Fox Networks Group’s first regional scripted commission for Europe and Africa, Deep State is a contemporary, international espionage thriller.
It tells the story of an ex-spy, played by Mark Strong, who is brought back into the field to avenge the death of his son. He finds himself grappling with his personal and professional lives – and becomes embroiled in a conspiracy between governments and big business.
In this DQTV interview, Strong and creator and showrunner Matthew Parkhill discuss making the series and explain how they put a family drama at the heart of a global conspiracy.
Parkhill also describes how real-world events influenced his writing process and his role as a showrunner. They also talk about the merits of film and television and why they now don’t differentiate between the two.
Deep State, which launches on April 5, is produced by Endor Productions for Fox Networks Group Europe and Africa and distributed by Fox Networks Group Content Distribution.
Look to the past to find a good story, says Stephen Poliakoff, as a bomb-damaged hotel in post-war London provides the stage for his latest BBC drama, Close to the Enemy.
In this burgeoning world of multinational, cross-cultural scripted drama – where Canal+ makes Versailles as an English-language show, Deutschland 83 plays on US primetime and Scandinavian writers and directors are in charge of half the UK’s output – there’s a risk that nations will forget exactly what’s unique about their home-produced drama.
In the UK, if they ever forget, they can simply watch the latest from Stephen Poliakoff: the patron saint and reigning heavyweight champion of high-quality British drama.
In a career that’s ranged from radical 1970s theatre through intense movies about incest to scathing assaults on the nation’s disregard for its own culture and history, Poliakoff’s early years were spent writing for the stage and the big screen.
For the past 20 years, however, he has concentrated on writing and directing for television. Quirkiness and eccentricity have always been present in Poliakoff’s work – his love of elaborate montage sequences, odd juxtapositions of sound and image, and extended narratives have always seemed more comfortable on serialised television than his earlier, slightly over-complex movies.
For his latest project – Close to the Enemy, pictured top – the writer effectively mounts a dramatist’s investigation into the post-war recruiting of Nazi scientists to serve the West. It’s becoming a theme of Poliakoff’s work – revisiting the crucible of the 20th century with ambitious projects about appeasers in the British ruling elite like Glorious 39 or the overlap between the Jazz Age and fascist princes in Dancing on the Edge. Where do such ideas begin?
“I usually start with a moment in time – in this case when the victorious Allies, the Americans, the Russians and the Brits, were literally seizing scientists off the streets of Germany, bringing them over here and giving them new identities so the world didn’t discover what they’d been up to during the war,” he explains.
What follows is a period of intense research from the sweeping vista of history to the daily minutiae of life. Poliakoff worked through the history of these street snatches – the British nabbed several hundred, which was dwarfed by the industrial scale of the Americans and the Russians, who took thousands – but also realised that, despite the tradition of post-war movies showing London as grey and foggy, the reality was that the absence of so many buildings meant the light was blindingly bright, and this shapes the look of the show.
“I start with the situation but then try to develop it into a gallery of memorable characters facing complex decisions in difficult situations. At seven hours, this is the longest thing I’ve ever done so the story has to be as compulsive as you can make it. I try to work purely through character, rather than making ranty points about torture or war crimes. I mean, it is fascinating that we were torturing people after the war but it’s not the real journey of the show.”
Many of Poliakoff’s scripts, it’s interesting to note, are about the perfidy of the British establishment. It’s a problem he returns to partly because of his own curious relationship with the British elite. “A lot of people would say I was very much a member of the British establishment,” he says. “I was brought up in very English landscapes and had a classic public-school, Cambridge education.”
The son of a Russian émigré businessman and aristocratic Anglo-Jewish actor, Poliakoff was packed off to boarding school in Kent at the age of eight, where he encountered plenty of low level anti-Semitism – both putting him at the heart of the elite and giving him an outsider’s perspective.
Some argue that his education explains the leeway he has at the BBC – suggesting a sort of old boys’ favour system that allows him the scope to deliver slow-moving but compelling dramas like Shooting the Past, which flew in the face of accepted broadcasting wisdom at the time.
Although it’s true, Poliakoff concedes, that the BBC grants him an enormous amount of freedom, he insists he won this himself: “I think the BBC trusts me and I hope it has been mutually beneficial. The great thing about that freedom is that I can cast whom I like and I actually have a very good track record of discovering stars – I’m like a talent spotter for the BBC.”
Poliakoff gave early breaks to Gemma Arterton, Tom Hardy, Matthew Macfadyen, Rebecca Hall, Ruth Wilson, Clive Owen and Emily Blunt, who won a Golden Globe for her role in Gideon’s Daughter. The BBC consulted him over casting Jenna Coleman as Doctor Who’s most recent assistant, Clara, after he helped discover her in Dancing on the Edge.
In Close to the Enemy, produced by Little Island Productions and Endor Productions for BBC2, he has cast Jim Sturgess as an intelligence officer charged with recruiting August Diehl’s German scientist to help the RAF develop the jet engine. Freddie Highmore plays Sturgess’s shellshocked younger brother, Charlotte Riley plays his best friend’s fiancée and Phoebe Fox plays a tough war crimes investigator, keen to bring Diehl to justice.
“There are one or two people in the show I have worked with before – Lindsay Duncan and Alfie Allen, for instance – but I’m new to Highmore, Sturgess and Riley and I think I’m giving them breakthrough roles,” Poliakoff says. “They’re all strong talents but I think you’ll see them differently after this piece.”
Poliakoff has cast and directed all his own work for the past 25 years. “It’s always an interesting exercise in a project when you move from being its writer to its director, but it does mean all my work is made on a brutal schedule,” he explains. “That’s partly why I do a lot of rehearsal. Some people do a week, but I do three weeks and I do everything in my power when we hire actors to persuade them that is part of their contract,” he says with a quick grin.
“I’m slightly surprised more people don’t do that. It doesn’t cost a lot of money, because the actors get rehearsal pay that isn’t reflective of their fees for the main shoot. So it’s quite a small investment but it pays off enormously. It helps to build up the actors’ confidence and it helps me to realise what I have written, too. It’s a sleight of hand really. You can achieve the quality of a feature film on the budget of a TV series.”
Another trademark Poliakoff technique is his extensive use of location – to keep costs down and to avoid overusing CGI. With Close to the Enemy, this was especially complex, as the show is set in heavily bombed post-war London.
“I was very keen to make a period show with hardly any CGI because I think CGI tends to make all period drama look a little bit the same,” he argues. “You show panoramas that are like animated paintings and viewers don’t quite believe it. A bombed London with virtually no CGI meant shooting among real destroyed buildings – and there are none in London so we shot most of it in Liverpool with other wrecks around the country. That posed a lot of problems with the schedule but it was worth it – the places really looked like they were bombed.”
Poliakoff is hands-on when it comes to location scouting – in part because a good location can influence his writing. In the case of Close to the Enemy, the team found the hotel at the centre of the story before he’d finished all of the scenes set within, and the building shaped the script to some degree.
“The danger of looking for locations before you’ve written them is that, if they fall through, you’ve already written rough sequences and you then have to adapt the whole script,” he says. “But that’s the great advantage of being a writer-director – you can swim with the tide of the production more easily.”
Despite these local details, Poliakoff is keen to stress that Close to the Enemy isn’t just a British story – he’s cast German actors in all the German parts, including Inglourious Basterds star Diehl as an ex-Nazi jet expert. The same goes for US parts, although Brit Charlotte Riley takes the prime American role.
It’s tempting to think it’s this global element that persuaded US broadcaster Starz to coproduce with the BBC. In fact, Poliakoff has already done surprisingly good business for the Spartacus and Da Vinci’s Demons network, with Dancing on the Edge picking up three Golden Globe nominations back in 2013. Is this Anglophilia pure and simple? Poliakoff doesn’t think so.
“If you tell good stories about the past, they resonate with people today,” he insists. “If you look at the events in Close to the Enemy and compare them to the situation in the Middle East now, you can see that the sense of your enemy becoming your immediately useful friend as soon as circumstances change never leaves us and is as perilous to the world now as it ever was.”
The key thing for any creative in this time of opportunity, Poliakoff argues, is to stick with your tried and tested ways – without trying desperately hard to please the entire world, tempting though such success may seem. “Everyone wanted a sequel to Dancing on the Edge,” he points out. “The BBC in particular was keen on another chapter, as it did quite well for it. But I don’t like sequels – I like to keep moving, to visit new stories and characters. As long as they are colourful and compelling, people want to watch.”
Agatha Christie Ltd CEO Hilary Strong explains why adaptations of the celebrated author’s stories, which remain popular across the world, will keep on coming.
The 125th anniversary of the birth of author Agatha Christie this year is being marked with two new television adaptations.
Sleuthing couple Tommy and Tuppence appeared in a new BBC1 series called Partners in Crime, starring David Walliams and Jessica Raine, in July. A six-part drama placing the characters in the 1950s, it re-imagined the events of Christie novels The Secret Adversary and N or M? across two three-part stories produced by Endor Productions.
BBC1 has also partnered with US cable network Lifetime on a new adaptation of And Then There Were None, which was named the world’s favourite Christie novel in a survey published in September.
The classic thriller, which tells of 10 individuals invited to an isolated island where they are killed one by one by an unknown murderer, has been adapted by Sarah Phelps (Great Expectations) and produced by Mammoth Screen. The cast includes Douglas Booth, Charles Dance, Anna Maxwell Martin, Sam Neill, Miranda Richardson, Toby Stephens and Aidan Turner, and is due to air on BBC1 this Christmas.
These new adaptations serve as a fitting tribute to the prolific writer, dubbed the Queen of Crime. But they also represent the efforts of Agatha Christie Ltd to introduce her to a new generation of fans by becoming more proactive when exploiting the rights to the author’s vast library.
Hilary Strong (pictured top), CEO of Agatha Christie Ltd, says: “The brief from Mathew Pritchard, Christie’s only grandchild and chairman of the company, was that we would work together to exploit the brand ourselves and that’s why he brought me in with my television background,” explains Strong. “We were coming to the end of our Poirot films series on ITV that first aired in 1989. David Suchet’s work as Poirot is iconic and no one else has played a leading drama role for 25 years. It’s an extraordinary thing to have done but we knew they were finishing and we knew then that we had to do something new and fresh.
“It gave us the opportunity to sit back and decide what we wanted to do. Did we want to carry on with Christie being the traditional, much-loved work that it is? People’s perception of it is ‘cosy crime.’ But for a brand to remain alive and resonate for a modern audience, it needs to do something new and give a different message.”
With a background in television and rights management, Strong is perfectly placed for this new challenge. She was previously MD of Acorn Productions, where she had responsibility for developing drama around the works of Christie and other properties, including Foyle’s War. She has also worked for Chorion (Enid Blyton, Paddington Bear) and was group business director at Hat Trick Productions.
With Partners in Crime, the company made its first move away from ‘cosy crime,’ setting the action in a more recent period and casting Walliams and Raine to attract a younger audience. And Then There Were None, while set in 1939, has a more contemporary tone and is, Strong says, “really fucking scary.”
She explains: “Sarah Phelps has done an amazing job and has been absolutely truthful to the story while giving us this deep dark tone. For me, it embodies what we’ve been trying to do – take something and retell it so it appeals to modern audiences. If we can achieve that, then we’ve done our job. I don’t want to shake off the cosy crime image but I want people to understand that Christie can be delivered in a different way.”
The company isn’t just interested in a new way of telling Christie – it is also shaking up the way its television adaptations are built. No longer simply licensing rights away, Agatha Christie Ltd is keeping its hand in the creative process and building direct relationships with broadcasters and suggesting potential projects before selecting the production partners they want to work with to bring the idea to the screen.
“It is quite unusual,” Strong says of the strategy. “It helps that there are relationships before that process. Damien Timmer, who runs Mammoth, was an executive producer at ITV on Poirot and Miss Marple, so he has a long relationship with the family and the company. When we sat down with him, he was extremely open to the benefits of collaboration because you get a different insight when you’ve got people who really know the brand involved. The script process is very collaborative but once production starts, they get on and make the programme. It works really well.
“The thing I was most keen to do was move away from the idea that the estate is there to approve or disapprove, which does happen with estates. So if we get it right and we’ve chosen the right writer and worked on the scripts, then once you get to production, those parts are in place. It would be quite unusual to hit a fundamental problem then.
“We also do a lot of the design stuff together because that’s really important to us. We need to make sure the imagery being used when you get to promotion works cross-platform. We had new book covers for Partners in Crime, with a logo that goes across the TV programmes.”
Christie isn’t just popular in Britain, however. Strong says the novelist’s works have been translated into more languages than those of any other author, while TV adaptations have been sold into more than 180 countries. Japanese network NHK aired a two-part version of Murder on the Orient Express in January this year, produced by Fuji TV. And French broadcaster France 2 is behind Les Petits Meutres d’Agatha Christie, which plants two detectives into Christie plots. Twenty-three episodes have been produced by Escazal Films since 2009.
“What’s been really interesting is just how big Christie is in other countries,” says Strong. “In South America, Australia, Germany, Italy, Japan and China, Christie is huge and they have their own indigenous productions in foreign languages.”
She also suggests a big deal for the German-language rights to Christie’s books is near completion, adding that the estate is very open to doing “very radical, avant garde, contemporary new things” with Christie’s stories.
“But we’re unlikely to muck about with the core plot because that’s what works,” she explains. “When people start trying to mess with it, that’s when it goes wrong. You can tell it in a new way, give it a contemporary tone or set it in a contemporary setting. And Then There Was None means there is no one left at the end. It’s not a returning series!”
Strong recognises the drama business is tougher now than at any point in her career: “The fact that budgets have come down and expectations in terms of quality are higher, together with the need to compete on the international market, means your vision and scale has had to go up.
“It’s a very good time for drama. There’s an awful lot out there but that’s because there’s an appetite for it. As people keep on watching it, people want more. And the fact there’s so much, if you’ve got a brand like Christie, you can put your head above the parapet a bit and people can find you in the schedules.
“But one of the things we don’t do is work with people just because they think the brand will help them sell more shows. We will only work with people we know have a genuine love for the stories. We have tried developing a couple of smart ideas and then down the road realised the people we were working with didn’t have the depth of understanding of the brand, and in those circumstances it rarely works. If you work with people who understand Christie, it just works much better.”
Strong would love to see Witness for the Prosecution, a short story about a woman who gives evidence for the prosecution in her husband’s murder trial, made for television and says the global appeal of Christie’s stories is in the pure and simple language she uses.
In the meantime, fans can look forward to a new big-screen version of Murder on the Orient Express, which will be directed by Kenneth Branagh for 20th Century Fox. Branagh will also star as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, who must investigate a murder on board the famous train – but there are a number of passengers who could have committed the crime.
Agatha Christie Ltd has also launched its own digital drama based upon Christie’s character Mr Quin, which launched as an app in November 2015.
But what is it about Christie’s work that means it has stood the test of time? “Her plot lines are just ingenious and her characters are lovable,” Strong adds. “People adore them. And the breadth – there are 33 Poirot novels to read. You’re not going to do it in a hurry.
“I don’t see any time when people don’t want to carry on reading her books. Our job is to retell those stories in a way that makes them accessible for people. What I’d love – and would tell me I’d done my job – is if people watched And Then There Were None and then went back and read some of the original books.”
DQ takes a closer look at the forthcoming BBC1 show Partners in Crime, starring David Walliams and Jessica Raine and based on a series of novels by celebrated author Agatha Christie.
In the crowded world of TV detectives, a new drama featuring the crime-solving capers of a married couple has ambitions to bring a mix of thrills and humour to the genre.
Set in a 1950s Britain thrust from the aftermath of the Second World War into the early throes of a new Cold War, BBC1’s forthcoming series Partners in Crime (main image) sees husband-and-wife team Tommy and Tuppence inject some adventure into their marriage when they stumble their way into a world of murder and conspiracies.
Described as Agatha Christie meets Indiana Jones, the six-part series is based on the celebrated author’s first two full-length novels to feature the pair – The Secret Adversary and N or M?
Tommy and Tuppence are played by David Walliams and Jessica Raine respectively, and it was Walliams who first approached Agatha Christie Productions with the idea of bringing the couple to the small screen. Once the BBC was on board, Endor Productions was signed up to deliver the series, which is distributed by RLJ Entertainment.
Little Britain star Walliams says: “I’ve been a fan of Agatha Christie since I saw the movie of Murder on the Orient Express as a kid, when I was about eight, and I was completely blown away by the story and haunted by it for a long time afterwards.
“I’ve read a lot of Christie’s work and recognised these characters hadn’t been done for quite a while – there was a TV series in the 1980s but in recent times there hadn’t been many adaptations, and I thought there was a good opportunity to have a new version.
“There was something for me that really appealed about a husband-and-wife detective duo, and I thought there was something really delicious at the centre of it. You’d have Agatha Christie’s brilliant box of adventures but at the centre of it you’d have a human story. These are characters who are not genii in the way of a lot of book detectives like Sherlock Holmes or Poirot – these were normal people in that situation.”
The Secret Adversary was Christie’s second novel, published in 1922 after The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which first introduced readers to Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Tommy and Tuppence then appeared in a further four stories through Christie’s career.
“My grandmother was very fond of them,” says Mathew Prichard, Christie’s grandson and chairman of Agatha Christie Ltd. “They featured in her second book and, 50 years later, in her last book. Occasionally throughout her career, when she felt she needed a rest and she needed to lose herself in something, she wrote about Tommy and Tuppence. The Secret Adversary, the first story we’re treating, came in 1922, and N or M? in the middle of the Second World War in the 1940s.
“Tommy and Tuppence represent something entirely different from Poirot or Miss Marple. They represent a partnership, and the most important thing for me is that when I watch them, they are intrinsically Agatha Christie. They are very much the person that I knew in the 1950s, where these films are set, and I can’t help watching them with a considerable sense of nostalgia, affection and recognition of the person whom I respected and loved so much. Dare I say it, I hope we do some more.”
The TV adaptation, timed to coincide with the 125th anniversary of Christie’s birth, plants the action in the 1950s, bringing together elements of the Tommy and Tuppence novels that span half a century.
And for both Walliams and Raine, best known for her work in Call the Midwife and Fortitude, it was the relationship between the crime-solving couple that attracted them to the project. While Tuppence is a woman who sees adventure round every corner, her husband is decidedly more cautious.
Walliams says: “I like that Tommy has to defer to Tuppence, which I think a lot of viewers will recognise, and it will have a lot of appeal that the woman is in charge. The woman is definitely running the show and she’s more intelligent and heroic than he is.
“The idea of Tuppence saving the day and being the more forthright, heroic one is definitely there (in the books), and she’s the one yearning for adventure. We definitely wanted to be true to the spirit of it. I’m the damsel in distress.”
Raine says the “team element” was key to her taking on the role of Tuppence. “It was the way they were equal. There’s not really any sidekick element. I really liked how front-footed she is, how quick-witted. She’s quite funny, intelligent. She’s all of these things you want to be in real life, and I liked how Tommy is more on the back foot, while Tuppence is quite nosey and curious. Putting characters in alien situations is always very attractive because you get to play that. It was irresistible as soon as I read the script. There’s no hint of sadness, she’s a very confident woman. It was really refreshing – she’s incredible.”
With a host of TV crime dramas focusing on the hunt for serial killers who prey on women, both Raines and Partners in Crime director Edward Hall said it was pleasing to portray a woman who wasn’t playing the victim.
“Tuppence is really modern for a woman in the 50s,” says Raine. “She was, I felt, a little frustrated at where her life had got to. I don’t think of her as a typical woman of the 50s, if there is such a thing. It was so nice to play a woman who isn’t in any way put-upon or a victim. That was a massive appeal for me.”
Hall adds: “It’s very hard to find heroines in TV drama who are heroines for reasons other than overcoming some kind of physical or sexual violence, or something else that makes them a victim. You very rarely see women coming in and saving the day. I thought that was a particularly good thing about this project.”
Unlike so many crime dramas on television, Partners in Crime seems to slip effortlessly between tension-filled scenes and the touches of comedy rooted in Tommy and Tuppence’s relationship, which are heightened by Walliams’s comedy instincts.
“What we were trying to achieve in the making of this is a swing in tone from thriller to high comedy sometimes, wrapped up with all the characteristic joys of a good Agatha Christie story,” Hall explains. “It all starts and finishes with the scripts. We had some fantastic scripts from Claire (Wilson, who adapted N or M?) and Zinnie (Harris, who wrote The Secret Adversary), and that guides you.
“If something had a degree of jeopardy, you wanted to make it as scary as possible so that it felt real. And if something was funny, you could swing back at the drop of a hat. There’s a moment in episode five when Jessica has a farce moment with a maid in a corridor, trying to get to a room. The music’s quite fun, it’s quite a funny moment. She gets to the door, she opens the door, and then the atmosphere completely changes when she walks into this room. She’s not meant to be there, it’s very serious – it’s life and death. We just tried to be alive to those changes in tone.”
Executive producer Hilary Bevan Jones, founder of Endor Productions, said the characters’ high energy and spirit was key to the way the series was conceived as “Agatha Christie meets Indiana Jones.”
Hilary Strong, CEO of Agatha Christie Ltd, adds: “A great story is a great story, whenever it’s told, and I think people forget, because Christie’s stories have been around a long time, that she was a really contemporary writer. She was a very contemporary woman of her time.
“One of the fantastic things about Agatha Christie is that her work has always really appealed to young readers. With this piece of work we wanted to get back to that, to have something that’s useful and fun and where people could really see the joy in Christie’s work with those great storylines underneath. Tommy and Tuppence is the perfect way to refresh, to bring Christie back.”
But what would the celebrated author herself think of this new take on Tommy and Tuppence, which will launch on BBC One later this month?
“I’m sure she would have loved it,” says Prichard. “The uniqueness of this project is that you’re almost seeing my grandmother at a certain age on the screen. There’s all the humour, energy and vitality, and it really isn’t like Poirot, even though she wrote a Poirot book a year before.
“This is much more natural, much more realistic. We all know a Tommy and Tuppence, but we don’t know a Poirot.”