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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.