Six-part drama Hard Sun is described as a pre-apocalyptic crime drama set in contemporary London.
While investigating the death of a computer hacker, partners and enemies Charlie Hicks and Elaine Renko inadvertently stumble upon proof that the world is facing certain destruction in five years.
Pursued by ruthless security service operatives, who are willing to kill them in order to keep them silent, they must protect themselves and those they love while ensuring a new breed of murderers, abusers, serial killers and cult leaders face justice.
In this DQTV video, writer/creator Neil Cross (Luther) and executive producer Kate Harwood discuss making the series, which centres on the relationship between two detectives who stand morally and ethically opposed to each other.
Stars Agyness Deyn (Renko), Jim Sturgess (Hicks) and Nikki Amuka-Bird (Grace) also reveal more about the conflicted and complex relationships between their characters and the appeal of starring in a show written by Cross, who also talks about his writing process.
Hard Sun is produced by Euston Films for BBC1 and Hulu and distributed by FremantleMedia International.
Luther creator Neil Cross begins the countdown to the end of the world in Hard Sun, starring Jim Sturgess and Agyness Deyn. DQ joins the cast and crew on set to find two detectives fighting crime as society threatens to descend into chaos.
Pushing through the market square, so many mothers sighing // News had just come over, we had five years left to cry in // News guy wept and told us, earth was really dying // Cried so much his face was wet, then I knew he was not lying.
The unrivalled legacy of the late David Bowie reaches far and wide, with musicians, filmmakers and fashion designers alike finding inspiration in his flamboyant use of make-up and costumes and his groundbreaking musical flair.
In television, Bowie’s music has been used as title tracks for Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes and The Last Panthers, and is said to have inspired Fox network drama Lucifer. Now, his song Five Years – the opening track on his seminal 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – serves as the loose inspiration behind the new series from Luther creator Neil Cross.
Described as a pre-apocalyptic crime drama set in contemporary London, Hard Sun follows detectives Robert Hicks and Elaine Renko as they discover the end of the world is nigh. With five years until annihilation, they face the prospect of maintaining justice as Armageddon looms. But how do you leave your family behind each morning and put your life at risk? And what criminal would fear a prison sentence in a world on the brink of extinction?
It’s a suitably sunny day when DQ joins the cast and crew on set during filming of scenes for the climactic sixth and final episode. The vast number of buildings and grounds that make up a former HSBC training site, located on the outskirts of north-west London, have provided many of the interior and exterior locations for the series.
A stairway and some double doors inside one building lead to the set of the police station. Here, a dimly lit observation room is filled with CCTV monitors while a central room is full of desks, with one wall covered with photographs of victims, crime scenes and evidence. The walls are painted metallic grey throughout as flashing lights from a bank of computer servers break the darkness.
It’s inside interrogation room FR7 that DQ meets executive producer Kate Harwood, MD of producer Euston Films. The sterile room contains a single steel desk with a recorder on the table. There are grey tile walls and a green lino floor, with CCTV cameras in every corner. Light shines through barred windows.
Hard Sun represents the first commission for Euston Films since Harwood rebooted the FremantleMedia label in 2014. The former head of drama for the BBC’s in-house production unit, she was at the channel when Cross first introduced tough-talking detective John Luther, brought to formidable life by Idris Elba.
BBC1 commissioned Hard Sun on the strength of one episode, so after getting the commission, Cross spent the next 18 months writing scripts. Brian Kirk (Game of Thrones, Penny Dreadful) joined as lead director, with Eve Stewart (The King’s Speech) as production designer and “rising star” Nick Rowlands (Ripper Street) as second-block director.
“It’s a crime show with a science-fiction premise,” Harwood says. “It’s as procedural as you can be when the cops are carrying around the secret that the world is going to end. So it’s part cop show, part sci-fi, part conspiracy thriller. But we’ve called it a pre-apocalyptic crime show set in contemporary London.”
Amid a lot of interest in the US, streaming service Hulu quickly boarded the series, while distributor FremantleMedia International beefed up its budget. Tax breaks have also been used to maximise the show’s finances.
On screen, Jim Sturgess and model-turned-actor Agyness Deyn (in her first TV role) play Hicks and Renko respectively, distrustful partners who seek to enforce the law and protect their families as destruction edges ever closer. Nicki Amuka-Bird plays an MI5 government official, a mysterious character who is part of the establishment and trying to suppress the information.
“Neil always says Hicks is the sun and Renko is the moon,” Harwood explains. “There’s a polarity about them. They circle each other. Sometimes they’re partners, sometimes they’re opposites. It’s a distrustful, must-trust relationship. That tension between them is absolutely essential. Hicks is explosive and external and bright and Renko is more watchful, more secretive, more held back and it’s a lovely duality between them. Agyness has never done TV. She seemed really excited by the material as soon as we met her. She’s like a duck to water and she’s so hard-working, focused and punctilious.”
Back on set and with the cameras rolling, Sturgess and Deyn find themselves in the lobby of a grand house, the air thick with smoke as an elaborate chandelier hangs above. One side room appears to be a surgery, with a lobotomy chair in the middle. Other rooms appear to be bedrooms, with TVs screening static fuzz in the gloom.
As Renko and Hicks, they enter the room from a dark corridor, torches raised to find a lady in a medical gown. Slowly, others emerge from the darkness to surround them in what promises to be an extremely creepy climax to the sixth episode.
“It starts off as a procedural show with Hicks and Renko investigating a particular crime – a man who’s apparently fallen off a balcony and is found dead in a tree,” explains producer Hugh Warren, who also reveals the Bowie link to the series. “But what unravels is that his stolen flash drive contains this Hard Sun dossier that, internationally, is being suppressed by government forces because they’ve learnt that an extinction-level event is coming. So by the end [of episode one], Hicks and Renko know there’s five years left for the planet and that’s the new world they’re in.”
Filming locations took in areas of London including Shepherd’s Bush, Shoreditch and Oxford Circus. Naturally, the logistics and cost of moving the production around the city caused headaches for Warren and his team. The scripts also called for numerous night shoots, which became increasingly difficult as the production, which began shooting at the end of January, entered spring and early summer.
“It’s also very action-heavy for British television so there are a lot of stunts, a lot of complicated stuff to shoot. The normal amount you would expect to shoot on an average day for a TV drama, we can’t achieve,” he admits. “We’re shooting for many more days per hour than you would expect. That’s a real challenge in terms of time because we’ve only got the actors for a finite period.”
But what will fans of Luther, which is returning to the BBC for a fifth season, make of Cross’s latest series? “I think it will surprise people,” says Warren, adding that celebrity cosmologist Brian Cox has been on hand to help the creator root his end of-the-world theory in fact.
“What it has in common with Luther is the darkness – there are some very dark stories in there but also real humanity. We’re telling a huge cosmic story about the end of the planet but what’s interesting is it comes down to really common human experiences. They’re very everyday stories set against this massive global catastrophe.”
Too good to turn down
Having only just appeared in a BBC drama – Stephen Poliakoff’s Close to the Enemy – Jim Sturgess wasn’t planning on signing up for another one. Instead, he was pondering a break from acting to focus on his music career. So it’s testament to Neil Cross’s script that the actor immediately signed up to play detective Robert Hicks in Hard Sun.
“I was almost cursing Neil for writing something so good,” Sturgess reveals, adding that he was attracted by the combination of “messed up, flawed characters” and the overall concept for the series.
“What’s great about this, and why I’m really excited about it, is it’s a pre-apocalyptic story that doesn’t need to rush,” he says, citing movies such as Armageddon that cram an extinction-level event into 120 minutes. “I hadn’t seen this before, where something’s looming but you can really spend time looking at what that’s going to do to individuals and society as a whole. TV works for a project like this because you can really take your time with it.”
Cross travelled from his New Zealand home for rehearsals alongside Sturgess, co-star Agyness Deyn and lead director Brian Kirk. It was there that the two leads cemented their partnership, both on and off screen.
“Our relationship on screen is incredibly intricate and at times complicated and strategic,” Sturgess says. “Off-screen It’s great to have a partner in crime on set who you really trust, has a very similar work ethic and cares about it as much as I do. She brings everything she has to it and we get on really well. We’re both pretty chilled out.”
Sturgess, whose film credits include 21 and Cloud Atlas, last year starred as a chef in AMC’s 2016 series Feed the Beast, an adaptation of Danish drama Bankerot. He’s also played criminals, drug addicts and a stoner musician, but has never played a detective before – “and I’ve never really wanted to,” he admits, “until I read this particular detective.”
“He’s not squeaky clean at all,” Sturgess adds. “He’s not James Bond. He makes some very tricky decisions that have a difficult impact on his life later on. But he considers himself to be a good family man, and that becomes an important part of the story because it’s his family he’s trying to save.”
Euston Films MD Kate Harwood tells DQ why international coproductions are the way forward and suggests broadcasters should take a risk on new talent to avoid a talent drain.
As part of of C21 Media’s International Drama Summit, which begins today, Drama Quarterly asked some of the biggest names in the television drama industry for their thoughts on the business.
Here, Kate Harwood (pictured above), MD of FremantleMedia-owned Euston Films, tells DQ why she’s happy to be back in production and why the talent drain is the biggest problem facing the UK drama industry.
What’s your highlight from the past 12 months?
The biggest highlight of the past 12 months has definitely been getting Neil Cross’s first original drama in the UK since Luther was commissioned. Hard Sun was commissioned by BBC1 and was announced at the International Drama Summit last year.
What new opportunities are you taking advantage of in the industry?
The thing I’ve taken most advantage of is setting up Euston North with my former colleague and future colleague, the very talented and ambitious Hilary Martin. I’m really looking forward to everything we’re going to be doing together.
What is the biggest challenge you currently face?
The talent drain from the UK. Across casting, crews and writers, talent is now spread far more thinly across English-speaking drama, generally going to the prolific and wealthy US. Availability has become an issue due to options and exclusivities. Things have generally become far more restrictive than they were last time I produced when I was at the BBC [as head of drama production for England].
Is the drama boom the new normal or do you see the market contracting?
I don’t see any sign of the market contracting any time soon. The drama boom may shift to become less local and projects will get bigger via more international coproductions. The genie won’t go back in the bottle; we’re not going to end up making a lot of small dramas.
People make their own personal connection with the dramas that they want to watch and love. They want big-scale series, whether they’re watching them on their phones or their high-definition screens at home. Whether in terms of emotional scale or actual budget scale, the new normal for a drama will be ‘big.’ We will find many more opportunities for making drama, away from the anchorage of smaller national channels.
How are you working differently now compared with a year ago?
This year I’m in production; last year I was in development. It’s a huge mind shift and one that I really welcome going back to. I haven’t been in production since I left the BBC, so this is very thrilling, if a little bit nerve-wracking.
What new methods are you using to finance productions?
The most obvious thing is the tax break that’s come in and is the fuel in the UK for high-end drama. I think that’s certainly something that has brought a lot of production to the UK and is allowing us to grow collectively as an industry. Negatively, I think it has been inflationary and costs have definitely gone up. But the benefits should be felt by the whole industry, on and off screen.
What are your international ambitions and how will you achieve them?
Being part of FremantleMedia means international relationships with our sister companies in other countries have been extremely fruitful. We are currently co-developing with both our Danish sister company Miso Film [on Dicte] and with our Italian sister company Wildside [The Young Pope].
What does the drama industry need to address in order to survive and prosper?
We need to work out how to grow new writers. Everybody pays lip service to this, but if we have an industry that is mainly fuelled by our brilliant authored pieces, which are the envy of the world, we also need to work out how to bring on new writers.
When budgets are high and costs are high, it takes a lot of nerve to commission something from someone who has yet to deliver at that scale. But if we don’t find other ways, either by putting writers into teams or actually trying to develop and shoot some smaller-budget dramas, we will find very quickly that other people will give those writers opportunities outside of this country. We’ll be left begging for their time at the end of a very long queue, and that’s the thing that worries me most.
It’s a truism that writers are the lifeblood of television, but very few arrive fully formed. We have to put effort into bringing them on; we have to find ways of backing their creativity, backing their ideas and backing them learning their craft – and you can’t fully learn that craft until you’ve turned words on a page into drama on a screen. The right to fail gets harder and harder when shows get more and more expensive.
I think UK broadcasters also have a responsibility not just to try to make the best shows but also to engage with newer writers early on in their careers and work with them on developing their scripts. It’s a holistic approach, but we have to look for opportunities to engage with and develop newer writers. A failed script can be a huge step to a successful show. It’s not altruism, it’s survival!
How will the industry change in the next 12 months?
There are more streaming services coming down the line, and services that are only in certain territories now may start to move out into new countries and become global forces. That unique relationship between the producer, the story and the audience is finding a whole new platform and it’s going to be very exciting. It will also be exciting to see how the broadcasters respond to that and whether the beginnings that have been made with BBC3 and iPlayer demonstrate ways the BBC can start to engage with a different, global audience. It seems to me the BBC has got one of the best catch-up services in the country and yet there is still not quite enough being made uniquely for it.
What is the biggest threat to the drama business?
Paradoxically, the biggest threat to the industry is the huge appetite for high-end drama. We have to be careful that we don’t go so mainstream – to justify the budgets that we’re spending – that we end up not making the projects that are unique and bespoke enough to reach younger or slightly more niche audiences.
At the moment there’s tremendous variety out there. What’s wonderful is that the hits – this summer’s Stranger Things being the obvious example – seem to come on the wings of passion and excitement, from incredibly creative people who are young and who want to be working in drama. We should just celebrate that.
We have to look for not just novelty but new ideas, new expression and scale. Drama needs scale – emotional scale as well as actual scale. I think that’s out there. Drama is a huge driving force in humanity and in storytelling, so it’s never going to go away.
Top-tier television writers are in short supply, so how are producers finding new voices for the small screen? DQ investigates.
If there’s a downside to the current boom in television drama, it might be the often-heard complaint from producers that there is a shortage of writers.
And while it might seem like a bizarre claim – with writing TV shows surely ranking as one of the most coveted jobs in the world – what Europe’s producers really mean is there is a shortage of writers who are trusted to deliver workable scripts for big-budget drama productions.
Given the eye-watering cost of making a TV drama, and the influence a writer can have on other areas such as casting, direction and financing, the emphasis on a chosen few is understandable, says Belinda Campbell, joint MD of UK-based prodco Red Planet Pictures.
“But it does mean brilliant A-list writers get very booked up,” she adds. “We’re fortunate to have good relationships with the likes of Sarah Phelps [Dickensian, And Then There Were None], as well as a CEO with a strong track record [Tony Jordan], but we have waited a long time for writers we wanted for certain projects.”
There is a similar assessment from Kate Harwood, MD of FremantleMedia-owned drama label Euston Films: “Broadcasters don’t tell producers which writers to work with. But when they are constantly being pitched the very best projects, they are bound to select the outstanding work they get from geniuses like Sally Wainwright [Happy Valley]. As a result, there is a lot of competition among producers to secure the services of a handful of talented and experienced screenwriters – though that isn’t always a question of money. If you have the rights to an interesting piece of IP, that can help.”
The challenge is to make sure producers don’t become reliant on a small group of elite writers and prevent new talent coming through, which leads to a second issue – how to get into the TV industry in the first place. Compared with most professions, there is still an air of mystery about how young writers can get their foot in the door, with the industry often accused of failing women, BAME, LGBT and working-class writers.
This lack of a clear pathway, coupled with the bottleneck at the top end, puts TV at risk of over-reliance on similar-sounding voices.
The US doesn’t seem to face the same blockages as Europe. In part, this is because there is such a large demand for TV drama writers from a broad array of networks that commissioners can’t afford to be so prescriptive. But there is also a better talent-advancement model in the shape of writers rooms, says Frank Spotnitz (The Man in the High Castle), a sought-after showrunner who came up through the US system, most notably on Fox’s The X-Files, and now plies his trade in Europe.
“A young writer in the US might start in film school, then write a spec script of a show they are interested in. If the producer of that show likes it, they may be invited to join the writers room as a junior member,” he explains. “Alternatively, some people join a writers room as an assistant and, if they are diligent, may be introduced as a writer after a year or so. On the whole, it feels like a merit-based system.”
From here, says Spotnitz, they will take on more responsibility until they are deemed ready to run their own show. “It took me three years from joining The X-Files until I was running the show – which is pretty swift. Regardless of the speed, however, writers aren’t just learning how to write in a writers room, they are learning everything they need to know about the overall production process to deliver a shooting script.”
This system of on-the-job training has spawned scores of great showrunners – such as Fargo’s Noah Hawley (who cut his teeth on Bones), Sons of Anarchy’s Kurt Sutter (The Shield), Power’s Courtney Kemp Agboh (The Good Wife) and UnREAL’s Marti Noxon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). But the writers room model is rare in Europe, says Spotnitz, whose current slate includes Ransom, Medici: Masters of Florence and The Indian Detective. “I use writers rooms for shows that come through my company (Big Light Productions). But it’s still not very common here.”
The main reason for this seems to be production economics. In the US, drama commissions are generally 10 episodes and upwards – with a hardwired expectation/ambition that they will be renewed. By comparison, the majority of dramas in the UK still get produced at eight episodes or under – a number that makes it harder to justify running a US-style team of writers.
So how do writers build their careers in the UK, one of the most prolific TV drama markets outside the US? Caroline Hollick, creative director at Red Production Company, says: “A lot of writers in the UK progress through the soaps or returning drama series. We were fortunate to produce Scott & Bailey for a number of years and that was a great way to nurture talent. After Sally Wainwright [who started her career on soaps like Coronation Street] set the series up, we brought in writers like Amelia Bullmore and Lee Warburton.”
Competitions – although a bit of a lottery – provide another gateway into the business. Lionsgate UK has teamed up with Idris Elba’s Green Door Pictures for the Write To Green Light competition, designed to discover new voices in returnable TV drama.
Also up and running for the last few years has been the Red Planet Writing Competition. “We’ve certainly seen the benefit,” says Red Planet’s Campbell. “It introduced us to Robert Thorogood and gave us one of our most successful productions, Death in Paradise. As an aside, it also provided a platform for Daisy Coulam, a writer who came to us after working on soaps like Casualty and EastEnders. Daisy has now gone on to be the creator and lead writer on Grantchester.”
Sally Woodward Gentle, founder of Sid Gentle Films, says theatre is an increasingly important testing ground for UK TV writers. “TV has got so expensive that there aren’t many slots to try out new voices. But there are some good young writers in theatre who have grown up understanding the grammar of TV. And with the recent changes in TV drama, it is an exciting option for them.”
Examples include Abi Morgan, who went from plays to Peak Practice to acclaimed productions like The Hour and River. Mike Bartlett and David Farr are playwrights who have just delivered two massive hits for the BBC in Doctor Foster and The Night Manager respectively.
Euston Films’ Harwood says authors can also offer a fresh voice for TV: “The transition doesn’t always work, but then there are great examples like Deborah Moggach and Neil Cross, who we are now working with on Hard Sun.” Cross was a novelist before coming on board Spooks and then creating detective series Luther.
Other ways to catch broadcasters’ attention include teaming established authors with proven screenwriters (Harlan Coben and Danny Brocklehurst on Sky1’s The Five) and trying to ride industry trends. Buccaneer Media did this when it hired Nordic Noir hotshot Hans Rosenfeldt (The Bridge) to write ITV’s Marcella.
It’s also noticeable that more movie writers are being enticed into TV – a classic example being John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator, Skyfall), who wrote Penny Dreadful for Sky Atlantic and Showtime.
“We have Neal Purvis and Rob Wade [Spectre, Skyfall] writing our adaptation of Len Deighton’s SS-GB for the BBC,” says Woodward Gentle. “Increasingly, film writers are attracted to writing TV series, which is a good development for producers.”
The recent success of German content in the international market with shows such as Deutschland 83 and the limited choice of local writers with international appeal has led Nico Hofmann, co-CEO of FremantleMedia-owned UFA Fiction, in search of foreign writers.
“For example, we worked with British writer Paula Milne on The Same Sky and, through our FremantleMedia connections, were introduced to Australian writer Rachael Turk. Rachael is now developing an exciting mystery series with us, set in the beautiful area around Lake Constance in south Germany. We are also working together with Oscar winner Dror Moreh [The Gatekeepers] on an adaptation of Frank Schätzing’s bestselling thriller Breaking News.”
Hofmann is also looking beyond the TV industry for fresh voices: “A good example would be Philipp Jessen, with whom we are working on Giftschrank [Poison Cabinet], a drama series about the world of tabloid journalism. Philipp came to us from the world of journalism and has presented us with an authentic and exciting series concept.”
French firm Atlantique Productions’ co-MD Olivier Bibas takes a similar line with regard to France: “Atlantique is focused on TV series that can work in primetime for international TV networks, and there is a shortage of French screenwriters who can deliver those. So we are also looking at the international market for writers.”
Bibas, however, is keen not to get caught up in the bidding wars for high-profile UK or US writers: “We are coproducing a spaghetti western called Django with [Italian prodco] Cattleya in Italian. In that case we have selected three Italian writers for the job because we believe they have the right voice for the project. And in the long run it makes sense for us to invest in new talent.”
Atlantique has also partnered with Sweden’s Nice Productions on Midnight Sun, a thriller set in Sweden’s Arctic region. “This series is written by Måns Mårlind and directed by Björn Stein, two Swedish talents involved in the creation and production of The Bridge,” says Bibas. “In France it is airing on Canal+ [as Jour Polaire].”
Of course, the popularity of Swedish writers has implications for the domestic market. “Sweden is not a big country,” says Nice Productions head of international coproductions Stefan Baron, “so there isn’t a large pool of writers for productions.”
Baron says the squeeze on Swedish writers is, ironically, being made worse by the increased investment coming into Swedish drama. “There is more money for drama, which is good. But that means a lot more projects in development. So if I try to hire a writer for a project, he may hesitate because he has his own project in development and is waiting for an answer. We could all do with quicker decisions to help free up writers.”
Rola Bauer, CEO of StudioCanal-owned Tandem Productions, echoes that sentiment, while adding that Europe suffers from a writer brain-drain: “A lot of writers, when they reach a certain level of expertise, are tempted to go to LA – which offers a different kind of challenge and potentially high levels of rewards.”
Bauer has also brought in writers with real-world experience, such as ex-cop Ed Bernero who was the showrunner on crime series Crossing Lines.
There are examples like this across the industry. In the UK, Jed Mercurio (pictured top) was a doctor before coming to prominence with medical dramas like Critical. In Israel, war journalist Avi Issacharoff and former soldier Lior Raz created Fauda.
Keshet International (KI) head of global coproductions Atar Dekel says Israel has a number of “talented and prolific writers” who ply their trade across a number of related areas. “It’s a small market, so it’s not uncommon for writers to make money in a number of ways. They’re very entrepreneurial. So you have people who are TV writers, playwrights and journalists.”
A variation on this is the kind of formatted drama KI is so skilled at. “With the UK adaptation of The A Word for the BBC, we needed someone who was interested in the subject matter (child autism) but also knew the local culture,” says Dekel. “So we were fortunate that we secured Peter Bowker.”
Bowker spent 12 years working in a hospital before taking a creative writing course and joining medical soap Casualty. It then took him two decades to secure his place on the UK writer A-list – which underlines two points. First, most writers who make it to the top have learned their trade the hard way; and second, their value to producers lies in the fact that they will almost certainly deliver a decent end product.
With that in mind, the negative connotations of writer blockages in Europe need to be set against the fact the TV drama system is booming in terms of ratings and quality. At the same time, however, the strength of the business shouldn’t be used as an excuse to ignore the issue of diversity.
Most producers agree that, in partnership with broadcasters, they need to take more risks if they are to truly reflect their audience. Red’s Hollick would also like to see “more development money going into this area, not just schemes that go nowhere,” adding: “Channel 4, Lime Pictures and our company did some good work with Northumberland University and the Northern Writers’ Awards, attempting to identify raw and diverse talent in the north of England. We really need to get out into communities to find exciting new talent.”
As more original dramas are produced than ever before, DQ finds there’s still a place for classic series to find new audiences.
In the ever-changing world of TV, there are few things that can be termed a constant – but one enduring trend is the appeal of ‘classic’ drama, especially the detective genre.
Back in 2004, the executives of ITV’s digital channels were charged with creating a new channel to help stem the network’s ratings decline, particularly among upmarket ABC1 viewers.
Looking at the wealth of ITV-owned library drama available, the answer came quickly enough, although there were some doubts over the appeal of repeating hits from the network’s past.
Confounding these qualms, ITV3 launched to instant success – and 11 years later regularly ranks as the sixth most watched channel in the UK, behind only the five former terrestrial channels. That’s all with a schedule that differs very little from its opening year and, one suspects, a similarly meagre budget. So why does it work?
ITV3 succeeded through the choice of quality detective shows such as Inspector Morse, Foyle’s War, Agatha Christie’s Poirot (pictured top) and Midsomer Murders that benefited from self-contained storylines within each episode and a certain timeless aspect. The series were also aided by being shot on film, avoiding the tired look of many re-runs.
Despite viewers knowing the denouement of most episodes, they stayed for repeat viewings because of the characters, scenery and the programmes’ ability to function as ‘comfort TV’ – easy for viewers to unwind in front of at the end of a long day’s work.
From the beginning, these series and others of their ilk have dominated the ITV3 top 10, often scoring audiences of more than one million. In terms of its on-screen look, ITV3 went for a cleaner, more contemporary style, which helped differentiate it from other repeats channels in the UK such as Gold, Granada Plus and UKTV’s Drama. ITV3 also tried to provide bonus material with behind-the-scenes documentaries and special seasons.
Last year, ITV attempted to build on the success of ITV3 with the Sky pay TV channel ITV Encore. But even accounting for the smaller available pay audience, ITV Encore has proved a severe disappointment to the network – “a learning curve,” in the words of CEO Adam Crozier. Audience levels have rarely surpassed the 100,000 mark. But why?
At its launch, those behind ITV Encore believed there was an appetite for recent ITV drama in peak – often short-run events and miniseries. Unfortunately for the channel, series such as Broadchurch are not particularly well suited to repeat viewing – and, being episodic, demand the commitment of viewing over a number of evenings and weeks.
Unlike the relatively gentle sleuthing of Morse, Broadchurch was an emotional experience for viewers and lost impact on repetition. Gracepoint (Fox), the lacklustre US remake of Broadchurch, sunk without trace on Encore, furthering the belief that these kinds of event dramas can’t command the same kind of viewership as the more self-contained series.
One bright spot for the channel has been the relative success of the Nordic Noir series Jordskott, which confirms the popularity of the genre in the UK – and a possible way for the ailing Encore to successfully evolve. Jordskott has headed the ITV Encore weekly top 10 since its launch on June 10, with consolidated audiences tracking an average of approximately 145,000.
It can’t be too long before the ITV acquisitions team scouts similar Nordic Noir titles for the Encore schedule as the channel gradually morphs into a very different animal. Further evidence of this is that Encore has acquired Twentieth Century Fox’s The Americans seasons one to four (flagship channel ITV canned the show due to low ratings after season two).
And belying the channel’s name, Encore is also moving into original commissions, the foremost being Sean Bean-starring The Frankenstein Chronicles, which launched this month. The supernatural element of this series is continued with another original drama announced, Houdini & Doyle.
Both in the UK and internationally, the relatively low audiences commanded by repeats of event/high-concept dramas such as Lost, Rome (playing on TCM in the UK to audiences of less than 15,000), The Pacific, Battlestar Galactica, Life on Mars and Band of Brothers reflect the problems faced by Encore, where viewers appear to be tempted more by the umpteenth showings of self-contained episodes of Columbo, House, Law & Order, Magnum PI and Marple, which power channels such as Top Crime in Italy and Universal’s 13th Street in various territories.
With procedural investigation series NCIS being the most watched drama in the world, the genre continues to play extremely well internationally and is a staple of many broadcasters’ schedules. Channel-surfing around the globe, it’s extremely rare not to find a US or UK detective series playing at any time of the day.
But with UK drama spend dropping by 44% since 2008, distributors are now having to sweat their drama back catalogues more than ever, demonstrated by the widely predicted push from FremantleMedia International, ITV Studios Global Entertainment, BBC Worldwide, Endemol Shine International and others.
As evidenced by Cozi TV and TV Land in the US, there is a nostalgic appeal to older titles such as Fremantle’s Baywatch (which launched on Cozi TV in August). But this can sometimes wear thin after initial viewings and broadcasters then become stuck with dozens of episodes of series that are eventually shuffled off into late-night slots. However, the news that Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Zac Efron are planning a 21 Jump Street-style comedy take on Baywatch should help revive interest in the original show.
FremantleMedia International launched its Classic Catalogue at Mipcom this year, highlighting a vast library of comedy and drama and for the first time curating in one place the output of its constituent companies (including Euston Films, Grundy and Alomo). The firm is focusing on spotlighting key titles over the coming months, including both reversioned classics and formats/remake opportunities for shows such as Love Hurts, Pie in the Sky and Rumple of the Bailey.
Fremantle’s ambitious Kate Harwood-led revival of Euston Films will see not only original productions but also the possibility of new versions of such hits as The Sweeney and Widows, as well as lesser-known titles including family drama Fox (1980, starring Peter Vaughan and Ray Winstone) and intense thriller Out (1978, Tom Bell and Brian Cox).
After the success of Channel 4’s Indian Summers and the general appeal of period drama, there may be interest in another take on the 1910s Kenyan coffee plantation saga The Flame Trees of Thika (1981).
The success of ITV’s resurrection of comedy Birds of a Feather has seen a higher profile for the writing team of Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, who are now heading the Fremantle-backed LocomoTV and, like Euston, are looking at producing both new shows and possible re-boots of golden oldies such as Goodnight Sweetheart, this time for the US market.
Fremantle’s Sarah Doole, director of global drama, says: “We’re extremely excited about our heritage catalogue of classic comedy and drama. Having looked at the titles from our back catalogue, we realised we have some real crown jewels in there.
“It’s a distinguished collection bursting with iconic hits penned by legendary writers, not to mention the raft of classic characters who have gone on to become household names. We can’t wait to showcase the titles to buyers from across the globe.”
Returning to the appeal of older drama, the audience for repeated soaps tends to be very niche, as they tend to travel badly from the originating countries with production values that can vary from mediocre to poor.
US soaps have never really worked in the UK (and vice versa) – the most recent attempt being ITV2’s transmission of the campy Sunset Beach in the early 2000s.
UK state broadcaster BBC2 has used long-running US series such as Cagney & Lacey and The Rockford Files to plug the gaps left by budget cuts in the daytime schedule. Murder, She Wrote and Columbo perform much the same function for ITV at the weekend.
Distributors such as Stephanie Hartog (formerly of Fremantle and All3Media) agree that “the success of Downton Abbey has opened the doors to some who previously might have doubted the appeal of classic drama in their markets.”
Hartog also notes that “the growth of specific genres from areas such as the Nordics, Turkey, Israel and France have contributed to a growing trade in drama and has prompted a look at older fare.”
As Hartog says, Downton’s massive worldwide success has created an appetite for similar shows and boosted the sales of lesser-known titles, such as BBC1’s Upstairs Downstairs reboot, Downton scribe Julian Fellowes’ Titanic miniseries and Spanish drama Grand Hotel. Similarly, upcoming French English-language period romp Versailles may promote interest in older series set in roughly the same era, including Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003), City of Vice (2008), Clarissa (1991) and The Scarlet Pimpernel (1999-2000).
In the UK, as per the rest of the world, older cult series tend to be the preserve of smaller channels; currently, 1960s series The Avengers (on Cozi in the US) and The Wild, Wild West reside on True Entertainment and The Horror Channel respectively.
Sony’s True Entertainment channel in the UK is the home for many middle-of-the-road series of the past, including Little House on the Prairie, The Waltons, The Practice, Touched by an Angel, Due South and Providence.
And, of course, the Star Trek and Stargate franchises continue to form part of many channels’ daytime schedules in territories across the world. Star Trek will also get a fresh outing in the form of a new series to launch in 2017 on US network CBS’s All Access on-demand platform.
Keshet International sales director Cynthia Kennedy says: “The launch of new services (both linear and OTT) across the globe means old shows can find a new lease of life, with both fans of nostalgia and new audiences. BBC dramas tend to have a long shelf-life, while older titles can usually find a home on new VoD platforms in places like Central and Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America, not to mention the majors being able to bundle their new shows with back catalogue content that gets airtime on smaller channels.”
Online, RLJ’s Acorn TV has carved out a niche for itself with a variety of past and present UK titles, ranging from such classics as I Claudius and Brideshead Revisited to contemporary fare including New Worlds and Secret State. Karin Marelle, a former acquisitions and commercial director at Acorn, says: “The increasing presence and popularity of British acting talent in the US has led to interest in checking out their shows before they crossed the pond.”
Netflix and Amazon, of course, are a destination point for distributors, although older drama titles are among their less promoted shows, with many already available through YouTube.
One genre that consistently delivers viewers – in an older male demographic – is Westerns. Despite the introduction of new titles and series, TCM Europe’s highest numbers tend to be attracted by Westerns – including vintage series such as Gunsmoke as well as current or recent series like Longmire and Hell on Wheels.
AMC in the US has also enjoyed strong ratings with Westerns, with ‘Cowboy Saturday’ schedules boasting a line-up of classic movies and golden oldies such as Rawhide and The Rifleman.
The success of Marvel and DC superhero movies and series has prompted some online free-to-air VoD platforms to investigate the availability of older series and one-offs to tie in with future cinema releases such as Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (DC) and Dr Strange (Marvel).
This August’s release of Guy Ritchie’s movie version of 1960s spy caper series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. may also see interest in the show renew across various international territories. Edited TV movie versions of the series recently aired on TCM in the run-up to the film opening in the UK.
Mission Impossible V: Rogue Nation could also prompt re-running of the classic 1960s television series in countries where it has been off air over recent years.
These and other developments should help distributors with older drama libraries get a foot in the door with broadcasters.
With new channels regularly launching across the globe (sych as AMC in European territories including the UK, Serbia and Hungary), the demand for quality library series to populate the schedules will be as strong, if not stronger, than ever.