The executive producer of dramas including Peaky Blinders, Fortitude and Ripper Street chooses a mixture of British and US dramas – including one that has been stuck in her mind for the past 20 years.
A one-off drama in 1995, based on Jane Austen’s novel, it flipped a switch with period drama in that it was filmed in a very raw way. You could feel the countryside, the mud and the repression. It felt less reverential than any period drama I’d seen before. Amanda Roots was fantastic as lead character Anne Elliot. A lot of women’s lives are quiet, and Persuasion portrayed a quiet woman brilliantly. It’s also very romantic. It was revelatory to me; it spoke to me as a person but also felt fresh production-wise, and when you can do something fresh with a story that’s more than 200 years old, that’s exciting. I watch it yearly; it’s a beautiful piece of work.
I only recently watched this, so this is not a backwards glance. It’s a new discovery for me and it’s extraordinary. It’s the norm now, but the fact Granada [now part of ITV] made something of that scale and breadth and which cost zillions of pounds in the early 1980s seems extraordinary. To have done it about this family struggling with alcoholism, repressed homosexuality and their relationship with religion is remarkable. I’m not sure we could make it today. In this world of SVoD, you discover things you’ve never seen – we should all watch these amazing dramas and discover why we do it.
As an exploration of a construct of a person and human want, Mad Men is brilliant. Don Draper as a character is an amazing creation and against that backdrop, you’ve got Peggy and Joan being awesome females. Then you’ve got the restriction of the 1950s, so for me it’s the perfect exploration of masculinity and what that means to men and women. It’s just joyous and sexy.
Sex & the City
It’s perfect entertainment drama TV. I genuinely believe it made an impact on the world. People talk about television that makes noise, but Sex & the City made women embrace the importance of their female friendships and become more honest about their sexual selves. Despite the show appearing to be a comedy, for my generation it either reflected ourselves like never before or we became more like the characters. So while it’s dressed up as something frivolous, there’s a truth to it that really needed saying. It’s why Girls and The Handmaid’s Tale then made a splash – considering women are a massive part of the audience, it’s rare for stories to reflect the struggles of the world we’re in or the lives we lead.
ER (also pictured top) is the perfect long-running television series. I just lived and breathed it. It has that perfect mix of long-running serial and episodic story-of-the-week. There were key characters you knew were messy and imperfect but who worked really hard; but also episodic stories that ripped your heart out. It has that mix of tension and comedy, and you never knew what you were going to get in each episode. It managed to be formulaic without being formulaic. I genuinely don’t know how they did that. I kept on being surprising and I just loved it.
Our Friends in the North
I haven’t seen it for 20 years since it came out, but to this day there are scenes I can recall in my head. It was a brilliant exploration of humanity through characters’ lives and Daniel Craig, as Geordie, made me sob. The depiction of the messiness of people’s lives and the struggle between family and being your own person and work and passion and making money was nailed in an extraordinary way. If something sticks in your mind 20 years later without re-watching it, that’s got to be up there as one of the best.
Violence and sex have become common features of TV drama – but are these often graphic depictions key to the success of a show?
Violence and, to a lesser extent, sex have always been core constituents of TV drama. But both have become more visible on our screens in recent years. Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Hannibal, Sons of Anarchy, Spartacus, Daredevil and American Horror Story are all examples of the new ultra-violent era of TV drama. And when it comes to sex, series like Westworld, Versailles, Orange is the New Black, The Girlfriend Experience and The Affair give a new meaning to the phrase ‘TV exposure.’
The key reason for this shift has been the growing influence of premium pay TV and SVoD services, which have created trigger factors that push producers and broadcasters towards more graphic and intense depictions of violence and sex.
The first such factor is an ‘anything goes’ attitude on channels that have little need to concern themselves over offending mainstream audiences or losing family-oriented advertisers. Big Light Productions founder Frank Spotnitz, whose credits include The X-Files and Medici: Masters of Florence, says: “The freedom to use graphic content is an advantage pay TV broadcasters know they have over more tightly regulated free-to-air channels. So it’s something they encourage producers to use if appropriate.”
This licence to shock is reinforced by the fact violence, in particular, seems to sell. Corporately, it’s evident in Disney’s contemporary offering, which encompasses everything from princesses to The Punisher. It can also be seen in the steady progress of US pay TV network Starz, which lagged a long way behind HBO and Showtime before it began upping its sex and violence quotient with shows like Spartacus, Power and Black Sails.
At an individual show level, franchises like AMC’s The Walking Dead, HBO’s Game of Thrones and FX’s American Horror Story (pictured top) also do well in terms of ratings. In this intensely competitive era, the performance of these series must seem like an open invitation for content creators to depict murder, mayhem and eroticism in ever more imaginative ways.
Both of these drivers towards sex and violence are energised further by the growing number of auteur writers and directors crossing over from film into TV. If you are HBO, for example, you don’t hire the world’s greatest gangster movie director, Martin Scorsese, to direct Boardwalk Empire and then ask him to tone down the violence.
“There’s no question the big TV series viewing experience has come to replace movies in a lot of ways,” says Patrick Vien, executive MD of international at A+E Networks. “So the kind of content people used to buy a ticket for, they now watch at home. Movies became very creative with violence and TV is doing the same.”
The impact of SVoD and pay TV services doesn’t stop with their own schedules, however. The graphic content they produce is so widely available across legal and illegal on-demand channels that it inevitably influences the work producers do for more mainstream platforms.
Frith Tiplady, co-MD of Tiger Aspect Drama – the company behind the BBC’s acclaimed 1920s gangster series Peaky Blinders – sums it up neatly: “For audiences, violence on free TV can look pretty tame when put up against shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. Obviously, there are broadcasting guidelines to stop metropolitan creatives getting carried away, but there is an inevitable pressure to try to increase excitement levels when making shows for more mainstream broadcasters.”
The result is some pretty strong stuff on free TV. In the UK, commercial broadcaster ITV attracted criticism for scheduling crime drama Paranoid so close to the 21.00 watershed. The series depicted a woman being knifed to death in a playground in front of her child. UK pubcaster the BBC, meanwhile, has been criticised for some of the more graphic shows it has aired, such as the sexually explicit Versailles (BBC2) and the visceral Tom Hardy drama Taboo (BBC1). The latter show includes a supernaturally instigated rape and a variety of gruesome deaths more typically found on pay TV.
Of course, if you listen to creators talking about graphic content, they don’t frame it in terms of the commercial benefits. Instead, they generally stress its significance as a storytelling device.
Quizzed about Sons of Anarchy and The Bastard Executioner, showrunner Kurt Sutter told a press event that “the violence, as absurd as it could be on Sons, always came from an organic place and it was never done in a vacuum. To every violent act, there were ramifications. There are ways to portray violence that don’t make it openly gratuitous.”
Tiplady points to how the violence in Peaky Blinders has its roots in character and situation: “These are men who have come back from the First World War with post-traumatic stress disorder. Their ferocity is linked to their experience. But even then they have a moral code.”
Skybound Entertainment’s David Alpert takes a similar line with his company’s zombie mega-hit The Walking Dead. “Violence is part of the landscape of this show, but we certainly don’t look to be gratuitous. I’m a fan of the genre, so I’m always interested in a new or innovative zombie kill, but we’re never aiming to be gross just for the sake of
The irony with The Walking Dead, of course, is that 90% of the violence – humans dispatching zombies – doesn’t draw any reaction. It’s only when humans kill humans that the social media airwaves turn blue: “The big talking point for us recently was the introduction of villain Negan, and the way he killed fan-favourite Glenn [graphically bludgeoning him to death with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire].
“Our take on this was that we needed an explosive and violent introduction for Negan to show our hero Rick Grimes being cowed. Rick being powerless was something fans hadn’t seen before, so we needed to make it seem believable.”
While A&E’s Vien agrees “TV needs to be more mindful than the movies about the depiction of violence,” he adds: “I don’t think these great shows are guilty of being gratuitous. What we’re seeing is a back and forth between creative expression and the market as viewers shift from the movies to big scripted. Would we be better off if we toned it down? Maybe. Will there be creative modifications? It’s hard to predict.”
Either way, this creative energy around violence raises a couple of big questions. First, is the heightened depiction of violence and sex really necessary to the success of a show, or is the appearance of success outlined above simply incidental? And second, is viewing such content bad for us as individuals and as a society?
On the first point, Big Light’s Spotnitz says: “Graphic content can certainly be a distraction from the storytelling. We were given licence with Medici to go quite far but in the end we didn’t feel the need, and came out with a great show.”
This doesn’t mean violence is never appropriate, Spotnitz adds, but it does mean writers and producers should interrogate its narrative purpose. Tiplady agrees, pointing out that women working on the Peaky Blinders production team had a clear voice when it came to determining the way Polly Shelby’s rape would be depicted in the show. Helen McCrory, who plays Polly, has also commented on the sequence, noting that it provided the foundation for an entire season’s worth of character exploration.
This may explain why sex scenes on TV often come entangled with conflict or tension. Rape, or the suggestion of it, has featured in Game of Thrones, Taboo and even the BBC’s Sunday night show Poldark. Elsewhere, sex is often portrayed in the context of prostitution (The Girlfriend Experience) or forbidden lust (see the incest subplot in Taboo). Of course, there are times when this kind of subject matter is of social significance. Some observers, for example, suggest Showtime drama series The Affair has taken the quality of debate about consensual sex to a new level.
On violence, Lisa Chatfield, head of scripted development at Pukeko Pictures, says writers and producers would do well to remember “the implication and suggestion of violence can often be more intriguing and suspenseful than its graphic depiction.” Violence is used sparingly yet still to powerful effect in The Missing season two, for example, in which the depravity of the villain lies in the fear of what he might do.
Circling back to the issue of commercial potential, it’s also worth noting that less graphic sex and violence can be beneficial when it comes to international distribution. A&E’s Vien warns against overstating this point, however, in case it drives the market towards mediocrity: “Different markets have different tastes – but you can finesse that in the editing room. I don’t think the right response to this is to try and come up with a generalised acceptable level of sex and violence. The creative process doesn’t work like that.”
On the broader social point, it’s easy to come across as humourless or puritanical when discussing TV violence. But there is academic and educational research that suggests a link between TV violence and the desensitisation of children. TV violence has also been linked to what academics call ‘mean world syndrome,’ namely the way negative depictions on TV can make people disproportionately suspicious and fearful of the world.
Like the drinks and fast-food sectors, the TV industry is quite good at swerving the debate about its responsibility for the world in which we live, but maybe it should pause to reflect.
Where once flagging TV series would have been quickly axed, now they are getting more time to establish themselves. Are TV bosses getting sentimental or are other forces at play?
The scripted TV business has never really been known for its sentimentality. Year after year, decent shows have been brutally axed the moment they show any fragility in the ratings.
But recently this approach has been tempered by a slightly more tolerant attitude among commissioning editors. Increasingly, shows that a few years ago would have been cancelled in the middle of their first season are being allowed to bow out gracefully at the end of their run.
Similarly, series that might have been shelved after a season or two are being given extra runs – either to achieve narrative closure or to allow more time to try to pick up a sustainable audience.
This shift has come about for a few reasons, but is primarily the result of competition between channels and the increased clout of SVoD services.
“For me, it’s fundamentally about SVoD’s appetite for scripted content,” says Joel Denton, MD of international content and partnerships at A&E Networks. “The revenue from the SVoD window means networks don’t need to be so quick to close down shows. This can create a virtuous circle where the two platforms feed off each other in a way that builds shows. Something that starts life as a modest critical success may develop into a big hit.”
Clearly, some shows still disappoint and need to be dropped – examples being HBO’s much-hyped Vinyl and FX’s The Bastard Executioner. “But if you have a good instinct about a show then there’s a financial logic to sticking with it – even if it needs fixing in some way,” says Denton. “Cancel it after five episodes and you’re throwing US$30m to US$40m down the drain. Stick with it and you may be able to turn it into a franchise that has long-term value in both domestic and international markets.”
A classic case in point, says Denton, is AMC’s acclaimed 1960s drama Mad Men, which debuted in 2007 to the kind of ratings that would have got it cancelled on a lot of cable networks. When it ended seven seasons later, its contribution to AMC’s brand was immeasurable. And it continues to win fans around the world via Netflix, which underlined the value of supporting shows when it acquired the rights to the series in 2011 for US$90m.
Linked to all of the above is the growing fear of pulling out of a show before it has had a chance to really establish itself as a profitable franchise. “Because of the range of choice in the market, a show’s audience doesn’t necessarily find it straight away,” says Denton. “Shows like Longmire have been cancelled by networks and then brought back to life by SVoD platforms. So perhaps networks are more cautious about doing all the hard work and seeing Netflix [which resurrected Longmire after it was axed by A&E] or Amazon benefit.”
Stephen Cornwell, co-founder of The Ink Factory and producer of one of 2016’s hit dramas, The Night Manager, agrees SVoD is the key factor: “It may look like the broadcasters are changing, but these soft landings are the result of the new economic model introduced by the SVoD second window.”
This, however, is “reinforced by evolving expectations among audiences,” adds Cornwell. “In this post-broadcast world, viewers are attracted to limited series with clear conclusions. That’s why we have seen such a lot of interest in shows like The Night Manager, Fargo and The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story. When the audience is looking for narrative completion, commissioning editors need to ensure they are meeting their expectations.”
This may explain the growing tendency for broadcasters and platforms to announce their intentions for a show well in advance. Increasingly, says Cornwell, audiences are reluctant to invest time and emotion in a series if there is a risk it might be cancelled before the creative team has finished telling the story.
Cornwell also believes the trend towards soft landings may have something to do with a power shift in the relationship between channels/platforms and creative talent: “Our company is built around changes in the market that have put the creative at the centre of the process. The TV business is so noisy now that the calibre of creative talent is, more than ever, the key differentiator between productions. At the same time, audiences don’t care anymore if a series is two seasons, five seasons or an anthology series, as long as it’s great TV.”
One implication of this is that broadcasters need to be prepared to fully back a creative’s vision. It’s difficult, for example, to entice the likes of Cameron Crowe (Roadies), M Night Shyamalan (Wayward Pines), Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders) and John Logan (Penny Dreadful) into the TV business, only to shut down their shows before they’ve built momentum.
The tendency for broadcasters and platforms to prematurely announce their intentions for a show is not just something we are seeing with new series. It’s also become increasingly common for them to flag up the end of long-running, successful franchises such as Pretty Little Liars, Bates Motel, Person of Interest, Teen Wolf and Black Sails.
So what’s this about? If a network knows a show is going to come to an end next year, why not just get on and give it the chop? Christian Vesper, FremantleMedia’s executive VP and creative director of global drama, who last year left AMC-owned art house channel SundanceTV, recalls how the latter gave notice that Rectify would end after season four: “I don’t think any channel is going to recommission a show unless it makes financial sense, but I do think there is a respect for storytelling at play. I know that was very important to the producers and to us.”
There is also a PR value to this kind of early announcement, Vesper adds. For example, warning audiences that the end is nigh is a way of galvanising them into action. It gets social media buzzing with the news that a climax is on its way. In terms of career management, it also puts the talent back in the shop window, telling the rest of the industry approximately when they will next be available.
Maybe, on a subtle level, it also has an impact on a show’s prospects on the awards circuit. For example, it wasn’t until the final season of Mad Men that John Hamm finally won a Best Actor Emmy – despite having been nominated in every single season.
Cornwell’s point about the shifting balance of power can even be taken a stage further. Perhaps the current trend towards soft landings is not just broadcasters and platforms treating creatives with kid gloves. There may also be more situations where the decision about when to end or extend a show is not being driven by the network or platform – but by the creative partner. The Ink Factory, for example, could get the greenlight for a second season of The Night Manager tomorrow if it wanted — especially after stars Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Olivia Colman won Golden Globes earlier this month — but Cornwell says the prodco would only go back to the show if it felt there was a good story to tell.
It’s this creative-led thinking that has also brought us anthology dramas such as American Horror Story and series like Penny Dreadful, whose creator John Logan was responsible for the decision end the show after three seasons. There’s also the emergence of prequels like Bates Motel and Black Sails, which – if the creatives have their way – need to finish at the point the source material begins.
Orphan Black (pictured top) is another show that underlines this point. At last year’s Comic-Con, the creators of the BBC America series explained why they had decided to end the show after five seasons. According to co-creator Graeme Manson, it was because they wanted to end it on their own terms: “We sort of had five seasons in mind, and the thing we didn’t want to do was get kind of soft around the middle. We think it’s better to cancel than to get cancelled, than to peter out.”
A by-product of such scenarios, then, is that the broadcasters and platforms have a pretty good idea of when a show is going to end. This means it becomes easier to turn the conclusion of a series into some kind of cultural event. The fact that it may be ending sooner than they might have liked is not such a problem given the longevity of scripted series in the new on-demand world. Better to have three perfect seasons repeating for a decade than seven with a short shelf life.
Speaking from a producer’s perspective, Tiger Aspect joint MD of drama Frith Tiplady says her company has enjoyed being given visibility of the future of its shows: “The BBC commissioned seasons four and five of Peaky Blinders together, and we were given advanced warning that Ripper Street [Amazon/BBC] would finish after season five. That’s brilliant for us because it means we can finish telling stories the way we want. It also shows a respect for the audience and the auteurs involved.”
None of the above is to suggest we are witnessing the end of the sudden axe – especially from commercial networks, which remain notoriously quick to remove deadwood from their schedules.
While the business models associated with SVoD platforms, premium cable channels and public broadcasters tend to favour soft landings, ad-funded networks have less room for manoeuvre. ITV in the UK would probably have liked to have spent more time fixing Beowulf and Jekyll & Hyde, but below-par ratings made that impossible. There’s also the possibility we may soon start to see a contraction in the scripted business that results in more cancellations. For now, however, here’s to happy endings.
Events such as Comic-Con and social media have unleashed a new breed of super-fan – but how are TV shows utilising this new audience, and what influence do they have on the shows they love?
Most TV dramas have audiences – but some have fans.
You know the type. They attend Comic-Con in fancy dress – like the Walking Dead fan in Dortmund pictured above – and have limited-edition action figures of the cast at home, still in the original packaging. Or they organise weekend-long pyjama parties to binge-watch entire box sets for the 20th time.
It would be easy to write off fans as the TV industry’s eccentric relatives. But the reality is broadcasters, platforms and producers pay them a lot of attention.
“Fandom is central to our brand strategy,” says Carmi Zlotnik, MD of US premium cablenet Starz. “The phrase ‘For All Fankind’ is our battle cry. Igniting white-hot passion for shows is what drives our subscriber business.”
For Starz, the question of fan power first arises if the network is developing IP that has a pre-existing fanbase, Zlotnik adds. “Take something like Outlander, which we developed from Diana Gabaldon’s novels. That came with a 20-year publishing history and an audience of 25 million. Or American Gods, which we are adapting from bestselling author Neil Gaiman’s iconic novel. Part of the appeal in both cases is that you have a hard core of fans that can evangelise on behalf of your show. But the challenge is making sure they get behind your interpretation. You have to be able to honour their passion while recognising that the needs of the book and the show may be different.”
Pivotal to this is having an author that is enthusiastic about discussing the show’s direction with the original fanbase, says Zlotnik, explaining why particular narrative, locations or casting decisions have been made.
This is particularly important when the TV series needs to diverge from the source material – something fans find much easier to swallow if the author is on board.
As Gabaldon has said: “I tell people the book is the book and the show is the show, and you’re going to enjoy both of them immensely – but not if you sit in front of the show with the book in your hand going, ‘Wait, wait, you left that out!’”
For the author to take this position, it’s crucial they have a great working relationship with the showrunner, adds Zlotnik. “We’re fortunate that Diana and [showrunner] Ronald D Moore are in lockstep on Outlander and that there is a close connection between Neil and [co-showrunner] Bryan Fuller and Michael Green on American Gods.”
One important proviso to all of the above is to ensure the existence of a fanbase doesn’t become the sole determinant of whether a show gets made, says Chris Parnell, executive VP of US drama development and programming for Sony Pictures Television (SPT). “We have created shows with pre-existing fanbases such as Outlander, Preacher and Powers,” he says, “but everything still has to come down to the idea. A rabid, under-served fan base is a good selling tool when talking to a broadcaster, and it provides a platform for getting season one moving. But you have to evaluate whether the story you’re looking at will make a good television series.”
Of course, not all shows are based on existing IP so here the responsibility lies even more squarely on the shoulders of the showrunner and cast. “With Power, we were fortunate to have Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson on board as an executive producer,” says Starz’ Zlotnik. “He attracted a lot of interest before launch. But showrunner Courtney Kemp Agboh has since done a great job of keeping up a dialogue with fans.”
Fan management takes on a different complexion once the show is on air. By this point, the pre-existing fanbase has been joined by viewers with no existing creative baggage. With an end product to view, the relationship with fans increasingly pivots around what they are saying on social media.
“A big difference compared with 10 years ago is that you can get an immediate sense of what the audience thinks,” says Tiger Aspect joint MD of drama Frith Tiplady, whose recent credits include Ripper Street, Peaky Blinders and My Mad Fat Diary. “That’s fantastic when you consider that the only feedback we used to get was from commissioners or critics, who might have their own reasons for disliking your show.”
A key question, then, is what to do with this fan commentary. Should it, for example, influence the creative team’s decisions about the show? “Mostly we’re dealing with shows where the entire series is in the can before the audience sees it, so the question is whether you take what they say into account for subsequent seasons,” says Tiplady. “Generally, I’d say the writer has a story to tell and they know what it is, so you don’t want them to be swayed too much by fans. But if there is a character the audience loves then there may be room to expand their role – or not kill them off – in season two.”
While writers and producers need to be cautious about paying too much attention to specific fan opinions, there is clearly a growing belief that engaging with fans around the outskirts of a show is a worthwhile exercise.
This is manifested in various ways, such as the rapidly growing number of after-show chat series (The Talking Dead, After the Thrones), attendance at events like Comic-Con and the use of social media forums.
“AMC’s The Walking Dead and Shonda Rhimes’ ABC dramas have been pioneers in using social media,” says Jenna Santoianni, senior VP of TV series at prodco Sonar Entertainment. “As far as possible, you always need to be looking at what fan activities you can get involved in to raise the profile of your show. When MTV launched The Shannara Chronicles [produced by Sonar] last year, for example, one of the show’s stars, Austin Butler, took over MTV’s Snapchat to promote the show. He also live-tweeted to the east and west coasts of the US.”
Sonar has worked closely with Terry Brooks – the author of the books on which The Shannara Chronicles is based – ensuring he is central to the decision-making process. “Six or seven months ahead of the launch, we screened a trailer at Comic-Con,” Santoianni says. “That was aimed at Terry’s loyal fans, the people who would be evangelists for the show and get the word out.”
Naturally, shows that play to the younger end of the millennial spread tend to have a high profile on social media. Freeform’s Pretty Little Liars is often cited as the best example of this, having amassed more than 100 million show-related tweets since it launched in 2010, as well as strong figures for Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Pinterest engagement. In part, this is down to the fan demographic, but there is also the fact that the show’s stars themselves are hardcore social media users.
In terms of harnessing that interest, Freeform has spent a lot of time analysing fan conversations and then using that as the basis for marketing the show. This strategy seems to have paid off, with Pretty Little Liars coming to an end next year after seven seasons.
That isn’t because of ratings weakness, either. The series is Freeform’s top-rating show and is likely to end on a high having pre-warned the audience it is ending – via social media.
Stephen Stohn, executive producer of iconic teen series Degrassi: Next Class, has been living and breathing the Degrassi franchise for decades. His wife, Linda Schuyler, created it, and Stohn says fan dialogue was always central to their philosophy: “We didn’t just want to create TV, we wanted to create engagement and that is part of the reason why the show has had such longevity. Long before social media really took off as a mainstream phenomenon, we launched a walled-garden website which allowed users to log in as Degrassi students.”
Changing media usage has left that model behind, but Stohn believes the principles underlying the show have kept it relevant: “We always look to create a conversation with fans, and I think that’s especially relevant now that Next Class is streaming on Netflix. Deeper engagement with audiences means they are more likely to subscribe — or, at the very least, that they are less likely to churn out of the service.”
However, Stohn stresses that, from a producer’s perspective, fan engagement is not fundamentally driven by business objectives. “We do it because we’re passionate about telling stories that connect with our audience,” he insists. “We get some incredibly moving feedback from our fans about how the show has echoed aspects of their lives. Our writers are very active on social media, which is what drives Degrassi’s authenticity.”
While there’s logic to all of the above, does this mean fan power can bring shows back from the dead? Over the years, hardcore fans have done everything from funding billboards in support of axed shows to organising demonstrations at network offices. Banana crates, Tabasco sauce and Mars Bars have all been sent to executives in zany attempts to save threatened shows.
These days, however, “it seems as though every time there is a series cancellation, someone launches a campaign to bring it back,” says Tiger Aspect’s Tiplady. “But we’re actually among the fortunate few to have had a scripted show brought back, when Ripper Street was renewed.”
Originally a BBC show, Ripper Street was cancelled after season two but was then revived for a third season following a new financial package that saw Amazon come on board as a partner.
“There’s no question that we were energised by the fan campaign to bring Ripper Street back, but it was a mix of factors that made it happen,” Tiplady admits. “I think timing came into it. Amazon needed strong scripted content at that time and we were ready to go. The BBC didn’t want to cancel the show – it was a question of financing – so when a solution was found, they were happy about it.”
This seems to be a pattern. While fan campaigns can generate positive PR, there also needs to be a clear business benefit and a sense of a tactical opportunity. In the US, for example, ABC cancelled Nashville after four seasons, only for the show to be picked up for a fifth season by Viacom-owned country music-themed channel CMT.
At the time, CMT president Brian Philips said: “CMT heard the fans. The wave of love and appreciation they have unleashed for Nashville has been overwhelming. We see our fans and ourselves in this show and we will treasure it like no other network. It belongs on CMT.”
While all of this is probably true, the decision was also underpinned by some compelling commercial factors. First, the show was attracting 6.7 million viewers in Live+7 ratings – not enough for ABC but plenty for a cable channel like CMT to work with. Second, it was uniquely ‘on brand’ for CMT. Third, cable channels are desperate for scripted shows, so the prospect of a ready-made franchise would have been very appealing. And, finally, Hulu participated in the deal, echoing the BBC/Amazon partnership that brought back Ripper Street.
If the notion of fans resurrecting scripted shows is slightly over-romanticised, another area where fan power has so far proved limited is crowdfunding via platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. While we’ve seen films and animation series secure multimillion-dollar sums to support production, there are no high-profile examples on the scripted TV front – yet.
However, it’s reasonable to suggest that long-running fan support for a classic show is an indicator that it might be ripe for a reboot. And there’s certainly a suspicion that negative fan feedback can kill a show off.
This was the view of Rhett Reese, co-creator of Zombieland, a TV spin-off of the iconic 2009 movie that was piloted for Amazon in 2013. “I’ll never understand the vehement hate the pilot received from die-hard fans,” he said at the time. “You guys successfully hated it out of existence.”
Overall, there’s no question that fan behaviour needs to be a part of producer, broadcaster and streamer thinking. Indeed, we’re reaching a point in the evolution of TV where the intensity of fan love can be a better measure of a show’s future potential than its season one ratings.
Commenting on this contention, SPT’s Parnell says: “There’s so much competition that people don’t necessarily get to see a show when it is launched. So it may be that big ratings in season one are not the only indicator of a show’s future prospects. We’ve seen series like Bloodline [Netflix] and Underground [WGN America] build fup momentum off the back of strong fan interest.”
This would, again, chime with the view from the commissioning side. Speaking at last year’s Edinburgh International TV Festival, Amazon Studios head Roy Price concluded: “The key to standing out is the show has to have a voice that people care about, that people love and that is really distinctive. The returns on ordinary are rapidly declining. It’s got to be neat, it’s got to be amazing, it’s got to be worth talking about.”
Enjoying its second chance at life after being canned by the BBC, Amazon’s Ripper Street has found a new production home in the shape of an unfinished hotel. The cast and crew reveal why they were happy to check in.
Set in sprawling countryside on the outskirts of south Dublin, the Kilternan Hotel stands empty. The partially built and extended complex had been the subject of a €171m (US$186m) redevelopment until the property market collapse brought work to a halt.
But the extensive estate proved to be the perfect stage for Ripper Street, the period crime drama that has made the Irish capital its home.
After filming the first three seasons at Clancy Barracks, which are now being redeveloped, producers Tiger Aspect and Lookout Point were looking for a new location in which to recreate Victorian London – and the Kilternan’s array of rooms fit for filming, as well as doubling as offices, persuaded the production team to make their reservations.
The change of filming location comes at an appropriate point in the life of Ripper Street, which started out on BBC1. In December 2013, after two seasons, the series was cancelled by the pubcaster – only to be resurrected in February 2014 by online retailer Amazon, which commissioned a third season for its then-burgeoning Prime Instant Video service.
The deal was a first for a British show and saw the third run air on Amazon several months before playing on BBC1. Amazon subsequently ordered fourth and fifth seasons, independent of the BBC, with season four available now on Amazon Prime Video.
Set in 1897 – the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and two years after the season three finale – Ripper Street’s latest run sees Detective Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen) drawn back to Whitechapel where he is reunited with Bennet Drake (Jerome Flynn), now the Head of H Division, and Captain Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg). New cast members include David Threlfall (Shameless) as Abel Croker, who is described as a wharfinger, villain and a keeper of other men’s secrets; and Matthew Lewis (Harry Potter).
Filming for 13 new episodes, which will be split across seasons four and five, began last August, with two episodes filmed at a time over 24 days – and the leading actors say they have enjoyed working on the new set, where everything from the weather to the time of day is under the producers’ control.
“I prefer the new sets,” admits Rothenberg. “It makes you feel very focused. Whenever I work outside in the real world, I can’t help but feel like everything is real except me. But you know here that everything is a set and made to act in front of.”
Flynn adds: “At Clancy, we had to deal with the trains, the planes and the cars we were surrounded by, and the weather. It’s much more conducive here.”
Lewis, who famously portrayed Neville Longbottom in the Harry Potter franchise, describes the production design as “second to none.” He continues: “I’ve been very fortunate in my career to work on some big-budget stuff and these sets are impeccable. They’re some of the best I’ve worked on and it adds to the whole atmosphere.”
Lewis, who plays PC Drummond, admits it was daunting joining an established series, but says his fellow cast members have been extremely welcoming. “I’ve had a really good time,” he says. “The scripts this year have been so brilliant – the storylines take such a rollercoaster ride that it’s flown by. I’ve never done anything period before so it was a really great opportunity to jump into a bit of history.”
Flynn, meanwhile, acknowledges the part Ripper Street fans played in Amazon’s decision to save the show. “If you look at how Amazon works, it takes people’s responses to shows very seriously and makes programmes based on that,” he says. “There’s no doubt people’s keenness for Ripper Street to come back influenced Amazon.”
The actor, who also has an important role in HBO’s Game of Thrones, was keen to return when the streamer ordered two new seasons: “The quality of the production and the writing, especially the world and character relationships Richard (Warlow, the series creator) has created, made me want to come back.
“They’re part of what makes it so fun. It’s like coming back to a family, and that’s also partly about being in Ireland and the way the crew is created here and the feeling they create for us to come into. It’s a rich, wonderful job. I’ll be lucky if I find one like it again in my career. It’s been very special.”
Had Amazon not rescued Ripper Street, the story would have been left at a loose end, says Frith Tiplady, head of drama production at Tiger Aspect. “At the end of season two, we really felt like there was unfinished business. The writers knew what they wanted to do (for season three). What was fantastic for us was the response – it did so well critically and worked well for Amazon. We knew it was the show that drove people to Amazon Prime.
“Toby (Finlay, who writes with Warlow) has also written a lot of episodes and together the writers have created this world and these characters. For me it’s about realising this world they’ve set up. They’ve now got three seasons’ worth of richness and they’ve really enjoyed working on character stories.”
But how has the show changed, if at all, by moving to a streaming service? Producer John Rushton says: “We’ve never been shy about showing the more graphic, seedier side of Whitechapel so when it comes to murdering, finding victims and so on, it’s not gratuitous but we’re confident in making sure the craft departments – make-up, costume, art – should be allowed to do that. And it’s in the writing and the language to capture that.”
So while the content hasn’t changed, Ripper Street is taking advantage of no longer being tied to the BBC1 broadcast hour. In particular, episodes one and two of season four were released as a feature-length instalment – just one example of the producers’ keenness to take advantage of the lack of a set running time.
Tiplady explains: “We never have to run to length, which means we can make the show that we want to make. In season three we had a longer episode just because that was how the story panned out. The only thing is when we did the cut-downs (for the BBC1 editions), we thought we’d just remove a strand to make it 59 minutes, but that isn’t how it works because everything’s got a pace and timing to it. We need to get better at being clearer if we have taken something out or not.”
With the show now in its fourth season, writers Warlow and Finlay “know what we can deliver on a scale that works for the storytelling,” Tiplady adds. “On season one they’d ask how much something was going to cost. We now get scripts that we can produce pretty much on first draft. We’ve not had a conversation about that, it’s just how they write now.”
On set, a brand new police station takes centre stage adjacent to a railway arch, while nearby shops and side streets can be dressed to provide multiple locations. Flexibility is key, says Rushton, adding that horses and carts have also been used during filming.
“We can film day and night, and can create any time of the day or night whenever necessary,” explains production designer Stephen Daly. “That’s been a big change for us because it means we can do a lot more nighttime shoots. There are certain angles where you don’t see the police station and the main street to the archway, so we can redress that so it becomes different streets. It changes all the time. All that is part of the planning process.”
The police station also serves as a live set, a first for Ripper Street, meaning the cameras can go through the doors and straight to the reception desk in one motion, without the need to cut to an interior set built elsewhere.
Inside Ripper Street’s new mortuary, which was previously a shower and toilet area for the nearby swimming pool, everything is clinically white with silver trolleys displaying an array of tools and implements, while one particular wall is home to several fridge units.
The pool itself doubled for scenes featuring the River Thames. Ruston adds: “Because we’re so used to the Whitechapel of Ripper Street, the police station in Leman Street and the Jewish Quarter, Richard wanted to give it a greater sense of place to show its proximity to the water. All our stories this season have a link to the river and everything going on in the British Empire. It’s just so appropriate because it’s set during the Diamond Jubilee.”
With a new life on Amazon and a fifth season already confirmed, that shouldn’t be the only celebration for Ripper Street this season.
Peaky Blinders, the Steven Knight-scripted period crime drama, has had one of the best critical receptions of UK drama in recent years, also winning the Editor’s Choice award at the inaugural C21 International Drama Awards in November 2014. But what exactly does it take to create, and sustain, such a beautifully crafted drama? DQ talks to some of the key players behind the production.
Viewers of last November’s climactic season two finale of Peaky Blinders on BBC2 were treated – and boy was it a treat – to an hour-long illustration of just why the UK period crime drama has become one of the best-received UK series of recent years, and what The Guardian has called “Britain’s answer to Boardwalk Empire.”
The sixth and final episode of the drama’s second season saw its protagonist, 1920s Birmingham gangster Tommy Shelby (played by Cillian Murphy), faced with near-impossible decisions across his business, family and love life. A finale played out at the Epsom racecourse brought the show’s dramatic tension – love and hate, law and crime, loyalty and honour, right and wrong and, of course, life and death – to a brutal climax.
The derby day denouement of Peaky’s many tense arcs was, above all, the handiwork of its writer, Steven Knight. With screenplays Closed Circuit, Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises to his name, Knight was already a drama giant. But he’s perhaps less known for being the UK creator of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? – an experience that no doubt honed his faculties for high drama.
For Peaky Blinders, Knight turned his attention to post-WWI Birmingham and the historical ‘Peaky Blinders’ street gang, so named for sewing razorblades into the peaks of their flat caps, which could then be used as weapons.
Peaky Blinders was created by Knight and coproduced by Caryn Mandabach and Tiger Aspect. Jamie Glazebrook, an executive producer working for Mandabach, says the show’s genesis was almost incidental.
“Five or six years ago we had a great meeting with Steve about a different project. He called a few weeks later to say he had an idea for something else – and told us about Peaky Blinders. We loved it straight away.”
Mandabach had built an enviable reputation in the US for groundbreaking comedy hits including The Cosby Show, Roseanne and latterly Nurse Jackie. The move to a dark UK drama like Peaky took Mandabach Productions outside of its sweet spot, and it needed a partner.
“Our background is in family comedies, but we wanted to cut our teeth on a big period drama with horses and guns and a cast of thousands,” Glazebrook recalls. “Very early on it seemed the best thing for the show was to hook up with Tiger Aspect. We have been proved right: they have been geniuses at taking a relatively small budget and making it look like something that could absolutely compete with US cable.
Frith Tiplady, executive producer and head of production at Tiger Aspect, explains: “Caryn Mandabach had the relationship with Steve Knight and got the commission. The BBC asked them to partner up with a UK production house. I like to think that Mandabach came to us because of our production expertise in delivering quality on screen – interpreting the writing to deliver the best show.
“We are definitely clear on our roles and really respect what the other brings to the party. I am sure Caryn agrees. Together we have made something really special. I think it’s been a brilliant partnership.”
Knight’s scripts define Peaky. “We are here because of Steve’s words,” says Glazebrook. Tiplady concurs: “We really see our job as being like the LAPD – to protect and serve. The strength is in working with Steve, realising his vision and protecting him as the writer.”
The show’s gothic texture is grounded by a deliberately cinematic look and feel rooted in the grime of 1920s post-war industrial Birmingham, which also has more than a nod towards Sergio Leone and Ridley Scott. That production design is led by TV period veteran Grant Montgomery.
“When I first read the first script I wanted to be part of it,” says Montgomery. “Giving it a very cinematic look from the get-go helps give it integrity,” he adds. “It goes for very much a cinematic quality of storytelling. That comes really from Steven’s scripts. When you read those, you think you have got to bring everything – cinematography, prod – so of course it becomes even more high end.
“It is also then moving from Birmingham to London – from industrial second city to first city – and you have to bring all of that to the table. So the journey has to become very clear visually.”
History and a rooting in actual events is one of the things that grounds the show. So how important was this in Montgomery’s work? “Initially the industrial world was dark black and the houses were black, so it was very important for me to get that right,” he says. “And the minute detail – if you notice in season one they are all using oil lamps, and then when they go to season two they have electricity and wealth – all those details that show the changing of the period and of their status.”
Of similar importance, says Montgomery, was the use of exteriors to take viewers out of the present and give a sense of reality in the past. The challenge of creating that experience was “huge, because you don’t have an art department budget. There isn’t a Hollywood budget to build a street,” he explains. “It takes a lot of money to do that and we don’t have it, so to try to convert locations and make them as big as possible was the ambition of the show right from the start.
“Every exterior was really hard fought for, with us thinking about how we were going to do it. Maybe we would only shoot half of a street. For example, in season one you had the whole street, while this year we only had half of it – but being sneaky with our angles made it seem like more than it was.”
Peaky is reported to have cost £1m an episode to make, but in fact that figure is an underestimate. “It was about £1.3m, £1.4m and probably season two was more like £1.4m, £1.5m,” Tiplady reveals. “But that’s not surprising. It’s exactly what a big period drama costs.”
So how did the funding come together for the show? “For series one we needed more money than is traditional in UK television,” she says. “The BBC supported it through the licence fee, and we had huge help from Endemol Worldwide Distribution, which placed a very good advance. EWD and Screen Yorkshire brought in match-funding, which together was almost a third of the budget.
“What’s interesting is that series one was done before the government’s tax break and series two was done after the tax break, so they have different funding models. The change went hand in hand with the creative ambition for series two, which was so much bigger that we needed more money.
“The difference between season one and season two is probably about £250,000 an episode. So it’s a huge amount of money, and the tax break went into a huge hole. It enabled us to deliver our vision. Without it we would have had to curtail Steve’s ambition, which is something we don’t want to do.
Tiplady says the real investment was that “we were in there for the long haul. It wasn’t about series one – for us it was always about getting series two, getting series three. Steve wanted to write a saga, and if you get into bed with that kind of extraordinary writing, they you need to have faith that you can deliver quality and potential for going forwards.”
Of course, the success of Peaky Blinders lies not just in its script, nor its look. The stellar performances of lead actors Murphy and Sam Neill, joined by Tom Hardy and Noah Taylor in season two, are also a big part of the show’s success.
For Tiplady, the production has been dependent on the goodwill of the lead performers. “We operate with no options for them so there is a definite love for the project,” she says. “We are punching above our weight.”
A haunting goth-punk soundtrack, curated by singer-songwriter PJ Harvey and Paul Hartnoll of electronic dance duo Orbital, lends a dark and unsettling texture to the show from the off. Not least with their choice of Nick Cave’s vengeful anthem Red Right Hand as Peaky’s theme tune. The White Stripes, Arctic Monkeys and Johnny Cash add to the dark-days soundtrack.
Tiplady says the show’s strong emphasis on pre-recorded artists presented its own challenges, not least because of the way the music industry itself is funded: “Music is extraordinarily expensive, very confusing and very complicated. I do think royalty-wise it needs a massive overhaul. The costs are such an important part of the process, but economics often force you down the composer route.
“When you are trying to do something creatively different like we are doing in Peaky, the only way we can do it is to get those artists involved at the production stage, which is fantastic and has worked extremely well – but that is very unusual and very hard.
“The music industry is finding other ways to explore things creatively. If the rights could actually shake up and release us then potentially we could see more shows like Peaky just being really rewarding for everybody. But I think the setup is so antiquated and I am not quite sure who it is looking after at the moment.”
With season three now confirmed (the producers announced it via Twitter in November), what are the challenges ahead? Glazebrook says: “I think we have a little bit more time. We were very tight in series two and, to an extent, Colm McCarthy was already directing when the final episode came in. So we were flying blind. Everyone who has seen that final episode will see it was pretty much all in new locations. That was hard, so we don’t want to put our director through it again.”
“We are going to have slightly longer to actually produce the show, so in essence that makes things 100 times more easy,” says Tiplady. “The driving force with Peaky is to keep pushing quality high and deliver an extraordinary viewing experience to the audience. Maintaining that is crucial to all of us, so that will be the challenge.”