Tag Archives: Girlfriends

Best friends forever

Phyllis Logan, Miranda Richardson and Zoë Wanamaker star as lifelong friends in Girlfriends, Kay Mellor’s long-time passion project about “women of a certain age.” The trio and Mellor reveal the origins of the series and discuss the changing attitudes toward older actors.

Ageism and the lack of roles for older women has long been a concern for actresses in Hollywood and around the world. Then when they do land a part on screen, they often find themselves cast as wives, mothers or grandmothers.

But a new six-part television drama from the pen of Kay Mellor is set to put “women of a certain age” front and centre. Girlfriends, which launches tonight on ITV in the UK, tells the story of friends Linda, Sue and Gail as they struggle with the responsibilities and inevitable changes that come with growing older, bound together by the same friendship they have shared throughout their lives.

“I wanted to put women centre stage,” recalls Mellor, speaking on the set of the series in Leeds, West Yorkshire in August last year. “I went to a seminar at the West Yorkshire Playhouse many years ago where a lot of women were saying they only ever play the nana or the mum and no one speaks for them. There was a need to give women a voice and women of a certain age a voice. I have written Band of Gold and Playing the Field that have put women centre stage before, but women of a certain age and looking at the complexities of their life and what they juggle. They are a sandwich generation looking after kids, kids’ kids and their mothers. We all know what that is like juggling things.”

Mellor is on a hot streak at present, having last year written Love, Lies & Records for BBC1 and executive produced Overshawdowed for digital network BBC3. She also wrote and directed a musical based on her award-winning ITV television series Fat Friends, which is now touring the UK.

Downton Abbey star Phyllis Logan plays Linda

ITV also embraced Girlfriends, something Mellor admits surprised her, explaining that she was gearing up for a battle to get this story of women “past their middle-50s” on air. The writer even expected the broadcaster to request the characters be aged down into their 40s, but that note never arrived.

“I really thought I was going to have fight for this one but it wasn’t that hard a fight,” says Mellor, who is also lead director on the show. “It’s been coming along at the same time as  In the Club and The Syndicate [Mellor’s BBC1 shows, debuting in 2014 and 2012 respectively]. They were always moving forward but this is my passion project. I sit and watch these guys and have a little weep and I have a little laugh. And I am thinking that if I am doing that as the director then I think, dare I say it, it’s going to be good.”

Girlfriends sits particularly close to Mellor as the characters and relationships at the heart of the story are based on her own friendships, with Linda in particular based on the woman who has been the writer’s best friend since she was three years old.

“We used to live over the road from each other, she is the most wonderful person,” Mellor explains. “I don’t think I would be the writer I am if it hadn’t been for her. She supports me in everything I do. She is a very special, lovely woman. She lightens up a room when she walks in it and she certainly lightens up my life.”

On screen, Linda is played by Phyllis Logan (Downton Abbey), with her childhood friends Sue and Gail portrayed by Miranda Richardson (Mapp & Lucia) and Zoë Wanamaker (Mr Selfridge) respectively.

Girlfriends is the latest drama from prolific writer Kay Mellow

The story begins in the aftermath of the apparent death of Linda’s husband Micky, as the three friends find themselves back together and facing their own problems, from money troubles, a looming divorce and the loss of a high-powered job from age discrimination, to juggling the responsibilities of caring for their grandchildren and ageing mothers.

“It’s unusual because usually you are tagged on as someone else’s appendage, whether it’s a mother, an auntie or a wife in the background. So it’s nice to be right at the forefront of it all and the men are the add-ons, as it were,” Logan says of her part in the show. “It’s lovely to have three women as protagonists.

“It was so exciting to read it, as it’s very much women of a certain age and it’s all about them and their struggles and their highs and lows, but at the root of it is their friendship that binds them together. They come to each other’s aid, they really do.”

Looking back on a career that has spanned roles in Downton, The Good Karma Hospital, Lovejoy and Silent Witness, Logan says Girlfriends is a refreshing change from the way television dramas are usually cast.

“It was always that men get cast and their wives are 15 years younger, and that’s still there, but it’s nice in ours because it’s the other way around. There is slightly more [opportunity now] for women over 50. People have discovered that women of a certain age are quite interesting and they still have a viability, a sexuality and an attractiveness about them. Maybe people are beginning to cotton on to that – let’s hope.”

Miranda Richardson as successful and intelligent Sue

It was also a relief for Logan not to have to wear a corset or any other period costumes after six seasons playing Mrs Hughes in Downton.

“Period drama is a different thing altogether,” she says. “It has a much more leisurely pace but to a stultifying point. This is fast, and it is fantastic working with Kay. I loved the script, and when she said she was directing, I thought it was fantastic because what better person is there than the person with the vision of what she wants it to look like? It’s brilliant, it’s great fun.”

Playing the highly successful and fiercely intelligent Sue is Richardson, who was keen to work with Mellor. “She has such a fabulous record in writing for women,” the actor observes. “She is humane, so everyone is a hugely rounded character, but she likes to see everything from the women’s point of view. She’s always cooking – she has about five things on the go at the same time.”

During the series, which is produced by Rollem Productions and distributed by All3Media International, viewers will see Sue face challenges both at work and in her private life, seemingly unaware of the life-changing events looming ahead. And the fact that her story and the events and characters in the series are all mash-ups of real-life people and stories adds to the appeal for Richardson.

“They are all amalgams of people,” she says. “I thought of someone the other day who made me think of Sue. There is high drama in the way she operates with groups of people. She is always on show but all of these people have vulnerabilities and they mask their vulnerabilities but you know they are there in different ways.”

Zoë Wanamaker completes the leading trio as Gail

Meanwhile, Gail deals with a mother suffering from the early stages of dementia, a jailbird son who moves in with her and her husband, and a child from an old relationship. But she is able to juggle her responsibilities with the support of her friends.

“Very early on, we make relationships with people in our lives so even if you don’t see them for a long time you pick up where you left off,” says Wanamaker. “If you have that kind of connection, it really goes on. You accept them for what you had together and what you carry on in life, and that way they support each other.”

While she admits hers is a part she wouldn’t normally have done, Wanamaker says she was sold on the project after reading the first three scripts, noting that the opportunity to work with Mellor and play a role not often seen on television was too good to turn down.

“Have you seen how many women are on television now?” she adds. “The last 10 years have been incredible; the American stuff has been all women and very beautifully written and there’s more in this country too, at last. Open the doors. I think it’s a very optimistic time for women.”

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Six of the best: Kay Mellor

Politics, humour and strong female characters lead the pack for the creator of some of Britain’s best-loved dramas, from Fat Friends to Band of Gold, who also has two new series on the horizon – Love, Lies & Records for the BBC and ITV’s Girlfriends.

Boys from the Blackstuff
I absolutely loved it. Written by Alan Bleasdale, it looked at the stories of a group of men who have lost their jobs. I just thought it was amazing, and it made me want to write Band of Gold. It was about five men and I remember thinking, ‘I’d like to write about five women,’ although it became four. I also realised each episode could be a play for today. Each one could be about a particular character, with a beginning, middle and end, but looking at the collective as well. You could also tell a really dark story in a funny way – that’s a theme through all my work.

GBH
This taught me that it was possible to be political and funny simultaneously. It was more overtly political than Boys from the Blackstuff – it looked at corruption and power – but was similar in that it had dark humour and made me laugh hysterically in places. GBH is also by Alan Bleasdale, who I think has probably influenced me the most among English writers, because he’s also from the North and he’s not afraid of humour, of feelings and emotion, or of having something to say. He doesn’t write about just cops or doctors; he writes about people, and that’s what I think inspired me.

I Love Lucy
This was probably the first show I saw. I used to go to stay with my aunt on Friday nights when I was a little girl, and one of my earliest recollections of television was sitting watching in her front room. I’d watched things like Bonanza, all about men, but I Love Lucy was my first with a female lead. My mother was one of four sisters so, for me, life was all about women talking and being central. So when I watched Lucille Ball playing Lucy, it was a big influence on me to know that women could have lead roles.

Rita
I found this Danish series by accident when flicking through Netflix, and within about two minutes I was hooked. I was really intrigued by this woman – flaws, warts and all. In England we sometimes think our leads can’t do anything bad, because then viewers won’t like them – but Rita’s creators flaunted that in our face. I loved the dare of it, and Mille Dinesen [who plays the eponymous teacher] was amazing. You’d see a shot of her sashaying down the corridor and they’d linger on her. They’d never do that in England because it would be sexist, but they don’t care. It’s all about attitude and what she thinks. She expresses herself in the way she moves and I loved that about her.

Madam Secretary
An American Rita. This show looks at a woman [played by Téa Leoni] who is jettisoned into the position of Secretary of State, and I just loved the way her family life often echoes what’s going on in her work life. It’s a masterclass in writing. Some might say it’s a bit formulaic, but it’s formula at its very best. It’s got a lot to say about global issues and dares to do things with which I wouldn’t know where to begin. It’s a woman centre stage again, looking at her team of people and her home life. It probably inspired [registry office-set] Love, Lies & Records.

The Sopranos
The Sopranos was one of the first US shows I just could not stop watching. I loved it because it was so dark and so funny and the production values were incredible. [Series creator] David Chase was doing things I was jealous of. You’d go from quite a domestic episode to one set entirely in a forest. It was quite violent, not my usual cup of tea, but it also had dark humour. There wasn’t one actor who was miscast, there wasn’t one duff episode and it was watercooler television as well. Often writers are told you can’t do certain things because people won’t like the character, but viewers forgive anything as long as the character is truthful and interesting. That’s what I’ve learned from series like The Sopranos.

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Amazon boards D83 sequel

Deutschland 86 is set three years after its predecessor (pictured)
Deutschland 86 is set three years after its predecessor (pictured)

There are several reasons why the US scripted content business casts such a shadow over the international drama market.

The first is that the US produces so many great scripted shows. Barely a week goes by without an eye-catching new drama going into production or development. Even now, as dozens of new shows hit the US autumn schedules, it is noticeable that the next wave of scripted projects is already shooting down the pipeline.

Second, viewers around the world love US shows. While dramas from other territories tend to have fairly well-defined regional hot spots, US shows can be found on free TV, pay TV and SVoD almost anywhere. This widespread appeal is reinforced by the availability of so many titles on US-based thematic channels (Fox, AXN and so on).

The third reason is that so many producers around the world still see entry into the US market as the pinnacle of their creative ambition. This is particularly evident in the field of scripted formats, where IP owners’ relentless pursuit of localisation is matched by a voracious appetite for ideas among US channels.

And finally, there’s the fact that the US still dictates so many of the trends in the international scripted market. The rise of Netflix and Amazon, and all of the creative innovations this has brought about, is one example. But so is the shift towards day-and-date windowing – expertly introduced by major US rights owners.

UFA Fiction CEO Nico Hofmann
UFA Fiction CEO Nico Hofmann

Having said all this, Mipcom (which began yesterday in Cannes and runs until Thursday) is one point in the calendar where US shows have to fight for exposure alongside titles from around the world.

For example, one of the biggest stories of the week so far is that UFA Fiction and Amazon are joining forces to create a sequel to German-language series Deutschland 83 (D83). Called Deutschland 86, the new show will premiere exclusively on Amazon Prime Video in Germany in 2018. In addition, all episodes of D83 are available for streaming for Prime members in Germany and Austria.

As with the first series, Sundance in the US is a coproduction partner and FremantleMedia International handles international sales. RTL, the German broadcaster that commissioned D83, has acquired free TV rights to D86.

Created by Anna Winger (head writer) and Jörg Winger, D86 returns three years after D83, in 1986, and picks up the story of East German Agent Martin Rauch. Martin has been banished to Africa until he is recruited to fight for the last gasp of Communism abroad.

Set against the backdrop of real events during the last Summer of Anxiety, when terrorism raged across Western Europe, Martin’s mission takes him to Johannesburg, Tripoli, Paris, West Berlin and finally back to East Berlin, where he is forced to face new realities at home – and to make an impossible decision

Nico Hofmann, co-CEO of UFA, said: “With this latest collaboration between Amazon, RTL Television, FremantleMedia International and UFA, a long-awaited wish comes true. This deal is a milestone in coproduction history. It will be resetting standards for the upcoming years.”

Tangled Sisters is among the Indian shows acquired by Eccho Rights
Tangled Sisters is among the Indian shows acquired by Eccho Rights

Dr Christoph Schneider, MD of Amazon Prime Video Germany, added: “After the Amazon Original You Are Wanted with Matthias Schweighöfer and Michael Bully Herbig’s Bullyparade – Der Film, Deutschland 86 is the latest German-made production that will be available exclusively on Prime Video. German series and movies are important for our Prime members and we are happy to build on our engagement with German production industry and bring new shows to our customers.”

In another interesting new development, Sweden-based distributor Eccho Rights has picked up three drama scripts from Indian broadcaster Star for the global market. The titles involved are Vera (Ek Veer Ki Ardaas… Veera), Tangled Sisters (Ek Hazaaron Mein Meri Behena) and Unexpected Love (Diya Aur Baati Hum).

The deal is significant because Eccho has made a name for itself selling Turkish scripted formats to the international market. If it has anything like the same success with Indian titles, it will represent a major breakthrough in the global drama business. The titles are also interesting because they have so many episodes – meaning there is a lot of content for buyers to work with.

Nixon Yau Lim, head of Asia Pacific at Eccho Rights, commented: “The globalisation of drama is developing at a very interesting speed and one focus of Eccho Rights is to expand our partnership with producers to manage their script assets in new markets.”

Martin Clunes in Doc Martin
Martin Clunes in Doc Martin

Also of interest this week is the news that Sony Pictures Television has licensed three drama formats to Russian broadcasters, two of which are from the UK. The first is a local version of UK drama Doc Martin called Doctor Martov, which will air on Channel 1. The show is being produced by Lean-M Productions, which will also produce local versions of Mad Dogs and The Good Wife for NTV.

Away from Mipcom, UK broadcaster ITV announced a slate of news dramas this week, the first commissions by its new head of drama Polly Hill. The titles are Trauma by Mike Bartlett, Girlfriends by Kay Mellor, White Dragon by Mark Denton and Jonny Stockwood, and Next of Kin by Paul Rutman and Natasha Narayan.

Hill said: “All four are authored contemporary pieces, from wonderful writers who have a compelling story to tell. I think audiences are looking for drama with real authorship, and I am delighted that I start at ITV with a mix of great experience and new voices. This is just the start of what I hope will be an exciting journey for us and the audience.”

Mike Bartlett
Mike Bartlett

Trauma is a three-part story set in the trauma department of a central London hospital. It tells the story of a 15-year-old boy who dies under the care of trauma consultant Jon Stephens. Devastated and heartbroken, the boy’s father believes Jon is responsible for his death and as he strives for justice, he begins to unpick the fabric of Jon’s life.

“Trauma is a story about two fathers with very different lives, locked in conflict,” says Bartlett, creator of last year’s hit BBC drama Doctor Foster. “I hope the series will be moving, terrifying and timely. If we mistrust institutions and experts, what happens when we desperately need them?”

White Dragon, meanwhile, is a conspiracy thriller from screenwriting newcomers Mark Denton and Jonny Stockwood. Filmed on location in Asia, it will tell the story of Professor Jonah Mulray, whose life is turned upside down when his wife, Megan, is killed in a car-crash in Hong Kong. Not long after arriving in Hong Kong, Jonah makes a shocking discovery about his wife.

Finally, a few stories from the US. First up, US cable channel Syfy has ordered a second season of Van Helsing, a female take on the classic vampire hunter story. The hour-long drama will go into production in January 2017, with an additional 13 episodes planned.

Van Helsing has been given a second season
Van Helsing has been given a second season

There are also reports this week that Amazon has teamed up with producer Chuck Lorre to make a TV series based on Tom Wolfe’s acclaimed 1980s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. The book was turned into a movie in 1990 that failed to live up to the hype. However, its sprawling New York-based narrative is probably better-suited to a limited TV series treatment.

Finally, MTV has greenlit a shortened third run of its horror series Scream. Season one had 13 episodes and season two had 10. The new series will have six episodes and, given the show’s rapidly declining audience ratings, will probably also be its finale.

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