The award-winning director behind movies such as Bend It Like Beckham and ITV series Beecham House (above) recalls how her first short film, 1989’s I’m British But…, paved the way for the themes and directing style that would shape her career.
I never intended to become a director. I trained as a journalist and was working for the BBC as a reporter. But I realised I was just doing small stories and couldn’t tell the stories I wanted to tell. At that time, the Bhangra music scene was taking off in England, with people like me born or raised in England combining hip hop, rap, reggae, soul and R&B with traditional Indian music.
For me, that was a critical part of who I was and gave me confidence to secure my identity as being British and Asian. Before that, there were all these debates in the early 1980s about are we British, are we this, are we that? Whereas our parents were Indian and belonged ‘back home.’
That music secured who I was – a combination of everything – so I wanted to make a film about music and identity. I secured a small grant from the British Film Institute under their new directors scheme, and I made I’m British But…
What was initially going to be a pop promo of a Bhangra band on a rooftop in West London, like The Beatles performing on the roof of Apple, grew into this film with the theme of identity, featuring interviews with four young Asians – from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It was the first time you were seeing these images and people talking with regional accents. So it opened up the debate. That was when I got my hallmark style – taking British Asian stories and making them bigger, universal and relatable to all audiences.
I wanted the interviews to be lit beautifully because I wanted their skin colour and everything to look beautiful. I also realised how much of the film is made in the edit, so it wasn’t just about the camera – it was about editing and storytelling. For me, it also crystallised who I am. I’m still the same person and I have an incredibly strong sense of identity rooted in that music. Going on, I celebrate so many different sides of myself in my work so I can be very British at times, very Indian at times.
When I make a film or create something, I’m still dealing with the fact people are going to come to it with certain expectations and ideas of who these people are – my job is to challenge and subvert that and say they’re different to what you think and they’re actually very similar to you.
I hadn’t been to film school so I was making it up as I went along. We had a screening for it at the Piccadilly Film Festival in London and I won a prize, so the film was getting quite a lot of attention. Then Karin Bamborough, deputy head of drama at Channel 4, said she would nurture me and put me together with Meera Syal, who had an idea about a group of women going to the seaside on a day trip.
I knew Meera from a Channel 4 show we had done. We got together and started working on the script, coming up with characters and storylines for what would become my first feature film – Bhaji on the Beach. That’s how I became a feature film director.
I’m British But… was groundbreaking, when you think that what was around then were programmes like [India-set wartime sitcom] It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. Asians were completely absent from the screen or jokey or in programmes to do with immigration, the National Front or racism.
It was a massive intervention in celebrating a community that in many ways had been under siege for a long time. But also looking at it now, it features the same music and same scene and sentiment that’s in [2019 feature] Blinded by the Light, which I made 30 years later. So I’m still banging that Bhangra drum.
Best known for feature films such as Bend It Like Beckham, Bride & Prejudice and Viceroy’s House, writer and director Gurinder Chadha has now arrived on the small screen with her first longform drama, Beecham House.
Set in India in 1795, the six-part series follows John Beecham (Tom Bateman), a former soldier in the East India Company who arrives in Delhi determined to leave his past behind him and start a new life as an independent trader, taking up residence in the titular mansion. However, the staff soon harbour questions over their secretive new master, who arrives with his infant son August.
In this DQTV interview, Chadha explains how she has been fascinated by different screen representations of the relationship between Britain and India and why she decided to explore that history from her perspective as a British-Indian woman.
She also talks the drama’s contemporary relevance and reveals why she found making the show particularly challenging.
Beecham House is produced by Chadha’s Bend It TV for ITV and distributed by Fremantle.
After starring in Gurinder Chadha’s latest feature film, Viveik Kalra reunites with the writer/director for her new TV series, Beecham House. He tells DQ about the upstairs-downstairs drama, set in India in 1795.
In Blinded by the Light, the latest movie from Gurinder Chadha, Viveik Kalra plays a British Pakistani teenager whose life is uniquely inspired by the music of Bruce Springsteen.
Kalra’s star turn in the coming-of-age film led him to immediately reunite with the acclaimed writer/director on her next project, Beecham House, which also marks her return to TV drama.
“We did the film a couple of months into 2018,” the actor recalls. “I’d auditioned two or three times for it, got it and then filmed it for eight weeks. Then, right near the end, she went, ‘I think you’d be right for a part in this show I’m doing.’
“I forgot about it but she came back in, which was rather exciting. It was good because I guess, in some ways, because I’d just led a film of hers, she knew she could rely on me in that part, which is lovely.”
Kalra describes Beecham House as a “very special project,” owing to the fact it takes place in India in 1795. “It’s not a time period you usually see, it’s just amazing,” he says. “It’s an incredible time period, very culturally uplifting, at a time when the British and French are visitors and aren’t ruling over Indian people, so you have a lovely view of India untouched and untainted.”
The six-part ITV series sees John Beecham, a former soldier in the East India Company, arrive in Delhi determined to leave his past behind him and start a new life as an independent trader, taking up residence in the titular mansion. However, the staff soon harbour questions over their secretive new master, who arrives with his infant son August.
One of the first people he meets at his new home is Kalra’s Baadal, the head of the property’s staff, who helps John (Tom Bateman) settle into his new life. It’s this dynamic in the home that has seen Beecham House dubbed ‘Delhi Downton,’ drawing comparisons with ITV mega-hit Downton Abbey, which charted the fortunes of the aristocratic members of the Grantham family and their servants.
“Baadal is the initial link to John when he comes to the palace for the first time,” Kalra explains. “It was an interesting character for me to look at because it’s this upstairs-downstairs drama and I’m the link between the upstairs and downstairs, so it was a great opportunity.
“Due to the nature of the character and the family who stay in the house, it’s uplifting for the servants because they can do things in the house that typically weren’t allowed. When someone enables you and uplifts you, you can be more of a person with them rather than just a servant, so I think that makes the dynamic of Beecham very interesting.”
Baadal’s loyalty to his job and his master is challenged, however, when he falls for Chanchal (Shriya Pilgaonkar), which puts him at odds with Daniel Beecham (Leo Suter) and Ram Lal (Amer Chadha-Patel), forcing him to choose between duty and passion.
“It’s a catch-22 because when the Beecham family comes, they enable the servants to relax and not be on edge,” he adds. “Baadal has time to think about other things in his life, so it’s interesting to see whether he follows his head or his heart.”
Kalra says his relationship with Chadha while filming Beecham House was different from that during Blinded by the Light. On the feature film, as the lead actor, he kept his head down and got on with the job. But on Beecham House, he felt less of a burden, with the weight of the series placed on Vanity Fair star Bateman.
“I was able to relax a bit more. I was chilling out on set, which was amazing,” he says. “But although I had a smaller part, it didn’t feel like a smaller part, which I think is quite a lovely thing about a director and how they make you feel. Gurinder talks to everyone with the same sort of vibe and decency, regardless of whether they are an SA [supporting artist] on set or whether they’re the lead actor. I found that throughout the movie and throughout Beecham.”
Describing writer, director and producer Chadha as “a force of nature” on set, Kalra continues: “She will always have more energy than you, no matter how young you are. I’m 20 years old – every day she would have more energy than me! She’d be singing, dancing, she’d be the life of the party. She’s one of those people who knows what she wants, which is lovely, and she’s not afraid to say it. If you’re doing something she doesn’t like, she just says, ‘Don’t do that, do this.’ Then when you do do it, you take the note and she’s lovely and warm and sees that you’ve done something right.”
Interior scenes for Beecham House, produced by Chadha’s Bend It TV and distributed by Fremantle, were shot at Ealing Studios in London, while the exteriors and landscapes were filmed on location across the Indian state of Rajasthan.
“It’s crazy because if you saw the set in Ealing, it didn’t feel fake at all,” Kalra says. “You’re standing there and thinking it doesn’t look completely real to the eye but then you look at it on camera and it looks exactly like the real thing, which is a credit to everyone who worked on it. Then when you start filming in India, it is totally different in terms of the number of people on set, the talent. It was amazing to be able to film there. We were there for a good two months and a lot of the cast hadn’t been to India before.”
Filming in old palaces and then staying in them as well meant Kalra began to feel like his moustached character. But by the end, “I was very pleased to shave my face,” he jokes. “It wasn’t quite as good as another actor called Amer’s. His moustache was amazing and he could curl it up. Mine wasn’t quite at that level.”
British television dramas to have explored India before or during the time known as the British Raj include The Jewel in the Crown, set during and after the Second World War, and Indian Summers, which follows members of the British government and trading community in 1932. But Kalra believes it’s more than just the fact Beecham House is set over a century earlier than these two shows that sets it apart from similar dramas.
“Just the dynamic between the characters is something that won’t have been seen before,” he says. “John is an uplifting character as opposed to one who is downbeat with the servants around him. He’s a mysterious character at the beginning. When it gets down to it, it’s incredibly interesting to see how someone uplifting and incredibly warm deals with pricklier situations in which people are slightly evil and conniving. It’s exciting to see a nice person get around those things, someone nice and human, and how they battle those circumstances as opposed to someone who is mean and evil trying to battle evil.”
Beecham House, Kalra adds, is “a very human story within that world. It’s a period piece, so it would be very easy to act to the period, but a wonderful cast has been assembled with some fantastic Indian actors, some from India, some from the UK. With that wonderful cast, it’s amazing to see people in the time period as opposed to them playing up to it.”
DQ speaks to a number of television directors about their latest work and how their role behind the camera is evolving, from working closely with writers to penning and even acting in the shows themselves.
While film is the director’s medium, television has always been writer-led. But times are changing – and in today’s booming drama landscape, the role of the director is evolving far beyond the hired gun that was once brought in to helm single or multiple episodes of a series.
The rise of serialised drama, in particular, has had an effect on those behind the camera, and many directors now equate making such shows to completing an eight- or 10-part movie in a single stint, with one person at the helm throughout.
In many cases, drama directors also have a hand in creating, writing and producing shows, with involvement stretching from the initial conception of a story until the final episode has been locked and delivered to a network.
“The role of directors in television is changing like it is across the board, probably for everybody,” says Jeffrey Walker, who steered four-part Australian miniseries Lambs of God. “At the heart of it, it’s just because television is getting better and better. I can do episodic television shows where you might be given episode 213 and it’s good luck and there you are. Then on this one, I was on it for a year. They’re both television, but Lambs of God is at the highest end being made in Australia in terms of budget and ambition.
“The greater involvement means it’s a nicer journey to go on, because you’re seeing this thing go from our first chats about what it is to the sounding and the grade. Going on that journey certainly gives you more ownership, but it also [means the project] has to speak to you a lot more as a director than if you were the gun for hire.”
Lambs of God, produced by Lingo Pictures for Foxtel and distributed by Sky Vision, is described as a gothic and gripping tale about a trio of nuns living on an isolated island. But the three Sisters of St Agnes – played by Ann Dowd, Essie Davis and Jessica Barden – must defend their very existence when a young priest with a hidden agenda arrives at their dilapidated monastery.
Walker spent a few days with writer Sarah Lambert going through her scripts, which are based on the book by Marele Day. “The scripts are beautiful, as good as reading any great literature, and that was the great appeal of doing it, before thinking about the visuals and how on Earth were we going to achieve them,” he says.
“By the time I signed on, I still wasn’t sure how we were going to achieve it. But the first job was philosophically getting in step with Sarah. Production is like a crazy, wild beast that takes over. But certainly the biggest part, and one of the most enjoyable parts, was sitting down and hearing what was a very personal story told by Sarah, even though it was an adaptation. It was very much from the heart, and I could just ask her everything about it.”
Walker’s biggest challenge on the series was bringing the world of the Sisters of St Agnes to life alongside production designer Chris Kennedy (Lion) and cinematographer Don McAlpine (Moulin Rouge, Romeo + Juliet). But once that was settled, “we could turn up in this place and then completely dismiss the beautiful production design and all the work that had gone into it to fully focus on what was at the heart of the scene and those characters at that time,” the director says.
“Being in the heads of the characters, which came from our early discussions, dictated where our camera needed to be. We wanted to be right in that world with them. It has a traditional cinematic approach; it’s not handheld or gritty. It was all lit with candles, with extremely fast lenses and cameras. The actors found it more intimate and real.”
On the other side of the world, British director Gurinder Chadha made her name with films such as Bend It Like Beckham, Bride & Prejudice and Viceroy’s House. She has now co-created, written and directed Beecham House, a six-part drama for ITV set in Delhi at the turn of the 19th century.
“I wouldn’t say TV is any less a director’s voice than film, particularly these days,” she says. “What I’ve ended up doing is shooting six one-hour movies, because that’s what I’m used to; I’m used to shooting movies. So in each episode, it has great scale. It feels like a movie. I’ve scored it like a movie and the questions it asks are big. You are getting the movie experience over six hours on TV.”
Produced by Chadha’s Bend It TV and distributed by Fremantle, Beecham House stars Tom Bateman as John Beecham, a former soldier who buys the eponymous property to start a new life with his family. Though haunted by his past, he is inspired to become an honourable member of the region’s trading community.
“I’ve made nine movies and this was my first longform series. It’s a beast,” Chadha says. “It was hard to keep all those storylines and performances in my head, and to keep the continuity for all those actors in my head. I found it quite hard and unruly.
“Having said that, I ended up having to do very little ADR [automated dialog replacement] or reworking, so I was obviously doing something right. What I found hardest was making sure every character’s story was compelling enough to warrant a space – because when you read them in the script, it’s one thing, but when you shoot them, it’s another.”
It was only through “distilling, cutting and shredding” during the editing process that Chadha found the heart of the series, which she admits ended up being slightly different from what she had initially imagined. “It’s very moving in places, very touching in places, and there it is,” she adds. “People who have seen it have cried. I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so profound, so I’m delighted.”
Moving away from English-language drama, Dejate Llevar (Perfect Life) marks the first television series written and directed by Spanish actor Leticia Dolera. She has previously written comedy Bloguera en Construcción and starred in a number of film and TV shows such as Bajo Sospecha (Under Suspicion) and Mad Dogs.
Perfect Life follows three women – María, Cris and Esther – who are each looking to achieve their dream existence but find that things don’t always go according to plan. The show, from Movistar+ and distributed by Beta Film, debuted at French event Canneseries in April, where it was named best series and also received the special performance prize.
“I just wanted to write and talk about what matters to me and the women around me, the issues that concern us,” Dolera says. “Perfection for women, especially, is very stressful. It’s an ideal that’s very hard to maintain. Through the show, I explore different aspects of that supposed perfection – the superwoman role model, a woman who’s a great mum, wife, lover and friend.
“I talk about how stressful that can be and how sometimes, even if you are that superwoman, something can be missing – that’s Cris. Then, through Esther, I wanted to talk about what success is and how hard it can be to accept you cannot be successful. Maria, who I play, is a control freak. She’s obsessed with the idea of the family. She has to confront this need to control, because you cannot control life. She has to understand new models of family.”
Dolera admits writing, directing and acting in the same project is “very intense,” but she believes each discipline is part of the same process – telling the story. “You can tell the story from the script, from directing or by giving a real voice to the characters,” she says. “I find it natural because I’ve been acting for 15 years and had the need to tell my own stories. Finally, I’m talking about things I know – I talk about women my age.”
In practical terms on set, Dolera would use a stand-in actor to prepare a scene before taking her place in front of the camera once the setup was complete. “Sometimes I would go to check what I’d recorded, but not often because the time it takes to check a take is the time it takes to do another take,” she says. “So sometimes I prefer to do another take rather than check it.”
In Israeli drama Asylum City, meanwhile, a violent attack on an activist supporting asylum seekers’ rights has far-reaching consequences, with the series focusing on clandestine migrants in Tel Aviv and those who help them.
Director Eitan Tzur co-created the show with writer Uzi Weil and author Liad Shoham, who wrote the book on which the drama is based. “I was influenced very much by [seminal HBO drama] The Wire to do a cop show or a thriller that deals with political and social issues,” he explains.
“Then, when [Shoham] came to the offices of our production company July August, he invited us to make a series. We started to develop it and it took between four and six years for us to find a broadcaster and widen the plot.”
That broadcaster was Yes TV, whose sales arm Yes Studios distributes the drama worldwide. Asylum City marked the first time Tzur had been involved in creating a series, and he was adamant that the show pushed beyond the book’s thriller style to focus more on the political story at its heart.
“Here, the most important thing was realism. Even though it’s a thriller, I tried not to use scary music too much and the shooting was not suspenseful. It’s basic, clear, realistic,” the director says.
“Sometimes I wanted a documentary feel, because the series features a lot of places in south Tel Aviv where normal people live. I wanted to show the difference between the background of where they live and where lawyers live in the north of the city in nice apartments, to show the differences in environment and locations.”
Acknowledging that Israeli drama budgets are small compared with those of other major drama hotspots, Tzur says careful planing in the pre-production period is crucial to make the most of the available funds.
“As a director, I’m usually much more interested in working with actors and having a good cameraman who will allow me to concentrate on directing,” he adds. “Especially in TV, it’s much more important to concentrate on directing and having time with the actors. I’m less concerned with the shooting after I’ve decided on the general look of the scene.”
Over in Sweden, Måns Mårlind is well established as both a writer and a director, having worked on local dramas such as Sjätte Dagen, Bron/Broen (The Bridge) and Midnight Sun, a copro between Sweden’s SVT and Canal+ in France. His latest series, Shadowplay, is a Berlin-set historical thriller in which an American cop arrives in Germany to help set up a police force in the aftermath of the Second World War. The cast includes Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights), Michael C Hall (Dexter) and Logan Marshall-Green (Quarry). The show is produced by Tandem Productions and Bron Studios for Viaplay and ZDF, and distributed by StudioCanal.
“As a writer-director, I divide being both people in one body,” Mårlind says. “Directing is a healthy and good continuation of the writing process; when I write, I try to be as specific in direction as I can. I’m not writing ‘close-up’ and stuff like that, but I want the actor – because I always write for one person – to understand what I’m doing.
“As a writer, the big plus when you direct a scene that doesn’t work is that the actors can look at you and say, ‘This doesn’t work.’ Then you can throw them a new line, remove four lines or decide to have no dialogue at all.”
Echoing Tzur, Mårlind focuses on the actors. “They are everything. If you don’t connect with the actors, you have nothing,” he says. Once the plot is laid out and the characters are fully formed, he says his key responsibility is to “help the actors all the time to go where, hopefully, they have a problem reaching, pushing them all the way.”
Beecham House’s Chadha is already planning further seasons of the series, and the appeal of tackling other long, more detailed stories on television, as opposed to 90-minute films, has led her to enter development on other dramas.
“I think in today’s world, we all enjoy longform TV. I certainly do,” she concludes. “We’re all binge-viewing, watching drama like we did movies. So for me, it was a great experience making this.”
Gurinder Chadha, director of Beecham House, tells Michael Pickard about changing the perspective of British-Indian stories and her triple role as writer, director and producer.
Though the name of her production company, Bend It TV, takes its name from one of her most successful movies, director Gurinder Chadha took inspiration from another of her feature films for her new TV drama.
Chadha grew up in the UK watching Raj dramas such as The Jewel in the Crown and The Far Pavilions. But it was after she made Viceroy’s House (2017) – which starred Gillian Anderson and Hugh Bonneville in a story about the establishment of an independent India – that she became interested in re-examining British-Indian history from her own viewpoint.
She is now filming Beecham House, a six-part historical drama for UK broadcaster ITV, which is set at the turn of the 19th century in Delhi before the British ruled in that region and depicts the fortunes of the residents of the eponymous mansion. Fremantle is distributing the series.
“Beecham House is an opportunity for me to go back 200 years and look at India and its relationship with Britain from a different perspective, and that’s something I’m finding very interesting and exciting right now,” Chadha says. “I’m in the unique position to tell the story from an English as well as an Indian perspective, and I’m able to employ drama as well as humour and comedy. I just create characters who are very three-dimensional regardless of their cultural background. That’s the unique position I’m in – I can throw myself into both and I’m equally at home with both.”
Speaking to DQ from the set at London’s Ealing Studios, just days before production moves on location in India, Chadha is about to shoot a scene featuring a baby called August, whose father, the mysterious John Beecham (Tom Bateman), has bought the imposing house to begin a new life with his family as he tries to escape his previous life working for the East India Company.
Chadha’s career began with a short film about bhangra music, I’m British But… (1990), before she developed her drama skills with her first feature, 1993’s Bhaji on the Beach. Her first TV drama was BBC two-parter Rich Deceiver in 1995, before she broke out with 2002 romantic comedy Bend It Like Beckham, which also made household names of stars Parminder Nagra (ER, The Blacklist) and Keira Knightley (Pirates of the Caribbean).
“So this is my first foray back into longform drama and it goes very much with my viewing,” the director says. “That’s what we all do now; we all binge-watch and we love watching drama series. Once I started getting addicted to shows like The Newsroom, for example, I was like, ‘This is something I want to do.’”
Beecham House has been six years in the making, with Chadha working on the scripts with her husband and longtime co-writer Paul Mayeda Berges, plus Victor Levin (Mad Men) and co-creator Shahrukh Husain. “At some point in the writing process, when I’m happy with the scripts, I become the director and look at the scripts again from a director’s perspective – and then I start picking holes in them and criticise what I’ve done,” she explains. “I’ll say, ‘That won’t work, it’s not good enough,’ and Paul will say, ‘Well, you wrote that.’
“I do have this ability to put on these different hats and become different people at different times. I’ll defend a scene as a writer and then, as a producer, I’ll say, ‘Let’s cut that, it’s too expensive.’ So I find myself jumping from producer to director to writer as and when the production process requires.”
Chadha describes Beecham House as romantic, suspenseful, dramatic, sexy and sultry, and says it will be very clear it is a show made by her because of her unique brand of diverse stories.
“Everything I’ve done has been diverse but in a real, three-dimensional way where different cultural perspectives are engrained right from the script through the direction, behind the camera as well as in front of it,” she adds. “It feels like a very modern show, even though it’s set in 1795, because it’s dealing with questions that people deal with today; questions of nationhood, belonging, business and wars. All this is in the news now. I thought I was just making a period show.”
The Only Way Is Essex co-creator Tony Wood tells Michael Pickard how he tries to push the boundaries of drama, with or without a script.
Tony Wood has always created TV programmes with stories. A former producer of long-running UK soaps Coronation Street and Hollyoaks, he’s well versed in combining multiple characters with interwoven plots to create maximum drama.
But now he’s doing it without the script.
Wood was integral to the development of ITV unscripted drama The Only Way is Essex (Towie, main image) – and his latest series, Desi Rascals, is currently airing its second season on Sky1.
The show, which Wood created with Gurinder Chadha, follows the real-life drama of a group of multi-generational British Asians. The cast also interacts with fans in real time on social media, with each episode incorporating their online reactions to the events on screen.
Wood says his desire to create the TV equivalent of a social media network was the impulse behind both Towie and Desi Rascals.
“I was also becoming increasingly interested in how people react in an unmediated way when you confront them with circumstance,” he explains. “The more I thought about it, the more I thought Desi was a world we didn’t see on British TV. So Gurinder and I collided into the idea that we should just put a camera on this community and post-produce it in quite an intrusive way, and play it back to them and see how they react. That was the general notion.
“Beyond that was the sense of looking at the black and minority ethnic (BME) debate that exists. People weren’t really giving BME communities a chance to tell their own stories. So at the heart of Desi is the fact that we ask them what they want to do, we don’t tell them what to do, so you end up engaged in a different cultural debate.”
For the ongoing second season of Desi Rascals, filming for all eight episodes is taking place across just four weeks, with each episode being shot in just three days. As the show is aired weekly, the producers and editors have plenty of time to build stories from their footage.
Wood says: “It’s important it’s for real, because I might as well make a (scripted) drama if it isn’t for real. It would be better performed. But then in the edit suite you take a dramatist’s eye to it and you start to make properly subjective editorial decisions. You take a partisan view on who’s driving a scene or who’s the most interesting person.
“Unlike a scripted piece where you have a clear focus, frequently in these shows you might have 30 minutes’ worth of material that you’ll reduce to two or three minutes, so you have to get a sense of what happened and then of how people felt about what happened.”
Ex-Lime Pictures creative director Wood fell into unscripted programming when he was asked to create a UK version of hit US series Laguna Beach for MTV. He then partnered with All3Media’s Ruth Wrigley, who worked on the first three seasons of Big Brother, to create Towie.
Wood says that beyond the chance to work with non-actors – an opportunity he found “really exciting” – he was also becoming more interested in the changing form of television.
“For a lot of my career, I’ve felt we’ve been too straitjacketed by not being able to have a conversation about form, so it became an exciting proposition,” he says.
“Towie was interesting to do because we wanted something where you weren’t quite sure (what it was). All the pre-publicity said it was real but we very deliberately post-produced it in a way that made you feel it couldn’t possibly be real.
“Running through the whole thing was a series of contradictions and paradoxes. That was partly to lock into the Twitter generation, where marketing had shifted. You were no longer telling the maximum number of people ‘this is great.’ Essentially, you’re starting a fight. You’re telling viewers one thing, making it look like another, and then you’re creating a debate that causes them all to gain a sense of ownership of their point of view, before getting them to look again more deeply. That was the intention. It was great that people didn’t quite know what to make of it, that was deliberate.”
But does unscripted drama sit alongside its scripted counterpart, or should this emerging genre be held at arm’s length? Wood says the two can exist side by side, and again suggests TV drama has been stuck in a rigid structure for too long.
“I think it sits quite comfortably with scripted drama. Whether that’s the case for the broadcasters yet remains to be seen,” he says. “It sits comfortably because it’s all about telling stories, and if there are tales to be told that might be psychologically interesting, even in their trashiness, I think that has value.
“There are plenty of different ways of unlocking stories and it doesn’t mean one is any more valid than another. It’s just that we’re locked into traditional structures of how we’ve told stories and we’re snobbish about it. Maybe we censor too much. They’re different types of programming but they’re all television.”
Wood also believes unscripted drama has been wrongly tarred by its most successful series’ reputations for being brash and tacky.
“I think there’s a real misconception of what this is as a genre because only Towie and Made in Chelsea have properly flourished,” he says. “All we’re really doing is confronting an individual with a set of circumstances, seeing how they react and using a drama style edit to augment emotion. It’s as simple as that. We’ve been painted into a corner by the success of a couple of brands.”
Returning to his notion of TV programmes as social networks, Wood predicts that unscripted drama will “expand massively” as online platforms such as Facebook and YouTube branch further into original programming.
“Any show that operates in the way ours have should sit somewhere with social networks so I wonder if they will flourish on the conventional, traditional broadcasters,” he says. “I guess it’s a commercial decision for them, but anything that converges those screens properly has got a massive future.”
Wood hasn’t completely shed his scripted roots, however. In 2013, he partnered with Cineflix Media to launch Buccaneer Media, which aims to produce scripted programming for broadcasters worldwide.
Then in June this year, ITV and Buccaneer announced new crime drama Marcella, which is written by Hans Rosenfeldt (The Bridge).
Described as a Scandinavian noir set in London, Marcella follows the eponymous police detective returning to work after a 12-year career break during which she got married and raised a family. But with her marriage at an end and her daughter away at boarding school, she must overcome the challenges in her personal life to deal with a spate of killings that echo a number of unsolved murders committed a decade earlier.
Wood executive produces the eight-part series with Rosenfeldt and co-creator Nicola Larder.
“It’s going well,” Wood says of the show, which is still in the writing stage. “We’ve had five different writers room weeks with Hans and it’s been a real joy to create the plot and colour in the characters after that.
“As with all the Scandi shows, it’s an incredibly full plot. In the past 10 years we’ve undersold narrative in British TV drama a little bit, so to sit there with a master storyteller, and for us to try to work out the narrative in such intense detail, has just been brilliant and a real lesson. You realise The Bridge was not an accident.
“Hans is quite brilliant. With every draft that comes in, the level of detail – sometimes that you haven’t discussed with him – is just extraordinary. It’s interesting because he writes the plot and characters emerge through it.
“With someone like Saga in The Bridge, for example, you can see how she emerged in that process. Watching our characters emerge, I can see that Hans writes the story so he feels secure in what he’s telling. With every draft the characters become more intense and surprising. I can see how he got to a character as dynamic as Saga.”
When it comes to drama, it’s clear Wood is constantly looking to push the boundaries and structures of television, with or without a script.