body of a young woman on a construction site. At Mipcom, APC launched Norwegian drama thriller Valkyrien, which is produced by Tordenfilm for NRK. It also distributes another Norwegian show, the youth-oriented Young & Promising, which was recently sold to the UK, Germany and France and has a US deal is in negotiation.
Dan Sommerdahl: This autumn it was announced that Nikolaj Scherfig (The Bridge) would be co-creator/head-writer on Dan Sommerdahl, a new series based on Danish author Anna Grue’s bestselling book series. Distributor Dynamic Television (Trapped) is pre-selling the series on behalf of Germany’s NDF and Denmark’s Nordisk Film. TV2 Denmark is attached and a German broadcaster will soon be announced. Scherfig said the project is different from classic Scandi noir: “It is a tight, clean crime series reflecting on life outside cities understanding how modernity and social development affect life in the province.” Klaus Zimmermann, Dynamic co-MD, told nordicfilmandtvnews.com: “NDF originally acquired the rights to the books and wanted to make it in the tradition of a German crime series with German actors for an international market. But then we felt it made more sense to make it as an original Danish show with a Danish writer and Danish actors. It’s simply the right way to tell the story.”
Hassel: Speaking to the Nordisk Film & TV Fond about Viaplay’s strategy for coproducing original content for the Nordic region, CEO Jonas Karlén said upcoming original Nordic scripted series on Viaplay include Swedish Dicks, Svartsjön/Black Lake, Hassel, Our Time Is Now and Occupied season two. Hassel is a Nordic noir starring Ola Rapace as the iconic detective created by author Olov Svedelid. The show is produced by Nice Drama in coproduction with Beta Film, which handles global sales, and is due to launch in late 2017.
Spring Tide: Eight brand new Nordic TV dramas have been selected for The Lübeck Festival’s Nordic Film Days. “TV drama is the big new thing. It was time for us to open up our festival to TV series, as Germans are so fond of Nordic noir,” said the festival’s long-time artistic director Linde Fröhlich. Shows to be introduced include Splitting Up Together (DK), Living with my Ex (FI), Trapped (IS), Nobel (NO), and Modus, Hashtag and Spring Tide (SE). The latter crime drama, based on the novel by Rolf and Cilla Börjlind, is about two cops who come together to solve the murder of a pregnant woman. The show is distributed internationally by Endemol Shine International.
Below the Surface: This is a new drama based on an idea by Adam Price (Borgen) and Søren Sveistrup (The Killing) – now principals in Studiocanal-backed firm SAM. The thriller series centres on an operation to rescue 15 hostages from a Copenhagen subway train. Price and Sveistrup said: “There is something both eerie and fascinating about [taking hostages] as a criminal act. The close and complex relationship between the hostage and hostage-taker immediately opens up strong character-development possibilities and can also put a number of highly topical issues about our time to the forefront, such as fear of terrorism.“ The eight-part series has received DKK14m (US$2.08m) in production support from the DFI’s Public Service Fund and will air on Kanal5/Discovery Networks.
Skam: Cult Norwegian youth series Shame (Skam) launched on NRK and was recently acquired by DR3 for Denmark. Danish newspaper Politiken called it “a youth series about high-school life that makes Norway cool for the first time.” Steffen Raastrup, director of DR3, said: “The series’ premise is that when you’re young, you should not be ashamed of who you are but stand up for yourself and deal with the fear that many feel during their formative teen years.” Skam – which is now up to three seasons in Norway and is a strong performer on social media – has also been acquired by SVT in Sweden and RUV in Iceland.
Interference: This is an eight-part English- and French-language sci-fi thriller in development by Stockholm-based Palladium Fiction. Palladium, which is minority-controlled by Sony Pictures Television (SPT), is producing the show alongside Atlantique Productions. SPT is distributing the show internationally. The Palladium team was also behind the critically acclaimed drama Jordskott, and is now working on a second season of the show. Palladium is also developing an English-language project with UK writer/producer Nicola Larder.
Established in 1990 and based in Oslo, the Nordisk Film & TV Fond’s primary purpose is to promote film and TV productions of high quality in the five Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden). It is funded by 17 partners: The Nordic Council of Ministers, five national film institutes/funds and 11 public service and private TV stations within the region. Its annual budget is approximately NOK100m.