Acclaimed author and screenwriter Anthony Horowitz tells Michael Pickard British drama should be more ambitious as he discusses his television career and his forthcoming BBC series New Blood.
Anthony Horowitz (pictured above) is a busy man. Not only does the author and screenwriter have a new BBC drama on the horizon, he’s also deep in development on the US version of his 2009 miniseries Collision.
But when DQ tracks him down at his London office, he’s in the middle of a sword fight. Despite his TV commitments, he’s also resurrecting Alex Rider, the hero of some of his young-adult spy novels (and 2006 film Stormbreaker), whose fate will be decided by the aforementioned battle.
It’s a suitably demanding schedule for a man who admits he has two distinct careers – on page and on screen. “Now I’m waiting for some of those books to come onto television,” he muses. “Maybe one of the Sherlocks or Alex Rider, or my latest book Magpie Murders. There are discussions happening – watch this space. But for me at the moment it’s two quite separate worlds.”
On television, Horowitz is arguably best known for Foyle’s War, the crime drama set during the Second World War that ran for 15 years on UK commercial broadcaster ITV. Now, more than a year after that series’ last episode aired, he’s preparing to return with a new seven-part drama for BBC1.
New Blood aims to show a new side of London through the eyes of two outsiders – Stefan (Mark Strepan) and Rash (Ben Tavassoli), a pair of junior investigators who are brought together by two seemingly unrelated cases and come up against corporations, governments and a new breed of criminals who hide behind legitimate facades and a wall of lawyers. Produced by Eleventh Hour Films and directed by Anthony Philipson, it is distributed by BBC Worldwide.
“I’d spent 13 years writing 28 two-hour episodes of Foyle’s War,” Horowitz says. “I loved it from start to finish but I sort of felt like I’d run out of stories. I had nothing more to do and it was time to move on anyway. I wanted to leave the war behind me and move into a slightly more heightened world, certainly a more modern world. I wanted to write about 21st century London and I was also interested to see whether I could actually take crime drama and move it forward and push the envelope. So I came up with the idea of New Blood.
“I can certainly say there’s nothing on British television like it. I’ve seen several episodes and the energy, the speed, the editing, the music, the lighting, and particularly the way it presents London, is very modern and exciting to see on the screen. And having two stars in their 20s makes a huge difference. I can’t think of another show on mainstream television that has two unknown actors in their mid-20s. It’s a massive gamble on the part of the BBC to allow us to do that.”
Horowitz admits it was a “wrench” to leave Foyle’s War, which aired for the last time in January 2015. “I loved working with the characters and the whole world I created was very rich,” he says. “But if you’re going to be a writer like me – with television and books and everything else – you’ve got to keep moving forward. You can’t keep doing the same thing.
“Foyle’s War had got to 1947 and there was plenty more to do with the characters, but what I loved about that show was the number of stories that could be told about the war and the pre-war years. After doing six episodes set during the Cold War, I’d explored the territory enough and it was time to make a change.”
Already an established novelist, Horowitz got his TV break in 1985 when he joined the writing staff of ITV drama Robin of Sherwood, which starred Michael Praed and later Jason Connery as incarnations of the infamous outlaw. A shortage of scripts meant the series needed a new writer and Horowitz, just 30 at the time, was given the opportunity to suggest a storyline.
“The producer, Paul Knight, took a huge punt on giving me the job. I had no experience at all,” he recalls. “So I went from nothing to writing for the top show in one step – it was a fantastic start. I knew nothing about television really. I remember walking onto the set for my first episode and I couldn’t believe they’d found the exact building I’d described in my script – a ruined church in the middle of a field. Of course, it was only when I walked up and tapped it that I realised the whole thing was made out of fibreglass. That’s how little I knew.”
Besides Robin of Sherwood and Foyle’s War, Horowitz’s small-screen credits include Poirot, Murder in Mind and Injustice. And then there’s Midsomer Murders.
“If I’ve given two words to the English language, it’s Midsomer Murders,” says the writer, who penned the first ever episode of the long-running crime drama, which debuted on ITV in March 1997. “It was called Barnaby (after the lead detective) when it landed on my desk.”
After his Robin of Sherwood experience, Horowitz was invited by then-Carnival Films producer Brian Eastman to write episodes of Poirot, introducing him to murder mysteries for the first time. He was then hired alongside director Jeremy Silberton to create Midsomer, which is based on Caroline Graham’s Chief Inspector Barnaby novels.
But after writing a handful of episodes over the first three seasons, Horowitz wanted to create a new spin on the traditional whodunnit formula – and Foyle’s War was the result.
“I love the mechanics of a murder mystery,” he says. “I love plotting, I love the structure of a show. I spend longer plotting and working out a show than I do writing it. Getting it to work, getting all the characters in the right place, getting the red herrings, the clues, the action – that was the fun of it. But with Foyle, the aim was to do more. What fascinated me about the world of Foyle were the true stories we were telling about the war – that extraordinary period from 1940 to 1947 when so much happened in this country.
“In a way, while the murders were carefully constructed and satisfying, they were almost an excuse to write what I really wanted to write about, which was the war.”
But of all the shows Horowitz has created or worked on, one stands out as the most challenging. Crime Traveller, which ran for one eight-episode season on BBC1 in 1997, saw policeman Michael French and science officer Chloë Annett team up to solve crimes using a time machine built by her late father.
“Crime Traveller was a show that fell between the stools of two directors at the BBC,” Horowitz recalls. “There was a hiatus after one left and another arrived and we fell into that abyss. It was a show that would have gone from strength to strength if I’d been able to develop it.
“It was the most difficult series I ever had to write, with all those time paradoxes – the knots I had to untangle were always incredibly complicated. It had a lot of promise and I often think it would be great if it came back, but there’s no chance of that.”
As a writer, Horowitz believes his job is done the day he hands over the finished script. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t interested in the ensuing production, only that he isn’t one to interfere with the director’s vision.
“It’s not my place to give a director notes, ever,” he says. “My notes are my scripts; they have character notes, they have a few key notes about what’s important, but I never tell a director what to do. But I’m not laid back either. It’s important to get everything right and I watch the rushes from New Blood every day and have occasionally picked up the phone when something’s bothered me.
“Trying to keep control of a programme is counter-productive and unhelpful. I have to trust both my talent and the directors to get it right. Of course, it helps being married to the producer (his wife is Jill Green, who runs Eleventh Hour Films and is also the executive producer on the show).”
With New Blood being lined up for its BBC1 debut, Horowitz’s attention has returned to the US adaptation of Collision. Airing over five consecutive nights on ITV in 2009, the original miniseries told the story of a group of strangers whose lives are changed forever following a major car crash.
Eleventh Hour Films is developing the US version for NBC alongside TriStar Television and Carol Mendelsohn Productions.
“Collision was seen by Quinn Taylor (now the executive VP of movies, miniseries and international coproductions for NBC Entertainment) and since he first saw it, he has wanted to do it,” Horowitz says. “I’ve been meeting with him off and on for years championing it and now we’ve managed to get it together.”
The US adaptation expands the series to 10 episodes, while the action moves from Suffolk to Seattle. Horowitz has written the first script as well as outlining episode two and completing character arcs for the entire season.
“The idea of the series remains the same. It’s about fate, how every car journey is a story in itself and how we never know how that story is going to work out,” he explains. “Moving it to America has been quite an inspiring piece of work. It’s something I’ve enjoyed doing. In the world of television now, we’re so steeped in American series that actually taking the steps to go from British to American television is not quite such a major undertaking as it used to be. It is less difficult than it might have been 20 years ago.”
Having worked in the business for 30 years, Horowitz is well placed to judge the current state of television – an industry he says has never been better or more exciting.
“I’ve always enjoyed working in television, it’s a wonderful medium to be in and the people I work with are so lovely. And compared with writing novels, it’s so much more collaborative. The one great thing about this moment is there’s a real excitement and buzz about television, which of course is largely inherited from cinema.
“Cinema has become tired, empty and predictable and I go to the cinema these days almost with a heavy heart. Whereas you now look forward to getting a new box set – something from Vince Gilligan (Better Call Saul) or starring Sarah Lancashire (Happy Valley) – with the excitement that you once looked forward to watching films.”
However, Horowitz is less confident about the state of the UK industry compared with the business stateside. “We have to be more ambitious in Britain,” he says bluntly. “The real problem is the biggest shows in America are beyond us at the moment. Anything from Breaking Bad to The Walking Dead, even The Good Wife – the six-parters we do here and the occasional 10-parter cannot compete in terms of scale, scope and ambition.
“It would be nice if this country could produce that sort of drama. If you add to that the way Netflix, Amazon and other companies are moving in on television, the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 begin to look old-fashioned. I’m not saying we’re not doing great drama over here, we’re doing fantastic drama at the moment. I’m absolutely immersed in Happy Valley; War & Peace was wonderfully written and directed. There are some fantastic pieces of television being made. It’s only in terms of quantity, scope, size and ambition that to do a 10-parter like Collision, I’m almost sorry I have to go to America.”
With New Blood, Horowitz hopes to have crafted his latest television hit. But does he think there’s enough new blood getting the same opportunity he once did to get into the industry?
“There are young people coming through and television is open to new talent. It would be a disaster if it wasn’t,” he says. “We do need new young writers and one wonders where the schooling is for young writers to come through, but they will. I was influenced by Utopia, which is what I would call a young production in terms of casting and its feel. So there is new blood coming through.”